CDR Steve Mack USN enlisted in the Navy in 1986. Selected/or the Nuclear Enlisted Commissioning Program, he
received his BSEE with honors from the University of New Mexico in l 991. He also completed a MSEE with honors from Johns Hopkins University.
In 2001, CDR Mack was selected as the first US Navy submariner to attend the Royal Navy Submarine Command Course – “Perisher”. Upon successful completion, he reported to Submarine School as Assistant Director for Officer Training and Director Modernization Training Team.
His sea duty has included Sonar Officer, Electrical Assistant, and Damage Control Assistant, USS ALASKA (SSBN 732) (GOLD); Navigation and Operations Officer, USS MEMPHIS (SSN 691); and Executive Officer, USS VIRGINIA (SSN 774).
CDR Mack is currently on assignment in Australia as the Principal Staff Officer for Operational Preparedness and Tactical Development at the Submarine Headquarters at HMAS STIRLING.
As the only submariner stationed ‘down under’, I had the honor of representing the United States Submarine Force at ceremonies in Western Australia. In March 2007, I was invited to be the guest speaker at the Memorial Day Wreath Laying at the US Submarine Memorial in Albany, Western Australia. At the time, I was reading an excellent book on the story of the USS HOUSTON, Ship of Ghosts, by James 0. Hornfischer. The story chronicles the loss of HOUSTON in the battle of the Sunda Strait, along with the Australian frigate HMAS PERTH. PERTH was commanded by the famous CAPT Hector Waller, after whom the Australian submarine WALLER is named. After the sinking, the book follows the crew through the remainder of the war until, as prisoners of war, they are rescued.
While compiling my remarks, I reflected on the accomplishments of the isolated from submarines and surface ships of the Asiatic Fleet at the start of World War II. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, these forces were isolated reinforcement or resupply. Following action in the Java Sea, HOUSTON and PERTH found themselves running short on fuel and ammunition. The Commanding Officers decided to make a run for Australia thru the Sunda Strait where they could resupply and conduct needed repairs.
While proceeding through the Sunda Strait, they encountered a Japanese invasion force consisting of 9 DDGs and 3 CGs along with countless auxiliaries. These two ships put up a courageous fight, resulting in a large number of destroyed landing craft and auxiliaries, but in the end were overwhelmed by a numerically superior force.
Following their sinking, survivors of the HOUSTON and PERTH struggled to make land. Those that made it ashore were eventually taken prisoner by the occupying Japanese forces. Many of these were sent to work for nearly a year on the Burma-Thailand railway. This railway was made famous by the movie Bridge Over the River Kwai. What the movie did not address were the atrocities committed against the prisoners resulting in a death rate of over 20%.
As if that experience was not trying enough, upon completion of the railway, the remaining prisoners were placed onto two unmarked troop transport ships bound for labor camps in Japan. By this time, the strangle hold of the US Submarine Force on all Japanese shipping was beginning to take effect and these three unmarked troop transports were sunk by a US submarine wolfpack consisting of PAMPANITO, GROWLER, and SEALION II. Because they were unmarked, the submarines had no way of knowing the ships were carrying prisoners of war. Survivors of the sinking were left on their own. Japanese ships that were alerted to the sinking came to the rescue of the crews of the transport ships, but either left the prisoners to drown or shot them.
After several days in the water, the remaining survivors were found by the submarine PAMPANITO. She took onboard 73 men, the absolute maximum the boat could handle, and made for port. An immediate search and rescue effort was launched by COMSUBPAC sending three additional boats to the area at best speed to attempt a rescue of any other survivors. Other submarines involved in the rescue efforts were BARB, SEALION II and QUEENFISH. Of an initial 1318 men on the two transports, a total of 159 were rescued by the submarines.
At the Memorial Day event, I spoke to the efforts of the Australian military and civilians who worked so closely with our Submarine Force. I also recounted the story of HOUSTON and PERTH and the incredible story of their survivors, twice sunk and then rescued by US submarines.
As the ceremony ended, I was approached by a gentleman wearing a QUEENFISH ballcap who identified himself as a PERTH survivor! His name is Arthur Bancroft and my wife and I had the privilege of spending the afternoon talking with him. Over drinks and lunch, Arthur shared with us his experiences as a prisoner of war and his subsequent rescue. We were thrilled to learn that, while a POW, Arthur had kept a secret diary which he recently donated to a history museum here in Western Australia. With frankness and even a little humor, Arthur captivated us with stories of the trials and torments he and his mates endured as prisoners of war. We will never forget these stories or the amazing World War II veteran who shared them with us.
Arthur was 17 when he enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy and was barely 19 when PERTH was sunk. Following his second sinking, he spent five nights and six days in the water. Upon his rescue, he saluted the Captain on the bridge and requested permission to come aboard! The Japanese had nearly broken his body, but his spirit was still as strong as ever. The sailors on QUEENFISH were so impressed with Arthur’s enthusiasm and attitude, that they presented him with his set of Silver Dolphins with full rights and privileges of a true submariner. In fact, at all Submarine Memorial Ceremonies Arthur can be seen wearing his blue Submarine Veterans vest, with his Silver Dolphins and his QUEENFISH ball cap.
For Arthur, his rescue began a relationship that continues to this day. Each year on the anniversary of his rescue, Arthur called the Commanding Officer ‘just to say thanks and let him know I was still alive’. As the Captain’s health declined and he passed away, Arthur began calling the Executive Officer. He also calls every July 4th to wish America a happy birthday. I look forward to seeing Arthur again next year at the Memorial Day Ceremony and once again thanking him for his service and sacrifice.