WWII: What about the men in the stern sections?
DECKER: I’m afraid they all perished. Anyway, I knew that the bow was sticking out of the water because we could hear the waves slapping against the hull. We knew we had to get the Tang level so everyone could go forward to the forward torpedo room where the escape chamber was. To do this, the forward ballast tanks would have to be flooded to get the boat level. All controls on a submarine that were operated hydraulically could also be operated manually. The manual lever that opened the vent valves on all the forward ballast tanks was located right over the chart desk in the control room. It was a steel lever facing aft and hinged forward. Without receiving any orders, I crawled onto the chart desk, turned over onto my back, threw my legs over that lever, pulled the pin, and swung down; the Tang just leveled out and settled on the bottom.
WWII: What happened to O’Kane and the others who had been on the bridge?
DECKER: O’Kane had been up there along with Bill Leibold and Floyd Caverly and another officer, Larry Savadkin. They all made it into the water and were picked up by the Japs later.
Trapped at the Bottom of the Ocean
WWII: So now you and the rest of the crew are on the bottom of the ocean.
DECKER: Right. The diving officer—Lieutenant (j.g.) Fred Enos—was the youngest officer aboard the Tang, and he was really a babyfaced lad. He was one of only two officers still with us. We started forward—I’m helping Ballinger. We get to the officers’ quarters and here’s Enos. He’s gone into the skipper’s cabin and got all the code books and put them in a wastebasket and is touching a match to them. Right away, I stopped him. I said, “You can’t do that, Enos, you can’t do that! We can’t have a fire going! We need every bit of air we’ve got!” Plus, we had these huge batteries below there; you couldn’t have any sort of spark around them.
WWII: So what did you do with the code books?
DECKER: The batteries were full of sulfuric acid and had big openings, so we shoved the code books into the batteries and the acid ate them up.
We eventually got 30 or 32 men together in the forward torpedo room. When we got there, we put the guys with broken bones up in the bunks. There was no use of them even trying to escape—there was no way they would be able to make it. They seemed resigned to their fate.
We estimated there were about four or five hours of air left. We had to get the escape plan going within that amount of time or we’d all be in a coma. But there was no panic; everybody was calm.
Whenever you get a group of men together, you always have a couple of know-it-alls. We had a couple of them—one in particular. This loudmouth and a chief torpedoman had crawled into the escape chamber before the rest of us got organized. They didn’t have a Mae West or a Momsen lung, but they flooded the chamber, opened the hatch, and went out on their own. We never saw them again.
WWII: What’s a Momsen lung?
DECKER: It straps onto your chest like a Mae West and has a nose clamp and a mouthpiece right below it. When you get to the surface, if you close the valve, you can use it for a life preserver. We had over a hundred of them onboard. The lung had a little relief valve that looked like a piece of flat rubber. It wouldn’t let water in but would let air out when you exhaled. There was also a canister of soda lime in the lung. When you exhaled, the carbon dioxide would go through the soda lime, which would absorb the free carbon and give you free oxygen. That’s the principle of the Momsen lung.
WWII: What an ingenious device.
DECKER: Yep. You charged them either with straight oxygen if you’re less than 200 feet below the surface or compressed air if you’re more than 200 feet. It’s got a valve on it just like a bicycle tire. In our case, we used straight oxygen. The Momsen lungs we had onboard were brand new, never been used. They were in sealed cellophane bags. The ones we had in training in New London were all used. I’ll tell you why this is important in a minute.
The Escape from the Tang
WWII: Please describe the escape chamber.
DECKER: It was about the size of a phone booth. Four men could squeeze in there at the same time. There were three main gauges—a fathometer that shows how deep you are, a gauge that tells you the air pressure in the chamber, and another one that shows what the exterior sea pressure is. What you did was, before you got in the chamber, you put on the Momsen lung and the Mae West. Right above you in the chamber is the escape hatch. Above that is an opening in the deck, about three feet square.
After you rig the escape hatch and get ready to ascend, you put out a wooden buoy about the size of a soccer ball that has a lanyard stapled around it and a hand-hold that you can grab. This buoy has a line attached to it and a spool in the escape chamber with a knot in the line every fathom, or six feet. You let that buoy out and it pops to the surface. You then sever the line and tie it onto the rung of a ladder just outside the escape chamber. Outside it’s pitch dark. You can’t tell which direction you’re going unless you’ve got a hold of that line. You never let go; many of the guys who didn’t make it didn’t get a hold of that line. If you were outside and lost your grip on the line, you wouldn’t know whether to turn right or left or what—you would panic. You would start to go up and your head would hit the underside of the deck and you’d be hung up in the superstructure and drown. That’s exactly what happened to a lot of the guys.
Anyway, we let water into the chamber up to our chests, then we opened a valve to let air pressure in so you’re standing with your head in an air bubble. You let that pressure build up to exceed the sea pressure by five pounds. That way, the hatch going out to sea opens just like a door in a room. You just push up and it opens—no problem. If you tried doing that before you built up five pounds of pressure, you couldn’t possibly get the hatch open.
After those first two guys went out, we closed the outer door and drained the chamber. Bill Ballinger said, “I’m going to go in the first wave of four. I need volunteers.” I stepped right up.
About that time, George Zofcin came in from the engine room. George was a good friend; his wife and my wife were sharing a house in San Francisco while we were at sea. I helped Zofcin put on his Momsen lung and he helped me with mine. I also had a .45-caliber pistol and a shark knife.
I said to George, “Come on, let’s go with Bill.”
George said, “Clay, I’ve got a confession—I can’t swim.” I have a picture of us frolicking on Waikiki Beach in Hawaii, and he’s right—he never did go in the water. I found out later that, after I went out, George crawled up into a bunk and waited to die. Didn’t even try to escape.
So Bill Ballinger and I and two other new guys on board got into the chamber. Bill had the air hose and gave us all a charge. He told each one of us to duck down into the water to test the Momsen lungs. They were all working fine. He said to me, “OK, Clay—go for it.”
He gave me the buoy and I let it out. I counted the knots. It was 180 feet. He severed the line and I secured it to the ladder. I went out. At 180 feet, I had 6,000 pounds of pressure against my body. But, remember, I’ve got pressure inside, pushing out. As I ascended, to keep from getting the bends, I stopped at each knot, exhaled, inhaled. As I started up that line, I saw bubbles coming out of that relief valve, going up and passing me. If you do this properly, by the time you get to the surface, you’ve equalized the pressure.
When I get to the surface, I reach up to take off my nose piece and I notice I’m bleeding—my nose is bleeding and my cheeks are bleeding. I later found out that I probably came up faster than I should have and the little blood vessels in my nose and cheeks broke. I spit out the mouthpiece and the lung filled with saltwater. I couldn’t use it as a Mae West now, so I took it off and let it go. There were handholds on the buoy, so I grabbed it and got rid of the .45 and shark knife. It was just about dawn at this point.