In July 1944, the USS RASHER (SS-269) was due for an overhaul, and a skipper was needed to take her to Pearl Harbor. Rear Admiral Ralph Christie, headquartered in Perth, West Australia, had several qualified individuals who were either helping out on his staff or directing the refit of submarines.
Commander Henry G. Munson, Class of ’32, was one of those officers awaiting another boat assignment After the USS CREV ALLE’s second war patrol he asked to be relieved of his command “to recoup and regroup.” But after only two weeks in the COs’ rest home at Cotesloe, Perth, Munson had gotten restless and volunteered to take over a repair group – ostensibly to “better organize the refits and hurry the boats back to sea to put more Japs on the bottom of the ocean.”
Around the sub base in Fremantle, it was rumored that Admiral Christie had gotten many gripes about Munson from the repair crews he managed; Munson had been pushing too hard, they complained. Thus, putting him on the RASHER was a good solution to the admiral’s problem. Besides, ten weeks on the beach with a war going on was as much as a warrior like Munson could bear.
On 17 July, Commander Munson relieved Lieutenant Commander Willard Laughton of the RASHER’s command. Munson brought with him Lieutenant Gunior grade) T.W.E. “Luke” Bawdier, U.S. Naval Reserve, who’d also been put ashore from the CREV ALLE for a rest. Munson, who admitted to night blindness, called Bowdler “my eyes for night surface attack.” Bawdier, who ate lots of carrots, clarified much of the attack data and battle damage origina11y assessed by Munson in his patrol reports.
The RASHER left Fremantle on 22 July with orders “to patrol ‘Whitewash’ areas off Luzon from l4°15’N to 1S030’N and east of Longitude ll5°E; in a coordinated search and attack group with USS BLUEFISH to terminate 30 August and return to Pearl.”
On patrol, Munson was not a card player and spent little time in the wardroom. He either worked at his cabin desk or prowled relentlessly around the submarine, looking for problems. If he spotted one, he’s ask one of the crew a quick question, impatiently wait out the answer, flash a grin to show understanding, and then be off. His main recreation was solving calculus problems – using a pen. One of his officers, who had a master’s degree in mathematics, commented: “No sonofabitch ever works calculus with a pen!” But Munson did. He’d sit there in his cabin with a burned-out cigarette dangling from his mouth. As he worked his calculations, he’d twist his lean face into a grimace, the bottom lining of his wild, blue eyes showing blood-red. Even the messengers approached him with great caution.
Munson always wore a complete khaki uniform with collar insignias, and black shoes. On the bridge, during night action, he wore a cap. He did, however, relax the wearing of black ties on board ship during patroL.
The RASHER’s fifth patrol stayed fairly calm until early August, when things began to pick up: “5 August, 30 miles south of Scarborough Shoals. 2255 …. radar contact at 16,000 yards, 225° true. Began end-around at 14,000 yards; 6 August, at 0130 submerged for approach, target was the KOSEl MAR U, 8,223 tons, escorted by one small SC-type on port bow with two 1,000-ton AKs on starboard side, (even AKs as escorts were known to roll over depth charges), all making 8 knots, zigging every seven minutes. Submerged. 0211 with starboard escort at 700 yards, angle-on-bow zero (escort beaded directly at RASHER); got single-ping sonar range to target of 1,400 yards; flfed 6 torpedoes with 6()0 right gyro angles, spread ‘1!’. Timed five hits and heard break-up noises as we were forced to duck under the escorts. Four depth charges, distant, went off; surfaced with escorts milling around astern at 8,000 yards.” (The ship was a confirmed sinking.)
Although it sounded like a routine maneuver in the patrol report, note the position of the RASHER at the time of firing torpedoes — and the daring of this approach.
The real action started on 18 August There were nine successive aircraft contacts to the north of the RASHER during the late afternoon. Munson suspected that this indicated an air patrol flying ahead of a group of valuable ships. His guess was a good one!
At 2009, with the RASHER surfaced, a radar contact was reported on a mass of ships approaching from the northeast — range was 19,000 yards. The radar showed about 13 large contacts in three columns, and at least six smaller ones in escort screening positions. There was no moon; it was very dark with almost continuous rain.Munson wrote in his ship’s log that “these were ideal conditions for a night surface attack.”
Munson kept the RASHER idling in front of the approaching Japanese ships. She lay directly of the ongoing escorts on the starboard side of the convoy
As the mass of ships, making 13 knots, closed the RASHER, Munson swung clear of the nearest escort, letting her pass within 1,500 yards. Nothing was seen in the intense blackness. When the RASHER’s radar operator reported being confused by the many side-lobes from the big ships, Munson swung the RASHER to port and opened the range to the near column of ships.
At 2122, two stem tube torpedoes were fired with a 2° spread and range of 2,800 yards at a big target. Lieutenant “Willy” Newlon, the torpedo data computer operator, then asked for a hold-fire because he didn’t think the gyros were matching properly. However, the two discharged torpedoes were observed to hit, “sending up a column of flame 1,000 feet high while part of the ship blew off … both parts burning fiercely.” She apparently was a tanker. The near escort fired her guns wildly in all directions, and began to fiercely depthcharge something well astern of the RASHER.
At this point, a lookout, confused by the tracer bullets arching out from the convoy toward the RASHER, shouted “aircraft closing astern.” Munson ordered full speed; very agitated, he shouted for the radar operator to check for a rapidly closing contact. Munson then dropped down into the conning tower to make his own check of the radar scope. He found no indication of a plane. But the delay which was created lost the RASHER a chance to shoot her other two stern fish.
Munson then hurried his boat up the starboard flank of the convoy, remaining 4,000 yards from the near escorts. During this maneuver, he sent a contact report in plain language to the BLUEFISH — 83 miles to the southwest — telling her skipper to join the action.
At 2206, Munson swung the RASHER around the stern of the convoy’s starboard leading escort and charged toward the big ships at 15 knots. He only slowed the RASHER momentarily to fire six torpedoes from the forward tubes. They were aimed at a huge ship 3,300 yards away. The fish were spread 2° at 45 knots, and set for a six-foot depth. (The depth-keeping performance of the Mk-14 torpedoes had been so poor that Munson didn’t want to risk any of them dipping under a target.)
The firing was done on radar bearings. The battle officerof-the-deck, Luke Bawdier, unable to distinguish any of the ships being fired at, could not get check-bearings. When the first three torpedoes hit in the nearest ship, she started smoking heavily and small fires broke out all over her topside. Luke saw enough of the torpedoed ship to claim that it was “a tremendous two-stack transport” A fourth torpedo– timed to hit a ship off the port bow of the transport — exploded at a range of 3,900 yards.
The RASHER was then swung hard left to bring the stem tubes to bear. The radar range to a big target in a third column of ships seemed excessive — 3,800 yards. But Willy Newlon, from his station inside the conning tower, assured the skipper that it seemed by far to be the biggest ship on the radar, and should be worth shooting at. Through the misty rain, Luke had the impression that the ship was flat across the top, “like a very big tanker.”
At 2214, the four stem tubes were fired at the huge target, and three hits were heard; a fourth hit was heard in a more distant ship. Two observed flashing hits on the near ship verified that she was indeed huge (not until after the war was it revealed by a Japanese prisoner of war that this ship had been the escort aircraft carrier T AIYO of about 20,000 tons, which sank as a result of the three hits). Munson pu]]ed the RASHER clear for a rapid reload of the torpedo tubes.
At this point, the convoy had split into two groups. One group continued on a southwesterly course, and the other swung toward the northwest; Munson went after the latter group. (The group to the south was attacked by the BLUEFISH four hours later, with two large tankers damaged. One of these tankers was sunk in a second BLUEFISH attack at 0400 on the 19th, and at 0713 the BLUEFISH scored three hits on the second tanker, without sinking her.)
At 2245, Munson — observing the radar in the conning tower — noted that the “two-stack transport” damaged in an earlier attack had dropped out of formation, along with two escorts. (Apparently, she sank soon afterwards.) Munson then sent another contact report to the BLUEFISH, saying that only six torpedoes remained and that the RASHER was trying to head off the northernmost group of ships. This group, he noted, comprised three large ships plus one “very hostile escort,” which seemed to have a radar because of interference on the RASHER’s radar scope. This escort kept darting annoyingly toward the RASHER, then turning back to protect her ships.
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At 2330, with the Japanese ships on a northwesterly course, Munson fired the RASHER’s four remaining bow torpedoes at the leading target, “a cargo ship (an AK) of good size.” The range was 2,200 yards. The first torpedo out of the tubes hooked right, steadied on a course, passed astern of the cargo ship, and hit another ship some distance beyond The next three torpedoes hit their intended target and she exploded with a deafening roar. The AK was probably loaded with munitions, causing a pressure wave which swept across the RASHER’s bridge.
Only two torpedoes remained and both were in stem tubes. Consequently, the RASHER was swung hard right and the last two torpedoes were launched at the closest ship; both of them hit. This ship promptly slowed to five knots and reversed course, heading for the coast of Luzon. The RASHER followed this crippled ship while an escort joined her belatedly — to defend against further attacks.
Three hours later, the escort illuminated the damaged ship, only to be shot at by the vessel, which probably mistook her own escort for an enemy submarine. The escort’s searchlight revealed the damaged ship as another two-stack transport of great size.
Meanwhile, Munson passed the word in the RASHER: “All hands can splice the main brace in the control room — a shot glass of liquor for every man, until all the medicinal brandy is gone. Well done, Mates!”
Still later, the Japanese escort heard the RASHER take a “ping” with her sound gear while attempting to get the range on the transport without disclosing the radar. The escort charged back at the RASHER. Out of torpedoes, the deadly submarine was finally forced to withdraw.
Just before the early morning trim dive, USS SPADEFISH far to the north, was raised on voice radio. Commander Gordon Underwood, a classmate of Munson’s, reported sinking one or possibly two troop transports which went by him at 0330 — in the early morning — headed west from the point of the RASHER’s initial attack on the convoy.
The battle was finished. The RASHER had sunk at least three ships and damaged five more, with 16 hits out of 18 torpedoes fired — that gave the RASHER 21 hits for the 24 torpedoes fired on the e
Munson could only guess at the tonnage of Japanese ships he’d sunk or damaged as he headed his boat for Midway, the patrol terminated by Commander, Task Force 71 in Perth. Lu Bowdler and the battle lookouts were quizzed at great length as to what they observed, and how big they guessed the ships were that they vaguely saw through the rain. Bowdler insisted that “all of the eight ships hit were 10,000 tons or bigger.” Munson didn’t think so; he felt that a far more modest total tonnage was reasonable, and he wasn’t sure that more than two had gone down. But when the RASHER pulled into Midway, a staff officer of Vice Admiral Charles A Lockwood, Commander Submarines Pacific, was waiting on the dock. He and Munson then went into a secret conference with the RASHER’s executive officer excluded; this was unusual. Between Midway and Pearl Harbor, Munson changed his tonnage estimates upward. His new figures brought the RASHER’s toll to five ships, totaling 53,000 tons sunk, and four ships damaged for 22,000 more tons. This checked very closely with the official assessment made after the end of the war. Apparently, decoded Japanese messages had given Admiral Lockwood’s command in Pearl Harbor a good deal of information on the actual ships torpedoed.
Munson and the RASHER were responsible for the most total tonnage of sunk and damaged ships for any single U.S. war patrol during World War D.[Reprinted with special permission of Proceeding, Copyright September, 1983].