Wake of the Wahoo, a non-Book Review Review

I’ve never written a book review; this is not one, sort of. Book critics who use William Faulkner words and philosophical language to sell books, or not, intimidate me so I leave that skill to others. However, Wake of the Wahoo, by Forest J. Sterling, struck a chord with me and I wanted to share a few observations.

Wake of the Wahoo is the story of USS Wahoo, SS-238, the fabled US Navy WWII submarine that, in her short eleven months of service, sent an incredible twenty-one ships, over sixty-two thousand tons, to a watery grave before being lost, and presumably sunk by the Japanese, in November 1943.

The story is told through the eyes of the author, the sub’s yeoman, who managed the administrative affairs for both the sub and her crew. He made three war patrols on the Wahoo between October 1942, and September 1943. Petty Officer Sterling transferred from the Wahoo less than an hour before she left Midway Island on her final, ill-fated war patrol. He recommended his replacement, Yeoman Second Class William T. White, to his Skipper, then greeted Petty Officer White as he crossed the brow and reported aboard. Minutes later the Wahoo set sail.

The first thing that stood out in my mind is the manner by which P.O. Sterling brings the crewmen into the book. He introduces each Sailor the same way he would add them to the official crew list: Last name, middle initial, first name; Rate/Rating (specialty/rank); hometown, state. Here’s an example:

“Seeing Laffin, Sylvester J., Torpedoman First Class, Seattle, Washington, across the table, I wheedled, “Howsabout one of your sea-stores cigarettes, Laff?”” I found that extremely personal and touching.

As an aside, the back of the book contains three lists:
List one is the sailing list of Wahoo when she sailed from Midway Island on her final voyage.

List two contains the names of every man who served aboard Wahoo before her final voyage, her seventh war patrol.

As I came to know individual crewmen, I found myself referring often to the first list to see if they were lost when Wahoo sank. My own heart sank when I found a crewman listed.

The third list contains the dates, names, and tonnage of Wahoo’s sinkings.

It’s worth noting that WWII subs of the Wahoo class carried twenty-four torpedoes. What makes Wahoo’s feat incredible is that not every torpedo hits its intended target. That’s why subs fired a spread of several torpedoes, ensuring that at least one or two would find, and sink, their target. For her sixth war patrol, Wahoo received her complement of twenty-four torpedoes, a new model that was supposed to be a vast improvement over the older ones. However, so many of the “improved” torpedoes either detonated prematurely or not at all that Wahoo requested, and received, permission to abort her patrol and return to Hawaii for new (or old and reliable) torpedoes. To sink twenty-one ships in eleven months, knowing that not every fired torpedo found its target, is amazing.

The second thing that struck me was the way I found the book divided. The first part introduces the reader to Wahoo and the submarine service, her crewmen and the sub’s routine, both in port and underway. The author uses enough detail that the veteran submariner will shed a sentimental tear. The non-veteran will feel the close confines of a submarine; the cold, biting air of the northern Pacific during lookout watch from the periscope shears; the heart-in-the-throat race to get belowdecks when the sub dives; the intensity of a torpedo attack; the horror of depth charges; and the camaraderie of a cross-section of small town America in a floating coffin. This part of the book is fairly serious.

The second part of the book shows how the crew of a submarine, and the Navy in general, work as a Team at sea to meet mission objectives. The author gives the best description of what being depth-charged feels like that I have ever read – or seen in the movies. The German film, Das Boot, similarly portrays that feeling. In the book, the author writes that he stopped leaning against a bulkhead during a depth charge attack for fear his backbone would be crushed. Incredible description. I found myself identifying with certain crewmen, caught up with their lives and hoping I would not find their names in the first list. I found myself laughing at times as though I were part of the crew.

Also described is the sound of a torpedoed ship sinking. The hissing of air forced out of the ship’s confines; the imploding of bulkheads; the sound of men in the water. All these sounds pass through a submarine so that the sonar operator is not the only one to hear them. The aircrew of an airplane dropping bombs does not hear the sounds of the explosions or the screams of the dying. The submariner hears it all.

The third part of the book describes the sense of impending doom several of the crewmen feel and express to “Yeo,” as P.O. Sterling is called (every rating in the Navy has a nickname. The guys who work on aircraft engines are called nose-pickers; the ones who handle weapons – ordnancemen – are called ordies; Corpsmen are called Doc. I was  an aviation structural mechanic – a Metalsmith). He tells them he already knows he will live to see the year two-thousand, so they have nothing to worry about (he passed away in 2002, six days after turning ninety-one).

By this time, I knew the sub’s routine, the personalities of the men and officers, and felt what they felt. I identified with several and mourned the ones I knew would be lost with Wahoo. Having spent twenty-seven years aboard ship and ashore, I felt at home on Wahoo. I understood the language, the feelings, the annoyances. I knew which officers were snobs and which enlisted guys were dickheads. I knew the rush of pulling into a liberty port and the gloom of going to sea again. I also knew the awesome splendor of the night sky from the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This part of the book is more subdued, probably because I, and the author, knew how the story would end.

The book is all action – there is rarely a slow point. It’s full of adverbs and passive construction, and a lot of Navy lingo. The author makes up much of the dialogue – after so many years (the book was published in 1999) nobody will recall conversations, but the camaraderie is evident and true to form. The author has great descriptive ability but occasionally goes over the top. Some of the language and dialogue is stilted and too formal at times, but you lose sight of that when you turn the page and fall into more action. There’s a lot of humor that shows the human side of the crew, and no  real obscenities (at one point, “Yeo” uses the term ‘bat-feces.’ “Yeo” meets and goes out with a woman he meets while on liberty in Brisbane, Australia, and we know they spend the night together, but it isn’t blatantly obvious. It takes great skill to describe lovemaking without actually describing it; the author possessed that skill.

So. There you have it. My non-book review book review. I loved the book, probably because I spent eight years stationed in Hawaii; manned the rails many times as my ships sailed past the USS Arizona memorial on the way to and from Pearl Harbor; sailed the same parts of the Pacific Ocean as Wahoo and her crews; partied the same way in port, and bitched the same way at sea. I identified with the camaraderie, stood similar watches aboard ship, steeled my abs for depth charges, laughed at the jokes, and shed a tear when the brow was pulled in as Wahoo left Midway.

As a writer I tsk tsked at the adverbs and passives, but smiled at the ability of Forest J. Sterling to make me feel like I was sitting across the mess table from him, inhaling the cloud of cigarette smoke from his chain-smoking.

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