Quite often, history offers a chance to speculate about the differences in attitudes of folks long gone and ponder how drastic the societal shifts between then and now might be. One example occurred 75 years ago today; while such a relatively minor event from the Second World War may seem inconsequential, the casual dedication to the accomplishment of a mission remains noteworthy.
The Pampanito’s (SS-383) third patrol started from Midway in the early morning hours of 17 August 1944, but the first indications of a potentially serious problem manifested on the 31st and were logged accordingly:
1000 While at deep submergence, sound reported a loud air noise forward. Made a good check for air leaks and found none. Diving Officer then found that the Forward Trim had taken about 2000 lbs. Suspected small spurt of water impinging on metal made the noise. This will severely hamper any evasive tactics. All hands attempted to locate trouble.
Silence is key in submarine operations in either peace or war. In the case of the Pampanito, the strategic imperative to hinder or negate Japan’s maritime logistics capability dictated a choice between several options: return to Midway to address the problem, continue the patrol in hopes that the errant noises might not be heard during submerged approach or evasive maneuvers, or find and fix whatever the problem might be while remaining on patrol.
Lieutenant Commander Paul E. Summers, the skipper of the Pampanito for this patrol, graduated the U.S. Naval Academy in 1936 – a product of a moment and place in time which produced other great skippers of the Second World War. Though the Pampanito’s participation in the cooperative hunt, or “wolf pack,” designated to patrol the waters north of Luzon had been problematic by this point, Summers was determined to troubleshoot the issue, make the necessary repairs, and remain on station.
4 September 1944
1900 Leak in Forward Trim Tank worse and as yet it has not been located. Noise presented quite a serious problem and flooding forward trim as much as possible did not stop it. Lieut. H. T. Fulton, USNR, and W. W. Stockslader, MM2c [Motor Machinist’s Mate, Second Class], USNR., volunteered to go down in Forward Trim during a dive to locate leak. Fairly sure the manhole cover didn’t leak and knew we could supply ample amount of air with 225 lb. blow. Arranged a set of signals and pumped dry for the test. Hoped the patrol planes would leave us alone tonight.”
The solution was simple, but the execution still provokes amazement:
4 September 1944
2000 Sent working party topside to remove manhole cover and put two men down inside. All work done efficiently and quickly and two volunteers safely inside with manhole secured. Removed manhole cover from after part of Forward Trim Tank in Forward Torpedo Room and attempted voice communication with forward part of trim tank,
… Dived slowly. A few very tense minutes while we waited for word from men in tank. Levelled off at 60 feet. Finally established voice communications; everything allright. No leaks found at 60 feet. Gave Forward Trim a shot of air and went to 200 feet.
… Word came from men in tank that they had found the leak with water coming in around stuffing box, between stuffing box and bulkhead, where the operating rod for the outer torpedo tube door on #5 tube, went through forward bulkhead of Forward Trim Tank.
… Surfaced. Took men out of tank and replaced manhole cover and used a new gasket.
In his book USS Pampanito: Killer Angel, Gregory Michno shares Stockslader’s attitude towards this task: “I had no thoughts, no qualms; a job had to be done and so I did it… I volunteered like I usually did.”
5 September 1944
2015 A.C. Hauptman, GM1c, USN., using a shallow water diving apparatus, went down in the void on the starboard side of chain locker to tighten bolts holding stuffing box in place. Could reach all bolts except top one and tightened all of them. Hoped this would do.
The final repairs were completed by Hauptman on the evening of the 6th with the use of a locally-made wrench. The Pampanito’s log on 7 September offered a brief acknowledgement of the efforts of those involved:
0600 Dived. Found to our joy that the Forward Trim Tank was tight. The whole ship owes a big debt to those taking the risks to fix it.
The Pampanito would continue her patrol unfettered by any more problems as the temporary repairs resolved the situation. Not long after, on 15 September, she rescued a total of 73 British and Australian men who had been among 2,267 prisoners of war being transported from Singapore to Formosa on the Kachidoki Maru – formerly the liner President Harrison prior to being captured off the coast of China on 8 December 1941 – and the Rakuyo Maru. The two transports were part of a larger convoy which was attacked by the Pampanito and the Sealion II (SS-315), respectively, on 12 September in separate attacks that day. To the crews of the American submarines, there was no way of knowing the transports carried Allied POW’s; along with the destruction of whatever cargo of raw materials or soldiers the ships were most likely to be carrying, the elimination of the maritime transports reduced the Imperial Japanese Army’s ability to wage continued fighting on distant islands.
Adrift for four days, the men were dehydrated and malnourished from imprisonment and three years as POW’s. Assisted by the Queenfish (SS-393) and the Barb (SS-220), the Pampanito rescued 73 of the 159 survivors picked up by American submarines. Despite the care provided by Pharmacist’s Mate First Class Maurice Demers, one of the rescued men – John Campbell – died of his injuries enroute to Saipan on 16 September and was buried at sea. Four days later, the Pampanito tied up with the submarine tender Fulton in Tanapag Harbor, Saipan long enough to transfer the survivors, decontaminate the ship, and restock/refuel before heading out to sea for the return trip to Pearl Harbor, arriving on 28 September 1944.
The story of the Pampanito’s crew and their subsequent actions illustrate the variety of action and the viciousness of conflict as interesting counterparts. On one hand, there is the crew – voluntarily serving aboard submarines in the Pacific theater of operations… further volunteering to place themselves at greater personal risk to ensure the safety of their boat by entering spaces not designed to support human occupation… While on the other hand, the confused series of frantic events which led to the unintentional loss of British and Australian prisoners – men who possessed no choice in going to sea or little chance of rescue once their ships foundered. Of the 2,219 POW’s on board the two transports, 792 were pulled from the water by Japanese warships and returned to prison camps – by the end of the war, over 500 survived and were repatriated to their homelands.
War is ultimately about choices – personal motivations for serving and volunteering beyond the limits within one’s assignment, collective efforts to accomplish a complex and dangerous task, and organizational decisions to pit groups and individuals in extreme and often violent situations. History is about understanding the relationship between those choices, the tools available, and the will to attempt to affect a change. The Pampanito’s existence in the heart of downtown San Francisco was initially controversial for what was perceived to be a “disgraceful symbol of war,” yet she remains as a tangible source of inspiration and curiosity as to the “how” and “why” regarding conflict which will never be extinguished. It is the interpretation of those choices which may make a difference in preventing a repetition of certain patterns; and it is the choice to see such potential which compels subsequent generations to cultivate a passion for understanding and continuing those stories – no matter how distasteful they may be to contemporary sensibilities.
At the beginning of this post, I posed the idea that there might be some sort of correlation or comparison between those who made choices then and the people/society we are now. I honestly don’t think that there is much of a fundamental difference between the two men who found themselves in the forward trim tank of the Pampanito in 1944 and the people we are today. We, like Fulton and Stockslader, have choices of our own – some more perilous than others, yes… but choices, nonetheless. Whether we choose to meet our full potential or not… that is solely up to us.