Culpable Negligence

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LIFE ABOARD

 

My surreptitiously retained file of war-patrol reports of Trigger , Tirante , and Piper (submarine numbers 237, 420, and 409) still makes fascinating reading, to me at least. Trigger (SS 237), completed at Mare Island, California, early in 1942, started her career slowly, but as we learned our dreadful business her improvement was steady. Before she died, a tired old submarine at age three years, she had been, for a time, the highest-ranking sub in the Pacific Fleet in terms of overall damage to the enemy.

I hold the honor of being the next-to-last “plank owner” (crew-member when first commissioned) to leave the Trigger , after rising from assistant engineer to executive officer during my twenty-nine months aboard. I had entertained ideas of just possibly becoming her skipper before it was all over, but it is just as well the Navy had different plans for me. Poor old Trigger came to the end of her allotted time in March, 1945, just as I arrived back in the war zone as “exec” of the brand-new and much more formidable Tirante . At war’s end I was skipper of the Piper , in the Sea of Japan. By that time the coasts of Japan had become far more familiar to us than our own, and the waters offshore—and all over her “co-prosperity sphere”—were littered with sunken wrecks.

But it was not so at the beginning; and in those old patrol reports, starkly written nearly forty years ago, lie the details. In most cases we did not then even know what was happening. Our guesses were crude at best; we know much more today. Today those reports tell how near I came to never having the chance to grow older, or be married, or have a family, or be promoted beyond the rank of lieutenant, or to write this article. All this was on the line for everyone in the combat branches during the war, of course. But for those serving in our submarines in 1941,1942, and 1943, these risks were more often the fault of our own ordnance than that of the enemy.

On October 20,1942, I heard the loudest noise I have ever heard. For a microsecond I thought I had been killed. A blinding flash enveloped me, and I thought, instantaneously, without articulating a single word in my mind: “This is how it feels. It’s all over. So suddenly. I don’t feel anything, and probably never will again.” But it wasn’t over. The blinding flash was from a light bulb, dangling on a short extension of wire to protect it from depth-charge shock, which had been extinguished by unscrewing it slightly on “darken ship.” In our dimly lighted conning tower it hung, unnoticed, exactly in front of my nose. When the warhead went off, the bulb was shocked into searing brilliance, burst into the night-adapted retinas of my eyes. It was minutes before I could see again; but it was only seconds before I knew I was still alive. Such a feeling has to be experienced to be savored.

We had been tracking an unescorted tanker at night, and judging the moon too bright for a surface attack, had submerged to close the range and fire our torpedoes. Sonar heard some of our fish detonate, presumably against the side or bottom of our target, and seconds later reported “high-speed screws” in her vicinity. Then came a distant explosion, which we thought might be a depth charge dropped by the tanker, and a moment later, with catastrophic suddenness, a violent detonation extremely close aboard which, in the words of our patrol report, was “absolutely not a depth charge.” The report goes on: “After the explosion, Sound reported the tanker’s screws were starting and stopping close aboard. Started for periscope depth. Sound reported high-speed screws near the target. …”

We sincerely believed we had sunk the target and that the high-speed propellers came from a motor lifeboat. But the official endorsements of our report credited us only with “damage,” and it now seems fairly likely that it got away, totally unhurt. The “violent explosion” was one of our torpedoes, running in a circle and coming back upon us. The magnetic or “influence” exploder, fitted to our torpedoes with great secrecy, was designed to set off the torpedo warhead at the highest reading of a target’s magnetic field, directly under its keel. Thus, since we were at one hundred feet keel depth at the time, the fish must have gone off directly overhead. Venting most of its explosive force upward, in the direction of least pressure, it had failed to sink us.

So ran the train of thought, but there were doubts which this theory could not explain. At one hundred feet depth to our keel, our conning tower was only about seventy feet below the surface. The torpedoes had been set to thirty feet, and we knew, even if Washington refused to admit it, that they ran up to twenty feet deeper than set. An explosion of eight hundred pounds of torpex only twenty feet away, even if directly above us, would have finished us. Could it be that it had detonated farther away, some distance off to the side, upon entry into our magnetic field instead of at its strongest (and therefore nearest) point? Could our two “hits” on the tanker, heard and timed correctly, also have been upon entry into the target’s field instead of on passing under her keel? Could they have failed to damage her, just as that extraordinarily violent explosion had shaken, but not damaged, us?