Reviewed by RADM Maurice H. Rindskopf. USN (Rel.)
You, the reader, have reason to ask why this book is being reviewed in THE SUBMARINE REVIEW. True, the title suggests water–ocean, but not very deep; and the sub-title suggests the author, clearly a woman, is looking for something. Let us explain. Full Fathom Five is the opening line of a song by Ariel, the airy spirit, in Act I Scene II of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The song later includes the words sea change, the title of Part III of the book. Mary Lee Coe Fowler, the author, is the daughter of Commander James Wiggins Coe, USNA Class of 1930. Her search seeks the identity of her father who was lost in CISCO (SS290) in early 1943 before Mary Lee was born.
A review of this book would be shaped in great measure by the background of the reviewer who might be a Family Counselor, might be a Post-World War II submariner, or might be a World War II skipper.
Should it be the counselor, he would emphasize how Mary Lee grew up in a family with her Mother and two siblings, headed by a difficult step-father who did all he could to ensure that Jim Coe’s name was never mentioned. The counselor would tell a story of conflict but would say little about the stirring exploits of the three submarines in which Jim served as Commanding Officer- S-39, SKIP JACK (SS!84) and CISCO.
Were the reviewer a young submarine officer, the emphasis would be upon the war patrols Jim Coe conducted, with some passing mention of the difficulties Mary Lee faced as she grew to womanhood. However, his critique of the patrols would be impersonal, gleaned from the many submarine books on the market.
But, this review is being written by one who spent three years during World War 11 in DRUM (SS228) making four war patrols as Torpedo and Gunnery Officer, five as Executive Officer and two as Commanding Officer. His view of the book is balanced because he experienced most of the trauma which Jim Coe describes about taking submarines to sea against a dogged enemy, about inadequate torpedoes, if not that about the poor material condition of his commands. He also knows the sadness associated with submarine losses because two of DRUM’s original officer complement were lost after transferring to new construction submarines, both leaving young children with despairing wives.
Mary Lee is a teacher of creative writing and a published writer as well, living in Maine. Clearly she never went to sea in a submarine in war or peace, nor did she attend Submarine School. However, she did talk with many, many officers and former enlisted personnel about submarines, and about their recollections of her Father. One of these was my classmate Captain Guy Gugliotta ’38 who served with Jim Coe in S-39 and whose wife, Bobette, later wrote a stellar history of that ill-fated ship. Another of Mary Lee’s major sources was my surface shipmate, and later submariner, and long-time family friend, Paul Loustaunau ’39, who served with Jim in SKIP JACK as his Torpedo and Gunnery Officer. Mary Lee has ventured into deep water, if we can use that term, in describing not only technical details of submarine operating systems; but also into the realm of tactics when she describes attacks against Japanese shipping and escape from depth charge counterattacks. We accept Mary Lee’s detailed descriptions because they paint a picture of valiant submarines achieving optimum attack positions only to have torpedoes malfunction. Her stories of deep running torpedoes which failed to fire magnetically, suffered premature explosions at perhaps 400 yards, produced duds when they hit targets without exploding, and circular runs, a scourge unwanted, are accurate and chilling. I was there and did that!
She also describes in vivid detail Jim Coe’s unending battle with the material condition of S-39, and for that matter the unreliable engines in SKIP JACK. When Jim Coe finally achieved the goal of every World War 11 submariner- to serve as Prospective Commanding Officer (PCO) of one of the Navy’s finest- he was faced with complex repair tasks on the ways and thereafter concerning the tankage in CISCO. But Jim was rapacious in his strong recommendations to his superiors concerning torpedoes and railed against the denial of responsibility of the Bureau of Ordnance.
Full Fathom Five is divided into three sections which I describe briefly in the following paragraphs.
Part I of the book entitled “Ghost Dad” is a mere 20 pages in which Mary Lee uses flashbacks of her youth, growing up in a home with an overbearing step father who ensured that Jim Coe’s name would not cross the lips of anyone in the house. She also explains the happenstance of drawing upon Shakespeare’s The Tempest in which the first two lines of Ariel’s song arc “Full fathom five thy Father lies/Of his bones are coral made”. She notes that her Father lies on the bottom of the ocean with green water all around, but has a smile on his face which says “This is what happened. Don’t worry”.
Part I concludes in 1997 when Mary Lee was called to the West Coast by the heart attack and sudden death of her Mother. In the process of disposing of her Mother’s belongings, she discovered a photograph of her Father with sister Jean and brother Henry taken no doubt in 1943 in Portsmouth, NH when he was outfitting CISCO. That lit a light for Mary Lee that said ‘I must know my Father”.
In Part II, “The Search”, Mary Lee collects and reports in detail not only on her Father’s wartime experience taken in great measure from the voluminous patrol reports produced by each submarine, but also on his interpersonal relations with peers and crew alike. She points out that Jim was one of the few skippers who were in command at war’s kick-off who demonstrated fierce aggressiveness in attack and valorous ingenuity in escaping from many Japanese depth charge counterattacks. He succeeded in sinking ships with an S-boat, and after four war patrols was rewarded with command of a Fleet Boat, one of the best pre-war submarines in the Navy inventory. Mary Lee also notes that several of Jim’s peers were less aggressive, less successful and were sent to shore billets after one patrol. But, she also emphasizes that the toll of seven consecutive war patrols in two submarines without appreciable rest and relaxation was obvious in the few photographs available and in the first hand reports which she received in her many interviews. She asks, knowing there is no real answer, whether this was in some way connected with his loss on the first patrol of his newly commissioned submarine? CISCO’s loss was my loss, too. Lieutenant Howard B.(Pete) Berry was the fourth officer, no doubt the TDC operator, as was I in DRUM. He was one of the 11 in the Class of 1938 lost in the War, whose names appear on the Submarine Memorial in Groton, CT.
Part III returns to the song in “The Tempest”: “Nothing of him that doth fade/But doth offer a sea change”. When Mary Lee says “And so, a little more than 60 years after disappearing, Jim has caused a “sea change” in me, fulfilling the promise of Ariel’s song”. She sees herself in her Father’s mold, being happy as Jim would have wished. Now that she does better understand her Father, she regrets that she did not initiate her search before her Mother left her.
Full Fathom Five is a different submarine story, one which every submariner should have in his personal library to show his Grandchildren what valor in war is all about. It’s a force that can resound through a family, changing it even after sixty years. Publication date is 29 April 2008.