We’re getting near the time of year when I have been asked to produce a ‘books of the year’ feature. This one is just in time to be considered, but I should advise that this is the paperback edition of a book published in 2013. Who cares about the cover material when we have a genuinely excellent read such as this one from John J Geoghegan.
This is a meticulously researched account of a Japanese submarine program intended to deliver a fleet of huge aircraft carrying submarines for attacks on the continental United States and other targets. As the program developed Japanese naval strategists agreed on a plan to attack the Panama Canal in the hope of halting the transfer of American assets into the Pacific theatre.
Along with the development of the submarines we see the design and construction of the superb Aichi Seiranaeroplanes intended to carry out the assault. The book is brimming with excellent portraits of Japanese naval personnel and their roles in the project. We also get a strong feel for the disintegration of Japanese naval power under remorseless attack by the United States.
Sadly, just when I began to have a degree of empathy for many of the principal Japanese characters, the author takes us to a succession of atrocities committed by them in the Indian Ocean after a decree was issued by the naval high command to murder survivors of sunken merchantmen. None of this makes for pretty reading but it is not included for a kind of one-dimensional sensationalism. It is there because the atrocities would have a direct bearing on the decision making of some of the guilty parties at the war’s end. At one stage a Japanese submariner rebutted the complaints of a sea captain about to be killed with “This is war!” Make your own minds up on that one.
In some ways this book is a bit like reading something about the Titanic or any other famous disaster where the final result is beyond question. The Japanese never sent a fleet of subs to attack the Panama Canal and the huge effort to build the submarines and aircraft came to nought. But there is so much of interest here, written in a well-paced but careful style, that I couldn’t put the book down.
I have to say I was fascinated by the account of the development of the Aichi Seiran floatplane for use in conjunction with the huge submarines, which could carry three aircraft. The sole surviving example is on display in the USA and looks superb in photographs, a testament to the skills of Aichi’s design team and the people who built the aircraft when Japanese industry was in such disarray due to shortages, earthquakes and bomb damage.
In tandem with the Japanese element of the saga we also read of the USS Segundo a fleet submarine which took the surrender of one of the huge Sentoku subs in 1945. This process allows the story to build on two levels before the all-important encounter between the Segundo and I-401. There are some laughable shenanigans at the end as senior US Navy figures line up to take credit for capturing the huge submarines leaving the men who actually did it robbed of war trophies and many Japanese sailors stripped of anything of interest including personal items. This is mitigated by the description of Japanese submariners doing much the same to the merchant mariners they subsequently butchered.
This book is a balanced piece of history telling, what modern media types here in sunny Britain like to call an unknown story. I often find this tag laughable because it actually means the story is unknown to them in the cosy bubble they inhabit. A quick scan of the internet reveals quite a bit about this story, but bringing all the strands together into one account makes the whole thing much more accessible, informative and entertaining.
So, Mr Geoghegan has written adefinite candidate for my ‘best of’ thing – whenever I get round to it and better late than never. This book is a ‘must read’ pure and simple.
Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.
Japan’s Secret Submarines and Its Plan to Change the Course of World War II
By John J Geoghegan
Published by Broadway Books