A soldier’s writer gone to sea, with grisly and harrowing discoveries
An army of authors of every possible kind has probed and surveyed World War II, and in the process revealed its heroes, exposed its monsters, celebrated GI Joe and written history’s lessons. Alex Kershaw now delivers his fourth entry in this vast and often important literature with “Escape from the Deep.”
In “The Bedford Boys” (2003) Mr. Kershaw recorded the tragedy of a Virginia village that proudly sent off two dozen kids with the local National Guard in 1940 and lost nearly all of them one morning four years later, on D-Day at Omaha Beach. In “The Longest Winter” (2004) he followed a recon platoon from Texas to The Bulge and then through captivity as POWs. In “The Few”(reviewed here Jan. 8, 2007) he championed eight American pilots who defied US law to join the RAF and fight in the Battle of Britain.
Mr. Kershaw’s method has been to find a manageable body of men in a military unit, uncover their civilian personas and bear witness to their experience in the central event of the 20th century. Writing purposefully about The War and showing the normalcy that preceded it — the worlds that were destroyed by it — he enriched our macro understanding of Armageddon by focusing on the micro, the particular, the individual. Kudos!
But in this latest volume he may have gone a book too far (to twist a general’s phrase that became a historian’s title). Perhaps it is a matter of timing, and this reader’s sad saturation with the awful course of our present war. Certainly timing is part of the problem — in Mr. Kershaw’s rush to publish, to follow three solid works with a hasty fourth.
It might also be that he is a soldier’s writer who now goes to sea, indeed under the sea in a submarine. “Escape from the Deep” chronicles the last patrol of Tang, “the best equipped, best stocked, most up-to-date Balaoclass diesel electric sub in the Pacific: a superlative fighting machine, . . . armed with twenty-four Mark 18 torpedoescarrying565poundsofTorpex high explosive.”
Tang was the best of her class, and her skipper, Commander Richard O’Kane, at least second best in his, a steel-nerved and furious avenger whose passion was killing the enemy. Inventing undersea tactics, he sank a record 24 ships. Concluding a lonewolf patrol in the Formosa Strait one night in October 1944, O’Kane fired his last torpedo at his last target and plotted a new course, 090 degrees, due east toward San Francisco. But that torpedo misfired and boomeranged back, striking Tang, sinking her and killing most of the 87 men aboard. All this in the first third of the 220-page narrative.
The rest of it follows O’Kane and eight others who were thrown clear or, worse, freed themselves in a firstever escape from a sunken sub 180 feet down. These survivors got picked up by Japanese sailors and spent 10 months in the unspeakable hell of a prison where they were systematically starved and frequently beaten or tortured at the whim of sadists.
However ghastly Mr. Kershaw’s account of the Omori prison, or heart-rending his take on the doomed sailors who couldn’t escape their sunken tomb, or heroic the stature of his subjects, his narrative becomes banal, to borrow Hannah Ahrendt’s term. Though competently researched and annotated, it reads as hasty and superficial.
Decent editing could have caught some gaffes: Saying that O’Kane attended prep school “at Phillips” in Andover, MA; calling Tang’s mechanical tracking device a “torpedo data computer;” describing technical topics and devices dully.
As a result, the most memorable moments are horrible absurdities: The chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee told the press that our subs were evading the Japanese because their destroyers failed to detonate depth charges deep enough. The fleet commander soon remarked that Rep. Andrew Jackson May “would be pleased to know [the Japanese] set them deeper now;” consequently we lost “ten submarines and eight hundred officers and men.” More innocent publicity also had its price. When word reached Omori that Tang had won a presidential citation for sinking 110,000 tons of shipping, the guards clubbed their prisoners unconscious.
Mr. Kershaw champions our submarines for a crucial role in winning the Pacific war, sinking 548 vessels alone and severing Japan’s supply lines. He argues, “Captains of O’Kane’s ilk and caliber had struck at the heart of the Japanese military colossus and crippled it.” But the price was huge: 3,500 died in lost subs; the Silent Service had the highest mortality rate of any branch. And the method was horrendous — men in a stinking claustrophobic lair, attacking without warning at night, killing hundreds at a time. Still, we must regard them as saviors, heroes, and yet . . . .
Earlier O’Kane was exec in another sub that torpedoed a troop trans- port. Seeing 1,100 Japanese marines “jump over the side . . . like ants off a hot plate,” he told his captain and mentor that if they lived to fight again they’d take “a lot of American boys’ lives.” The captain, Dudley ‘Mush’ Morton agreed, “‘It’s a damn stinking shame when we’ve got them’ . . . . [He] ordered his crew to destroy several life boats . . . [and] [s]ome of the survivors fired back with pistols — that was all Morton needed to order his men to treat the Japanese as ‘fair game.’ What ensued was the worst slaughter inflicted by an American submarine’s gun crews.” It lasted “nightmarish minutes,” a junior officer reported. Morton never had to account for “the cold-blooded killing of defenseless troops;” his boat was later lost with all hands.
It is often said that battle brings out the most heroic in men, and war the most heinous too. To describe and evoke both superlatives is priceless work, because writing history has a purpose: to tell truth so that others can learn from it. In baldly reviewing some heroics and horrors, “Escape from the Deep” shows that both sides committed atrocities (and beaux gestes). Lesson: It is ever thus in every war.
Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press, in Bethesda, writes about history, culture and natural science.