Lieutenant Commander Joel Holwitt is an active duty submarine officer who has served on three fast-attack nuclear submarines. He earned a Ph.D. in history from Ohio State University and is the author of Execute Against Japan: The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (Texas A&M University Press, 2009). Any views expressed in this article are his and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or any other department or agency of the U.S. Government.
I stumbled into the past while walking into Control during the midwatch. It was 2013; I was on board a three-year old Virginia-class submarine, updated with the latest fire control and sonar systems and manned by a crew in their early twenties. But over on the port side of the Control Room, all five sonar technicians in my watch- section were wearing their dress uniform Dixie cup covers, mashed underneath their headphones, as if they were on a Second World War submarine. I blinked and asked the Sonar Supervisor what was going on. He told me his team had been inspired by a picture of their Second World War predecessors during the history presentation I had given the previous day in Crew’s Mess. A few minutes later, my pilot and my contact manager were wearing their white dress uniform combination covers in solidarity with the Sonar watch team. And so was I.
Not only does this moment remain one of my favorite experiences, it highlighted something I had discovered to my surprise during the preceding seven years. Submariners love their history.
The roots of this moment stretched back ten years, when I attended graduate school at Ohio State University and earned a Master’s and a Ph.D. in history, focusing on U.S. submarine warfare in the Second World War. But history degrees were of little use when I started Naval Nuclear Power School. By the time I reported to my first submarine, I had grown accustomed to a certain degree of skepticism regarding my degrees in history.
But a few months after I reported to my first boat, the off- going Reactor Operator asked me to consider giving a submarine history lesson to the crew at the next General Military Training (GMT). A week later, I gave my first history presentation on Crew’s Mess, and I was amazed by the positive response. Since then, I presented a couple dozen more talks, ranging across Submarine Force history and even expanding to discuss naval history such as the sailing frigate USS Constitution and the Battle of the Komandorski Islands. By the end of my department head tour, even though my talks were entirely voluntary, some of my shipmates were arranging for wake-ups in their oncoming watch time in order to attend.
I failed my shipmates in one regard, however. I never provid- ed them with a list of the books from which I had learned, even though many of these books were well written, interesting, and would only have deepened their historical enjoyment. With this article, I am hoping to rectify that oversight. The list that follows is intended for U.S. submariners of all ranks, rates, and backgrounds, broken into three levels: basic, intermediate, and advanced. I recommend that the books be read in the order discussed.
I will freely admit that the list is biased. While the experiences of other submariners may be interesting, this is an American list for American submariners. This reading list was written for ease of travel. All of the books listed are available electronically, and can be contained as a small portion of the many e-books that most submariners now take to sea in their e-readers.
Last but not least, this list is not comprehensive. I have listed some omissions that may make for enjoyable future reading at the end of this article.
The Basic Level
Paul Stillwell, ed., Submarine Stories: Recollections from the Diesel Boats Paul Stillwell’s edited anthology of oral history excerpts serves as an introduction to the history of the Submarine Force. Submarine Stories covers a broad sweep of history, from President Theodore Roosevelt’s impressions of his 1905 ride on board USS PLUNGER (SS 2) to the decommissioning of the last U.S. diesel boat, USS DOLPHIN (AGSS 555) in 2006. The book includes previously unpublished accounts by officers and enlisted, including the early pioneers of the Submarine Force, various heroes of the Second World War, and the Cold Warriors. Perhaps the greatest value of Submarine Stories comes from the fact that this is one of the few published chronicles that includes first person accounts by such great submariners as Slade Cutter, Red Ramage, Eugene Wilkinson, Roy Benson, Maurice Rindskopf, and Robert Dusty Dornin. There is no better place for submariners to become acquainted with these legends.
Edward L. Beach, Submarine!
Despite over a hundred years of history, the central historical experience of the U.S. Submarine Force remains a brief three-and- a-half year period: the Second World War, the experiences of which laid the foundation of the U.S. Submarine Force’s success in the Cold War and beyond. A distinguished submarine warrior who served on submarines from the beginning through the end of the war, Edward L. Beach is the perfect author to bring this period to life. Beach intersperses chapters chronicling his war patrols with stand-alone chapters about other great submarines, such as WAHOO (SS 238), TANG (SS 306), SEAWOLF (SS 197), and HARDER (SS 257). Readers not only experience the first-hand terror of depth charging and the excitement of torpedoing an enemy ship, but they also stand next to numerous submarine legends in battle through Beach’s brilliant writing. There have been more recent histories of the Submarine Force in the Second World War since Beach’s book was published about 60 years ago, many more comprehensive and more thoroughly researched. But Submarine! is the one book that simultaneously expresses the totality of the Submarine Force’s sacrifice and contribution to victory in the war, while also capturing the experience of war in the boats.
A. J. Hill, Under Pressure: The Final Voyage of Submarine S Five While no submariner should consider any dive to be routine, the Submarine Force has grown accustomed to conducting these evolution safely and regularly. It seems unimaginable that enlisted submariners once received extra pay for every time they submerged because how hazardous that evolution could be. One such dive occurred on the afternoon of September 1, 1920, when USS S-5 (SS 110) performed a crash dive off the coast of New Jersey, partially flooded, and nose-dived into the bottom. One pump failed after another and the crew found themselves in a desperate race for survival as they tried to escape from a submarine with no viable escape system. Well researched and well written, Under Pressure crackles with suspense, bringing to life the early years of American submarines and thrillingly describing the dangers those submarines faced.
William R. Anderson and Don Keith, The Ice Diaries: The True Story of One of Mankind’s Greatest Adventures
Thirty-five years after USS S-5’s final dive, the Submarine Force entered a new age with the first nuclear submarine, USS NAUTILUS (SSN 571). With NAUTILUS’S nuclear power plant able to keep her submerged indefinitely and able to proceed at high speeds for prolonged periods, a whole new range of tactical and operational options opened up for American submariners. William Anderson, the second captain of NAUTILUS, captures the excitement of these new possibilities, describing how NAUTILUS single-handedly defeated anti-surface warfare groups, sailed at high speed across the Atlantic, and safely steamed underneath the North Pole. But The Ice Diaries is more than the adventure of the first under-ice transit. It is also the story of submarine pioneers transitioning to a new era of submarine operations, developing and testing the first reliable emergency air breathing and inertial navigation systems. A particularly vivid moment occurs when NAUTILUS bent both of her periscopes when she collided with the ice and her crew overcame incredible challenges to restore one of the scopes to operation while on the surface in frigid Arctic temperatures, roaring winds, and rolling seas. With passages like these, Anderson vividly describes the risk and thrills of being at the forefront of a new era of submarining.
The Intermediate List Anthony Newpower, Iron Men and Tin Fish: The Race to Build a Better Torpedo during World War II Although the disgraceful story of U.S. torpedo performance is well known, Anthony Newpower’s excellent book is the best account of what happened and why. Newpower’s book focuses on the American experience, but does not neglect the experience of other navies, particularly the Germans, who also experienced failure. The difference between the American and German responses to torpedo problems is instructive. Although the U.S. Submarine Force’s waterfront staff ultimately found and fixed the issues with the troubled torpedoes, it took almost two years. Newpower’s story of U.S. Submarine Force waterfront support during the torpedo debacle of 1941 to 1943 is an important cautionary tale.
Michael Sturma, Death at a Distance: The Loss of the Legendary USS Harder Michael Sturma brings an Australian historian’s perspective to the U.S. submarine war against Japan, and in particular about Commander Samuel David Dealey and USS HARDER. Sturma also focuses on HARDER’S support to Australian special forces, particularly Major Bill Jinkins, a legendary Australian commando. Sturma’s research adds new wrinkles to the story of the U.S. Submarine Force in the war, such as remarkable anecdotes about submarines tracking islands, brushing reefs, landing commandoes, and the exhaustion felt by submarine crews returning to port. This book builds upon Submarine Stories and Submarine! to present a more comprehensive history of the Submarine Force in the Second World War.
Richard H. O’Kane, Wahoo: The Patrols of America’s Most Famous World War II Submarine Richard H. O’Kane’s memoir is about the education, through battle, of America’s greatest submarine warrior. O’Kane served as WAHOO’S commissioning XO and experienced profound disappointment as he realized his first CO was not cut out for submarine combat. But when another officer named Dudley W. Mush Morton abruptly relieved the first CO, the creative and fierce energies that had been swirling amongst O’Kane and his shipmates were finally freed to express themselves through the destruction of Japanese shipping. Due to a unique command set- up, O’Kane manned the periscope during attacks, placing him at the center of the action and providing an invaluable experience in submarine command and tactics. Although numerous books have chronicled this incredible submarine, O’Kane’s first person account remains the best.
Edward L. Beach, Around the World Submerged: The Voyage of the Triton Around the World Submerged continues the exciting change in submarine operations first described in The Ice Diaries and made possible because of nuclear power. But unlike NAUTILUS’S quick transit under the polar icecap, USS TRITON (SSRN 586) left for her shakedown cruise and then remained submerged while transiting across the entire globe. Despite numerous equipment casualties and personnel issues, TRITON accomplished this remarkable two-month voyage without mishap and returned in time to give President Dwight D. Eisenhower a much-needed public relations victory in the aftermath of the Gary Powers U-2 shootdown. Beach’s book captures the adventure of this voyage as well as conveying the weight of Beach’s command responsibility as he and the crew struggled with numerous potentially voyage ending casualties, such as the loss of the fathometer, and even the life threatening illness of one of the crew. Perhaps Beach’s greatest accomplishment with this book, however, is the way he highlights the numerous contributions made by all hands that permitted TRITON to accomplish her remarkable voyage.
Alfred Scott McLaren, Silent and Unseen: On Patrol in Three Cold War Attack Submarines
Alfred Scott McLaren’s Silent and Unseen picks up where The Ice Diaries and Around the World Submerged left off. McLaren graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1955 and started his submarine service on board the diesel electric submarine USS GREENFISH (SS 351) before transitioning to early nuclear submarines SEADRAGON (SSN 584) and SKIPJACK (SSN 585). McLaren’s book is a terrific memoir covering all aspects of life on submarines in the early Cold War era. He transitioned from diesel boats to nuclear power, experienced the early years of under-ice exploration on board SEADRAGON, and served in the early Cold War missions in the Western Pacific and North Atlantic. McLaren’s book not only describes the unclassified aspects of these missions but also details about submarine operations that are no longer in use, such as surfacing operations on board SKIPJACK class submarines, when the crew would effectively hydroplane the submarine at high speed, a maneuver known as “getting on the step.” These details bring alive this transitional era of submarin- ing when the Submarine Force that won the Second World War transformed into the force that won the Cold War. The Advanced List Michael Sturma, Surface and Destroy: The Submarine Gun War in the Pacific Most books about the submarine war in the Pacific have focused on the undersea aspect of the conflict. Although many histories indicate that surface attacks were atypical of the Pacific submarine experience, Sturma’s Surface and Destroy shows that these experiences were far more common than thought. And Sturma does not just discuss the American experience; he also devotes pages to the British and Japanese experiences. The British, in particular, frequently employed surface gun attacks. In 1944, despite having far fewer submarines in the Pacific, the British outdid the Americans in gun actions by almost a third. Sturma also dedicates multiple pages to Japanese submarine massacres, such as forcing Allied merchant ship survivors to run a gauntlet of swords and bayonets before being tied together and left to drown as the submarine submerged beneath them. Although sometimes uncomfortable, Surface and Destroy is essential reading for understanding the whole experience of the American submarine experience in combat, and placing that experience in the context of other submarine forces. Richard H. O’Kane, Clear the Bridge!: The War Patrols of the U.S.S. Tang
Dick O’Kane’s Clear the Bridge! details his command of USS TANG (SS 306) during an incredibly active one-year period. O’Kane was a persistent and remarkably effective captain. Whether the mission was sinking enemy shipping or rescuing downed aviators, O’Kane and his crew thoroughly planned ahead and approached each challenge with dogged tenacity. In short order, TANG and her crew were setting new records, whether for best war patrol in terms of ships sunk or number of aviators rescued during lifeguard operations. Clear the Bridge! stands apart from other submarine memoirs in terms of detail and imparting the motivations and thought processes of the commanding officer. While other submariners thought O’Kane was at least mildly crazy, O’Kane’s discussions of his attacks and operational planning illustrate a brilliant ability to weigh risks and benefits. O’Kane’s in-depth knowledge of his submarine, patrol areas, and combat tactics are evident throughout the book. Although other memoirs by great submariners such as Beach and Eugene Fluckey impart some of these aspects, Clear the Bridge! arguably goes the farthest toward illustrating the manifold complexities and level of detail that must be mastered by a great submariner.
Alfred Scott McLaren, Unknown Waters: A First-Hand Account of the Historic Under-ice Survey of the Siberian Continental Shelf by USS Queenfish (SSN-651) Unknown Waters is a glimpse into the decision-making of a Cold War submarine commander conducting a prolonged operation with little to no communication from higher command authority. In particular, the book is a tribute to the workhorse submarine of the Cold War Navy, the Sturgeon-class. McLaren covers his time as the commissioning executive officer of QUEENFISH, his commanding officer training pipeline under Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, and his return to command QUEENFISH before commencing his fascinating memoir of QUEENFISH’S under-ice voyage. Much like the other memoirs, Unknown Waters is filled with moments when the crew overcame numerous operational, materiel, and personnel challenges under the icepack, such as the loss of a ship’s service motor generator, nearly getting trapped inside an ice cave, and some poor decisions by one of the ship’s most senior officers. But Unknown Waters illustrates one other aspect of submarine life: it can be pretty neat and a lot of fun. McLaren and his crew didn’t miss an opportunity to celebrate entering Arctic waters, surfacing at the North Pole, or going out on the ice. Unknown Waters is a superb time capsule of the late 1960s and early 1970s in which the Submarine Force hit its Cold War stride.
Joel Ira Holwitt, “Execute Against Japan”: The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare It is undoubtedly shameless to recommend my own book. And yet, “Execute Against Japan” fills a genuine void in Submarine Force historiography. The operational and technical stories of the conflict have been deeply examined in many books, but the strategic rationale for the unrestricted submarine campaign and its moral implications have not. Only 24 years before the Pearl Harbor attack, the United States went to war with Imperial Germany in 1917 over unrestricted submarine warfare, which President Woodrow Wilson called “a warfare against mankind.” And yet, within hours of the Pearl Harbor attack, the Chief of Naval Operations directed U.S. naval units to “EXECUTE AGAINST JAPAN UNRESTRICTED AIR AND SUBMARINE WARFARE.” Although many believed the order was in reprisal for the Japanese sneak attack, the U.S. decision to conduct unrestricted submarine warfare was actually the result of years of serious strategic planning. “Execute Against Japan” details the chain of events that led the Navy to such a dramatic change in policy. It provides a strategic perspective on the rationale for the U.S. submarine campaign and the vital contribution of that campaign, as well as the ethical and legal issues that accompanied it.
With so many fine books about submarine history available, some books had to be omitted. Most of these, however, are terrific books, and readers who want more may enjoy some of the omissions.
In addition to the memoirs in the reading list, the history of the U.S. Submarine Force has benefited from numerous memoirs. James Calvert’s Silent Running stands out amongst the memoirs not listed above, both in terms of detail and honesty. Although not a memoir, We Were Pirates: A Torpedoman’s Pacific War by Robert Schultz and James Shell focuses solely on the life and experiences of one enlisted submariner. There are a number of excellent historical works, including more books by Michael Sturma, Don Keith, and James F. DeRose. If it had been available electronically, I would have unhesitatingly added Clay Blair’s Silent Victory to the advanced portion of the reading list. Similarly, Owen Cote’s The Third Battle elevates the discussion of the Submarine Force’s contribution in the Cold War from the tactical and operational level to a strategic overview of how the Navy and the Submarine Force swiftly adapted to the Cold War’s challenges. I omitted The Third Battle because it is not available as an e-book, but can be downloaded as a Portable Document File from the Naval War College. Additionally, I omitted a number of combined memoirs and histories by Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Submarine Force during the last two-thirds of the Second World War. Finally, I strongly recommend Edward L. Beach’s novels, which perfectly capture the experience of U.S. submarines in the Second World War and the early Cold War.
It is my great hope that this Submarine History for Submariners reading list will be a springboard for further reading. As the discussion of the omitted books should make clear, the reading list in this article is not meant to be an end all be all list. But it will hopefully reveal the rich heritage and history of our Submarine Force to all submariners, and be a starting point for a continuing voyage into the past that may potentially inform our future.