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WARTIME MEMORIES OF TILEFISH

My second wartime submarine was USS TILEFISH. She was on the building ways at Mare Island Navy Yard, Vallejo, CA, when I was the first crew member to report in the fall of 1943. I attended her launching and, as chief engineer, participated in the three month completion and outfitting period. The officer ordered to command, failed to appear when expected, we learned later that he was on a boat presumed lost. A new C.O. finally showed up, Commander Myers Keithly, well experienced as exec of Tunny on several patrols. He was a professional and affable skipper, well respected and liked by his crew. Five of the eight officers aboard were qualified in submarines, but only four of us (skipper, executive officer, a newly commissioned ex-enlisted officer, and myself) had any war patrol experience. Three of the others were fresh out of Sub School. Only about a third of the enlisted personnel had any patrol experience. The quickened submarine building program was having its effect on the experience level of most submarine crews.

The building period afforded opportunity for welcome recreation in nearby San Francisco. One interesting diversion for us was attending dinners at Mom Chung’s home. Mom was a Chinese-American surgeon who practiced in San Francisco. Some of her patients and good friends were leading lights in the entertainment world. Early in the war, she had adopted a group of naval aviators, known as Mom Chung’s Fair Haired Bastards. A similar organization of bastard son submariners soon followed, which she called her Golden Dolphins. The principal activity was a periodic Sunday night dinner Mom cooked at her home for her invited adopted sons and their spouses or dates. The several times my wife and I attended these dinners, there were 30.35 well-fed guests. Occasionally, a celebrity or two appeared. I recall the pleasure of meeting Andre Kostelanetz and his wife, Lily Pons, at one dinner. After several such dinners, I was formally adopted by Mom and presented a ring and a certificate of membership. She doted on her sons (even in the years after the war). However, the dotage ended at the end of each meal-her bastard sons were required to wash and dry mounds of dishes while all other guests chatted and enjoyed after-dinner drinks.

At the end of TILEFISH’s Mare Island post¬∑commissioning period, we had a short trial and torpedo attack training session in the San Diego area. Then on to Pearl Harbor. There, our executive officer was reassigned and I was designated to relieve him. We trained for two weeks at sea out of Pearl, including making repeated night surface mock attacks against U.S. convoys on their way to Oahu from the mainland. One of the exec’s duties was ship’s navigator. Towards the end of one such convoy attack exercise, I had difficulty establishing our position. The constant rainy weather, frequent diving, many course and speed changes, and lack of any star or sun sights made my dead reckoning position worthless. Fortunately, the last night on the way back to Pearl, a passing merchantman saved my bacon by blinking his position to us by signal gun. Actually, once I got the hang of it, I loved navigation, particularly the challenge posed when taking star sights with a sextant in the dark of night on the surface when the horizon was barely visible.

The first TILEFISH patrol began on departure from Pearl in April 1944. We headed for a patrol area east of Honshu, the Japanese main island. We sighted many enemy aircraft but found few torpedo targets. We were hampered by failure of our fathometer, periscope fogging, and continually overcast weather which ruled out celestial navigation. We attacked one small convoy, sinking a troop transport. Diving amid the sounds of explosions, we inadvertently took on a large amount of water, making a hair· raising dive to 580 feet, considerably below our designed test depth. We evaded the inevitable depth charge attack.

After our first patrol, we refitted at Majuro Atoll, now a U.S. base in the Marshall Islands. We moored alongside an anchored submarine tender for two weeks as a designated tender refit crew took over repair and replenishing tasks. A complete submarine rest camp had been set up on a small island in the atoll. The life at the rest camp was uneventful, but with plenty of barbecues, beer, baseball, and swimming. There was little else to do except read and relax in our quonset hut village. It was rumored that Navy nurses were quartered on a nearby atoll-we never saw them. What we did see were plenty of movies.

Speaking of movies, I had been in correspondence in 1943 with an executive at Columbia Pictures regarding the possibility of provision of first run movies in I 6mm format for submarines to show on patrol. Up to that time, the Navy Motion Picture Ex-change leased 35mm films for issue to all ships and stations; available I 6mm formats were generally pretty old movies. The exchange’s contract with Columbia (and presumably with other studios) precluded tying up the films for the length of time submarines were at sea on patrol. My efforts were brought to fruition in March of 1944, when the Columbia District Manager in San Francisco wrote to me. He said that his New York boss, the president of Columbia, would “supply the men with entertainment on those tough jaunts made for us Americans who can contribute so little by comparison.” Columbia’s president did, indeed, write to COMSUBPAC, Vice Admiral Lockwood, who replied with his appreciation, stating that “Next to sinking Jap ships, motion pictures are the chief entertainment and amusement factor to our submariners.” Columbia’s (and other studios’) arrangements with BUPERS followed shortly and the quality of the movies we took on patrol was greatly enhanced. On the few occasions we met up with other U.S. submarines in the patrol areas, exchange of movies by highline was always a priority as exchange of information and pleasantries took place.

While we were in Majuro, we replaced two of our plank owner officers-one went to a boat which was lost on its next patrol run. Each time we came in from patrols, word circulated that this or that boat was overdue and presumed lost. Fifty-two boats were lost from all causes during the war. The resulting personnel casualty rate, 22 percent, was later said to be the highest for any branch of the military.

TILEFISH departed Majuro in May, 1944, with a three-ship attack group headed for the Luzon Strait area in the Philippines. The pack commander embarked with us was our division commander, Commander Warren Wilkin. Operating in a wolf pack mode was new to us and depended largely upon short coded three-letter radio messages between boats. These communications, either while on the surface or with a raised antenna, were rudimentary and not very reliable. The tactics were, to say the least, adventure-some, what with the three boats racing around in and out of a convoy on the surface at night (or submerging if forced down by escorts) and firing torpedoes from both sides of the convoy formation. Accompanying screening destroyers with bones i11 1heir 1ee1h added to the fun.

Our pack proceeded to an area between the Philippine island of Luzon and Formosa. There, we launched a torpedo attack on a large convoy and had the satisfaction of seeing a freighter sustain two hits. Meanwhile, one of our pack mates had joined in the attack and was being held down by a destroyer of the convoy’s screen. In midmorning, we made a submerged torpedo attack on the destroyer. The enemy ship attempted to evade the torpedoes, but the first one hit under its forward mount and wrapped her bow around the bridge. A second hit added to the destroyer’s damage. Before Tilejish was forced down by enemy aircraft, our skipper caught one last glimpse of the destroyer, listing and dead in the water. For the first time, we had no depth charging after this attack, thanks to the new electric wakeless torpedoes we carried.

In late July of 1944, the pack took submerged daylight stations to ambush Japanese submarine 1-29. Her intended routing, contained in a message decoded by U.S. intelligence, had been provided to us. She was en route from Germany to Japan with some highly important unidentified, equipment aboard. I had the periscope watch and sighted 1-29 running on the surface shortly before another of our pack mates launched a three-torpedo attack on her. She exploded, leaving behind only smoke and flames, which we sighted as we surfaced immediately thereafter.

We returned to Pearl Harbor in mid-August. The submarine rest camp at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel was a far cry from our Majuro diggings. TILE FISH’s third patrol in the fall of 1944 was in the inhospitable Okhotsk Sea and off the Kurile Islands. Icy rough seas produced swells reaching 30 to 40 feet. Bridge watches were cold and wet! We sank a small trawler with our 4-inch gun, torpedoed two small cargo vessels, a cargo ship, and a small anti-submarine vessel. In addition, we blew out the stern of a vessel grounded west of Shimushiru Island. A diversion on this run was the adoption of a Russian owl that perched on the bridge one night, refusing to fly off. A crew member took it below, where it was bunked and fed in the Forward Torpedo Room. Of course our ship’s yeoman insisted upon preparing a service record book for “Boris Hootski, Owl 2/c,” and designation as a lookout. Hootski was exercised by tying a string to a foot and letting it fly topside for a few minutes, then retrieving it by pulling in the string. Hootski earned his or her keep by sitting on top of a torpedo tube, leaning forward or aft as the boat changed angles, thus providing a convenient clinometer for all to observe. TJLEFISH ended her third patrol at Midway in late October 1944.

We had a humdrum refit in Midway, marked for me by receipt of mail and some gifts to put away for the coming Christmas expected to be away from home. I also received a package, care of the skipper of a new boat fresh out of New London. It was a crate marked Haig and Haig. My father, then New London Sub Base skipper, had arranged for this welcome delivery. I tore open a comer of the crate and extracted a handsome well-known dimpled shape bottle of pinch, which I and my BOQ neighbors quickly disposed of. When I went back for a second bottle, I found to my dismay that the rest of the case was filled only with homemade jams and jellies, which my thoughtful mother had carefully placed therein.

In November, we headed again for the Kuriles and the Okhotsk Sea. We were hampered by bitterly cold weather, poor visibility, and hurricane-force winds. Snow frosted 1he periscope and prevented accurate identification of possible targets. A problem in this area was to distinguish between Japanese and Russian shipping. We carried out one splendid daylight submerged approach against a large cargo ship, interrupted at a great firing position when we realized it was a U .S.-built Russian liberty ship. Two days before Christmas, we sank a small escort type ship, evading without damage a Japanese counterattack of depth charges and aerial bombs. This patrol ended with a refit in Pearl Harbor. A new skipper came aboard, Commander Wally Schleich. He had just completed a PCO run in DRAGONET.

TlLEFISH left in late January for Empire waters, refueling at Saipan, where there was now a new U.S. Submarine base. There, we transferred a plank owner officer to another boat to replace one of her officers killed in an auto accident. That boat was lost on its first run.

My fifth, and last TILEFISH patrol was in the Nansei Shoto, close to Japan. Here we sank a small cargo ship in a morning surface gun attack. We then took up a surfaced station in support of Navy air strikes on Okinawa and nearby islands. These strikes were scheduled in preparation for the expected major U.S. invasion landings in Japan. Assigned as a unit of the lifeguard League, we rescued a USS HANCOCK aviator whose plane had been hit by Japanese antiaircraft tire. He splashed his damaged plane only 500 yards off our bow and we fished him out and took care of his wounds. He asked for a transfer back to his carrier, but was dismayed to find he had to spend the remaining 30 days of our patrol with us. We also picked up a Japanese prisoner from the crew of a fishing trawler we sent to the bottom by gunfire. Our orders in those days were to pick up at least one prisoner per patrol for return to base for questioning. He was willing to give us all the information he had on shipping traffic that we could glean with the limited language books we carried. His knowledge was actually pretty sparse. In the course of one attack on a freighter, we sank its escorting minesweeper. We also performed lifeguard duties several times in support of B-29 air strikes on Nagoya and other Japanese targets, although we were not called upon for assistance.

After patrolling the approaches of Tokyo Bay until mid-March of 1945, we set course to Midway to fuel and off-load our prisoner and the HANCOCK aviator (the latter kept in touch in post-war years, attending one annual TILEFISH reunion to rehash his cruise with us.) TILEFISH headed for San Francisco for overhaul. There, I was detached to command a New London school boat, USS MACKEREL. for the last few months of the war. Having that command was great, but it didn’t compare to the excitement and professional pride involved in making war patrols. Still, the nine patrols in which I participated had accounted for a respectable share of Japanese shipping sent to the bottom-and that’s what it was all about.

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