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Edward Ellsberg and the U.S. Navy

Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 1998
Many photographs & maps
ISBN 1-55750-027-4
Reviewed by CAPT Len Stoehr, USN(Ret.)

Born in 1891 of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, he was ambitious, articulate, and an academically outstanding Naval Academy graduate and engineering duty only (EDO) officer. He was also unconventional, assertive, and controversial. He was twice passed over by Navy boards for promotions that many others felt were well deserved. He was once promoted by act of Congress. Does all this sound familiar? Before you answer, remember that this is not a review of an H. G. Rickover biography. You have also been given an obscure clue in that Admiral Rickover was born in 1900. All of the descriptive material applies to Rear Admiral Edward Ellsberg, USNR(Ret.). Ellsberg was what was known in the early postwar years as a tombstone admiral. He received his promotion to rear admiral on retirement in recognition of combat decorations received while on active duty.

John Alden, as a professional engineer, a prolific writer (he has written several books and many professional and historical articles), a submariner, and retired EDO, is eminently well qualified to undertake the writing of Ellsberg’s biography. He has used all of his skills and experience in the completion of the task. The book, as might be expected of one written by another engineer, is technically accurate and detailed in its descriptions of many of Ellsberg’s salvage projects. What is not necessarily expected is the often moving and emotionally charged descriptions which he brings to both many operational incidents and the long and exceedingly happy and loving relationship between Ellsberg and his wife, Lucy.

Ellsberg first rose to national prominence through his work as salvage officer in the raising of USS S-51 (SS 162). S-51 had been running on the surface about twelve miles south of Block Island (at the eastern end of Long Island Sound) on the night of 25/26 September 1925 when she was rammed by the steamer CITY OF ROME. S-51 went down immediately, but the bridge watch of four men and six others were able to get out before it went down. A boat from CITY OF ROME managed to rescue three of these men. Streams of bubbles rising from the boat were sufficient to mark the wreck’s position in 132 feet of water. The Navy, at the time, had no operational salvage organization and Ellsberg had no salvage experience. However, when he informed his superiors, in particular Rear Admiral Charles P. Plunkett, the Commander, Third Naval District and Commander of the Brooklyn Navy Yard (where Ellsberg was then stationed), that he was sure that he could raise the submarine, he was given the job. As the Salvage Officer, he would have the possibly mixed blessing of working directly for the Commanding Officer, Submarine Base, New London, Connecticut and on-scene commander of the salvage operation, Captain Ernest J. King. King was already renowned as a leader who would back his subordinates to the hilt, but could also be terribly tough on those who did not meet his standards. (Ellsberg apparently met those standards because he often consulted with King regarding his assignments and other problems during his later career.) While the salvage of S-5 l is sufficiently interesting and complex to deserve a book length treatment, for our purposes it should be adequate to note that Ellsberg’s work, during which he was trained as a diver and invented a deep water cutting torch, won him a Distinguished Service Medal and a promotion to Commander by act of Congress. It also brought him national prominence that he fully exploited as an author and lecturer in a civilian career that commenced Jess than a year after the S-51 was sunk. Apparently Ellsberg was never one to hide his achievements and his flair for self-promotion led him into a number of conflicts with his seniors and contemporaries in the service. On the other hand, he also had enough loyalty to the Navy to give up a lucrative civilian career and voluntarily return to active duty to assist in the salvage of S-4 (SS 109) after she was rammed off Cape Cod in late 1927, and again at the start of World War II. His exploits during the war included salvage work in the Red Sea and off the coast of North Africa and, later, with the artificial harbor caissons used in the invasion of Normandy. Ellsberg’s work at Massawa, where he worked with the British, with contractors, and with the Army to salvage scuttled Italian floating drydocks and provide shipyard services to the Royal Navy, was particularly outstanding from the standpoints of both technical innovation and leadership. His problems with civilian contractors and military contracting officers will bring smiles of recognition to many of those who have suffered through similar situations.

Conunander Alden has written a very readable biography that, in some parts, could easily be termed a page-turner. Some of the descriptions of the salvage operations soar with vivid detail and the book is hard to put down. One minor gripe concerns the fact that Alden obviously likes and cares about his subject. As a result it seems that the many slights and obstacles that Ellsberg was faced with often seem to be the result of jealousy or other petty motivations. There are numerous references in the book to situations where it appears that Ellsberg pushed perhaps more than a little too hard. To have achieved the many successes that he did, Ellsberg was probably not the sweetest kid on the block. It does not make him a lesser man to show this. Nevertheless, Commander Alden does allow small undercurrents of Ellsberg’s self-promotion to appear at times. Perhaps it is too much to ask that a biographical author not admire his subject.

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