Saturday, December 15, 2018

Spending Time Reading

It can be very difficult to separate productive activities from total wastes of time. One person’s fascinating hobby is another person’s lost opportunity to accomplish something useful. For instance, right now I am in the middle of a huge book called, “World War II at Sea,” by Craig L. Symonds. It’s a vast undertaking, reading the book I mean, although the war at sea was also a considerable effort.

I will admit, I was conflicted about ordering the book. (Kindle edition.) There were a few reasons. Most notably, I’ve read professionally written individual history books about most aspects of the naval war. Focusing on the war with Japan, I’ve read multiple books about every major action. Hell, I’ve read at least five books dedicated to the Battle of Midway alone, one of which was written by a Japanese flight leader. Why cover all of that ground again? Not to mention that my Kindle was already backed up with lengthy articles concerning matters with more current relevance. It turns out that it was all worth it.

The book offers two things that the individual books often overlook: smaller events over in the corners somewhere, and the big picture. The author takes considerable pains to illuminate what was happening elsewhere on or under the world’s oceans while any particular thing was happening in a particular place. It was all connected somehow; everything affected everything else. Like a spider web: if you tug on one corner, the whole thing moves.

It is easy to imagine that all serious historians of a particular subject read, or at least see, all of the available documentation, but there is more to it than that. Historians, like people in general, always bring some individuality to the table. They include different details according to their personal styles. There are little bits in this large volume that I have never seen anywhere else.

Such as the directions for using a toilet on a Balao class submarine while the boat* is submerged:

“Shut the bowl flapper valve, flood the bowl with sea water through the sea and stop valves, and then shut both valves. After using the toilet, operate the flapper valve to empty the contents of the bowl into the expulsion chamber, then shut the flapper valve. Charge the volume tank until the pressure is 10 pounds higher than the sea pressure. Open the gate and plug valves on the discharge line and operate the rocker valve to discharge the contents of the expulsion chamber overboard.”

It’s just that easy! What could go wrong?

I was on one of these boats as a tourist in Buffalo, New York. My ten-year-old son and I went to the old Navy yard where they had this submarine and a surface ship that I have completely forgotten. Maybe it was a battleship? Take that as a sign of how fascinating the submarine was.

They took us on a tour of the entire submarine. They could only take about seven people at a time due to the extreme space limitations. They took us forward so that we and the guide were all standing in the forward torpedo room. Sure enough, there were six round doors on the front wall, and those were the torpedo tubes. There was some kind of a hoisting device on the ceiling and two torpedo sized cradles on the floor attached to a jack system. Lower a torpedo onto the cradle and line it up with the open door, then shove the torpedo into the tube. Repeat six times. That small group of us just standing around made the room feel small and crowded. Then the guide explained to us that beginning a combat patrol, that room would be storing more than a dozen torpedoes strapped to the walls, and sure enough, there were strong looking brackets up there to receive them. Then came the boffo line, when he told us that out on patrol there would be nineteen men bunking in that room with the torpedoes. By now I realize that they would have been “hot-bunking” it, twelve on and twelve off, so that half could be sleeping at any given time while the other half worked. They slept in hammocks strung up among the torpedoes.

The guide showed us a toilet, too. A man couldn’t stand up in it; the door was tiny; the room was an irregular shape and it had a footprint only slightly larger than the toilet itself, which was smaller than any that may be in your residences right now. We now know what all of the valves on the wall were for. Excuse me, that would be the bulkhead, there are no “walls” at sea. A combat patrol was forty-five to sixty days, or whenever they ran out of torpedoes.

So yes, I am mightily enjoying this book, even though I am usually going over familiar ground. Mr. Symonds is a good writer, and I would recommend the book to anyone with a modicum of patience for such things.  As for the inquiry at the beginning of this post, concerning the separation of productive activities from total wastes of time, you can guess my true opinion.

Everything that we do is a waste of time. It’s all that we are capable of. Like Anne Frank said: what a shame! Everything that we do in life comes to nothing in the end. Still, reading books is slightly better than getting loaded. 

*Submarines are somehow always referred to as boats. This Balao class submarine displaced 1,500 tons, which made it larger than many Navy ships. Modern submarines are huge, but they are still boats. The difference between a boat and a ship has been described to me this way: you can put a boat on a ship, but you cannot put a ship on a boat. This was definitely intended as a wise-crack, but there is a lot of truth in it. How this applies to submarines I am not certain. Maybe it all goes back to the “U-Boat” thing. In German, by the way, boats and ships are “Boote und Schiffe,” so that’s no help. Early submarines were pretty small, and that might be the reason.

No comments: