Submarine tale has depth
"Escape from the Deep" recounts the accidental sinking of the USS Tang and most of its crew in World War II
One of my sons-in-law is a career submariner in the Navy, so out of personal curiosity I read more books about submarines than I otherwise might. Alex Kershaw's stirring "Escape from the Deep," however, I would read no matter what my son-in-law did for a living.
"Escape From the Deep: The Epic Story of a Legendary Submarine and Her Courageous Crew"|
by Alex Kershaw (Da Capo, 270 pages, $26)
Kershaw is the author of other well-written World War II nonfiction, most recently "The Few," about American fighter pilots in the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain. His string of successes continues here with the story of the USS Tang, truly, as the subtitle has it, "a Legendary Submarine and Her Courageous Crew" - albeit a submarine that sank itself.
Peril at sea has something especially gripping about it. In submarines that peril is multiplied. Subs were the most effective weapon against Japanese shipping, responsible for more than half of the sinkings, more than the Army, Air Force and Navy surface ships and carrier planes combined. But subs also had the highest mortality rate of all the armed services. When a submarine went down, it was astronomically rare for anyone to survive.
The Tang, which had the most illustrious record in the Pacific theater, began its fifth patrol from Pearl Harbor Sept. 24, 1944, headed for the Formosa Strait. Its skipper, Cmdr. Richard H. O'Kane, was, the author says, "the most daring and deadly submarine raider in the Pacific."
The crew had good hunting, sinking many Japanese ships. With two of his 24 torpedoes left, O'Kane was preparing to return to Hawaii when he decided to go back for one last hit.
It was a fatal decision. The last torpedo went awry. It made a complete U-turn and came back and struck Tang in its stern, killing probably half of the 87-man crew outright and sending the sub to the sea floor 180 feet below.
Three of the eventual nine survivors jumped or were thrown into the sea. O'Kane was one, and shortly after landing in the water, he had the bleak satisfaction of seeing his 23rd torpedo (the next to the last) strike its target, a Japanese tanker, his 24th victim in 18 months as Tang's captain.
Meanwhile, 40-some seamen and officers were trapped underwater. Here Kershaw's construction of events, drawn from interviews with survivors and oral and written histories, gives the narrative nearly palpable tension.
Deadly problems mounted with every passing minute. Chlorine gas, from sea water flooding the batteries, seeped into compartments. Carbon dioxide buildup made breathing ever more painful and addled their brains. Fire pushed the temperature so high that paint blistered.
Their only option was out and up, through the forward torpedo room escape trunk. And here the reader really has to stop and consider the superhuman effort of will required to accomplish a self-rescue without precedent.
The men had to go out into the pitch blackness on the sea floor. Then, aided only with the Momsen Lung breathing device, carefully and slowly - so as not to get the "bends" - swim upward guided by a rope. All the while remembering to exhale periodically so as not to burst their lungs.
Only a handful could bring themselves to attempt it. Some ascended too quickly and died. Only six managed it - one, demonstrating unbelievable self-control and courage, did it without the aid of a Momsen Lung because it had been accidentally ripped from his hands in the escape trunk. The greater number, either unable or unwilling, resigned themselves to death in their "iron coffin."
Having endured, all nine survivors were picked up by a Japanese navy vessel and taken to POW camps, first in Formosa, then Japan. For 10 months they were beaten and inhumanely interrogated.
Liberation did not come until Aug. 28, 1945, after the Japanese surrender. Several were so malnourished they could not walk, including O'Kane, whose condition, at a weight of 88 pounds, was so critical that he was given little chance of living.
But he lived and went on to receive the Medal of Honor. He retired as a rear admiral in 1957 and died in 1994, having lived all the intervening years, his widow said, with the bitter knowledge "that he came home and his men didn't."