U.S. Submariners at War with Japan, 1941-1945



In the early days of World War II, when U.S. and other Allied forces were taking a pounding in the Pacific and defeat seemed inevitable, only the tiny American submarine fleet prevented total disaster.

Beset initially by obsolescent subs and torpedoes that didn’t work, it was the sheer courage of the men in the “silent service” that held the line and bought time for the U.S. to gear up and eventually defeat the Japanese foe.

In The Depths of Courage, Flint Whitlock and ex-submariner Ron Smith (five war patrols on the U.S.S. Seal) take a detailed look at the Pacific War from the point of view of the submariners. In this epic saga, you’ll go through training with the young sailors, sail with them on heart-pounding war patrols, undergo fearsome depth-charge attacks, and exult when enemy ships are torpedoed.

You’ll also be along when the U.S.S. Tang is sunk by one of its own malfunctioning torpedoes and the handful of surviving members of the crew are rescued by the enemy–only to be subjected to months of imprisonment and cruel treatment at the hands of their Japanese captors.

The Depths of Courage also brings you the bigger picture–the bloody island-hopping campaign by soldiers and Marines against a tenacious enemy who did not know the meaning of the word “surrender;” the fearsome slugging matches between surface ships; and the massive aerial battles that eventually enabled the Americans to gain supremacy of the skies and seas.

From beginning to end, this is a book that will inspire you with heroic tales of the war beneath the sea and the thin line of courageous men who sacrificed themselves to ensure victory.

Once the range and distance to the target–a fat oiler with the distinctly un-Japanese name of San Clemente Maru–had been entered into the TDC, the order to “Fire one” was given to the forward torpedo room and the boat suddenly lurched as though it had collided with a brick wall.

“Fire two. Fire three.” Two more lurches as 2,000 pounds of compressed air pressure from the “impulse bottle” violently kicked the tin fish out of their tubular homes.

Lumpy Lehman, the sonar man, reported over the circuit, “All fish running hot, straight, and normal.” Now they all waited; would the torpedoes strike home, or would there be nothing but silence? Some men crossed their fingers or fingered the crucifixes that hung from their necks or played with some other sort of talisman thought to bring them luck.

A few of Seal’s crew may have given a moment’s thought to the enemy sailors at whom the torpedoes were being directed, oblivious to the fact that their world was about to be shattered, that their lives were about to come to a sudden and violent end. Like the Americans, these sailors had girlfriends, wives, mothers, fathers, and children back home. Like the Americans, most of these sailors were just doing a job that someone in higher authority had decreed they must do. Like the Americans, most of these sailors would have preferred spending their youth in other, more peaceful pursuits. But the Americans felt it was not healthy to dwell on such thoughts, to think of the enemy in human terms.

No, the business of war demanded that they think of the enemy as exactly that–the enemy–and attempt to kill as many of them as possible. After all, it was the Japanese who had bombed Pearl Harbor without warning; the Japanese who had invaded Korea and China and Malaysia and the Philippines; the Japanese who had raped and tortured and murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians in Shanghai, Nanking, and elsewhere; the Japanese who had turned thousands of Korean girls and young women into their sex slaves; the Japanese who had beheaded captured Australian and British and American soldiers and airmen; the Japanese who had slaughtered their American and Filipino POWs along the march from Bataan; the Japanese who had committed unspeakable atrocities every bit as horrible as those being perpetrated by the Nazis on the other side of the world. Thinking of the enemy as “human” was simply an unprofitable exercise. And so the men inside the Seal pushed such thoughts–if they had them–out of their minds and waited with eager anticipation to hear the explosions that would signal that the despised Japanese enemy sailors–the “dirty Japs”–were plunging in agony to their deaths.

The men in the aft torpedo room focused on the second hand sweeping around the shiny bulkhead chronometer.

“First one missed,” Woody muttered, as the time for the intercept came and went. The second and third torpedoes also passed into the silence of failure.

Commander Dodge swung the sub around so the aft torpedoes could be fired while the forward torpedo room reloaded, and Smitty heard Lieutenant Hanes’s voice in his headphones say, “Tubes aft, stand by.”

“Tubes aft standing by,” Smitty replied, making his posture just a little more erect, a little more military. “Stand by,” Smitty repeated for the benefit of his crewmates. Here he was, the newest and youngest member of the crew, issuing orders to these “old salts.” He was at last being given a chance to show what he could do. He hoped he would not fail this, his first big test. The crewmen moved quickly to their firing stations. They had no idea what their target was–a carrier, battleship, cruiser, destroyer, oiler, tanker, freighter, or transport–nor did it particularly matter.

“Tubes aft, stand by five, six, and seven,” said Hanes.

“Tubes aft, standing by five, six, and seven,” repeated Smitty.

Hanes directed, “Tubes aft, open outer doors on five, six, and seven.”

“Tubes aft, aye,” said Smitty and repeated the command for Big Ski and Seagull. They opened the valves from the “water round torpedo”–a tank located just below the torpedo tubes–and flooded the three firing chambers with sea water to equalize pressure to the sea.

“Control, outer doors on five, six, and seven open,” Smitty reported.

“Tubes aft, switch on firing circuits on five, six, and seven,” said Hanes, and Smitty repeated the directive.

Seagull threw the switches that armed the torpedoes, then gave Smitty the “OK” sign. “Firing circuits on for five, six, and seven,” Smitty told Hanes.>

“Very well, tubes aft. Set depth twelve feet.”

“Set depth twelve feet, tubes aft, aye,” Smitty said as the dials on the tubes were set to the depth ordered.

“Stand by five.”

“Stand by five, tubes aft, aye.” Smitty watched the dials and waited for the marks on the TDC to line up.

“Fire five.”

As the bugs came into alignment, Smitty mashed the tube firing button at the same instant that Hanes pushed the firing button for number five, making sure that the torpedo fired even if the electric circuit failed.

There was a loud whoosh of compressed air, a deep-throated boom, and a spray of water that spurted in from around the tube’s gasket as the torpedo was launched. The same procedure was followed for tubes six and seven, although Smitty was angry at himself for launching number six just as the TDC marks went out of alignment by two degrees; he knew that torpedo number six would miss its target.

Big Ski was having trouble with the number seven tube right after the fish was fired and was cursing a blue streak. An eight-inch stream of water was pouring in and sloshing down into the bilges. Not a critical problem yet, but one that couldn’t be ignored.

“Hit the emergency valve,” Woody yelled over the noise of the rushing water. “Shut ‘er down!”

Big Ski moved over to tube seven and with great effort turned the manual control wheel. The stream of water was gradually pinched off, but not before Ski was a soaking, dripping mess.

“Tubes aft, close outer doors,” Hanes commanded.

“Tubes aft, close outer doors, aye,” Smitty relayed, and Big Ski and Seagull cranked the outer doors closed.

>”All fish running hot, straight, and normal,” reported Lumpy Lehman on sonar.

Then someone who was clocking the first torpedo announced that it had missed. The crew in the aft torpedo room slumped. Damn these defective fish, they collectively thought.

A few seconds later there came a thumping roar followed by a jolt that felt as if the sub had been struck with a giant sledgehammer.

“We hit the son-of-a-bitch!” shouted Big Ski. It was number six, the one Smitty knew for sure was going to miss.

The crew members began whooping and hollering and jumping up and down and slapping each other on the back, just as if their team had scored the winning touchdown. How lucky can you get? Smitty wondered to himself.

“Tubes aft,” said Hanes, “Start your reload. And good shot, Smitty.”

“Tubes aft start reload, aye,” said Smitty. “And thanks, Hanes.”

The periscope was raised, then lowered. Greenup, the executive officer, came over the intercom. “We just sank a large transport freighter,” he announced. “Looks like a lot of men in the water.” Cheers erupted again in the aft torpedo room and more celebratory dances were conducted. The crew gave Smitty a new nickname: Warshot.

Infantrymen can tell if their bullets are hitting their target just by looking; artillerists, too, can watch the results of their salvos. Airmen on bombers can scan the landscape below and note their bombs striking home, and gunners on surface ships can observe the havoc their shells cause. But submariners, with the exception of the officer manning the periscope, are denied visual confirmation of their marksmanship and must rely on aural evidence alone. Even without sonar headphones, the men in the submarine could hear the 7,354-ton San Clemente Maru breaking up as it sank. Then the boilers exploded–Ka-THWOOMP! Ka-THWOOMP! The shock waves hit the Seal, shaking her and rattling the chinaware in her galley. Then they heard cracking and popping noises as the freighter’s bulkheads caved in while the ship sank deeper into the ocean. So that’s what a dying ship sounds like, Smitty said to himself with morbid fascination.

Greenup again: “There are two escorts up there looking for us now. Rig for depth charge. Rig for silent running. Close all watertight doors.”

Without the waste of a second, Seal’s crewmen did what they had practiced a thousand times. The watertight doors between compartments were swung shut on their heavy hinges and dogged down. The bulkhead flappers that passed air between compartments were closed. Big Ski climbed up into the escape hatch to make sure it would not spring open from the shock of the depth charges and flood the interior. The air conditioning was shut off.

Seal plunged to 200 feet, where the oceanic pressure on the hull was ninety pounds to the square inch, and the electric motors were silenced so that not even the slow turning of the propeller screws would give their position away. Talking, walking around, dropping a tool, doing anything that might make the slightest noise was strictly verboten. This was the moment that every submariner feared and dreaded. The worm had turned; the hunter had become the hunted.

A lively account of wartime U.S. Pacific submarines…a rousing good read.

William Tuohy (author of The Bravest Man)

The Depths of Courage…tells the remarkable story of these brave and foolhardy souls…. Captures the raw, hard truth of the job – as told by the men who did it. No collection is complete without this essential piece of naval history.

Military Book Club

The near-death experiences aboard a WWII submarine are very dramatic and will give the reader an appreciation of the horror these men faced. A great read from two established writers.

Ron Martini (amazon.com reviewer)

Publisher: Berkley (November 6, 2007)
ISBN: 0425217434
ISBN-13: 978-0425217436

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