Daves' Pick of The Best Submarine Books
Over the last ten years of corresponding with my fellow submarine history buffs,
I have been asked on several occasions, "How did you know that?" or some such question.
At times I have been surprised by this, as the answer is really very simple: I read a lot.
When I was a little kid, when my friends were reading and talking about Larry Bird,
racing cars, or their latest hunting trip, I had my nose buried in a book about submarines
or spaceflight (my other passion). In high school, when my buddies could recite performance
data of a Ford Mustang, I could tell you all about a Gato class fleet boat. Some of my
friends thought this was a little weird, but I didn't care much. It really fascinated
me and it got me to read some pretty advanced books, which greatly helped my reading
and comprehension skills. I think I was in 1st grade when the bug bit. I was looking
through some old books of my dad's and came across a battered 1st edition of Edward
Ellsberg's On The Bottom, the story of the sinking and salvage of the S-51 in 1925.
It was (and still is) a hell of an adventure story and I was utterly taken with it.
I read and re-read it so many times the book practically fell apart in my hands.
From that point on, I read everything I could get my hands on about submarines
and the navy, and had accumulated a rather impressive library of my own before I
had graduated high school. When I joined the navy in 1983, I had the singular bit
of luck of getting orders to the USS Darter SS-576, one of the navy's last diesel
boats and very similar to the famous fleet boats that I had read so much about. My
three-year experience on the Darter helped to solidify my understanding of what
I had read about for many years.
There is no real secret to being a good researcher and historian. It comes down
to three basic tenets: an intense interest in your subject matter, do a lot of reading,
and double check your references. I have come across a lot of submarine books over the
years, some good and some bad. The rise of the Internet has been a real asset, but you
have to be careful of what you see there. Without editors and peer review, errors tend
to pass on quickly and half-truths, rumors, assumptions, and out and out falsehoods
abound. The list that follows is what I feel are the essential references, both book
and Internet based, to submarine history. While I have read a lot of books, I haven't
read everything so this list is not all-inclusive, just what I think are some of the
best. Some of the books listed are currently out of print, but can sometimes be found
in the used book section of Barnes & Noble.com or Amazon.com.
The Fleet Submarine in the U.S. Navy: A Design and Construction History,
John D. Alden, Arms and Armour Press, 1979. This is the preeminent work on the famous
fleet boats. The information contained inside is absolutely reliable and it is written
in a style that doesn't put you to sleep. It is loaded with pictures, highly accurate
line drawings, construction way charts, and engine information. An essential part of a submarine history library.
U.S. Submarines Through 1945, & U.S. Submarines Since 1945: An Illustrated Design History,
Norman Friedman, Naval Institute Press, 1995 and 1994. This two volume set ranks even with Alden
in its reliability and most importantly covers the earlier and later years that Alden didn't cover.
They are loaded with line drawings by the eminent Jim Christley. However, these volumes are not
quite as readable. They are written in a very choppy academic style and Friedman frequently
refers to an extensive footnote section, which gets a little cumbersome. Even so, these books are essential.
Cold War Submarines: The Design and Construction of U.S. and Soviet Submarines:
Norman Polmar and K.J. Moore, Brassey's, 2004. A recent book by the "other" Norman, Mr.
Polmar has put out an excellent reference to the boats of the Cold War and has included
a lot of previously unknown information about both sides. Normally extremely reliable,
I have caught a few minor mistakes by Mr. Polmar in the past, but don't let this turn
you off to his books. In fact, I can recommend another of his:
The American Submarine, 2nd Edition, Norman Polmar, Nautical & Aviation
Publishing, 1983. A very good, short history that is loaded with photos. Not a lot
of in-depth details, but very readable.
The next four books are soft cover, "pamphlet" style books that contain excellent, detailed info about the fleet boats, lots of pictures, and some operations stuff:
Warship Profile 34: USS Barb (SS220) Gato Class Submarine: William H. Cracknell,
Hylton Lacy Publishers Ltd., 1973
The Floating Drydock: Fleet Submarines of World War Two: Thomas F. Walkowiak,
Pictorial Histories Publishing Co. 1988.
Ship's Data 5: USS Bowfin (SS287): Arnold S. Lott & Robert Sumrall, Leeward Publications Inc., 1975.
U.S. Subs In Action: Robert C. Stern, Squadron/Signal Publications, 1979.
Contains a few errors, but still very good.
Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan: Clay Blair, Jr.,
Naval Institute Press, 1975. The number one reference to the submarine war and
absolutely essential reading. Unbiased and utterly reliable, it presents the whole picture, warts and all.
United States Submarine Operations in World War II: Theodore Roscoe,
Naval Institute Press, 1949. I picked up a copy of this book while still in high
school and have read it many times. Written in an exciting, very readable style
it is a little easier to digest than Blair's book. However, being written in the
immediate post war era, there are numerous omissions due to prevailing wartime
secrecy, a few errors that have been revealed by later research, and it tends to
gloss over some of the less than savory aspects of the conflict. Take this all in
the context of the times in which it was written and don't pass this one up.
Undersea Victory: The Influence of Submarine Operations on the War in the Pacific,
W.J. Holmes, Doubleday, 1966. Hard to find and written in a format similar to Roscoe's, but
generally a little more reliable. Also contains good info on the Japanese side.
War Under the Pacific: Keith Wheeler, Time Life Books, 1980.
Part of the Time/Life World War II series, it is a brief but enjoyable read with good pictures.
Submarine: A Guided Tour Inside a Nuclear Warship: Tom Clancy, Berkley, 1993.
In typical Clancy style, a detailed and accurate look into modern submarine design and operations.
Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage:
Sherry Sontag & Christopher Drew, Public Affairs, 1998. Perhaps the most controversial
submarine book ever written, it contains previously deeply classified info about Cold
War operations. Read it and be amazed. 'Nuff said.
Wahoo: The Patrols of America's Most Famous WWII Submarine, Richard H. O'Kane, Presidio Press, 1987
Clear The Bridge!: The War Patrols of the U.S.S. Tang, Richard H. O'Kane, Rand McNally, 1977
Thunder Below: The USS Barb Revolutionizes Submarine Warfare in World War II,
Eugene B. Fluckey, University of Illinois Press, 1992.
If you want to learn how to take a submarine to war, listen to the best.
O'Kane and Fluckey were the best of all time.
On The Bottom, Edward Ellsberg, The Literary Guild of America,
1929. An all time classic. The bulk of the story concerns the diving and
salvage efforts on the wreck of the S-51, but it contains a lot of info and pictures about the famous S-boats.
Nautilus 90 North, William R. Anderson & Clay Blair, Jr.,
The World Publishing Co., 1959. The story of the Nautilus's trip to the North Pole as told by her captain.
Surface at the Pole, James Calvert, McGraw Hill, 1960.
The Skate's captain turned out to be a pretty good author. This is a good adventure story and is well written.
Around the World Submerged, Edward L. Beach, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston Co.,
1962. The great Ned Beach tells the story of his boat, the big USS Triton and her epic
voyage around the world. Beach is a wonderful author and tells a great story.
PICTURE BOOKS AND WEBSITES
Pictures. Ya gotta have them if you are to understand what is going on. It sometimes surprises me how very knowledgeable and intelligent people can look at a picture and not see what is in it! A lot of the research that I do involves looking at pictures sent to me or on websites and trying to figure out what is going on. You have to look carefully, not only at the boat in the picture, but what is in the background as well.
Through the Looking Glass: A Photo Essay of Submarines 1900 to 1940, Ric Hedman,
Through the Looking Glass,
a great companion site to Pigboats.com, Through the Looking Glass contains over 1700 pictures of U.S.
submarines in our early days, most from the personal collection of the author. A great research resource.
NavSource Naval History: Photographic History of the U.S. Navy, Michael Mohl & others,
Navsource is another prime research asset
with new pictures added almost everyday. Also includes pages for virtually every
other type of naval vessel as well.
United States Submarines, David Randall Hinkle, Naval Submarine League, 2002.
A great coffee table book, there is a lot of text to go along with the pictures, many not seen before.
Silent Chase: Submarines of the U.S. Navy, Steve and Yogi Kaufman,
Thomasson-Grant, 1989. Another coffee table book, it covers the modern boats and
probes deeply into the submariner's world.
While this might seem to be a strange source of research material, a well-written
novel by a knowledgeable author can greatly add to the understanding of how a submarine
works. There have been literally hundreds of novels in this genre published, with many
of them being almost worthless. Those listed below are the exceptions:
Run Silent, Run Deep, Edward L. Beach, various publishers, 1955.
This book is the granddaddy of them all and is arguably the best submarine
novel of all time. Along with the sequels Dust on the Sea and Cold is the Sea,
Ned Beach's trilogy makes for great reading and really gets into the mind of our WWII submariners.
Mission Tokyo Bay, & Swordray's First Three Patrols, Clay and Joan Blair,
Bantam Books, 1980. Written by the eminent author of Silent Victory, these two novels
were to have been part of a series, but it never went any further. Both were well written.
The Hunt for Red October, Tom Clancy, Naval Institute Press, 1984.
What can you say about Clancy's masterpiece? If you haven't read this yet, do it. You won't be disappointed.