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Posted on Jul 20, 2004 in Books and Movies

Gallant Lady: A Biography of USS Archerfish – Book Review

By Don Keith

O-Boat Joe and the Shinano, the Story of One of Naval History’s Most Amazing Sea Assaults

Out of war there inevitably emerge stories of victory and defeat, and we are sometimes reminded how narrow the boundary can be between each. The sinking of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s most prized, super-secret vessel, the aircraft carrier Shinano, by a U.S. diesel boat named Archerfish is a perfect example. It shows how luck, skill and tenacity can all come together, resulting in a glorious, history-altering success. Or how those same attributes can spell tragic defeat, depending on one’s perspective.

The story of that historic, fateful encounter includes so many unique aspects, so many fascinating subplots, it almost reads like well-crafted fiction or plays like a Hollywood movie. But it is all true and its characters are real. There’s a Japanese captain, soon to receive his stars as a rear admiral. This particular captain had once watched as two of his cohorts deliberately and ingloriously went down with their doomed ship after a fiery defeat at the hands of the Americans.

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Another primary character in this scenario is a massive new vessel, newly constructed, an "unsinkable" super-ship that is almost certainly the last great hope the Japanese Navy has if they are to regain the upper hand in the sea battle for the Pacific. But this spectacular vessel is "jinxed" from the very beginning.

Add in another interesting character, a promising but discouraged submarine commander, a self-doubting man who finds himself reborn, primarily as the result of a late-night poker game.
It’s a story that is now recognized as a classic of submarine warfare. Those are only some of the ingredients. Certainly, as with any historical battle, there are the elements of tactics, of decisions made under intense pressure, of guesses, right and wrong, that will be studied, dissected, analyzed for generations to come. But it is mostly a story of two men, two crews, two vessels, brought together one night on a moonlit sea.

Captain Joseph F. Enright seemed to have an unlikely heritage for a man who would become captain of a submarine. He was born in 1910, about as far from the sea as a man can be. He was a North Dakotan, the son of an Irish father and Norwegian mother. It was his Uncle Frank, his dad’s brother, a World War I Navy vet, who lit the spark. Frank Enright had regularly mailed his nephew postcards from the many exotic ports he visited, urging him to consider Annapolis when he was old enough. There was some appeal in those postcards to a young man who was growing up, working odd jobs and going to school in Bismarck, on the cold prairies of the upper Midwest, so Joe decided to follow his uncle’s advice. Thanks to his father’s urging, U. S. Senator Gerald P. Nye gave young Joe an appointment to the U. S. Naval Academy in 1929.

He did his family proud. Joe graduated from Annapolis in the top half of his class in 1933. As a raw ensign, he served for three years on the USS Maryland (BB-46) before entering submarine school. His first duty as a submarine officer was aboard USS S-38 (SS-143) stationed at one of those glamorous places pictured on his uncle’s postcards, Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. In 1939, he was transferred to USS S-22 (SS-127) based in New London, Connecticut. He was serving as that boat’s executive officer and the vessel was in Argentia Bay, Newfoundland, when word came of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Enright’s boat was quickly dispatched to Panama. Their mission there was to guard the Pacific entrance to the Canal from the Japanese. Six months later, S-22 was sent to Great Britain, but Joe Enright was not to make the trip. The Navy had bigger plans for the boat’s promising young XO. He stopped off in New London to assume command in June of 1942 of USS O-10 (SS-71). The O-10 was a school and teaching submarine that was used to take Submarine School students out for practice dives in Long Island Sound. Enright enjoyed this duty and was quite popular with everyone stationed in New London. He quickly became known to his friends as "O-boat Joe of the Oh One Oh."

Less than five months later, Enright became part of a new Navy initiative designed to get the service’s best and brightest young submarine officers ready for the unique, brutal undersea war that was already being fought in the Pacific. He was assigned to Prospective Commanding Officers School at New London. The school was really little more than a cram course in how to run submarine war patrols. Its first class was made up of ten experienced sub commanders who were on a fast track to captain new boats that were bound for the Pacific. Joe Enright was one of them.

They had no textbooks. They used actual war patrol summaries from battle action, reports so recent that they often showed up by airmail, fresh off the duplicating machines in San Francisco. Much of their class time was spent aboard two submarines, the USS Mackerel (SS-204) and USS Marlin (SS-205). While these were new, well-equipped boats, they did not have the size or range to be used against the Japanese. Still, they gave the students great experience in stalking and "shooting" at targets provided for them out on Long Island Sound. This also gave them the opportunity to practice the practical tactics that sub skippers were finding most useful against the Japanese. They could experience real-life situations only a few weeks after they had actually occurred halfway around the world.

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