James Scott writes history books with the flair of an investigative journalist, digging in the documents, humanizing the drama and writing a compelling narrative that transports readers into the action.
The former Post and Courier reporter has just published his second book, “The War Below,” which describes World War II submarine battles against the Japanese fleet in the Pacific. On the occasion of the book’s release, Scott answered a few questions about his efforts.
Q: Your first book for Simon & Schuster, “The Attack on the Liberty,” shared a not-well-known and controversial story about Israel’s assault on a U.S. spy ship in 1967. Your father was an officer on the Liberty, right? Did you grow up hearing about this incident and the 34 crewmen who died? What prompted you to write a book-length account? And what would you say is the book’s main takeaway concerning Israeli-U.S. relations?
A: My father had the unique role of serving as the damage control officer on the Liberty, which was a big job on June 8, 1967. The Israelis not only torpedoed the spy ship, but also hit it with 821 rockets and cannons. Two out of every three men were either killed or injured.
Dad never dwelled on the attack, so while I grew up aware of the basics of the story, it was not until I was much older and covering the military as a reporter for The Post and Courier that I started to ask him about it. The book grew out of those discussions.
The Liberty is not just a story of combat but of politics and the unique relationship Israel enjoys with the United States.
That special relationship, and the need for (President Lyndon B.) Johnson to maintain domestic political support from American Jews, led him to downplay the attack despite the views of his senior intelligence leaders, from the heads of the NSA and CIA to his own secretary of state, that Israel had intentionally tried to sink an American ship.
Q: Your new book is “The War Below,” another in the military history genre. This time you write about the U.S. submarine force that destroyed Japan’s merchant fleet during World War II. That episode in history is retreating far into the distance. Many of the people involved are no longer living. How did you go about reconstructing the events and putting together a compelling, realistic narrative?
A: World War II veterans are sadly passing away every day. In fact, many of the men I interviewed as part of my book have since died. Fortunately, there survive incredible records from the war. Deck logs and submarine patrol reports, which are on file in the National Archives, recorded the action in incredible detail; often, in the case of firing torpedoes, down to the exact second. The patrol reports of just the three submarines about which I wrote totaled over 1,000 pages.
That was also a very literate generation. There was no Facebook or Twitter; people wrote letters and diaries and, fortunately, many families have held on to those precious records and were willing to share them. Over the course of my research, I tracked down more than 3,000 pages of letters, journals and other personal writings, which proved a literary treasure trove.
Q: For years, you were an investigative reporter at The Post and Courier. How does your journalistic training and experience affect your book writing?
A: What I do now is very similar to what I did at The Post and Courier: I track people down, interview them and hunt down and review records. It is essentially a historical scavenger hunt that involves piecing together official records, like logs and reports from various archives, as well as the individual stories of the veterans who served.
Working for a newspaper also taught me the daily discipline of writing. I was used to writing a 750-word story a day at the paper, so I set for myself a similar goal with books, writing 3,000 to 5,000 words a week.
Q: Have you ever been in a sub on the move? If so, what was it like?
A: Unfortunately, I have never been on a submarine at sea, though I would love to some day. I was lucky, however, in that a number of World War II-era submarines survive today as museums, which allowed me to visit and tour several of them.
One of the submarines I wrote about in the book was the Drum, which is a museum in Mobile, Ala. I spent the better part of a week on board with the team restoring the Drum. They gave me greatest access and best tours of a diesel submarine I could have ever wished for, from the cramped torpedo rooms and the conning tower to allowing me to climb down into the refrigerator and freezer as well as the battery compartments.
That was vital in helping me re-create what it was like onboard a submarine.
Q: In writing about war history and military conflict, do you find you’ve tapped into a rich vein? Much has been written about this history, of course, but isn’t there much more to discover and explore? As a writer of historical nonfiction, what are you looking for?
A: World War II continues to fascinate me, given the size and scope of the conflict. The records and research opportunities likewise are just massive.
To give you an example, I researched the war crimes files on a Japanese prison guard who was particularly cruel to one submarine crew. For this one guard alone, I found more than 100 affidavits from former POWs, describing powerful anecdotes of abuse and beatings. The records can be voluminous.
Writing about war is inherently dramatic — lives and even the fates of nations are at stake — which makes it easy to create tension and tell gripping stories. The challenge is finding the right story with the right narrative arc and, of course, the right characters.
I like to say that the best stories are the ones in which ordinary people perform extraordinarily.