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Days of Steel Rain
The Epic Story of a WWII Vengeance Ship in the Year of the Kamikaze
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This intimate true account of Americans at war follows theepic drama of an unlikely group of men forced to work together in the face of an increasingly desperate enemy during the final year of World War II.Sprawling across the Pacific, this untold story follows the crew of the newly-built "vengeance ship" USS Astoria, named for her sunken predecessor lost earlier in the war. At its center lies U.S. Navy Captain George Dyer, who vowed to return to action after suffering a horrific wound. He accepted the ship's command in 1944, knowing it would be his last chance to avenge his injuries and salvage his career. Yet with the nation's resources and personnel stretched thin by the war, he found that just getting the ship into action would prove to be a battle.
Tensions among the crew flared from the start. Astoria's sailors and Marines were a collection of replacements, retreads, and older men. Some were broken by previous traumatic combat, most had no desire to be in the war, yet all found themselves fighting an enemy more afraid of surrender than death.
The reluctant ship was called to respond to challenges that its men never could have anticipated. From a typhoon where the ocean was enemy to daring rescue missions, a gallant turn at Iwo Jima, and the ultimate crucible against the Kamikaze at Okinawa, they endured the worst of the final year of the war at sea.
Days of Steel Rain brings to life more than a decade of research and firsthand interviews, depicting with unprecedented insight the singular drama of a captain grappling with an untested crew and men who had endured enough amidst some of the most brutal fighting of World War II. Throughout, Brent Jones fills the narrative with secret diaries, memoirs, letters, interpersonal conflicts, and the innermost thoughts of the Astoria men—and more than 80 photographs that have never before been published. Days of Steel Rain weaves an intimate, unforgettable portrait of leadership, heroism, endurance, and redemption.
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Many accounts exist of the late Pacific War in 1944–1945. Most cover the Pacific Theater of Operations as a whole, comprehensive in arc, some focusing on Marines, Army, or Navy. Others contain the memoir of a single serviceman and his individual perspective. The account that follows differs in scope and intent: it follows men of a single ship as an ensemble crew in the final year of the war. What you read is what they experienced, witnessed, and knew at the time, and nothing more.
If many noteworthy events from the Pacific are not present, this is an intentional approach to the narrative. Like every other ship serving in the Pacific Fleet, the men of USS Astoria were limited to what they learned at the time—sketchy Pacific War News Service reports in the ship’s morning press and PA announcements from their captain. Beyond that, any “news” was rumor, “scuttlebutt,” something shouted from the nearest ship when close enough. In many ways, civilian America spent this final year far better informed about the war than the men actually fighting it on the front lines.
Where practicable the terminology and slang is written as that of the period, although US Navy jargon has been minimized for accessibility to the reader. The events depicted within are all factual, from firsthand interviews and personal journals vetted completely against US Navy deck logs, war diaries, and action reports accessed from the National Archives. There are no exaggerated or uncorroborated “sea stories,” but instead an insight into American men at war, their thoughts and experiences at the time.
If the readers find themselves understanding the limited perspective of the sailor and Marine aboard ship in a time of desperate warfare, this endeavor will have been a success.
—Brent E. Jones
The old man thumbed slowly through the photographs, both he and the images showing the ravages of time. For my grandfather, age brought weathered flesh and atrophied muscle, one hand covered in intravenous tubing and bandage tape. The photos he hadn’t seen in decades showed age in their own way—black-and-white contrast faded into mottled shades of brown. He studied each image but said nothing; the only sounds in the room were rasps of breath punctuated by the rhythmic beeps of medical equipment and the IV drip.
Perhaps he has forgotten all of it. I felt myself slump on the inside. Oh, Paw-paw…
Image after image of youthful men—boys, really—all crisp uniforms and smiles surrounded by military trucks, government-issue tents, and palm trees…men of a different era, their thoughts and dreams only hinted at by snapshots in time. Paw-paw standing on his head in ocean surf, surrounded by his buddies, vibrant with their lives ahead of them.
So many years had passed. The old man finally paused at one photo, fixated on a face…and he began to chuckle. “I could write you a book about this guy!” he pointed. Memories unlocked and poured in. My grandfather spent the next hour relating vignettes from his time in the Pacific Theater during World War II. His stories always centered on humor, perhaps because that was the type of tale most accessible for those of us who hadn’t been there.
As we walked through the parking garage on our way out of the hospital, Dad validated the decision to bring the stack of old photos to lift Paw-paw’s spirits. “That was probably the best medicine he could have had.” My grandfather hung on for a while longer, but his cancer ultimately took him from us. I secured his Good Conduct Medal lapel pin to his coat when I said goodbye to him; it felt right to bury him with it. And sadness aside, I was proud to see the American flag draped over his casket at the service.
His best friend had been one of the first American casualties of the war, killed in action aboard USS West Virginia in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Weeks later Paw-paw learned my grandmother was pregnant with their first child, and the following fall he had to leave her and his newborn son behind in Austin when his draft number was called. He didn’t see his son again for more than three years.
When he stepped off the train just before Thanksgiving in 1945, wearing his Army dress uniform with a “ruptured duck” Honorable Discharge patch, a little boy at the Third Street depot recognized him from photos mailed back home and came up to hug his legs. “Hi Daddy,” were the first words my grandfather ever heard his son speak.
That little boy, my father, stood next to me some sixty years later at Paw-paw’s graveside service. He pointed out the nearby VA marker for Lawrence Jones, my grandfather’s older brother. “Uncle Lawrence—now he was the one who saw real action in the war…But he never talked about it.”
He never talked about it. Those words resonated, filled me with intrigue and yet sadness. Where my grandfather Sonny Jones reveled in sharing his stories from the war, Lawrence Jones found ways to talk about anything else. Lawrence never had children, yet was always so grandfatherly to me. He was the oldest brother, married long before the war…How was he the one who ended up in combat? I never knew anything of his US Navy service and now could never ask. Dad knew very little beyond a ship name—USS Astoria. Something about them seeing Kamikaze attacks, but nothing to elaborate on that; Uncle Lawrence never talked about it. He did, however, tend to grow faint at the sight of blood. There was a story there somewhere.
Perhaps if I had found a book or website chronicling the wartime experiences of USS Astoria, that would have been the end of that. I set to work to learn more, and what began as a search about a dear family member’s World War II experience quickly grew. I tracked down a reunion association muster roll and started making phone calls, interviewing shipmates. A few men even remembered Uncle Lawrence, “Jonesy” to them. Families and other surviving shipmates found me online and reached out to contribute; some sent money to help fund a modest web page I built. Stories poured in, along with photographs and original documents—artifacts tucked away in dresser drawers, in shoe boxes under beds, hidden from sight, long forgotten and neglected.
New contact with families each year picked up around the holidays, driven by gatherings where a grandfather or granduncle’s name came up and someone started searching online. Emails also spiked around Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Most of these men had passed on, but the one thing most common in my correspondence with family members was the Silence. “Dad never spoke about his time in the Navy…,” “We don’t know much, would love to learn more…,” and so on.
He never talked about it.
This book is intended to help break the Silence. Not just regarding the officers and men of the USS Astoria, but the hundreds of thousands of sailors and Marines who served in the late Pacific War. A number of them did talk about it in later years and agreed to be interviewed for this project. I was fortunate to record the vivid recollections of some scattered throughout the United States who served side by side. Many remained razor-sharp in their knowledge of important details, their memories prompted by photos, film, and reviews of primary documents.
Many depictions of the Pacific War conjure images of sailors suffering steaming tropical heat supporting jungle warfare. For the men in this narrative, there is a kernel of truth beneath the mythos. Yet the late war Navy in the western Pacific also endured a very different experience—often cold, usually wet (“It was always raining”), and typhoon after typhoon. They were closing on the enemy at his doorstep, an enemy determined to preserve his way of life against the largest military force ever assembled, equally determined to assert that of America and its allies.
For the Okinawa Campaign of 1945, the final major offensive operation of the war, the Navy again suffered ratios of men killed in action at sea versus Marines fighting on land as had occurred at Guadalcanal three years prior. The difference was the enemy threat no longer came from the surface, but instead from the sky. Young Japanese men and boys were tapped to fly to their deaths by crashing into the American ships bringing destruction to their shores. Neither side understood the mindset and values of the other, resulting in a prolonged and cataclysmic final year of warfare.
The fathers and grandfathers, brothers and uncles who never talked about it knew things; they had seen things. They knew the boredom of routine punctuated by moments of terror—days of nothing much to mention shattered by events where every second mattered. These men knew the smell of burning flesh mixed with fuel oil and melting steel. They often witnessed it up close and personal. Many knew the screams of desperate men spilling over the rail from another ship to their own via any available lifeline. They knew the sharp crack of .30-caliber rounds over a vast expanse of water as lifeless shapes were turned out overboard under American flags.
But such things were rarely discussed, even among one another. Perhaps the most deafening sound from reunions I attended came in the silences between stories. Men looked down at their drinks and they remembered. They would scoff at any attempt to label them heroes. The other guy always had it rougher, and the heroes were the ones who didn’t come home.
Much of what follows came from private collections and family holdings. Crafting this story could not have been possible without the efforts of many dozens of sailors, Marines, and their families. Individually their contributions might be limited in scope, but as this sprawling jigsaw puzzle was assembled a remarkably clear picture began to emerge. Their artifacts and recollections came together to breathe life into a perspective on the Pacific War that has been largely obscured by time, a story of regular people living through extraordinary events.
I will never know the full nature of my granduncle’s experience, nor will so many others whose family members adhered to the Silence and have left us. But in every possible way, this account has been written from the perspective of its participants who served with them in the final year of the Pacific War—the year of the Kamikaze.
The Old Man and the Sea
“You made your reputation at sea.”
-Retired Vice Admiral George C. Dyer
Bethesda Naval Hospital, Maryland
He couldn’t wait to get back out there. Closing on five months since being wounded in the leg by an attacking German plane at Salerno, Italy, US Navy Captain George Carroll Dyer grew more and more restless. The wound had been severe when he was struck by enemy gunfire while aboard command ship USS Biscayne, badly damaging bone and requiring multiple surgeries. He had argued for weeks with the Washington detailer, a Naval Academy classmate and friend, insisting he not be confined to shore duty. Their latest telephone call held promise of a strong sea billet—provided he could be discharged from the naval hospital within fourteen days. Dyer left a small phone booth and struggled his way down the hospital ward hallway to his doctor’s office.
“The answer is no,” the doctor declared as soon as Dyer entered the doorway. “I know by the look on your face that you’ve just been offered a good sea detail…If you think I’m going to let you leave this hospital and go onboard ship, when you’re still limping and have them all call you ‘Gimpy’ Dyer, you’ve got another thought coming.” This preemptive response flattened him. He’d been offered command of the venerable heavy cruiser Augusta, certain to be a flagship in the invasion of Europe.
Shorter in stature than most officers, Captain Dyer’s thick eyebrows, dark slicked-back hair, and prominent facial features gave him a grandfatherly look beyond his forty-five years. He never smoked, didn’t drink coffee, and rarely resorted to even the softest of oaths—not easy accomplishments in the Navy. Yet all three practices had been tempting at Salerno when invasion progress stalled and then he was hit by an enemy plane.
For George Dyer the sea was a calling. Equally important, sea duty ensured rapid promotion and career advancement as a Navy line officer. This ambition was impressed upon him from an early age growing up in Minnesota by his father, a man who regretted his own choices. Despite his eagerness and drive, Dyer had proved to be an average student at the Academy. He excelled in the most nautical subjects, seamanship and navigation, while engineering and mathematics proved more difficult. Playing poker emerged as his only vice.
Due to America’s entry into the Great War, George Dyer’s Class of ’19 was rushed through the Academy and graduated a year early in 1918. He had aspired to the Marine Corps like his uncle, but a presentation on the effectiveness of German U-boats changed his mind. Subs were “the hot thing, the future!” George Dyer began his naval career in submarines, and subsequently advanced from ensign to lieutenant junior grade in three months as opposed to the three-year standard before the war. He spent the final months of the war in antisubmarine patrols off the east coast. Almost ten years in submarines would follow.
His 1921 marriage to sweetheart Mary Adaline Shick also came on a Navy schedule, and Adaline and their three daughters were living near Pearl Harbor on Oahu when the Japanese attacked in December 1941. Dyer was predictably at sea, serving as executive officer aboard the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis when war came to the US for the second time in his career. But promotions arrived regularly and ahead of schedule as George Dyer accepted every sea assignment he could. Though he had finished in the middle of his class at Annapolis, Dyer emerged charismatic and driven, precise and polished.
You made your reputation at sea.
A major surface ship, a man o’ war, the “biggest thing he could command.” Throughout Dyer’s confinement the detail officer checked in, always with a list of “fine shore jobs he had lined up.” Dyer’s reply never wavered: “I’m going back to sea.”
By the end of January 1944, the Bethesda staff had worked out his limp. After more than five months the captain could match stride with the best of them. The detail officer called with news of two upcoming command opportunities in a new cruiser division forming under Rear Admiral J. Cary Jones: USS Pasadena, to be Jones’s flagship, and USS Astoria, one of several “vengeance ships” named for predecessors sunk in action. Both were Cleveland-class light cruisers completing construction up east, vessels that would be tasked with protecting aircraft carriers in the Pacific.
Dyer weighed his options. Pasadena was a cruiser name new to the burgeoning Navy, a name without heritage. He knew Cary Jones and got along well with him, especially after they had bonded after learning each other collected stamps. However, no matter the man in question he would still have an admiral looking over his shoulder the whole time if he took this command.
On the other hand, the name Astoria brought legacy—lead ship of her class, famed Admiral Kelly Turner’s old command, Hollywood movie star before the war. She had been hand-selected by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to return the ashes of Japanese ambassador Hirosi Saito to his homeland after he died in Washington. Great pomp and circumstance surrounding the ensuing 1939 Yokohama port call made front-page news worldwide. She had been the last American warship to visit Imperial Japan before war broke out between the two nations.
In May 1942, Astoria had seen action in the Coral Sea. Weeks later she fought at Midway, bringing down enemy planes attacking her task force. In early August, her big guns thundered at Guadalcanal during America’s first offensive action of the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Yet two short nights later she paid the butcher’s bill for the successful Marine landing, one of three American heavy cruisers ravaged and sunk by the responding Imperial Japanese Navy.
Dyer made up his mind immediately; to the hungry captain, the choice was no choice at all. America needed an Astoria in action. The sunken cruiser deserved payback against the enemy, just as he sought for himself. Taking her namesake into war would make for a fine command indeed.
Oh, take me back to New Construction, that’s the place I wanna be—
I wanna be a heel and lay the keel of a ship that won’t be ready ’til ’63…
—Anonymous, World War II cruiser
Cramp Shipyard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
February 20, 1944
The trusses of the shipyard gantry towered above George Dyer in the crowd, casting no shadows in the thick winter overcast. Beside him stood a line of enlisted men in their dress blues. Some two thousand yard workers, Navy personnel, and dignitaries gathered in heavy coats around the mammoth iron frame. Contained within, the hull of a great ship rose six stories. For more than a year she had grown upward and outward as builders swarmed about her plates and frames, drilling, shaping, welding, and chipping. Now came her big launching day. Patriotic bunting draped her prow, flanked on both sides by anchors and gathered chain.
Sailors, shipyard officials, and guests lined the rail of her main deck. Others watched from the base of the surrounding gantry, down her length, with the heart of the throng amassed near a platform at the head of the builders’ shipway. All eyes focused on the stem of the ship where a lone woman stood in her best hat and fur with bottle in hand, dwarfed by the colossus.
On cue the woman struck the stem in a burst of champagne mist. A cheer arose and the last captive keel blocks where the ship had been resting during construction were released. The shipyard’s band, in matching overalls and construction helmets, struck up “Anchors Aweigh,” the official march of the US Navy. The great hull slid down the greased 5 percent grade of the shipway, gathering speed. Flashbulbs popped as newspaper cameramen ran onto the wooden planking of the vacated way to get their shot. After a journey of just over six hundred feet, the hull settled into the Delaware River. She floated on an even keel; the new vessel found her home in the icy water. Nearby merchant ships contributed their traditional role for a launching by sounding their horns across the river.
Attending senior officers posed for photographs with the ship’s sponsor. Her swing of a bottle had christened the latest warship launched for the US Navy: the future light cruiser CL-91, USS Oklahoma City. The Cramp band led a singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to conclude the event. More than a year of work by the yard, almost ten million labor hours, culminated in a fifty-five-second journey into the Delaware. Immediately afterward and without ceremony, a fresh keel for the next hull was lowered by crane into the vacated Shipway F. Such was the urgency and nature of New Construction; launching and keel laying went hand in glove. Time was money, and not a workday hour could be lost.
Ceremony aside, the ship was far from complete. Officially, Oklahoma City remained Hull 534 for the Cramp Shipbuilding Company. Though the hull was watertight with most decks and bulkheads in place, months of construction remained before she could be delivered to the Navy as a completed contract. Still ahead lay the buildout of her upper superstructure and the lowering into place of main battery turrets and secondary gun mounts. Hull 534/Oklahoma City cleared the second of three milestones and ceremonies: keel laying and launching. What remained was her commissioning as a United States Ship.
Cramp’s press release for the event welcomed Captain Dyer’s assembled contingent of sailormen: “They will man a sister ship, the USS Astoria, which is nearing completion in the adjacent wet dock.” The release declared the core group of veterans “impatient to return to the firing line,” closing with “our hearts, our hopes, and our prayers go with them.”
Dyer’s hopes and prayers lay elsewhere, at least for the moment. Characterizing Astoria as “nearing completion” might make for good copy in the papers, but he and his small precommissioning crew weren’t going back “to the firing line” or anywhere else for a while based on the state of things at the yard.
Past the swarm of activity across the massive shipway gantries, beyond the crowds, he laid eyes on his prospective command floating idly in a nearby wet basin. Far from draped in bunting, his “vengeance ship” Astoria appeared months from completion, a tangle of pneumatic hoses, a smudge of construction filth stretching the length of two football fields. Her masts had yet to be set in place. The deafening sounds of ship construction might be throbbing around the clock as the yard fought to meet their workload, but precious little of that effort seemed to center on Dyer’s Astoria.
In any case, the Oklahoma City launching gave Cramp some desperately needed positive press. Just weeks before, Philadelphia readers followed the much larger story portraying “Cramp City” as a ghost town, its workforce striking in defiance of management, the Navy, and even their own national union. Such strikes and news stories grew commonplace in the local newspapers.
Few if any names in Philadelphia carried such legacy and prestige as Cramp. William Cramp & Sons Shipbuilding bore the standard for American shipyards through four wars spanning a century—Mexican, Civil, Spanish-American, and the Great War. Its construction ways produced America’s first battleship and most of the American belligerents that fought in the 1898 Battle of Santiago. Cramp & Sons built ships for both sides involved in the Russo-Japanese War, and served as a powerhouse of construction for American destroyers during the Great War. Their destroyer deliveries were so strong that the company literally built themselves out of business even before the naval limitations treaty of 1922 took effect. With no further government contracts to fulfill, the yard shuttered in bankruptcy.
Two decades later, resurrected by the Navy and the city of Philadelphia for the latest war effort, a newly formed Cramp Shipbuilding Company promised an economic boon for the Kensington neighborhood on its Delaware River bank. Beginning in 1940, from a rusting wasteland of abandoned buildings and dilapidated shipways arose a modern railhead, the nation’s first fully electric shipyard, and a large dry dock basin. The old Cramp slipways would be deep enough to accommodate cruiser construction, and expansion along the waterfront further allowed for building submarines. The Navy was hard-pressed for more of both, and contracts flowed to the yard. Thousands of jobs poured into the economically depressed area. Kensington residents and businesses alike celebrated the revival. “More than a century of building stout ships for stout-hearted fighting men,” boasted Cramp advertising, capitalizing on the name and prestige of its predecessor company.
George Dyer expected to walk into a manufacturing enterprise worthy of such heritage. Yet beyond the public facade, his February 1944 arrival at the sprawling Philadelphia yard brought him to a scene of abject disarray, culminating in his unfinished command—Astoria, Hull 533, draped not in bunting but the shipyard tools of incomplete work.
Beneath the cheers and bunting of the day lay a dark reality. Cramp Shipbuilding was in real trouble, not even four years after reopening. Incomplete submarine hulls packed the slipways and finishing basins. Heavy pressure from the Navy Bureau of Ships for submarines meant workers diverted to focus on the subs, leaving Astoria to languish in her wet basin. She had missed her target delivery date by months and counting. The truth was, beyond a few floating workshops and fleet tugs, Cramp had completed exactly one warship to date. The company had yet to deliver a single submarine, and the new Cramp Shipbuilding Company spent many months on the front pages of local newspapers before they launched their first ship.
- "Days of Steel Rain relates in graphic and dramatic detail how cruiser USS Astoria and her sailors withstood Japan's dreaded Kamikaze assaults during the most deadly [and] decisive campaigns of the Pacific War. A first-rate account of American courage, selfless sacrifice, and perseverance against high odds in the crucible of combat. A must-read for anyone interested in the battle history of U.S. Navy."—Edward J. Marolda, former Senior Historian of the U.S. Navy
- "Brent E. Jones strikes gold with his stirring Days of Steel Rain, which relates the exploits of his World War II relative, Lawrence Jones, and his shipmates aboard the light cruiser, USS Astoria, as they battle their foe off Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and Japan in the Pacific War's final year. Relying on vivid combat sequences, Jones has provided touching testimony that humans, not guns and weapons, win wars. He offers a fitting tribute to his relative and to the other courageous sailors who manned that cruiser." —John Wukovits, author of Tin Can Titans and Dogfight Over Tokyo
- "Finally, a seafaring story we can steer into at top speed. This is World War II as we seldom get to see it. First-hand.Fast-paced. And arriving not a moment too late. Batten down the hatches—you’re about to follow a fraternity of heroes as they plunge into chaos. It’s time to go to sea.”—Adam Makos, author of the New York Times bestseller A Higher Call
- “As powerfully built as the ship at its heart, Days of Steel Rain is a mighty feat of storytelling. Herein lie Iwo Jima bombardments, a near-collision with [the] Indianapolis, kamikazes, typhoons, and incomparable men. The narrative is vigorous, deeply felt .and so attentively wrought, it’s as if Brent E. Jones came through the war on Astoria herself.”—James Sullivan, author of Unsinkable
"Truly an amazing story: the combat experiences of a single fighting ship as told through the actual words of the men at the time. The human condition--sights, sounds, reactions, worries, thoughts, words--is often overlooked and left out of most wartime histories. The eyewitness accounts and personal testimonies of the crew of Astoria--from Captain down to Seaman--make the Fast Carrier Task Force come alive in a vivid blaze of color, the roar of naval gunfire, a rolling and plunging deck underfoot, and the adrenaline of men alternately fighting to survive a typhoon or under vicious air attack. Not spared are the personal struggles with numbing routine split between tedium and boredom; fatigue laced with humor, sarcasm, endless rumors, and even fatalism. I particularly enjoyed the exciting stories of Chuck Tanner and his team of Kingfisher pilots; their incredible exploits, adventures and successful rescues-at-sea are the likes of which I've never read anywhere else up until now. In short, Days of Steel Rain brings alive a gallery of real people: some heroes and villains to be sure, but mostly average American boys and men, Bluejackets and Marines, caught in the crucible that was the western Pacific in 1945. It is an uncommonly related perspective indeed."
—Dominic DeScisciolo, Captain, U.S. Navy (Ret.)
- "The story of how this novice crew came together over time under Dyer's firm, but fair, leadership to become a very tough, very competent crew capable of performing consistently and well under extraordinarily demanding conditions. A great story of a great ship!"—Admiral John C. Harvey, Jr., USN (Ret.)
- "A gripping...narrative...the reader is propelled into vivid battles across the Pacific, at Iwo Jima, and finally, Okinawa....An outstanding historical account of the human condition during wartime late in the Pacific War, written from the perspective of those who lived it...Americans at war and united to overtime despite their personal demons and feelings toward one another - under conditions they never dreamed they would face, let alone survive. The book needed to be written - to break their silence." —North Texas Living
- “Remarkably researched….Without preaching, this narrative shows how honor and respect are earned one decision at a time, often without knowledge of other factors that only become clear later."—Seattle Book Review
- "[Jones] describes individuals in an intimate fashion that will fascinate anyone interested in naval history."—Proceedings magazine
- On Sale
- May 11, 2021
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Hachette Books