Non-fiction review: The War Below (audiobook)
My sifting through the history audio books at the library (Overdrive) brought me this at times painful read about US submarines in WWII.
Title: The War Below: The Story of Three Submarines that Battled Japan
Author: James Scott. Read by Donald Corren
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster/Blackstone Audio, 2013. 448 p. hardback, 14 hrs 20 min.
The riveting story of the submarine force that helped win World War II by ravaging Japan's merchant fleet and destroying its economy
The War Below is a dramatic account of extraordinary heroism, ingenuity, and perseverance—and the vital role American submarines played in winning the Pacific War. Focusing on the unique stories of the submarines Silversides, Drum, and Tang—and the men who skippered and crewed them—James Scott takes readers beneath the waves to experience the thrill of a direct hit on a merchant ship and the terror of depth charge attacks. It's a story filled with incredible feats of courage, including an emergency appendectomy performed with spoons by an inexperienced medic and the desperate struggle of sailors to escape from a flooded submarine stuck on the bottom, as well as tragic moments such as American submarines sinking an unmarked enemy ship carrying some 1,800 American POWs.
The casualty rate among submariners topped that of all military branches, a staggering six times higher than the surface navy. The war claimed almost one out of every five boats. But Japan was so ravaged by the loss of precious fuel and supplies that by war's end, Japanese warships lay at anchor while hungry civilians ate sawdust. Scott paints an unforgettable picture of the dangerous life submariners endured, including the atrocious prison camps where the Japanese beat, tortured, and starved captured Allied troops. Based on more than one hundred interviews with submarine veterans and a review of more than three thousand pages of previously unpublished letters, diaries, and personal writings, The War Below allows readers to experience the Pacific War as never before.
The blurb above does a good job of summing the book. The author is direct and straightforward about what happened: after Pearl Harbor, the US military decided that since Japanese merchant ships were aiding the war effort by taking them the goods needed to continue the war, all such ships were legitimate targets (this was, of course, being done by both sides in the Atlantic, so it's not a surprising decision), and the navy, particularly the submarine corps, launched a relentless campaign to sink as many as possible. This book tracks three of the most effective US submarines (plus glimpses of some others) and their crews.
I have to say that the last line of the blurb is correct: this was a different account of the war than I've read before, and I found it disturbing. After each sinking, we are given the stats, the way the navy was keeping track: tons of ship sunk, and men drowned. Numbers, not humans. I get that this was the way it was for the men on the ships and subs, and was the only way to do what had to be done (it was also how the Navy kept track). But I was, in the end, disturbed by the lack of any attempt to move beyond the wartime view of the Japanese as enemy, even as something not quite human.
The accounts of the time in the prisoner-of-war camps adds to that feeling. I have no doubt the accounts are accurate; the Japanese had little tolerance for those who were captured, and the submariners were not even official prisoners--they were kept 'off the books' as it were, so had no protection. Listening to this part was very difficult.
Narration by Donald Corren is very well done, with just the right amount of individuality given to the different men whose letters and journals are cited, and a generally dispassionate rendering of events, though he and Scott between them do a great job of conveying the stress of being under attack.
This is an excellent book on the submarine war, and I will recommend it for those interested in WWII. Just be prepared to be immersed in the dehumanizing of the enemy that is always an essential part of war, and perhaps give a thought to how that works. If dehumanizing the enemy is a requirement of war, we might want to be careful how we speak of others even in times of peace.