Polaris October 1995

Saga of 42 WW-II Sailors

By Mancel May, ENC (SS) USN Ret.

World War Two for the Asiatic Fleet submarines started during the 0400 to 0800 watch, while moored in Manila Bay, on Monday, 8 Dec. 1941. On board Spearfish, events related to her first war patrol starting in Manila and ending in Soerabaya, Java, will probably be prototypic of many of the patrols of the other fleet boats operating with the Asiatic Fleet. (If any of you Spearfish sailors have a problem with this narrative, just consider the source and have a drink on me.)

Submarines were nested to Holland, port and starboard, as things started moving that morning. The inboard boats topped off with water, lube, fuel, provisions and fish. When this was completed the boats would slip out of the nest and head for her pre-assigned area. Spearfish cleared the nest around 1600 and headed for her assigned area off Indo-China. No action until Dec. 20th. We sighted three Jap subs on the surface; fired a spread of four – for zero results. On December 21st we sighted a Jap tanker, but could not close. Christmas came and went. On Dec. 29th radio picked up the news that "Dugout Dough" had declared Manila an open city. On Dec. 30th radio picked up a Japanese broadcast, declaring that all American submarines in the Asiatic Fleet had been sunk. We knew that Spearfish was okay, so presumed that the others were also. New Years Day came and went. On Jan. 2nd we spotted a Jap DE; we submerged – no action. On Jan. 3rd radio picked up the news that Manila had fallen. On Jan. 4th we spotted a Jap merchantman with a DE escort; two fish fired – nothing. Shifted patrol station toward the Sulu Sea. On Jan. 9th we passed through Balabac Strait into the Sulu Sea. On Jan. 13th we passed through Pearl Island into the Celebes Sea, taking up station off the coast of Borneo. On Jan. 15th we sighted ships with escorts; dived – no action. On Jan. 16th we crossed the equator at 118-deg. 40-min. long, 0000 Lat. Spearfish had enough shellbacks to ensure that we pollywogs got a proper indoctrination. On Jan. 19th we entered the port of Balikpapan, Borneo after dark, taking aboard a limited amount of lube oil, fuel, and a few items of groceries and some Murad cigarettes from the local store. We received a radio message that the Japanese fleet was heading our way. We left the dock in pitch-blackness and headed for the channel entrance where we would dive, letting the Jap ships pass over us. From Jan. 19th through the 27th we were in, and under, the battle that was taking place in Macassar Straits. On Jan. 28th we entered the Java Sea, and on Jan. 29th moored at the large Dutch naval base at Soerabaya, Java.

Our first order of business was some badly needed R & R. The R & R facility was a converted hospital up in the mountains at a place called Maland. Here, one half of the crew spent three days R&R afterwhich the remaining crewmembers got three days, arriving on Feb. 2nd. On Feb. 3rd the Japs conducted their first air raid on this facility, followed by another rain on the 4th. The target appeared to be a small airfield located nearby. Although the bomb bust were clearly visible, it appeared that little damage was done and no casualties. As we loaded the buses to return to the ship another air raid started. The Dutch officers strongly protested leaving during a raid, but the American officers overruled them. As we went down the mountain, the busses were strafed, and a train was blown up, but the busses were not badly damaged.

During the 53-day junket the Manila to Java, the Allied Command made the decision to use the Dutch base, with its beautiful dry docks, barracks, and other support facilities, as a submarine repair and relief base. In this connection, each submarine upon entering port was to transfer two petty officers to ComSubAsiatic. This personnel pool would be the repair and relief crew for boats as they came into port. Spearfish "donated" Allan H. Hoskins, radioman, and me, a MM2c. Official date of transfer was Feb. 5, 1942.

By Feb. 8th, the pool had grown to 42 officers and enlisted, and the base was under such intense Jap air strikes that the allied ships could not enter. The base was untenable, isolated, and a long way from the Golden Gate.

At 0400 on Feb. 9th, we were roused from sleep and, grabbing our scanty sea and ditty bags, were hustled out to buses, transported to the railroad station and loaded aboard the Java Special. Out destination was the small coastal town of Chilichap. Fleeing with us were locals, carrying their chickens, pigs, goats, geese, etc. in their arms, on a leash, in cages, whatever. The Japs were very methodical in their timing of those air raids – they were always at 1000 and 1400. That was their schedule at Malang, at Soerabaya, and now the train. During the bombing and strafing runs the engineer would stop the train and we would scatter into the bush until the raid ended, then reboard and continue the journey.

At around 1700, during a torrential downpour, the train arrived at Chilichap. The cruisers Marblehead and Houston were in port. This was after they had been hit with the armor piercing magnesium bombs. Both ships had sustained heavy damage and many casualties.

At this stage of the story, there is no recall of what happened to the other forty sailors, but Allen and myself spent the first night on Houston, the second on the tanker Pecos (both later sunk in the Java Sea). On Feb. 11th, Otus entered port loaded with supplies and provisions for the submarine force. Al and myself spent two nights on Otus, then on Feb. 13th Holland entered port, and we moved aboard her. Between Feb. 13th and 19th we alternated workdays between Holland and Salmon. On Feb. 19th I was formerly transferred from ComSubAsiatic to Stingray for duty. On Feb. 21st Holland, Stingray and two escorting destroyers departed Chilichap for Australia, via Xmas Island. On Feb. 26 the four ships arrived safely at Exmouth Gulf, Western Australia.

Stingray ended her fourth war patrol in Mare Island. I was detached and assigned to Tunny. We commissioned her on my birthday, Sept. 1, 1942, and we decommissioned her in 1946, at Mare Island. Allen Hoskins made several runs in Swordfish, pulled a tour of shore duty in Perth, wound up safely back in Tacoma, WA. after the war, and now lives Tucson. (Al’s brother, Captain Franz Hoskins, had the distinction of being the first reserve officer to command a fleet submarine on a war patrol). Spearfish survived the war and was decommissioned in 1946. Two notable acts that she accomplished still gets the crew kudos from the people involved. During the night of May 3, 1942 as Corregidor was about to fall, she sneaked into the harbor and rescued eleven army nurses, one navy nurse, one navy wife, six army officers, and six navy officers. Later on during the war, she snagged a ditched B-29 crew from the drink.

The only other member of our group on the train ride that I knew was Big Chief Red Albert. To know Red, was to never forget him (he passed away in 1985).

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