Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996
172 pages, ISBN 0-275-95408-0
Reviewed by CDR Sam J. Tangredi, USN
When the strategic vision articulated in .. .From the Sea and Forward .. .From the Sea was first unveiled, defense analysts thought it a sad day for submarines. After all, the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Force had been a prime warfighting element-in fact, the prerequisite for success-in the scenario envisioned in the Maritime Strategy. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Maritime Strategy was proclaimed dead. U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings even went so far as to publish a photo showing a copy of their Maritime Strategy supplement burning in a fire. With defense budgets soon to be slashed, the most up-to-date pundits were quick to question the role of submarines in a littoral warfare environment.
However, what the pessimistic estimates forgot is that nuclear submarines remain the ultimate stealth platforms-and therefore are critical assets in a variety of warfighting missons that transcend the SSN versus SSN battles envisioned in the global anti-Soviet war. Quite frankly, there is simply no better platform for covert operations in the littoral regions than a nuclear submarine, a fact that is evident even to a professional amphibian like myself.
I have personalized this review because I write it while transiting to participate in Exercise TANDEM THRUSH ’97, held in an area with the none-too-comforting name of Shoal water Bay, Queensland, Australia. Brisbane, Queensland’s capital and port visit of choice, is still a submariner’s city. You can still imagine the sortie of World War II boats out the long channel and to war patrol; a vision that was enhanced by the passing of a Royal Australian Navy submarine during our own sortie towards Shoal water. Along the track from Brisbane to Shoal water lies a remote, but no longer inaccessible spot called Fraser Island where Australia trained its World War Two M and Z commando units for their insertion via submarine into Japanese-held territory. Fraser Island is the starting point for A.B. Feuer’s Commando!, an anecdotal history of several of the M/Z missions.
Feuer’s title does not reveal the true essence of the book. Only four of his fourteen chapters detail the specifics of commando operations themselves. His real focus-deliberate or not-is on submarine-commando joint effectiveness and Australian-American cooperation. Much of his narrative is a depiction of the less-than glamorous efforts of sneaking into enemy littoral waters and getting small groups of men-most of whom trained on Fraser lsland-out the hatch and into rubber dinghies before being detected by Japanese aircraft or coastal defenses. Submarine patrols described include those of USS BREAM, BLUEGILL, BOARFISH, ROCK, PERCH II, and HAWKBILL.
Relying on memoirs and interviews, Feuer captures the participant’s eye–view-or shall we say periscope view-of the insertion operations. Commando! functions as a tribute to the bold deeds of brave men whose efforts are generally overshadowed in the torpedo attack-focus of most submarine histories and in the Euro-centrism of most accounts of WWII clandestine operations. In this fashion, the book fills in important gaps in naval and military history.
It is, however, a quirky history. Because Feuer relies almost exclusively on oral testimony, each graphically described mission seems unrelated to the next. The depth of research into each individual mission also varies, dependent on the amount of testimony available. For example, BOARFISH’s mission to the Indo-China coast receives only two pages since the witness runs out of words. In contrast, BLUEGILL crew’s record-keeping of their “capture” of Pratas Island is much more extensive-even if their original tongue-in-cheek request to have “invasion medals issued immediately” was denied. With the exception of very entertaining reminiscences of Australian commandos living among the headhunting Dayak people of Borneo, the majority of information comes from the submariners who transported them rather than the commandos themselves. It seems that submariners tend to keep records, commandos do not.
Unfortunately, the author provides no overview for the reader. Thus, it is impossible to assess the overall effectiveness of the submarine-commando effort from this source alone. As stated in the Forward, Feuer “has done a superb job of letting the men who fought this lonely war tell their stories in their own words … [and adds] just enough text to give continuity and context to these wonderful tales.” From this reviewer’s perspective, he does this job too “superbly” and the reader is left to try to figure out his or her answer to the basic contextual question: Did these operations have any real effect on the outcome of the war?
Here is where we need to fast forward to the present. Whether or not these particular missions had an effect on the trans-global Second World War, they could have considerable effect on much smaller contingencies-such as the scenario scripted for TANDEM THRUST. Feuer’s book does a considerable service in identifying the difficulty of conducting covert operations from the sea against an alerted enemy. As Feuer points out, General Douglas MacArthur convinced the Joint War board to let him make a last attempt to save the Philippines in 1941 by convoying American National Guardsmen from Brisbane via surface transports. Fortunately for the Guardsmen, their voyage ended in Darwin with the recognition that surface forces could not then penetrate the Japanese tide without considerable losses. Commando missions via submarine seemed the only viable option in getting forces ashore behind the lines.
Technology may have changed, but the basic problem of stealth has not. If ground and ocean surface forces are as detectable from space as some authorities claim-though, admittedly, some of these claims fife overstated-then the primary platform for these operations is still the submarine. Given the operational difficulties described, it seems incumbent on the Submarine Force to go beyond lip service in staking their claim to be a part of expeditionary warfare and figure out how to coordinate such operations with Amphibious Task Forces.
Feuer also does considerable service in reminding the history-reading public of the tremendous amount of courage and skill required of submariners. As the Australians themselves recall, sweating out a Japanese depth charge attack took even more nerve than the clandestine operations ashore. As a .. rescued” commando leader half-jokingly asked Command Sam Dealey of HARDER in the midst of a two hour depth charge and aerial bomb attack: .. , say old man, would you mind taking us back to [Japanese-controlled] Borneo.”
Limits aside, Commando! Helps complete a library of submarine history. Hopefully, it may also herald a trend of historical, theoretical, and practical illustrations of what submarines have done and can do in amphibious and expeditionary missions forward from the sea.