Mind & Spirit

Freeport Author Pens Biography of Childhood Hero

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It started with a rainy day, and turned into a lifelong passion. Meet a local writer and educator who has spent his life chasing a key figure in U.S. Naval history.

Edward Finch in the military exhibit at the Stephenson County Historical Society in Freeport, where he works as director. A retired Freeport High School teacher, Finch recently published a book about his childhood hero, WWII Navy hero Edward Beach. (Karla Nagy photo)

Retired Freeport High School teacher Edward Finch is a busy guy. He’s president of the Lincoln/Douglas Society, and helped to raise funds for renovating the site in Freeport that was one of the stops on the historic 1858 debate trail. He also wrote the script for the reunion and helped to plan the city’s 150th celebration of the event in 2008. As director of the Stephenson County Historical Society, he spends about 30 hours a week scheduling programs, cataloguing artifacts and serving as part-time docent.

Even with this schedule, Finch found time to write and publish a biography on one of his heroes, a WWII U.S. submarine commander. Released in November 2010, Beneath the Waves: The Life and Navy of Capt. Edward L. Beach took five years of what Finch calls “focused work.” But it was really the culmination of Finch’s lifelong passion for the military, especially the navy – and specifically Beach.

Not many people are lucky enough to pinpoint the event that helped to shape their futures. But Finch can trace the start of his deep-rooted fascination with naval history to age 12.

“I was at my grandparents’ house, and it was raining, and I was bored,” he recalls. “Grandpa Finch, tired of listening to my complaints, tossed a book at me. It was Run Silent, Run Deep, by Commander Edward L. Beach. Now, I wasn’t a particularly good reader, and I didn’t really like history, but there was nothing else to do. And I became completely absorbed in the adventure of a WWII American submarine trying to sink a Japanese destroyer.”

The descriptions of the crew enduring depth charge explosions, close quarters and “silent running” are detailed, authentic and heart-pounding.

Little wonder. Beach, an American war hero who graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis, had based it on his own experiences. He won 10 decorations for his valor as a submarine officer during WWII, and commanded the only nuclear submarine to circumnavigate the globe completely submerged. After retiring from the military, he served as an aide to President Dwight Eisenhower and published 10 books. Run Silent, Run Deep was made into a film in 1958, starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster, and more current hits like Crimson Tide and U-571 owe more than a passing nod to its realistic, nail-biting tension.

Beach’s book ignited a spark in Finch, who went on to teach high school English and speech, retiring in 2004 after 30 years; all the while, he pursued his avid interest in military history. He became a nationally-known and well-respected authority on specialized warfare, penning many articles for periodicals and entries for encyclopedias, and presenting research papers at conferences. But naval history remained his niche, especially submarines.

“What happened next was complete serendipity,” Finch says. “In 1991, I had been accepted to present a scholarly paper about Pearl Harbor at the Naval Academy, one of three presenters on this subject. That in itself was thrilling, because this is a biennial event and very prestigious. When I arrived, I was floored to see that Beach was the moderator for my presentation. I knew all about him – his military and political careers, his childhood, his family life. I had spent almost my entire life learning about this man and admiring him, and here I was, sharing a stage with him! I hardly remember the rest of the symposium.”

May 1960: Beach poses at the White House with the log of the Triton’s record-setting voyage, a map of the route in the background. (Courtesy USN photo archives)

After that, Finch and Beach ran into each other at other naval history events and became nodding acquaintances. When Finch decided to pursue a doctorate in history, those chance meetings led him to choose Beach as the subject for his dissertation which, in turn, led to a more personal relationship with his childhood hero.

“We had several long telephone conversations, and even met for lunch and spent the afternoon together, along with his wife and son,” says Finch. “In 1999, when I finished my dissertation, I sent him a copy, and he wrote back with praise – and notes on a few things that weren’t quite accurate. That was really exciting, to be able to get that kind of feedback straight from the source.”

The experience also planted in Finch the seed for writing a full-length biography of Beach. But his duties as teacher, debate team coach and local history advocate kept him from taking on such an all-consuming task. When Beach passed away in 2002, Finch was certain that someone would begin work on telling the life story of this larger-than-life American hero.

“In 2004, as I was getting closer to retirement, I started to check around with people who had known Beach, to see if someone was working on his biography, and they hadn’t heard of anyone,” says Finch. “Then, one day, I received a call from Ingrid, his widow. Surprisingly, no potential biographers had been in contact with her, and word had gotten back to her that I was interested. She had read my dissertation back when I had sent it to Beach, and she told me that she would like me to take on the project.”

Beach had donated many of his papers and documents before he died, but Ingrid Beach gave Finch complete access to those that she still possessed. “Some of his military papers are in the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, Conn., and others are at the Naval Academy,” Finch says. “The Eisenhower Presidential Library has all of the files from his service in the White House. So I wasn’t certain what might be left with Ingrid.”

What he found at the Beach house were 45 full file drawers of documentation. “Beach never threw away a scrap of paper,” Finch says. “Most biographers suffer from a lack of information about their subjects, so I was gratified. But I was also overwhelmed.”

In addition, Finch interviewed those who knew Beach, and studied those documents to which he could gain access at the museums and the Eisenhower Library. He already had expert knowledge of submarines – their engines, living quarters, weapons and workings – but learned even more through his research, which he tried to incorporate into his book.

“The final product is half the length of the first draft,” Finch says with a grin. “I originally included a lot of mechanical detail, specifics about the boats and weapons. I tried to cover everything, but eventually, I had to narrow my audience and focus the information more on Beach.”

That focus was more than enough. Beach’s father, also a graduate of Annapolis, in 1884 spent his first night on campus bivouacked aboard one of the wooden ships that had fought in the War of 1812. He went on to command a WWI warship, and then the Mare Island Shipyard in San Francisco, the oldest in the country. From there, he took a position teaching military science at Stanford, and eventually settled into civil service in Palo Alto. He, too, was an accomplished writer, and his series of novels about the exploits of fictitious Annapolis midshipman Ralph Osborn inspired Edward, Jr., to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Graduating with his commission in 1939, Beach’s first ship, a WWI-era destroyer, took part in “neutrality patrols” off the coast of Mexico; in 1941, it was one of four escorts for the battleship that transported President Franklin D. Roosevelt in secret to a small fishing island off Newfoundland, where he and English Prime Minister Winston Churchill drafted the Atlantic Charter.

Beach graduated from submarine school just days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and his first assignment in January 1942 was the USS Trigger, still under construction at Mare Island, his father’s former command. It arrived with full crew and commission at Pearl Harbor in early June, and instead of its crew undergoing weeks of training, the Trigger was immediately dispatched as a scout during the Battle of Midway. After 11 war patrols and 10 commendations, including the Navy Cross, in 1945, Beach was given his own command. In 1960, he commanded the nuclear submarine the USS Triton as it retraced Magellan’s route around the globe, totally underwater.

Beach also served in Washington, D.C. From 1949 to 1951, he was Naval Assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. From 1953 to 1957, he served as Naval Aide to President Eisenhower, during which time he was promoted from Commander to Captain (the ranks are equivelant to the Army’s Lt. Colonel and Colonel). He retired from active duty in 1966, taught at the Naval War College for two years, and then quit there to focus on writing. Back in D.C., he served as the secretary and staff director for the Senate Republican Policy Committee from 1969 to 1977. During the Reagan administration, he was administrative aide to U.S. Senator Jeremiah Denton (R), a retired naval officer who had been a POW during the Vietnam War.

In 1999, Beach and family attended a ceremony at the Naval Academy to dedicate a building to Beach and his father. Beach Hall serves as headquarters for the U.S. Naval Institute. It is meant to honor not only their military service, but also their extensive writing about the Navy and its history. Between them, they span epochs. Beach, Sr., started his naval career aboard a wooden ship, and Beach, Jr., ended his aboard a nuclear submarine.

Beach had two siblings. Brother John attended West Point and also served during WWII. He was part of the 16th Infantry Regiment, aka the Big Red One, arriving in Normandy the day after D-Day, and was a German POW. Sister Alice joined the WAVES in 1944, earned a commission and entered the reserves in 1946. She was called back to active duty during the Korean War and sent to serve at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago. She retired in 1963 with the rank of lieutenant commander.

“Beach’s father was an enormous influence on his life, and all of his children,” Finch says. “He deserves his own biography. All of them do. I added an appendix to my book, where I provide a brief biography for his parents and siblings.”

Finch faced an easier task than most first-timers in getting his book into print.

“That, too, was serendipitous,” he says. “The Naval Institute had named its headquarters after Beach a few years earlier. So when I sent them the manuscript, they readily agreed to take it on. I mean, that family represents a pretty comprehensive history of the U.S. Navy, so it was a natural fit.”

The book is available online at Amazon.com or the Naval Institute’s Web site.

Finch is currently working on an historic novel that has nothing to do with naval history. “It’s based on Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard,’” he says. “It follows the lives of a small high school class that graduates in 1921. None of them does anything spectacular, but as they go about their lives, their paths cross and we see what they’ve become.” ❚

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