Book review: A well-told tale of how U.S. submarines helped defeat the Japanese

CorrespondentJuly 6, 2013 

  • Nonfiction The War Below: The Story of Three Submarines That Battled Japan James Scott

    Simon & Schuster, 317 pages

Focusing on three “boats” – Silversides, Drum and Tang – Charlotte native James Scott tells the story of the U.S. Pacific submarine fleet though accounts of men who lived for months at a time in a steel tube the length of a football field and less than 30 feet wide.

Among them, the three submarines sank a confirmed 62 Japanese freighters, tankers and transport ships for a total of nearly 265,000 tons. The Tang alone destroyed 24 enemy ships in nine months. The only other submarine with a higher tally took three years to sink 25 ships.

Scott, a former newspaper reporter, draws on copious sources, including interviews with surviving submariners and relatives, to recreate gripping scenarios. In one, he describes how the Tang’s storied commander, Capt. Dick O’Kane, watches in horror as a malfunctioning torpedo – the last in the sub’s arsenal before the crew heads home for a stateside leave – circles around and blows the boat apart. Kane and several crew members spent the remainder of the war in a prison camp notorious for its brutal guards.

Scott weaves the linear narratives of the three submarines over 51 patrols, spanning nearly four years, into a larger tapestry of underwater warfare. He describes how after the end of World War I, the U.S. Navy studied German U-boats to design faster, safer submarines and how America was blessed with strategic thinkers, including Rear Adm. Charles Lockwood Jr., who anticipated that a Pacific campaign would require submarines capable of traveling 12,000 miles and remaining at sea for up to three months.

Before then, Scott explains, submarines primarily were employed in coastal defense or in support of surface ships. Lockwood and Pacific fleet commander Adm. Chester Nimitz saw submarines as an offensive weapon. They knew that the Japanese empire, spread over an area twice the size of Europe, had to import many vital resources, including oil. Destruction of the enemy’s merchant fleet therefore became Task One for the U.S. submarine fleet.

U.S. subs sank more than 1,100 Japanese merchant ships and 200 warships, including a battleship, eight aircraft carriers and 11 cruisers. By war’s end, Japanese citizens were reduced to eating sawdust, and its navy was so short of fuel that remaining battleships and carriers had to be docked.

Two key factors in the “war below” were an intelligence coup and Japan’s failure to grasp how submarines would change the rules.

Early in 1943, our cryptanalysts broke a sophisticated code Japan used in routing merchant ships. By intercepting transmissions in which ships signaled their position at set times each day, they were able to chart a ship’s course. That information was relayed to U.S. submarines, which lay in wait for targets that often were surprisingly defenseless, lacking either radar or depth charges.

By the time Japan adapted strategies and weapons to ward off submarines, Scott writes, the U.S. Navy had nearly quadrupled the Pacific submarine fleet, from 51 following the attack on Pearl Harbor to 182 at war’s end – not counting 52 boats that were lost.

Furthermore, as the surface navy and ground forces pushed Japan’s defensive perimeter closer to the homeland, U.S. submarines spent much less time in transit and more time prowling enemy sea lanes.

Submarines also proved their worth in less heralded roles, from weather stations to rescuing downed American pilots. In one day, the Tang pulled 22 airmen from waters around Truk, in the Caroline Islands.

Scott doesn’t exaggerate when he says that the impact of U.S submarines on the war far outweighed their numbers. Submariners comprised only 1.6 percent of Navy personnel, and only 16,000 ever saw action. Nevertheless, 3,500 – almost 1 in 5 – perished, the highest casualty rate of all U.S. military forces.

Their story is remarkable, and the author tells it remarkably well.

Terry Plumb is former editor of The Herald in Rock Hill, S.C.

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