I am always honored (and somewhat pleased) whenever I see a spike in folks reading my blog, and some of that traffic can be attributed to Dave Bowman’s “Plausibly Live” podcast – an excellent source of discussions on the Constitution, current affairs, and politics.
In his most recent episode, Dave pondered over something that I have wondered about many folks who are compelled to dedicate much of their time on history:
“I don’t know why he’s fascinated with submarines because he’s a helicopter guy…”
That’s a good question, and one which I have been contemplating ever since.
I suppose that my interest stemmed from catching “Operation Petticoat” on TCM over the years. For the longest time (before the internet), I had no idea what the name of the movie was – I just remembered it as “that goofy movie with the pink submarine.” No matter how many times I watched it through the credits, I never seemed to catch the name of it… and yes, I never thought to check the TV Guide – don’t judge.
For some reason, that movie struck a nerve with me: the idea of a crew in a submarine… contending with the enemy and environment as a relatively independent entity of the Navy… I guess there is a certain roguishness which would appeal to most kids who prefer strategy games over sports. There were elements which would seem fundamentally at odds with each other: patience and urgency, cooperation and self-reliance, surprise and stealth, technology and nature… All of these things more than likely registered on a subconscious level in my early years. Later, reading Richard O’Kane’s Clear the Bridge solidified these notions into something a bit more coherent… but an academic appreciation of the men and machines behind a story isn’t quite concrete.
It wasn’t until I was stationed in Hawaii for my first duty assignment from 1996-1999 when I had the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to sites I never thought I would see: the USS Arizona memorial and Ford Island. Throughout my teenage years, I had read every book I could buy, borrow, or “procure” on the attack at Pearl Harbor and the Pacific Theater of Operations of the Second World War; yet, living in Detroit, Michigan and Virginia Beach, Virginia never afforded the notion that I would ever visit these locations.
While poking around the compact museum that the Arizona memorial once was, I wandered out and noticed the distinctive long, gray profile of the USS Bowfin (SS-287) moored not too far away. Having never been close to a submarine, I was fascinated at her size and the sense of intent in her design. I saw functional lethality in a form much different than the warbirds I had walked around at airshows or tanks that were static decorations in front of the Detroit Arsenal while I was growing up. Periscopes raised, deck gun trained aft, anti-aircraft guns dormant… all of it was captivating and indicative of a purpose.
In aviation, crew coordination is paramount. It is drilled into us during our initial progression (training) and reinforced on every subsequent annual or no-notice evaluation – the methods to communicate expediently and accurately to provide the rest of the crew the best internal and external situational awareness, decisions, and intentions. Going through that first tour, I quickly realized the commonalities in the past and present: the sharing of vital information, cooperative effort, and the imperative for each person to perform at a level of reliability which most folks cannot understand or appreciate.
My interest take off at that point; I showed up to Hawaii in my early 20s and fresh from a life-altering heartbreak. There was work to be done, beaches to visit, and shenanigans to be had. To me, the perceived infinity of youth relegated frequent visits to “maybe next week…” until orders came to report to Ft. Campbell, KY. This turned out to be a blessing of sorts – I hated being stationed with the 101st for the first year and spent a lot of time reading and watching submarine movies: “Das Boot,” “Destination Tokyo,” “Run Silent, Run Deep,” “Hellcats of the Navy,” “Down Periscope,” and “U-571.” All of these brought me back to those first trips to the Bowfin… the smells, the cramped living conditions, the primitive technology which, by contemporary standards is more of an academic curiosity rather than a means to wage war and survive the seas.
Returning to Hawaii in 2001, I had the opportunity to meet Pearl Harbor survivors and spend more time around the Arizona memorial – my first wife was working as a fundraiser for the USS Arizona Memorial Foundation in the early days of the work which resulted in the present museum. More time was spent at the Bowfin, however… and over the years, trips with my son included visiting the Submarine Base at Pearl Harbor, walking around the bridge of the USS Parche (SS-384) and looking at the sleek – albeit, sterile by necessity – hulls of the Los Angeles-class boats of our modern submarine fleet.
It was my son, incidentally, who started my current fascination with the old diesel boats of the Second World War. I have always prided myself of the idea that what he learned from me wouldn’t just be accurate readings of placards found in museums, but how to research more and understand the motivations of men long gone as well as the importance of interpretation and preservation of these stories. If I could pin my present mindset on submarines, their crews, and their skippers, I would have to say that it was when I was reading the Medal of Honor citation for Lawson “Red” Ramage’s actions on 31 July 1944:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Parche in a predawn attack on a Japanese convoy, 31 July 1944. Boldly penetrating the screen of a heavily escorted convoy, Comdr. Ramage launched a perilous surface attack by delivering a crippling stern shot into a freighter and quickly following up with a series of bow and stern torpedoes to sink the leading tanker and damage the second one. Exposed by the light of bursting flares and bravely defiant of terrific shellfire passing close overhead, he struck again, sinking a transport by two forward reloads. In the mounting fury of fire from the damaged and sinking tanker, he calmly ordered his men below, remaining on the bridge to fight it out with an enemy now disorganized and confused. Swift to act as a fast transport closed in to ram, Comdr. Ramage daringly swung the stern of the speeding Parche as she crossed the bow of the onrushing ship, clearing by less than 50 feet but placing his submarine in a deadly crossfire from escorts on all sides and with the transport dead ahead. Undaunted, he sent 3 smashing “down the throat” bow shots to stop the target, then scored a killing hit as a climax to 46 minutes of violent action with the Parche and her valiant fighting company retiring victorious and unscathed.
I distinctly remember my amazement at the chaos and frantic ferocity of the Parche’s attack and it all made sense – what effort went into the reloads, the perilous position of the relatively-unarmored Parche during her surface attack, the decisiveness of action, and the assumption of risk while still making efforts to keep the bridge crew safe… I think I re-read that citation at least four times, trying to figure out if Ramage was insanely brave or bravely insane.
My son asked questions about the problematic Mark 14 torpedoes… I researched. He queried where the food was kept… I researched. He mused about how long they were on patrol… what was the deepest a sub went… did the gun crews really stand on the deck while the enemy was shooting back at them… All of this, I researched and answered; as his questions were answered, mine were only starting. His interest moved onto tanks and armored warfare as he got older and discovered horribly inaccurate tank games on his phone, but my momentum kept going and is showing no sign of dissipating. The boats visited have taken me near and far: the Bowfin, Pampanito, Drum, Silversides, Cobia, and Cod… I have met amazing folks in my academic and physical adventures and shared the same strange fascination, and I have learned one basic truth: there is so much I don’t know.
Back to Dave’s question:
“I don’t know why he’s fascinated with submarines because he’s a helicopter guy…”
Helicopters are what I know, but they are mostly geared towards tactical warfare – local engagements which are a small part of the overall battle. Submarines, on the other hand, are strategic weapons which fight smaller engagements with a bigger contribution to the strategic aims of naval power. This isn’t to minimize the role of helicopters in modern warfare – just to illustrate the point of numbers: 55% of all Japanese shipping sunk during the Second World War was directly attributed to submarines, which constituted only 1.6% of the US Navy’s manpower. While rotary-wing aviation continues to proudly maintain a legacy of support, medical evacuation, and attack functions, I will always have a soft spot for those old boats, their stories, and that smell of old diesel, hydraulic fluid, and life that never seems to go away.
I guess it all boils down to something that Dave has repeatedly said about my writings on this blog: that I look at the philosophy of warfare. I never really set out to do so, but it makes sense. Submarines are an excellent starting point for understanding the basics of a conflict. Why people volunteer, how are submarines used to shape strategic goals, where do the resources come from to build these boats, and who are the people who have made up such amazing stories from the past… the ones who tend to these museums and their artifacts today… and who will we pass the torch to in the future?
All great questions and a good indication of why I write: there is never a solid answer, just ideas and more questions.