I have been researching my book, Submarines in the Cinema. for the past several years. The purpose of the book is to review the experiences of those who have served in submarines in com parson to how they have been portrayed by film makers. In particular, I feel it extremely important to try to more accurately chronicle the efforts of those heroic submariners who turned the tide of the war in the Pacific during WWII. Sadly, in the decades to come, all that will remain will be the somewhat distorted cinematic glimpses of what actually took place. As part of my research, I have conducted interviews with many submariners in order to explore how their history is versed by Hollywood. I have also been interviewing those involved with the production of the various films to determine how they arrived at their portrayal of life in submarines. A large part of my own contribution is primarily to discuss the accuracy of various models used in these movies. In my professional life as an orthopedic surgeon the analysis of visual detail is extremely important. In my private life I have been building models for over forty years and attempt to put the same attention to detail into my hobby. There- fore, I find researching this subject is both challenging and rewarding.
Through my research of submarine movies it has become apparent to me that there arc three major categories of submarine movies. First, there arc the submarine movies where the sub shown as a main part of the plot and almost the entire movie takes place on a submarine at sea or on a war patrol (I will discuss three in detail). Second, as a supportive role and it is only seen at various times to support the plot of the movie. An example of this type of film is On the Beach in 1959 with Gregory Peck. And thirdly, as cameo roles where the sub is only seen briefly to add intrigue to the movie.
The three films of the first category that will be discussed in depth arc Destination Tokyo, Operation Pacific, and Run Silent. Run Deep. It would be safe to say that these films have long been considered , for better or worse, submarine movies . As a youngster, in the per-VCR era, I would scan the weekly TV Guide for these types of movies and attempt to watch them even if they were in the early morning hours.
Destination Tokyo is a 1943 film with Cary Grant. It is a fairly exciting film with very good model footage that is used in many other submarine movies that followed . In particular, the screenplay for Submarine Seahawk ( 1958) was actually written around the model scenes. Incidentally, Submarine Scahawk was directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet who also directed that Bmovic scifi classic The Atomic Submarine (1959). In general, Destination Tokyo is a fine film, but it is a typical wartime film with a propaganda type message and many Japanese racial slurs. The crew takes their boat, COPPERFIN, into Tokyo Bay and obtains weather and tactical information for the Doolittle Raid. A similar mission to that actually took place March 1942. Clay Blair describes in his book, Silent Victory, that USS THRESHER under command of William L. Anderson was sent to Tokyo Bay on a special mission to supply weather reports prior to the bombing of Japan ..
The film also shows an appendectomy being performed by a pharmacist’s mate while on the bottom of Tokyo Bay. As indicated in Blair’s book, three appendectomies actually took place on submarines while on war patrols in 1943 (specifically SEA DRAGON, GRAY BACK, and SILVER SIDES). Also of interest the submarine in the film has four forward and four aft torpedo tubes. This would indicate that it was a boat of the N cw “S” classes (I st and 2″J groups). Only sixteen boats in the US Navy had this configuration. (Editor’s Note: SSJ 81 through SS 197)
The submarine set is of a typical early war fleet boat with only the rear of the superstructure cut away and it also it appears to have a very low free board. The scenes of the interior of the sub are somewhat simplistic. However, you get a feeling for the curvature of the inside of the conning tower.
The models used in the movie arc fairly accurate, showing a prewar fleet boat which, similar to the submarine set, has the aft superstructure cut down. The free board of the surfaced model is also too low. The model does have a raised bullnose rather than the recessed bullnosc that became standard for all fleet boats after the Tambor class. The model has a bow net cutter, which was never used in the US Navy. The models of the Japanese aircraft carrier and destroyer are somewhat rudimentary. The carrier looks like a composite of an early and late Japanese Navy designs, similar to the KAGA. There is tiered forward flight deck that was seen when the carrier was initially built using a battleship hull. There is also a small bridge structure on the model that was present after recon- struction of the KAGA with the flight deck being converted to one level. Finally, there is a rather unique underwater model scene that shows the capsized destroyer settling towards the bottom as the submarine moves away.
A final word on this movie, in Paul Kaplan’s Book Run Silent there is a photograph of a fleet boat being launched in Groton after the movie came out with a banner covering the torpedo tubes reading destination Tokyo. This is an example of life imitating art.
The second movie of this category is Operation Pacific ( 1951) with John Wayne and Ward Bond. This is a film which appears to be a complication of various documented wartime submarine activities. The first being the evacuation of a new born, several children and Catholic nuns from a deserted jungle beach using rubber rafts. There were several occurrences where missionaries and orphans were taken out of harm ‘ s way by U.S. submariners in the Pacific. Theodore Roscoe’s book United States Submarine Operations in World War II discusses a situation where NARWHAL transported a group of evacuees including a baby (p.273). That drawing at the beginning of the chapter also shows Catholic Nuns coming aboard NARWHAL. This episode took place in Nasipit Harbor, Mindanao. A similar situation took place involving NAUTILUS during its fourth war patrol in late 1942. A group of29 evacuees, including three Catholic nuns and several children, were brought aboard. I spoke to Floyd “Red” Porter field who was a part of NAUTILUS’ crew at the time and he indicated they surfaced at night in Teop Harbor in the Solomon Islands on December 31st. Red was personally involved with bringing the nuns aboard using the 26 foot motor launches that were kept inside the boat’s large superstructure. The evacuees also included a German citizen but not an infant. They were on board until January 5 and then taken ashore at Tulagi Harbor.
The film also shows a depiction of how Commander H. W. Gilmore heroically sacrificed himself to save GROWLER after it was badly damaged by a collision with a Japanese gunboat. Ward Bond is shown giving the famous order, “take her down” while Gilmore remains wounded on the bridge. Roscoe’s book has a drawing of this event and a good series of photos showing the damage to GROWLER’s bow and how it was repaired . The movie shows the bow damage quite accurately.
Thirdly, the movie also depicts how the problem of the torpedo warheads was solved during World War II. In the movie, they take a torpedo warhead and drop it from a height. Blair’s book corroborates these events. He discusses how dummy warheads were fitted with explodes and dropped ” from a cherry picker on to a steel plate from a height of 90 feet” Also, the film shows involvement of the submarines in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. American submarines were extensively involved in all aspects of the Leyte operations from detection, tracking the enemy formations and offensive involvement to life guard duties.
In general, consensus among the WWII submarine veterans 1 have interviewed, including Red Porter field, is that the portrayal of submarine wartime activities in Operation Pacific is much more Hollywood than history.
The stock footage of submarines used in the film is a hodgepodge of different submarines and is quite inconsistent. Submarines of Gato and Balao classes in various war configurations were used to depict the same submarine. Apparently it was felt that the audience would not be able to tell the difference. Interestingly, footage of a Japanese 1-400 class submarine being bombed is used to represent an American submarine. I spoke to those involved with the cable channel special on the SEN TOKU, Japanese aircraft carrying submarines. He indicated that this particular footage could very well be from Operation Road’s End in which these large submarines were sunk to prevent inspection by Soviet submarine experts.
As far as the models used, with the exception of the initial depth charge sequences which use a rather simplistic Balao class model, all the under water model scenes arc from Destination Tokyo. Additionally the story line of Operation Pacific has a submarine movie being shown to the crew while on patrol. That movie is actually Destination Tokyo. The character playing the XO actually made the comment “the things those Hollywood guys can do with a submarine.” However, later in the film they sink the same aircraft carrier and the same destroyer that were sunk in Destination Tokyo. Additionally, John Wayne is on the same set that Cary Grant used eight years earlier. They did add a gun platform forward of the conning tower to represent a boat had its superstructure cut down forward of the bridge that was done in the second half of WWII.
The movie Run Silent. Run Deep, is based on Edward L. “Ned” Beach’s book of the same name. The story line docs not follow the book very closely at all. Beach’s books arc quite comprehensive. They describe all aspects of submarine warfare in W arid War II, starting with resurrection an old S-Boat for training purposes, fitting out a newly built fleet boat, avoiding U-boats on the way to the Panama Canal, and fighting in the Pacific.
The plot of the movie centers on a submarine commander played by Clark Gable, whose boat is supposedly sunk in the opening scenes by an almost mythical Japanese destroyer captain Pete. The struggle for revenge causes a confrontational relationship between the submarine Commanding Officer and his Executive Officer, played by Burt Lancaster. The confrontation between captain and exec heats up as the movie progresses to the point where the Executive Officer takes command. Bungo Straights is a graveyard for American boats because a Japanese submarine lies-in-wait as they attack surface vessels. In the film the Japanese submarine attempts to sink the American submarine while sub- merged and the American crew assumes it is a runaway torpedo. There were instances in WWII in which an American sub was sunk by its own torpedo making a circular run. However, it was extremely rare during WWII for one submarine to sink another while submerged. It should be noted that in Norman Polmar’s book, The American Submarine, (page 79), that during World War II, a number of submarines were sunk by other undersea craft. (All were sunk with the victims caught on the surface with one exception, the U-864, was sunk by VENTURE off Norway on February 9 1 h, 1945. On that occasion, both submarines were submerged.) In the final scenes of the movie the American sub docs, in fact, sink the other sub, but they arc both on the surface.
Another aspect of the movie that appears somewhat unusual is the sonarman appears to double as the radioman because he hears both the approaching destroyers as well as radio transmissions. Additionally, in the depth charge scenes, a depth charge bounces off the hull of the submarine and explodes underneath the keel close aboard without any significant damage . This type of explosion would actually break the back of the submarine.
The name of the submarine in the film is NERKA. The USS NERKA, SS-380, was laid down but actually never launched. It was canceled in July 1944. Wikipedia indicates that the submarine used in the filming of the movie was the USS REDFISH, SS-395. It appears to be a mid-war government boat. Interestingly, there arc no guns or hand railings mounted forward at the bridge.
The two Japanese destroyer classes mentioned in the film arc the Momo and the Akakaze. The Akakaze is apparently more formidable because Jack Warden’s character states “the Momo is no Akakaze”. In Capt Edward Beach’s book he describes Bungo Pete’s destroyer as an older of destroyer class with a well deck. It seems he is referring to the Minekaze class or the very similar Kamikaze class. There was no Akakaze Japanese destroyer class. So therefore, either it is just a fictitious class name ending in a=e (meaning wind) which is typical for most Japanese destroyer classes or the filmmakers decided to change Kamikaze to Akakazc to avoid confusion with well-known suicide aircraft. Similarly, there is no Japanese Momo destroyer class. However there is a smaller destroyer of the Moni class that was re-rated as patrol boats in the late 30 ‘ s. Although this is speculative, it makes sense that this is what was being referred to in the movie since, due to its smaller size; a Momi/Momo is no Kamakaze/Akakaze. The filmmakers may have simply changed the name because it sounds less strange to the Western car.
The models used appear to be quite good. The stern section is shown in detail, but the end of the pressure hull appears somewhat square and shortened . The end of the superstructure also appears to be squared off. The model only has four forward torpedo tubes instead of six. It also appears that they used similar models to represent the American and Japanese subs with the exception of how they arc painted. The American sub is light above the water- line and dark below. The Japanese sub has the reverse.
The model of the American submarine was also used in the movie Torpedo Run ( 1958) with Glenn Ford . In this film there are very similar scenes of the stern of the submarine model only now they are in color instead of black and white. Portions of the underwater model scenes were also used in the film In Harm’s Way ( 1965) It has been rumored that this model hung from the ceiling of a bar in Alameda, California for many years.
The second category of movie is where the submarine has the supportive role but is not in the majority of the plot. As mentioned above, the 1959 film On the Beach with Gregory Peck is one of these types of movies. In this film an American submarine goes to Australia in the last days of a WWlll holocaust. Incidentally, Wikipedia indicates that the submarine used in the film is the HMS ANDREWS P423, an Amphion class of the Royal Navy. Interestingly, the opening scene shows the boat coming into port with clouds of diesel exhaust even though it is supposed to be nuclear powered.
The final category is where the submarine is just used for a very short period of time, as a plot device, in a cameo appearance. This is seen in many films over the years such as Laura Croft Tomb Raider in which Angelina Jolie washes up on the stem of a British ballistic missile boat. Another example is First Strike, a Jackie Chan movie, which shows a Russian Kilo class for a few moments. Another would be a Bob Hope film, Sergeant Farrell’s Army in which at the very end of the film, a Guppy II sub with an Electric Boat sail is represented as a Japanese submarine. Even films as early as the silent era fall in this category. Buster Keaton’s The Navigator used a mockup of an old S-boat conning tower. In this role the appearance of a submarine adds intrigue and bolsters the story line.
In closing, the film Run Silent. Run Deep and Ned Beach have been extremely instrumental in the motivation for my book and this article. I had been corresponding with Ned for several years prior to his death, and he actually was the person that first told me about the Submarine League. I had been intending to make a trip to Washington, DC, to use the Library of Congress Film Archives and interview Ned regarding his books and their film representation. I had also intended to ask him to write the forward to my book and present him with a model of destroyer BUNGO PETE that I had made for him from the description that he given in his books. I had not heard from Ned for a while. I called his home. His wife, Ingrid, informed me that he had contracted cancer. I told her of my project, and I asked her if it would be all right if I could at least send him photographs of the model. I then received a letter from Ned thanking me for the photographs. I then called Ned because, as a physician, I was concerned about him. I spoke to Ingrid and she thanked me again for the photographs. She indicated that they had discussed where the torpedo tubes and depth charges were on the model, that in general, the photos seemed to have brightened his day. I thanked Ingrid for all of Ned’s help and guidance and mentioned that I deeply regretted not being able to formally sit down with Ned and discuss his books and how they were represented as a film. Some time later, I received a letter from Ingrid informing me of his death. I am deeply honored by my contact with such a great man. He is greatly missed.