THE SKIPPER'S WETTING DOWN
“AHOOGAH ... AHOOGAH.” USS SARGO (SS]188) hit bottom in Manila Bay. At 1503 December 8,1941 with the Conning Tower exposed the Skipper asked, "Was it an airplane?'
One lookout answered, “I think a P-40.” Another said, “A ZERO FIGHTER." A periscope look showed nothing in or around the powder-puff clouds. One week later in the South China Sea the untested in war submarine and crew slammed into a wall of disbelief.
An enemy ship not worthy of more than one torpedo followed a steady course. The Mark XIV steam driven torpedo left the stern tube like a race horse leaving the gate. The forty-five knot torpedo sped toward the enemy. The loud explosion elicited cheers.
“The enemy is bellowing black smoke and running away undamaged,” the dumbfounded Skipper said pulling his eye away from the raised periscope. The first war shot exploded on arming. A week without showers and the dud turned all hands into skeptics. The next eleven torpedoes strayed. The thirteenth torpedo circled at high speed as SARGO plunged toward test depth. Exploding over the After Battery the 500 pounds of explosive lifted the After Battery deck hatch.
Happy being ordered to Australia, the crew expected liberty at Balikpapan, Borneo, a fuel stop. No beer, no liberty, no laundry raised disbelief but showers raised spirits. A failed attempt to rescue the crew of the S-36, an WWI submarine, aground in Makascir Strait added to let down feelings. And arriving at Surabaya, Java the Commodore gnashing the Skipper's derriere wasn't a morale lifter.
The Skipper, an Ordnance Expert, had rudder controls on torpedoes changed and disconnected the magnetic exploder device trying to make torpedoes run hot, straight and normal. Like all his prewar torpedoes ran under the middle of the targets. In peacetime the Bureau of Ordnance demanded court-martials for tinkering with their perfect weapon, the torpedo. Now the Commodore assigned SARGO a different mission.
Removing torpedoes made room for 600 cases of small arm's ammunition. Numerous causalities plagued SARGO on her first war patrol and now the freezer motor burned out adding to the long list of breakdowns. Putting one air conditioner out of commission to fix the freezer skyrocketed the inside temperature. After delivering the ammunition to besieged US Army troops in the Philippines, twenty-five evacuees reported aboard.
Oppressive tropic heat, sweating bodies, diesel and battery odors and lack of oxygen made all hands sluggish during fifteen hour dives. Hot bunking soaked bedding and made the trip south miserable.
South of Lombac Strait in the Indian Ocean hatches opened. The roaring diesels sucked fresh air into the boat. A few miles north of Fremantle, Western Australia, SARGO flew recognition signals. No friendly ships or airplanes allowed in the area they traveled making the crew feel safe in the half mile wide bombing restricted strip in the Indian Ocean. A spot in the sky dead ahead grew into an airplane. SARGO'S search light flashed the recognition code for the day. The pilot of the speeding airplane blinded by 'Sighted Sub Sank Same,' opened his bomb bay.
"AHOOGAH ... AHOOGAH." Lookouts jumped to the bridge and tumbled below. The Chief on watch opened the main ballast tank vents. One lookout rigged out the bow planes as another put the maximum dive on the stern planes. The passengers not used to crash dives slide across compartments.
Engineers in the Forward Engine Room shut down the diesels and closed the outboard exhausts. Electricians in the Maneuvering Room worked controls shifting from diesel-electric power to battery-electric power. Silence filled compartments while the OOD pulled shut the upper Conning Tower Hatch. The Auxiliary man bled air into the submarine.
"GREEN BOARD PRESSURE IN THE BOAT,” the Chief shouted.
Seconds later the bow plane operator said, “Passing fifty feet Sir.”
An ear splitting violent burst shook the hull like an earthquake. Light bulbs burst. Losing electric and hydraulic power, SARGO plunged out of control.
“BLOW ALL BALLAST TANKS,” slowed the decent as muscle power moved the bow and stern planes to full rise. SARGO abruptly surfaced.
The bomber finished its turn and sped toward the wounded submarine. A second bomb created havoc.
The periscope prism, clock's and gage's faces shattered. In the blackness shards of glass mixed with paint chips and cork blanketed the crew. Porcelain toilet bowls crumbled. Hull fitting spurted salt water as the dazed crew struggled to keep SARGO from being crushed in deep water. The stouthearted crew gained control, using practiced emergency routines saved SARGO. After restoring power and lighting, SARGO limped into Fremantle Harbor and moored to Ma HOLLAND, her tender.
Her Repair Party boarded SARGO. Working with the crew they assessed damage and started repairs. At “Liberty call" the crew rushed to Pubs in Fremantle and Perth. Low priced Scotch Whiskey, tasty strong Swan beer and Goddesses who treated sailors like heroes soothed jittery nerves and recouped the crew's faith during the five week repair period.
Aided by Holland's Repair Crew and her support shops, the crew made SARGO seaworthy. SARGO'S second War time Skipper took command. On June 8,1942 at 0800, SARGO backed away from Ma HOLLAND and steamed to the training area. The Skipper exercised the veteran crew in routine and emergency drills. With skills gained in peacetime and wartime, they performed flawlessly. Satisfied that he knew and accepted the established routines, the Skipper turned SARGO north toward the war zone.
The mirror like surface of the Indian Ocean turned choppy that evening. The mid-watch messenger called the morning watch. Drinking black coffee and smoking cleared sleep from the oncoming watch's minds. Entering the Control Room, a lookout opened the Night Order Book.
"Be alert for periscopes and enemy planes. Make a trim dive half hour before sunrise."
A velvet like carpet with blinking stars overhead reminded lookouts of peacetime cruising. As stars disappeared, except the morning ones, the blackness before dawn blanketed SARGO like a fresh coat of peacetime paint.
"AHOOGAH ... AHOOGAH," jumped started lookouts. Tumbling below, they manned their submerged cruising stations. The OOD, always last to leave the Bridge , closed the upper Conning Tower Hatch. The Quartermaster dogged the hatch. Letting go he saw the closing control wheel move. He grabbed it and with a jerk satisfied he had the hatch dogged tight. The hand wheel moved again.
"THE DAMN HATCH WON'T STAY DOGGED,' the Quartermaster shouted.
The Executive Officer leaning over the Conning Tower chart desk jumped toward the hatch. Stepping on the second ladder rung, he grabbed the slowly moving hatch closing wheel. Then his hand shot to the surfacing alarm. “AHOOGAH..AHOOGAH..AHOOGAH," echoed in every compartment. Slowly SARGO turned upwards. The upper Conning Tower Hatch opened. A pair of dripping shoes landed on the top ladder rung. Wet to the crouch khaki pants came down the ladder one rung at a time. The grim faced Captain went below.
“QUARTERMASTER did you know the Captain was on the Bridge?” The Executive Officer demanded.
"Helmsman did you see the Captain go to the Bridge?" He shook his head.
The Exec dropped to the Control Room and turned to the OOD. “Did you know the Captain was on the Bridge?”
"No SIR. He didn't request permission."
The Exec disappeared into the Forward Battery. That evening the Captain entered the Control Room. “Chief, I'm going to the Bridge.”
“Aye aye Sir.”
In the Conning Tower the Captain spoke again, “Quartermaster I'm going topside.”
"Aye aye Sir."
The Captain stepped to the ladder leading to the Bridge. "This is the Captain... permission to come to the Bridge."