A sol­dier’s writer gone to sea, with grisly and har­row­ing dis­cov­er­ies

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.

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