|The Wild Man of
by Bart Bartholomew
JUMP Murphy, quartermaster second class, leaned over the navigational chart. "Freddie' " he called me that because I reminded him of Freddie Bartholomew, the young English actor. "We're here in Manila Bay. Borneo is a few hundred miles south." He pointed with the No. 2 pencil. "It's this big island between the Makassar Strait and the South China Sea."
"Do you think we'll ever go there?" I asked.
"No, Freddie. The Asiatic Fleet goes to China or Singapore every summer. Why?"
"Have you ever heard of the Wild Man from Borneo?"
"The freak P.T. Barnum claims is half man and half ape?"
"I saw him at the circus back home. He's real."
"Freddie, let's do something really real."
Sunday, 7 December 1941, was tropical hot. The cold San Miguel beer quenched my thirst in a downtown Manila Bar. The strong beer made me happy. I forget war humors. My Monday morning hangover however I deserved. The war was unreal.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor battered my mind and body. Under the blazing sun, I helped off load practice torpedoes. Torpedoes ready for war carried 550 pounds of explosives. These filled both torpedo rooms. Stores, fresh water and fuel flowed into storerooms and tanks. That night the black tropical sky blanketed SARGO like a coat of paint. Corregidor faded astern. Cut off from the world, SARGO dove in the South China Sea.
The oldest man in the crew was too young to have experienced war. As one of the youngest crew members, I struggled to contain my fears of dying. Peacetime routines, like socks with holes, ended in the trash. The changes altered lifetime habits. My habits resisted.
While submerged, body waste and the air used to expel it overboard would pinpoint SARGO'S position. With the heads secured, stomach cramps and bladder ache created misery on all day dives. Meals served at night on the surface replaced daytime eating. The Kleinschmidt evaporator made enough fresh water for the batteries and cooking. Condensation from the air conditioner caught in buckets became bathing water. A sink of condensation to freshen a sweaty body was ridiculous. The nearest laundry was on the USS HOLLAND (AS7) someplace in the Pacific. Unwashed clothes gave off a peculiar odor. Inhaling stale air while submerged fifteen hours made me listless. The lack of privacy, fresh water and air to my misery. Terror stricken by the unknown, I struggled to adapt.
My 3x3x6 foot bunk space became my refuge. Sleeping on top the slick bunk cover, the clothes I never removed became soaked in sweat. Sleeping on top the dingy sheet made the mattress soggy. Six hours on watch and six hours off left little time for reading. Submerged I felt safe but trapped. I looked forward to the dangerous surfacing.
In the cramped conning tower, I waited. The quartermaster cracked the hatch. The escaping air hissed. The Captain hurried to the bridge. I inhaled the sweet but smelly fresh air. "Lookouts to the bridge;' he ordered.
As I raced to the starboard lookout station, the eerie darkness scared me. Surrounded by the sea and black sky, I felt unprotected. After an eye straining lookout watch, I returned to my bunk.
Heat rash covered my body. No news from outside SARGO and the danger I faced prevented sound sleep. Napping became the norm. Focusing my thoughts on the Rockefeller Center Rockettes helped.
I had fallen in love with all the shapely dancers between trains in New York City. When my thoughts returned to war, I concentrated on a mental image of the wild man from Borneo. Was he conceived by a man and ape? Or was it an ape and woman? Or was it a myth? I believe he was real, like the war.
Supposedly, war meant action, not days of monotonous watches, meals and sleep. "OOOGAH . . . OOOGAH." My head hit the springs of the bunk above. Startled it took seconds to remember the war. I landed on the after battery deck as it tilted down. Dashing through the mess hall, I entered the control room and relieved the man on the bow planes.
I heard the Captain in the conning tower. "There are 3 Japanese cruisers. Full speed ahead." My pulse raced. I hadn't bargained for this type of action. I tried to recall if cruisers carried depth charges.
"How long will our battery last at full speed?" the Captain asked.
"About an hour," the diving officer replied.
"The cruisers are making 21 knots. we'll never catch them," the Captain said. "Secure from battle station." A fairy tale popped into my mind. SARGO was the tortoise making 8 knots. The enemy was the hare making 21 knots. After getting relieved, I returned to my bunk. Just before surfacing that evening, battle stations, submerged, sounded.
I wondered if the cruisers returned? I took control of the bow planes.
"The target is a 4000-ton merchant ship. Make No. 5 torpedo tube ready for a stern shot," drifted down from the conning tower. The merchant ship, like a pheasant on opening day, thrilled me; Captain Jacobs had a perfect peacetime torpedo firing record. This will be the first victory of many, I hoped.
SARGO shuddered. The 45-knot torpedo left the tube. The 600-pound torpedo impulse air vented inboard made me work my jaws. My ears popped. "Torpedo is running hot, straight and normal the sound operator sang out.
Just how I remembered peacetime torpedo firings. The explosion rattled SARGO'S hull. "We sunk her," someone shouted.
The periscope motor whirled. "She’s turning ... she's not sinking," the Captain exclaimed. "The torpedo exploded prematurely," he added.
Salt water leaked into the attack periscope, making viewing murky, like my mind. I blanked out the coming holidays, my third Christmas away from home. At 12:38 p.m. on 24 December, battle stations, submerged, lifted my gloom. An early Christmas present, I thought.
Three torpedoes from the forward torpedo room sped toward the enemy cargo ships. Running hot, straight and normal, they passed underneath. Two additional torpedoes set to run at 10 feet instead of 15 swished out of the after torpedo room tubes. They bounced off the enemy ship's hull.
The Captain blamed the new and untested magnetic exploders. After disconnecting them, the torpedomen adjusted the torpedo depth controls because all torpedoes ran deep.
Christmas Eve an enemy destroyer sped out of Comranh Bay. My stomach knotted. SARGO prepared to attack. The destroyer dropped two depth charges a mile away and fled. The next day a traditional turkey dinner nourished my weary body. My muddled mind tried to ignore mess deck scuttlebutt which took the place of news until a paper was born.
Bill Wolfe, radioman second class, started The Daily Torpedo. Humorous articles by crew members offset discouraging war news. A midnight crash dive on 27 December bolted me out of my bunk.
"Ping ... ping" pierced the hull. Two enemy destroyers were searching. SARGO prepared to attack. The destroyers passed out of range. Disappointed on one hand, my fears lightened.
The primary purpose of a destroyer was sinking submarines. The image of U.S. destroyers sinking a U-boat entered my thoughts. At 1642 that day SARGO attacked two small ships steaming together.
Two altered torpedoes sped toward the enemy. They ran hot, straight and normal but deep. An hour later another cargo ship came over the horizon.
It was 1806. To be sure, the firing setup was correct, the Captain raised the periscope thirty-seven times during the next 57 minutes. The many estimated courses, speeds and angles on the bow cranked into the computer formed a perfect firing solution. Two torpedoes set to run at 10 feet sped toward the unescorted ship. Both ran deep under the middle of the target. My spirits sank during the next four days of pouring rain and heavy seas.
On New Year's Day the Exec said, "Congratulations, Bartholomew .. you're a gunner's mate third class." Being a petty officer lifted my gloom.
A small loaded tanker crossed SARGO'S path on 4 January. At 1838 a torpedo sped toward the tanker. The torpedo bounced off the side. The tanker turned belching a cloud of dark smoke from her stack. She disappeared into intense rain clouds. After eight attacks and firing thirteen malfunctioning torpedoes, SARGO received orders to port.
On 10 January 19,42, SARGO entered the narrow and shallow Palawan Passage. The closeness of land on both sides made it dangerous. Dark tropical nights on lookout strained my eyes. Every shadow or rubbish in the water became an enemy ship. None turned into targets. Two days later, SARGO entered the shallow and narrow Sibutu Pass. On the surface SARGO raced toward the wide and deep Makassar Strait. Our destination, Balikpapan, Borneo, elated me.
Borneo has oil, jungles and the wild man. Early morning on 16 January as a member of the anchor detail, I felt happy and safe. SARGO slowly steamed in a circle waiting for the pilot. Thirty minutes later, a tug boat flying the port pilot's flag raced towards SARGO. The tug's blinking signal light meant a message. As a quartermaster striker for a few months in 1940, I learned to read the Morse Code.
"You are over a mine field." My heart stuck in my throat. SARGO inched out of the mine field not shown on the navigational chart. The pilot came aboard. He safely took SARGO into Balikpapan.
The harbor, surrounded by a green, dense jungle, sheltered SARGO. Oil and fresh water came aboard. The short in port stay prevented any of the crew going ashore. Disappointed, I took my turn that afternoon showering. Refreshed, I picked through my dirty clothes picking out the cleanest of the dirty., When I returned topside, it was pitch black.
Birds screeched. Strange sounds emitted from the eerie jungle. When my eyes adjusted to the dank night, I crossed the rickety gang plank. Armed Dutch sentries walked back and forth. I approached a soldier sitting on a barrel. I offered him a Lucky Strike.
"Thanks sailor . . . how's hunting?"
"Plenty of targets," I replied.
"You're lucky. There's a thousand of us to defend the oil refinery .. want to swap?"
I laughed. "Have you ever heard about the wild man from Borneo?"
"You mean the freak with the circus?"
"Yes. P.T. Barnum claims he's half ape and half man."
The soldier laughed. "The freak is not from this Borneo. The only wild man here is my Sergeant on payday."