There are many history books on U.S. Navy submarine operations and personal accounts from submariners during World War II, however, Commander (ret.) John Alden, himself a submariner, noted that there were very few good history books on the design and evolution of the famous Fleet Boat-type submarine that served the Navy during the war. Hence, The Fleet Submarine in the U.S. Navy: A Design and Construction History is not a book about submarines in combat, but rather, a book about the evolution of submarine designs prior to, during, and immediately post-World War II.
One thing that Alden found during his early research was that there were very few men who knew about the design details for their particular submarines. This is something of a common theme among design histories in that they reveal the differences between an institutional design and front line usage. What I mean is that the operator of a piece of equipment may be extremely well-trained on how to use it, and they can break it down to its individual components, but they are often not aware of the design specifics. They know what it is and how it works, but they do not know why it was built the way it was.
It should be noted that this book is not an overall history of submarines in the U.S. Navy, so anyone expecting details on pre-Fleet Boat types or more modern designs should look elsewhere. There is some mention of earlier designs, such as the R, S, V, and T-classes, but only as they relate to the eventual development of the Fleet Boat type submarine. As with any design history, the devil is in the details. From their outward appearance, many of these different classes of fleet boats may look identical, but the difference is in the way they were engineered and the features that were incorporated into them due to wartime demands.
Thankfully, Alden writes well enough, and with enough description, to pound out the important details and nuances of the various designs. There is some usage of technical jargon, however, Alden has struck a nice balance between providing technical details and keeping the narrative moving for the layperson. In other words, you do not need an advanced degree in naval architecture, engineering, or a background in submarines to understand this book. Along with being a history of submarine designs, Alden also mentions prominent naval officers who worked in the Bureau of Construction and Repair (BuC&R), and later, the Bureau of Ships (BuShips) that was responsible for drafting up the designs. Furthermore, there are substantial portions of the book dedicated to describing the role of both government-owned and private shipyards that built the subs.
There are some descriptions of submarine combat in the book, but only as they relate to the capabilities of the designs. For example, the USS Salmon (SS-182) was subjected to a severe depth charge attack during her eleventh war patrol in October of 1944. In the course of her escape, she was forced down far below her operating depth of 250 feet. By some calculations, with the boat at an up angle, her aft compartments would have been around a depth of 600 feet. Amazingly, she survived and limped back to port under her own power, but was written off at a total loss when she returned to the States. That being said, the book remains focused on the design details of the subs.
Going beyond their wartime service, Alden further describes the design modifications to the Fleet Boats as the U.S. Navy experimented with snorkels and improved underwater speeds with the GUPPY conversions. Additional information is also given on which submarines were transferred to other nations, converted to troop transports, aircraft fuel tenders, amphibious transports, and even the ones converted to early guided missile submarines using the Regulus missiles.
Finally, the book contains numerous appendices where information on each of the Fleet Boat submarines is tabulated. Everything from dates of construction, to machinery arrangements, to the use of riveting or welding is catalogued. The appendices provide a very detailed reference for anyone studying about these individual boats since there were differences in configurations between subs of the same class and even those built by the same shipyard. If you are looking for the construction and design details of a specific submarine, then you can find it in the appendices.
In many ways, Alden’s book echoes the series of design histories on various naval vessels written by Norman Friedman. While it may lack the exciting action of personal accounts like Eugene Fluckey’s Thunder Below!, or Edward Beach’s novel, Run Silent, Run Deep, John Alden’s The Fleet Submarine in the U.S. Navy serves as a more technical reference and supplement to the general naval histories on submarines during World War II.
Overall, 4 out of 5.