Run Silent, Run Deep

Author:  Edward Latimer Beach, Jr.
Publisher: Cassell, Naval Institute Press
Year: 1955
Reviewer: Daryl Carpenter

This is where it all began, folks: The origin of every submarine cliche since 1955. Mercifully, the originator of those cliches happened to experience them first-hand, and was a pretty decent writer to boot. The author, Edward Latimer Beach, Jr., graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1939, and served on three submarines during the Second World War. This experience gave Run Silent, Run Deep a greater sense of verisimilitude than the vast majority of submarine novels written before and after it.

Run Silent is written from the 1st-person perspective of Edward G. Richardson, commander of the submarines Walrus and Eel. The story is framed as a transcript of a post-war tape recording describing Richardsonís experiences. Thereís even a humorous memorandum at the beginning noting that the "subject failed to confine himself to pertinent elements of the broad strategy of the war, and devoted entirely too much time to personal trivia." At the very least, Mr. Beach knew how to cover his tracks!

RS, RD begins in late December, 1941. Richardson is in command of S-16, a WWI-era training submarine based in New London. Onboard is Jim Bledsoe, a Prospective Command Officer undergoing his final "exam" before taking command of S-16. After a clumsy simulated torpedo attack, and a near-fatal diving accident, Bledsoe fails to qualify for command.

After handing S-16 over to the Free Polish Navy, Richardson is assigned to the new Gato-class submarine Walrus, with Jim as his Executive Officer. After more training, and a run-in with a German U-boat, the Walrus arrives safely in Pearl Harbor. Their mission is to seek out and sink Japanese ships wherever they might be found.

Walrusís first patrol turns out to be anything but routine. Just outside of "Area Seven" (the Bungo Suido) Walrus has itís first encounter with "Bungo Pete," an elusive Japanese destroyer commander who seems to know the names of his victims. After a severe depth charge attack, Richardson is forced to abort to Midway.

After a miserable patrol near the Aleutian Islands, Richardson learns that "Bungo Pete" has claimed three more American submarines. Returning to the Bungo Suido, Walrus attacks a Japanese convoy in a nighttime surface attack. Once again, Bungo Pete arrives on the scene, and Richardson is nearly killed by Japanese shellfire.

Rehabilitating in Pearl Harbor, Richardson assists in the effort to correct flaws in the Mk 14 torpedo's exploder. Jim is promoted to Captain of the Walrus, and becomes one of the highest-scoring skippers of the war. In the meantime, Bungo Pete is still on the loose, and has sunk two more submarine. Eventually, Richardson takes command of the Eel and returns to Area Seven. If you think heís just there to sink some nondescript freighters, well, youíve probably never read Moby Dick!

Published in 1955, Run Silent, Run Deep came at an interesting crossroad. The Submarine Force was known as the Silent Service - not because submarines of the time were particularly quiet, but because submariners were sworn to the strictest secrecy. Had it came out earlier, it probably would have been ridiculously jingoistic and unrealistic, or as I like to call it, propagantastic! If it came out later, it might have been watered down and distant.

Fortunately, Beach took a rather unusual middle ground. At times, the somewhat two-dimensional characters, and the ease in which Walrusís torpedoes found their targets, grated on my nerves. Fortunately, Beachís writing is lurid and detailed to a point where the reader never really questions anything until the end. In Bungo Pete, we find a skilled, professional antagonist who poses a greater threat than the waves of cardboard "Japs" usually found in novels of the time.

Run Silent, Run Deep became a popular film starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster in 1958. The movieís plot bares little resemblance to the bookís, and oddly enough, ratchets up the tension between Richardson and Bledsoe. In the book, some tension is present, but two-thirds in both decide to work together and are more productive as a result. In the beginning Jim is set up as the green rabble-rouser, and Richardson as the consummate submariner. However, as the story progressed, I continuously asked myself just who was the better leader.

Looking at it today, it would be easy to call Run Silent, Run Deep cliched. It was, after all, the first of it's genre. An easier target would be the bookís anticlimactic ending. After spending pages setting up Bungo Pete as a nearly unstoppable sub killer, his defeat comes across as far too easy. And while the ending is shocking even today, Beach seems to be in too much of a hurry to sweep it under the rug. Thereís also a minor romantic subplot that takes up maybe 15 pages, but slows the story considerably. Frankly, writers of military fiction should stop trying to write love scenes - they do nothing but make me cringe and squirm.

All told, Run Silent, Run Deep is a landmark novel that probably wonít resonate with readers quite as much as it did in 1955. Itís still an exciting piece of naval literature, so long as the reader tolerates Beachís quirks as an author.

 


 

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