As the lack of a big name publisher might imply, Torpedoman is not a ghost-written or professionally edited masterpiece destined for literary awards. Instead, it is a somewhat unpolished, but very personal account of a young submariner during World War II. Unlike Thunder Below or most other submarine classics, Torpedoman provides insights which could only be seen through the eyes of an enlisted man. It tells the story of those not in command, but of those subject to the commanding officer’s orders, both good and bad.
Torpedoman is an autobiographical sketch of a rural Indiana teenager who answers his country’s call to arms after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The book takes us from Ron Smith’s pre-Navy days, when as a private pilot he hoped to become an aerial gunner, to near the end of the war, when as a battle-hardened submariner he became despondent over his limited chances for survival under the sea.
After Ronnie completes Submarine School in San Diego, he joins USS SEAL (SS 138) in Mare Island Naval Shipyard at Vallejo, California, under repair and upgrade after her fifth war patrol. A bit cocky, but very capable, he quickly assimilates with the crew and performs well on SEAL’s sixth war patrol, earning his Silver Dolphins as well as playing an important role in a successful torpedo attack against a Japanese freighter. However, the mood on board darkens during the seventh war patrol, and SEAL limps back to Pearl Harbor with a shaken and emotionally drained crew. Nevertheless, one of SEAL’s officers notes Smith’s leadership potential and recommends him for a commissioning program, allowing Smith a break from SEAL to contemplate his future in the Navy. The remainder of the book revolves around Smith’s personal life as he comes to grips with the realization that he must eventually return to battle and risk survival against daunting odds.
Smith’s blunt writing style makes Torpedoman a war story more akin to Saving Private Ryan than to a patriotic John Wayne classic. He portrays the real but unsavory aspects of war that most of us would like to ignore. He tells of incompetent officers who demonstrated poor leadership and of sailors whose fear and hopelessness led them to a near mutiny. Other realities of wartime life such as coarse language and the crew’s live for the day liberty antics run throughout the book and might offend more prudish readers. even though they admittedly brought a frequent smile to my face. More than anything, however. Torpedoman brings the reader down to the deck plates–to the after torpedo room of a WWII fleet boat in battle. and into the heart and mind of a young sailor trying to squeeze a lifetime into every moment. At this. Smith succeeds. His vivid recollection and detailed description of a 300 plus depth charge attack from a group of Japanese destroyers left this reader glued to every page. and finally stunned me with a totally unexpected conclusion. For me, Smith achieved an author’s often-illusive goal in that he was able to touch my emotions. The shameful account of a near mutiny made me feel uneasy and bothered. just like many of those who hatched the foolish. and thankfully. unfulfilled plan. When he fell in love and got married at the age of 19, it was easy to feel a young man’s yearning for joy and satisfaction before returning to battle to face an uncertain future.
While Smith’s honesty and motivation in writing Torpedoman are never in doubt, the book has its rough spots. The opening chapters are somewhat confusing, and I found myself rereading many sentences and paragraphs. Numerous spelling, grammatical and printing errors throughout the book proved bothersome. Despite its claim to be a novel, Tocpedoman is in fact, a true story. More significantly. the story ends rather abruptly, leaving many unanswered questions, which could have easily been covered in a more thorough epilogue or simply another chapter. In short, Smith’s presentation needs better editing and a more thorough conclusion.
Regardless of its shortcomings, I recommend Torpedoman to readers interested in an unvarnished glimpse into the life of a young WWII submariner. It is a short book that can be easily read in one sitting. I especially recommend Torpedoman to today’s junior officers, since it would expose them to some interesting leadership challenges, and teach them a few things about motivating a cadre of intelligent and technically capable sailors. WWII submarine aficionados will also appreciate this story as an opportunity to view submarine history from a different perspective-that of the bulk of the men who made it. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Torpedoman. It captured my imagination, tugged at my emotions, and made me even more thankful for the service of men like Ron Smith.
Reviewer’s Note: I became aware of Torpedoman in a somewhat interesting manner. Last year, while serving as Military Editor of the Submarine Force’s official magazine, Undersea Warfare, I was researching the origin of World War II Submarine Battle Flags. Frustrated by the total lack of any formal history, even at many of our fine submarine. museums, I turned to the Internet. After posting a request on Ron Martini’s famous Submarine Bulletin Board Service (BBS), Torpedoman ‘s author, Ron Smith replied within hours. After a short discussion, I managed to cajole him into writing a short piece on Submarine Battle Flags for the magazine (see Undersea Warfare, Winter 199811999 issue). Thereafter, it came to my attention that Ron Smith wrote more than just short, pro-bono pieces for naval magazines, and I purchased a copy of this thoroughly enjoyable Torpedoman.