Book Review: ‘Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan’

Cover art: Painting by Thomas Hart Benton. (C) 2001 Naval Institute Press

Rating: 4 out of 5.

One of the deadliest weapons in the Navy’s arsenal for the past 80 years has been the submarine. Stealthy and lethal, today’s Los Angeles, Seawolf and Virginia class nuclear attack subs lurk beneath the waves like the ancient sea monsters feared by sailors in the days before Columbus. With their wire-guided Mk. 48 ADCAP torpedoes and cruise missiles, the subs of America’s Silent Service can wreak havoc against an enemy’s navy or merchant fleet, inflicting fatal damage upon the enemy’s economy much as the fleet boats of the U.S. Pacific Fleet did to Japan’s during World War II. 

Although much has been written about Nazi Germany’s U-boats and the 1939-1945 Battle of the Atlantic – Admiral Karl Doenitz’s all-out effort to strangle transatlantic trade to Britain with submarines and surface raiders – there have been few really interesting books on America’s successful efforts to interdict Japanese naval and merchant shipping in the Pacific War.

Yes, there are a few good novels out there on the topic (Edward Beach’s Run Silent, Run Deep, for instance), but if it wasn’t for a few old black-and-white movies (Operation Pacific, Destination Tokyo and Robert Wise’s film version of Run Silent, Run Deep) and a handful of top-notch non-fiction books, people would think today’s submariners sprang from nowhere with the launching of U.S.S. Nautilus in the mid-1950s. 

One of the best (okay, perhaps the best) accounts of U.S. Navy submarines in World War II is Clay Blair, Jr.’s Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War against Japan (Naval Institute Press, 2001….although it was first published by Lippincott in 1975). This very detailed and well-written book covers every aspect of America’s unrestricted submarine onslaught against the Japanese Empire, starting from the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 to the final war patrols in mid-August of 1945. 

World War II fleet boats, including the state-of-the-art Gato and Tench classes, were designed to support the surface fleet in the conduct of Jutland-type battles — hence the name “fleet boats.” They were not able to stay underwater at all times — only after the advent of nuclear propulsions did the submarine live up to its full potential.

Subs of the early to mid-1940s  were actually more like small gunboats or torpedo boats with the ability to submerge for a short period of time, usually dictated by the state of the electric batteries that powered the boats (Navy vets will tell landlubbers to never call a sub a “ship”) underwater; on the surface the subs were propelled by several diesel engines which provided more speed than the battery-powered motor could under the sea.

Only after Japan’s devastating air attacks on Pearl Harbor and other U.S. Pacific outposts did the submarine force shed this limiting “support” role and become, like the “flyboys” in the aircraft carriers, a decisive offensive factor in Navy operations against Japan. 

Blair chronicles every aspect of American submarine warfare in great detail. He begins, as a good historian should, with the genesis of submarine warfare, starting with the Revolutionary War (when a one-man sub, the Turtle, made a couple of abortive attacks on HMS Eagle, a British frigate, in New York Harbor). The Turtle was an ingenious failure, but it is the forerunner of modern submarines.

 Covering such topics as the Civil War’s CSS Hunley (the first successful attack of a sub against an enemy ship), John Holland and the first modern Navy sub, the founding of the Electric Boat Company, German, British, French, Italian and Japanese submarine development, World War I, and the interwar years. Blair ably tells the readers how the Navy’s submarine force evolved in both size and technological advances and sets the stage for the long and difficult campaign to defeat Japan after the “day of infamy.” 

While the subject matter does involve a lot of material about the technical evolution of submarines in those pre-nuclear reactor years, Blair pays a great deal of attention to the men who commanded and served aboard the boats of the Silent Service.

A fleet boat of the 1940s was a fine piece of machinery, sure, but it was worthless if the skipper was incompetent (and some, sadly, were) or if the doctrine of sub warfare was out of date (which was the case at first). It took gutsy and smart, decisive officers like George Grider, Richard O’Kane, Dudley Morton, John McCain, Jr. (the late Senator John McCain’s father), Herman Kossler, Howard Gilmore, and Lawson “Red” Ramage to take their boats on two-month war patrols into Japanese-held waters.

Original hardcover edition dust jacket. (C) 1975 Lippincott

It also took decisive leadership from admirals like Charles Lockwood and Ralph Christie to solve such vexing problems as faulty torpedo exploders and initially ineffective tactics. Blair balances the technical and human aspects of Silent Victory so well that one feels as though this were a novel by Tom Clancy rather than a history book. 

I first came across this fascinating book when I was around 14 or so, having become interested in submarines after watching Operation Pacific, a movie which starred John Wayne and Patricia Neal. (The movie, I later found out, was very loosely based on several actual submarine war patrols and commanders, and even dealt with the pesky torpedo warhead problem!)

At the time, I found much of the material a bit boring (I wanted to get to the “good parts” fast in those days) and I did not finish reading Silent Victory before returning it to the public library.

Silent Service II is one of the games that used Blair’s book as a reference for its historical background.

Decades later, I bought Sid Meier’s Silent Service simulation for my first home computer (an Apple IIe) and its 1990 sequel, Silent Service II, and Silent Victory was listed as one of the references used by the game designers to ensure the games’ realism and for facts used in the manual. It was then (1990) out of print but highly recommended, so when I saw this 2001 reissue on Amazon.com I decided to purchase it.

Of course, I have more patience and don’t skip ahead to “the good parts” of this highly engrossing one-volume history of America’s submarine campaign against Japan in World War II. 

This book is extremely detailed and includes various appendices, including war patrol results by year, top submarine aces, and (the inevitable) submarine losses during the War. 

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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