Many World War II submarine stories focus on the daring heroism of intrepid commanding officers and their steadfast crews. But as LCDR Glenn Smith, USN (Ret.), demonstrates in his article “One Man, Six Commands at Sea: Captain Frederick Colby Lucas, Jr.,” not everyone was, or is, cut out for the stress of submarine life. What makes Lucas’s story so extraordinary is the fact that he recognized his own limitations and chose to refashion his naval career to play to his strengths. Today we offer the second of three parts of Smith’s article, which describes the incident which convinced Lucas that life as a submarine C.O. was not for him, nor was it good for his crew.
“Patrol Report, Second War Patrol, USS Billfish (SS-286): ‘1 November 1943: 1350. Departed Fremantle, Western Australia for Second War Patrol. Proceeding to Exmouth Gulf in company with USS Bowfin [SS-287] and USS Preston [DD-379], conducting training in coordinated attacks and tests of voice communications enroute (sic).’ A rather innocuous statement that begins a report that ultimately will gloss over what actually happened during this patrol. Like many patrol reports, almost all written by the boat’s CO, this one will omit key facts. Since these reports were written by the CO, there was an understandable tendency to not include any comments that would be unflattering to that CO. This report will ultimately be one of those reports that do not include the whole story. It will take almost 60 years for the whole story to be public.
“With Lucas in Billfish as she made her way to Exmouth Gulf were four men who would play key roles in the events that were about to unfold. They were his XO, LCDR Gordon Matheson; Engineer[ing] Officer LT Charles Rush; Chief Electrician’s Mate John D. Rendernick; and Chief Engineman Charley T. Odum. CO Lucas and XO Matheson’s actions would force the other three to assume roles they had no way of imagining.
“At 0920, on 11 November, 1943, the watch sighted a destroyer type vessel about 8 miles distant and heading in the direction of Billfish’s periscope. Captain Lucas was called, but dismissed the destroyer’s approach as being a random event, and not a threat. LT Rush, who had the experience of a number of war patrols in USS Thresher (SS-200), disagreed, saying that the destroyer was making an attack run. Rush was proved right, and the attack began in earnest. Its effect would be devastating, and resulted in significant damage to Billfish itself, but more dangerous was the damage to its officers. The #3 officer was found roaming around incoherent and required sedation from the ship’s pharmacist’s mate. Rush held the dive in the control room, and assumed that the CO and XO in the conning tower had things under control up there. Such was not the case, and after becoming concerned following a particularly intense attack by depth charges, Rush climbed up into the conning tower only to find both Lucas and Matheson completely incapacitated and babbling, and the helm unmanned. LT Rush, the ship’s fourth senior officer, immediately assumed command, and ordered personnel to the conn to take over the helm, and planes.
“Another escort of an unknown type joined the chase, and the assault on Billfish continued for the rest of the day. Not having been in the conning tower for the day, Rush was unaware of what efforts had been taken to avoid the attackers. [W]hen he looked at the log and found that the boat had been on a steady course throughout the attacks, he quickly made an educated deduction that Billfish may be leaking a trail of oil…a ‘black flag’ that her tormentors were following. He delicately maneuvered the boat into a 180-degree turn and slowly backtracked back through her own oil strewn wake. This maneuver saved Billfish, and she gradually put distance between herself and danger. All the while, two chiefs, Rendernick and Odom, worked diligently, largely without orders from any officer, to keep Billfish afloat and able to fight.
“Some time later, while on watch on the bridge and out of earshot of the lookouts, LT Rush boldly suggested to CDR Lucas that Lucas must request that he be relieved from command of a submarine upon returning to Fremantle. Failing to do so, LT Rush told Lucas, would force Rush to report what he had seen to Lucas’ immediate [superior]. Lucas agreed, and on return he honored his bargain with Rush, requesting a shore staff assignment. Rear Admiral Ralph Christie reluctantly accepted the reassignment request, and in his diary stated: ‘I am obliged to detach Lucas from command of Billfish at his own request. He is convinced that he is temperamentally unsuited for submarine command. I have been quite well satisfied with him although he has had two unproductive patrols. However, based on that, I would not have removed him.’ And so, CDR Frederick C. Lucas went ashore to staff duty in Submarine Squadron Eight. But he would again be forced into a submarine command later in the war.”