Billy Grieves enlisted in the Navy April 13, 1939 al the age of 18. After Submarine School and duty in USS R-10 he was assigned lo USS THRESHER (SS-200) which went to Pearl Harbor in April of 1941.
During World War II he particdipated in 13 war patrols. 11 aboard THRESHER and 2 aboard LIZARDFJSH (SS-373). He served as a TM lie in charge of the Fonward Torpedo Room and was awarded the Submarine Combat Pin and 2 Bronze Stars.
Many of our boats had exciting stories to tell of patrols in WWII. But the THRESHER (SS-200) story was unique. No submarine in history ever went through an attack like THRESHER’s fourth war patrol
On the day of departure from Pearl, we picked up our escort, the old “four-pipe” destroyer, LITCHFIELD, in the harbor and following closely in her wake we transited the channel and the mine field and turned west toward the Marshall Islands. In due course we passed Midway Island and the International Date Line and approached the Marshalls at the island of Maloelap. The first day on station the skipper, CDR Bill Millican, sighted a four ship convoy coming through the channel. But the last ship in line was a tanker and, in compliance with orders by COMSUBPAC to sink the tankers first, we let the first three go by and fired two fish at the tanker. One hit. She burst into flames and sank in two minutes. The escort attacked and dropped nineteen charges during the next couple of hours but we surfaced after sundown and escaped in the darkness.
The next day we approached the Island of K wajalein submerged through a pass called Gea Pass. Gea Pass is good submarine water. The pass is deep and wide enough to maneuver in and we had learned that K wajalien was now the eastward most naval base of the Japanese navy. We could just picture a nice big aircraft carrier or a big, fat battleship. To hell with these tankers, we wanted a man-o-war. Throughout the day the skipper sighted several ships through the periscope including three “I boats” (Japanese submarines) but none came within torpedo range. At sundown, we surfaced but remained in the pass.
As dawn approached, the batteries were charged and the cooks had finished their baking in time for the ovens to cool down. We dove just before sunrise. It was about 0800 hrs. and the skipper raised the periscope for his regular sweep when he was momentarily blinded by a flash of white light through the scope. When his eyes became accustomed to the light he could see it was the sun gleaming off the side of a brand new ship. Her decks were lined with Japanese sailors in white uniforms. Great! A navy ship! She was the 4,836 ton Motor Torpedo Boat Tender, SHINSHO MARU. She was steering a straight course without escorts! The sky above was dotted with aircraft but a ship, holding her course and speed and without escorts, which comes within a submarines torpedo range … is dead meat! The set-up was perfect.
The skipper took his first bearings: “Range, 7000 yards … angle on the bow, S degrees starboard … estimated speed, 12 knots. Down scope!” Now, this was the way a torpedo approach was made: The periscope was raised for only a few seconds because it left a white “feather” on the surface which could give our position away. And we knew there were lookouts on the flying bridge of that target, sweeping the water with binoculars, looking for periscopes. So a torpedo approach consisted of a series … maybe 12 or 1 S …sometimes more depending on the chase … of very brief bearings until the skipper could determine the exact course, range and speed of the target. These factors were then fed into the torpedo data computer in the conning tower together with our own course and speed and the torpedo speed. The computer then transmitted the proper angles to the gyro regulator between the tubes and from there to the gyros of the torpedoes in the tubes. As the target drew near, these angles gradually reduced to zero. The torpedo could be fired as much as 160 degrees to port or starboard but the ideal shot, to avoid error, was a straight bow shot … zero degrees. In the torpedo room we knew exactly when we would fire.
As the target came within range we were ordered to make tubes three and four ready for firing. I had the starboard bank and went to work on number three while my buddy, Charlie Fry, made ready number four. In short order we raised the ready-to-fire levers giving them the light in the conning tower. As the target angle approached zero the skipper ordered, “Final bearing and shoot! Up scope!”. He zeroed the periscope on the target, checked the azimuth overhead, and said, “Stand by three!” Then: “Fire three!” and five seconds later by the skippers wrist watch: “Fire Four!” The boat shuddered with the recoil. In the torpedo room we listened in dead silence as the fish sped down the track.
But the torpedoes were not set to strike the target. The were set to pass beneath the target. Because the explored on the Mark XIV torpedo contained a magnetic feature which, when the torpedo passed within the magnetic proximity of the hull, detonated the war head at the ships most vulnerable point, her keel. Salt water is in compressible and an underwater explosion can only go one way … STRAIGHT UP!
The wait was short because the range was under a thousand yards and the … BLOOM! And five seconds latter … BLOOM! Two hits! The first fish passed directly beneath the bridge and when 600 pounds of Torpex exploded, it blew the entire bow off the ship. The second fish passed beneath her quarter and blew the stem off. Within two or three minutes the three sections sank beneath the surface in a huge cloud of steam. Breaking up noises were clearly audible for some time as SHINSHO MARU’s watertight compartments ruptured. Where the ship had been the water came alive with white uniforms of survivors.
The skipper knew that somebody would be coming out to rescue those sailors and when they did, we would be here to meet them.
We were cruising slowly at periscope depth, the scope was down, the boat was silent … when suddenly the loudest, most violent explosion we had ever heard went off right beneath our bow! We were rudely reminded of a basic fact of modern warfare … aircraft carry depth charges too … but we were lucky.
Where the charge went off right beneath the bow, the configuration of the hull is very narrow. Most of the charge passed us and went to the surface. Had the charge exploded five seconds later beneath the For’ d battery or control room … THRESHER would have been history.
The bow erupted with such violence that men sitting on the bunks were Lifted clear off the bunks. Men standing back aft were thrown to the deck and Charlie and I grabbed onto our tubes and hung on. The order came out almost immediately: “All ahead full! Depth, 300! All compartments check for damages!”
I checked my starboard bank and the bilge, Charlie checked the port bank, other guys checked the Pitometer Log well and the sound heads … no damage. The man on the phones: “For’d room to control, no damage in the for’d room.” The report continued compartments by compartment to the after torpedo room … no damage … or so we thought then.
What we dido ‘t know was this: The Mark XIV torpedo weighs 3,421 pounds and leaves the tube at 4 7 knots. It receives this impetus from 400 pounds of air stored in impulse bottles located in the superstructure above the tubes. And when the charge went off, the seal to # 1 impulse bottle was cracked. THRESHER was laying a brilliant stream of bubbles on the surface of Gea Pass … and we didn’t know it. We were at 300 feet, well out of visual range of the aircraft but the depth charges followed. Then sonar picked up the sound of three sets of screws coming off the beach.
Unerringly the destroyers homed in on our wake. As the captain gave orders to evade and try to get us out of the channel and into the ocean, the depth charges followed relentlessly. But then, amazingly, all depth charging ceased. We knew they had a dead fix on our position and our depth and yet the sea was dead quiet. The ominous silence continued for some time.
We were at 300 feet, running silent, when suddenly the silence was broken by a loud “clanking” noise moving aft down the starboard side of the hull: CLANK … CLANK … CLUNK, CLUNK … CLANK! The man on the phones: “For’d room to control, we are experiencing a loud clanking noise moving aft down the starb’ rd side!” The message was repeated by each compartment, and then it was gone. What now?
It was the planesmen who discovered we were not out of trouble. The stem was rising appreciably and they were losing their bubble and there was nothing they could do to stop it. Then came the realization: We were hooked by a large grapnel into the starboard stem plane guard and we were being brought up, stem first.
The boat displaced 1500 tons on the surface, but submerged it had a neutral buoyancy, neither heavy nor light. A relatively small ship can bring a submarine to the surface.
The captain’s first order was to pour more power to the screws. He ordered: “Rudder amidships! Full dive on the planes! All ahead full!” The power hit the screws and the boat began to vibrate … and vibrate … and vibrate. No change … the grapnel held fast. Then: “All stop!” With such extravagant expenditure of amperage the batteries could not last long. The next order was to add more weight to the stem. In the series of orders that followed, After Trim tank was flooded from sea, then After W.R.T. tank was flooded from sea, then the after torpedo room bilges were flooded to the deck plates. We took on tons of ballast with no slowing in the rise. Then we passed 250 feet.
As time slowly passed the captain tried every maneuver he could think of to get us off the grapnel, but THRESHER continued to rise inexorably. When we passed l 00 feet it became apparent we were going to lose our boat. The captain gave the order for the radiomen to demolish all decoding equipment. They went to work with sledge hammers and the pounding could be heard all over the boat. Then he ordered the gunners mates to the torpedo rooms to position the demolition charges for scuttling.
Each torpedo room carried a 55 lb. charge of T.N.T. which, when placed between the war heads of the re-load torpedoes and detonated would obliterate both these compartments and, hopefully, that S.O.B. who was pulling us up. But as we placed the charges it was recognized that for our THRESHER crew, there would be no survivors. But there was no objection to this. Some of the men bowed their heads in prayer. Wes Headington stood up and came over to me and as I stood up we shook hands, eye-to-eye, no words, but the silence was eloquent … “It was good sailing with you.” No one spoke … only quiet resignation.
I don’t know how deep we were then, our periscopes must have been very close to the surface, then the captain tried one last desperate maneuver. He ordered Forward Trim flooded from After Trim. The down angle, already steep, now became steeper. Then he ordered: “Left full rudder! All ahead emergency!” The power hit the screws with a shudder! The boat heaved slightly into a port list, and then, incredibly, we were off the hook! Buy why? Did the grapnel cable part? Did the maneuver cause the stem plane guard to lift off the hook? Nobody knows the answer, but with the extra ballast and steep down angle, we headed for the bottom. “Blow Bow Buoyancy!” came the order, and as 3000 lbs. of air hit the forward tank, the bow heaved upward and we were saved from striking the bottom. For the next several minutes all concern for silent running was disregarded as tons of ballast were pumped and blown overboard to regain our lost trim and the depth charges rained down.
We remained at 300 feet maneuvering evasively until the sun went down and they could no longer see the bubbles … or possibly they ran out, and sometime after dark we surfaced, chased by the destroyers. But we eluded them in the darkness. We had taken 41 depth charges.
We continued the patrol past Truk Atoll, then Yap and Palau then turned south across the equator, through the Dutch East Indies to the Indian Ocean and we made port in Freemantle, West Australia. We had made two more attacks but with no success … shallow waters … torpedo trouble.
Captain Millican made four more runs with us earning two Navy Crosses for the tonnage we sank and the first submarine mine plant of the war. Then he was relieved and transferred back to the states to take command of the new ESCOLAR. He took several THRESHER officers and key enlisted men with him.
In time, ESCOLAR went into commission and joined the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. The first war patrol was to the Yellow Sea off the coast of China. We know she arrived on station but then nothing was heard from ESCOLAR again. She was lost with all hands on her first run. Our crew was deeply saddened when we learned this.
But that’s the way it was then. Some of us made a lot of war patrols, I made thirteen, and when we came into port from many of these, the message was the same, overdue and presumed lost. One or more of our boats failed to return, some on their very first run.