On Easter week of 1942, I was sitting on the warm sands of Corona Del Mar, watching the sea, when a young surfer caught an enormous wave and glided effortlessiy onto the beach. He walked up to me and sat down, beginning a sixty-year romance and alliance. Jack was almost sixteen, and I was fifteen.
The war affected my family in many ways over time. For instance, I assumed many household responsibilities and care of the children when Mother went to work in a defense plant and Daddy stayed in Texas in an accelerated search for oil. But the most impressive, most dramatic impact came from the first-hand narrative of Jack.
Jack joined the submarine fleet when he was seventeen, taking my picture with him. He claimed I was there, and I felt like it, often. His stories, told after the war, brought its drama, terror, and pathos into our living room.
After submarine school, he had spent seventeen months on five patrols, operating out of Midway Island on three different submarines. When the boats surfaced, he stood watches aloft, scanning the horizon for enemy ships and aircraft. With him were six other of his shipmates. On his first patrol aboard USS Skipjack, they patroled the Sea of Okhotsk off Siberia.
His ship commonly took on a glossy coat of ice, which thickened as the temperature dropped, as it was lashed by incessent winds. Loss of footing, bodies lurching about the decks, being thrown up against the bulkheads or overboard were constant threats. The patrol area extended from north of Hokkaido along the barren, mostly uninhabitable, volcanic Kuril Islands chain and terminated on the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Ocean temperatures hovered at freezing and the interior of the boat dripped with condensation.
These waters were always dangerous due to floating mines and low hanging clouds that shielded incoming planes. Fast moving planes commonly burst out of the cloud deck, forcing the topside crew into a pell-mell crash dive. Aerial bombing was routine. Once, the boat was stradled by bombs before it could submerge.
Russian ships plied these waters. Many an approach on an enemy vessel turned up Russian allies, at that time, not at war with Japan.
Smaller Japanese fishing vessels and whalers frequented these waters, some of them big enough to carry heavy firepower that answered our deck guns. Jack was a loader on the deck gun or 20 mm. machine gun as the circumstance might dictate.
On one such occasion while manning the forward machine gun, Jack saw his Captain struck down by enemy fire and watched as he was lowered down the conning tower hatch, his head covered in blood. As it turned out the Captain had been looking through his binoculars when the bullet had struck him in the hand. He had the bullet removed by a pharmacist mate with only the help of a local anesthetic. His hand was very nearly useless thereafter. He did return to action though, as a captain of the newer submarine, USS Plaice, where, later, Jack joined him as a member of his crew.
The first night on station, north of Hokkaido, on Jack's first patrol, they made contact with an enemy vessel that turned out to be a gasoline runner en route to refuel an air base. Unseen, the Skipjack approached on the surface and fired torpedoes. Jack standing watch aloft viewed the explosion through his binoculars. The ship seemed to disintegrate with huge chunks of the bulkheads hurled in all directions. A fire ball filled the night sky, engulfing them in light and subsiding, almost in slow motion, back into the sea. No survivors were found, none expected. It was a brutal initiation into the realities of war.
The time spent covering these vast areas of water was filled by long periods of routine watches, mostly searching for the enemy. Parts of the day passed with the ship submerged, but at night they surfaced, first to charge batteries, and second to expand the search.
Standing lookout watches consisted of scanning the surface with binoculars while occupying small perches adjacent to the periscopes above the conning tower deck. From these perches one could get the total view of the ship, knifing through the sea, as fluorescent-rich waves spilled off the superstructure, lighting the night with its gray-green luminescence. On occasion the fragrance of freshly cooked bread wafted up the conning tower hatch. Friday mornings the scent of navy beans could be detected.
When at last the crew was relieved from watch, Jack sought his bunk in the forward torpedo room. It was neatly tucked between two torpedos, the space so narrow that he had to get out of bed in order to turn over. When he was lying on his back, his face was about four inches from the torpedos warhead. But the bed was warm because it had just been occupied by the shipmates that had relieved him on watch.
Finally the day came when after fifty-plus days they were headed home and in due course slipped through the narrow passage filled with threatening coral heads and into the safe anchorage of Midway. A band, along with Navy brass, friends, and well wishers filled the wharf as they slid safely into their berth.