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‘The War Below’ educates on the importance of submarines in warfare

 the war below by James Scott (317 pages, $28)

the war below by James Scott (317 pages, $28)

Asked to list the most unforgettable events of World War II, most of us would surely cite the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Britain, the London blitz, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge and the still-controversial dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Read this beautifully crafted and carefully researched book by James Scott and you’ll want to add the submarine warfare in the Pacific to your list. It may not have made as large an impression as the more celebrated events of the war, but to read this book is to recognize that these brave submariners, toiling underwater in extremely cramped quarters, did more than their share to achieve victory.

Scott’s only previous book, The Attack on the Liberty, won the 2010 Samuel Eliot Morison Award from the Naval Order of the United States. When it comes to writing about American naval history, no author is more revered than Morison – a rear admiral who won two Pulitzer Prizes – so Scott’s reputation has been secured.

Yet as good as The Attack on the Liberty (about an Israeli attack on an American spy ship in international waters in 1967) was, The War Below is even better because Scott has skillfully knit together the true and exciting stories of just three submarines (and their crews) that played extremely dramatic roles in the victory over Japan while also explaining how the enemy’s miscalculations made the outcome more likely, if not certain.

The Silversides, Drum and Tang each carried out multiple missions against Japanese shipping (as well as some to rescue downed Allied airmen). Each of their skippers took a different approach to their jobs, ranging from too timid to too bold. Every member of every crew endured terrible moments of fear and tension as well as the shared elation that accompanied the sinking of enemy targets, often freighters carrying vital war materials to Japan.

Incidentally, two of these three submarines had interesting connections to New Hampshire. Dick O’Kane, whose father was a well-known professor and author at the University of New Hampshire, was skipper of the Tang while Nicholas Nicholas, the son of Greek immigrants, was the executive officer of the Drum. And many of the submarines that saw service in the Pacific campaign were built at the Portsmouth Naval Yard.

These three submarines sank a confirmed 62 Japanese freighters, tankers and transport ships weighing nearly 265,000 tons. In one remarkable nine-month span, the Tang alone destroyed 24 enemy vessels (and to put that in perspective, the only submarine to exceed that total took three years to sink 25 Japanese ships).

As riveting as the tales of their successful – and even unsuccessful – missions may be, for some readers the most compelling chapters of The War Below may be those devoted to the Tang’s sinking – by its own errant torpedo – and the brutal imprisonment of its handful of survivors.

(The miseries the Japanese inflicted on their prisoners of war were also explored in detail in Too Dead To Die by former Monitor editor Mike Pride, who told the story of Steve Raymond, a Florida journalist who had survived the notorious Bataan Death March only to wind up as a slave laborer in Japan.)

Scott’s book is a reminder that war, while often filled with drama and heroism, is (and always has been) ugly. Truly terrible things happen to good people, with fear as an almost constant companion, and living conditions can be close to unbearable. That certainly was the way of life on submarines, and their significant contribution to victory should be more widely understood as a result of his book. Scott has performed an admirable service to these brave men and educated the rest of us.

Maybe his next book should examine the policies (and the people behind them) that resulted in far too many American torpedoes going astray, including the one that reversed course and slammed into the Tang.

(A.C. Hutchison is the former publisher of “The Recorder” in Greenfield, Mass.)

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