Monday, June 13, 2005

Submarine Force Heroes -- Yesterday and Today

Cross-posted by Bubblehead from Idaho from The Stupid Shall Be Punished:

The passing last week of Slade Cutter, CO of USS Seahorse, credited with sinking 23 enemy vessels during WWII and four-time Navy Cross awardee, got me thinking about submarine heroes of yesteryear and today. The list of American submariners who gained immortality with their feats of bravery and daring -- Dudley "Mush" Morton, John Cromwell, and Howard Gilmore, to name but a few -- fill the hearts of submariners everywhere with pride to be part of a brotherhood with them. While today's submariners don't usually have the opportunity to be recognized for their bravey, the actions of the crew of USS San Francisco during her recent grounding show that men who go under the sea today are cut from the same cloth. Nevertheless, the larger-than-life exploits of the submarine heroes of WWII are what stir my imagination the most.

Slade Cutter was one such hero. A football hero at the Naval Academy, his war patrols on Seahorse were legendary, as his four Navy Crosses testify. Check out this account of Seahore's fourth patrol:

Seahorse's fourth war patrol took her to the Marianas, specifically to prevent the Japanese from reinforcing Guam and Saipan. She departed Pearl Harbor on 16 March 1944, and near Guam on 8 April came across a Japanese supply convoy. Cutter gained firing position and torpedoed the converted submarine tender Aratama Maru (6,784 tons) and the freighter Kizugawa Maru (1,915 tons). Subsequently, Aratama Maru drifted ashore on Guam and was abandoned as a total loss. Meanwhile Kizugawa Maru was towed to Guam for repairs but was so damaged by subsequent aircraft attacks that she was given up and scuttled in June. Seahorse moved on, and the very next day found a 15-20 ship convoy that had already been attacked by Trigger as it neared Saipan. Cutter attacked with two torpedoes and nailed the 4,667-ton Mimasaka Maru, leaving her dead in the water. In two attempts to deliver the coup de grace, both immediately and after nightfall, Seahorse was driven away by the escorts, but nonetheless, Mimasaka Maru sank just after midnight anyway. Patrolling submerged on lifeguard duty in support of carrier air strikes on Saipan, Seahorse next sighted the Japanese submarine I-174 on the surface on 20 April and fired two torpedoes from 1,800 yards. Inadvertently losing depth control and leaving periscope depth, Cutter heard a loud detonation, and it was later confirmed that I-174 (1,420 tons) had indeed become his latest victim. Then, only a week later, Seahorse found another convoy 45 miles west of Saipan and sank Akigawa Maru (5,244 tons) with three hits out of four torpedoes. Cutter took Seahorse to Milne Bay, New Guinea, to refuel on 3 May, and they ended another extraordinary patrol at Brisbane, Australia, on the 11th.

While Cutter may not have shown the flair of some of the more flambouyant COs, his superb technique and concern for his crew make him, for me, the prototype of a successful wartime CO. His passing reduces the pool of surviving WWI COs to a mere handful; the most famous, of course, and my personal hero, is Eugene Fluckey, who lives in Annapolis (where Cutter lived before he passed away). Fluckey's account of his wartime service of CO of USS Barb, as recounted in his book "Thunder Below", is must-reading for any submarine enthusiast. In fifteen months in command, he earned four Navy Crosses and the Congressional Medal of Honor, but always said that, when it came to awards, he was most proud that no man under his command ever received a Purple Heart. In recounting the circumstances of his award of the CMH, he stated that he didn't think he deserved the award, because he "wouldn't have taken the Barb into Namkwam if (he) had thought we didn't have at least a 50-50 chance of coming out alive". The story of his landing of part of his crew on the Japanese mainland to blow up a train with the Barb's own scuttling charges is worth the price of the book alone.

Another of the old-time heroes that I always admired was George Street. His bravery as CO of USS Tirante is legendary, but what I remember most is seeing him occasionally at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton; he stayed active in Navy and submarine activities in the Northeast until the end of his life. My EDEA (later EDMC, but that's another story) on USS Connecticut told me how, when he was COB of the Nautilus museum, Captain Street would occasionally drive down from Massachusetts and spend the day at the museum, sharing stories with visitors and staff. My Master Chief said that sometimes, when he closed up the building for the night, he'd find Captain Street asleep in his car in the parking lot. (After all, he was in his 80s.) On such occasions, he'd grab two Sailors from the duty section, get the command sedan, and have one of them drive Captain Street back home to Massachusetts while the other followed to bring that Sailor back -- the current generation of submariners paying respect to the generation that showed us the way...

Going deep...


At 9:35 PM, Blogger Rob said...

My personal hero is from that era of shit-hot sub skippers...Dick O'Kane, Mush's XO on Wahoo, and later the daring skipper of Tang.

I read the stories of those WWII subs and it never ceases to amaze me. Hollywood turns to comics and '70's TV for new movies, and there are more stories in names like Tang, Barb, Wahoo, and Seahorse than anything that's ever been on the tube.

At 12:27 PM, Blogger exnavyct said...

Sailor, rest your ours..

I highly recommend 'Silent Victory' by Clay Blair, Jr if you want all kinds of info on WWII submarine patrols in the Pacific.

At 12:34 PM, Blogger bothenook said...

rob, i'm with you on Dick O'Kane. he lived in Sebastapol, about 45 minutes from mare island. about once a quarter, he and his wife would invite submarine sailors from various commands to his house for an afternoon of tea and seastories. when it was our boat's turn, i campaigned like a movie start looking for an oscar. i think the skipper selected me to be one of the three just to shut me up.
i had a blast. his wife was incredibly elegant, and he was every inch the kind of man i've aspired to be my whole life. since i was a cribbage addict, most of the stories started with, or had buried in it, something to do with cribbage, since we shared that passion.
i was a good little sailor for quite a while, until the buzz finally wore off. it was kind of neat to hear the EOOW call for the ELT, not the F*****G ELT.

At 10:36 AM, Blogger Solomon2 said...

The Seahorse's secret may not have been just its skipper, but the diligence of the crew in maintaining and using their torpedoes. A 75% rate was remarkable, and none of the Seahorse's torpedoes ever circled back around to hit the boat -- I think the U.S. lost more than one vessel that way...


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