The best books about famous battles that make you want to be there

Andrew Lubin Author Of Charlie Battery: A Marine Artillery Unit in Iraq
By Andrew Lubin

Who am I?

When reading about famous battles such as Thermopylae, Tarawa, the Chosin Reservoir, or Taffy-3’s gallantry off Samar: have you ever wondered “what makes young men fight against such overwhelming odds?” Or a more important question: “would I do the same?” I know I wondered. Both my mom and dad were WW2 Marines, and I was raised with the stories of the Marines at Tarawa wading a half-mile ashore against horrific Japanese fire, along with their epic Korean War 79-mile fighting retreat in -50’F bitter cold and snow while grossly outnumbered by the Chinese army; these were often our dinnertime discussions and impromptu leadership lessons.

I wrote...

Charlie Battery: A Marine Artillery Unit in Iraq

By Andrew Lubin,

Book cover of Charlie Battery: A Marine Artillery Unit in Iraq

What is my book about?

Charlie Battery is the harrowing and personal account of a Marine Corps artillery battery fighting for survival in the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom as they fight in the vicious battle at An-Nasiriyah. Written by the father of one of Charlie Battery's Marines, the story follows their sudden call to war, their deployment in the largest convoy since WW2, and their baptism-by-fire at An-Nas. Through extraordinary interviews with the Marines, their families, and their superior officers, we are given a rare glimpse of what they early days of the war in Iraq were like for the Marines and their families - not only for the Marines who fought, but for all those who watched it unfold live at 0330 one morning on MSNBC.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae

Why did I love this book?

We all know the story of Thermopylae: 300 Spartans fight heroically for three days against an overwhelming Persian force, with the Spartans all killed during the three-day fight as Greece used their lives to buy time to successfully defend itself. But historical fiction Gates of Fire adds a new twist: as the Persians are pulling the bodies off the battlefield, they find a sole wounded Spartan, and after nursing him back to health, have him recount the battle from the Spartan viewpoint.

Author Steven Pressfield, a former Marine, is a superb storyteller as he describes the battle – and Spartan training - in a gripping blend of courage, humor, ethics, and brilliant historical research. Xeones, the survivor, was a squire to the Spartans, and had trained with them. “War is work,” he explains, “with conditions contrived to make the exercise as close as possible to the actual campaign.” “Shared misery bonds” Xeo says, “The goal is less to strengthen the back and more to strengthen the mind.”

After two days of brutal, exhausting combat, Xeo tells the Persians, how the Spartans are reminded of these bonds when one of the remaining sergeants tells his squad ‘Tomorrow; forget king, forget family, forget yourself; fight for this alone: for the man who stands and fights at your shoulder. He is everything as he fights for you.” Who would not want to be a member of such a group? Highly Recommended!

By Steven Pressfield,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked Gates of Fire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the Sunday Times bestseller Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield tells the breathtaking story of the legendary Spartans: the men and women who helped shaped our history and have themselves become as immortal as their gods.

'Breathtakingly brilliant . . . this is a work of rare genius. Savour it!' DAVID GEMMELL

'A tale worthy of Homer, a timeless epic of man and war, exquisitely researched and boldy written. Pressfield has created a new classic' STEPHEN COONTS

'A really impressive book - imaginatively framed, historically detailed and a really gripping narrative' ***** Reader review

'Beautifully written and a great joy…

Book cover of Strong Men Armed: The United States Marines Against Japan

Why did I love this book?

If you were among the millions who watched the award-winning HBO series The Pacific, you know the story of the bloody Marine advance as they fought their way across the Pacific.

Based on the combat experiences of author Robert Leckie who fought on Guadalcanal and beyond until he was wounded and evacuated stateside, Leckie chronicles the ferocity of the no-surrender combat practiced by both sides. 

A skilled writer and journalist post-war, Leckie had an eye for details and an ability to set a scene that makes the reader feel part of the action: 

Bouganville; “the Japanese attacked, closing with yells and rifle shots as the Marines repulsed them. One machinegunner needed a tripod, so was firing with the butt braced against his right leg while holding the hot barrel with his left hand. When the tripod arrived and he withdrew his left hand, much of its flesh remained on the barrel. Next to him, another Marine fired at a sniper in a banyon tree, who fell out next to the machinegunner. Continuing to fire, the gunner pulled his bayonet with his burned left hand and killed the Jap sniper, while continuing to fire his machine gun with his right.”

Tarawa: “The Marines waded in, a quarter to half mile, against withering fire. As Radioman Richard Lund waded in, he screamed as a bullet struck him in the chest, spun him around, and knocked him down. He arose and waded in. With his radio.”

With maps and superb research, Leckie describes these campaigns, plus Saipan-Peleliu-Iwo Jima-Okinawa where both the brutality and casualty count increased. This is a powerful and emotional book, and personal for me since I met Leckie, as he was a friend of my parents. I brought my well-thumbed copy of Strong Men Armed with me when I visited Okinawa and Iwo Jima - Semper Fi Mom and Dad. Highly Recommended!

By Robert Leckie,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Strong Men Armed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Strong Men Armed relates the U. S. Marines' unprecedented, relentless drive across the Pacific during World War II, from Guadalcanal to Okinawa, detailing their struggle to dislodge from heavily fortified islands an entrenched enemy who had vowed to fight to extinctionand did. (All but three of the Marines' victories required the complete annihilation of the Japanese defending force. ) As scout and machine-gunner for the First Marine Division, the author fought in all its engagements till his wounding at Peleliu. Here he uses firsthand experience and impeccable research to re-create the nightmarish battles. The result is both an exciting chronicle…

Book cover of The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy's Finest Hour

Why did I love this book?

This is possibly the best book about the US Navy in WW2.

A New York Times bestseller, The Last Stand is the breathtakingly exciting story of three American destroyers and one destroyer escort taking on four monstrous Japanese battleships and six heavy cruisers in an attempt to keep the Japanese force from attacking Gen McArthur’s soldiers who were landing in the Philippines. It’s the “Battle off Samar”…a story of heroism too few know.

Hornfischer is a powerful writer, who describes the fight simply so the non-military reader understands it. Having interviewed most of the survivors, he explains how an American torpedo bomber on a reconnaissance flight sighted a Japanese force of battleships, heavy cruisers, and destroyers only twenty miles from the Americans and closing fast.

How outgunned were the American ships, he asks? One turret from the approaching IJN Yamato, the world’s largest battleship, weighed more than the entire USS Johnston, who now had to fight her.

The commanders of destroyers USS Johnston, Hoel, Hermann, and destroyer escort Samel B. Roberts knew their role was to buy time for their escort carriers to escape, and ‘Sammy B’s’ captain addressed his crew accordingly “A large Japanese fleet has been contacted…headed our direction. This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can.”

Hornfischer describes how the Johnston was the first to turn into the Japanese, racing full speed towards them. Sheer suicide; battleship big guns fire 20 miles; a destroyer’s biggest gun reached perhaps six miles; Johnston had 14 defenseless miles to traverse before she could open fire.

Seeing the Johnston attack, the Hoel and Heermann followed, with Sammy B racing to keep pace. The Japanese shellfire was overwhelming; huge battleship shells shrieking like locomotives rocketed over the onrushing Americans, whose ships were so small the Japanese big guns could barely be depressed sufficiently to hit them.

First to reach the Japanese, Johnston fired her entire forward magazine into a Japanese heavy cruiser, decimating her. But then the Japanese found the range, with their heavier shells causing near-fatal damage, so Johnston limped away - only to rejoin Hoel, Heermann, and Sammy B as their non-stop firing caused the Japanese fleet to withdraw.

Recently, both Johnston and Sammy B made the news again; both were found at 20,000-21,000+ ft, the two deepest shipwrecks ever discovered. Both ships had their guns trained outward, as if they were still firing as they sank. Highly Recommended!!

By James D. Hornfischer,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can.”

With these words, Lieutenant Commander Robert W. Copeland addressed the crew of the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts on the morning of October 25, 1944, off the Philippine Island of Samar. On the horizon loomed the mightiest ships of the Japanese navy, a massive fleet that represented the last hope of a staggering empire. All that stood between it and Douglas MacArthur’ s vulnerable invasion force were the Roberts and the other small ships of a tiny American…

Book cover of Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950

Why did I love this book?

If “Shared misery” bonded the Spartans together at Thermopylae in 485 BC, it was those bonds that enabled 19,000 U.S. Marines to fight their way 79 miles to safety through 300,000+ Chinese soldiers in sub-zero temperatures in December 1950.

Author Martin Russ is a former Marine who fought at Chosin Reservoir, going on to a career as a writing professor.  Well-researched, Breakout is both historically accurate, as well as filled with information and personal anecdotes offered to Russ when interviewing his fellow Marines.

Although the Chinese had warned about not approaching their border, Gen Douglas MacArthur disregarded them, and as his Army-Marine force approached China, icy Manchurian winds and snow dropped the temperatures to the minus 30-50’ range; vehicles had to be kept running 24/7 and the Marines and soldiers learned to urinate on their rifles in order to unfreeze them. Then the Chinese attacked – in huge force.

The Marines, many of them combat veterans from the Pacific, fought aggressively, stabilized their lines, and drew up plans to fight their way back to US lines, some 79 miles south. Upon being told by McArthur to abandon their weapons and flee to safety, Marine General O.P. Smith coldly told him “We’re coming out as Marines, and we’re bringing our wounded and our dead with us.” The fight with the Chinese was on, and Russ details how the young enlisted Marines responded:

21-year-old Pfc Hector Cafferata earned the Medal of Honor by single-handedly holding off a regimental-sized Chinese force with his M-1 rifle (reloaded by a temporarily blinded Marine), and batted away hand grenades with his entrenching tool. Unable to find his boots when the Chinese attacked, frost-bitten Cafferata fought for five hours in his socks.

On Hill 698, a small semi-circle of six Marines were almost out of ammunition as they prepared to be overrun in the next Chinese assault – until Pvt James Gallagher arrived. He was carrying 70lbs of machine gun, tripod, and ammunition that he set-up and began to fire as the Chinese attacked. The Marines held, although similar fighting continued as the Marines fought their way south, with their dead tied to their jeeps, trucks, and tanks, and the wounded still fighting.

As The New York Times wrote in its review “An engrossing account…vivid, at times powerful; emotional but unsentimental.” Highly Recommended!

By Martin Russ,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Breakout as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On General Douglas MacArthur's orders, a force of 12,000 U.S. Marines were marching north to the Yalu river in late November 1950. These three regiments of the 1st Marine Division--strung out along eighty miles of a narrow mountain road--soon found themselves completely surrounded by 60,000 Chinese soldiers. Despite being given up for lost by the military brass, the 1st Marine Division fought its way out of the frozen mountains, miraculously taking thier dead and wounded with them as they ran the gauntlet of unceasing Chinese attacks.This is the gripping story that Martin Russ tells in his extraordinary book. Breakout is…

Book cover of The Coldest War: A Memoir of Korea

Why did I love this book?

Those of us who read newspaper remember James Brady, who wrote Page Six a Hollywood gossip column that ran every Sunday for 25 years on the last page of Parade magazine.

What few knew is that James Brady was a Marine officer who’d seen combat in the Korean War, and lived to write 13 fiction and five nonfiction books, with his autobiography, “The Coldest Winter” nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.              

Brady often described himself as “an immature 23-year old when I left for Korea, but when I left nine months later I was a grown-up and a pretty good Marine officer,” and reading his story, you’ll see this ‘pretty good Marine officer’ became a ‘pretty fine author.’                               

Brady concentrates on the Marines in his unit and his growth as an officer in leading them. Except for ‘Saving Private Ryan and few others, combat isn’t near as glorious or macho as portrayed by Hollywood, so Brady’s recap of his nine months in combat is a rare combination of dark humor, sorrow, and action that only combat veterans can appreciate. 

An interesting thread that connects the Spartans at Thermopylae, and the Marines fighting in WW2’s Pacific, and those in Korea, is how when times get rough, it’s your training that pulls you through – and that the best leaders, regardless of rank, are those who sweat and work harder than their men, and are honest with both their praise and criticism. 

That interest in his juniors continued; when I was writing my first book, I cold-contacted Brady for assistance. He responded quickly and graciously, including commenting on my final draft. Very few best-selling authors would do the same today.

This is more than an interesting story of a Marine’s war in Korea; it’s a lesson in leadership that any one of us can use today. Highly Recommended!!

By James Brady,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Coldest War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

James Brady's The Coldest War is a powerful and moving memoir of the Korean War.

America's "forgotten war" lasted just thirty-seven months, yet 54,246 Americans died in that time -- nearly as many as died in ten years in Vietnam. On the fiftieth anniversary of this devastating conflict, James Brady tells the story of his life as a young marine lieutenant in Korea.

In 1947, seeking to avoid the draft, nineteen-year-old Jim Brady volunteered for a Marine Corps program that made him a lieutenant in the reserves on the day he graduated college. He didn't plan to find himself in…

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