MEMORIES OF WORLD WAR II
By: Richard (Dick) L. Dixon (Albacore, Blackfish, Tinosa)

During most of WWII, I served aboard submarines in the Pacific. I made a total of twelve war patrols, so most of my time was on the boats. I never did go to sub school. I tried to go to sub school once, but at the time I already had eight patrol runs and was a first class torpedoman, so they wouldn't send me. I really did not want to go to sub school but I had been over seas for 34 of the last 36 months and was trying to get some state side duty.

My first permanent assignment was not on a sub; it was as a diver at the Sub Base at Pearl Harbor. There divers had three major assignments. One was with the training department, one was with the maintenance groups, and the other was torpedo recovery.

When we worked with the training department we were assigned to the escape tower to monitor students in case they panicked or were in trouble and needed help. When we worked with the maintenance groups we would help with the repairs that could be done below the water line with a diver and thus would not require the sub to go into dry-dock. But one of the most important jobs of the divers was the recovery of the exercise torpedoes. They were returned to the shop where they were serviced and made ready to be fired again.

When the war started, our submarine crews were not too proficient at sinking ships. They couldn't get a lot of practice at sinking ships during peacetime. One of the ways crews were trained was to remove the exploder warhead and replace it with a head filled with a colored dye. The exercise torpedo was fired at a depth that allowed the torpedo to pass under the target ship and discharge the colored dye at the end of the torpedo run. The colored dye helped the diver locate the torpedo for recovery.

When asked why I transferred to submarines, I tell everyone that it was for the money. In May 1942, the Navy announced that the men who served on subs would get an additional 50 percent of their base pay. When I enlisted I received 21 dollars a month. When I went to divers school I got 36 dollars a month, and when I completed divers training I got 54 dollars a month. Whenever we made two or more dives below 100 feet in a pay period, we would get an extra 10 dollars so my pay treatment was then 64 dollars a month. Fifty percent of my base pay was 27 dollars, giving me a net gain of 17 dollars, or about 56 cents a day.

Of course, I realized that on the base we could get mail every day, could take hot showers at any time, and would have liberty every night and all weekends. At the sub base, we had a swimming pool, tennis courts and a complete gym and recreation building, along with 5-cent movies. I realized that I would have to give this all up, but I would be getting an additional 56 cents a day.

When you reported aboard a WWII submarine, all of the hatches would be open, and nice fresh air would be circulating through the ship.

The first thing you would see was how compact and crowded everything was. In fact, your bunk looked more like a baby crib than a bed for a grown man. The crew of a sub would always welcome new members aboard and make them feel at home. The crew on a sub was what really made life on the sub bearable. All of the crewmembers were strictly volunteers, but tests and evaluations washed out over 25 percent of the guys that thought they wanted to be sub sailors. Another 10 to 15 percent washed out after their first patrol run. Only 2 percent of the Navy was assigned to subs, so the subs got the cream of the crop. So, if you didn't fit in, you were history! That went for officers as well. When the sub left port for a patrol run, it was very apparent why they were called "the smelly ships." The ship is loaded to the hilt with food, torpedoes and fuel. All of the hatches, except for the conning tower, were closed. All of the fuel tanks vented into the boat, and the Diesel engines running made it smell like you were living inside a Diesel tank and that pungent smell of Diesel oil penetrates into every nook and corner of the submarine. Even though I was in the forward torpedo room, the smell was as bad as in the engine room. And then, when you charged the batteries, that even made it worse. There is a story about this smell that is often told by submariners. "It seems that while in port, two sailors made a trip to a local bar and somehow acquired a live skunk. With the skunk in a sack, the sailors returned to their sub. When the Captain asked them what they had in the sack, they told him it was their new mascot. When the Captain looked into the sack and saw the skunk, he told them they could not bring a skunk aboard. When one of the sailors asked why, the Captain's reply was "Think about the smell!" With that the sailor said, "Well Captain, he can get used to it. We did!"

Until I read some WWII history, I didn't realize that for every surface craft sailor who was killed during WWII, six submariners died. I made a total of twelve war patrols on three different boats. Three to five runs was the normal time to serve on a boat, because promotions were very fast and as the veterans with a few runs would go to new construction, the rest of the crew would move up in rate.

Even through I served on only three boats; I had a total of five commanding officers. The first year of the war a lot of the skippers were replaced because of poor performance. In most cases this poor performance was due to bad torpedoes, and not the fault of the skippers. We had torpedoes with magnetic exploders that were supposed to explode when the torpedo passed under the target, but we found out later that the fish (torpedoes) were running twenty to thirty feet deeper than the settings, so the exploder didn't work. When the exploders were changed to contact, most of the time they still didn't work. The Captains were reporting that when they fired with a large angle the torpedo exploded on contact, but when they had a perfect set up, with little or no angle, the fish bounced off the target denting the hull, or maybe making a small hole, but did not explode. Later tests found that on a solid hit the firing pins in the exploders would bend and disable the exploder. At the start of the war we didn't sink as many ships as we should have, but I bet we did make a lot of Japanese change their underwear.

Because of the poor and undependable torpedoes we were stuck with, some of the skippers took chances that they normally would not even have thought about. A skipper's Navy career was at stake on every patrol. Wee even used our three-inch deck gun for a battle surface, when we were out-gunned and should have used a torpedo. When the war started, the WWII submarine was not the fighting machine that it was at the end of the war. Adding the SD Radar that warned us of aircraft was the first improvement. When the SJ Radar was added, we were able to locate and track surface craft. Then the FM Sonar was added, we were able to locate and track surface craft. Then the FMS Sonar was the underwater device used to locate mines. The subs could go into those areas that had been off limits until then, because of the lost boats that were believed to have hit mines. Of course, each time we added more electronics gear, we had to add more personnel to maintain and operate the equipment. In order to accommodate these extra crewmembers it was necessary to add extra bunks wherever possible. We even put bunks under the torpedo loading hatches. But, it was still necessary for some junior crewmembers to hot bunk. When you are at sea one third of the crew is always on watch, so three men can be assigned to two bunks. The person coming off watch would use the bunk that was just vacated by the man now on duty.

Some of the subs actually used their SJ radar to make their torpedo attacks with good success. On Albacore, while submerged, we used our sound gear to track what was believed to be a Japanese submarine. The man on the sound gear counted the Rpm's of the screws and pinged the target for ranges. After tracking our target for about three hours, we fired three fish from the forward room. Waiting until dusk we surfaced to see what we could find at the spot of the explosion. All we found in the water was a lot of whale blubber. I don't know what the captain put in his log book at that time, but when I talked to him about it, years later, while at New London, he still told me I couldn't put a whale on our battle flag.

My first submarine was the USS Albacore (Ss 218). On my first run I was a helmsman, so for about two months at a time I didn't get to see the sun or even the stars at night. On the sub we had no fresh fruit, no fresh vegetables, no fresh milk or produce, and you had to share two toilets with about 75 other guys. (This was good training for later years when the wife and I raised two daughters in a one-bathroom home). But, remember, I was still getting my 56 cents a day. However we did eat well on the boats. Proof of this would be the Christmas 1943, menu I saved from the USS Blackfish, my 2nd boat). That menu listed "Whole Kernel Iowa Bantam Sweet Corn" for the vegetable. When I was stationed at the sub base we had the same thing, but there it was just called canned corn.

On the Blackfish we once made an 82-day war patrol that was one of the longest patrols of WWII. That patrol made magicians out of our cook and baker, because rations were extremely short. But even magicians can't get away with serving sauerkraut when you are submerged. That 82 day patrol run was not a planned procedure, but was a Navy snafu. On March 1, 1944 the Blackfish departed Brisbane, Australia, for an assigned area near the islands of Polape and Palau, just north of the equator. At the end of her 60-day patrol run, the Blackfish was ordered to Bethlehem Steel Submarine repair base for a major overhaul and upgrade. Since the Blackfish would be crossing the area of submarines of the 202 Sub Division, we were transferred to the 202 for clearance through their area. Somehow the 202 Sub Division assumed that we were just coming out for a new patrol run, and assigned us an area to patrol. After about ten days on our new station, the Captain reported that it was necessary to terminate the patrol and return to port. When Captain Sellars was asked why he had to end his run so soon, he told the Sub Division that we had been out over 70 days, we were low on food and if we did not head for a fueling station right then, we would run out of fuel before we could reach a station. The Sub Division's comment was, "OOPS! Head for Midway Island for fuel."

We arrived in San Francisco on May 27th. We moved off the boat on to a barge while the Navy yard workmen took over the boat for a major overhaul. (It was during this time that I became engaged to marry Eleanor, who had lived in San Francisco). Once the Navy yard overhaul was completed, we headed back to the Pacific again. Once under way the electricians noticed that on a port roll we were getting a full ground, indicating a short in one of the shaft cubicles. Since it was not advisable to disconnect the power and stop the boat dead in the water until the trouble could be found, two electricians put on rubber boots, rubber gloves, foul weather gear, and even had rubber masks to cover their faces. After wrapping up with rubber tape so no part of their bodies were exposed; they entered the cubicle to locate the problem. Crawling over the hot electrical bus bars in their makeshift insulated suits, they found an extra bolt that was used to hold the contacts in place, rolling around loose. The bolt was removed, and when we arrived in Pearl Harbor the contacts and bus bars that were damaged were replaced, and we were on our way to another patrol run.

We were assigned to the coast of Formosa, with a refueling stop in Guam. When we arrived on station, we encountered typhoon weather with some very high seas. We had many hands sick, unable to eat or stand watch. Because of the high seas, we would only run on the surface to charge batteries. Some of the waves were over twenty feet high and we would take water over the conning tower and down into the control room. So, as soon as the batteries were charged, we would submerge to about 150 feet to smooth water. This went on for several days until we rode out the typhoon. After the typhoon we had some clear weather and made our first contact. This was a Minekare type destroyer. We fired four torpedoes from the after room, and had one hit that only damaged the destroyer, but there was no depth charge attack. In fact, we had five more encounters in the next six days, and none resulted in a depth charge attack. The patrol ended and we proceeded to Saipan for fuel. She was then ordered to Midway for a short refit. The ship was under way about three days when the watch noticed water gaining rapidly in the pump room bilge. The emergency was sounded and a bucket brigade was started, to no avail, as the water kept rising. Some of the auxiliary machinists were in water shoulder deep, and some of the pumps were under water. The power was shut off and the control room pressurized (air pressure was used to force the water out). Once the water receded, it was determined that the shaft and operating gear for the negative flood valve had become disconnected and had fallen out of the hull, leaving a three inch hole in its place. The hole was plugged, but when the air pressure was released the patch did leak, so the re-circulating pump from #3 main engine was disconnected and used as a bilge pump, discharging water with a fire hose up and out of the conning tower hatch on to the deck.

The Blackfish at this time was in very bad shape, no air pressure, unable to dive, radio unable to send or receive, no radar, no refrigeration or air conditioning and unable to fire torpedoes. If this problem had occurred during the typhoon, or a depth charge attack, we would have lost the boat. It was determined that the negative flood valve was not installed properly in San Francisco. We were very lucky to have had some very good machinists and electricians on board, or the war would have ended for the Blackfish on November 20th, 1944.

Submarine duty was not the choice of many of our armed forces. In December 1943, we were ordered to Tulagi to pick up some U.S. Marine Intelligence Forces. We were to remain undetected, take them to the Japanese Island of Truk, land our party, then pick them up five days later. The seas were too rough to disembark the party, and the mission was aborted. Because shipping was sighted, we now became the hitters. When we went to battle stations, the marines were told to seek a safe place and just stay out of the sub crews way. Most of the marines obeyed the order, but one officer just laughed it off and sat relaxed at a mess table. We sighted two large ships escorted by two destroyers. We fired six torpedoes from the forward room and both ships were hit. The Kaika Maru was sunk and the other ship was damaged and believed sunk. This left the destroyers with nothing to escort, so they countered with a fierce depth charge attack. The depth charge attack lasted seventeen hours, and more then 240 charges were dropped. The destroyers would drop all of their charges, return to Truk, reload, and come back to try again. During this depth charge attack we leveled off at 400 feet, and maintained that depth for almost ten hours. This by itself was a little scary, since the Blackfish was designed and built to go to a maximum depth of only 300 feet. When the first charge went off, the marine officer in the mess hall did find a place out of the way. In fact, the depth charge attack was over for some time before he would come out from under the table.

In March 1945, I was assigned to new construction; I was finally going back to the states to put a new sub in commission. I was transferred to Sub Division 202 awaiting transportation. At that time, the Tinosa was tied up along side the tender, USS Proteus, while their mine detection apparatus was being overhauled. Also, protective cables were installed to prevent mine cables from snagging on the deck guns, bow and stern planes, etc.

When the Tinosa was ready to head out for another patrol run, she needed a 1/c torpedoman, and I was the only one available. So there went my new construction assignment!

So my third boat was the USS Tinosa. This was the first boat to employ FMS (under water Sonar used to detect mines). The Tinosa headed for the Sea of Japan by going through the heavily mined Tsushima Straits. On the way to the Sea of Japan, we were diverted to pick up ten airmen who had bailed out of a B-29 before ditching. When the airmen learned where the Tinosa was headed, they requested to be put back into their rubber boat and set adrift again. Lucky for them, we arranged a meeting with the Scabbardfish, who was on her way home from patrol, and transferred the airmen.

On July 4th, 1945, when we went through the minefield into the Sea of Japan, we found the mines to be from 75 to 100 feet below the surface, and so we started through the minefield at a depth of 130 feet. Once in the minefield, we found the spacing to be about 150 feet apart. This was almost too close to steer a 300-foot log sub through. At one point we did drag a mine mooring cable along the port side of the boat. But because of the protective anti-snagging cable, the cable did not catch onto the sub. However, it sure added a few more gray hairs to some 20-year-old men.

After traveling through the minefields into the Sea of Japan, we had one of our most productive patrols. The Japanese felt that the entrances to the Sea of Japan were mined so heavily that it would be impossible for a sub to get in. Using the new under water Sonar to locate mines, we were able to enter "Hirohito's Lake" and discover a submariner's dream, unescorted merchantmen steering straight courses and running with all lights aglow. We sank four ships, and damaged another, in five days.

Most patrol runs lasted about 2 months, depending on fuel and torpedoes, but sometimes they were cut even shorter because of damage or problems that could not be corrected at sea. When a sub ended a run it was at a sub base or at a tender. As soon as the sub was tied up, the mail, a case of apples and a case of oranges were brought on board. The boat would be turned over to the relief crew for repairs, and the crew would get two weeks R & R. In Hawaii we stayed at the Royal Hawaiian, and at Midway it was the Gooney Hotel (the old Pan American Hotel). In Australia we had our choice, we could get room and board at a hotel under contract to the Navy, or we could take a two-week leave on our own. In Guam it was Camp Dealey, where we stayed in Quonset huts on the beach. Generally, there would be two or three boat crews at the rest camp at one time, so the lazy days of swimming and sun bathing would be capped off with a soft ball game between crews.

When the Blackfish ended their seventh war patrol run at Milne Bay, New Guinea, the Submarine tender, USS Fulton, had just anchored in the bay and was ready to service the submarines. But there was no rest camp or a place for the sub crews, other than to wander around the tender. The Fulton sent a party ashore. The landing party found the island natives to be a population that was very black. In fact, they called them "onyx." The only problem was that all the females were topless. The Chaplain of the Fulton did not think that it was a good idea to let all these young sailors witness this display of bare breasts, so he arranged with the Island Chief to have the ladies covered. The Chaplain had a load of brand new white Navy tee shirts delivered to the chief, who passed them out to the ladies. The next day, after being informed that the ladies were now all wearing their new white tee shirts, we were allowed to go ashore. When we got off the boats and started up the path toward the village a bunch of the women came running toward the sailors to thank them for their new attire. It seems that when the ladies first put on their tee shirts they didn't like the tight restrictive feeling of the shirts, so they took a sharp object and cut out two holes of a size adequate to relieve the strain. All we saw running towards us was a bunch of brand new white tee shirts with two coal black breasts protruding.

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