Full Fathom Five - Interview with a WWII U.S. Navy Submarine Veteran09 Apr 2015 0
Something a bit different in our regular historical piece slot this week. It is a sad, but inevitable fact, that the number of living veterans from World War 2 is very small. However, our regular columnist, John Dudek, had the privilege of meeting one recently and took the opportunity to chat with him about his experiences in the US submarine service.
Several Sundays back, after Mass, we were sitting down to coffee and doughnuts in the Parish Activity Center, where I had the opportunity to sit down at a WWII U.S Navy veteran’s table, although I didn't know it at the time. Jerry is a fine gentleman in his 90's who is witty as hell and still sharp as a tack. He served in submarines throughout the Second World War and went on several war patrols in the Pacific as a Chief Petty Officer aboard the USS GUAVINA and later the USS TINOSA. Usually these Sunday morning coffee bull sessions revolve solely around the women sitting at the table, trading their endless gossip. However on that particular Sunday, it was like finding a truly rare treasure trove of first hand, fascinating and highly entertaining historical information. We must have talked for a good hour, listening to his war stories, with me relating the tales I had only read about and him telling me of his own experiences while out on war patrols and their happy returns to Pearl Harbor or other friendly Allied ports of call. He went to great length telling me of the wild times he spent on R&R at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu Hawaii between war patrols. Somewhere during the conversation, his wife, who has advanced Alzheimer’s disease wandered off and he had to go looking for her. I didn't see him again that day, but greatly looked forward to seeing him again the next Sunday, so we could pick up from where we left off.
Jerry is a good natured, crusty, old fart, who looks much younger than his 90 plus years would suggest. He could easily pass for a man in his early to mid 70's, so I would say that he takes damn good care of himself. Aside from being a bit hard of hearing and walking with a cane, he is in pretty good condition for a man of his age. He joined the navy while still in his teens and after finishing his basic training, early in the war, he shipped out for advanced training aboard an old, WWI vintage O-Boat submarine. The O-boats were of single hulled construction, rickety as hell and they handled poorly in a bad seaway. In Jerry's case, their inexperienced crew and the old submarine were out on patrol in the stormy Atlantic in the middle of winter, not only undergoing their final training, but also hunting German U-Boats. It was miserable duty to say the least. He said there was almost as much water inside of the submarine as out in the ocean around them. Condensation constantly dripped from the overhead both when submerged and while on the surface the entire time. Everything was cold, wet and damp every day they were out on patrol and they always happily looked forward to returning to safe harbor as soon as possible.
His later war patrols in the Pacific took him from the South China Sea to the Japanese shipping lanes around the Imperial Japanese home islands. On a couple occasions their submarine sustained severe enough battle damage from Japanese depth charge attacks that they needed to return to San Francisco on the US West Coast for major serious repairs in a navy dry dock. He said he'd never forget that first sight of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge looming out of the fog off the sub's bow and soon afterwards, their boat docked near the Bethlehem Steel Works where they let the navy repair crews put their submarine back into fighting shape. Meanwhile the GUAVINA's crew went on prolonged stateside shore leave.
When I asked whether or not he'd taken any R&R at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Oahu, his whole face softened and he broke out with a big, happy grin that his wife just wouldn't have understood. Admiral Lockwood, Commander of Submarines Pacific, requisitioned the entire hotel after he took over as COMSUBPAC, turning it into a rest and relaxation home for his submariners who'd just returned from war patrols half a world away. Lockwood took extremely good care of his submarine crews and made sure they got the very best of everything that was available in the way of food, drink and female companionship. His submarine crews fondly referred to him as "Uncle Charlie."
Jerry was a Chief Petty Officer, so his job while on watch was being near the sub's executive officer and watching him plot the boat's course, among his other duties. He said that late in the war, the Japanese merchant fleet ran out of fuel oil and the number of their ship targets dried up, so that many US subs were reduced to oftentimes making surface attacks with their deck guns on much smaller Japanese junks and sampans, of which Jerry's boat sank several. Jerry said they once put into Brisbane, Australia for a refit and reprovisioning, before going back out on patrol. He said the Australians treated them really well while they were in port, the women especially. Immediately after saying this, he broke into another one of those big happy grins that his wife just wouldn't understand.
In 1980, Jerry was invited by the US Navy to take a day long cruise aboard a modern attack submarine and he jumped at the chance. He said it was the thrill of a lifetime to be back aboard a submarine once again and he was amazed at all of the modern conveniences that everyone in the crew took for granted. It surprised him that modern submarines wallow around and perform poorly while on the surface, but they are faster than hell and smooth running when submerged. He said the one constant fact, both then and now was that the food aboard submarines was the best in the fleet. During the war years, the newer Gato and Balao class submarines had a large walk-in freezer and refrigerator. Whenever a boat went out on patrol, both were stuffed to the overhead with fresh and frozen foods, meat, vegetables, milk and cheese. The crew ate very well indeed and the cooks were some of the best in the Navy. For the first few days out of port they consumed all of the fresh foods before starting on the frozen stuff. Several weeks later, with all the frozen food gone, they ate a lot of canned rations, soups and stews until returning to port.
Jerry told me that he'd met most of the surviving US submarine skippers over the years via a number of veteran associations. Eugene "Lucky" Fluckey of the USS Barb, being one of them. He told me how the submarine's standard operating attack procedure was for them to make their torpedo attacks by shooting a spread of torpedoes so as to hit the Japanese ship's bow, its belly and its screws to ensure its sinking. He talked about the problems that US submarines faced with faulty torpedoes for the first few years of the war. We chatted about US Fleet Boat Submarines and the older S-Boat model subs that were only slightly newer than the O-Boats he first went to sea in. I told him the story of Captain John "Dinty" Moore's S-44 who fired a perfect spread of four torpedoes into the belly of the Japanese Heavy Cruiser KAKO, off the coast of New Ireland, following the disastrous Naval Battle of Savo Island in August 1942. The Allies had just lost several heavy cruisers to a night time Japanese torpedo and gun fire attack the night before, while doing little damage in return. The S-44's successful torpedo attack and sinking of the KAKO took some of the sting away from that earlier loss of Allied warships.
Jerry said the worst depth charging he ever underwent was at the mouth of Cam Rahn Bay, off French Indo China, today's Vietnam in early 1945. His submarine USS GUAVINA, a Balao class boat was loitering off shore after seeing a small Japanese convoy enter the bay the night before, so they waited outside for them to come out. The following day, the convoy left the bay and came into firing distance of the GUAVINA. The submarine fired a spread of torpedoes that sank both an oil tanker and a transport ship. They in turn, were hunted by a destroyer escort with depth charges. Even though their Navy charts showed a depth of over 300 feet, they hit muddy bottom at 120 feet, pushing the submarine's sound heads into boat. They were forced to lie doggo on the bottom for the next seven hours as the Japanese destroyers laid down pattern after pattern of depth charges, trying to destroy them. The submarine had trouble staying on the bottom because they hadn't blown their negative buoyancy tank, so they waited for a close-by salvo of depth charges before blowing the tank, knowing that with the loud, swirling echoes of underwater noises, the sound of high pressure air escaping from the submarine air tanks would not be heard by the Japanese destroyers listening on the surface. The Japanese dropped over 90 depth charges on them, some of them quite close and causing quite a bit of damage to the submarine. The periscope shears were broken, the radar mount also. The sub's wooden decks were splintered and much of her pressure hull was staved in.
When the Japanese finally broke contact, the GUAVINA was able to surface, but was only able to stay there for five minutes at a time, because of Japanese aircraft flying overhead. On at least one occasion, Japanese planes dropped bombs on them after they crash dived. It took them quite a while to finally get the submarine's batteries fully charged and the boat fully aired-out as they eventually made their way to the recently liberated Subic Bay in the Philippines, where two US sub tenders were anchored. Jerry said that when they sailed into Subic Bay, he was amazed to see a number of US cruisers and destroyers already there and he remarked at how huge they were, in comparison to their much smaller Fleet Boat Submarine. By this time, the Japanese Army around Subic Bay had been driven back into the hills, but bands of them would come down every night and shoot at the anchored US Navy ships at anchor in the bay. He said that one night, he had just put out some clean laundry to dry on a clothes line extending from the 20mm anti-aircraft gun mount to the rails on the Cigarette Deck when the Japanese troops ashore opened fire with rifles at the anchored ships. They were showing a movie on the fantail of a nearby cruiser and the Japanese gunfire shot up the movie screen, putting an end to the movie that night.
While they were undergoing repairs at Subic Bay, Jerry was able to get some leave time away from his submarine. He and a crewmate friend went ashore armed with a Thompson submachine gun and a couple pistols before meeting a local Filipino guerilla. The guerilla drove the three of them around, giving a guided tour while riding in an American jeep. They went to San Marcelino Airfield and he could still see the wrecks of US aircraft destroyed in the air attacks of 1941 that had later been pushed aside by the Japanese, as well as the Japanese wrecked planes that had been recently destroyed and pushed aside by the conquering American forces. He managed to pick up some great souvenirs from some of the wrecked Japanese aircraft.
He said that in his three years in the navy, he wore many hats and eventually was promoted from a Seaman first class to signalman and later quartermaster. On one occasion, while his sub was on the surface, he and the captain were on the bridge as a damaged B-24 bomber was cruising overhead. They began signaling each other with a blinker lamp. The plane's pilot wanted the crew to parachute, but the GUAVINA's Skipper told Jerry to tell them to ditch the bomber in the water instead. This would keep the crew in one single location because they might not find all of them after they parachuted. The bomber ditched nearby and the pilot and co-pilot were hurt in the crash, but the GUAVINA's crew were able to save them all except the tail gunner who never got out of the plane. They later rendezvoused with another submarine who was inbound to where a US Hospital ship was known to be, so they transferred the crew to the other sub via their inflatable life rafts before going their separate ways.
In any event, our Sunday chat came to an end all too quickly and I shook his hand, telling him how much I enjoyed talking with him. His wife Anne smiled and said. "Not as much as he enjoyed talking with you!"
On another Sunday he told me that on one war patrol the USS GUAVINA torpedoed a munitions ship or gasoline tanker that blew up like a "massive string of firecrackers." When they surfaced the boat to look for prisoners or valuable intelligence information material, there was no sign of any survivors, just a lot of floating wreckage. Later, during another patrol, while they were shadowing another Japanese convoy, their radar broke down and they had no parts with which to fix it. After radioing COMSUBPAC at Pearl Harbor, they were told to rendezvous with the nearby sub USS PAMPANITO who had spare parts. Following the rendezvous, both boats resumed trailing the convoy the GUAVINA has originally found. The PAMPANITO'S Skipper was the senior ranking officer, so he ordered the GUAVINA to draw off the Japanese destroyer escort screen, while the PAMPANITO went after the convoy ships. This naturally angered the crew of the GUAVINA, because they were the ones who'd originally sighted the Japanese convoy, but they followed orders. After the GUAVINA decoyed the destroyers away, the PAMPANITO was able to successfully attack and destroy a number of the convoy ships, which no doubt greatly upset the Japanese destroyer captains, who realized they'd been egregiously duped. Jerry said that he had pleasant visions of their destroyer captains perhaps committing hara kiri and killing themselves after being suckered into following the GUAVINA, while the PAMPANITO blasted the Japanese convoy ships out of existence.
He said that while out on patrol they would occasionally imbibe on some "secretly borrowed," 180 proof torpedo alcohol. The alcohol was used to fire their torpedoes, and they only sipped on it while in safe areas or during times of inactivity and relative safety. He said it made a pretty good drink when mixed with pineapple juice. I asked if their sub's pharmacist mate ever gave out any medicinal alcohol to its crew, but Jerry said he never saw that happen, mostly because their Captain was such a serious disciplinarian. Their Captain would even oversee which records were put onto the phonograph for the crew to listen to and you could always tell it was Sunday because of the records that were played. Although a strict disciplinarian, the GUAVINA'S Captain Lockwood (no relation to COMSUBPAC Lockwood) was utterly fearless in battle. He preferred making surface night attacks on Japanese ships in order to give them a better chance at getting crucial torpedo hits into them.
Jerry said that he was fortunate to spend most of his WWII career aboard a "Manitowoc Boat" that was built in Manitowoc, Wisconsin before being brought down the Mississippi River. Those submarines were the most stoutly built boats in the fleet. The builders in that shipyard used twice as many reinforcing welds than were called for during the submarine's construction phase, making their boats much more resilient to depth charge damage and nearly indestructible. The Manitowoc shipyard received the Navy "E" for Excellence Award pendant and flew it proudly throughout the war.
I asked him what Sunday's were like aboard a submarine during a war patrol. He said they were like any other day, except the Captain took complete control of the phonograph and he played a lot of Mozart and Beethoven records, rather than Glen Miller and the other popular swing bands of the day. The cooks always served roast turkey to the crew for Sunday Dinner. Otherwise, it was just another day of duty at sea. Jerry said he enjoyed standing the midnight to 0400 watches, because the submarine's cooks oftentimes cooked cinnamon rolls in the oven and they pulled them hot out of the oven late in the watch. In Jerry's opinion nothing tasted better than a warm, freshly baked cinnamon roll along with a big mug of hot navy coffee. He said that even to this day, if he ever smells cinnamon rolls baking, he thinks back to being aboard a submarine.
Whenever they were in port, undergoing a refit, the submarine crew never knew when their sailing date would be to go back out on patrol, but they soon found an infallible way of knowing when they'd be sailing. A Catholic Priest would always come aboard and celebrate Mass in the forward torpedo room the day before they set sail. Following Mass, the Priest would stay aboard for several hours, happily chatting with the crew and performing his other chaplin duties.
Another thing the crew aboard the USS GUAVINA did following extended crew liberty leaves in port; While the sub was being reconditioned, it would go on short sea voyages for several days duration, not only to test the boat's water tight integrity and battle worthiness through shallow "trim dives", but also to get the men used to being back aboard a cramped submarine. Perhaps most importantly, it was a time to "dry-out" the crew after they'd imbibed a lot of alcohol while on shore leave.
One of his favorite liberty ports was Freemantle, Australia and he said he had a lot of good times while in port there. Again with another one of those big happy smiles. Jerry loved Australia and seriously thought about emigrating there after the war, but he soon met Anne, his bride to be, and she quickly changed his mind for him.
I had another nice chat with Jerry yesterday. He said the most scared he ever was while on a war patrol, was the time they were so severely depth charged that the submarine's bow was driven some eight feet into the ocean mud and they suffered serious damage. To add even further insult to injury, they were unable to get free after the Japanese destroyers cleared-off and left the area. It took them quite some time to free the trapped submarine by using her propellers in full reverse, after blowing their ballast tanks. In addition, the crew off watch would alternate between running from the submarine's stern to the forward bow torpedo room in order to shift weight and break the mud’s suction on the boat. They really sweated-out that uncomfortable situation until they finally broke free of the mud and were able to surface to recharge their batteries and "air-out" the boat with fresh air.
He said their Captain, if given the choice, preferred to make surface torpedo attacks on Japanese ships both by day and night. Being on the surface increased their chances of making crippling hits upon enemy ships, while giving their Captain a much better idea of what was going on all around them. During their daytime attacks on Japanese convoys, they often proceeded on the surface with the submarine running half-submerged and their decks awash. This was done in order to lower the silhouette of the boat's conning tower and better hide them from the Japanese observers aboard their ships. During a torpedo attack, there were some 8 men crammed inside the sub's tiny conning tower, while the Captain stood above and outside on the bridge in the open air. Jerry said the submarine's outer doors on their torpedo tubes opened and shut electrically and the torpedoes were fired electronically. If a tube suffered a misfire breakdown, it could still be fired manually within seconds by the senior officer in the torpedo room. Even as late as 1945, there was often a shortage of torpedoes that could be taken aboard a submarine and they oftentimes had to be strictly rationed.
I asked him how they got rid of their garbage aboard a submarine. He said they dumped their trash overboard every night, so they would be far away the next morning, should any Japanese ships or planes happen to find their garbage floating in the ocean.
I was able to compile all this information into a sort of informal diary over a period of a couple months. Sadly though, Jerry's wife and loving companion of over 60 years, Anne succumbed to her illness and passed away. However, Jerry remains the eternal optimist who spends most of the winter months in Florida and no doubt his dance card is always full along with his social calendar with all of the unattached women of his age group down there. I'm sure he'd be smiling that smile if he were to read this.