The Submarine Gun War in the Pacific
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Pub. Ed. $29.95
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Review by Geoffrey Wawro
Your recollection of the Pacific War after Pearl Harbor is of fleet carriers launching aircraft, battleships pulverizing coral atolls, and attack submarines prowling the deep and firing torpedoes into Japanese warships, oilers and freighters. Michael Sturma’s Surface and Destroy will change the way you view World War II in the Pacific.
The carriers and battleships did lead Nimitz’s Central Pacific drive and the attack subs did dispatch the big surface ships attempting to defend and supply the Japanese Empire, but what happened when the big targets were all sunk? U.S. submarines then turned their attention to the junks, sampans, schooners, pleasure craft, fishing boats, trawlers and other little vessels that kept Japan running to the end. Such craft were not worth a torpedo, so the U.S. boats would surface and pour in fire with their 3-inch and 20mm deck guns as well as .30 and .50 caliber machine-guns, BARs and Tommy guns. Sturma points out that the “silent service” had essentially transitioned to a “submersible gunboat” role by war’s end. Gun ammunition was crammed into every space, even under bunks and wardroom tables.
The submariners were often shocked by this close-in fighting and the savagery they inflicted: “how personal was war when the target was flesh and blood instead of steel,” one sailor recalled. Sturma summarizes the history of submarine combat in both world wars, revealing a disturbing willingness on all sides to make no distinction between civilian and military targets on the grounds that they were waging “total war.” Fishing boats could be sunk and their crews machine-gunned, as a means of starving Japan (and denying the military the shark liver oil it used to lubricate aircraft engines). Sturma notes that for all the American and British complaints about Japanese mistreatment of Allied shipping and crews, Japanese crews were far more likely to be victimized as the “gun war” tightened its grip on the empire, and Allied crews—with little space for prisoners anyway—either killed Japanese seamen in the water, or merely left them to drown. This was all the more tragic because the “Japanese” crews were more likely to be Indian, Chinese, Filipino or Malay sailors than Japanese.
Richard O’Kane, who was executive officer of the Wahoo and skipper of the Tang—two of the Navy’s most storied boats in the Pacific War—was always intent on “sinking more ships, killing more japs.” O’Kane never capitalized the words “Jap” or “Nip” in his reports, insisting that the enemy were just “debris.” More sensitive officers suffered degrees of post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from their repeated attacks on defenseless merchant ships; the Navy dubbed these pangs of guilt “fatigue.”
Michael Sturma’s Surface and Destroy does not always make for pleasant reading, but the sheer horror (and necessity) of the “total war” he describes pulls the reader in. This book is an important addition to the widening literature on the collateral damage that attended the ground and air wars in World War II. The “submarine gun war” compounded the horrors, at sea, and proved vital in starving, denuding and defeating Japan.
Hardcover Book : 272 pages
Publisher: University Press of Kentucky ( March 25, 2011 )
Item #: 13-381653
Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 8.25 inches
Product Weight: 13.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
A very well researched accounting of surface submarine warfare in the Pacific by American, British, and even Dutch submarines. The author clearly spent much time pouring over boat logs and other official accounts of these gun actions against all manner of Japanese craft.
However, the book jumps all over both chronologically and geographically, denying it any narrative content. A chapter covering a full patrol by a sub under these conditions would have been much more illuminating and entertaining. Sturma tries to frame these violent, face-to-face fights against targets of often dubious military value in the context of similar actions like the firebombing of Tokyo, but their limited scope limits such a comparison.
For submarine aficianados only.
Usually one needs to read a book to find the all too common factual and editing errors that bring the veracity of the exposition into question. This book doesn't even require opening the cover to cause the potential reader to raise an eyebrow. To engage in surface action, deck guns were used. Deck guns require a deck. All US submarines in World War II had a flat deck atop the deck casing for nearly the full length of the boat. The outer hull came to a point at the bow. Whatever its graphic appeal, the dust cover illustration is clearly not of a vessel of WWII vintage. One would hope that Michael Sturma had no part in choosing this photo, for it certainly does not enhance the initial perception of his credibility.