Dr. Beynon served in USS BOWFIN (SS287) and subsequently earned his doctorate at OHIO STATE University. He is a retired university professor having served at Bowling Green State University and the University of Maine at Farmington. He presently resides in DeLand. Florida. He is the author of The Pearl Harbor Avenger-USS BOWFIN
Perfecting the dive procedure, in particular clearing the bridge, was a high priority aboard the WWII American submarine. The 5 or more men on bridge watch were energized by the command, “CLEAR THE BRIDGE. Each had to be in the conning tower within a very short time, getting it right in a specified time of 50 seconds or less was a goal to be obtained.
During USS BOWFIN’ s (287) third patrol, a distinguished visitor came aboard1• Admiral Ralph W. Christie had two reasons to be piped aboard the boat. He was desirous of earning a combat pin and more important to be satisfied HIS torpedoes were doing the job. For two years submarine skippers were complaining the torpedoes were not performing as expected. War reports were citing captains with words indicating “they ran too deep, they did not explode on contact, they explode prematurely, and they do not carry enough torpex even when contact is made.
No less than seventeen very successful commanders had written patrol reports that the Mark 14 and 16 armament was not eff ective2• Read the report of Richard O’Kane on the TANG. The boat had zeroed in on a freighter after an hour of pursuit. “Right full rudder; all ahead two-thirds. The approach on the target was routine. “All ahead 1/3-open outer doors. This torpedo attack was the after room’s first chance on this patrol. Captain O’Kane continued,
“Constant bearing … mark
The command fire coincided with the freighter’s stem dead center on the periscope wire. The four torpedoes set on a spread from stem to bow were running straight and true. She was a sitting duck. “OH HELL was the only response. Two of the shots broached sending streams of water sky high. The two minute run to contact give the enemy captain enough time to change course; all four torpedoes missed and exploded on the beach. Little consolation to a disappointed captain and his after torpedo room crew.
The Medal of Honor awardee, Lawson Peterson Ramage, had a similar experience. His war report read in summary:
“Fourteen (14) torpedoes fired, one was premature, and five were duds. A 43% failure rate.
Needless to say for an aggressive boat. . .led by an eager captain and crew … this was not acceptable. The higher brass still insisted on control errors or firing at too close a range. Submarine crews could not and did not accept this position.
One incident relating to the torpedo problem is worth repeating. Ramage before leaving on TROUT’s fourth patrol had the following encounter with Admiral Christie.
“What’s your armament? Christie inquired.
“Sixteen torpedoes and 23 mines, was the reply.
“I want you to sink 16 ships with the torpedoes.
Ramage was incensed. His only reply was “If I get a 25% reliable performance, I’ll be lucky.
Christie in turn was enraged. Imagine a submarine skipper addressing an admiral about one of the admiral’s pet projects-submarine torpedoes. He was angry to have one of his men show distrust and suspicion about an admiral’s torpedoes.
Because of this incident and because of TROUT’s poor performance: 4 attacks, the firing of 15 of 16 torpedoes-all misses-Ramage was evaluated by Christie as “RED had a miss last patrol. .. many chances and many failures. He is due for relief and will be sent back to the States for a new boat and rest at the same time.
Admiral Christie being aboard BOWFIN caused quite a stir among crew members. What did it all mean? Was it an honor to have him aboard? What was the reason? It had been known for a long time that Christie was wanting to make a war patrol. All his requests had been denied. Did an admiral dare disobey? Apparently so! What did the admiral have in mind?
In the meantime, the crew continued to guess at the Admiral’s motives. What was the pretense? Was he here to check-out the efficiency and effectiveness of the crew? Was he here to evaluate a well respected skipper, or still, was he here to determine the exactness of his beloved Mark XIV torpedoes? All the inquiries went unanswered while tensions mounted among the crew.
The Admiral was not all show. He earned his keep by standing watch on the bridge along side Captain Griffith. This allowed him to make two observations: (1) to evaluate the skipper and (2) to determine what all the fuss was about concerning HIS torpedoes.
Being on the bridge also gave him an opportunity to experience war time submarine duty5. Captain Griffith and the Admiral agreed what they had in sight was a tanker. Griffith’s decision was to remain on the surface. Bow and stem tubes were made ready. All 6 bow tubes missed because at the last possible moment the enemy went on a zig-zag course. This aggressive captain, with an admiral aboard, did not hesitate-a second chance had to be taken. Six torpedoes were fired. Four missed, 2 hit. Damage only was inflicted upon the enemy ship. He in tum spotted BOWFIN and opened with gun fire. The enemy captain, not without experience, began to zig-zag to avoid BOWFIN. Several times he changed course, this tactic put the two vessels on a bow to bow course. Griffith fired two bow shots; both missed. At this point, the non-combat Admiral became concerned. He remarked:
“We were too close, within machine gun range. I thought we would dive, but Griffith chose to hold the initiative by remaining on the surface. I thought surely he (the enemy) must have seen us … the enemy could easily have sunk us with gun fire or at least swept our bridge with machine gun fire.
Griffith held his course and fired two stern shots. The anxious Admiral awaited the results. He soon found out! BOWFIN was close enough for the detonation to cause Christie to have fallen to the deck. He had been slammed against the railing and in addition lost his gold braided hat over board.
Because the enemy had not been sunk and because he was returning fire with 4 inch and 20 mm cannons, the decision to clear the bridge was in order. The bridge hands have about 45 seconds to be in the conning tower with the hatch closed.
A very special method is employed for using the conning tower ladder. An experienced submariner grabs the two vertical supports, puts his feet on the verticals and slides down. At no time are the horizontal rungs used. The supports are only used on the way UP never on the way DOWN. Sliding down saves time and many lives were saved as a result.
Experienced submariners know the meaning of “Clear the bridge. Without hesitation the order is interpreted as ‘NOW … QUICKLY … LOOK OUT FOR YOURSELF. Out of deference to rank, the Admiral was the first to leave the bridge. Being first meant get out of the way. Using the ladder rungs was not fast enough for the next man. Eugene “Bud Knoche rode the shoulders of the admiral all the way to the conning tower deck. After all was secure, the admiral remarked:
“I don’t believe I hit a rung of the ladder to the conning tower.
The story became quite a topic throughout the boat. Art Carter confirms the story with his version of Knoche’s shouting ‘GET DOWN OR GET OUT OF THE WAY.
Bud gives a more convincing evidence of what happened. He related:
“I was after look-out. The enemy vessel had his searchlight on us and it was brighter than daylight. What ran through my mind was “I’ll never see my mom again.’ About this time Mr. Bertrand ordered me to the starboard side of the periscope shears as the enemy vessel was to our port beam. Captain Griffith was skipping away to avoid having to dive. A little while later the order “Clear the bridge rang in my ears. I was second down and someone was blocking the hatch, so I yelled to him to get his ASS down or get out of the way. After we were submerged one of the stewards told me the captain and the Admiral were having a big laugh over my telling the admiral to get his ass out of the way. Later in the control room, I apologized to him. His only reply was “Don’t worry about it, I was worried about the man in front of me.”
In summary: “CLEAR THE BRIDGE means get going irrespective of who is on the bridge. So Admiral. .. “CLEAR THE BRIDGE … NOW !!!