Submarine adventures, shore leave syrup

November 12, 1995|By Michael E. Ruane | Michael E. Ruane,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Silent Running: My Years on a World War II Attack Submarine," by James F. Calvert. John Wiley & Sons. Illustrated. 275 pages. $27.95 For better or worse, Retired Vice Admiral James F. Calvert's World War II submarine memoir reads like a decent, if schmaltzy, old-fashioned war movie.

"Silent Running" is the story of a straight-arrow Ohio college kid who wound up at the Naval Academy in 1939; who finagled his way into the submarine service; and who then helped command two U.S. submarines, from the far reaches of the Pacific to the sanctum of Toyko Bay.

Along the way, Mr. Calvert, who went on to an illustrious career in nuclear subs and became the superintendent of the Naval Academy, tells of the evolution of American submarine warfare during World War II.

He sketches vivid and terrifying scenes of being depth-charged by Japanese surface vessels - hours on end, with scores of explosions bashing leaks and pounding the stagnant air aboard the sub. He paints striking pictures of the boat plying exotic seas at night.

And he portrays the deadly precision of the American sub crews: flinging "spreads" of torpedoes at fat Japanese tankers, filling the sky with explosions and the sea with the screams of enemy sailors.

Only once does he flinch - seeing for the first time through the periscope the faces of survivors and the fruits of his work. "I felt a quick flash of pity and anguish," he writes. But remembrance of Pearl Harbor quickly extinguishes those emotions.

Mr. Calvert - who now lives on the Eastern Shore - starts out in a good boat, the U.S.S. Jack, that is afflicted with bad, German-designed engines and unreliable American-designed torpedoes.

The book closes with the author's wondrous account of his unauthorized tour of Tokyo just days after the war ended, but before the surrender was signed.

At one point Mr. Calvert and several friends, armed with pistols and wearing their sub uniforms, ask an elderly, English-speaking Japanese rail official how they might get a tour of the city.

The man says he will be happy to do it himself. "Can you take that much time?" Mr. Calvert asks. "Certainly," the man replies. It is an amazing exchange between two men whose nations were savagely at war just a few days before.

In telling his war story, though, the author has also felt compelled to weave in the syrupy account of his romance with the beautiful daughter of an Australian doctor he met while on shore leave in Perth.

And here's where it most feels like old cinema: the leading married man, torn between the love for his wife back home and his passion for the ravishing Australian. The war could claim him at any time. The couple yearn for each other.

Finally, one torrid night on the sofa passion overcomes them. But his girlfriend puts on the brakes - apparently at the last minute. "Jim," he has her say, in bad dialogue he admits is reconstructed, "I don't think this is right for either one of us."

"Kathie," he has himself reply, "you are right - this can't be for us ... it can't be."

It's gooey reading, and it seriously detracts from the better parts of the tale.

There already is a certain gee-whiz innocence to the writing. Mr. Calvert has one Hardened skipper say things like "Holy-suh-moly," and "boy, did we sock him," which further reinforces one's distrust of recollected or reconstructed conversation.

All in all, while the author's war inevitably took him away from his sub, perhaps his story should have stayed on board.

Michael E Ruane is Pentagon correspondent for Knight-Ridder newspapers, previously he was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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