Tin Can Sailor is the story of U.S. Navy destroyer Sterett (DD-407), commissioned in 1939, and serving through to the end of WW2. The author, C. Raymond Calhoun, served aboard Sterett from her commissioning, until he was wounded in April 1943 during a Japanese air attack. Although that wounding ended Calhoun's days aboard Sterett, the remainder of her WW2 service is described through first-hand accounts, accumulated by Calhoun, from men who continued to serve aboard her for the rest of the war.
Calhoun's book is an incisive and informative look at life aboard a WW2 destroyer, from the perspective of an officer. For that reason alone, Tin Can Sailor is an important read for WW2 naval enthusiasts. However, its most significant contribution to Pacific War historiography is that it provides a participant's (Calhoun's), eyewitness account of the fierce night surface action of 13 November, 1942, fought off Guadalcanal, between a Japanese force attempting to bombard Marine positions ashore, and a U.S. Navy force sent to prevent them from doing so. This action is remarkable even by Guadalcanal standards because the dispositions of the opposing forces and darkness of the night resulted in their formations becoming intermingled as the battle began, causing great confusion and difficulty for both sides in identifying friend or foe. As a result, historians have had difficulty piecing together what exactly happened, and in what sequence. Sterett in this battle was in the thick of the fighting, dishing out the punishment to Japanese ships with 5-inch salvos and torpedoes, and absorbing a great deal as well, taking many hits, including several from 14-inch battleship guns, and suffering 28 crewmembers killed. At times Sterett found herself less than a thousand yards from enemy ships, considered point-blank range by naval gunnery standards. Calhoun calls this battle, the "Third Battle of Savo Island." Other U.S. sources call it, the "First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal," or the "Battle of Friday the Thirteenth." In Japanese sources it is called, the "Third Battle of the Solomon Sea."
Later on, in August, 1943, Sterett participated in another important action, the Battle of Vella Gulf. In this instance a formation of six U.S. destroyers, including Sterett, managed to surprise a formation of four Japanese destroyers which were attempting to deliver reinforcements and supplies to the Japanese garrison on Kolombangara. The U.S. destroyers sank three out of four of the Japanese destroyers with a radar-directed torpedo attack and subsequent gunfire. The result was completely one-sided. The U.S. ships suffered no damage or casualties. Although this action occurred after the author's departure from Sterett, Calhoun includes a firsthand account of a Sterett officer who was present during the Vella Gulf battle. Readers interested in a Japanese perspective on the Battle of Vella Gulf and Third Battle of Savo Island should refer to a book entitled, "Japanese Destroyer Captain," by Tameichi Hara, who was present at both battles.
Tin Can Sailor is an excellent account of a destroyer in combat in WW2. In addition to providing primary source material for the above battles, Calhoun gives us a good look at day-to-day operations and routine of shipboard life, and how a good crew could remain sharp, even as frequent turnover of captains occurred throughout the war. The book also provides good information on the gunnery system aboard Sterett, explaining the operation of the gun director and responsibilities of the crewmembers therein. The only real shortcoming of Tin Can Sailor is its lack of maps. Those readers not already knowledgeable of Pacific War geography might have difficulty visualizing where Sterett was at any given time. That is a small complaint though, and anyone interested in destroyer warfare in WW2 will benefit from a reading of Tin Can Sailor.