It was an honor for me to e-interview one of my favorite authors and one of our nation’s best naval historians, Paul Stillwell, about his latest book, Submarine Stories: Recollections from the Diesel Boats.
The inspiration came from having done the oral histories of many submariners and wanting to share the results of those interviews with a wide audience. In addition, I learned of other first-person accounts to supplement those in the Naval Institute’s oral history collection. The real value is being able to learn of events through the words of the men who experienced them personally.
What criteria did you use to select the stories that appeared on the pages of Submarine Stories?
The idea was to pick memoirs that were informative and had good storytelling qualities, so that the reader can both learn and be entertained. Also I wanted to cover a broad spectrum of time in telling the history of the U.S. diesel submarine force.
Commander Jerry Hendrix, formerly a Naval Institute board member, told me of a 1905 letter that President Teddy Roosevelt had written after taking a plunge in the USS Plunger. That event kicks off the book’s timeline.
At the other end of the spectrum, in 2006 I visited the USS Dolphin, the Navy’s last diesel submarine, just a few months before she left active service. I interviewed her last operational skipper, Commander Andy Wilde, chatted with crew members at the tiny mess table, and went into the engine room that housed the diesels.
In between the Plunger and Dolphin are dozens of tales from peacetime and wartime-personal anecdotes, insights on the development of ever more sophisticated submarines, and stories that are just fun to read. In the process a reader gets a sense of both the technical challenges of operating undersea craft and the amusing stories that are part of day-to-day life.
A personal favorite of mine was the late Captain Slade Cutter, one of the top-scoring submarine skippers of World War II. The process of interviews and visits developed into full-fledged friendship. I particularly came to admire Slade because of his humility. He was proud of his achievements but not one to brag. He considered his success as something that came about because he was just doing his job. The book is dedicated to him.
In addition to the using recollections from men whom I interviewed myself, I also drew upon interviews from my predecessor, Dr. John T. Mason, Jr. When he was at Columbia University, before coming to the Naval Institute, he had interviewed Vice Admiral Paul Foster, who had a gripping experience as a submarine skipper in World War I.
Admiral Stuart “Sunshine” Murray was a gifted storyteller as he unfolded a narrative of being among the first students when the Submarine School was established at New London, Connecticut, and then his command of one of the first submarines based at Pearl Harbor. He described the human qualities of the future Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz.
In the early 1930s, as a junior officer, Bill Irvin was a shipmate of Lieutenant Hyman Rickover in the diesel boat S-48, long before Rickover ran the Navy’s nuclear submarine program.
Captain Harry Jackson was an expert ship designer who had a crucial role in the development of the teardrop hull that is now standard in nuclear submarines. The diesel boat Albacore was the model for the generations of nukes that followed.
A serendipitous addition to the book came when I happened to be in a waiting room with a veteran sailor named Wayne Miller. He had some time to kill while heating up a bag of microwave popcorn. We chatted while the corn was popping, and that led to an interesting interview about his experiences, including the steps involved in earning his dolphins.
I reached Master Chief Charles Wormwood on his cell phone when he was on a shopping trip. Before the call was over, he had told me much about being chief of the boat in the Navy’s last diesel attack submarine, the Blueback.
Once, during a visit to the memorial submarine Bowfin at Pearl Harbor, curator Charles Hinman told me of Hosey Mays, one of the relatively few black submariners in World War II. That led to a valuable interview. Mays and his one black shipmate, also a steward, slept in a pair of side-by-side bunks suspended from the overhead in the forward torpedo room.
Who are some of the people you profile in this book?
In addition to those mentioned, Vice Admiral Eugene “Dennis” Wilkinson was an enthusiastic interviewee. Though he is best known as the first skipper of the world’s first nuclear submarine, Nautilus, he was a capable diesel boat officer before that. Among his other tales, he recounted being shipwrecked during the Battle of Leyte Gulf and later being in on the advent of submarine-launched guided missiles.
Gunner’s Mate Jerry Beckley was in a diesel-powered guided missile boat, Grayback, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He contemplated the end of the world if his submarine had been ordered to fire her Regulus missiles.
Machinist’s Mate George Rocek survived the World War II sinking of his submarine Sculpin and later the sinking of the Japanese aircraft carrier in which he was held prisoner.
Lieutenant Bob McNitt was executive officer on board the Barb during the war, serving with Commander Gene Fluckey, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his exploits. McNitt’s chapter tells of rescuing Allied prisoners of war after their prison ship was sunk.
In 1943 Lieutenant Julian Burke was slated for duty on board the submarine Wahoo. A chance meeting with the skipper of the Flying Fish got him rerouted to that boat instead. Soon afterward the Wahoo was lost with all hands.
In the era shortly before nuclear submarines entered the fleet, Commander Paul Schratz of the Pickerel took his Guppy boat on a record-breaking submerged transit from Hong Kong to Pearl Harbor.
Lieutenant Commander Joe Williams commanded the Bluegill when she tangled with Soviet naval forces in the North Pacific. His crew was on patrol so long that their uniforms were sickeningly pungent before they could be brought ashore to be washed. The odor of diesel fuel even permeated the stationery he used when writing home. His son Clark could walk in the door, smell the air, and conclude that a letter had arrived that day from his submariner father.
Electrician’s Mate Jim O’Meara of the World War II boat Seahorse reminisced wistfully about the pleasures of liberty ashore after long patrols against the enemy. As he put it, sub sailors dreamed of three things-booze, women, and going home-and the priority changed depending on the situation.
Captain Ned Beach, the noted author of Run Silent, Run Deep recounted his experience in being aboard the Trigger when she ran aground on the eve of the Battle of Midway in 1942. Ten years later, he was the first skipper when a new Trigger was put into commission.
Ensign John Alden went off to war in 1944 as a newlywed. Sixty years later, he sent out a Christmas card that showed his extended family gathered for a reunion. In his chapter he tells of those early days, when there was no certainty that he would ever see his bride again.
Mike Rindskopf, a junior officer, reported to the new submarine Drum shortly before the onset of World War II. Within a few years, he had become the boat’s skipper and done much to contribute to her success.
The book also provides accounts of submarine sinkings in the 1920s and 1930s. The loss of the S-4 and S-51 in the 1920s led to the development of rescue devices that were used in 1939 to save some of the crew members from the Squalus. Chief Machinist’s Mate William Badders recounts his Medal of Honor service in rescuing those who were saved from the boat. Two naval engineers, Charles Curtze and Robert Evans, provide informed viewpoints on why the Squalus sank.
Dr. Waldo Lyon described in his oral history the Navy’s early tentative attempts to operate under ice in the Arctic and Antarctic shortly after World War II. Ten years later, he was on board the Nautilus when she made the first submerged transit under the North Pole.
Who should read Submarine Stories?
Anyone who has been to sea in a submarine and anyone who would like to have that experience vicariously. This is a story told in human terms, so any reader can identify with the courage and achievement of these undersea men.
Any other books you are currently working on?
I’ve recently completed a manuscript containing the recollections of George Cooper, one of the Navy’s first black officers, and his 95-year-old widow Margarett. They lived through more than 80% of the 20th century and in that time witnessed dramatic changes in how African Americans have been treated and what they can now aspire to. Peg Cooper first voted for a President in 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Seventy-two years later she helped elect Barack Obama.
I’m also long overdue on finishing a biography of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee, Jr., who was the foremost battleship admiral in the U.S. Pacific Fleet during World War II. He was a championship marksman as a midshipman and junior officer in the early years of the 20th century; later he used his knowledge of radar and gunnery to great effect in World War II.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
The Naval Institute’s oral history collection is a precious resource. In the past, for example, the collected transcripts have been used in writing the biographies of such naval officers as Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, Fleet Admiral Ernest King, Fleet Admiral William Halsey, Admiral John Towers, Admiral Joseph “Jocko” Clark, and Captain Slade Cutter.
Sound bites have been used in audio programs, such as one on Jimmy Doolittle’s famous bombing raid against Tokyo in 1942.
Senator John McCain tapped the collection for source material about his father and grandfather in writing the bestselling memoir Faith of My Fathers.
Evan Thomas of Newsweek magazine used oral histories in writing a fine book on the 1944 Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Oral histories were the basis for the book The Golden Thirteen: Recollections of the First Black Naval Officers.
The screenwriter for the movie Men of Honor, starring Cuba Gooding, Jr., drew some of his material from the Naval Institute’s oral history of Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate Carl Brashear, the Navy’s first black master diver.
The greater the use of the oral histories, the more they fulfill the purpose for which they were collected. The Naval Institute’s website contains a list of the available transcripts.
Though much has been drawn from the memoirs already, there is far more potential still to be mined.