Last week, “Tidbits” featured an article by LCDR Glenn Smith, USN (Ret.), entitled “One Man, Six Commands at Sea: Captain Frederick Colby Lucas, Jr.” Lucas learned early in his career that life beneath the waves was not for him, yet the exigencies of World War II kept returning him to boats as commanding officer. On 11 November 1943, in the midst of an engagement aboard USS BILLFISH (SS-286), Lucas froze. His engineering officer, LT Charles Rush, took charge, although his actions would not come to light for several decades. In an interview given to the Naval Institute’s Proceedings in 2002, Rush, who would go on to a long and successful naval career, describes how he came to be aboard BILLFISH and what happened on that fateful autumn day. Today’s installment is part three of five.
CAPTAIN CHARLES RUSH: At that point, I went up into the conning tower. The captain was there, but he was ineffective. And the exec was suffering from exhaustion. He was a heavy smoker, and I’ve often wondered whether that, combined with the lack of oxygen in the air we were breathing, was his problem. We didn’t think about it much then, but he was just plain tired. He said to me, “I’ve tried everything and nothing works.” His head was down. There was no one on the wheel.
I went over to the dead-reckoning tracer [DRT] and looked at what we had done. Our [past] course was all one direction—northeast. We had made sinuous turns going there, but it was all northeast. This had been going on for 12 hours. I shouted down the hatch to the Chief Of The Boat, “Send the helmsman up on the double.” The sonarman, John Denning, took off his earphones and offered to take the wheel. I said, “Put those earphones back on, we’re going to need you.” And he did. Then we got a helmsman up there. I just said, mostly to the exec but to no one in particular, “I have the conn.” And I was very definite about it. The exec nodded.
At that point, the sonarman said, “They’re starting a run.” I had the helmsman put the wheel over; I went 45 degrees right, and then left-full rudder 270 degrees, and then 45 degrees right again. It was a buttonhook….
PROCEEDINGS: And how close were you to test depth and crush depth?
RUSH: Test depth, 412 feet. Our depth, 650 feet. Crush depth, I estimate was probably 850 feet. The depth charges were coming down while we made this maneuver. The disturbance they made in the water blanked out echo-ranging sonar completely. And that’s probably what saved us.
While I had the dive, I was one on one with Chief Rendernick, who was checking the entire boat. Anything that was seriously damaged, he got right on it. He had help from Engineman Charlie Odom. The things they did were remarkable. The bolts were [sheared] on the port main motor. They got a hydraulic jack and jacked that thing back into position using the pressure hull as the other end of the jack.
The carbon tetrachloride container burst; this was one of the poisons in our air. They put on some stuff the sailors called “monkey s—.” That prevented all of it from escaping into the air. Since they were having real trouble back aft, they let this into the whole boat to dilute it. In other words, instead of the poison occupying 10% of the air they were breathing, it was 1% in the whole boat.
For the men in the maneuvering room, the pressure and the heat meant that their eyes would not lubricate. The after-torpedo room was cooler because there were no tanks around it. There was nothing between you and the ocean but 7/8 of an inch of steel. Rendernick put them back there with wet towels over their eyes, and as their eyes recovered, he would rotate them into the maneuvering room to help.
We were leaking badly aft, and because we were carrying a 17 degree up-angle, the pumps on the diesel submarines would not take suction from the after-engine room. So Rendernick formed a bucket brigade and brought some of the water forward, where we could pump it out.
As we reversed our course, I watched the DRT the entire time. And every time there was a turn in our previous track, I would use that turn going in the opposite direction. I figured that we were losing diesel oil through the fuel ballast tanks and that we would go under the old oil slick that we’d made before.
Gradually, the sonarman said, “Hey, they’re searching away from us.” After we could no longer hear them, I came up to periscope depth. I could see three ships with their running lights on and using searchlights. We just proceeded farther and farther away, and then we surfaced. Only one main engine would start, out of four.
Odom did a remarkable job of getting the other three engines going. The battery was so hot that if you were to put in a quick charge, you’d get hydrogen generated, and that’s explosive. So we opened the forward torpedo room hatch and all the water-tight doors between the forward torpedo room and the engine room. We shut the main induction, which was the source of air for the diesels, and took the air through the hatch and through the boat and over the batteries. I don’t think the cooling effect on the batteries was anywhere nearly as important as sucking out the hydrogen.