War Beneath the Waves is a true story but has all the attributes of superb fiction. The main character, LT Charlie Rush (USNA ’41), Chief Engineer and 41 officer on board the Australia based submarine, USS BILLFJSH (SS 286), saves his crew and submarine after 14 hours of depth charging nearly 200′ below test depth in Makassar Strait on Anstice Day, 11 NOV 1943. The Captain, XO and 3n1 officer were incapacitated from foul air and fear. But how do you prove it really happened after 60 years of silence and no mention of the real story in the Patrol Report? When Captain Charlie Rush at age 84 was awarded the Navy Cross in Memorial Hall of the Naval Academy, the truth was told.
The author, Don Keith, although never a submariner, is an experienced storyteller and has written 4 books about submarines. After just a few hours of phone interviews with Captain Rush and extensive archival research, the accuracy and completeness is amazing. Even today, they have not met face to face and the first clue that the story had actually been published happened in April when a box containing 5 books was delivered on Charlie’s doorstep.
Don Keith had 3 challenges in writing this story. First was to relate the story with fidelity. Second was to explain why the crew was silent for 60 years. And third was to recognize that, while some of the individuals acted heroically, others fell short and it is important to the families to present the shortcomings in the context of the harshest of conditions and to appreciate their subsequent contributions to the war and their country. My only suggestion for improvement would be to have included a chart of the area depicting the patrol track. However, I can’ t recommend this book too highly, but one of my reasons is very personal and for this reason, what follows is not a classic book review.
Charlie Rush, an author himself (Strikers’ Men and Battle Down Under), is a close friend of 25 years. I met Charlie in 1985 at a cocktail party for Floridians to meet their Congressmen in the Rayburn Office Building. In my summer whites, I was paying homage to Bill Nelson who had appointed our daughter and son to the Naval Academy. Charlie introduced himself as a former submariner now working for Automatics. Four years later, at my Naval Research Lab Change of Command and Retirement Ceremony, Charlie and his wife, Lavonne, invited Joyce and me for a week in the Abacos aboard their 50′ sailboat. After a few days of marvelous sailing, we were at anchor one evening telling sea stories, when Charlie (at age 71) related that fateful experience on his sixth war patrol 46 years earlier.
Despite my own experience of a WestPac deployment in 1961 on the Pearl based USS BASHAW (SS 241) and subsequently being Chief Engineer of that boat on a deployment off of Russia (before being called into the Nuclear Program), I had not previously heard this story. But I could certainly relate to it and understood the part Charlie played. What I didn’t appreciate at that time was the fact that it was not known by the Navy Department and I was now one of the few who were even aware of it.
Five years ago, Lavonne called to say that Charlie was going to be awarded the Navy Cross at the Naval Academy and that his crew was having a reception for him that evening in case we would like to attend. Needless to say we flew from our home in Florida to be there. Charlie and Lavonne were staying near Annapolis with her daughter, who had cats … to which Charlie was allergic. We invited them to stay with us in our Annapolis summer home. One evening, the girls had turned in and I asked Charlie, “why 60 years late?” He then related “the rest of the story” which had not been mentioned to me in the Abacos 13 years earlier.
After 14 hours of depth charging, a J.O. offered to take the dive and Charlie climbed into the Conning Tower to report his relief. What he saw was shocking … no helmsman, the XO sitting on the deck nearly unconscious from the lack of oxygen and the CO in a fetal position muttering to himself. The third officer had earlier lost it and was in his bunk sedated by the corpsman. Charlie announced to no one in particular, “I have the Conn.” He called for a helmsman and looking at the ORT, realized that BILLFISH had been on a steady course for over 14 hours. With a suspicion that a fuel ballast tank was leaking oil to the surface, providing the 2 Japanese destroyer with a perfect datum, Charlie ordered the helmsman to perform a button hook (later named a Williamson Tum) to reverse course and open under the oil slick track. Bottom line is that this maneuver left the Japanese depth charging the same position for several more hours during which BILLFISH opened. When the batteries were depleted and air so foul that he was becoming dizzy, Charlie gave the order to come to periscope depth and surface.
The seas were so calm that he ordered the forward and after hatches opened with the main induction closed to draw fresh air throughout the boat and supply air to one of the four main engines not flooded out. Still in danger from detection by Japanese spotter aircraft and shipping, they fixed what they could, including the other three main engines, and pulled one main motor back on its mounts with chain falls after it had sheared the mounting bolts. After a day or so, BILLFISH and crew were able to continue toward their rendezvous with BOWFIN to sink ships.
When a message was received about a convoy of 5 ships escorted by 2 Japanese ODs, Charlie was OOD with only the Captain on the bridge. Charlie headed for the convoy but the Captain ordered a course reversal to open. Charlie confronted the CO that this was not right. They needed to attack and be prepared to assist BOWFIN who couldn’t dive because their main induction was hit by gunfire and could not be shut. At first, the Captain agreed turned toward and then again turned away saying he couldn’t close. Charlie asked permission to take the Conn and attack. The skipper said he couldn’t do that but promised that if they made it back to Fremantle he would resign his command. When they returned to port with 24 of 26 torpedoes still on board (2 failed in a long range attack on another ship), the skipper resigned and the crew said nothing to avoid casting doubt about other wartime submarine skippers. Their CO wrote a minimal (false) patrol report leaving out the details of 11 NOV 43 and the other lost opportunities.
Forty-eight years later, Charlie was visiting a classmate in CA, Captain Jack Bennet, who had received the Navy Cross himself for action in a vicious sea battle at Guadalcanal. He wrote several citations based on the courageous actions he witnessed on the burning decks of his ship and was determined that men receive the recognition due them for actions in battle. Despite all he had seen in war, he was amazed at the BILLFISH story. He then visited a BILLFISH crewman on that patrol, Chief John Rendemick, who coincidentally lived nearby. After hearing his version of the story, Bennet was convinced that these men deserved proper recognition and personally wrote a citation to award Charlie the Navy Cross. He first considered the Medal of Honor but the action must be observed by a senior officer. Since all 3 had passed away by then, this requirement could not be met. However, given that the crew verified what happened, the decision was made to award Charlie the Navy Cross (second highest award), of which only about 6,000 have been awarded since its inception in 1919.
Charlie felt it was important that two of the crew be recognized for their damage control efforts in saving the ship, so he wrote their recommendations. Chief Engineman (SS) Charley Odom (now 97) received a Commendation and Chief Electricians Mate (SS) John Rendemick was approved for the Silver Star (3rd highest award in the Service) but died of cancer before it was awarded. RADM Paul Sullivan representing the Secretary of the Navy presented the Navy Cross to Charlie at the Naval Academy. Later, in 2004 the Damage Control Wet Trainer at Pearl Harbor was renamed in honor of Chief Rendernick by RADM Sullivan, then COMSUBPAC, at a ceremony with Rendemick’s daughter present.
Today, Charlie Rush at age 91 lives in Port St. Lucie, FL with his bride of 34 years who will celebrate her so•h birthday in October. When I asked him to speak at a Space Coast NSL luncheon 2 years ago, he agreed. In addition to many local submarine retirees, the entire wardroom of the Naval Ordnance Test Unit at Cape Canaveral attended. However, in his remarks, Charlie did not mention one word of his experience on BILLFISH or QUEENFISH, which he later commanded during the Korean War. But rather, he gave detailed accounts about the best submarine CO he had ever served under …. Moke Millican, who was CO in 4 of Charlie’s 5 patrols in THRESHER (prior to BILLFISH). While I was a little disappointed that Charlie did not relate his personal stories in his talk that day, looking back I should have expected nothing less from this humble hero of WWII. He didn’t even tell me about War Beneath the Waves. Last month, my dermatologist mentioned that he had just read about a new book telling the story of a WWII submariner who had been awarded the Navy Cross 60 years late. I told him about Charlie and asked the name of the book. It was not yet in our public library so I ordered it that day from Amazon.com. After reading the book I called Charlie to chastise him for not keeping me informed. Since they were going to be in Annapolis the following week, I invited them for lunch. I also invited Sam Ginder (USNA’51) and his wife, C.J., since Sam wrote a marvelous book in 1995, McKinnon’s Way (a WWII submariner’s story). What an experience to have these two authors meet each other in our home and to see the respect shown. Charlie has since read McKinnon’s Way and called me yesterday to get Sam’s phone number to compliment him on his fine book.
We have all heard about the greatest generation. Nowhere was this more true, than in the Submarine Force. We stand on their shoulders. During the 1347 days of WWII, 465 submarine skippers took 263 boats into battle on 1736 patrols with 16000 submariners aboard. Of those 263 boats, 52 were lost and 3600 men went on eternal patrol. The Submarine Force was less than 2% of the Navy but responsible for 55% of Japan’s maritime losses (1200 merchant ships and 200 naval vessels). President Roosevelt said, “I can only echo the words of Winston Churchill, never have so many owed so much to so few.”