Dramatic WWII account. Target: battleship Shinano

Shinano!, by Capt. Joseph F. Enright, with James W. Ryan. New York: St. Martin's Press. 250 pp. $18.95. MY dad has a copy of a small black-and-white photo of Japan's Mt. Fuji rising majestically out of the Pacific. It is an unremarkable snapshot except in one respect: Superimposed on the snow-covered peak are the calibrated cross hairs of a submarine's periscope.

The photograph was taken on Thanksgiving Day, 1944, through the scope of the USS Archer-Fish by its skipper, Comdr. (later Capt.) Joseph Enright, as the sub lurked near the mouth of Tokyo Bay to prey on Japanese ships. My father was one of the ship's officers.

The same sight greeted Commander Enright's eyes five days later, Nov. 28, when he reconnoitered the waters around the submerged boat late on a Tuesday afternoon. It had been an uneventful patrol. But within a few hours, the men of Archer-Fish would be engaged in a deadly cat-and-mouse game that culminated in the sinking of the largest Axis warship built during World War II.

The ship was Shinano, an enormous battleship that, as the preeminence of air power in modern naval warfare became increasingly evident, the Japanese converted into an aircraft carrier. With her huge flight deck and thick armor, Shinano displaced more than 70,000 tons. (By contrast, the American aircraft carriers Essex and Yorktown displaced about 28,000 tons.) The Japanese ship was the biggest aircraft carrier ever built until the US nuclear-powered carrier Enterprise was commissioned in 1961.

When Shinano appeared on Archer-Fish's radar screen at 8:48 that evening, the carrier was only a few hours into her maiden voyage. Newly commissioned, still without her aircraft, and her green crew in need of further training, she was being moved from the shipyard at Yokosuka to Japan's Inland Sea to escape the American B-29s that had begun almost daily bombing raids on the Tokyo area. She was making the 15-hour run under cover of darkness, escorted by three destroyers that formed a semicircular screen around her bow.

This book is a dramatic, hour-by-hour account of that night, during which Archer-Fish was, in turn, the hunter and - after the destroyers detected her presence - the hunted.

Despite the unpredictable zigzag course Shinano adopted to evade the sub, at 3:15 on Wednesday morning, Archer-Fish was - by dint of the crew's courage and persistence and an unexpected break - within range to deliver four torpedoes deep into the bowels of the carrier.

With the help of Japanese official records and accounts by Shinano survivors, Enright alternates the book's perspective between his own and those of officers and seamen aboard the carrier. Some readers will quibble with the decision of Enright and his collaborator to attribute to Japanese participants words and even thoughts that, while not improbable, the writers can only surmise.

The result is a ``you-are-there'' quality that may irk readers who take their history seriously.

Yet on balance, the technique serves Enright well, particularly in his horrifying and sad account of the seven hours that passed between the time the torpedoes lacerated Shinano and the moment she was sucked into the deep with 1,435 men still aboard, including her commander, Capt. Toshio Abe. (The destroyers picked up 1,080 survivers.) The human tragedy of the event could not have been adequately conveyed in a more detached manner.

Enright skillfully navigates a tricky emotional strait. He is justifiably proud of Archer-Fish's feat of arms, which Japanese records show had a devastating psychological effect on the Imperial high command, and he unabashedly describes the crew's whooping, back-pounding glee at their moment of triumph.

But he doesn't gloat, and he pays dignified, sympathetic tribute to his former adversaries, particularly those who, at his hand, paid war's ultimate price.

James Andrews is on the Monitor's news staff.

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