In the mid-1940s, Literary Classics, Inc. published a three-volume set of books titled This is Your America. The work was a compendium of dozens of short non-fiction pieces about a wide range of topics. One, found in Volume III, came from Boston Globe reporter Martin Sheridan, whose dispatches from USS BULLHEAD (SS-332) were published in the Globe in June and July of 1945. The piece, entitled “Jonah’s Whale Ride Was Just a Lark,” provides a fitting ending to the story. Today’s portion is part two of three.
“Most striking thing to me is the way submariners seem to become a part of the craft as soon as they step aboard. Each man has a special station, a special valve to turn, a lever to shift, a signal light to watch. The quartermaster, for example, climbed to the bridge and clamped a set of earphones over his head. He didn’t pause to wonder if the man in the main operating compartment would be ready. He knew he’d be waiting for the first order.
“Regular war patrols are extended, nerve-wracking operations continuing from 45 to 90 days at sea. Nearsighted and almost blind the subs operate submerged most of the time, surfacing at night to charge batteries, navigating with the aid of delicate instruments and an occasional peak through the periscope if the surface is clear.
“A few minutes after leaving the dock a seaman removed the colors, sent the flag below on a rope. Overhead a Navy patrol plane circled inquisitively, then dipped its wings in greeting.
“As soon as the sub cleared the protective steel nets guarding the mouth of the harbor, the forward and after hatches were slammed shut and locked for diving. The net tender tooted a last shrill farewell. ‘Let’s go below,’ suggested the skipper, and I followed him down the conning tower ladder, leaving only a lookout and the operating officer on the bridge.
“The activity at the moment resembled a mass strip tease in a burlesque house. Every man, including the skipper, was peeling off clothing—overshoes, trousers and shirts. When they reached their undershirts and shorts they stopped.
“ ‘You’d better join us,’ chuckled one of the officers. ‘We like our sub warm.’
“Life aboard a sub today is more pleasant than during the first world war when air conditioning was unknown. The early subs were called ‘sea pigs’ or ‘pigboats,’ probably because they resembled pigs—being shiny and black, sometimes stuck their noses into the mud and snorted loudly as their Diesels were revved up.
“The older, smaller ships became almost unlivable after three or four weeks at sea. Confine a group of healthy, perspiring young men below decks for a long period with no ventilation and you’ll understand why some sailors longed to be in Davy Jones’ Locker. The stench was not unlike the interior of a 50-year-old high school gymnasium locker room.
“When we reached deep water the sub was rigged for diving. Air vents were closed. The crew stood ready at diving stations. Even when charging batteries on surface at night only one hatch is opened to permit speedy submerging in an emergency.
“Every dive is made as quickly as possible. The rapidity and smoothness of operation depend on the training and ability of the personnel. While it’s a military secret to disclose the exact length of time required to duck from the surface, I can safely reveal that a sub can submerge quicker than you can pronounce Llanfair-pwllgwyngyllgogery-chwyrndrobwill-llandysiliogogogoch, a Welsh town.
“The duties of a submarine are similar in peace and war time. Standing orders direct the skipper to seek out and destroy the enemy. And it’s a fallacy that a submarine cannot find another submarine, because several cases of a pigboat sinking another pigboat have been recorded.
“ ‘If an enemy warship appears,’ the skipper points out, ‘all we have to do is submerge at a safe depth. Through careful handling we can keep the ship suspended on an even keel with her motors turned off. And no listening device in the world can locate a static submarine. Under those circumstances the sub is in such perfect balance that a single 150-pound man walking from the bow to the stern will upset the delicate equilibrium. When we’re ready to fire a torpedo we almost surface.’
“Submariners do not fear depth charges, for only a direct hit or a darn close explosion can knock out their pigboat. Since the water pressure increases with the depth of the water, the depth charges explode upward. The sound of the underwater concussion is frightful, increasing in intensity in shallow water.
“The underwater sailors don’t think their life is dangerous. They realize their ship is a piece of intricate machinery, perfectly safe as long as the crew is efficient and on its toes. Furthermore, they tell you proudly that most insurance companies have crossed the crews of submarines from the “bad risk” list. The only thing the men fear is an underwater collision.
“It is practically impossible to differentiate between enemy or friendly subs when they are submerged. Sound devices cannot identify nationalities at this writing. And only an experienced man can determine the origin of a surfaced sub by its silhouette.
“All subs look pretty much alike when spotted submerged by patrol planes. And our own underseas craft might easily be mistaken for an enemy raider with results that would be disastrous.”