Sunday, April 7, 2013

Cathryn J. Prince's "Death in the Baltic"

Cathryn J. Prince's books include A Professor, a President, and a Meteor: The Birth of American Science, Burn the Town and Sack the Banks: Confederates Attack Vermont!, and Shot from the Sky: American POWs in Switzerland.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, and reported the following:
On January 30, 1945, a Soviet submarine commander, Alexander I. Marinesko seeking to redeem his reputation, ordered his crew to fire on the Wilhelm Gustloff. His reputation was in shambles after military police found him drunk in a brothel. Marinesko knew he needed a victory; the Gustloff became the ideal target. Three Russian torpedoes struck the boat, causing catastrophic damage. The Gustloff sank and more than 9,000 people perished. In contrast, the Titanic claimed 1,500 lives in a peacetime disaster, and the Lusitania, claimed 1,198 lives in a military disaster.

On page 99 of Death in the Baltic readers find Alexander Marinesko, the Soviet Commander of the S-13, poised to attack the Wilhelm Gustloff. Just one command from Marinesko will decide whether thousands of people – mothers, children and wounded soldiers – will live or die. It’s tense and revealing.

Yet, because history is defined as much by what becomes part of the official record as by what is left unrecorded, few know this story. In this case, German censorship, Soviet suppression, and western indifference buried the Gustloff’s story. Refusing to let the flailing Third Reich hear of defeat, Hitler prohibited officials from reporting the sinking. The Soviet Union suppressed the story partly because it doubted the integrity of the submarine commander. In the West, the event remained buried, first because of war fatigue and then overshadowed by the Cold War.

After the sinking just about 1,000 people were rescued. After the war, many eventually escaped to the West, but not before enduring several more years under Soviet occupation. These real life characters and their human dramas resurrect history and raise provocative questions about loss, redemption, and survival. Yet, here on page 99 none of that has come to pass – no one aboard the Gustloff has any idea what of what awaits.

Excerpt from page 99:
Marinesko, diligent under the waves, borderline brash on the surface, saved his ship. And that is why Marinesko’s crews loved him even when the high command didn’t.

Marinesko’s maneuver on January 30 was a decidedly risky attack in shallow water. It was also the first time Marinesko had launched an attack in almost a month. He looked forward to a clean kill. Yet, he knew when the moment came to order his crew to fire the torpedoes, he had to remain cool, steady, and even aloof. He knew if he returned to port without a kill he could very well end up in Siberia.

So the sailor from Odessa slid his submarine along the port side of the Gustloff. The boat went unnoticed. Four torpedoes were positioned and ready to strike. He was a heartbeat away from becoming a hero.
Learn more about the book and author at Cathryn J. Prince's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue