Sunday, November 8, 2015

You & WWII: Bonejarring 'Wake of the Wahoo'

Review by Bill Doughty

Ever wonder what it would be like to step into the shoes of a World War II veteran back in the 1940s? 

Former Navy Yeoman Forest J. Sterling helps us smell the diesel, feel the pressure changes and taste the salty air when his submarine surfaces after a tense, bonejarring attack. "Wake of the Wahoo" takes the reader across the breadth of the Pacific for "The Heroic Story of America's Most Daring WWII Submarine, USS Wahoo" and shows the spirit of shipmates at war.

With a foreword by retired Vice Adm. Charles A. Lockwood, the people are real, the action is intense, and the life on the boat and on liberty rings true, whether the crew is playing cards, eating sardine sandwiches, dealing with bum torpedoes or dodging Layson Albatross ("Gooney") birds on Midway in between missions.

Captain Dudley "Mush" Morton is shown to be an innovative and tough but caring leader who placed the welfare of his crew above his own. Lt. Cmdr. Dick O'Kane, who would one day be awarded the Medal of Honor and go on to become a rear admiral, is depicted as an intense and dedicated warfighter.

Sailors experience the extreme and the mundane.

Sterling writes about heading out for deployment from Wahoo's homeport in Hawaii:
"Wahoo backed clear of the pier and turned. She shook as the screws reversed, stopped and then headed proudly out of Pearl Harbor Channel. On the pier, the spectators were straggling off to their routine jobs, and on the Wahoo, I stood watching with my stomach churning in excitement. There was a sudden silence about the ship, and I noticed everyone who was topside had done likewise. Krause was two-blocking the Colors, after having dipped the flag in a Wahoo salute. I found myself wishing that on this patrol Wahoo would in some small way help to atone for the sacrifice made by the men still entombed aboard the Arizona."
He describes fear and determination during a depth charge attack from above:
"Wahoo was searching frantically for the bottom, piling tons and tons of protective water over her back. 'Rig for depth charge, rig for depth charge.' I felt Wahoo's decks level off and at that instant Pandora's box opened and all hell broke loose. Three depth charges went off in succession, seemingly right on deck over the crew's messroom. We were plunged into complete darkness, and a loose piece of metal shooting through the void struck my left ear, causing it to sting sharply. Dishes stacked on the tables were lifted and thrown about. Loose knives and forks flew about at random, their screaming lost in the blasts of the depth charges. Patches of cork showered down, followed by a ventilationless room full of smoking dust."
More action topside as the deck gun and twenty millimeters fired on an armed enemy motor launch, with Sterling standing watch and observing:
"Whenever the deck gun went off, I flinched from the shock wave that followed. There would be a blinding flash of yellow, which I saw from the corners of my eyes against the binoculars, the shock jarring my whole body, followed by a cloud of acrid white with brownish tints and pale blue colors drifting into view on the starboard side of the ship. A sharp explosion of a shell going off near the twenty millimeters caused me to jump. I looked down and saw the barrel pointing in the air and Gerlacher staggering dazedly away from the gun. Glinski was sitting on deck and looked stupidly at his right foot. The shoe leather was brutally torn and I could see blood spurting from a wound onto the deck. I resolutely returned to scanning the ocean."
This is a personal account of submariners who, according to Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz, played a critical role in achieving victory in the war. Nimitz, himself, stepped aboard Wahoo to present the crew with the Presidential Unit Citation signed by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox after the sub's third war patrol.

Wahoo took on Japanese freighters, destroyers, troop transports, and other submarines, sinking 21 ships of 62,963 tonnage.

Sterling is a good writer because he was a good reader, describing how he and his shipmates would read magazines like Look, Reader's Digest and periodicals about the American West. They read newspapers and studied atlases when they weren't playing pinochle or eating, another favorite pastime. On the menu aboard the submarine: mincemeat pie, chili con carne, "Dagwood sandwiches," corned beef and cabbage, fried chicken and apple pie with a slice of cheese.

In the book's preface, Sterling says the story and life aboard the ship "can only be told by someone who was there." Just prior to the Wahoo's last fateful mission, Sterling was suddenly transferred to a school to help him become a better yeoman and make Chief. (He would rejoin the Pacific War and participate in landings at Saipan, Tinian, Guam and Leyte before rejoining the Silent Service.)

Wahoo ship's bell recovered and on display.
Sterling shares poignant memories of seeing Wahoo sail from Pearl Harbor one last time. He closes the book with a recommendation about O'Kane's book "Wahoo" and ends with this message to shipmates:

"Sorry, fellows. I should have been with you. I can never understand why Captain Morton changed his mind and transferred me at the last moment. My spirit has been with you all these years." Sterling died in 2002 and is interred at Biloxi National Cemetery.

Adm. Jonathan Greenert congratulates new CNO Adm. John Richardson Sept. 18, 2015. (USNI)
This book was a personal recommendation from Adm. Jon Greenert, who served from Sept. 2011 to Sept. 2015 as Chief of Naval Operations. Greenert, like current CNO Adm. John Richardson, is a submariner. While Greenert commanded the U.S. Seventh Fleet out of Japan, an international team discovered the remains of USS Wahoo in 2005 in the Soya Strait.

At different times Greenert and Richardson commanded USS Honolulu (SSN 718) in Pearl Harbor earlier in their careers – in the wake of the Wahoo.

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