Tracking the Hunters, the Hunted

by George Duffy

If you are not a student of the history of World War II, and in particular, the subject of submarine warfare, the name Clay Blair Jr. will not ring a bell.

The author of hundreds of magazine articles and 24 books, Mr. Blair, unlike many historians, actually saw combat in World War II making two patrols into Japanese waters in the USS Guardfish (SS-217). Following the war he embarked on a career in journalism which led to positions with Time-Life and The Saturday Evening Post. He eventually became editor-in-chief of the latter.

Book cover of Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunters. 1939-1942Frankly, Blair did not come to my attention until his Silent Victory hit the bookstores almost 25 years ago. This marvelous, 1,072-page tome is the definitive history of the United States Navy submarine service from Dec. 7, 1941 to the Japanese surrender ceremony on board the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945.

With the exception of about 100 introductory pages and 180 pages of appendixes, Silent Victory is a chronological saga -- victories and defeats, successes and humiliations -- relating to a phase of World War II of which I knew very little.

By that time Blair had terminated his magazine career in favor of becoming a free-lance author. Following Silent Victory by about four years came Return From the River Kwai co-authored by his wife Joan. On September 4, 1944, according to the Blairs, 2,218 British and Australian soldiers, who as prisoners of the Japanese had built a railway through Burma and Thailand, left Singapore's River Valley POW camp for two Japan-bound ships.

On the 11th, both were torpedoed. The American submarines that did the deed managed to pick up 159 survivors, of whom 152 lived to be hospitalized in Guam. Another 656 were saved by Japanese escort vessels. These men eventually reached Moji, Japan, on September 29, 1944 where about 50 died before the war's end.

Although I personally knew none of the original 2,218, our paths had crossed. According to my journal I arrived in Singapore on July 1, and was put into River Valley Camp which I described as being "in a bad state." In their book, the Blairs quote the Australians and British, who had all worked for many months on the infamous railway, as saying "River Valley camp was one of the worst they had ever seen." Strange, isn't it, that I never knew the fate of those prisoners until I read Return From the River Kwai.

Blair wrote an additional three books and then effectively disappeared until 1996 when Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunters. 1939-1942 was published by Random House. This was followed two years later by Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunted. 1942-1945. At 909 and 809 pages respectively, they are the product of 11 years of intense research. And what an enormous treasure trove resulted.

Type VII U-BoatI made a trip from Australia to Boston via Panama in March 1942, and went to Trinidad from New York on the way to the Persian Gulf in April. Other than sighting what could have been a U-boat on the horizon astern of us one evening, we saw nothing that could have been the enemy.

Everywhere on the ocean, though, there was floating, unidentifiable debris, positive evidence of what no one in authority would admit. The German Navy was wreaking havoc from Newfoundland to Brazil, and doing it virtually unopposed.

[Type VII U-Boat from Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunters, 1939-1942, Clay Blair, New York: Random House, 1996]

Blair spells it out:


U-boats dispatched to the Americas


Dec. 1941 16 0  0
Jan. 1942  26 26  4
Feb. 1942 18 59 10
Mar. 1942 26 60 12
Apr. 1942 31 61 9
May 1942 16  107 16
June 1942  24  109  8

On April 14, 1942 off Cape Hatteras, the USS Roper sank the U-85. On May 9, the USCG Icarus destroyed the U-352 off Cape Lookout, and on June 13, another Coast Guard cutter, the Thetis, got the U-157 near Key West. Finally, to close out the first six months of German submarine warfare in the Americas, a U.S. Navy aircraft sent the U-158 to the bottom, 120 miles northeast of Bermuda.


George Duffy with Reinhard Hardegan Edward R. Donohoe
George Duffy with Reinhard Hardegan, Captain of the U-123 which was the first German submarine to arrive off the East coast of the U.S. in 1942. Photo taken in September 1987 at Hardegan's home in Bremen. Duffy's classmate at Massachusetts Nautical School Edward R. Donohoe, Third Assistant Engineer on the SS LESLIE, who survived torpedoing by Hardegen in the U-123 off Cape Canaveral, Florida in April 1942. Hardegen used his last torpedo on the LESLIE, but he subsequently sank two vessels by gunfire before heading home, completing his second patrol to the Americas.

What a victory for the Kriegsmarine! At the cost of four U-boats: 435 ships sunk, 59 damaged! Some so close to the American beaches that their decks were awash as they settled on the sand. Thousands of Allied merchant seamen drowned, or burned to death, or froze in their lifeboats. I wonder, if we knew what really was happening, would we have gone to sea at all?

Clay Blair has told it as it was!

Unfortunately, Mr. Blair's pen has been stilled by his untimely death at age 74 early in 1999.

A similar version of this story appeared in The Daily News of Newburyport, Massachusetts

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Page created Sept. 24, 1998. Last updated November 8, 1999