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“Submariners assumed that if they were sunk, they would die. That’s why many never bothered training to escape; it seemed pointless”

“No,” Alex Kershaw laughs, “I’m always asked, but I’m not related to [Hitler biographer] Ian Kershaw.” Like his nonrelative, though, he has carved out his niche as a scholar of World War II. Born in England forty-two years ago, he worked as a journalist and emigrated to the United States in 1994. He wrote a few screenplays: “None of them were ever actually produced, but they taught me about blocking out scenes and pacing and such.”

His first book, Jack London, tackled the outsized life of that American writer. The next, Blood and Champagne, was a controversial biography of war photographer Robert Capa. Then came bestsellers powered by his human touch, dramatic flair, and meticulous research. The Bedford Boys chronicles one town’s home front war and the experiences of its sons on Omaha Beach. The Longest Winter tracks the war’s most decorated platoon through the Battle of the Bulge and a POW camp. The Few remembers the American flyboys who violated the Neutrality Act to join the RAF. Kershaw’s latest, Escape from the Deep, tells the suspense-driven story of the USS Tang, the high-killing navy submarine sunk by its own torpedo during a late 1944 “unrestricted warfare” run near Formosa.

Why retell this story now?

I’ve always loved submarines and submarine stories and movies, and I was looking for an adventure story, really. And that’s what became my book’s center: the escape. I saw it as a powerful story about human survival that took place during the war. I mean, there you are, in the forward torpedo room, 180 feet below the surface, and your only escape route is through a tiny room where you have to survive pressure equalization. That’s six or seven times surface pressure. So your head is exploding, you’re talking like you’re on helium, and blood can start gushing from your nostrils and ears. If you manage to stand that, then you have to very slowly and carefully find your way up a knotted line through the dark water, pausing at every knot to try to avoid the bends, or just getting lost and drowning. It’s no wonder, really, that only nine men out of about forty managed to pull it off. Many of them didn’t even want to try; some just pulled the blankets over their heads and waited for the inevitable, as the water and smoke and battery acid gradually leaked into their sealed compartment. So this is a story about human endurance. And it was historic: it was the first time Americans escaped from a submarine in a situation like this. You have to remember, submariners assumed that if they were sunk, they would die. That’s why many never bothered training to escape; it seemed pointless.

You almost gave up on this book early on.

When I first talked to Larry Savadkin, one of the three surviving crewmen from the Tang, he seemed noncommittal. I didn’t know then that he had early Alzheimer’s, so I decided to move on to another submarine story. I didn’t want to do a book without that sense of commitment, because you get really involved in the lives of the people whose stories you’re telling. I’m not interested in strategy and operational decisions. What I care about is how history affects people’s lives. Historians like David McCullough write about this incredibly well. The loftier stuff I leave to the academic military historians. I’m a journalist, so I think that while people who actually experienced the war are still alive, we should talk to them. What they remember is astounding, especially about moments that changed their lives—like the Tang’s sinking.

What drew you back to the Tang?

When I talked to [Floyd] Caverly and [William] Leibold, the only other survivors still alive, they were really enthusiastic about my doing a book. That more than canceled out the initial reaction I’d gotten from Savadkin, who was quite helpful afterward. I gradually got the sense that they felt ever so slightly like they’d been standing in [Tang captain Richard] O’Kane’s shadow all these years. They turned out to be amazing sources. Then it became a question of assembling the puzzle and deciding which pieces to emphasize.

There are amazing vignettes: Caverly and Leibold, adrift in the Pacific, countering hypothermia by floating in their own urine.

And keeping each other alive. They did that in many ways; each of them kept coming up with ideas. They remembered everything with such clarity, the way you do when it’s total disaster, you know? The escape, the camps, but especially their time in the water, all these years later—they remembered all these details. They recreated conversations verbatim. It helped bring the story to life.

A great story with a great twist: they’re sunk by their own torpedo.

It doesn’t get any better than that as far as reversals, right? And lurking in the background is the idea that maybe O’Kane did push too far with that last shot—he was a hunter, after all, a killer. Maybe not a Captain Ahab, the way a couple of the crew saw him, but definitely someone who is going to take enormous risks to achieve his goal, which is to sink the most enemy ships of any American sub. He is highly competitive, to say the least. So there is a nice historical irony in having his sub sunk by this torpedo that literally reverses course. He himself, in a way, was enormously lucky. Being up on the bridge when the torpedo hit, he was literally thrown clear of the boat into the sea. He didn’t have to face what his men below did. He wasn’t tested that way.

But for O’Kane, as for the rest, the Japanese camps await.

And they are brutal—the endless beatings, the lack of food and medical treatment. They were special prisoners, not POWs, which put them at even greater risk. But they also met humane Japanese here and there. I felt this was important to get across: there was so much racism on both sides during the Pacific war. This is the first book I’ve written about that theater, and it really struck me how much propaganda both sides were pumping out—Bushido and slanty-eyed Japs. It was different in Europe. Working-class Americans who liberated Dachau could likely have ancestors who emigrated from a nearby town. At Ofuna (a naval POW interrogation center), the Tang’s crew witnesses an American B-29 firebombing. The destruction shocks them.

Less than half of the Tang’s survivors had happy homecomings.

Remember that when a sub sank the way the Tang did, everyone, including the navy, assumed all hands were lost. Wives and families might talk about their loved one being alive, but it was more hope than real belief, I think. Savadkin’s wife had another guy’s child. When [crewman Clay] Decker comes back, his wife meets him with their four-year-old and tells him she’s married somebody else and collected [Decker’s] life insurance. Yet it was the thought of her that kept him, it’s what made him dare the escape. That was the main thing the men who made it out of the Tang shared: the compelling thought that they had to see their loved ones again. But that doesn’t mean it had to work out.

What attracts a British expatriate to these American tales?

I sometimes wonder if I watched too many war movies as a kid—too much hero worship, you know? But really, it was America’s finest moment, the peak of its achievement. World War II had less gray areas than any conflict since: Americans saved Europe, and the world, from having the light of hope and freedom extinguished. It sounds very neocon today, but there you are. That doesn’t make American soldiers the “greatest generation” in the cheap marketing sense that term has come to be used in. Most of them were working-class guys who were just doing a job. They wanted the war to end so they could go home. The amazing thing is how much they accomplished with that attitude, without any self-consciousness or halos. They changed the world, and created the world we still live in. That’s quite a historical achievement.