24 May 2012

Twelve Desperate Miles

In this week's New Yorker magazine, a restaurant review begins:

"Remember that grilled cheese? The one you had when you were ten?... and you've never lost hope of stumbling upon that one delicious grilled cheese again?" And so forth, until this: "Well, you won't find it at the Bowery Diner..."

That is how I feel about Twelve Desperate Miles, the Epic Voyage of the SS Contessa by Tim Brady. It's a cheese sandwich alright, but not the one I'm craving.

My father, Joe Miksak, took part in Operation Torch, the invasion of French North Africa. He was there in November, 1942, as the US and British armies fought their way across  Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, then across Sicily and onto the Italian mainland.

A boy's favorite question in the 1950's had to be the one my brother and I asked over and over: What did you do in the war, daddy? Joe made it clear he never was any kind of hero, just an obscure first lieutenant "in charge of washcloths." He watched antiaircraft guns light up the night sky. That was it for war stories.

Joe returned with beautiful tiles decorated in Arabic calligraphy, but kept his memories to himself. So when I heard about Twelve Desperate Miles I was hoping for some kind insight into that time. What was it like to be there? What was it like for my father to be there?

The invasion tale is fully told in books such as An Army at Dawn and The Day of Battle by Rick Atkinson. Twelve Desperate Miles focuses on one small part of that immense operation.

The SS Contessa was a classic "banana boat" owned by Standard Fruit Company. "Her shallow draft and good size... allowed her to gather large loads of fruit from riverside plantations without getting trapped in stream muck." This would turn out to be crucial in the coming invasion. In addition to sweet-scented fruit she carried well-to-do passengers in considerable comfort. Brochures said she was "not too large to permit delightful social relationships with fellow vacationists."

The Contessa started out carrying troops and supplies to England through dangerous U-boat filled waters. She made a number of trips before someone figured out she would be the perfect boat to carry volatile barrels of aviation fuel and live bombs across the Atlantic and up the shallow Sebou River to a French airfield. Her cargo would supply P-40 fighters in support of General Patton's invasion of Casablanca and help control the air above northwest Africa. Success could be crucial to the entire invasion.

An anti-Nazi French river pilot provided the needed expertise. His story is the story of this book. Tim Brady's account is engaging, complete and apparently very accurate.

Rene' Malevergne was the only man in the world able to pilot past every twist, turn and hidden sandbank in the Sebou. British spies smuggled him out of Morocco to England. Malevergne's identity was doubted, his worth underestimated. He journeyed to Washington, then back to Morocco where he had left his wife and two sons. The Contessa missed the convoy it was supposed to accompany and crossed the ocean completely alone. It was a harrowing journey, start to finish.

The supplies were landed but the fighter planes were not there to use it – just one more irony of that war. Malevergne later received both the US Navy Cross and the Silver Star. We know what he and others accomplished, but that's pretty much all we know. A careful reader will miss the emotional connection a better writer might provide.


Twelve Desperate Miles, The Epic WWII Voyage of the SS Contessa by Tim Brady. Crown hard cover $26. ISBN 9780307590374. 

An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 (Liberation Trilogy #01) by Rick Atkinson. Henry Holt & Company paperback $17. ISBN 0805087249.
The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 (Liberation Trilogy #02) by Rick Atkinson. Henry Holt & Company paperback $17. ISBN 080508861X.

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