Three days after they attacked Pearl Harbor, the Japanese occupied the Gilbert Islands, sixteen small atolls in the Pacific Ocean which comprise the main part of the Republic of Kiribati. This was a strategically brilliant move. It quickly became clear that the United States and its allies would have to topple a series of islands like dominoes before they gained a position from which air forces could take off to bomb Japan. The Mariana Islands were the optimal location for forward air bases, but the Japanese were aware of this fact and consequently guarded the islands jealously. So before the bombers could move to the Marianas they had to first bomb them; the Marshall Islands were the best place from which to launch such an air assault. But the Marshalls had their own problem: they were cut off from direct contact with authorities in Hawaii by a contingent of Japanese soldiers on Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands. Thus, the Gilberts became the first domino on the path to attacking the Japanese home islands.
The battle for the Gilberts, which was fought from 20-23 November 1943, was massive, involving over 140 ships and 35,000 American soldiers. Attacks also came from the skies, courtesy of the Army Air Forces; if the aircraft were damaged by enemy fire during their missions and crashed into the ocean, it was the responsibility of several American submarines, standing by as lifeguards, to pluck the air crews from the water.
Early in the morning on 19 November, the day before land forces were scheduled to invade, the battle in the air began. Stationed nearby, USS PLUNGER (SS-179) watched her radar light up with contacts. “Most of these planes were known to be friendly but there was no way of being sure which one was not,” the commanding officer wrote in his patrol report. The sub spent most of the day roller-coastering from the surface to the depths and back again as she dove in response to sightings of aircraft and then returned to the surface to keep an eye out for crashed planes. There was no call for her services that day, but at 1612 the following afternoon, as the fight raged in the skies and on land, PLUNGER’s crew spotted a smoking plane that was clearly headed down. Another pilot directed the sub to the area where the pilot was believed to be, but by sunset nothing had been found. “Stationed two special lookouts, in addition to our normal section of four night surface lookouts,” the C.O. wrote. “Used police whistle about every half minute all night. Steered courses 240 and 060, always reversing to northwestward to cover vicinity as thoroughly as possible. It was a dark night and we could have passed very close to the man and not seen him.” At 1117 the following morning, after a night and a morning of fruitless searching, PLUNGER was ordered to change course and head for another area. At 1555, PLUNGER’s C.O. noted circling planes—“We felt sure another pilot was down but had no idea where.” They attempted to communicate with the aircraft using Morse code and a searchlight, but a tropical downpour prevented any communication. Once again, the ensuing search, conducted based on spotty information, yielded nothing. The crew was growing frustrated.
As 22 November dawned, there was new hope. At 0811, “received voice message that survivor was bearing 315, 23 miles from KNOX [Island, one of the Marshalls].” As PLUNGER poured on speed, planes overhead continued sending messages to guide the sub, departing only when they ran low on fuel. At 1038, as the boat was approaching the last known position of the pilot, radar (although not visual) contact was made with a large group of planes. “The CO and OOD [Officer of the Deck] were apprehensive of these planes and it was decided that no one would be put on deck for rescue until these planes were identified as friendly.” Less than an hour later, “sighted pilot in boat on crest of a large wave about a mile away….” Unfortunately, “a ZERO [Japanese fighter plane] was seen coming out of a rain squall in a hot shallow dive. Simultaneously sounded diving alarm and ordered ‘clear the bridge.’ Plane strafed bridge as men leaped for hatch. When C.O. closed hatch bridge was still being strafed on plane’s first pass. Rescued pilot who estimates he was 130 feet away, later said plane roared over, reversed course with a vertical turn and made a second pass, and repeated for a third pass just as periscope sheers [sic] went under. All compartments reported no holes and ship was taken to 140 feet. Preliminary check showed Executive Officer, four lookouts, and quartermaster wounded. First aid was begun at once.” At 1205, PLUNGER returned to the surface and soon after picked up the pilot, LT (j.g.) Franklin G. Schramm.
The following afternoon, PLUNGER met up with several surface ships and transferred her six wounded men. After giving the boat a good once-over, it was determined that aside from the human casualties, damage sustained from the strafing was minimal. Before heading out again, “received fresh fruit, provisions, and medical supplies from [USS] LEONARD WOOD [APA-12, an attack transport]. [USS] NEVILLE [APA-9] and [USS] CALVERT [APA-32] each transferred us three seamen first class. [USS] PENNSYLVANIA [BB-38, a battleship] sent ice cream, candy and cigarettes for the crew.”
PLUNGER remained on patrol until 18 December, when she tied up at Midway. She would receive a total of 14 battle stars for her wartime service, which spanned twelve war patrols.