These World War II Veterans Reveal What It Was Like on a Submarine

By U.S.Navy -, Public Domain,

These World War II Veterans Reveal What It Was Like on a Submarine

Life and war inside the USS Seal.

Key Point: It was hard-going as a submariner. Here's how these brave men did a vital and dangerous job.

BACKSTORY: In World War II, the American submarine force was inordinately small—just 252 total boats, compared to the more than 1,100 deployed by Germany and over 600 built by Japan. Yet, the American subs, most of which saw service in the Pacific, accounted for 54.6 percent of all Japanese naval and merchant ships sunk. However, in compiling these statistics, the U.S. Submarine Force suffered heavy casualties—over 3,400 men (22 percent of the force) killed and 52 subs lost.

Although he was only 17 when he enlisted with his father’s consent in the U.S. Navy in the summer of 1942, John Ronald Smith (called “Ron” or “Smitty” by his friends) of Hammond, Indiana, was eager to pay back the Japanese for Pearl Harbor. After qualifying as a submariner following boot camp, he became a torpedoman in the aft torpedo room (the “caboose”) of the Salmon-class USS Seal (SS-183)––at a time when the American torpedoes were almost criminally unreliable and the U.S. Submarine Force was still trying to prove itself.

This article is adapted from The Depths of Courage: American Submariners at War with Japan, 1941-1945, by Ron Smith and Flint Whitlock.

“Battle Stations Submerged!”

At 7 am on May 4, 1943, as part of the crew aboard the U.S. submarine Seal was eating breakfast, the alarm was sounded: “Battle stations submerged!” A Japanese convoy had been spotted on the surface. The motormen shut down the diesels, the electricians in the maneuvering room switched to batteries, and the sub glided silently beneath the surface.

All routine activity aboard Seal ceased as every man hustled to his battle station. In the aft torpedo room, the men quickly removed the bunks and stowed them in the aft engine room. Horizontal I-beams were then swung into place across the room, front and rear, to support the four extra torpedoes in the room in the event reloading was necessary. Smitty took up his battle station seated between the aft tubes, eyes focused on the TDC—the torpedo data computer transmitter—mounted on the rear bulkhead, with headphones on his ears, a microphone pressed against his throat.

While the sub continued on its way to the intercept point, Smitty glanced around at his fellow sailors in the tight space—a scruffy, unmilitary looking lot. All wore ragged, cutoff dungaree shorts; sandals, no socks; an assortment of dirty skivvy shirts with the sleeves cut off or brightly colored Hawaiian shirts. Everyone was dripping with sweat. A few covered their stringy, unwashed hair with dark blue Navy baseball caps. Those old enough to shave had full beards; a few young guys, like Smitty, sported the first scraggly suggestions of facial hair. Yet, each man was a pro, an expert at his deadly craft.

There was short, muscular John “Big Ski” Kaczmerowski, looking confident, like a quarterback in a close game. Behind him, acting as backup, was Maylon “Woody” Woodard, a reliable man in a sub-versus-ship duel. There was skinny Dillingham, nicknamed “Seagull,” a torpedoman without peer. Two other sailors, one named Brown and the other nicknamed Dead Eye, stood by, ready to lend a hand and their considerable muscle with the reloading. Each man had an insouciant, almost cocky look to him, as if to say, “No big deal; we’ve done this a hundred times before,” masking any tension they might have felt and helping calm Smitty’s tightening stomach.

“Fire One, Fire Two, Fire Three”

Lieutenant John Hanes, in the control room amidships, had already begun the plot as Seal moved to intercept the convoy. The TDC was being fed the distance, angle, and speed of the target, information that was entered into the torpedoes’ primitive “brains.” It was Smitty’s job to line up the marks on the dial of the TDC transmitter to the ongoing into the “tin fish;” he would push the big brass firing lever only if, after receiving the command to fire, the marks, or “bugs” as they were called, were perfectly aligned. An accurate plot would make the fish more likely to hit their targets, but, due to countless malfunctions, no one could be certain, even if the bugs were right on, that the torpedoes would actually detonate.

Over the headset, Hanes, referred to as “Control,” alerted the other 58 officers and enlisted men in Seal to stand by for action; Smitty passed this news along to those around him. While the forward torpedo room was put on alert, the aft torpedo room was told to stand easy—for now.

Once the range and distance to the target—a fat oiler with the distinctly un-Japanese name of San Clemente Maru—had been entered into the TDC, the order to “Fire one” was given to the forward torpedo room, and the boat suddenly lurched as though it had collided with a brick wall.

“Fire two, fire three.” Two more lurches as 2,000 pounds of compressed air pressure from the “impulse bottle” violently kicked the tin fish out of their tubular homes.

“Lumpy” Lehman, the sonar man, reported over the circuit, “All fish running hot, straight, and normal.” Lehman had an amazingly sharp, discriminating set of ears; he could detect the faint shooshing of screws from as far away as 20 miles and tell the officers how many ships there were, what types of ship were in the convoy, how fast the ships were going, and even in what direction they were heading. Some wags aboard Seal swore Lumpy could even tell what the registration numbers of the ships were.

Waiting For Impacts

Now they all waited. Would the torpedoes strike home, or would there be nothing but silence? Some men crossed their fingers or fingered the crucifixes that hung from their necks or played with some other sort of talisman thought to bring them luck.

A few of Seal’s crew may have given a moment’s thought to the enemy sailors at whom the torpedoes were being directed, oblivious that their world was about to be shattered, that their lives were about to come to a sudden and violent end. Like the Americans, these sailors had girlfriends, wives, mothers, fathers, and children back home.

Like the Americans, most of these sailors were just doing a job that someone in higher authority had decreed they must do. Like the Americans, most of these sailors would have preferred spending their youth in other, more peaceful pursuits. But the Americans felt it was not healthy to dwell on such thoughts, to think of the enemy in human terms.

No, the business of war demanded that they think of the enemy as exactly that—the enemy—and attempt to kill as many of them as possible. After all, it was the Japanese who had bombed Pearl Harbor without warning; the Japanese who had brutally invaded Korea and China and Malaysia and the Philippines; the Japanese who had turned thousands of Korean girls and young women into their sex slaves; the Japanese who had beheaded captured Australian and British and American soldiers and airmen; the Japanese who had slaughtered their American and Filipino POWs along the march from Bataan; the Japanese who had committed atrocities every bit as horrible as those being perpetrated by the Nazis on the other side of the world.

And so the men inside Seal pushed such thoughts—if they had them—out of their minds and waited with eager anticipation to hear the explosions that would signal that the despised Japanese enemy sailors were plunging in agony to their deaths.

The men in the aft torpedo room focused on the second hand sweeping around the shiny bulkhead chronometer. “First one missed,” Woody muttered as the time for the intercept came and went. The second and third torpedoes also passed into the silence of failure.

“Tubes Aft, Stand By”

Seal’s skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Harry B. Dodge (USNA, 1930), swung the sub around so the aft torpedoes could be fired while the forward torpedo room reloaded, and Smitty heard Lieutenant Hanes’s voice in his headphones say, “Tubes aft, stand by.”

“Tubes aft standing by,” Smitty replied, making his posture just a little more erect, a little more military. “Stand by,” Smitty repeated for the benefit of his crewmates. Here he was, the newest and youngest member of the crew, issuing orders to these “old salts.” He was at last being given a chance to show what he could do. He hoped he would not fail this, his first big combat test.

The crewmen moved quickly to their firing stations. They had no idea what their target was—a carrier, battleship, cruiser, destroyer, oiler, tanker, freighter, or transport—nor did it particularly matter.

“Tubes aft, stand by five, six, and seven,” said Hanes.

“Tubes aft, standing by five, six, and seven,” repeated Smitty.

Hanes directed, “Tubes aft, open outer doors on five, six, and seven.”

“Tubes aft, aye,” said Smitty, and repeated the command for Big Ski and Seagull. They opened the valves from the “water round torpedo”—a tank located just below the torpedo tubes—and flooded the three firing chambers with seawater to equalize pressure to the sea; the fourth aft tube, number eight, was normally held back during an attack.