War on the sea -- and under

Monday Book Reviews

June 10, 1991|By Geoffrey W. Fielding

SUBMARINE DIARY. By Rear Adm. Corwin Mendenhall. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Illustrated. 290 pages. $19.95.

IN THE foreword to his account of submarine patrols in thPacific during World War II, Admiral Mendenhall notes that U.S. submarines accounted for about 55 percent -- 5.3 million tons -- of the over 9 million tons of Japanese shipping sunk by V-J Day. At the same time 3,506 officers and men died, some 22 percent of the 16,000 sailors who actually made such war patrols.

The admiral doesn't mention this, but by comparison, the German U-boat service in World War II accounted for some 14.6 million tons of allied shipping. The casualty rate for the U-boat crews was 63 percent.

But two different naval wars were fought in the Atlantic and the Geoffrey W.FieldingPacific. The Battle of the Atlantic was mainly between Allied surface vessels and enemy submarines. In the Pacific it was mainly a war of surface ships. The big ships, the battleships and carriers, won the glory.

What comes through in this story is that the submarines were the stepchildren of the U.S. Navy. For instance, for almost two years after Pearl Harbor subs were supplied with faulty torpedoes. They ran too deep and were noted for premature explosions. They also produced a telltale smoky wake.

Another problem was that submarine commanding officers were evaluated more on administrative skills (such as keeping a clean ship) than on aggressiveness. Mendenhall felt that the captain of his second boat, the Pintado, of which he was the executive, or second in command, was not nearly as aggressive as he could have been.

Even late in the war, command of a submarine could go to a skipper who had made the minimum of one war-time patrol. As for the crews, they got on-the-job training. After each patrol, Mendenhall noted the number of unqualified men who had made their first patrol and the number who became qualified during the patrol.

Mendenhall, who retired from the Navy as rear admiral in 1959, tells a good story, a story of day-to-day boredom, relieved by the occasional dry-throated, blood-chilling excitement of meeting and dodging the enemy in a war of two worlds, one above and one below the surface of the sea. It's a kind of war not likely to be seen again.

Geoffrey W. Fielding writes from Baltimore.

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