I recently finished reading Serenade to the Big Bird by Bert Stiles and whilst writing the review I read that there were a collection of books produced under the heading Uncommon Valor. Upon finding this out, I jumped on to the internet for a quick Google search of the complete list of books and found that USS Seawolf was on it. Having heard nothing of the Seawolf, her crew and its mission in the first half of America’s war I decided to take a gamble and purchase it. Let me tell you, I am very glad that I did because USS Seawolf was very much worth the 99p I paid for it on the Kindle store.
The story of the Wolf is told by Chief Radioman Joseph Melvin Eckberg who served at the sound station throughout the Seawolf’s first tour of duty. As an irreplaceable member of the crew, in one of its most important roles, he is an instrumental figure in the success or failure the Wolf experienced. His story, on the map, takes us all over the Pacific but it also takes us from fore to aft within the boat. This book is not a definitive overview of the Submarine as a weapon in the Pacific, in fact, it contains very little technical information about the boat. This book, like all of those within the Uncommon Valor series, keeps its focus very much on the men on board and the day to day happenings of life under the waves.
As omens go, the beginning of USS Seawolf is as effective as they get. Eckberg sets the tone immediately bringing our attention to the recovery of USS Squalus, lost with all hands, on a test dive the day Eckberg first sees the Seawolf. He comments that the Squalus has become “a floating tomb” and this idea is a source of so much tension throughout the story. There is a constant reminder that if anything goes wrong, if anyone acts incorrectly, then the Wolf and every man on her would be lost. What makes this so much more impactful, although it is not mentioned, is that the Seawolf was actually lost with all hands to a friendly fire incident later on in the war under a new captain and crew. At any moment throughout Eckberg’s telling this could have happened to him. Luck, both good and bad stalks every submarine.
Luck is another key theme and luck was necessary to pull off on of the Seawolf’s most daring mission. The worsening situation for the United States army in the Pacific led to a situation where a large portion of the men stationed in the Philippines were besieged in the fortress the Corregidor. The loss of a large portion of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and the constant air attacks on the Island meant that any conventional ship to shore resupply attempt was impossible. Instead, this mission fell to the Submarines which were packed with ammunition and supplies and sent on what was essentially a suicide mission. USS Seawolf was the first submarine to successfully carry out the task and proved that Submarines were capable of delivering quantities of supplies undetected to besieged areas. This mission, whilst my personal favourite account, is not the only incredible action Eckberg took part in. This book is packed with unbelievably brave decisions made in unimaginably dangerous situations.
I have read that USS Seawolf is America’s Das Boot, an almost unbelievable tale of war beneath the waves. The only real detractor from that statement is that Das Boot is a work of fiction and USS Seawolf is not. This book is another one that is worth a bit of time to read. If the rest of the Uncommon Valor series is this good I can’t wait to read them all.