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WORLD WAR II SEA STORIES – WWII Memories in Flying Fish

Captain Charlie Styer graduated early from the Naval Academy with the class of 1941. He had a distinguished career in submarines commanding MACKEREL (SS 204) in 1945 and CUTLASS (SS 478) in 1955. He was Chief Staff Officer to COMSUBRON 14 in 1960 and commanded HOLLAND (AS 32) in 1964. He took command of SUB RON I 0 in 1965. Charlie is part of a long line of submarine sailors. His father was COMSUBLANT and his brother.Bob, commanded PLUNGER (SSN 595)

My first submarine duty was as a Naval Reserve apprentice seaman in USS Cuttlefish on a San Diego to Pearl Harbor cruise in 1936. That experience, plus a year before the war as a commissioned officer in the destroyer USS Rowan, confirmed my preference for sea duty aboard small ships rather than the major combatant types to which the majority of my Naval Academy classmates had been detailed upon graduation. I liked the early assignment of responsibilities that accompanied small ship duty. Thus, I applied for submarine school in early 1942 and began my wartime submarine experiences. They were typical for most young officers of my time–adventure and adrenaline, plenty of responsibility, and many cat and mouse encounters and other experiences shared as only a submarine crew does. The periods when time dragged were few. Although my nine World War II patrols were not as action-filled as many about which we have read, they accounted for a respectable share of Japanese shipping sent to the bottom. As happened to those who entered submarines before or early in the war, I made patrols in more than one boat, with responsibilities increasing steadily throughout the war. This is the story of my first four war patrols.

My first assignment after Sub School was USS Flying Fish. About three quarters of her crew had participated in her first two patrols, action-filled in both torpedo attacks and depth charging. Our skipper, Lieutenant Commander “Done” Donaho, ranked among the top skippers of the war. He ran a taut ship and was known as being aggressive in making torpedo attacks. When I joined the Flying Fish wardroom, she was just completing a three-week refit in Pearl Harbor. I was assigned as communications officer and was introduced to the tedious duties of strip and machine message decoding. My roommate and mentor for submarine qualification was third officer Lieutenant Walter Small, who later became our “exec” and then went on to his own early successful wartime command.

We headed from Pearl to the Solomon Islands, where the struggle for Guadalcanal was in full swing in the fall of 1942. En route to the patrol area, we new hands were thoroughly drilled as officers of the deck and diving watch officers. There were frequent surprise exercises in diving the boat. How agile we were in our youthful days! Clearing the bridge of personnel, shutting the topside hatch on the way down the ladder to the bridge, and sliding further down the control room ladder to take over as diving officer to complete the dive gave us plenty of exercise. The last man down, generally the officer of the deck, often found himself riding the shoulders of anyone ahead of him who might be a mite slow in dropping down the vertical ladder from the bridge to the conning tower compartment. We were also thoroughly trained as lookouts. Captain Donaho always assigned two officers to the lookout stations high in the periscope shears whenever the boat was close to friendly entry or exit ports.

En route to the Solomons, we patrolled off the entrance to the big Japanese base at Truck in the Caroline Island group. There, we made submerged attacks on a formation of five cruisers and five destroyers and another against a formation of several warships. Both attacks were unsuccessful, believed to be due to the infamous defective Mark 14 torpedoes of the time. A depth charging followed each of these torpedo attacks. This was my first encounter with this disagreeable aspect of submarine life. Listening through the hull to the swishing of our attackers’ screws and to short scale sonar pings, followed by the “click” of a detonator, then the loud explosion itself, convinced me that the Japanese were serious about finding and sinking us.

In the Solomon Islands area, we made our first use of the new SJ surface search radar, running submerged just enough (about 40′ depth) to expose its antenna. We made successful night attacks this way on two occasions, sinking two destroyers. These were heavily loaded with troops and running at high speeds down the .. slot.” as Lengo Channel, the narrow body of water north of Guadalcanal, was called. The Japanese were attempting to reinforce their forces on Guadalcanal. Interdicting their supply and warships and dodging our own surface forces kept us busy. Torpedoes expended, we headed for Brisbane and a welcome refit.

On my second run in 1943, we sank two merchantmen in Marianas waters, proceeding afterwards to Midway for a short refit. There were quonset hut quarters ashore here for resting submarine crew members while a relief crew stationed on the tender took over the refit work. The officers stayed in a BOQ, named the “Gooneyvil le Lodge.” My membership card to the bar therein stated that I was “a raider of the deep and an experienced submariner and that, as a member in good standing, I could return again at any time to carouse and sleep with the gooneybirds.” We took our rest periods seriously.

We were off again for my third patrol, this time to Japanese home waters. Captain Donaho had been promoted to commander and Walt Small had fleeted up to exec. Our assigned area included the northern east coast of Honshu, the main home island, and the southern east coast of Hokkaido. We spent two weeks just off Tokyo Bay where the enemy shipping traffic was known to be heavy. We had high hopes there and they were fulfilled with several successful submerged attacks on coastal shipping. After one of these, we were slammed around for hours under an intensive and close depth charging by several destroyers. With depth keeping particularly difficult, I felt I had earned my keep as diving officer. I remember receiving the approving comments of our grizzled old Chief of the Boat who was manning the diving manifold in the Control Room. During that patrol we made six periscope attacks and sank three ships.

My fourth and last run in Flying Fish was in Formosan (now Taiwan) waters. Our division commander, Commander Frank Watkins, had volunteered for this run while Captain Donaho was on stateside leave. Captain Watkins, 45, was obviously delighted at the chance to make a patrol. He was the first division commander to take a boat to sea as skipper. After departing from Pearl Harbor, we stopped at Midway for refueling on our way west. One of our enginement had purloined a small motor scooter at the Pearl Harbor Sub Base, cutting off the handlebars in order to fit it down a hatch. However, a Marine awaited us on the dock at Midway to recover the scooter. Too many submariners had pulled off this same stunt before!

This patrol was conducted mostly off the entrance to Takao, principal port of Formosa (now Taiwan). We experienced miserable weather much of the time, including one typhoon with mountainous seas. Running on the surface in such seas usually meant that men on the open bridge were ducked under water much of the time. Whenever a huge wave came over the bridge, the bridge hatch to the conning tower compartment below had to be quickly closed. Running with the main induction valve closed in these high seas required taking air from the bridge hatch through the ship, causing a veritable continuous high wind throughout the after part of the boat. Periodic shutting of the conning tower hatch meant, of course, shutting down main engines to avoid pulling an increasing vacuum inside the boat. Our knowledge about running engines in a vacuum was hazy in those days. At the best, taking engine air through the conning tower in high seas was a pain in the neck; it was noisy and made sleeping difficult. At worst the interruptions made battery charging virtually impossible. If there was sufficient “can,” sometimes the best solution was to submerge and ride out the storm at depths of one or two hundred feet. Even then, things could get uncomfortable. I recall once rolling 20 degrees at 200 feet. Coming up for occasional periscope looks in this weather to search for targets meant both difficult depth keeping and poor visibility. This was a disappointing patrol, although adjudged successful with one ship sunk.

Flying Fish was refitted between my patrols in Brisbane, Pearl Harbor (twice), and Midway. Crews were moved ashore for two weeks of relaxation during these three-week refits. The Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu had been taken over shortly after outbreak of the war by the Navy for submariners. It was not too shabby as a submarine rest camp! In Brisbane, I had the pleasure of making a few liberties with my dad, who was also Flying Fish’s squadron commander, embarked in the submarine tender Sperry that was refitting us. It was just like old times, when he gave me the keys to his car! The Australians were most hospitable and we enjoyed the rest camp beaches, some night life, and horse races.

In contrast, Midway was a quite dull rest camp. Feeding beer to the gooney birds and qualifying as drivers in bulldozers and other earth moving machinery was about as interesting as the place got. Of course, the best part about any refit was getting mail from home and to taste the fresh fruits and milk brought in from Hawaii.

While on patrol in 1943 in Japanese waters, we usually operated in areas devoid of U.S. surface or air forces. Our assigned patrol areas generally contained an extensive coastline and significant ports. The areas were geographically separated from those of other U.S. submarines so as to avoid possible “friendly fire” situations. Even so, we were kept well informed of movements of other boats. We maintained radio silence except to report movements of out-of-range or damaged shipping which might provide target opportunities for other boats. When in close-in coastal patrol areas, we usually submerged at dawn. Morning star sights were taken just prior to diving to fix a position so we could keep as close to known Japanese traffic lanes as possible. While submerged, we established our position by taking periscope bearings on known structures (few) or mountain peaks (many). Most of our charts gave the British Admiralty credit for the survey work upon which they were based.

We kept a constant periscope watch for targets, conserving battery power needed to close a target for attack. After dusk, we ran on the surface all night to charge batteries, run air compressors to refill air banks, and run distillers for fresh water. In my last Flying Fish patrol, we ran on the surface quite often in daylight, using a high periscope watch for telltale masts or smoke on the horizon.

We were in heart-pounding action many times on each patrol, attacking shipping while submerged in daylight or on the surface at nigh. If submerged, we usually received our expected ration of depth charges after each attack. In daylight, a spread of steam-driven torpedoes left a very visible “V” pointer to our firing position. Close depth charges were loud and bone rattling, with insulation cork and cracked glass flying around the compartments, and or with vital equipment becoming damaged. Silent running and evasive maneuvers after attacks usually meant many hours of creeping speeds. It also meant shutting down most auxiliary equipment to minimize noises for which Japanese sonars were listening, as well as to conserve battery power. Silent running meant heavy sweating (both men and ship) with no air conditioning and cold food.

Speaking of food, we had the best. Submarine chefs were well trained, occasionally at leading stateside hotels. We were issued as much in the way of fresh vegetables and frozen foods as our freezer and refrigerator could hold. Before each patrol, we stuffed canned and boxed goods in every nook and cranny on the ship. Still, we ran out of some foodstuffs and had to rely on powdered milk, eggs, and other ersatz foods occasionally. The extra ration allowance given submariners helped. Without much exercise, keeping off weight was a problem. One solution was having only “C” ration chocolate bars for lunch. Never my favorite! But it did keep down air contamination and electricity consumption. Like many boats, we reversed day and night hours, eating lunch at midnight. I was impartial to that procedure, but then I don’t remember having a vote!

Flying Fish sank five and a half ships (one shared with another boat), totaling I 0,000 tons during eleven attacks over the I 0 months I was aboard. Those four patrols averaged 52 days in length and were all adjudged successful, entitling all participating crew members to wear the Submarine Combat Insignia. I left Flying Fish for new construction in the summer of 1943. I looked forward to a stateside rest and the opportunity to bring to bear the experience I had gained in Flying Fish to another boat.

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