by Bart Bartholomew
CWO C.R. (Bart) Bartholomew, USN Ret. Reported aboard SARGO May 1940 and departed March 1943 at Mare Island where I reported aboard. Two years and ten months of arduous training after commissioning, the crew of USS SARGO (SS188) faced the enemy. A good number of the crew was plank owners on 8 December 1941. In the weeks before World War II, the Asiatic Fleet was operating under wartime conditions but maintaining a peacetime routine. When the "HOSTILITIES EXIST" message arrived in Manila Bay; SARGO had a liberty party ashore. The fortitude and training of the crew was ultimately tested by the grind of submarine warfare.
The awning came down, torpedoes with warheads were loaded, and fuel and supplies were topped off. The crew worked like a precision drill team. All hands expected their baptism under fire to come from an enemy destroyer. It didn't.
War preparations were complete by mid-afternoon and SARGO hurried across Manila Bay. Out of the bright sun, a silvery airplane barreled toward SARGO. The starboard lookout reported bullet splashes. The plug was pulled. SARGO hit the bottom. Her conning tower was exposed. The plane kept going and SARGO surfaced. During the dusky night, Corregidor was left behind as SARGO sailed into the imponderable hell of war.
War necessitated radical changes. Dinner was served at 0330 AM, breakfast 0715 PM and soup and sandwiches were available at 1130 AM and 1115PM. The four-hour on eight hours off underway watches were changed to six on and six off. While submerged all day, the heads were secured. Changing life long elimination habits caused pain and suffering. Six days into the first war patrol, three enemy cruisers were sighted.
Flying white flags with blazing red balls, the warships made twenty-five knots. SARGO'S electric motors drained the batteries while she made eight knots underwater trying to intercept. The cruisers escaped. The crew was letdown. Just before dusk a small freighter worthy of one torpedo was attacked.
The Mark XIV torpedo with its new and not trusted magnetic exploder sped at forty-five knots toward the enemy. Eighteen seconds after leaving the torpedo tube, the torpedo exploded prematurely. Gremlins? The Captain, an ordinance expert, ordered the exploders deactivated. The next two salvos of torpedoes ran under enemy ships even though they were set to run shallow. The Captain ordered the torpedo depth control mechanism altered. Characters tempered the rising disappointments.
A sonar operator listened intently and reported every ten minutes, "nothing on sound." His headset wasn't plugged in. Another crewman decided to liven a dull watch. Sound powered telephones were worn by the watch in each compartment and by the Captain in the conning tower. The noise heard was one that is associated with the aftermath of eating beans. Everyone thought the 'faux pas' funny except the Captain. His disposition didn't improve when SARGO arrived at Surabaya, Java.
The Squadron Commander chewed him out for tinkering with the Bureau of Ordinances' torpedo. Tinkering with a torpedo was akin to sabotage. The SARGO off-loaded torpedoes and took on one million rounds of small arms ammunition. The Captain was certain the special mission was his punishment. The ammunition was delivered to hard pressed Filipino soldiers on Mindano. During the trip north, the Refrigeration equipment gave up. One air conditioning unit was connected to the refer to save the food supply. And the twenty-four evacuees intensified the humid conditions. Heat rash became epidemic during the trip south. A few hours north of Fremantle, Australia, SARGO was given an explosive welcome.
A lookout shouted, "Speeding aircraft approaching." Realizing the plane was on a bombing run, the plug was pulled. The weary crew lost depth control, as the first bomb exploded off the port quarter. All ballast tanks were blown. SARGO popped to the surface like a cork. The second bomb wreaked havoc.
The explosion directly over the conning tower rained glass and paint chips on the crew. Hatches and doors were warped both periscopes smashed. Electrical and hydraulic power was lost and three quarters of all light bulbs were shattered. One evacuee swore an artillery shell had pierced the forward torpedo room. The courageous crew restored power. SARGO limped into port. There a torpedo expert from the Bureau of Ordinance waited.
The Lieutenant Commander was going to solve the malfunctioning torpedo problem. He demonstrated the proper procedure to prepare a torpedo for firing. That is until SARGO'S Torpedo Officer invited his attention to the fact he had installed the torpedo gyro backwards. A mistake like that would be disastrous. The torpedo would circle and sink the firing submarine. With a red face, the expert fled. The Bureau remained adamant in blaming the crew for the malfunctioning torpedoes. SARGO'S Captain led the battle to prove the torpedo was faulty.
The Captain and crew were vindicated later when torpedoes fired under controlled conditions ran deep. And the magnetic exploder needed modification. The Captain left for duty at Bureau of Ordinance and the new Skipper got his feet wet.
Early in the third war patrol, the diving alarm sounded in the predawn darkness. The Officer of the Deck and lookouts scrambled down the hatch. The Quartermaster slammed the upper conning tower hatch. He spun the hatch-securing wheel. Mysteriously the wheel backed off. The Chief of the Boat shouted, "The conning tower hatch isn't secured." SARGO surfaced.
The conning tower hatch opened. The new Skipper with water running off his shoes came down the ladder. He had been standing aft of the periscope shears on the cigarette deck and hadn't heard the diving alarm. A few days later, SARGO was battered by a typhoon.
The eye of the storm made staying on the surface hairy. Especially for the man with acute and chronic appendicitis. Submerging to 120 feet, the water calmed allowing SARGO to slip away from the eye of the storm. During that patrol run, seven enemy merchant ships and one destroyer were sighted. Two torpedo attacks were made. One torpedo couldn't be shifted from high speed to low speed for a long-range shot. Two balky torpedoes refused to leave the tubes. Three torpedoes missed their targets and one ran in the wrong direction. The gremlins continued to perplex the crew on the fourth patrol.
SARGO'S main drain line leaked throughout the boat. It was necessary to run the drain pump constantly. Twenty-five patches had been made on the deteriorating drain line. The aging battery cells couldn't be charged to capacity. The fresh water evaporators only produced twenty percent of their normal output. The drinking water became contaminated. Barnacles covered the under water hull reducing the top speed by three knots. The first enemy encounter was a diplomatic ship. Rules of war forbid sinking her. But the next cargo type ship had three torpedoes fired at her. All were duds. One coal-black night an emergency turn prevented a collision with a sampan. The fifth patrol was more of the same and still vastly offbeat.
The Division Commander embarked to gain first hand knowledge about war patrols. A lucky horseshoe, which had been in his possession for twenty years, he hung in the control room. Not being a horse person or cavalry officer, the Commander hung the horseshoe upside down. According to folklore, all the good luck would run out. It did. On the first dive, the main engine exhaust valves leaked allowing the bilges to become full. A bucket brigade carried the excess water to other compartments. And that night the commander's mania to walk on deck while surfaced started his streak of bad luck.
A lookout that forgot to use the head before relieving the watch relieved himself. The Commander was puzzled. There wasn't a cloud in the sky nor any salt-water spray. Looking up, he exploded. Leaving the deck, he climbed down the conning tower ladder. The helmsman thought he recognized a shipmate's derriere. The Commander didn't believe a friendly goose was in order. He berated the helmsman. During another of the Commander's nocturnal walks, a sub-chaser forced SARGO to crash dive. The Commander, OOD and lookouts scrambled below. The commander swore a lookout passed him in the conning tower hatch. He did have a footprint on his baldhead. More salt was poured on his wounded dignity.
He used the head. Then he closed the flapper valve and opened the air valve to blow his waste overboard. The flapper valve gasket leaked. The Commander backed out of the head with body waste dripping from his eyebrows. The next enemy ship encounter mollified the commander and lifted the crew's spirits.
The first torpedo tore a hole in the bottom of the enemy merchant ship. A second torpedo was fired for the coup de grace. It ran deep under the ship. In spite of strict orders from the Admiral to conserve torpedoes, the Commander urged another be fired. This torpedo set to run shallow bounced off the ship's side. Another torpedo was sent on the way. Like a porpoise it was up and down and ran under. The enemy crew scrambled back aboard their listing ship. The sixth torpedo circled and exploded over SARGO'S after battery hatch frazzling nerves. The Commander decided it was time for the gun crew to prove they deserved the Gunnery E. The tension was high as the three-inch gun crew and the fifty-caliber machine gunner huddled in the conning tower. "BATTLE SURFACE." The deck gun crew waded into armpit deep water. The fifty-caliber machine gun was mounted on the cigarette deck pedestal. "COMMENCE FIRING." The first three-inch shell tore off the corner of the enemy's bridge. The fifty-caliber gunner (Bart) had to ask the Gunnery Officer to move out of his line of fire. The enemy gun crew was training their large caliber gun on SARGO when the fifty calibers started spitting bullets.
The enemy crew scattered like spooked quail as fifty caliber bullets strafed the enemy ship. Piercing her hull at the water line, thirty-four three-inch shells was the prod needed. Hissing and snapping, the enemy merchant ship disappeared under water. The first sinking elated the crew. The morale remained high, as SARGO was refit for the next patrol.
The sixth patrol, the last before returning stateside, had gremlins flustering the crew. The bow planes refused to be rigged out. Both propeller shafts squealed when SARGO was submerged. The gyrocompass broke down. But an enemy tanker off Tingmon Island gave the crew a needed lift.
The first torpedo bounced off the tanker's hull without exploding. The next two exploded under the tanker's keel breaking her back. And the spirit aboard SARGO soared Christmas Day 1942.
A broom handle and wire coat hangers made a plausible Christmas tree. Carol singing began at 0300 AM and continued for over an hour. Everybody received a Christmas gift. A traditional turkey dinner with trimmings was followed by a savory delight, strawberry shortcake. The battered submarine entered the Mare Island Naval Shipyard 31 January 1943.
During fourteen months of war, SARGO was bombed by an Aussie pilot, pummeled by depth charges and battered by a typhoon. The crew's character grew with each test. Work orders were submitted to the shipyard to eliminate the gremlins. The crew's characters had always rose to the occasion to break tension. The camaraderie formed during those imponderable and stressful months remains. SARGO'S pioneering warriors performed above and beyond the call of duty and deserve a "WELL DONE."