Friday, June 28, 2013

Book Review 287: Antisubmarine Warrior in the Pacific

The victories of the destroyer escort England get a couple of paragraphs in any general history of the war in the Pacific, always focusing on the decrypted intelligence that alerted the Navy that a scouting line of Japanese submarines had been set up.

Rolling up the line is then treated as a routine operation. According to John Williamson, who was executive officer of England, it wasn’t so simple.

England’s skipper was, according to Williamson, a dud who did nothing, so that Williamson ran the ship and, crucially, took the conn during the six successful attacks. Moreover, the other escorts in England’s division made unsuccessful attacks, before, at last, Williamson came in to finish up.

This sounds credible. Williamson seems to have had a geometrical mind, suited to judging where to throw his rounds to intercept a sub moving unseen below. (England used hedgehogs or mortar throwers, which exploded on contact.)

He developed something called a Williamson turn in order to bring a ship back exactly on a line she had traveled when attempting to retrieve a man overboard. This involved a a kind of complicated geometry that would be none too easy to work out on paper. He did it in his head.

Williamson wrote this memoir late in life. I wish he had said more about his background.

In the introduction, he says his family was so poor that they lived in a “tent with a retractable roof,” whatever that is. But after moving to Birmingham at a low point in the Great Depression, Williamson’s father, an electrician, seems to have done well enough. Well enough that Williamson was able to attend a four-year private college and graduate before Pearl Harbor.

Not many Alabama country boys managed that.

As a reserve officer, Williamson ended up in social circles that probably no other country  boy did. You will recognize the names of some of his dates.

For those more interested in warfare than in debutantes, Williamson provides a clear account of the difficulties of attacking submarines. His description of what it was like at the surface when a sub broke up below is more detailed than any I have read elsewhere.

The scene is grim.

Later in the war, as commander of England, Williamson’s ship was hit by a kamikaze plane, and his description of what happened then is also exceptional.


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