More Than Most,
This Writer Lived What He Wrote
By Tom Clancy
Wall Street Journal December 4, 2002
It's been said that the World War II generation is dying off at the rate of a thousand souls a day. Fortunately, the history they made lives with us every day. Edward Latimer Beach Jr., who died Sunday at age 84, was one such man. Graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he was the son of a distinguished naval officer and went on, like him, to write his own reputation both in words and deeds.
It is as a writer that I first got to know Ned Beach. In 1983, I wanted to speak with Ned, the author of 1955's "Run Silent, Run Deep" and other works, about the publication of my own first novel, "The Hunt for Red October," which had not yet found its publisher. But first I had a question I just had to ask. In his novel "Dust on the Sea," Ned talked about how, in World War II, depth charges going off close to a U.S. Navy submarine could make it appear that the sub's hull would spring in and out from the transient shock wave. At the time it was thought that this was an optical illusion, but after the war engineering tests established that, indeed, a near-fatal depth-charging could make the hull spring in and out.
"Did you ever see that happen?" I asked. "Yes." He nodded. "Several times." "My God, what was it like?" "It's unpleasant," he said evenly. Such was the measure of the man that understatement covered what must have been like seeing the cold hand of Death himself reaching for him and his crew. Besides, that was not the most frightening thing he'd ever seen, he said, before launching into another story.
It's a union rule for sailors that they must tell sea stories. But in this case, there was no exaggeration necessary to make the storyteller's point. Everything Ned Beach spoke, he'd seen and done. He worked his way up the line, first on USS Trigger; won a Navy Cross (America's second-highest decoration) on USS Tirante; then commanded his own fleet boat, USS Piper. The war ended just as Piper entered Japanese waters.
He always spoke with affection, authority and respect of his World War II comrades, the men of the Silent Service who stung the Imperial Japanese Navy so grievously from 1941 to 1945.
It's worth remembering how lonely their task was. Submarines went into action mostly alone, a single chess piece containing 90 officers and men, crowded into a steel culvert pipe, seeking out crowds of enemy ships so that they might sink the most valuable of them, then make their escape to sting another day.
How dangerous was it? Well, the torpedoes they fired were mainly loosed from distance of 1,000 yards -- often less -- the distance a man might walk in four or five minutes or drive in 30 seconds. They penetrated an enemy formation to the point that numerous enemy ships whose only purpose was submarine-killing were both ahead and behind them. Their job was to be surrounded by their enemies, and only then to announce their presence with a spout of fire and water and death.
I doubt that Ned ever enjoyed it, but neither did he once shrink from it. It was his job, the one he'd sworn to do, for his country and her citizens, going in Harm's Way, which was and remains the creed of his Navy. I am sure that he was often frightened -- he told me as much -- but like the firemen in the Twin Towers, he ran toward the danger because that was what they paid him for.
Ned loved the Navy as a man might love his own family. For the Navy was his family, the junior officers he trained and the enlisted men who did so much of the hand-labor in the boats. He served with distinction approaching perfection and, like his father, would then write about the things he'd seen and done.
Ned's first book, "Run Silent, Run Deep," was in fact a compilation of his own experiences told as few others could have told the tale, in a way that let the reader smell the oil-scented air inside the boats, noting that the stress of combat cannot be borne indefinitely, even among the courageous. Though Ned was always gracious toward my own works of fiction, he knew the subject matter better than I could ever hope to do.
More than once I spoke with him about the psychological aspects of combat, and every time he told me what I needed to know, always from his own rich experiences. Ned was a serious student of history -- he wrote several splendid books on this subject -- and of human nature. What he didn't know had never happened.
But now he's gone. Or is he? It's a custom in the U.S. Navy to name its warships for those who have graced the uniform with their service. So, one can hope, in not too long a time, there will be a USS Beach carrying our battle ensign around the world, and Ned will again be at sea, looking after the nation he served so well in life. Fair winds, Skipper.
Mr. Clancy's latest book is "The Red Rabbit."