The War Patrols of the USS Rasher
Illustrations & Charts
Seven Appendices, Glossary, List of Sources
Naval Institute Press
Annapolis, Maryland 1995
Reviewed by CAPT Leonard A. Stoehr, USN(Ret.)
(The true story of one of America’s most successful submarines. Researched and written by the son of a wartime officer crew member.)
The two sentences above, with only minor editing, are from the opening of my first book review for THE SUBMARINE REVIEW. The book’s title is War Patrols of the USS Flasher. So, as I began to read this book, my sense of deja vu was very strong. Besides the similarity in their names, the two ships were very similar in other ways-FLASHER’s hull number was 249, RASHER’s was 269. In the tonnage statistics compiled in Theodore Roscoe’s well-known United States Submarine Operations in World War II, FLASHER was at the top of the tonnage sunk list with 100,231 tons, RASHER was number two with 99,901. (Note the difference: 240 tons. Less than 1/4 of 1 percent.) FLASHER won two Presidential Unit Citations; RASHER won three.
The list of similarities could easily be extended, but this review is addressing the wartime history of RASHER. RASHER was built 140 by the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company, Manitowoc, WI. Always known as a high-quality builder, Manitowoc was especially known for the neat interior layouts of its ships. She was launched on 20 December 1942 and commissioned on 8 June 1943. Three and one-half months later, on 24 September, RASHER was underway for her first war patrol. At that time, though no one knew the future, there were less than twenty-three months of war remaining. In this short period, RASHER had five Commanding Officers, underwent a three-month overhaul at Hunter’s Point NY, completed eight war patrols, and sank eighteen ships. Three of her COs won Navy Crosses. All of this happened in the period of a normal assignment in the postwar Navy. An interesting aspect of Rasher’s wartime exploits is the fast turnover in her COs. Of the ship’s five COs, three of them held command for only a single war patrol. The famous fifth patrol, where Hank Munson sank five ships for a total of 52,667 tons, produced better than half of RASHER’s total tonnage score. Munson rightly became famous for this feat, but I was surprised by the score racked up by his predecessor, LCDR Willard R. Laughon. I don’t remember ever having heard of Laughon before, but his consistency, as shown by his record of sinking nine ships in his three patrols, is certainly impressive. He appears to have been an expert in the fine art of the calculated risk. His aggressive tactics won two Navy Crosses and a Presidential Unit Citation.
There have been many World War II submarine histories written and I have enjoyed all of those that I have read, but they all seem, in retrospect, to share one large fault. The submarines that fought World War II were successful or not because of the crews that manned them. Of course, luck had a certain effect-there were several boats that sank more ships than FLASHER and RASHER, but the average size of their kills was smaller-FLASHER and RASHER had the good luck to find some large ships in their periscope crosshairs. However, in many cases, this luck was bolstered by the aggressiveness and daring of individual Commanding Officers who “made their own luck.” Ed Hutchinson, Bill Laughon, and Hank Munson were all good examples of this. I’m taking a long time in getting to my point that I don’t feel that most of the histories adequately portray the personal characters of the captains and crews. Mr. Sasgen feels that he was impelled by his father’s death to take on the task of writing this book. He wanted to “make it rich in detail and exciting to read.” He has succeeded in reaching this goal as having the other submarine history authors that I have read. If I had not read so many, perhaps I would not be feeling that I have missed really getting to know any of the men who drive these pages. Were they short or tall, skinny or muscular, humorous or serious, neat or sloppy? Whenever these points are described in these histories, they are handled in a superficial, almost off-hand, manner. Mr. Sasgen’s father reported to RASH-ER as a Machinist Mate, was commissioned following the fifth patrol, and served aboard for all eight of her war patrols. We learn that he was an expert cribbage player and, at one time, undertook the tutelage of his CO, Chuck Nace, in the finer points of the game. The explanation that cribbage counting was difficult for someone who has played a lot of poker rings true and makes Chuck Nace a more realistic human. Nace contributed extensive personal notes and official documents to assist the author and becomes the most authentic and empathetic character in the book. If only more of the crew members could have come alive in this way. I wished, in particular, that I could have come to know Bill Laughon, Hank Munson, and Pete Sasgen better as men rather than only in their roles as submariners.
One other complaint that should be noted in any book that is published by the Naval Institute Press, arguably the premier naval publisher in the English language. It is surprising to find errors that a good technical editor should have caught without a second thought. I have been awakened and energized by the general alarm more times than I would care to count. I have never thought of it as a “chime” yet battle stations continue to chime throughout the narrative. How about the Chief of Naval Operations not having his title capitalized (Page 46)? On page 57, we find RASHER running on the surface in enemy waters without negative tank flooded. On page 256, having departed from San Francisco, RASHER approaches Oahu from the “southeast”, passes Diamond Head and Waikiki, and makes the tum at Barber’s Point for the Pearl Harbor channel entrance. We should not expect that Mr. Sasgen would have intimate knowledge of the geography of the southern coast of Oahu, but a Naval Institute Press editing staff certainly should.
While the above problems detracted from my overall enjoyment of the book by interrupting my attention to the flow of the story, they do not change the basic fact that this is a fine adventure story and well told. Mr. Sasgen has added another worthy chapter to the history of a too-long “silent service.