How the USS Cod Undertook a One-off Submarine Rescue

How the USS Cod Undertook a One-off Submarine Rescue

Yes, a submarine did rescue another submarine. 

Here's What You Need to Remember: A unique sub-to-sub rescue forged unbreakable bonds between U.S. and Dutch submariners in the closing days of World War II.

As the submarine USS Cod left Apra harbor, Guam, on the afternoon of June 26, 1945, for her seventh war patrol, her crew of 97 officers and enlisted men were all but certain that their new assignment was to be junk hunting—a thankless and dangerous job that in the words of one Cod crewman saw “Uncle Sam risk a seven million dollar submarine and crew to sink a leaky sailboat not worth more than $20,000!” But what lay ahead for Cod was a rendezvous with history—and a rescue that would unite submariners of two nations in lifelong bonds of friendship that are remembered 63 years later.

On that early summer day in 1945, thoughts of making history took a back seat to simple survival. A torpedo fire on Cod’s previous patrol had nearly caused the loss of the boat and all hands. Three crewmen fought blinding smoke to load and fire the burning electric fish even as the intense heat caused the Torpex explosive in its warhead to melt and begin dripping onto the deck—a prelude to detonation. Despite the timely ejection of the torpedo, Cod suffered the loss of one of her crewmen who drowned after being washed overboard attempting to fight the fire. After a patrol like that, the men aboard Cod hoped patrol number seven would be a gravy run.

Junk hunting was not a gravy run. After four years of unrestricted submarine warfare, Japan’s merchant fleet was decimated. In an act of desperation the Japanese forced native junks plying the coastal waters of the South China Sea to carry tiny cargoes consisting of a few dozen barrels of oil, blankets, rice, or horseshoes to their bypassed garrisons. U.S. subs were compelled to venture into shallow coastal waters to inspect and sink these contraband- carrying junks even as enemy pilots learned to home in on the thick columns of black smoke rising from the burning junks to find a U.S. sub racing for deep water—and survival.

Scuttlebutt on the Cod

Frequent fire control drills and practice dives kept Cod’s crew busy as her diesels drove her toward Batan Island. But no crew is ever too busy for scuttlebutt, and it quickly became known among the crew that few of Cod’s sizable cadre of plankowners were happy to risk their necks for the paltry payoff offered by junk raiding. These old hands, who had the most friends on the mounting number of boats declared “overdue and presumed lost,” were also uneasy about Cod’s new skipper, Edwin M. Westbrook, a veteran of seven patrols in obsolete S-boats. Several of the graybeards felt the young lieutenant commander might be too eager to make his mark in the war—at their expense.

A radio dispatch from the commander of Task Force 71 (CTF-71) decoded on the evening of July 1 assigned Cod a junk patrol station off Cam Ranh Bay, French Indochina. The crew’s fears were realized. This was prime junk territory, and the few Japanese marus transiting the area were well protected by seasoned escorts and nearly continuous air cover.

The scuttlebutt aboard Cod abruptly changed as news spread about the poor health of one of the new men aboard, Jack Hemphill, fireman second class, who had transferred aboard from one of the relief crews in Guam. Hemphill had not felt well since he was part of the painting gang preparing Cod for patrol. Now, after six days at sea, he began suffering acute nausea. Robert M. Purtill, a chief pharmacist mate aboard Cod, evaluated Hemphill and reported his diagnosis to Westbrook: acute lead poisoning..

Hemphill was relieved of duties and was confined to his bunk. Over the next several days his condition worsened as his body began swelling like a balloon. Purtill began feeding his patient intravenously and started administering sulfa drugs, but his patient continued to deteriorate.

The outlook for a successful patrol seemed gloomy as well. Army B-24 Liberator bombers scouting ahead of Cod’s course told Westbrook that no enemy shipping was to be found. On the evening of July 5, Cod arrived in the vicinity of Cape Padoran and established communication with the submarine USS Besugo. After learning that Besugo had spent three fruitless weeks patrolling the area, Cod relieved her sister sub, and in the words of Westbrook’s patrol report entry, “bid her farewell and took-up our lonely vigil.”

July 6 passed with only the sightings of a friendly B-24 and numerous local fishing boats. Hemphill, lying in his bunk in the submarine’s cramped after-battery berthing compartment, began complaining of even more severe swelling and pain in his right lumbar region. Purtill, running out of treatment options for his patient, began administering doses of an unfamiliar drug, penicillin, from Cod’s medical locker. Westbrook decided Hemphill’s grave situation warranted a radio dispatch to CTF-71. The message was encoded and transmitted just after midnight on July 7.

Cod spent the daylight portion of July 7 submerged, patrolling three miles off the boundary of the plotted enemy minefields protecting Cam Ranh Bay. Westbrook surfaced Cod just after sunset. Within 20 minutes the sub was charging eastward after receiving a dispatch from CTF-71 ordering Cod to proceed to Subic Bay, Philippines, so Navy doctors there could treat Hemphill. Throughout the night of July 7, the 312-foot submarine drove through the South China Sea to get Hemphill to a doctor.

Setting off to Rescue O-19

At 6:46 am on July 8, Cod’s radio shack received a startling message from CTF-71 informing Cod that the Dutch submarine O-19 had run aground on Ladd Reef, more than 200 miles from her present position. Cod was directed to change course for the reef and lend all assistance possible to the stranded Allied sub. Purtill was quickly called to the wardroom where Westbrook asked for good news regarding the sick crewman. Purtill’s last check on Hemphill had found him in terrible pain, but the regular doses of penicillin had begun to show slight success in reducing the crewman’s discomfort. Grasping at the slim bit of good news, Westbrook felt that risking the life of one of his crewmen for an entire crew of Dutch submariners might be a worthwhile gamble. Within minutes, the gyrocompass repeaters aboard Cod swung to a new heading as the sub drove toward Ladd Reef at four-engine speed.

The scuttlebutt aboard Cod now focused intently on the latest news of their sick shipmate. As Cod made her daylight dash across the South China Sea, two air contacts on the boat’s air search radar clearly indicated that the skies overhead could not be relied upon as friendly, even at this late stage of the war. The first contact spotted did not respond to Cod’s IFF (identification friend of foe) inquiry, but a second contact 20 minutes later flashed a positive IFF signal. No further contacts, either aircraft or surface, were made that afternoon as the distance closed between the two Allied subs.

Without a clear picture of the situation aboard the grounded Dutch sub, Westbrook prepared to bring the Dutch crew immediately aboard. He assembled a rescue team armed with heaving lines, two of Cod’s inflatable boats, and all of her life rings. Below deck Cod’s cooks prepared large quantities of hot soup and coffee while empty bunks and dry clothes were readied.

At 8:35 in the fading light of July 8, the dark shape of a submarine loomed in the distance, surrounded by whitecaps breaking over the coral fingers of Ladd Reef. A signal light flashed from the O-19 giving her exact location on the reef. Hopes of a quick crew transfer for the sake of Hemphill faded as a second message soon blinked across the darkening waters asking that Cod attempt a tow at dawn. Before backing Cod away from the treacherous reef currents, Westbrook signaled his Dutch counterpart that they would see each other again at dawn. The skipper of O-19, J.F. Drijfhout van Hooff, indicated that he had not lost his sense of humor in his dire situation by signaling back, “We will certainly be here.”

In Cod’s after-battery, Hemphill lay still in his rack, attended by volunteer nurses recruited from among off-duty shipmates.

The Reef’s Death Grip on OS-19

As the sky in the east brightened with the coming dawn on July 9, Cod raised her keel-mounted sound gear and pit sword, flooded down at the bow, and cautiously commenced a bow-on approach to the stricken sub. Powerful reef currents that continuously pulled Cod to the east made a stern tow impossible. With less than 500 yards between the boats, Cod’s deck watch was blinded by a terrific rain squall that reduced visibility to less than 200 yards for more than an hour. At 7:21 the rain abated, revealing to Westbrook the sight of a submarine hopelessly aground. Empathizing with his Dutch counterpart, Westbrook was determined to give the towing attempt his best effort.