Books of the region: poems, Holmes, ships The Bay: The mighty Missouri was defeated by a sand bar.

March 03, 1996|By JAMES H. BREADY | JAMES H. BREADY,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Everywhere else, the USS Missouri stands for triumph - the ship on whose starboard deck pens scratched and World War II ended. But up and down Chesapeake Bay, old-timers still remember Mighty Mo as the biggest ship ever to get hung up on a Bay mudflat (so far).

A publisher's natural, the book about the Missouri commemorating last summer's 50th anniversary of the Japanese surrender. How honest, though, is it about those 15 embarrassing days in 1950, when the great battleship sat there helplessly, engines dead, on Thimble Shoal?

Naval Institute's answer is a double one: a book, "Battleship Missouri: An Illustrated History" by Paul Stillwell (450 pages. $55), relating the ship's full career, with a candid chapter titled "Aground"; and a second book, "Strike Able-Peter: The Stranding and Salvage of the USS Missouri" by John A. Butler (221 pages. $29.95), concentrating on the famous misadventure.

Notwithstanding the area of overlap (by former-Navy authors who worked independently, and largely agree), these are first-rate productions. "Able-Peter" (the old-code signal conveying, "I'm Aground") is more reflective as to causes and meanings. In the ensuing general courts-martial, the Missouri's captain, new at his post, pleaded guilty to neglect of duty (yet was allowed to finish out his career, commanding no other ship but undemoted). The lesson drawn for command-level learning is: read your orders, have faith in instruments, listen to experienced subordinates. Mr. Butler of Bethesda relives the process of lightening the ship, blowing the muck away from its hull and finally floating the thing - all 887 feet and 57,000 tons of it.

Mr. Stillwell of Naval Institute's staff earlier wrote life-records of the Arizona and the New Jersey. His method includes an abundance of pictures and a full 1944-1992 active-service itinerary (built at Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Missouri was in the Korean and Persian Gulf wars, has been twice decommissioned; in future - immobility as a tourist spectacle). Over against so distinguished a record, that long-ago grounding recedes - except among those who, out on the Bay, are still and always wary.

*

North and South slugged it out mostly on land. At sea, blockade badly hurt the South. Save for Monitor vs. Merrimack, no major battles took place on Chesapeake Bay or its fringe of rivers. And so, only piecemeal attention has been given the story that Eric Mills pulls together in "Chesapeake Bay in the Civil War" (Tidewater. 315 pages. $29.95).

Yet vast were the range and variety of war moments here recounted (after all, both capitals adjoined Bay tributaries). Also in Mr. Mills' favor, as an established Shore writer, is the high gloss on his narrative style.

*

Ruth Rosenfeld, a teen-ager in Nazi Germany, wrote about it in brief, stark, despondent poems. Emigrating just in time, she came to Baltimore, married Charles P. Sachs, died in 1991. Now these lyrics, and an Atlantic-crossing diary, have been translated from German by Thomas Dorsett and published handsomely as "Beyond These Shores, 1934-1940" (Icarus Books. 79 pages. $9.95).

Apparently, the young author then let her talent languish. Here, the somber verse still speaks; yet it is the ocean voyage that gives her individuality and eloquence.

*

Did Sherlock Holmes pause in Baltimore in 1880, as other scholars have written, and solve the Abernetty-family mystery by noting "the depth which the parsley had sunk into the butter"? William Hyder, on a lunch hour during 34 Sun-staff years, found that Dr. C. D. Abernethy lived here, that year only. Significant.

So is a great deal else, in "From Baltimore to Baker Street: 13 Sherlockian Studies," by Mr. Hyder (Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library. 222 pages. $24).

James H. Bready wrote for The Evening Sun for many years as a reporter and book editor. He writes a monthly column on Maryland books.

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