Eugene Fluckey's THUNDER BELOW
Book review by Dennis D. McDonald
I’ve always been partial to tales of the sea. As an undergraduate at Ohio State a profound experience with Moby Dick almost convinced me to declare American literature is my major. As I grew older the adventures of Hornblower and Aubrey/Maturin caught my fancy. On the big screen anything with submarines, sailing ships, or triremes had me transfixed (“ramming speed!”) Even the vicarious pleasure I experienced watching my kids rowing at high school crew regattas felt profound.
That said, THUNDER BELOW is the real article. It’s a true life history of how one submarine and it skipper experienced the Pacific War from the front-and-center perspective of the American Navy versus Japan.
It’s a somewhat sanitized telling of how methodical, error-prone, and exhilarating warfare at sea and underwater could be when radar was just beginning to seriously change hunter-killer tactics. The author was a submarine skipper and he re-creates events from memory, interviews, the illegal diary kept by one of his crewmembers, and Allied and Japanese archives.
Structurally the book follows missions one after the other as Fluckey’s sub and its ever-evolving crew track down and blow up Japanese shipping. The human costs of the venture is not minimized. This is neither a patriotic flag-waving view of war from the winning side, nor is it an overly emotional hand-wringing mea-culpa for causing so much death and destruction. It’s a “procedural”: this is the job we had to do, we did the best we could with the tools and skills we had, and we never forgot we were trying to destroy property and other human beings.
And it’s exciting. The constant diving to evade aircraft attacks, the waiting while submerged for depth charges to explode (keeping count of them always), the rapid surfacing and calculation of torpedo trajectories — the reader can’t help but get caught up.
Then at the end we have a night time attack by a volunteer landing party to blow up a passing train using jury rigged explosive devices and weight triggered microswitches. It reads like the Guns of Navarone but it’s real.
I read a lot of history books where you get caught up in the sweep of big ideas, big movements, and larger-than-life historical figures. In THUNDER BELOW we have a captain, his crew, and the ship, doing their job while trying to stay alive. It’s a keeper.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Dennis D. McDonald