Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"Full Fathom Five" Review

Mary Lee Fowler, daughter of S-39, Skipjack, and Cisco skipper James "Red" Coe, has written a new book, "Full Fathom Five: A Daughter's Search", dealing with her research to learn more about the father she never met. Cisco was lost on her first patrol, but not before her skipper learned his wife was pregnant with their third child. Following his loss, Mary Lee's mother remarried and essentially buried her first husband's memory in an effort to move her family forward and save them unwanted grief. It wasn't until her mother was near the end of her life that Mary Lee began to wonder what sort of man Jim Coe had been. The ensuing years of research revealed not only her father's distinguished naval career but a deep examination of her mother's actions following his loss and how it affected her family.

As you might imagine, this is not the standard WWII submarine history book. While there is plenty of insight into WWII sub ops, especially early war issues such as skipper aggressiveness and torpedo trouble, Mary Lee has taken a decidedly personal approach to this work of creative nonfiction. A gifted writer, she gives intimate details of her own struggles to cope as a young girl with the loss of a father she never new, and his abusive surrogate. She also examines the strained relationship she shared with a mother who essentially expunged her first husband's memory from her life for decades and the impact that had on the rest of the family.

Fortunately, things do turn naval soon enough and through her considerable research, Mary Lee paints a vivid picture of pre-war submarining and the Asiatic station where cheap servants made life easy for the wives and S-boats challenged the husbands. As war approached and families were recalled to the states, Jim Coe assumed command of S-39. Following the commencement of hositilities with Japan, he took the ancient boat into combat. An affable, fun loving personality, Coe proved to be an able skipper and turned in some of the few productive S-boat patrols.

Coe's reward for his performance was command of Skipjack. His successful ways continued, despite torpedo failures. A forthright commander, Coe didn't hesitate to highlight his personal opinion of faulty ordinance in his official reports. However, he did leaven the complaints with diplomatic language. As a result, Coe's boat was used by Admiral Lockwood to conduct the live torpedo tests which revealed the first of their many flaws: faulty depth keeping.

Eventually, Coe returned to the states to assume command of the new construction boat Cisco. A competition among yards to produce the fastest construction time from keel laying to first sinking on patrol cut the build time for the boat to under 60 days. It also created a host of mechanical problems due to hasty workmanship. While Coe agreed his boat was ready to put to sea, issues remained: primarily a persistant oil leak. It is thought by many to be an oil leak which lead to her discovery by the Japanese while submerged in shallow water. Whatever the case, she embarked on her first war patrol and never returned.

By the end of her journey, Mary Lee had a profound new appreciation for her father. But she also came to understand her mother, who passed away at the beginning of her research, in a new light and developed a deeper sense of family with her siblings. Even her political views were impacted. The opportunity to make the trip with her, to get to know the author in her forthright self examination, as well as sound some underreported waters of the Pacific submarine war, cobine to make "Full Fathom Five" an unusual, and extremely satisfying, read.



About Me

The first 'grown up' book Paul Crozier ever read was "War Fish" by George Grider. Since then he has spent most of his life researching the U.S. Submarine Force in WWII and USS Wahoo (SS-238) in particular.


This blog is dedicated to all who have served in the U.S. Submarine Force. Thank you for your service and sacrifice.

Admiral Chester Nimitz

"We shall never forget it was our submarines that held the line against the enemy while our fleets replaced losses and repaired wounds."

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