Edward F. Finch, Beneath the Waves: The Life and Navy of CAPT. Edward L. Beach Jr. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010. 288 pps. Photos, Notes, appendices, bibliography, index
Review by Nicholas Evan Sarantakes
Department of Strategy & Policy, U.S. Naval War College
Edward L. Beach, Jr. had an interesting and varied career in the U.S. Navy. A submarine officer, he received three of the four highest awards for valor of his service. (The only one he did not receive was the Medal of Honor). Beach was the commanding officer of four submarines, and one surface ship. He served as an aide to the Chief of Naval Operations, and then to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then the President of the United States. He also became a novelist and a historian. He is best known for his first novel, Run Silent, Run Deep, which later became a film of the same name. In 1960, as the captain of USS Triton, he and his crew circumnavigated the globe submerged, roughly following the route that Ferdinand Magellan took in 1519-1522. After he retired from the Navy as a captain, he wrote several more novels and histories, taught at the U.S. Naval War College and served as editor of the Naval War College Review, and did some work in Republican politics.
Most of these events are discussed in adequate detail in Edward F. Finch’s biography of Beach. Finch brings clear enthusiasm to the project. He explains to his readers that his encounters with Beach’s writings in his childhood led to a lifelong love of reading about the U.S. Navy in World War II. He even participated on a conference panel with Beach. “Ned’s dedication to the Navy, his faith in the innate goodness of his fellow human beings, and the role that his father’s novels played in his life form the thesis of this biography” (p. xv). The “Ned” in that sentence is Beach. Finch constantly refers to him by that nickname, suggesting a familiarity with his subject that is unwarranted.
The bigger problem with that thesis is that it is not particularly analytical. This study basically follows in dutiful fashion, the writings of Beach. Both Beach and his father were naval officers/historians/novelists, but Finch never pushes very far in this regard, or in many other areas. There is no literary analysis of either father or son as writers even though he devotes a whole chapter to Run Silent, Run Deep. Beach always believed that United Artists bought the film rights to that book for the title alone, arguing that they already had a submarine story ready to go and wanted a well-recognized title for marketing purposes. Beach would hardly be the first or the last writer to run afoul of Hollywood, but Finch does not provide any assessment of this charge.
Nor, despite the sub-title, does Finch do much either to assess the U.S. Navy during the era of Beach’s career and the role of his subject. Finch uses Beach’s papers and oral histories, and interviews with others, but with little affect. Either the documents did not contain that much useful information, or Finch was unable to mine them effectively. The evidence cuts both ways. Finch does not consult the records of other naval officers or other institutions beyond the war reports and logs of Beach’s ships to assess how his subject’s efforts as a naval publicist were received. Finch needed more information to write this biography than he could get from a narrow investigation of Beach’s papers and, as a result, there are a number of conditional modifiers: “probably” or “could have.”
A good example comes from one of the biggest questions about Beach’s career; why he never made admiral. As he pointed out, he was the only presidential naval aide never to make flag rank. Finch addresses this issue, but never provides a good answer. His account repeats Beach’s own speculation and Finch provides some other possibilities, but never offers an answer that moves beyond informed gossip. There is no doubt that Beach was an accomplished officer with real ability, but Finch avoids an obvious argument. Beach simply might not have been up for the job. After two promotion boards chose not to promote him to flag rank, he resigned his commission before the meeting of a third board. To be blunt, he quit before his third and last chance, because he did not want to be rejected and in the process accepted the decision of the two previous boards that he did not merit promotion.
With these harsh judgments in mind, it would be remiss of this reviewer to fail to mention that Finch has done a good job as a biographer in developing and presenting the personality of his subject. Beach emerges as a professional military officer with real emotions. In an odd decision that was most likely a compromise between publisher and author, there is a lengthy 36 page appendix that is equal to 21 percent of the 171 page text that provides biographical sketches of Beach’s father, siblings, wife and children. This information really should have been presented in the main body of the book. One final note, Finch has a deft touch with the English language that makes this book an enjoyable read.