The War Below: The Story of Three Submarines that Battled Japan
James Scott. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013. 426 pp. Illus. Notes. Index. $28.
Reviewed by Colonel John Abbatiello, U.S. Air Force (Retired)
In The War Below, award-winning journalist James Scott provides an excellent narrative of three of World War II’s best-performing American submarines—the USS Silversides (SS-236), Drum (SS-228), and Tang (SS-306). This is not just a book about the experiences of three crews waging war against the Imperial Japanese Navy and Japan’s merchant fleet. On the contrary, the author addresses leadership, evolving tactical submarine doctrine, and the larger strategic context of the war in the Pacific. This is a well-written and meticulously researched book, of interest to any audience and applicable to sailors of any rank.
Scott highlights a number of key features of the submarine war against Japan. Most important was the sheer courage, determination, and innovation characterizing the U.S. Navy submarine captains and crew who carried out the campaign, often operating thousands of miles from any assistance.
In an early chapter, the author recounts a riveting story of a Silversides crew member contracting appendicitis during a patrol near enemy-infested waters off Rabaul. Typical of submarines at the time, the only trained medical specialist on the crew was the pharmacist mate, who either had to conduct emergency surgery himself or watch helplessly as the stricken crewman died a painful death. The captain ordered a deep dive to minimize the boat’s movement, and after more than three hours of complicated surgery in a cramped wardroom, with ether fumes for the patient starting to affect the entire crew due to a lack of fresh air, the patient survived.
Early in the war, faulty torpedoes and radars hampered attempts to sink Japanese ships. Tactics naturally evolved, from early submerged attacks at safe distances to later wolf-pack operations, in which three or more submarines would work together against known Japanese convoy routes. Signals intelligence often provided tips to assist in convoy hunting. By the end of the war, daring submarine captains would attack at night on the surface after penetrating the convoy escort screen. In many ways, these tactics mirrored German methods used in the North Atlantic. Japanese tactics likewise evolved. Paralleling the British experience in World War I, the Imperial Japanese Navy initially detested using convoys due to their defensive nature, but eventually developed procedures for protecting high-value supply ships.
Scott provides historical context throughout the book to explain how submarine operations contributed to the overall war effort. He describes the weaknesses of the Japanese economy in detail, especially its lack of natural resources, farmable land, and highways, as well as its clear reliance on seaborne trade. During the major naval campaigns of the Pacific war, submarines blocked Japanese reinforcements and supplies sent to their island outposts and also served as reconnaissance and rescue platforms before conducting commerce-raiding patrols closer to the Japanese home islands. In the Marianas campaign of 1944, for example, the Pacific Fleet employed 28 submarines to directly participate in these important roles. The Drum took two Japanese prisoners aboard after destroying a patrolling sampan during lifeguard operations in support of B-24 bombing missions. One prisoner was confined to a bunk due to his wounds, but the other served as part of the galley crew. Both were handed over to the Marines at Pearl Harbor at the conclusion of the cruise.
In the closing chapters of the book, Scott describes the gruesome fate of the nine Tang crew members who survived after the boat’s 24th and final torpedo of the cruise malfunctioned. Instead of running toward its target—a disabled Japanese transport—the weapon circled back, demolishing the stern of the submarine. Seventy-eight Tang crew members died, either immediately from the explosion or through suffocation after being trapped in the sinking submarine. The nine who survived were “rescued” by Japanese patrol ships and eventually found themselves prisoners in the notorious Ofuna and Omori prison camps. The author recounts the brutal mistreatment of Tang’s survivors and their repatriation in vivid detail.
The Silversides, Drum, and Tang destroyed 62 Japanese freighters, tankers, and transports during their combined total of 32 patrols. During World War II, 288 U.S. Navy submarines served, sinking more than a thousand enemy merchant ships and 201 enemy warships. But the cost was very high; the United States lost 52 submarines during the war. Of the 16,000 sailors who served on board American submarines throughout the conflict, 374 officers and 3,131 enlisted sailors died. Read The War Below to better understand those accomplishments and sacrifices.
Nelson: The Sword of Albion
John Sugden. New York: A John Macrae Book, Henry Holt and Company, 2013. Originally published in 2012 by The Bodley Head. 944 pp. Illus. Notes. Biblio. Index. $45.
Reviewed by Rear Admiral Joseph Callo, U.S. Navy Reserve (Retired)
This new biography of Admiral Lord Nelson is a follow-on to John Sugden’s earlier work, A Dream of Glory, 1758–1797, which covers Nelson’s first 39 years of life. It picks up the narrative after Nelson’s disastrous defeat at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797, and its 853 pages of informationally rich text provide insight into Nelson’s persona not found elsewhere. Sugden’s comprehensive approach coincidentally provides a special view of Great Britain’s struggle against Napoleonic France during a pivotal time.
The final eight years of Nelson’s life covered by this work include the strategically important battles of the Nile (August 1798) and Copenhagen (April 1801), and the especially consequential Battle of Trafalgar (October 1805), but this biography goes far beyond a tactical analysis of those events. We also learn, for example, how Nelson’s duties during those years involved him in complex geopolitical issues in the Mediterranean and Baltic theaters and how that paramilitary involvement influenced his naval career.
The years covered in Nelson: The Sword of Albion were the most militarily significant of Nelson’s career, and they sharply define many of the extraordinary leadership qualities of the man who shaped history from his quarterdecks. It’s also a revealing window into the unusual loyalty among those Nelson led as well as the unparalleled public adoration he enjoyed. Military leadership and the influence of public opinions on wartime policies are two subjects that remain germane in our own times.
Sugden’s exceptionally thorough treatment of his subject runs counter to today’s high-volume, low-content media approach. Of greater significance, however, the unusual detail of his work adds important connective tissue to the Nelson narrative. That in turn facilitates a “next level” understanding of arguably the world’s most famous admiral. The manner in which Sugden illuminates two important—and contrasting—personalities in Nelson’s story, namely his hard-bitten mentor the Earl St. Vincent and his paramour Lady Emma Hamilton, is an example of how his detail-rich approach facilitates a deeper understanding of his subject.
St. Vincent was Nelson’s anchor to windward during a career that was marked by what Nelson called “scrapes” with his naval and political leaders. The ways in which St. Vincent—at one point as first lord of the Admiralty—protected and advanced Nelson’s career constitute a continuing strand woven throughout this work. Initially we see the earl saving Nelson’s career after the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797. Then, even as Nelson’s final triumph and death at Trafalgar approach, we observe St. Vincent continuing to apply his influence by facilitating Nelson’s assignment as commander-in-chief of the Royal Navy’s strategically crucial Mediterranean fleet.
Emma Hamilton was a very different kind of influence on Nelson, and to his credit, Sugden does not dwell on the relationship’s steamier aspects. Instead, he draws out the extent to which Emma Hamilton became an integral part of Nelson’s diplomatic activities and a major element of his psychological support system. Placing the relationship in the context in which it occurred, Sugden writes, for example, about how the diplomatic situation in the Mediterranean after the Battle of the Nile drew Nelson and Emma together. At the time, Nelson’s duties included protecting Britain’s main ally in the theater, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Sir William Hamilton was the British ambassador to that kingdom, and as his wife, Emma, became a diplomatically important confidante of the kingdom’s queen. Sugden writes:
He [Nelson] had moved on in two and a half years, into a different world of monarchs and international diplomacy, a world understood and shared by the Hamiltons, in whom he now confided.
Nelson: The Sword of Albion is not a quick read. It challenges the reader to bring an appreciation for relevant context to each page. The reward for the reader’s extra effort is a richly developed perspective of the man described in mythic terms by naval visionary Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan:
[He was] the one man who in himself summed up and embodied the greatness of the possibilities which Sea Power comprehends,—the man for whom genius and opportunity worked together, to make him the personification of the Navy of Great Britain.
With the hundreds upon hundreds of books extant on Nelson, John Sugden has managed to find a significant niche for his latest work. In the process he has created a definitive biography that allows the serious reader to view Nelson from inside the events of his astonishing life and history-making times, rather than as an outside observer.
The War of 1812: Writings from America’s Second War of Independence
Edited by Donald R. Hickey. The Library of America Series, No. 232. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2013. 892 pp. Chronology. Biographical Notes. Index. $40.
Reviewed by Dr. Michael J. Crawford
The Library of America could not have chosen a more knowledgeable scholar to edit its volume of writings from the War of 1812 than Donald R. Hickey, professor of history at Wayne State College. Not only is he the author of one of the standard general histories of the war, as well as several other works on the era, but he has also made himself a one-man clearinghouse of information about conferences, discussions, events, exhibitions, and publications relating to the war and its bicentenary. Hickey has collected a judicious selection of documents covering the course of the war on land and at sea, in the halls of Congress, and in the press. The 141 contemporary texts by 89 authors, including President James Madison and his cabinet officers, British political leaders, British and American army and navy officers, and Native American leaders, also portray the war as experienced by foot soldiers and drummer boys, enlisted sailors, and civilians.
Given that the Library of America’s stated mission is “preserving America’s best and most significant writing,” it is understandable that the balance of selections is tilted toward American voices. Of the 89 authors represented, 61 are from the United States, 19 from the United Kingdom, 4 from Canada, and 5 are Native Americans. Among the total, three are women and two are black men. The balance of selections also favors the story of the war on land rather than on the water: 34 of the authors served in the army or militia and 14 in the navy; 65 documents regard land warfare and 26 naval. Authors include 1 privateersman, 18 politicians, and 16 other civilians.
In choosing naval events to document, Hickey concentrates on the most notable and most dramatic. Of the war’s 29 engagements between Royal Navy and U.S. Navy ships (and one U.S. Revenue schooner), this volume contains mention of 12. He includes fleet actions on Lakes Borgne, Champlain, Erie, and Ontario; as well as assaults on shore establishments at Sackets Harbor, York, and Fort McHenry; and four ship-to-ship duels. Only the latter four of these encounters occurred on the high seas; otherwise, the collection underplays the war at sea, with little documentation of privateering on either side and virtually nothing on the British blockade of the American coast.
The reader looking for a heavily naval War of 1812 collection and misled by Michele Felice Cornè’s painting of the Constitution dismasting the Guerriere on the volume’s dust jacket will be disappointed in this book. But anyone wanting a balanced selection of texts on the war as a whole should be delighted. All in all, this is a remarkable collection, mixing familiar public documents, like President Madison’s war message and the Treaty of Ghent, with less familiar private letters underscoring the passions aroused by patriotism, sacrifice, suffering, loss, and triumph.
This volume succeeds at representing America’s best writing of the war. Taking just the naval passages under consideration, the literary quality of this collection of writings is impressive. Notable authors include James Fenimore Cooper, Philip Freneau, and Washington Irving. The expressive skill of authors who did not write professionally is sometimes surprising. Consider Commodore Joshua Barney’s economy of words in his report of the Battle of Bladensburg:
I sent an officer back to hurry on my men; they came up in a trot; we took our position on the rising ground; put the pieces in battery; posted the marines, under Captain Miller; and the flotilla men, who were to act as infantry, under their own officers, on my right, to support the pieces; and waited the approach of the enemy.
Even one of Barney’s flotilla men, Charles Ball, a former slave, wrote eloquently:
The deep thunder of the heavy artillery, as it broke upon the stillness of the night, and re-echoed from the distant shores; the solemn and mournful tones of the numerous bells, as they answered each other from ship to ship, as the sounds rose in the air, and died away in the distance, on the wide expanse of waters; with the shouts of the seamen, and the pale and ghastly appearance of the blue lights, as they rose into the atmosphere, and then descended and died away in the water—all combined together, to affect both the eye and the ear, in a manner the most impressive.
Hickey’s selection of writings would make a worthy addition to any bookshelf of works on the War of 1812.
Force Z Shipwrecks of the South China Sea: HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse
Rod MacDonald. Caithness, Scotland: Whittles Publishing, 2013. 156 pp. Illus. Maps. Bibliog. $24.95.
Reviewed by Mark Felton
Three days after Pearl Harbor, the mighty Royal Navy was dealt a crushing defeat by its one-time eager apprentice and closest Asian ally, Japan. It was a calamity that hastened the end of British resistance in the Far East and an event that still casts a dark shadow today.
Rod MacDonald is a highly regarded author of U.K. diving guides that concentrate on shipwrecks around the British Isles. With Force Z Shipwrecks of the South China Sea, he has left his usual stomping ground and crossed to the other side of the world to the site of one of Britain’s most disastrous naval defeats of the 20th century: the December 1941 sinking by Japanese bombers of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse off Malaya.
The book is divided into several distinct sections. In Book One MacDonald discusses the evolution of the battleship and battlecruiser, with particular emphasis on gunnery, and tells the individual stories of the Prince of Wales and Repulse from construction to destruction. Book Two deals with the battles for Malaya and Singapore and the role of Force Z, as Admiral Sir Tom Phillips British naval group built around the Prince of Wales and Repulse was known. MacDonald describes the final naval action minute by minute until the loss of both capital ships to Japanese aircraft. Book Three, which is by far the most interesting section, deals with the present-day wrecks of the two ships, including some stunning underwater photography.
Force Z Shipwrecks of the South China Sea is neither a guide for recreational divers nor a historical narrative; rather, it sits a little uncomfortably between the two. Book One, consisting of the vital statistics of each great ship and the combat experiences of these types of vessels in World War I, felt a little superfluous. In the case of the Repulse, though she was a Great War ship, she was completely rebuilt in the 1930s, as MacDonald acknowledges, largely negating most of the facts and figures quoted. The Prince of Wales was constructed during World War II. Both vessels were sunk not by capital ships but by Japanese aircraft in 1941, so the descriptions of World War I battleship armament, function, and tactics seemed redundant. There was no Malayan Jutland, and the sinkings perhaps signaled the final death knell of the battleship in modern naval warfare. MacDonald may have been better employed describing how advances in aviation threatened the position of the battleship during the early phases of World War II.
Information about the construction of the Singapore Naval Base and Japan’s rise to power in Book Two could perhaps have been compacted. It would have been interesting to read more about the Japanese development of naval aviation, aircraft carriers, and tactics against surface capital ships as well as Britain’s downgrading of its Far East defenses.
MacDonald’s descriptions of the sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse are well written and could have been extended further into the previous chapters, perhaps with the inclusion of more witness testimonies. Book Three is by far the best part of the book. The photographs are highly emotive: The human drama is brought sharply into focus, and the illustrations of the wrecks are interesting, insightful, and haunting.
The book suffers from poor editing. There are several obvious spelling mistakes that distract the reader, and a standardization of weights and measures is required. Parts of the narrative are a little repetitious and judicious editing would have eliminated such distractions. The book also lacks an index, which is an unfortunate oversight.
If MacDonald could have integrated the thrilling diving adventure with the historical material the book would have been more engaging and lived more fully up to its title. MacDonald’s strengths are risking his life diving dangerous wrecks and providing the reading (and diving) public with superb guides to those ships. Having said that, the book does provide a new angle on the fate of Force Z, and MacDonald’s enthusiasm for his subject is evident. Book Three was too brief to fully satisfy either the diving enthusiast or the landlubber, but frustration was assuaged by the photography and illustrations.