LEST WE GET carried away by seasonal sentiment, the U.S. Navy reminds us that although we sing of snow-white doves, peace is more often borne on the wings of warplanes.
Rounding out its massive exhibit on World War II at sea, the Navy Museum has opened an arresting if somewhat odd account of the Battle of the Atlantic. It claims both too much and too little credit for success in the struggle against German submarines and the cruel sea.
The exhibit opens with the Slaughter of '42, known to U-boatmen as "The Happy Time." During the first half-year after we entered the war, 432 Allied ships were sunk off our East Coast, although the Germans never had more than a dozen subs in American waters at any given time. The museum attributes this ghastly and shameful turkey shoot to American failure to convoy coastal shipping; a more frank account would add that many of the men and ships were sacrificed to ennui, incompetence and interservice rivalry.
The rest of the exhibit gives the impression that the U.S. Navy carried the burden of the campaign, with the Brits plugging away somewhere in the background. In fact, almost to the very last, the Atlantic battle was mainly a British show; they were drawn into it first and their national survival depended upon getting ships through. Ours was the Pacific war, covered in a companion exhibit that opened earlier.
Over-emphasis on the American role is understandable, this being a U.S. Navy museum, but the exhibit also scants the human dimensions of the war. For sailors in small escort ships, simply keeping the sea on Atlantic patrol, especially in winter, must be counted as heroic. Days and weeks of discomfort and danger and soul-stifling boredom were punctuated by intervals of terror, frustration and failure, with the merchant vessels under their protection liable to be surprised and sunk at any moment.
Victories were hard to come by, and often it wasn't known until after the war whether an attack on a submarine was successful, much less which sub it was. You had some sonar pings, you dropped depth charges, the pings faded, you went back to watchkeeping.
Occasionally a wounded sub surfaced, and then sometimes there were old-fashioned heroics. Destroyer USS Borie rammed a U-boat and while the two mortally wounded vessels were locked together, the American sailors repelled German boarders with small arms, empty shell casings, even knives.
The best sea story of the whole campaign is the saga of USS Guadalcanal's hunter-killer group and U-505, the only enemy warship that American sailors have boarded and captured on the high seas since 1815. The exhibit includes a wonderful life-size photo of Captain Dan Gallery on the conning tower of the captured sub, but visitors must search for the brief and bloodless account of the wild and wacky battle.
It's a passed chance to use a dramatic encounter to illustrate both the scientific and swashbuckling aspects of modern sea warfare. Computer code-cracking, radio direction finding, intelligence analysis and radar- and sonar-aided air-sea search and attack brought the U-505 to bay; imagination, seamanship and sheer guts brought it to bag.
But much inevitably must be left out, and it's hard to fault concentration on the technological aspects of the war, which were decisive. The combined exhibits are heavy on the massive, intricate and terribly beautiful military hardware that makes this museum so enthralling.
IN HARM'S WAY: The U.S. Navy in the Atlantic Theater, World War II -- On permanent exhibit at the Navy Museum, Washington Navy Yard, Eighth and M streets SE. 202/433-4882. Open 9 to 4 weekdays and 10 to 5 weekends and holidays (closed Dec. 25). Good wheelchair access.