Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War against Japan

Author: Clay Blair
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
Year: 1975 (Republished 2001)
Reviewer: Daryl Carpenter

I think we all know the story by now. Someone wanders into the SHIV forum, ignorant of the Pacific submarine campaign. He wants to read just one book that'll teach him everything he needs to know about the subject. Almost in unison, everyone replies "Silent Victory!" So just what is this Silent Victory book that garners such universal praise?

Silent Victory is a massive (1,104 pages), multi-layered account of the American submarine war against the Japanese Empire. It covers the submarine war, the "island hopping" campaign, codebreaking, and a number of other related topics. First published in 1975, Silent Victory was widely acclaimed as the most complete submarine history ever published. It drew some scorn from a number of former naval officers who'd been strongly criticized by Blair. It was also one of the first books to hint at the massive scale of Allied codebreaking operations, a key element of submarine success in the Pacific.

The day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States submarine fleet was given the order to "execute unrestricted air and submarine warfare against Japan." The rest is history, and almost 1,400 ships later submarines had almost blockaded Japan into surrender. On the flip side, 22% of American submariners were killed in action, the worst loss rate of any branch of the US military.

Losses aside, was it as easy as they show in the movies? Not by a long shot. The first 18 months of the war resembled more a comedy of errors than a well thought-out operation. Torpedoes (constantly in short supply) ran erratically and failed to explode. Boats were deployed willy-nilly far from concentrations of enemy shipping. Skippers, forced to be cautious, were frequently relieved for failing to press the attack. The Pacific and Australian submarine commands bickered between themselves incessantly. Sinkings were exaggerated, and medals were handed out at random.

It wasn't until mid-1943 when fortune changed to favor the "Silent Service." The new commanders were brash, battle-hardened, and eager for action. The torpedo faults were corrected, and the boats themselves were deployed more effectively. Guided by accurate intelligence, American submarines attacked Japanese supply convoys with increasing effectiveness. By early 1945, they could no longer afford to keep their war machine in motion. Critically, the movement of oil had almost stopped. Although they represented only 1.6% of total naval personnel, submarines sank 54% of all Japanese merchants sunk during the war.

Blair, who served aboard the Guardfish for two war patrols in 1945, is openly critical of many of the strategies employed during the war. He berates the ineffectual defense of Java and the Philippines, along with the ill-advised special missions insisted by General McCarthur. He makes a fairly convincing argument that had the torpedo issues been resolved, the commanders more aggressive, and the focus switched to severing supply routes, the war could have come to an end much sooner.

Accounts of American submarine operations in the Pacific are rather few and far between. After the war, the Navy published itís official history. Comprehensive as it was, it was still an "official history"; failures were glossed over, and every sailor was a flawless warrior, slapping the Japs for Ma and apple pie.

Silent Victory was the result of five years of intensive research by Blair. During that period, he consulted all 1,682 patrol reports and their included endorsements, along with the archives of Admirals Lockwood & Christie. He also studied the biographies of over 500 naval officers, and conducted taped interviews with nearly 220 people. Finally, he examined many operational orders and submarine bulletins, along with many published books and articles.

The massive amount of detail in Silent Victory will put off all but the most dedicated readers of submarine literature. However, I persevered and learned a lot about American submarine operations they I didnít know before. Iíll summarize some of the more interesting information in the following paragraphs.

At the beginning of the war, the US Navy ignored the tactics that German U-boats were using to great success at the time. Commanders were forced to attack submerged using sonar alone, and usually at long (2,000 yards or more) range. Attacking on the surface, within 500 miles of an enemy airbase, or with periscope raised were initially considered suicidal. As the war progressed, these restrictions were gradually relaxed, and by 1944 American subs were attacking convoys on the surface and engaging patrol boats with gunfire.

A "skipper problem" existed throughout much of the war. In 1942 alone, 30% of all submarine commanders were relieved due to unproductivity, lack of aggressiveness, and battle fatigue. This figure stayed around 15% in following years. Later on, captains who had completed a certain number of patrols were relieved and sent to command submarine schools and squadrons, or surface ships. As a result, the Navy was forced to rely on younger and less experience commanders later on.

I'm sure we're all aware of the notorious failures of the Mk 14 torpedo and it's Mk 6 detonator, but the extent of these failures are not widely known. It took 21 months for the torpedo to corrected, and the magnetic detonator itself was never operational. Clay Blair calls this "one of the worst scandals in the history of any kind of warfare." How many important ships could have been sunk if the detonator actually worked will never be known.

Submarines operating in the Pacific often dished out and sometimes received punishment to and from the wrong crowd. Russian ships were sunk on four occasions, and as targets grew scare some boats took their aggression out on native fishing boats. Allied aircraft frequently bombed American submarines by accident, and in one notorious accident the USS Seawolf was driven under and sunk by an American destroyer.

In 1944 and later, submarines often operated quite effectively in small semi-independant wolfpacks. No commander achieved success without some degree of aggressiveness, though the assertion that only young commanders could be aggressive was a myth.

Silent Victory is now more than 30 years old, and is starting to get a bit dated in places. The fates of many of the 52 submarines lost during the war weren't well known then, but are now. The book also came before the mass declassification of "Ultra" data in the mid-90s, meaning the Ultra data Blair was able to obtain mostly came from interviews he'd conducted. Blair also seemed to have an overinflated sense of the value of WWII-era submarines as defensive weapons. Based on the failure of the U-boats to stop British warships from disrupting Rommel's supply lines in the Mediterranean, I doubt that a handful of subs in Lingayen Gulf could have stopped the Japanese invasion.

Unless you're a really hardcore sub buff (well, that's probably half the site...), I wouldn't tackle this book in one fell swoop. Its long, and frequently overwhelming in the sheer number of dropped names (a cast of hundreds!) and its descriptions of naval warfare. It should have had a list of major personnel, like Gordon Prangeís At Dawn We Slept.

I have to give Silent Victory strong praise for being such a probing, complex, in-depth, and most of all, fantastically researched book. It may be a dense read but itís a labor of love and one of the most "complete" books Iíve ever read. Blair managed to shoehorn almost every American submarine action of the war into the narrative. That alone makes it a standard reference, at least until a revised edition, or a completely new operational history is published.

Silent Victory has a total of 12 appendixes, including a list of squadron commanders, top patrols by tonnage and ships sunk, and top-scoring skippers. An 83-page table lists each patrol, with data such as patrol length and area, commander, and credited versus confirmed sinkings. 32 pages of photographs are also included. If you own the two-volume hardcover edition from 1975, the maps are of slightly better quality in this reprint, but are still somewhat lacking in detail.



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