Submarines from A to Z—or in this case, from “acoustic warfare” to “Zumwalt”. If you are looking for a reference volume that gives a broad overall view of American submarines and submarine warfare from their historic beginnings through today’s latest developments, then this book will provide you with a useful complement to other resources.
Fittingly, the first page after the title page is an “In Memoriam” tribute to my classmate, fellow submariner, and friend, Jim Blanchard. “Doc” worked with the authors as a consultant in planning and starting the initial research prior to his untimely death in 2000. Another of my submariner classmates, Joe Talbert, picked up the gauntlet as a technical consultant to ensure a reasonable degree of salt water reality was brought to the text. Vice Admiral Al Konetzni authored the foreword.
This book is the most recent of the Facts on File series, specifically part of the Facts on File Library of American History. A little digging on the internet and at the local library reveals that this publisher has produced encyclopedic volumes on such diverse subjects as Science, History of the American People, World Literature, Navy Seals, Native American Religions, World Mythology and Legend, Health and Living, and, somewhat grandiosely, Pocket Guide to the World.
It is not surprising, then, to find this product is indeed in encyclopedia format, with subjects entered alphabetically and indexed for easy reference. As in virtually all reference books using this format, range rather than depth of subject is evident. One will find entries on specific (but not all) US submarines, organizations such as “Department of the Navy” and “Electric Boat Company”, battles such as Midway and Vella Gulf, equipment such as “sonar” and “chronometers”, weapons such as “Mk 48 Torpedo” and “TOMAHAWK”, tactics and technologies such as “celestial navigation” and “propulsion, advanced”, and admirals such as Nimitz and Lockwood. In addition to the main section on alphabetized subjects, appendices are included on “Chronology”, “Leading Individual Submarine Scores “(by ships sunk in World War II), a complete list of “United States Navy Submarines, 1900-2000”, “Submarine Museums”, “Websites”, “Acronyms”, and a glossary and bibliography. The book is populated with a number of excellent and appropriate photographs, diagrams and maps.
The authors concentrate the densest information on World War II, and acknowledge their emphasis on the “stirring narratives” of this historic period over more current events. Coverage of each of the most successful World War II submarines is much more detailed and informative than those of earlier or later periods. The more productive war patrols provide the drama for excellent, concise synopses. Unlike the venerable Submarine Operations in World War II which puts the submarine campaign in a chronological sequence, this book has the advantage of telling the story boat by boat. If you are interested in FLASHER’s exploits, for instance, they are all found under one heading. Summaries of many of the most important World Warn battles, some with no submarine involvement, are also included. The only battles outside WW II chronicled are the World War I Battle of the Atlantic and the Inchon Landing in Korea.
The rationale for not including an entry on every United States submarine–” … there is no way we could adequately integrate information on all of the submarines that have been placed in service … ” -is acknowledged and understood. This encyclopedia is not, after all, a complete database of our boats, but rather is a readable sampling of the most noteworthy submarines, submariners and submarine-associated subjects. Most of the submarines not singled out for a narrative entry are covered in summary lists of the various classes. The topic on “S-boats” gives a good synopsis of the class characteristics, capabilities, and some of its more noteworthy submarines and their achievements. However, there is some inconsistency in the choices and coverage made. Fewer than half of the SSBNs and 594/637/688-class SSNs merit individual inclusion as an alphabetized topic, and for most of those that are mentioned little more information is contained than a repetition of the class characteristics (already given under the class summaries) and the dates of service. Why give this perfunctory treatment to some submarines and leave others out completely?
There are a few misstatements, inconsistencies, and omissions that I picked out, most of which only someone personally familiar with the ships or incidents would notice. ALLI GA TOR ( 1862) is described as the “first submarine purchased by the US Navy”, whereas HOLLAND ( 1900) is credited with that honor on the back cover. Electric Boat Company merits a subject entry as a submarine builder, but Portsmouth and Mare Island Naval Shipyards do not. TRITON is described as the “first generation of a new class of nuclear submarines” and TULLIBEE as “the prototype of a new class”, and in another entry as a “sister ship” of LIPSCOMB. Each of these three boats was, of course, one of a kind. Although TULLIBEE and LIPSCOMB both incorporated electric drive, they were vastly different ships, hardly “sisters”.
There are some imbalances. Under “strategic deterrent submarines”, SSBNs are given one sentence, followed by three-quarters of a column on air-breathing missiles and REGULUS boats. Only four admirals outside the World War II era (Burke, Rickover, Sims and Zumwalt) are given topic headings. Since two postwar CNOs (not submariners) are featured, why not some submariners who reached the top of the military leadership ladder, for example Watkins, Trost, Kelso, and Crowe?
I found it curious that the topic “Submarines Lost During Peacetime Operations” includes SARGO (“Explosion -1960”), RAY (“Grounding -1977”), NA THANIEL GREENE (“Grounding -1986”), and BATON ROUGE (“Collision -1992”). It is true that GREENE was decommissioned after the grounding, but in part to meet SALT requirements. BA TON ROUGE remained in commission until 1995 ( 1994, by one source), although the damage and cost of refueling may have led to her being the first of the 688-Class decommissioned. SARGO and RAY finished normal service lives. A number of other submarines have survived similar accidents. To include these four as peacetime losses is misleading. Under another heading “eternal patrol, US submarines on”, the list omits S-27, S-36, S-39, and DARTER, all lost during World War II.
The volume would have profited from a more rigorous proofreading, obviating such errors as listing both TURTLE and ALVIN as “OSV-2”, TRITON as “SSBN/SSN-586”, Ned Beach as commanding “USS TILTON”, SUBROC detonating at “a present depth” (as opposed to “pre-set”), and a number of SSNs listed in the Index as “SS”, for example my old home GUARDFISH as “SS-612”. Several hull numbers are incorrect.
Having said all that, I confess to having learned a few things in eye-hopping through this encyclopedia. I was not previously aware, for example, that two submariners were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor prior to World War II: TM2 Henry Breault for action during the sinking of 0-5 in 1923, and Ensign Paul Foster for exploits at Vera Cruz in 1914. Foster later received a Distinguished Service Medal as commanding officer of SS-41 for sinking a German submarine in World War I, and a Navy Cross for heroism during a gun turret explosion on USS TRENTON in 1925.
It is these and similar nuggets that I found worthwhile in the Encyclopedia of American Submarines. This is not a book that you will read cover to cover. Rather you will skip to topics of interest or research, or those that catch your eye as you “surf” the pages. Such is the obvious intent of the authors, whose “hope is that this volume will be a fitting tribute to the achievements of submariners present and the memories of submariners past.”