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A Measureless Peril

America in the Fight for the Atlantic, the Longest Battle of World War II
By Richard Snow

Read an Excerpt

“What’s the Matter with the Davis?”

Looking back on the Atlantic struggle

One hot, windy September afternoon in the early 1970s my mother and father came home to Bronxville from a two-week vacation in Maine. Bronxville is a town in Westchester County, half an hour north of Manhattan on what was then the Penn Central railroad. Like countless thousands of other couples, my mother, Emma, and my father, Richard, had quit the city in the hopeful months after World War II ended to raise their infant child in a house surrounded by suburban greenery and well-nourished public schools.

The beneficiary of this relocation came down to help them unload their luggage, and I was soon joined by Mr. Curcio, the superintendent of the apartment building in the village my parents had moved into after I’d gotten out of college.

Superintendent Curcio was a chatty, affable, powerfully built man (he once paused halfway up a flight of stairs to speculate with me at some length about the Mets’ chances, all the time holding two air conditioners, one under each arm). He scooped a half dozen suitcases out of the Chrysler, and as we headed toward the apartment, something—the weather, perhaps—reminded him of having taken part in the landings on Sicily in July 1943, and he began to talk about it.

“Look, I’m a wop,” he said cheerfully about his Italian heritage, “but let me tell you, once those wops on the beach were shooting at me, I was one hundred percent American. Guys begin dropping around me, and I start firing while I’m still in the water.”

The story continued until the suitcases were in front of the door. We all said thanks, and then my mother put a protective hand on my father’s forearm. “I’m so glad,” she told Mr. Curcio, “that Dick was never in action.”

AT A LITTLE AFTER eight thirty on the morning of April 24, 1945, a sailor said to my father, “What’s the matter with the Davis?” He meant the Frederick C. Davis, destroyer escort 136, and she looked funny, canted forward and apparently stopped in the water. My father was watching her from the deck of another destroyer escort, the USS Neunzer, DE-150. The Davis lay a few hundred yards away, but not for long. “Jesus Christ!” said someone. “She took a fish.” And sure enough, although nobody aboard the Neunzer had heard the explosion, a torpedo had struck the Davis’s forward engine room. Minutes later the Davis split apart and sank, taking 115 men to their deaths, while the Neunzer and seven other destroyer escorts—helped by planes from the escort carrier Bogue—set off on what would prove to be a ten-hour struggle against the submarine that had destroyed her.

While he unpacked in Bronxville, my father reviewed his role in this event for my mother, then added, with what seemed to me impressive mildness, “That’s generally considered having been in action.”

MY FATHER TOOK PART in the last great campaign of the Atlantic war. The Neunzer was one of a web of ships stretched across a hundred miles hunting an enemy that naval intelligence had reason to believe was going to launch rocket attacks against American cities. He was in at the end of the longest battle of World War II, indeed, of any war in history. If the Allies had lost that battle, they would have lost the war.

And yet, my mother’s remark was not ludicrous.

Few people today remember the Atlantic war as a battle, and even at the time only some of those who were in it saw it as a coherent effort. The Pacific was the picturesque war, the one where naval victories took the form we think they should: battleships hammering it out gun to gun, aircraft carriers deciding in a morning the fate of nations. Louis Auchincloss, already a lawyer, soon to be a novelist, but at the time the navigator on an LST (landing ship, tank) remembered, “Changing oceans was like changing navies. In the European theater the army and air force were everything; the navy, only a police escort. . . . Never shall I forget my first glimpse of the Pacific navy in the atoll Ulithi where the lines of battleships, cruisers, carriers, and auxiliary vessels seemed to stretch out to the crack of doom.”

Conquer an island; then conquer another island; then sink some battleships. That was a proper sea war. The Atlantic effort by contrast was strange and diffuse, week upon week of boredom endured in constant discomfort, fires on the sea at night and yet nothing there in the morning, eventually the unheroic sight of Halifax through the fog if you were lucky. It was a sea fight whose results were recorded on land. But it began on the first day of the war and ended on the final one, five years and eight months later. In the Pacific, the Battle of Midway broke a Japanese fleet in five minutes.

But the Allied aim in the Atlantic was not to destroy an enemy on the high seas. It was to keep a delivery system going: to get grain and aviation gas, chocolate and rifles and tires, oil and boots and airplane engines, from America to Europe. The trucks in this operation were merchant ships, some of them ancient, none of them carrying the martial glamour of a PT boat, let alone a cruiser.

One who did see the high consequence of this dogged chore was Winston Churchill. He said that the U-boat campaign was “the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war.” While the Atlantic battle was going on, he wrote, “How willingly would I have exchanged a full-scale invasion for this shapeless, measureless peril, expressed in charts, curves, and statistics.” The charts and statistics showed how many ships the German submarines were sinking, as against how many the Allies could build. It was “a war of groping and drowning, of ambuscade and stratagem,” said Churchill, “of science and seamanship.” If the stratagems failed, if the seamanship faltered, Britain would starve and the European fighting fronts would fall to the German army.

In Commander in Chief, his fine book about the American high command in the war, the historian Eric Larrabee wrote the arresting sentence “The Battle of the Atlantic was the war’s inner core, an only partly visible axle on which other contingencies turned.” That image has stayed with me since I first read it twenty years ago, although I can also see the battle as a vast drill bit or screw, with grooves a week or a month apart, turning and turning through the mortal years, always from America toward Europe, driving convoys eastward. Some of the vessels it carries will get through fifty trips without a scratch; some will burn and sink in front of vacationers on Miami Beach. Sometimes destroyers will protect them; sometimes there won’t be enough destroyers to spare for the job; and sometimes the destroyers won’t do any good at all, darting this way and that as the U-boats lance into the heart of the convoy and with a torpedo or two turn the months of manufacturing the ammunition and trucks and locomotives and radios and the days of loading them and all the time spent building the vessel that carries this cargo and the lifetimes of raising the crewmen who are attending it into a horrible inanity.

The battle killed nearly eighty thousand people: drowned them, crushed them, burned them, froze them, starved them in lifeboats. Far beyond the brutal vacancy of ocean that extinguished all those lives, an empire of strenuous ingenuity fizzed and crackled, whole cities running night and day given over to trying to outsmart the slim, dark shapes that Allied seamen so rarely saw.

It took three nations to end the U-boat campaign—the United States, Canada, and Great Britain—and Britain’s role in the immense task seems better remembered than America’s. In some ways this is just; in some, it isn’t.

The particular fight my father was in that April went just the way it should have. This despite the loss of the Frederick C. Davis. By then what Lincoln called the “terrible arithmetic of war” had established that an American destroyer was a small price to pay for a German submarine. Over the previous four years the U.S. navy had learned a great deal about how to cope with U-boats. Not one ship that took part in this final wide sweep had existed before the war began. I don’t just mean the vessels themselves, but the kind of vessels they were. The escort carriers—“baby flattops” that carried a fraction of the number of airplanes that rode in the immense fleet carriers that were going about their famous work in the Pacific—had been improvised to meet the crisis, and so had the class of ship my father served on, the destroyer escort, the DE.

This book tells the story of the American effort in the Battle of the Atlantic. The destroyer escort figures prominently in it because the ship represents a combination of practicality and ingenuity that America brought to the war; and, of course, my father was on one. He isn’t in this story through mere sentimentality on my part. I believe that he embodied the kind of war America fought and the kind of people that allowed us to win it.

Richard B. Snow (I escaped the inconveniences of being called Junior by grace of having a different middle name) was an architect. Before the war, his only connection with the sea was having ridden across it in ocean liners to study the violin in Paris. Born in 1905, he was old for active duty, and moreover he was married. Yet when the war came he pulled such strings as he could find, and although he had reached the wintry heights of his late thirties, he managed to wangle sea duty. In time he became a “plank owner” (part of the original crew) on a brand-new destroyer escort. His wife wasn’t happy about this, but he promised to write her every day they were apart, and he came surprisingly close to fulfilling this pledge. Recently I began to read those letters for the first time.

Before he went into architecture school, my father had studied at Columbia College with the critic, poet, and novelist Mark Van Doren, who encouraged him to become a writer. The letters suggest what it was that caught Van Doren’s eye. They’re fluent, sardonic, fond, observant, full of irony about many things but never about his work at sea, and not quite like any other war letters I’ve ever read.

But like the unique but widely produced ship he served aboard, my father’s letters encapsulate a vast common experience. This architect became a capable officer, and thus his career echoes those of the eighty thousand other Americans who became naval officers during those years—and of the twelve million Americans who were in uniform by war’s end. Five years earlier these warriors had no more thought of joining the military than of joining the circus. They at once brought about and were formed by the biggest, swiftest change that has ever overtaken our society.

If my father can speak for them, though, he can’t do it yet, because the story starts long before he traded his T square for a sextant. He will make only a few brief appearances before he ventures out into the Atlantic, that beautiful, malevolent thirty-million-square-mile battlefield where he and those like him were to win a great and underappreciated victory.

© 2010 Richard Snow

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