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Iron Men & Tin Fish


Iron Men and Tin Fish: The Race to Build a Better Torpedo During World War II


For the first twenty-one months (historical time) of each Pacific Thunder Campaign, we experienced the frustration real American skippers knew with the Mark 14 torpedo - or at least we pretended to. The magnetic influence exploders rarely worked, the "fish" ran too deep, and the firing pins were faulty. If combat insignia were awarded for torpedoes that failed to explode we'd be in the money. Instead, like the crew of the USS Wahoo tied up at Pearl Harbor's Submarine Base after their sixth patrol, we were somewhat depressed because "There had been no damage to the enemy - thanks to pickles or fish, as torpedoes were also called, that failed to explode." 1 In the words of Wahoo's legendary commander, Mush Morton, "Either they do not explode or they run too deep or they explode too soon." 2

Unlike Mush Morton and his crew, we did not put ourselves in harms way by attacking Japanese shipping with dud torpedoes. We certainly often faced the wrath of convoy escorts in the game. And sometimes they won. But we returned with the appropriate roman numeral after our name and lived to be the silent hunter again. For the real World War II submariners it was a more serious matter. How many of them died because of the faulty torpedoes? Why didn't the Navy act more quickly to resolve the problem? Why was the faulty weapon put into use without appropriate testing? And who, ultimately, is to blame for this great scandal?

Anthony Newpower explores these and other questions in Iron Men and Tin Fish: The Race to Build a Better Torpedo During World War II. The original hard cover edition was published in 2006. The paperback edition reviewed here was published in 2009 by Naval Institute Press. The conclusions he reaches may surprise you. In the Pacific Thunder Campaign, I believe we traditionally laid the blame on BuOrd's doorstep. But the facts show the head of BuOrd was very involved in trying to fix the torpedo problem - he had a great relationship with Lockwood and was very open to input from experienced submariners. On the other hand, the employees of the Newport Torpedo Station were a major roadblock to resolving the torpedo issues. The organization had become "...the U. S. Navy's unchallenged authority on all aspects of torpedo design, development, and manufacturing." 3 It enjoyed a sole-source monopoly embued with political favoritism and a "broken-missle" workforce. 4 Because of this, economies of scale, quality, and production volume were terrible.

For me, one of the most interesting parts of this book is Newpower's discussion about the torpedo tests Lockwood and his staff organized and executed - first to resolve deep-running issues and later to pinpoint issues with the exploder's firing pin. The innovation of Lockwood and his staff in conducting these tests and later in fabricating effective firing pins from materials taken from downed Japanese aircraft is remarkable.

Newpower also explores the German torpedo problems experienced early in the war. These were remarkably similar to problems experienced by the Americans - magnetic exploders that rarely worked and "fish" that ran too deep. In fact, regarding these problems, Newpower opines that "...many of Grand Admiral Donitz's comments could easily have been made by Rear Admiral Lockwood or vice versa." 5 He also discusses the significant British and Japanese successes with their contact-exploder equipped torpedoes - neither country used the magnetic exploders that had caused so many problems for the Americans and Germans. Newpower also tells you up front that he does not address the issue of circular-running torpedoes even though they were evident throughout the war.

Newpower is a good writer. His research is presented in a well-organized and informative manner. The book also has a useful bibiography that will lead you to other interesting sources on this topic. I recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn the basic facts about the torpedo problems that plagued American submariners in World War II.

Footnotes:

1. Lockwood, Vice Adm. Charles A., and Hans Christian Adamson. Hellcats of the Sea, p. 7

2. Ibid., 8.

3. Newpower, Anthony, Iron Men and Tin Fish: The Race to Build a Better Torpedo During World War II, p. 23.

4. Anyone who has worked for Uncle Sam probably knows that a "broken-missle" is an employee who doesn't work and who you can't fire.

5. Newpower, Anthony, Iron Men and Tin Fish: The Race to Build a Better Torpedo During World War II, Preface.