Friday, July 4, 2014

At war under the sea

The Depths of Courage: American Submariners at War with Japan, 1941-1945 by Flint Whitlock and Ron Smith, something like a submarine itself, goes both above and below the surface. Whitlock and Smith give readers the big picture of how submarines contributed so mightily to the Allied victory in the Pacific and the little picture of life aboard some of those submariners as remembered by veterans of the war.

One of these submariners was co-author Smith, who joined the Navy hoping to fly planes but ended up under the sea instead. He had some hairy adventures on different boats and, unlike so many of his fellows, lived to tell about it.

U.S. submarines had little impact early in the war, primarily because their torpedoes consistently went awry or, when they did hit their targets, failed to explode. Captains complained, but the admiral in charge insisted the problem lay with the crews, not the torpedoes. Once the leadership problem got corrected, the torpedo problem was quickly resolved, and Japanese ships began touching the bottom of the ocean in large numbers. American submarines accounted for 60 percent of the tonnage of Japanese cargo vessels sunk during the war.

"The American submarines were the noose that slowly stangled Japan to death," the authors write.

"The price of victory, however, was high. Of the approximately 15,000 men who served in the 288 American submarines from 1941 to 1945, 374 officers, 3,131 enlisted, and fifty-two submarines -- 22 percent of the total -- were lost."

Whitlock and Smith provide details about virtually every major submarine mission in the Pacific war. This ranks among the best books about submarine warfare I have read.

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