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Recollections from the Diesel Boat

Everybody loves a sea story and the stories from the old days always seem truer and funnier. Paul Stillwell has put together the best collection of submarine sea stories I have ever seen. What makes this collection even better is that a lot of the stories are about young fire-eaters and hell-raisers who later were the leaders of the Submarine Force. It’s all about spirit, living every moment to the fullest and doing your very best at whatever the circumstances of the day arrayed against you. This book should be on every submarine officer’s library shelf.

There are several tones of the book and one of them is set forth by the first of the Stories, about Slade Cutter and his first boat, POMPANO with LCDR Lew Parks as skipper. There is plenty of individuality, determination, innovation and uniqueness demonstrated in the relationship between Parks and his Junior Officers. For one thing, the skipper refused to recommend Cutter and two other officers for Qualification because he did not want to lose the ones he had trained hard as war became more imminent. He was finally forced into it by his DivCom and then all three Qualified in Submarines, and for Command, in the same day. That high powered training gave us one of the best wartime submarine commanders in Slade Cutter. Cutter was always larger than life and was all sea-going naval officer. This short snap shot of him as a submarine JO gives an excellent introduction to one of the legends of the Submarine Force.

From that leading piece one can easily see the major tone highlighted in these Submarine Stories is about the type of people who built the Submarine Force. The folks about whom these tales are told were all hard chargers who could get the job done and have fun doing it. There are lots of heros here with four Medal of Honor awardees and a number of Navy Cross holders. There is also one great Story about an S Boat in which Admiral Rickover was a Lieutenant and Executive Officer. He is the hero of that one because he would stand up for the crew and the JOs when the skipper, himself a brilliant guy, got to be a bit too much. There are three Stories by Vice Admiral Dennis Wilkinson; one as a Reserve Officer at Submarine School, one about the grounding of DARTER and one as Exec of CUSK, the first cruise missile-firing submarine.

The Table of Contents at the beginning of the book lists 58 Stories and after the initial one about Slade Cutter they run roughly in chronological order from before WW I to putting the last diesel boat, DOLPHIN, out of commission in 2006. That sets the second major tone of the book; it is a very good outline of the history of the Submarine Force in the days before SSNs, SSBNs and SSGNs could do the heavy lifting in the world of undersea warfare. There is one Story about an L-Boat in World War I British waters that was credited with the sinking of a U-Boat. There is a lot about running the S-Boats and building the Fleet Boats as well as fighting the Japanese. There are a couple of Stories about peacetime submarine sinkings and the subsequent salvage efforts. Building the shore facilities during the first war and the twenties also make for interesting comparisons with later-day remembrance.

Probably the more important tone to be found in these Submarine Stories comes through very clearly through that which is amusingly human and professionally interesting. There is a wealth of Lessons to be Learned in these stories. That should not be a surprise to the old hands among us since we were raised in submarines listening to sea stories which illustrated, the narrator always hoped, some point in current practicality which should be heeded. Perhaps it would be useful to have a group of senior submarine pre-command LCDRs submit their gleanings about Lessons to be Learned from this collection of sea stories.

n my opinion, as one who has savored sea stories for a long time, this is a book which all submariners-of whatever generation-will enjoy in the reading and in the discussion of it with friends.

Naval Submarine League

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