Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Q&A with Catherine Musemeche




Catherine Musemeche is the author of the new book Lethal Tides: Mary Sears and the Marine Scientists Who Helped Win World War II. Musemeche is a pediatric surgeon. Her other books include Hurt.


Q: How did you first learn about oceanographer Mary Sears (1905-1997) and at what point did you decide to write this book about her?


A: I had checked out a book from the library, an anthology of women who served in the Navy during World War II. I was actually researching someone else when I came across a chapter on Mary Sears. I was stunned by her huge contributions to the war effort but I had never heard of her. This planted the seed.


At about this same time I traveled to my childhood home in Orange, Texas, to take care of my father who had recently gone into home hospice. I knew Dad joined the Navy at age 17 to serve in World War II so I asked, “How about I take your oral history of the war?”


Like many veterans, he was reluctant to discuss his war service earlier in his life but, with only weeks left to live, he wanted to talk about his adventures.


I learned then that he had been at some of the same landings that Mary Sears had researched for the amphibious forces—Peleliu in the Palau Islands, Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines, and Okinawa, one of the largest amphibious landings of the war.


When I learned of this intersection between their wartime service that did it for me. I knew I would have to write this story.


Although my father didn’t live to read the book, he was with me every step of the way. I thought often of what a transformative experience it was for him, especially as I reviewed the oral histories of young men just like him who went off to war having no idea what they would encounter.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that surprised you most?


A: I spent a great deal of time pinpointing exactly what it was Sears had done during the war.


I have a science background but I am not an oceanographer so I had to throw myself into an unfamiliar science and learn about the various features of the ocean like tides, waves, bottom sediments, and coral reefs, that can complicate an amphibious landing.


I also had to learn a lot about the Pacific campaign of World War II which is where Sears’ work had its greatest impact. I read numerous books on the war and the Pacific campaign. Several in particular analyzed what went wrong in the various battles including highlighting some of the oceanographic issues.

I obtained copies of the Joint Army Navy Intelligence Studies that Sears had helped prepared from the National Archives and Record Administration in Washington, D.C. The reports were voluminous and each one covered a different region in the Pacific. Those reports and the island-hopping sequence became the spine of my book.


And of course, I had to go to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where Sears spent her entire career, outside of three years she was serving in the Navy.


At the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution I was fortunate to meet Dave Sherman, an archivist who had a vast knowledge of their holdings and was a World War II enthusiast. I thoroughly enjoyed going through boxes and boxes of files on Sears and her associates.


I also had the good fortune to visit with some of the family members Sears had lived with in her later years. Through their recollections of her and the memorabilia she left behind, Mary Sears came into full view and I could see she was amazing.


Q: What impact did Mary Sears’ work have on the progress of the war, and how would you describe her legacy today?


A: It is readily apparent, I believe, from the facts presented in Lethal Tides, that the contributions of Sears and her team at the Oceanographic Unit were crucial not just to the success of the amphibious battles but also to minimizing the number of casualties.


There was a paucity of oceanographic intelligence at the outset of the war, especially for military targets in the Pacific.


As Sears stated many times, “The Navy went to war without knowing anything about the oceans.” The Navy knew they needed nautical charts to find their targets but they didn’t understand how much more the science of oceanography could offer to prepare them for what they might find in these far-flung places they were attacking from the sea.


By the time the war ended, the Navy fully understood how important oceanography was to their operations. Sears started as a solitary oceanographer at one desk, then grew the Oceanographic Unit to 15 people. After the war the unit became a division of oceanography with Lt. Commander Mary Sears as the first officer in charge.


Today the United States Naval Oceanographic Office (NAVOCEANO) comprises over a thousand personnel who provide information to the Department of Defense and all branches of the military.


Mary Sears’s contributions to World War II is a significant legacy but, after the war, she also played a pivotal role in helping to organize oceanography as a scientific field by co-editing the first major oceanographic journal and coordinating the First International Oceanographic Conference Congress held in New York City in 1959. Her stature as a scientist continued to grow.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: Lethal Tides is a not just the story of one woman’s contribution to the war but also the story of how oceanography came of age with the dawning of World War II and how it helped the amphibious forces battle in the Pacific and win the war.


World War II was known as “the science war” because so many different scientific fields made significant contributions to the war effort. Scientists were racing to find solutions to real-world problems that could give the troops an edge and save lives in battle.


Afterwards, the sciences would never be the same and neither would the military.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a book about a woman physician who served in World War II. She too pushed through the boundaries of her gender to make an amazing contribution to the war and save lives.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: There have been many excellent historical accounts of World War II. I tried to write Lethal Tides like an adventure story.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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