BOOK REVIEW – The Silent Service in World War II: The Story of the U.S. Navy Submarine Force in the Words of the Men Who Lived It

The Silent Service in World War II: The Story of the U.S. Navy Submarine Force in the Words of the Men Who Lived it. Edited by Edward Monroe-Jones and Michael Green, Casemate Publishers, (2012), 264 pp.

Review by Phillip G. Pattee, Ph.D.
U.S. Army Command and General Staff College

Edward Monroe-Jones, director of the Submarine Research Center, has previously written two other books while his co-editor Michael Green, a freelance writer, has credits for over ninety titles. To say the least, this is a pair of experienced writers who have put together another compelling book. For The Silent Service in World War II, they have compiled 46 mostly firsthand accounts of submariners’ (and a couple of aviator and nurse tagalongs’) experiences during World War II.

All of these stories have been previously published, mostly in back issues of Polaris Magazine but also in “Undersea Encounters” and other articles from the Submarine Research Center and the Submarine Review Journal. Because of that fact, one might mistakenly conclude that The Silent Service in World War II makes only a small contribution to World War II literature, but this book has much to offer and engage the reader.

First, most interested parties will not have seen the original articles and are unlikely to find the various stories compiled here on their own. The editors have provided a wonderful collection of stories that cover not only the routine tales of mistakes and heroics in war but also rare and unusual occurrences in the submarine force. Some examples include an accidental torpedo firing in Pearl Harbor, a kamikaze attack on USS Devilfish (SS 292), and the capture of the giant Japanese sea-plane launching submarine (I 401).

Second, the editors compiled the stories chronologically, grouping them into early war 1941-1942, mid war 1943, and late war 1944-1945. The chronological ordering of stories allows a careful reader to discern the evolution of submarine technology and tactics over the course of the war.

Third, no sailor can resist a good sea story. The ones compiled here are rich in wisdom, overcoming hardships, and demonstrate plain old deck-plate ingenuity. My favorite story is Chapter 27 detailing the loss of the USS Flier (SS 250). I admire the resolve and determination shown by the remnant of the crew as they swam at sea surviving for over 17 hours until they reached land. Read the book and you will find a few favorites of your own. Sailors, particularly submarine sailors, should read these and learn from them. Did you know that you can clear electrical grounds in equipment by soaking electronic parts in fresh water with cut up potatoes? The spuds draw salt out of parts that have been sprayed with salt water. You can then dry the part out and return it to service.

The stories, being accounts told by the submarine veterans themselves, in their own words, are filled with jargon specific to submarines and the historical period. The editors navigate this storm with a clever introduction that does several things. First, the introduction explains terms frequently used in the sailor’s tales. Second it also includes names for specific components that the stories often reference, and third, it describes the general layout of the classes of submarines in service during the war. They have also included pages of photographs with explanatory captions that depict many of the items already familiar to veteran submariners so that a layman can become acquainted with them as well. The book lacks cutaway diagrams of the fleet submarines, which would go further helping the reader follow the narratives, but this is a small point.

The Silent Service in World War II should be picked up and read by anyone with an interest in World War II history. Naval historians will find this a rich collection of primary accounts, enthusiasts will enjoy the tales, and submariners will find more reasons to respect those that came before them.

(Return to the October 2013 Issue Table of Contents)

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