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An incident in the Sea of Japan
By Richard Clower/Guest columnist
Monday, May 25, 2009
My shipmate and best friend died last year of old age. He was 90 years old. He could fix anything that used to work, but he couldn’t fix his own heart when it finally gave out. The memory of that friend and shipmate will always be with me, as will our experience with our fellow crew members aboard a submarine in the Sea of Japan in 1945.
The entire crew of the submarine Seahorse should have perished in the Sea of Japan. We were on a mission to plot the minefield in preparation for the invasion of Japan. A Japanese warship discovered us and proceeded to try to destroy this unwanted enemy vessel.
Their depth charges were accurate and on target. Many of the gauges were destroyed; glass was shattered throughout the boat. There were many leaks and ruptures to the hull and cork, the protective covering inside the hull, was everywhere.
P.A. and I were on the underwater sound machine trying to pinpoint the enemy vessels that were causing so much damage to the Seahorse. The captain ordered the control room to take the Seahorse down to the ocean floor so the enemy could not get a depth charge below us and thus drive the Seahorse to the surface. P.A. and I could hear the depth chargers arming and knew that in three seconds there would be another explosion that had the ability to kill the entire Seahorse crew.
We waited for the charge and prayed that the explosion would not be a death blow. We were on the bottom of the ocean floor, in about 300 feet of water, and every charge seemed to drive us deeper into the mud. Water was ankle deep in the boat, but we could not use the pumps due to the noise. The captain finally had the torpedo tubes loaded with uniforms, trash, mattresses, etc. and fired the load into the ocean, hoping this would convince the enemy that the sub was doomed.
Suddenly, everything was quiet. The only noise was the lapping of the water in the bilges.
The entire crew was feverishly working to stop the leaks and ruptures, but their work was of little help. Water pressure is tremendous at 300 feet; leaks and ruptures were just getting larger, we knew we had to get to the surface as soon as possible. I was on the sound gear and reported to the captain that the screws of the enemy vessels were becoming weaker. The enemy was leaving the scene of engagement. In about 10 minutes, the screw noise was no longer there. It seemed they had abandoned their attack.
Our sister sub was sunk trying to map this same minefield. The entire crew was lost. All of the sailors would remain 18, 19, 20 years old. Their burial ground would be in 300 feet of water at the bottom of the Sea of Japan. They would never see children of their own, never witness success or failure in later life, and would always be remembered as very young men who could never grow old.
In the engine room was a flapper valve that was open when the sub surfaced so that the diesel engines could breathe. Twenty-one-year-old Willie Williams was trying to keep the valve closed, but with every depth charge, the valve would open because of the concussion. Willie would be lifted of his feet and water would douse him and everyone near him. Willie was angry about these circumstances of being soaked with sea water so he was using very unflattering words about our enemy, such as “G.D.B.s” and “S.O.B.s” and other words not used in polite company.
Big Jake, another 21 year old from Texas, a very religious man, was on his knees praying. He looked up at Willie and with tears in his eyes said, “Willis, this is the time for praying, not sinning.”
Willie became a school teacher and died in an automobile accident when he was in his 30s. Jake was a construction worker who died of cancer in his 50s.
Our communicating officer was constantly questioning me to give him the exact coordinates of the enemy vessels. P.A. and I were as exact as possible, answering him with, “Moving toward us from the starboard-front quarter,” etc. He died of Alzheimer’s disease when he was in his 70s. He was a structural engineer.
Our engineering officer was transferred to another sub and was killed when his boat was sunk. He was 27 years old.
It took about 30 minutes to get the Seahorse out of the mud and to the surface. Our periscopes were useless, so we had to surface without eyes. We all breathed a sign of relief when no one was waiting for us.
After we surfaced, the captain sent for P.A. and me, and said, “We need to get air cover over us from Guam, so you two get on the deck and repair the antennae.”
When we reached the spot where the antennae used to be, we found only devastation. Periscopes were damaged beyond repair, the deck gun was useless and the planking on the deck was in shambles. P.A. was tied to me and I was tied to the coning tower. The sea was heavy, with waves cracking over us. It was not until later that we found out that if an enemy plane had come over us during our time on deck, the sub would have dove and we probably would have been left topside.
It took about 30 minutes to make the repairs. We both kept looking into the sky hoping that no enemy planes would find us. None did.
Repairs complete, a message was sent to Guam for air cover. About an hour and a half later, two P38 fighter bombers were overhead and they escorted us to Guam for emergency repairs and then to Pearl Harbor for an overhaul.
Now the handful of us who are survivors are in our 80s and 90s. We have become lawyers, doctors, carpenters and plumbers. P.A. became a chicken farmer.
Unfortunately, so many of our submarine shipmates did not have the opportunity to experience becoming productive civilians. One sailor spent his adult life in prison. Many died of cancer in their 50s and 60s. One of our radio operators died of acute alcoholism in his 40s..
We will never forget those who died in the service of this country. We who have survived can almost hear a voice saying, “Rest your oars sailor, it’s time to come home.”
Richard Clower is a Bozeman resident and a veteran of World War II.