Illustrations by the author
Chapel Hill, North Carolina 1994
Reviewed by CAPT Leonard Stoehr, USN(Ret.)
This book, as differentiated from the many first-person accounts of submarine veterans of World War II, is more a labor of love rather than an account of personal experiences. The author is the son of an officer, Captain T. R. McCants, USN (Ret.), who served aboard FLASHER during all of her six war patrols. He was her Executive Officer when she was decommissioned in 1946. The book has been meticulously researched, is well edited, and has been carefully proofread. Beside the care given to the narrative, the author has also created a numb~r of line drawings and other illustrations that clearly present much information that could not be easily communicated with text alone. The line drawings of various systems, force diagrams, and other illustrations would have won rave reviews if used in one’s submarine qualification notebook. Many freehand drawings, also by the author, lend further depth to the stories. Photographs are well chosen and contribute to the clarity of the presentation.
Since the author is one step removed from the war patrol experiences presented in the book, some of the personal comments present in first person accounts are missing. On the other hand, this allows Mr. McCants to take a broader view of the boat’s history. He does this very well while preserving an intimate atmosphere through the use of many personal anecdotes concerning both the after battery and wardroom.
USS FLASHER (SS 249) was the most productive U. S. submarine in World War Din tenns of enemy tonnage sunk (over 100,000 tons). She came in fourth, in terms of total ships sunk (21), following TAUTOG(26), TANG (24), and SILVERSIDES (23). FLASHER was launched on 20 June 1943 and commissioned on 25 September. This three month period makes obvious how time was compressed during this time of war. As further evidence of this time compression, it was only slightly over an additional three months later when she departed on her first war patrol on 6 January 1944. Within the next 17 months, she completed six war patrols and was on her way to her seventh when hostilities ended in August 1945. Under her first commanding officer, Reuben I. Whitaker, who led her through the first four patrols, she led two wolfpacks and was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation (for the third and fourth patrols). With a new C.O., George W. Grider, taking charge for the fifth patrol, FLASHER went to sea and sank six ships for a total of 42,868 tons during the course of a 49 day cruise. The patrol was terminated because she had run out of torpedoes. For this achievement, FLASHER was awarded a second PUC.
The author seems completely even-banded in his descriptions of the officers and crewmen and often uses descriptive anecdotes that bring various players to life. I was particularly interested in his description of a first class cook named Angelo Wop LaPelosa who served in FLASHER during her last five war patrols. As a junior officer in GREENFISH during the late ‘SOs I was privileged to serve with LaPelosa. The description offered by Mr. McCants on page 173 could not have been more accurate. At the time I knew him, LaPelosa was still a POI, still a fine cook, and still proud of his Wop nickname. I am always reminded of him whenever I see a Beetle Bailey comic strip with a depiction of Cookie. He was also still capable of causing trouble for the local SPs. I will never forget, and was pleased to be reminded of, the man and bis food. The wonderful smell and taste of the pizza that he would often deliver to the control room for the benefit of the mid-watch is still alive in my memory.
The two C.0.s, Reuben Whitaker and George Grider, deservedly get a lot of attention. They had different personalities and the differences are well presented. Whitaker seems to have played most things by the book while Grider had a much more relaxed way about him. The areas in which they were alike are perhaps the more significant relative to the success of the ship. Both were aggressive men who kept the welfare of their crew always in mind. They also seem to have been masters of the calculated risk. Their biggest area of similarity was in their emphasis on training. Both kept the crew continually on the move with frequent exercises of all sorts. FLASHER and her crew were lucky to have had two leaders of their caliber.
An anecdote concerning Whitaker’s aggressiveness tempered by his concern for his crew is recorded on page 134. Whitaker asks his Exec, Ray DuBois, how he would attack a convoy they were searching for in darkness near huardous shoal waters of the South China Sea. DuBois stated that .
“he would attempt to penetrate the screen so that he could fire off all torpedoes in all directions from the center of the convoy” … Whitaker agreed such an aggressive attack would be effective, but said he was interested in getting home alive, and it was just too dark and too shallow. Instead he indicated he would fire from a distance, without jeopardizing his ability to get away. This conversation, overheard by the
crew, increased their faith in Whitaker. Their skipper might not speak to them once in an entire patrol, . “. but he had their unshakable confidence as a man who would sink ships and still get them all back to port.”
Another story about Grider’s use of the calculated risk is from page 424. FLASHER was practicing minefield penetration exercises near Pearl Harbor toward the end of the war. “Grider commented how a brilliantly maneuvered sub might just be able to squeeze through two close pilings off to one side of the channel. He even boasted that after the war he would sail FLASHER between the pilings to prove it.” After the end of hostilities had been declared and FLASHER was entering the Pearl Harbor channel,
“Grider began a dramatic speech. Solemnly, and pursuant to official Navy procedures, he announced to the officers present that they were all witnesses, that he was formally relieving the Officer of the Deck, that all but Grider himself were fully absolved of any liability in the matter, and that he was taking full responsibility for whatever might happen to seven million dollars’ worth of official government equipment. If FLASHER’s paint were even scratched in this escapade, Grider’s career in the post-war Navy would be clouded. If FLASHER hit the pilings, ran aground in the attempt, or, worst of all, became humiliatingly wedged between the posts, Grider could be court-martialed. . .. This was suddenly a peacetime Navy where aggressiveness and daring were frowned on, and damage to a vessel while violating Navy regulations was unforgivable.”
At any rate, “Grider skillfully maneuvered FLASHER to the pilings. The boat slid slowly through with minor clearance to each side and without grounding, to the relief of the worried officers topside, all obviously concerned except for the cool, confident Grider. Unknown to Grider’s audience, he had earlier made Burke (one of FLASHER’s wardroom officers) send two men in a small boat to record soundings and measure clearances between the pilings. McCants only learned of this later, after he assumed Burke’s duties as navigator, and the two sailors told him of their secret surveying adventure.”
This book is an easy read and a worthwhile one for anyone who is interested in the history of World War II. For its many depictions of exemplary leadership qualities, it should be read by anyone who aspires to command at sea.