Sinking Feeling: 22% Of U.S. Navy Submariners Died During World War II

Wikimedia Commons
December 1, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: United StatesWorld War IIPearl HarborSubmarinesCasualties

Sinking Feeling: 22% Of U.S. Navy Submariners Died During World War II

By mid-war, as submariners heard of lost subs and the deaths of buddies on other boats, the common wisdom said that after four patrols you were pushing your luck. The common wisdom was not far off. Twenty-two percent of submariners who went to war died, the highest rate of any service.

By Christmas 1941, Robert Hunt, torpedoman on the submarine USS Tambor, had witnessed the Japanese bombing of Wake Island, had slept in the Tambor’s forward torpedo room on the way back to Pearl with a bomb-induced leak bubbling in the corner, and had stood on his sub’s bow and seen the devastation of Battleship Row as debris in the oil-slicked harbor bumped against the hull.

“I Knew the Odds”

Five days later he wrote a letter to his brother Dick, who was stationed at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas. Hunt mailed the letter from San Francisco, where the Tambor had been sent for repairs before its war-long service throughout the Pacific. In it he mentioned Dick’s performance in a play, girlfriends, and, with sadness, the death of sister Marge’s newborn child. The letter was filled with bravado and euphemism (and colorful spelling), and for later generations it evokes the American 1940s as surely as a Benny Goodman swing tune or a Bob Hope road movie. But its purpose is clear. The letter, typed and signed with Hunt’s full name, is a last will and testament.

Dec. 30 [1941]

Dear Dick—

I received your last letter o.k. and it was about time you wrote. Bet you made quite a leading man in that play—maybe the movies will put in a bit for you when you get out. Guess they could use a few men in the picture business eh’. Can’t tell you much because of the naval censors—guess it’s a good idea. We all get the news out of the papers anyway.

My little red head went back last month so think I’ll have to get busy again and find another. Sure hated to see her go as we really had a good one planned for the holidays.

The baby was a boy as you probably know and only lived a couple of weeks. Marg sure can take it as I received a letter from her shortly after and she seemed all-right. I sure wanted that kid to live and be a boy for her sake, but guess that’s the way it goes. Maybe she’ll have another and we can be uncles anyway. See that you don’t knock out any down there—maybe you’d have to marry the gal, she may be a queen, but that family of hers maybe don’t want any of those war babies. From the way you talk you must have several standbys for when you get hard up—not bad if they stack up as nice as you say and I imagine they do.

By the way—if I should get a heart attack and kroke one of these days I want you to get half my dust. Marg gets the other half. I didn’t tell Marg so don’t mention it to her, but Dad knows about it. Take half my insurance and my savings account is in the bank at home—Dad has a record of it in his safety deposit box. I guess if you get nocked off you have six months pay coming too so get that for you and Marg too. You can do what you want with it—get married—raise hell—or just throw it away. If gram is still living see that she gets something, but you take care of it yourself. All this is just in case my heart goes bad or if I stub my toe and get poisoned or something—maybe my red head will shoot me when she sees me again. I’ll sign this letter and you save it in case you’d have trouble collecting. I figure if Dad had any more money he really wouldn’t need … anyway you guys is me pals.

Don’t expect too many letters as all I can say in a letter isn’t very interesting. Give em hell Dick—and pick off a few of those little guys for me. I think I received your last letter—written about a month ago. I’ll write more later.

Your bro—

Robert Russell Hunt

Beneath the swagger and self-deprecation, the letter reflects Bob’s state of mind after his first wartime patrol. “I didn’t figure I was going to make it,” Bob told me. We were speaking on the phone one afternoon in 2006. I was in Virginia and he was in Iowa, resting in his apartment after cataract surgery that morning. “I was a poker player,” he said. “I knew the odds.”

A Statistical Anomaly

By mid-war, as submariners heard of lost subs and the deaths of buddies on other boats, the common wisdom said that after four patrols you were pushing your luck. The common wisdom was not far off. Twenty-two percent of submariners who went to war died, the highest rate of any service. Eventually it became standard practice to transfer to a land-based support crew after your fourth patrol, then later, perhaps, go out with a different boat that needed your specialty. So Bob Hunt’s 12 straight patrols on a single boat are rare, if not unmatched.

His survival, a statistical anomaly, was often in jeopardy. During the Battle of Midway he was on night watch at the port lookout when the Tambor signaled an unidentified convoy, received an incomprehensible reply, and dove. The two Japanese cruisers that had spotted the sub took evasive action, collided, and were both damaged. The next day the Mikuma, trailing oil, was sunk by American planes, and the Mogami was ravaged. One of the most famous photographs of the Battle of Midway shows the Mikuma smoking under the wing of a circling Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bomber. On the Tambor’s eighth patrol Bob was in the forward torpedo room when they sank a freighter off the coast of China, then had to apply right full rudder to dodge one of their own torpedoes that had run in a circle and come back at them. Then it came around a second time and they dodged it again. About the incident he wrote in his diary: “It wasn’t half an hour ago so am still a little shaky—first time really scared.”

On the boat’s tenth mission the Tambor made a night surface attack on a Japanese convoy, was silhouetted by a burning tanker it had torpedoed, and was almost rammed by a Japanese patrol boat. Lookouts, without the aid of binoculars, saw Japanese sailors running to their deck guns, but a crew member saved the sub with extremely accurate 20mm fire along the length of the patrol boat’s deck. The boat missed the Tambor by a mere 20 yards, close enough for the captain to read the numbers on the Japanese hull by the light of the machine gun’s tracers.

Days later, after the Tambor sank another freighter and tanker, Bob and the crew sat on the bottom at 270 feet and time and again listened to the screws of a destroyer passing over, emptying its racks of depth charges. Even sitting on the bottom, the Tambor sagged and hogged, shaken by close explosions. Throughout the boat, crew members worked to stop leaks and keep vital equipment running. As the attack wore on, a lack of oxygen made for laborious breathing. And when the Tambor finally tried to make a run for it, the boat was mired in sludge and sand stirred up by the explosions. More hours of shifting ballast, blowing tanks, and reversing props drained the sub’s batteries to dangerously low levels before the boat finally broke free.

After 17 hours submerged, severe damage included the destruction of its radio antennae, so all communications were cut off until temporary repairs could be made. Only when they returned to port did the crew learn that Tokyo Rose had reported the Tambor destroyed with all hands.

“I wasn’t not going to do it.”

Luck, certainly, was involved in Hunt’s survival. But physical survival is one thing, mental endurance another, and Bob knew many crewmates who went quiet near the end of a patrol, then were never seen again. What in his makeup allowed him to persist? And why, in an all-volunteer service, did Bob go out again and again, his home from December 1940 to September 1944 a bunk in the forward room between reload torpedoes?

Bob met this final question with a practiced series of evasions, but one day I pressed him. We sat in his small bedroom-study with photos of the Tambor, crewmates, friends, and his Great Lakes training class hanging on the walls. A single bed was tucked into a nook in the wall across from our two chairs and a desk with a computer. The room was smaller than most compartments on Bob’s sub, and we sat almost knee to knee. In similar spaces men endured patrols of 60 days or more. I wanted to understand what motivated Bob to keep going out. At first he made jokes.

“After a mission we’d come in and had two weeks off. We might get hammered for two or three days, but we always knew when we were going to leave. We were partying so much the night before we went, the first thing I know is I’m on the boat and I feel a swell. We’re going out on war patrol, and I said, ‘Shoot, I’ve done it again!’” He laughed and I laughed with him. I asked again.