Probably every history of World War II U.S. submarine operations highlights the story of the fatefully crossed paths of USS SCULPIN (SS 191) and USS SQUALUS/- SAllFISH (SS 192), the topic of Carl LaVO’s Back From the J&m. Since most who read the book will already be familiar with the major events of the story, I give away little by recapping here. SQUALUS flooded and sank off the New Hampshire coast during a test dive in May 1939, shortly after commissioning. The first vessel to arrive and begin the rescue effort was the sister ship SCULPIN. Those who survived the flooding were dramatically rescued, and their ship was salvaged and sent to the Pacific as USS SARFISH (rmining SS 192). During a Pacific war patrol in the Fall of 1943, a Japanese destroyer got the better of SCULPIN, resulting in the boat’s loss. As 22 of the survivors were being ferried to Japan aboard the aircraft transport CHUYO, SARFISH engaged and sank the transport. Only one SCULPIN crewman survived to live out the war in a Japanese prison camp.
Back From the Deep is a detailed review of the cradle-to-grave life of both submarines. Supported by his thorough, primarysource research, La VO offers many insights into the submariners’ experience in the Pacific war, with the familiar story of the sister boats providing tight cohesion. Though the first few pages have a pulp fiction style of writing, the book then settles down to a quick, enjoyable read. This project makes it apparent LaVO is a fan of the World War Il Submarine Service, but he manages to retain bis objectivity throughout. While most of the events be relates are uplifting, a few are less than flattering. His sum result is a superb addition to the library of submarine history.
The most memorable part of the book is the account of Captain John P. Cromwell’s Congressional Medal of Honor performance during SCULPIN’s last fight. Using primary sources to great effect, he vividly recreates SCULPIN’s ill-fated battle with the destroyer YAMAGUMA. This was my first exposure to the heated argument between Cromwell and SCULPIN’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander Fred Connaway, over Connaway’s decision to surface for gun action against YAMAGUMA in a desperate attempt to save his crippled ship. I was inclined to tilt toward Cromwell’s case, until a well placed depth charge annulled bis argument. At this point, SCULPIN faced certain death no matter what course Connaway chose. LaVO poignantly relates Cromwell’s sacrificing himself, in particular his serene demeanor and how he chose to spend his remaining mortal moments. Two of Cromwell’s shipmates also chose drowning over capture, while most submarine histories only report one. As LaVO relates, they also faced their end with calm courage. Chapter 15, “The Loss of the Sculpin”, is some of the best submarine history I’ve read.
There are other familiar elements. Since both boats were in the Pacific theater as the war began, inoperative Mk 14 torpedoes and ineffectual commanding officers are part of this story: LaVO doesn “t go in to vast detail on the torpedo issue. The reader will find this brevity acceptable, since the topic is not central and is reported in detail elsewhere (for example, see Frederick J. Milford’s The Great Torpedo Scandal. 1941-43, in the October 1996 issue of THE SUBMARlNE REVIEW). However, using the context of Lieutenant Commander Morton C. Mumma’s first approach in command of SARFISH, LaVO puts a dramatic and human face on an otherwise engineering and bureaucratic problem.
But the skipper problem is a central part of this saga. Mumma willingly relinquished his command after curtailing his first war patrol because of bis emotional breakdown during that first, hapless attack. According to LaVO, Mumma and many others were unsuitable for combat command because they were .. older boat captains”, and thus timorous. He gives some but ancillary credit to poor tactical doctrine and unreliable torpedoes as reason for their fear to attack aggressively. Certainly there were many commanding officers relieved for unwillingness to engage the enemy, but I must fault La VO for his attributing the character trait primarily to age.
Many older commanding officers failed, but so did many younger ones. La VO tells of the relief of Lieutenant Commander William R. Lafavour, a younger skipper of 33 years, for bis feckless performance in his first war patrol commanding SAR.- FISH. He also reports the extreme success of Lieutenant Commander Lucius Chapel, an older skipper at aae 36, aboard SCULPIN for many patrols. My guess is that LaVO gave little thought to his conclusion and instead merely reported the opinion of other historians. Fortunately, he prevented the error from being fatal by not harping on the age issue as commanding officers come and go throughout the book.
While the skipper problem demands further research, I think the accurate conclusion is simple and two-fold. First, some have what it takes for successful combat command, while others don’t, regardless of age. Second, there is no way to tell who is a have and who is a have not before the supreme test of combat. As a perplexing corollary, some began the war demonstrating a willingness and ability to fight, then inexplicably lost their vigor. Such was the case of Lieutenant Commander Raymond Moore, awarded the Navy Cross while commanding S-44, only to be stripped of his SAILFISH command after one dispirited patrol.
Twenty-one SCULPIN crew members (one who survived the CHUYO sinking, plus others transported to Japan aboard another ship) survived nearly two hellish years as prisoners of war. LaVO very appropriately relies on survivors’ narratives to tell this vital part of the story, while his background and explanatory information effectively keeps the story moving. Though he is not as ghastly vivid as so many recounts of imprisonment in Vietnam, I was nonetheless left with the impression that the experience was equally harsh. But as I read of the well documented savagery of the Japanese captors, I remained chilled by the eyewitness account of Lieutenant Commander Robert E.M. Ward contemplating murdering his Japanese prisoner aboard SAILFISH and throwing the corpse overboard. Of course, Ward’s cruel thought doesn’t compare to the brutality of the Japanese toward their prisonerstumed-slave laborers.
Back from the Deep is not exclusively heavy, as perhaps I’ve implied. The early history of the crews, even before they reported to their boats, is light and enjoyable. LaVO captures the spirit of depression era America in the veterans’ accounts of why they joined the Navy and the Submarine Service. His references to the New London Submarine Base suggest the base changed very little throughout its history until the last 10 years. The whole chapter devoted to .. Spritz’s Navy” documents well the character-building experience of Submarine School. The students and staff gave the school that nom de gue”e because of the leadership and training methods of the martinet-in-charge, Chief Torpedoman Charles Spritz. The references to Kittery, Maine, birthplace of both boats and final resting place of SQUALUS/SAILFISH, are not so familiar, unless you’ve bad the unforgettable experience of driving and berthing a ship on the Piscataqua River. (See Captain Paul Scbratz’s Submaripe Commander for a similar description.)
The rescue of SQUALUS survivors from the ocean’s bottom is rich in historical references. The first and only use of the Mccann rescue bell and the perils faced by the deep sea divers makes for an exciting narrative. Four of the divers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and another 45 earned the Navy Cross for their peace time exploit. LaVO’s description of the Momsen lung makes it sound like a veritable contraption compared to our 35 year old Steinke hood. For those of us trained in free ascent escape technique, the method to be employed by a Momsen lung-wearer is nearly unbelievable. Lieutenant Commander Charles B. Momsen himself was on the scene, overseeing the rescue effort and ensuring his experimental equipment worked.
The book’s jacket has the subtitle .. The Strange Story of the Sister Subs Squalus and Sculpin”. As I first opened the cover, I was prepared for a yarn suitable to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Instead, I was delighted to read an excellent account of typical World War II vintage submariners and their typically extraordinary achievements. That’s what I really should have expected from Carl LaVO, a professional journalist and editor of a respected newspaper. His Back From the Deep belongs high on the honor roll of submarine histories.