In the mid-1940s, Literary Classics, Inc. published a three-volume set of books titled This is Your America. The work was a compendium of dozens of short non-fiction pieces about a wide range of topics. One, found in Volume III, came from Boston Globe reporter Martin Sheridan, whose dispatches from USS BULLHEAD (SS-332) were published in the Globe in June and July of 1945. The piece, entitled “Jonah’s Whale Ride Was Just a Lark,” provides a fitting ending to the story. Today’s portion is part one of three.
“With the third year of total war on the four fronts—land, sea, air and airwaves—at an end, the influence of sea power on the final decision remains the paramount factor. And the most important unit of all in modern navies is the submarine—long, cigar-shaped, invisible when submerged, almost invisible on the surface and ever ready to spout death and destruction from its torpedo tubes. Unlike the rattlesnake which hides in the tall grass and warns its enemies by a dry rattle, the submarine strikes swiftly and silently, then disappears.
“The air arm will dispute the claim that subs have caused more destruction than any other type of craft, but these underwater terrorists constitute the most formidable offensive weapon of a fleet, can be used for scouting stealthily off enemy coasts and among enemy warships. They ask no favors from anyone, take excellent care of themselves.
“At the moment, conditions have improved for Allied shipping in the Atlantic and Caribbean. A few weeks ago ships, men, mechanical equipment, ammunition, food supplies, and war’s lifeblood—oil—were being sent to the bottom at a dangerous rate by long-range Nazi U-boats.
“Our long coastline, only partially protected at that time by patrol vessels, blimps and planes, offered no haven for slow, plodding freighters, while the ocean depths provided perfect hiding places for packs of enemy subs.
“A bewildered public enquired: ‘Where is the United States Navy? Why isn’t something done about underwater terrorists?’ Much of the Atlantic fleet was necessarily concerned with the titanic task of convoying supplies and men to Great Britain and Russia via the northern sea lanes.
“With the recent addition of numerous sub chasers and patrol vessels, the Navy has been able to organize highly effective merchant convoys which have caused the Nazi subs to seek other hunting grounds. Meanwhile, we must continue to be vigilant and to curtail deadly skyglow.
“On the other hand there is a bright spot in the picture. Our Asiatic fleet, strengthened with new long-range submarines—the finest and most powerful underseas craft in the world—is pounding away at the Jap Navy and merchant marine with heartening results.
“Just as this country is vulnerable along the coasts, so are the Japs wide open for submarine forays along their lengthening supply lines and lines of communication stretching from Tokyo to the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies and the Bay of Bengal. United States submarines prowling the China Seas, the Celebes Sea and the entire Pacific enjoy the same superiority as the Nazi U-boats preying on shipping in the Atlantic. Their battlefields extend for more than 5000 miles and they have sent more than 150 Jap ships to the bottom with TNT-charged ‘tin fish’ and shell fire with the loss of only four or five subs.
“ ‘We shoot first and ask questions afterward—if there is anyone left to question,’ says one submarine skipper laconically. ‘The Nazis and the Japs don’t fight according to rules of international law. To win this scrap, we are giving them a double taste of their own medicine.’ ”
“According to international law a submarine must warn unarmed and unescorted merchantmen before loosing torpedoes at them. Compliance with this rule, however, would be equivalent to asking for a lethal punch in the jaw since deck guns might be camouflaged or hidden and a single shell hit would pierce the sub’s thin outer skin.
“Submarine operations are divided into three commands: the Atlantic, Pacific and Asiatic, with an admiral issuing orders to each. Sub squadrons are broken down into divisions with the latter being the tactical unit. Many subs, however, operate as lone wolves. Activities off the Atlantic Coast are mainly scouting patrols.
“The shore siren had just sounded the signal for colors as I boarded a grim, black sub at an Eastern naval base. It was eight o’clock and the start of a new day and a new patrol for the submersible. The few steps from the dock to the deck were an introduction to a whole new world. A world of steel and machinery and men who must operate just as efficiently as that machinery. A world that the war suddenly made more important.”