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Book Review

War Under the Pacific by Keith Wheeler and the Editors of Time-Life Books on World War II, Alexandria, VA 1980.

Submarine veterans of World War II are not the only folks who will be delighted to discover this latest book on their often frustrating and tense but ultimately brilliant, daring and successful saga against the Navy of Imperial Japan. Well written in easy non-technical prose, beautifully illustrated, it will find avid readers in all age groups.The veteran submariner will  be disappointed only in not finding more of everything.

War Under the Pacific opens with the familiar story of a submarine force . unready for combat — handicapped strategically, doctrinally and operationally. The crippling of the surface fleet at Pearl Harbor wiped out the expected scouting mission with the battle fleet. Author Wheeler finds many flaws with the submarine’s actual role in commerce raiding. It was a product of quick improvisation that certainly merited a broader grasp of the task at hand. Wheeler is much less critical of early leadership problems, however, than Clay Blair in his monumental Silent Victory.

Historically the submarine was never a favorite of the great maritime nations. It has been more the weapon of a continental power, isolated from the sea, who uses this weapon system of stealth not to control the seas but to deny enemy control. Britain and America, dependent on the sea for survival, could hardly be expected to foster development of a warship that could destroy their fleets. Proposals for abolition of the submarine and humanitarian  pleas  against unrestricted submarine war marked the interwar years. The development of sea based air power and new techniques of underwater detection, moreover, convinced many that the submarine could not survive in a war. The fleet role for the low speed submarine was in itself somewhat contrived. Nor did the submarine force ever produce a fanatic like General Billy Mitchell to carry the torch for the submarine as he did for the equally unproven and untested system of strategic air power. One can only speculate on the role of the submarine had the fleet not been sunk at Pearl Harbor.

Japanese submarines operated with the fleet generally in accord with American prewar doctrine and they were generally unsuccessful. Since the improvised role for u.s. submarines eventually became the decisive factor in the Japanese collapse, Pearl Harbor — whatever its tactical success — proved more of a strategic disaster for Japan than generally believed. And last but not least, the wretched torpedo performance in the early months of the war would have defeated even the best laid plans for conducting a war.

It was mid-1943 before a good torpedo was finally in service. Superb new radar and other equipment also gave subs a marked advantage, which scores of daring skippers developed devastatingly, particularly in night surface attacks. Submarines concentrated on focal points of shipping with targeting priorities focused on tankers and troop ships. The slaughter was on. Thanks to skillful development of operational intelligence gleaned from code breaking, the tally began to mount. As Wheeler notes, the numbers of submarines in the Pacific rose from 56 as of 7 December 1941 to 100 by January 1944 and 156 a year later. Japanese merchantmen sent to the bottom eventually rose to almost five million tons ( 1113 ships) — twice the number of U.S. merchant flag vessels today, to give a measure of comparison. Japanese Navy losses to U.S. submarines were also crippling: 201 warships of 540,192 tons, including 1 battleship, 4 large carriers, 4 small carriers, 3 heavy cruisers, 8 light cruisers, 43 destroyers and 23 large submarines. U.s. subs sank 55~ of all Japanese ships lost in the war in all theaters. This was more than the surface navy, its carrier planes and the Army Air Forces combined.

If the adventure or sinking  ships was not enough, the submarines performed an almost unbelievable number or special missions – hauling ammunition and gold, hit and run tasks ashore with secret agents and guerrilla leaders, serving as lifeguards and saving over 500 Navy and Army Air Force aviators who had been shot down, photo reconnaissance missions for Marine amphibious operations, mine-laying and hair-raising cruises through known Japanese minefields to pinpoint mines for destruction prior to amphibious landings. Intensely dramatic and challenging the fin~st skills in ships and men that America perhaps has ever produced, the saga is heroic . The price paid small in view of the accomplishments — was far from insignificant. Of those who went to sea, 52 submarines and 3505 men never returned from their last patrol — 18% of the officers and 13% of the enlisted — the highest casualty rate in the Navy.

War Under the Pacific is an engrossing account of those days and if the printed word cannot convey the entire story, another dimension is added by the superb illustrations, from the .swaddling    days    of    primitive  submersibles  to  fine combat art. For all its virtues, however, some small errors crept in that should not have escaped the technical advisor. Submarines making deep approaches on sonar did not use active pinging, which would have given away their location immediately to an antisubmarine vessel. They occasionally used a “single ping” just before tiring to check the range. The difficulty with the · sonar attack was that when using passive listening, although the direction of the target could be determined, the range was largely guesswork — unless the “single ping” could be risked.

The SJ radar did not supplant the SD. One ·was a surface search radar, the other an air search one. The air search SD happened to be on a frequency which was highly susceptible to Japanese airborne radar intercept receivers and hence acted like a magnet, drawing antisubmarine air patrols to the source of the emissions. The discussion or the bathythermograph, that simple mechanism to record sea water temperature with changing depths of the submarine, shows only a vague understanding of its tactical value in evasion.

What  was missed  most  in this heroic saga is recognition for some of the unsung heroes. My own selections would include Captain Andy McKee, whose submarine construction genius gave unlimited confidence in our submarines regardless of the excessive demands so often made. It would also suggest retired Captain Jasper Holmes — called back to duty during the war despite crippling arthritis whose mathematical wizardry and shrewd operational knowledge of the enemy guided the code-breaking team at Pearl Harbor, upon which the subs so heavily depended. The inspirational Lieutenant Commander Reggie Raymond when killed on patrol in a daring gun battle with an armed trawler early in the war was possibly the greatest potential leadership loss suffered by the submarine force. Fred Oyhus, a reserve officer, physically disqualified for sea duty by an accident at birth, saw extensive combat while exerting his wizardry at electronics –including three major alterations to the radars, all unauthorized, but later adopted by the Bureau of Ships.

Then there were the Joe Garlands, typical of many outstanding former enlisted men who served so capably as temporary officers; Joe Manganello in his galley-bake shop, and Wheeler Lipes, the pharmacist’s mate became family physician, surgeon, and general practitioner responsible for his    crew’ s health.  Each of these men made  his vital  contribution to  morale.  But above all stands the ordinary submarine .enlisted man who often knew not whence he came nor where he was headed, except in harm’s way, yet whose courage, technical mastery and unfailing good humor under all circumstances firmed the backbone of the undersea force, no matter what. These are the heroes who never made the record in War Under the Pacific, except perhaps as one of the 3505 who never returned.

In sum, if you want to make a gift to somebody who cares, here you can’t possibly go wrong.

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