From the War Fish Blog
One week from today, Alex Kershaw's new book "Escape From The Deep" will be officially released -- just in time for Memorial Day. And a fitting tribute it is for the men who fought and died so bravely aboard the subject of the book, USS Tang (SS-306).
Taking a refreshingly different tack from previous work such as "Unrestricted Warfare", "The Bravest Man" and Tang skipper Richard O'Kane's classic memoir "Clear The Bridge!", Kershaw spends little time on the first four war patrols of the US Navy's most successful WWII submarine. Instead, he jump starts the story at the end of her fourth patrol. What follows is an almost cinematic retelling of fifth patrol action, her tragic loss at the hand of her own malfunctioning torpedo, the daring escape by crew members trapped 180 feet below the surface, and their brutal imprisonment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp for the remaining nine months of the war.
For those looking for a meticulous depiction of battle tactics, they will have to continue to rely on previous works. Little new is learned about Tang's actions. Kershaw's focus is not on rudder orders and galley menus but the emotional ride experienced in one of the most famous of all war patrols. The human element is stressed in the personal stories of the central players and their interrelationships. Though the narrative is relatively short in length, a bit over two hundred pages, Kershaw brings an entirely new depth to the understanding of these well known events.
Naturally, the figure in the center of everything is Medal of Honor recipient Dick O'Kane. And though his death in 1992 prevented Kershaw from interviewing him personally, his research, in particular the time he spent with the late Rear Admiral's family, coupled with his consummate writing skill, enabled him to bring O'Kane fully to life. Details of his childhood, marriage, and family relationships round out a "proud Yankee" known principally for fearless heroics and consummate devotion to duty.
Kershaw's attention to detail does not overlook the rest of the crew either. The personalities, backgrounds, and personal relationships between crewmen are firmly established. They are then studiously revisited during the terrible hours of Tang's sinking when close friendships, such as Clayton Decker's and George Zofcin's, were torn apart by death. And those who escaped, like Bill Leibold and Floyd Caverly, forged new bonds in order to survive.
It is in his depiction of the desperate fight for survival aboard the sunken Tang that Kershaw's prose shines brightest. The chaos and struggle is brought vividly to life as the trapped crew fights their way to the only working escape trunk in the forward torpedo room. Again, Kershaw's focused research brings a richness of personal detail from first hand accounts. This plants the reader firmly in the action and into the survivor's heads as they await their chance to escape, endure the excruciating pressure of the escape trunk, and slowly make their way from the inky depths to the surface.
Their reward, of course, was captivity. And again Kershaw brings a personal focus to the beatings, interrogations and privations that previous works have lacked. I was surprised to learn that O'Kane advised his men to tell the Japanese what they knew and not to lie, while refusing to divulge the secrets he carried himself. However, the rest of the Tang men strayed from their skipper's orders on this occasion and did their best to confuse their captors.
At war's end all nine Tang survivors remained alive in varying degrees of health. O'Kane had suffered the most and was very near death. His choice to recuperate in Hawaii before presenting himself to his family varied with the eager desire of the rest of the men to return home. Again Kershaw gives fresh insight into the postwar lives of each man, their faithfulness to each other through the years, and to the friends they left behind. The book ends with O'Kane, in the midst of his final struggle with Alzheimer's, pulling his daughter towards the ocean repeating, "We have to go save them." A poignant image of a captain who never forgot, and never got over, his crew.