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  • The USS Puffer in World War II: A History of the Submarine and Its Wartime Crew
  • Michael Sturma
The USS Puffer in World War II: A History of the Submarine and Its Wartime Crew. By Craig R. McDonald. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland Publishers, 2008. ISBN 978-0-7864-3209-7. Illustrations. Maps. Notes. Glossary. Bibliography. Appendixes. Index. Pp. xv, 335. $45.00.

The submarine USS Puffer is most remembered for suffering one of the worst depth-charge attacks of World War II. On its first war patrol in the Pacific, the Puffer attacked a Japanese merchantman in the Makassar Strait on the morning of 9 October 1943. The Puffer was subsequently pinned down by enemy escorts which claimed they sank the submarine. They were not far wrong. The Puffer spent nearly 38 hours submerged before it finally reached the surface, surviving what was likely the most prolonged dive of the war. The submarine’s atmosphere had been poisoned by increasing carbon dioxide, not to mention the stench of twenty-four defrosting rabbits that had been removed from the cold locker for dinner. Starved of oxygen and facing imminent death, some of the crew suffered breakdowns. There were rumours of men taken off the boat in straitjackets. The skipper, Marvin J. Jensen, was relieved of command and, so the story goes, most of the demoralized crew was dispersed to other submarines.

Craig McDonald is able to demonstrate that the story of the crew being scattered has been greatly exaggerated. Less than half of the officers left the Puffer’s wardroom, and less than a third of the enlisted men were transferred to other boats. McDonald also challenges stories that the men who survived the first patrol formed [End Page 1378] a mystic bond that new crew found impenetrable. The author’s father, Donald B. McDonald, Jr., joined the Puffer in the forward torpedo room on its second war patrol, so this seems to be based on good authority. Although the men were reluctant to talk about their experience on the first patrol, possibly under official orders, McDonald concludes there was no mystic bond.

McDonald traces in detail each of the Puffer’s nine patrols. Over the course of the war the Puffer was credited with sinking enemy shipping totalling 50,684 tons, and damaging another 13,769 tons. The submarine’s victims ranged from the 15,105-ton Teiko Maru to several 20-ton barges. McDonald’s account includes lengthy extracts from the Puffer’s war patrol reports. Some readers may find this distracts from the flow of the narrative, but others may welcome the opportunity to read the official record. The book also includes lengthy extracts from letters and diaries written by the Puffer’s officers and crew. Indeed, McDonald’s research has been assiduous and creative. He managed to track down many Puffer veterans, and is able to draw on their memories and memoirs.

One is able to learn much about the crew’s periods of leave in Hawaii, Perth, Guam and Midway as well as their experience on patrol. In a couple of cases, the book draws on courts-martial documents to describe violent crimes committed by crewmen on leave in Fremantle, Western Australia. One of the Puffer’s stewards was convicted of stabbing a civilian, while another crewman was imprisoned for involuntary manslaughter after killing an Australian sailor in a drunken fight.

The book is well illustrated with photographs and maps. While the Puffer’s war patrols are the central focus, McDonald also discusses the submariners’ training, the submarine’s construction at Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and its post-war career. The Puffer was decommissioned at Mare Island, California on 27 June 1946, but not long after became a training boat for the Naval Reserve at Seattle, Washington. It was eventually struck from the naval register in 1960 and sold for scrap. McDonald affords a comprehensive record of the Puffer’s service, and the inclusion of first-hand accounts from former crew members adds a precious resource for future researchers.

Michael Sturma
Murdoch University
Perth, Australia