Back from the Deep: The Strange Story of the Sister Subs Squalus and Sculpin

Author: Carl LaVO
Publisher: Annapolis: Naval Institute Press; Bluejacket Books
Year: 1998
Reviewer: Rob Crawford

 

On May 23, 1939, the submarine U.S.S. Squalus sank while on a training exercise. A sister sub, the Sculpin, located her and her survivors and stood by during the rescue. The boat was raised and recommissioned as the Sailfish. Four and a half years later, on the night of December 3-4, 1943, Sailfish sank the Japanese carrier Chuyo, which, unbeknownst to the Americans, was carrying survivors from the Sculpin, lost several days earlier. In Back from the Deep, author Carl LaVO recounts the histories of these two subs and their connection to each other through this singular and weird coincidence. Although the title suggests a more preternatural sharing of fates, and although the boats often shared moorings and bases and the like, these are the only times their paths crossed in such dramatic fashion. But an eerie coincidence it undoubtedly was, and one that became legendary among submariners.

Back from the Deep explores the legend by opening dramatically with Sailfish’s attack on the Chuyo and then flashing back to the accident of the Squalus. This affords LaVO the opportunity to explore the design of the boats and the personal backgrounds of their crews within the larger context of American submarine warfare in World War II. LaVO touches on the silent service’s overall strategic picture and on the progress of the war, but he concentrates on giving the reader a sense of what motivated enlisted personnel to join the submarine service and what life in that service was generally like for them. This inclusion is one of the strongest aspects of the book: LaVO’s narration is generally accurate and thoroughly researched based on solid documentation. His reconstruction of events, including quotations of dialog between the crew, is meticulous without losing its "readability" (he includes a "bibliographical essay" in which he cites his sources for specific passages in the text). Another strength is that he examines, with surprising thoroughness, how enlisted personnel trained (officer training is completely absent) at the Navy’s submarine school in New London, Connecticut, how they practiced emergency ascents, and how much of their equipment was designed and operated, such as the McCann Rescue Bell used to rescue stranded survivors from the Squalus. Furthermore, he articulates these things without overwhelming the lay reader in technical language.

LaVO’s journalistic style does have significant weaknesses, however, and in some areas the book suffers from its lack of technicality; for instance, the text includes a lengthy but fairly generic "virtual tour" of the interior of a World War II American submarine. A simple diagram or two probably would have served better. It is difficult for the reader to grasp the spatial relationships of items, stations, and accommodations from text alone – a perfect example of a picture being worth a thousand words (there are a few photographs included in the middle of the book that are generally good). Moreover, the book is something of a cliffhanger, with short chapters – some with evocative titles like "Lombok Nightmare" or "Terror on Truk" – that occasionally read like vignettes and which inevitably end on a "tune in next time" note. Casual readers may appreciate this, as it does give the book a quicker pace and a certain amount of drama that may appeal to a wider audience, but those more familiar with naval history (the most likely readers) will probably find it annoying.

 

 

There are also one or two factual discrepancies. For example, LaVO claims the Squalus sank on her nineteenth dive; esteemed author Clay Blair, Jr. states it was on her eighteenth. A minor quibble, perhaps, but Blair’s Silent Victory is generally regarded as the authoritative history of American submarines in World War II. LaVO also tends to wander a bit and stray from the main subject, perhaps as part of his effort to portray the life of the ordinary sailor; one tangent, for example, offers considerably more information about the New England hurricane of 1938 than is really necessary to expanding the reader’s knowledge of submarines.

Overall, though, the book is well worth reading. It presents the ordinary, the stark, and the touching without becoming sensational. It also includes unique material not found in such depth elsewhere, such as chronicling the ordeal of Sculpin’s survivors as prisoners of war in Japan. Ultimately, new readers of World War II submarine history will get a captivating introduction, and those who are already familiar with the Pacific submarine war will appreciate the further glimpse into personal experiences that Back from the Deep offers.

 


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