Their submarines were small, cramped vessels with names like Swordfish, Argonaut and Searaven that prowled the Pacific Ocean during World War II.
“As submariners, our duty was considered the most hazardous in the military,” said M. George Kuhn, chairman of the 39th annual convention of the U.S. Submarine Veterans of World War II. “We had high losses, and our ratio was something like one out of every three subs that went out, didn’t come back.”
More than 3,000 ex-submariners and their wives are expected at the convention, being held through Saturday at the Disneyland Hotel. Activities include a golf tournament, a Knott’s Berry Farm tour and a “beer bust,” Kuhn said, adding, “After all, we’re submariners.”
With most of the WWII veterans now in their 70s, the annual conventions serve more as a reunion, giving a chance for the veterans to recount events 50 years ago on Corregidor, in the Formosa Strait (now known as the Taiwan Strait), and the South Pacific.
Finding an old salt with a good yarn was as easy as saying, “Hello.”
Clayton Decker, 72, of Denver served on the Tang as a motor machinist mate, second-class. The submarine had the misfortune of being sunk by its own torpedo.
The date was Oct. 24, 1944. The Tang, which carried 24 torpedoes and 87 men, was in the Formosa Strait when the men had just been ordered to battle stations after encountering a Japanese convoy of 35 ships. It was 2 a.m.
“We engaged the convoy and sank 15 ships. We had fired all but one torpedo. We had hit a troop transport astern with about 5,000 Japanese on it. We wanted to use the last torpedo to sink it,” he said.
When they fired, the torpedo sped toward its target. For an unexplained reason, the torpedo shot out of the water and damaged its left rudder when it splashed back into the sea. The torpedo changed course and headed toward the Tang, he said.
The impact, Decker said, “blew the skipper and three lookouts on the bridge clear into the water.”
The sub sank with its bow up at a 45-degree angle from the stern.
“The lights went out and there were men in pain all over the boat,” Decker recalled. “We didn’t have enough negative buoyancy in the forward compartments. I knew that I had to get to a main valve to let water in and bring the ship level--that’s the only way our escape hatch would be able to work.”
So, he crawled over his injured shipmates, found the valve and turned it, righting the boat. He then crawled farther forward, and found the escape hatch above the torpedo compartment.
They flooded the escape chamber, and, using Munson Lungs--a primitive air supply consisting of a mouthpiece and nose clamps--he and several others escaped.
Of the 87 men, nine survived, Decker said. His bravery earned him a Silver Star.
Decker was not alone in the bravery department. He said that 52 submarines were lost in the war, and 3,505 submariners lost their lives.
Joe McGrievy, 75, from San Diego, said many of the submarines in the 1940s were of the “S” class--dubbed “pig boats” because water was rationed and showers were rare. The subs had to surface to recharge their batteries, and batteries ran the boat under water. When the enemy was above and the vessel had to stay submerged, batteries got low. Also, carbon dioxide built up, making breathing very, very difficult at times.
“These boats were small, slow, and couldn’t carry the weapons from the ‘fleet’ boats, which were the successors,” McGrievy said.
McGrievy’s story started while aboard the Searaven, a fleet boat loaded with 50 tons of high explosives on the way to Corregidor. But when Corregidor fell to the Japanese, the boat was sent on patrol. With its payload, it was a submerged time bomb.
“We had to rescue 35 Australian air force men who had volunteered to stay on Timor Island to destroy ammo dumps, an airfield and petrol,” McGrievy said. “We finally found 33 men who were dying of tropical diseases and starvation from living in the jungle two months, hiding.”
After days of escaping Japanese patrols, the Australians eventually boarded the Searaven. McGrievy, 5-foot-9 with a small build, carried a big Australian named George Keen, who was about 6-foot-4.
“In a book written years later in Australia that was titled, ‘Trapped on Timor,’ a photograph of George Keen towering over me is in there,” McGrievy said. “George (was quoted in the) caption: ‘I didn’t realize I was so big and he was so small. But he was 10 feet tall to me.’ That sentiment made me feel real good.”