The War Below: The Story of Three Submarines That Battled Japanby James Scott
“Beautifully researched and masterfully told” (Alex Kershaw, New York Times bestselling author of Escape from the Deep), this is the riveting story of the heroic and tragic US submarine force that helped win World War II in the Pacific.
Focusing on the unique stories of three of the war’s top submarines—Silversides,/i>/i>
“Beautifully researched and masterfully told” (Alex Kershaw, New York Times bestselling author of Escape from the Deep), this is the riveting story of the heroic and tragic US submarine force that helped win World War II in the Pacific.
Focusing on the unique stories of three of the war’s top submarines—Silversides, Drum, and Tang—The War Below vividly re-creates the camaraderie, exhilaration, and fear of the brave volunteers who took the fight to the enemy’s coastline in World War II. Award-winning journalist James Scott recounts incredible feats of courage—from an emergency appendectomy performed with kitchen utensils to sailors’ desperate struggle to escape from a flooded submarine—as well as moments of unimaginable tragedy, including an attack on an unmarked enemy freighter carrying 1,800 American prisoners of war.
The casualty rate among submariners topped that of all other military branches. The war claimed almost one out of every five submarines, and a submarine crewman was six times more likely to die than a sailor onboard a surface ship. But this valorous service accomplished its mission; Silversides, Drum, and Tang sank a combined sixty-two freighters, tankers, and transports. The Japanese were so ravaged from the loss of precious supplies that by the war’s end, pilots resorted to suicidal kamikaze missions and hungry civilians ate sawdust while warships had to drop anchor due to lack of fuel. In retaliation, the Japanese often beat, tortured, and starved captured submariners in the atrocious prisoner of war camps.
Based on more than 100 interviews with submarine veterans and thousands of pages of previously unpublished letters and diaries, The War Below lets readers experience the battle for the Pacific as never before.
“Beautifully researched and masterfully told, James Scott’s book is an enthralling and important addition to the story of undersea warfare.”
“Meticulously researched and vividly written, Scott transports us convincingly to the wardroom of the Silversides, the bridge of the Tang, the torpedo room of the Drum. If you want to know what it was like to fight in a U.S. submarine during World War II, this is your book.”
“James Scott brilliantly captures the intensity of submarine combat with his pulse-racing narrative about three famous boats of the Pacific Fleet. You’ll need a towel to wipe the perspiration from your brow.”
“James Scott has crafted a superb tale about a group of young Americans who went unflinchingly to war with the odds very much against them—a tale that won't (and shouldn't) be forgotten.”
“The War Below is a cut above. . . . This fast-paced book will be a welcomed addition to the personal libraries of even the most well-read students of submarine warfare.”
“In the seven decades since WW II, U.S. Navy submarines’ primary mission has been passive, as a nuclear deterrent. But within living memory ‘the silent service’ waged a genuine war against a formidable enemy in the world’s greatest ocean. The War Below provides an intensely personal look inside the pressure hulls of three Pacific Fleet submarines that established historic records against the Japanese Empire. The epic war patrols of USS Silversides, Drum, and Tang provide gripping reading and serve as a memorial to the lost boats and crews ‘still on patrol.’”
“Scott places the reader inside the boats for an understanding of the humor, the self-control, the ingenuity, the tenacity and self-sacrifice of submarine sailors at war. . . . The world of vignettes that he sprinkles throughout The War Below makes his book hard to put down, it’s a gripping tale that spans half the globe.”
“Gripping. . . . Readers may find it difficult to resist the tension, drama and fireworks of this underappreciated but dazzlingly destructive American weapon of WWII.”
- Simon & Schuster
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Read an Excerpt
The War Below
“No one knows how long this will last, but long enough to make everyone very tired of it.”
—Slade Cutter, February 9, 1942, letter
Lieutenant Commander Creed Cardwell Burlingame paced the bridge of the USS Silversides as it departed the submarine base at Pearl Harbor at 9:51 a.m. on April 30, 1942. The thirty-seven-year-old skipper, nicknamed “Burly,” felt anxious this warm Thursday morning. The last fourteen years, ten months, and twenty-eight days of his career had led to this moment. A Kentucky native with a thirst for bourbon, Burlingame had served on six submarines, the last three as the skipper. He had run countless drills, ordered crash dives, and fired practice torpedoes on maneuvers in waters from Connecticut to China. He had even survived a collision with a destroyer in an exercise off Corregidor that had sheared off the top of his periscope barrel, the jagged remnant now an ashtray in which he tapped out the burnt tobacco from his corncob pipe. But today was different. Much different.
Today he went to war.
The Silversides buzzed with anticipation. Lookouts perched atop the periscope shears, scanning the horizon with binoculars. Down in the maneuvering room, sailors tugged levers to control the submarine’s various speeds. Cooks in the galley and stewards in the wardroom brewed coffee by the gallon for the seventy officers and crewmembers. More than 3,500 miles of open ocean stood between Burlingame and his destination—the empire of Japan. Armed with twenty-four torpedoes and enough frozen meat, canned vegetables, and coffee to last three months, Silversides would take almost two weeks to cover that distance at an average speed of thirteen knots or about fifteen miles per hour. Burlingame planned to use that time to drill his men: a deep dive for trim and tightness, daily surprise dives, and a battle surface drill to test the gun crew. The skipper knew every action mattered.
Newspaper headlines captured America’s new reality 144 days into the war. The Army belatedly ordered coastal homes, businesses, and high-rises from Maine to Miami to kill nighttime lights that silhouetted offshore supply ships, easy prey for enemy submarines. Two days earlier, the garish billboards and marquees around Times Square advertising such films as Rita Hayworth’s My Gal Sal, and a rerelease of Charlie Chaplin’s famous The Gold Rush went dark for the first time since a 1917 coal shortage. Draft registration and volunteering now soared—more than 1,000 people a minute enrolled at one point—as millions queued up outside fire stations, post offices, and schools. The press predicted that some canned goods, coffee, and gasoline would soon be rationed as the war’s price tag swelled to a staggering $100 million a day, a figure President Franklin Roosevelt estimated that week in a fireside radio chat would double by year’s end.
The wreckage of Japan’s December 7 surprise attack still littered the cool waters of Pearl Harbor. The burned-out battleship Arizona rested on the muddy bottom with 1,100 sailors entombed inside. The Hawaiian sun reflected off the rusty keels of the capsized battleship Oklahoma and former battleship-turned-target-ship Utah, Burlingame’s first ship after he graduated from the Naval Academy. Thousands of divers, welders, and engineers now risked poisonous gas and unexploded ordnance to untangle the destruction. Grim reminders of the tragedy still surfaced. Workers salvaged thousands of waterlogged and rust-stained Christmas cards from one vessel, while marked-out dates on a calendar discovered in a storeroom of the sunken battleship West Virginia revealed that three men had survived until December 23 before oxygen ran out.
Japan steamrolled across Asia and the Pacific as America struggled to rebound. The opening lines of Burlingame’s secret orders read like a depressing scorecard with the United States and its Allies the clear loser: “Japanese forces now control the Philippines, French Indo China, Malaya, part of Burma, Dutch East Indies, part of New Guinea, New Britain, Guam and Wake, in addition to former Japanese territory.” But the enemy had made what would prove a fatal misstep in its infamous attack on Pearl Harbor. The bombers and fighters that Sunday morning, in the chaotic fury to destroy America’s battlewagons, had failed to target the submarine base, a compound that housed 2,500 officers and crew along with a torpedo plant, machine shops, and repair installations to service the twenty-two Hawaii-based boats, as the subs were often called by those in the service. Likewise, nearby surface tanks filled with 4.5 million barrels of precious fuel oil had miraculously escaped destruction, more than enough fuel to power Silversides and the other submarines that now set off for the empire’s waters.
Burlingame’s mission demanded that he not only target Japan’s aircraft carriers, battleships, and cruisers, but that he also hunt down and destroy all tankers, freighters, and transports that made up the enemy’s merchant fleet. The submarine war that American strategists envisioned boiled down to simple economics. Japan’s merchant ships—many now under the control of its army and navy—served as the lifeblood of an empire that stretched across more than twenty million square miles and seven time zones. Merchant ships not only hauled the precious oil, iron ore, and rubber that fed the nation’s ravenous war machine but also the soybeans, beef, and sugar that nourished the Japanese people. The outbreak of war had only increased those demands. Merchant ships and transports now ferried troops to the far reaches of the empire along with the bullets, toilet paper, and tooth powder needed to sustain them. If American submarines could destroy Japan’s merchant fleet, strategists theorized, the island nation that so hungered for raw materials would starve.
The success of this strategy depended on skippers like Burlingame, a man who on first inspection did not appear the most formidable figure. The son of a receiver for the Jefferson County Circuit Court, he stood barely five-feet, eight-inches tall and topped out in college at just 156 pounds. But Burlingame’s short stature disguised a rugged toughness that came with being the oldest—and smallest—of three boys in a home dominated by a stern father who ruled with his hand in the wake of his wife’s death in October 1917. The survival instinct and dogged perseverance he honed as the family’s “runt” would prove to be a vital trait, one the future skipper needed just to get into the Navy.
The Naval Academy rejected Burlingame in 1922 after his 83.9 percent grade point average from Louisville Male High School fell short of the 85 percent required. Rather than give up, Burlingame applied again, appointed by home state Republican senator Richard Ernst. He took classes at the University of Louisville that fall and crammed for several months with a tutor before he sat for the academy’s entrance exam on February 7, 1923—and passed. Burlingame’s struggle to become a sailor continued after he arrived at Annapolis. This time the issue wasn’t grades, but vision after a routine physical his senior year found him colorblind, a critical deficiency in a job that required him to read flags and signals. The Navy debated whether to bounce him from the service or send him into the Supply Corps.
Burlingame again rose to battle, petitioning for a retest, which was granted. The Navy issued its report three days later. “Upon examination,” concluded the report, “it is considered that this man has sufficiently acute color perception to warrant his retention in the service.”
Despite his mediocre academics—he graduated 243 out of 580—Burlingame would prove a gifted leader. His dislike of the Navy’s rigidity made him a natural fit for submarines where starched uniforms gave way at sea to shorts, T-shirts, and sandals. Burlingame spurned the traditional class system that divided officers and enlisted men, preferring his coffee to come from the crew’s mess and inviting young sailors to his cabin to share concerns. The only formality required was that enlisted men call officers “Mister.” Otherwise Burlingame preached that every sailor, from the skipper down to the galley potato peeler, be treated the same. “You are not going to start pulling rank,” he once commented. “You have to live with him. You can’t mistreat him, because he might be the guy that turns the right nut or bolt—or whatever it is—that saves the ship.” Burlingame’s sense of fair play earned him fierce loyalty from his crew, as evidenced by the observation of one of his pharmacist’s mates: “There were people on that vessel who would have cut their arm off for that old boy.”
But Burlingame wasn’t without his quirks and flaws. He shared a prejudice common among his generation toward blacks and Jews, though he never discriminated on board ship. A healthy dose of superstition would prompt the skipper and his crew to install a miniature Buddha statue in the Silversides’ conning tower and in each torpedo room. A rub of the belly, he boasted, promised good luck during depth charge attacks or when firing torpedoes. Burlingame’s greatest weakness was his taste for booze, which on one occasion prompted him to down a bottle of Chanel #5 perfume that he mistook for jitter juice; he joked afterward that he had a hard time keeping the boys at bay. But the skipper never touched liquor at sea other than the so-called medicinal alcohol the Navy provided to calm the nerves after depth charge attacks. To satisfy his craving, Burlingame instead nibbled chocolate. He likewise demanded his men forgo alcohol on board. “I drink more than any of you on this ship,” Burlingame lectured at the start of each patrol. “When I put to sea, I don’t drink and when I put to sea with you, you don’t drink.”
Years of hard living had marked the skipper with deep lines etched on his forehead, crow’s-feet stamped around his blue eyes, and the gray that peppered the beard he often grew at sea. He looked a decade older than his actual age. Though he had often won past battles, Burlingame privately doubted he would survive the war, a pessimism shared by many and reflected in a letter Lieutenant j.g. Robert Worthington wrote to his mother before departure. “Lord knows when we’ll see each other again,” the Silversides’ gunnery officer wrote. “Maybe never.”
The Navy Burlingame had fought so hard to join expected him to pursue the enemy with ruthless determination. “Press home all attacks. Do not be shaken off,” his orders demanded. “Make sure that torpedoed vessel sinks.” Burlingame and other American submarine skippers over the course of the war would battle enemy destroyers armed with deck guns and depth charges, dodge aerial bomb attacks from the skies, and navigate waters filled with mines. These dangers coupled with torpedo malfunctions, groundings, and operational mishaps would ultimately claim one out of every five American submarines. But Burlingame’s anger at the Japanese—and a desire to exact revenge—overshadowed thoughts of his own death. His anger was common among many servicemen in the wake of Pearl Harbor. “We hate those yellow rats something fierce,” one of Burlingame’s colleagues wrote in a letter to his mother four days after the attack. “They will pay plenty.”
Burlingame planned to make sure.
• • •
The weapon Burlingame skippered through the waves off Pearl Harbor represented decades of evolution in submarine policy and construction. German U-boats surrendered after the Great War had revealed the serious weakness in American submarine designs. The U-boats boasted superb diesel engines that gave them greater cruising ranges along with double hulls that could better withstand depth charges. The German boats sported superior ventilation systems, air compressors, gyroscopes, and enhanced periscope optics and narrow penciled tops that cut down on wakes and made the subs difficult for lookouts to spot. More important to combat submarines, U-boats could dive in just thirty seconds, much faster than American subs and critical for escape.
Engineers wrestled with how to overcome the inferiority of American submarine design against the backdrop of numerous peacetime tragedies, ranging from groundings and sinkings to hydrogen explosions and chlorine gas poisonings that by 1927 had claimed the lives of 146 sailors. The loss that December of the submarine S-4 following a collision off Cape Cod galvanized public demands for improved submarine safety. The Navy developed the McCann Submarine Rescue Chamber, a device that could be lowered to a stricken boat and used to ferry sailors to the surface. But experts realized submariners could not always wait on rescue—sailors needed to learn to save themselves. The Navy developed rubber rebreathers—dubbed the Momsen lung after its inventor, Charles Momsen—and constructed escape towers at the submarine school in Connecticut and the Pearl Harbor sub base. Filled with 280,000 gallons of water—and with mermaids painted on the walls—the towers allowed submariners to practice escape from a stricken submarine at depths of eighteen, fifty, and 100 feet of water, a skill that would prove crucial for a few fortunate sailors during the war with Japan.
This safety push coincided with a debate over the strategic role of submarines that would further influence design. Veterans challenged the traditional view that submarines operated best as coastal defenders or as part of larger fleet operations. Relegating submarines to defense failed to maximize the weapon’s stealth offensive potential. What other vessel could penetrate enemy harbors and sink ships? Geographic and strategic realities factored into the debate as Americans saw the rise of Japan as a military power and the potential for conflict in the far Pacific. To take the fight to foreign shores, submarines had to be self-sufficient, capable of cruising up to 12,000 miles, and must carry enough food, fuel, and torpedoes to patrol for ninety days. Longer missions demanded better quarters, ventilation, and air-conditioning to keep crews rested and efficient. Through this debate modern fleet boats, like the Silversides, were born.
Silversides represented the latest in American submarine technology. Workers at Mare Island Navy Yard near San Francisco had laid the keel of the $6 million Gato class submarine on November 4, 1940. Shipfitters, welders, and electricians labored under the warm California sun for the next 473 days. Eight watertight compartments ran from bow to stern, encapsulated inside a steel hull that could withstand the pressure of depths up to 300 feet, though skippers knew in a pinch the boats could go deeper. More than a dozen fuel and ballast tanks hugged the outside of the pressure hull protected by a second steel skin. A conning tower perched atop with a hatch that led to an exterior bridge, deck, and mounted guns. Once completed, Silversides stretched 312 feet—almost the length of a football field—but only twenty-seven feet wide.
Each compartment played a vital role, beginning at the bow with the forward torpedo room. Six bronze torpedo tubes lined the forward bulkhead while racks along either side held up to eight spares, cinched down with straps of braided steel cable wrapped in leather. Two additional spares were stored beneath the deck plates. A rear watertight door led to officers’ country, which housed the wardroom, several staterooms, and the chief petty officer’s quarters. Even the skipper’s cabin proved just large enough for a single bed, fold-down desk, and sink. Next came the control room, the brain of the submarine’s central nervous system. Crewmen there operated the pumps and planes to dive and maneuver the boat underwater, plotted the ship’s course on the chart table, and decoded top secret messages in the radio room. A ladder in the control room’s center led to the conning tower above. The cramped compartment served as Burlingame’s battle station and housed the radar and sonar displays, periscopes, and the torpedo data computer used by the fire control party to make attacks.
The next compartment contained the crew galley and mess, where as many as twenty-four men dined family-style around four green rectangular tables bolted to the deck to weather rough seas. A mess room door opened into the crew’s berth that offered precious shut-eye for up to three dozen sailors while the bulkheads held shoebox-sized lockers for men to stash wallets, toothbrushes, and packs of cigarettes. Sailors laid out uniforms under their mattresses, which doubled not just as storage but also as a way to keep them pressed. The crew’s head and showers were wedged in the rear of the compartment near the door that led to the first of the submarine’s two engine rooms. Following the engine rooms came the maneuvering room, where sailors regulated the submarine’s power and speed while the stern housed the after torpedo room with four additional tubes along with racks loaded with up to four spares.
The heart of the submarine’s propulsion system was four Fairbanks Morse diesel engines that each produced 1,600 horsepower to drive the generators and power the motors. Two bronze screws that spun in opposite directions propelled Silversides on the surface at a maximum surface speed of 20.25 knots or about twenty-three miles per hour. When the klaxon sounded and the submarine dove, enginemen shut down the diesels and switched to battery power. Two battery wells—one located under officers’ country, the other beneath the crew’s space—each held 126 cells. Silversides could submerge for up to forty-eight hours at a two-knot crawl before it needed to surface, fire up the engines, and recharge its batteries, an operation skippers preferred to perform at night under the cover of darkness. If the submarine ran at its maximum submerged speed of 8.75 knots, the batteries would die in just an hour.
Despite the advanced technology, submarines remained a dangerous workplace. Sailors not only risked dying in depth charge and aerial bomb attacks, but also faced threats of injury and death from accidents. World War II would see more than 1,200 such injuries as submariners suffered electrical burns, broke ribs clearing the bridge, and shattered teeth when tossed about topside. One sailor hit so hard that two broken teeth lodged in the roof of his mouth. Accidents would claim the lives of another sixty-two men. One such tragedy occurred when a rogue wave struck Tullibee, hurling a lookout against the platform railing with such force that he died less than eighteen hours later from massive internal injuries. An accidental discharge during an inspection of Blueback’s twin .50 caliber machine gun ripped two holes through the gunnery officer’s chest. Every torpedoman’s worst fear played out on Pollack when a reload skid slipped, crushing a sailor’s head between two 3,000-pound torpedoes. Seventeen submariners would drown throughout the war. Typhoons and hurricanes washed some overboard while others vanished when a submarine dove or battle-surfaced. Many of those lost were performing repair work topside when unexpected rough seas hit.
Beyond the dangers, submarine life proved austere. Men lived on top of one another in bunks stacked three high and just eighteen inches apart. Others slept on cots tucked between the one-and-a-half-ton torpedoes. Sailors jokingly labeled the two bunks that dangled side by side from the forward torpedo room overhead the “bridal suite,” the close quarters usually occupied by the submarine’s black, Filipino, or Guamanian mess attendants. The ship’s desalination plant purified 1,500 gallons of seawater a day, but much of that fed the batteries and the galley. Sailors often bathed with condensation collected from the ship’s air-conditioning system, though showers rarely consisted of little more than a wipe-down with a wet washcloth or a refreshing rainsquall while on lookout. A bucket of soapy water served as the ship’s washing machine while men draped clothes atop the engines to dry. Off-duty sailors played games of Acey Deucey and cribbage, checked out paperback detective novels from the ship’s library, or listened to phonograph records of Bing Crosby, Glenn Miller, and Billie Holiday.
Meals proved the highlight of the day and like everything else had to be designed around tight space and mission longevity. Fresh fruits and vegetables vanished within a few weeks, forcing cooks to resort to canned and frozen foods. Silversides boasted a freezer beneath the crew’s mess—accessible by hatch in the deck and a small ladder—that kept hams, turkeys, and chicken at an icy fifteen degrees while a neighboring forty-degree refrigerator allowed cooks to store fruits, vegetables, and thaw meats. The rest of the boat served as a makeshift pantry. Men stashed crates of potatoes, cabbages, and carrots in the cool space beneath the deck in the forward torpedo room while others lined cans of sugar, flour, and coffee along the narrow path that ran between the engines and bulkhead. A plank laid across the cans allowed engineers to walk atop if needed. Sailors crammed food in unused double hatches, the escape chamber, and even filled one of the ship’s two showers with canned milk.
The Navy depended on such creativity. Rather than clutter the galley with cumbersome bottles of soda, the Silversides carried 100 gallons of Coca-Cola syrup that could be mixed with fresh water and carbonated with miniature CO2 canisters. The same rationale applied to frozen meats; only boneless was allowed. Cooks knew cabbage remained fresh longer than other vegetables while preserved fruits helped spark appetites, improve hydration, and battle constipation. Veterans learned to mix powdered milk with creamy Avoset to make the drink more palatable. The real pros even left a few eggshells out on the galley counters when serving powdered eggs—a subliminal message designed to trick the crew. When weevils invariably infested a boat’s flour, some bakers removed them with a sifter. The craftier ones would simply toss in caraway seeds to disguise the bugs and bake rye bread.
• • •
Burlingame’s cramped and well-engineered submarine closed to within 600 miles of the Japanese coast on the morning of May 10. Other than a three-hour-and-ten-minute stop at Midway—long enough to unload a chronically seasick sailor and top off with 14,000 gallons of diesel—the voyage had proved uneventful, giving the skipper time to hone his men for war. He ordered two officers on watch at all times, alternating between the periscope and diving controls when submerged. On the surface, Burlingame demanded one officer stationed forward, the other aft, while on days he patrolled submerged he planned to dive about an hour before dawn and surface again just after sunset. The pharmacist’s mate passed out vitamins and fired up the sun lamp for sailors who seldom ventured topside. Cooks set a mealtime schedule of 7:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., and 7:30 p.m.—with an open icebox policy that allowed the hungry to snack.
The skipper had yet to fire a single torpedo at the enemy but already had suffered his share of wartime tragedy. Burlingame’s youngest brother, Paul—his junior by almost four years—had opted to follow his brother into the military, though he chose the Army over the Navy, enrolling at the United States Military Academy at West Point. With chiseled features and curly dark hair, the junior sibling—known as “B’Game” to his friends—was a gifted basketball and football player, his gridiron success often highlighted in the New York Times. Even after he graduated and earned his wings, the married father of two young girls returned each fall to his alma mater to help coach his beloved leatherheads.
At 8:15 a.m. on the sunny morning of June 17, 1940, Lieutenant Burlingame lifted off from New York’s Mitchel Field in his B-18 bomber on a training mission to teach reserve pilots to fly in formation. Half an hour later, Burlingame’s twin-engine bomber and three others roared over Queens at about 2,500 feet in a diamond formation. On the ground below, children played in yards behind white picket fences as fathers hustled out the door to work. The thirty-one-year-old Burlingame, who served as the mission’s flight leader, radioed the other pilots to rotate positions. His bomber suddenly collided and locked wings with another. Both planes spiraled down to the crowded Bellerose neighborhood below. One crashed in the front lawn of a single-story house on 239th Street, setting two homes ablaze. The other slammed into the grassy median in middle of Eighty-seventh Avenue.
One of the worst disasters in the history of the Army Air Corps killed all eleven men on board both planes and turned a quiet New York neighborhood into an inferno. One airman, somehow dislodged from his bomber as it plummeted, smashed through the roof of a home and landed in the kitchen where his body rolled out the back door and stopped at the feet of a housewife hanging the wash on the line. The violent impact tossed the burning bodies of three other airmen into the driveway of one home, where a frantic neighbor used a garden hose to extinguish the flames. Repelled by the intense heat of the blaze, neighbors could only watch in horror as the bodies of several other airmen roasted inside what one newspaper called “funeral pyres of flaming, melting metal.”
Paul Burlingame’s tragic death weighed upon his older brother, who was now responsible for the safety of Silversides and its crew as the submarine closed in on the Japanese island of Honshu, its designated patrol area. The time for training and drills had passed. The next engagement would be real—and could come at any time. Men needed to remain alert against the threat of patrol planes, warships, and enemy submarines. Foul weather seemed to forecast Silversides’ arrival in hostile waters. Gray skies pressed down on the empty ocean as heavy waves pounded the bow, sending sea spray over the bridge. The lookouts perched above on the periscope shears in foul weather gear suddenly spotted a Japanese trawler in the distance at 8:05 a.m., Silversides’ first enemy contact of the war.
The officer of the deck summoned Burlingame, who arrived on the bridge in seconds. The skipper pressed the binoculars to his eyes and studied the 131-ton Ebisu Maru No. 5, which tossed on the angry waves some three miles away. The wooden boat proved a far cry from the enemy aircraft carrier, battleship, or tanker Burlingame had hoped he would find. Though Ebisu Maru appeared to be just a fishing trawler, Burlingame knew such boats often doubled as patrol and picket boats, gathering far more than tuna, cod, and salmon. These trawlers and ocean sampans bobbed hundreds of miles offshore and served as a defensive perimeter, radioing any sightings of enemy ships or submarines. Burlingame recognized that the tiny boat didn’t warrant an expensive $10,000 torpedo, but he decided Silversides could sink it with its deck gun. He ordered his men to battle stations at 8:06 a.m.
Officers and crew throughout the submarine, many of whom had just finished breakfast, hustled to prepare for Silversides’ first battle. Submarines are best suited to attack from a distance with torpedoes, firing either on the surface at night when protected by darkness or underwater during the day. Daytime gun battles on the surface were risky. Silversides would lose the element of surprise, one of its best tactical advantages. Such an attack also would expose the gun crew to return fire and risk damaging blows to the submarine’s thin steel skin, a serious danger since it needed to operate at great depths and pressures. But Burlingame judged Ebisu Maru a worthy target, an opportunity to rob the enemy of an intelligence collector. The gun crew reported to the conning tower, strapping on steel helmets. Other sailors climbed down into the magazine below the crew’s mess and handed the thirty-four-pound rounds up the ladder, forming an ammunition train that ran from the mess deck through the control room and up the ladder to the conning tower.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Carswell, a sight setter for the deck gun, crouched in the conning tower. The skinny eighteen-year-old South Carolinian had enlisted as a signalman. Down the ladder from him in the control room stood Petty Officer 3rd Class Mike Harbin, a loader for the deck gun. Five years older than his friend Carswell, the burly torpedoman had traded life in rural Oklahoma for that of a sailor in the fall of 1940.
Silversides cut through the rough waves at fifteen knots. The gun and ammunition crews waited largely in silence as the submarine closed the distance to about 1,200 yards. Carswell felt little fear as he anticipated his first battle. The target after all was only a small fishing boat, not an armed warship such as a destroyer or cruiser. Burlingame ordered the crew to man the deck gun at 8:25 a.m. The conning tower door popped open and the gun crew darted one after the other across the wet deck as waves crashed over the bow. Bolted on a pedestal on the submarine’s after deck, the three-inch fifty-caliber gun packed a punch, firing thirteen-pound projectiles a half mile per second at targets up to eight miles away. The massive gun required a team to operate. A pointer and a trainer sat on opposite sides, using hand wheels to swivel the gun and move the barrel up and down. A sight setter stood on a platform on the back of the gun and adjusted the scope’s accuracy while a team of loaders fed rounds one after the other.
Carswell hopped up on the sight setter’s platform. Sea spray drenched him and the other members of the gun crew. Gunnery officer Lieutenant j.g. Robert Worthington studied Ebisu Maru through binoculars, shouting range and bearing changes to Carswell. A loader slid a projectile into the gun’s breech and rammed it into place. The trainer sighted the enemy boat through a scope, and the pointer seconds later mashed the firing pedal. The gun roared. The spent shell clanged to the deck. Water splashed off the target’s bow. A miss. A loader rammed in another round. The gun roared again. Then again. Errant projectiles peppered the waves around Ebisu Maru. Executive officer Lieutenant Roy Davenport and Worthington both barked changes to Carswell. The sight setter struggled to hear as violent waves hammered the submarine, soaking the gun crew and making it difficult for the men to sight the target.
Suddenly the Japanese boat returned fire. Machine gun bullets whizzed past the sailors. One missed Burlingame’s head by just a few centimeters, singeing the hair on the skipper’s right ear. Others pinged off the conning tower. Burlingame’s instincts were right: this was not just a fishing boat. What had begun as a simple task of sinking an apparent trawler now evolved into a furious gun battle. One of the loaders, caught under the barrel when the gun first fired, felt blood run down his beard; the thunder had broken both of his eardrums. The loader now tasted a salty mix of sea spray and blood. Sailors in the magazine below ripped open ammunition boxes with bloodied fingers and fed shells to the hungry ammo train that passed them one after the other up through the submarine. Ebisu Maru now struggled to escape as Silversides’ gun roared almost every twenty seconds. With each shot, the gunners’ aim improved. The men could see that the projectiles now blasted the wooden boat. Carswell noted that the powerful projectiles, best suited to shred the metal skin of an airplane or warship, seemed to blow right through Ebisu Maru.
Rollicking waves thrashed Silversides, making it difficult to load and fire the gun. A wave hit Carswell from behind and knocked him off the sight setter’s platform. He landed on his back and slid toward the edge of the deck before he stopped himself. The soaked sight setter climbed back up on the gun only to have another wave knock him off again moments later. He struggled again to stop his slide as he plummeted toward the side of the deck. If he went overboard in the middle of the battle, he knew Silversides wouldn’t stop to pluck him from the churning seas. He would drown in minutes without a life preserver in the cold and turbulent ocean. Carswell’s heart pounded. He fought to stop himself as he slid from the wooden to the metal deck where his speed accelerated. He banged into the hatch over the after torpedo room before his leg snagged a second later on the wire extension that ran along the edge of the deck and stopped him.
Ebisu Maru caught fire and billowed smoke. Still, its crew peppered Silversides with machine gun rounds. Burlingame watched from the bridge as the picket boat, which throughout the attack had tried to escape, now turned on his submarine. The wounded trawler planned to fight it out. “Suddenly he realized his case was hopeless,” the skipper later recalled of the Ebisu Maru. “He turned around and came toward us with his machine guns going full blast.” The sailors on deck tried to take cover as the bullets zipped past. A projectile struck the underside of the foot-firing pedal on the three-inch deck gun and sprained the pointer’s ankle. Machine gun fire knocked the steel helmets off of two loaders, but did not injure them. A bullet hit Seaman 2nd Class Hal Schwartz’s helmet as he passed shells to Harbin next to him. The eighteen-year-old loader dropped to the deck. “It broke the strap and knocked me out,” Schwartz later recalled. “It was like getting hit in the head with a sledgehammer.”
Harbin handed a shell to the next loader in line just as a bullet hit him. His red blood splattered on the shell, which the ammunition crew reflexively loaded and fired as Harbin collapsed facedown on the wooden deck. The gun and ammunition crew stopped and stared. Blood seeped out from beneath him. Less than an hour into the first sea battle and Silversides already suffered a man down. No one had expected this. Carswell and the others jumped down from the gun to pick up Harbin even as the Ebisu Maru still charged toward them. Worthington unholstered his pistol and lowered it by his side so the men could see it. “Get back on that damn gun or I’ll shoot everyone,” he shouted. “We’ll take care of Mike.” Petty Officer 1st Class Albert Stegall and another sailor grabbed Harbin and struggled to pull him inside the conning tower. Harbin’s head rested against Stegall’s shoulder. “His mouth was working. I thought his helmet was causing him to choke. I got his helmet off. I found out it wasn’t his helmet that was causing it. He had been hit in the head,” recalled Stegall, who looked at Harbin’s wound and knew immediately the loader was dead. “It pretty much went through his head.”
An hour to the minute after the sailors had vaulted onto the deck, Burlingame ordered the gun crew to stop firing. Flames engulfed Ebisu Maru, its guns now silent. The skipper watched his victim burn. The wooden boat would not sink, but Burlingame suspected—albeit incorrectly—that the fire eventually would consume it; the submarine Scorpion would, in fact, later sink Ebisu Maru, in April 1943. Regardless, the skipper knew the torched guard boat would serve as a beacon to other enemy ships that might patrol the area, its black clouds alerting them of the submarine’s passing and foreshadowing more destruction to come. No other ships would venture near. Burlingame recorded the battle’s outcome in his patrol report. “He was on fire but did not sink,” the skipper wrote. “Since he could not reach land in his condition and further expenditure of ammunition was futile, resumed course.”
Carswell climbed down into the control room, the roar of the deck gun still ringing in his ears. The cold Pacific had soaked the terrified young signalman. Twice the thrashing waves had nearly washed him overboard. He had watched one of his friends take a bullet to the head. One minute Harbin loaded shells, the next he lay on the wooden deck, the seawater washing his dark blood overboard. Carswell’s couldn’t stop shivering. He recognized the signs of shock and knew he had to get warm. He stumbled through the control room, crew’s mess and berth, and into the forward engine room. There he climbed down in the narrow crevasse between the engine and port bulkhead. The 1,600-horsepower diesels had powered the submarine all morning. Heat radiated from them. Carswell drew his knees up against his chest, closed his eyes, and felt the warmth of the engines wash over him. “Harbin’s dead,” he could hear men cry out. “He’s gone.”
Shock permeated the crew. Ten days into the first patrol and already the submarine suffered its first casualty. The battle with the trawler, which Burlingame had expected to last a few minutes, had dragged on for an hour. The gun crew’s tally showed that Silversides had fired 164 rounds on the three-inch-50 caliber and recorded only about a dozen hits. The thunder of the deck gun broke three eardrums, including one on the pointer. The pharmacist’s mate tended to the injured men and bandaged Burlingame’s bullet-singed right ear.
Sailors carried Harbin down from the conning tower and placed him in a middle bunk in the crew’s berth by the entrance to the mess deck and right next to where Carswell slept. The blond torpedoman, who just an hour earlier had charged out onto the submarine’s deck, lay silent. Silversides’ freezer, packed with hams, turkeys, and roasts, had no room for a man’s remains. Likewise, the submarine could not turn back to Midway or Pearl Harbor because of the loss of one sailor. The mission had to continue; Japan awaited. The men would bury Mike Harbin at sea. The pharmacist’s mate, aided by the chief of the boat and a couple of torpedomen, wrapped Harbin’s body inside a piece of white canvas and stitched it shut with heavy white line, one loop at a time. The men tied a gun shell around Harbin’s legs, which guaranteed that his body would sink. One of the torpedomen cried as the men worked.
The chaotic morning evolved into a quiet afternoon as Silversides zigzagged west on the surface at fourteen knots, each turn of the screws taking the submarine closer to Japan. Burlingame triggered the loudspeaker microphone at 7 p.m. to announce Harbin’s funeral. The skipper clutched a prayer book, the conning tower now his pulpit. “We therefore commit his body to the deep,” he read, “looking for the general Resurrection in the last day, and the life of the world to come, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose second coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the sea shall give up her dead.” Burlingame ended his brief service with the Lord’s Prayer, his Kentucky drawl crackling over the loudspeakers below in the control room, crew’s mess, and the forward and after torpedo rooms, where sailors stood, heads bowed.
Torpedomen who had worked alongside Harbin carried his flag-draped remains through the mess deck and into the control room. The pallbearers hoisted the torpedoman’s body up through the narrow hatch to the conning tower above and then out onto the submarine’s wooden deck, the same path Harbin had taken that morning as he raced to load the submarine’s deck gun. The gray skies and heavy waves that had pounded Silversides as it battled Ebisu Maru had vanished. The afternoon sun set and the cold blue Pacific was calm. The evening stars shone above as the submarine idled alone in the empty ocean. Burlingame executive officer Davenport, the chief of the boat, and a few officers and crewmembers gathered on deck around Harbin. The rest of the men stood alert throughout the submarine, ready to dive if an enemy plane appeared overhead.
Burlingame had deemed Ebisu Maru not worth an expensive torpedo, but in the end the Japanese boat had cost far more, the life of a twenty-three-year-old sailor from Oklahoma, one of the first submariners of the war killed in a gun battle. The skipper, who still grieved over the loss of his own brother, felt crushed. He knew that a chaplain would soon call on the Harbin family 6,000 miles away, a knock on the door that would forever change their lives. Was this one boat worth Mike Harbin’s life? The hard-charging Burlingame would regret his decision to attack for decades. “It was a stupid thing to do,” he later confessed. “We were all pretty damn dumb in the early part of the war.”
The sun faded as the men slipped Harbin’s body in its canvas cocoon into the ocean, watching as it disappeared in the dark waters. The quartermaster recorded Harbin’s final resting place in the ship’s log; two coordinates on a map, Latitude 33°13'30" North, Longitude 151°57'30" East. Burlingame sensed the crew’s sorrow. “It was quite a problem as to morale,” he recalled. “He was a very fine man, very well thought of by the entire crew, and at the very start of our first patrol to suffer a casualty like that wasn’t quite the way we had hoped to start the war.” The skipper gathered his men in the crew’s mess after dinner. He needed to rally them. “The first fish we fire,” he ordered, using a nickname common for torpedoes, “will have Harbin’s name on it.” The sailors stared at him for a while in silence. Finally one of the chief petty officers spoke. “Wherever you lead, captain,” he said, “we’ll follow.” Whether the others all shared his enthusiasm wasn’t clear, but the final entry in the log that night reflected Burlingame’s commitment: “Underway as before.”
Meet the Author
James Scott is a former investigative reporter with The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, where he was named Journalist of the Year in 2003 by the South Carolina Press Association. A 2007 Nieman Fellow for Journalism at Harvard University, Scott is the author of The Attack on the Liberty, which won the Samuel Eliot Morison Award. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.
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The War Below by James Scott Best of the Best! As a twenty-plus years U.S. Navy veteran and Submariner, and a personal friend of one of the Tang survivors, I commend James Scott for writing one of best, accurate and readable undersea warfare books I have ever read. His creative methods of succinctly yet interestingly bringing out the big picture and incorporating various aspects of WW-II and how they relate to and affect submarine operations is extremely well done. His exhaustive research his obvious. Bravo Zulu!
An avid reader of WWII history, I was thrilled to begin The War Below. It tells the stories, individually, of three different submarines that played an integral part of the war in the Pacific. Having toured the U.S.S. Drum in Alabama, I was particularly interested in this book. It is written in a concise manner., making the reader feel as if they were actually on the submarine. Well documented, factual, and truly tells the stories of the actual submariners who fought gallantly against Japan in the Pacific. Epic read!!
Wonderful book! To really bring it up close and home, visit and tour the USS Drum at the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park at Mobile, Al. It is worth the trip to see it and actually walk the passageways and touch it.
Couldn't put it down, and went to sleep with the taste of sea water in my mouth and the smell of sweat and diesel in my nose. The level of bravery of the submariner is well defined and simultaneously inconceivable. Read this book...
One look at the phenomenal James Hornfischer's strong endorsement of this book and there was no stopping me getting a copy as soon as possible. Five stars is only a nominal assessment in this case, as Mr. Scott's book is better than that. Painstakingly researched and elegantly written, "The War Below" is a must read for WWII and history buffs but I hope it reaches a far broader audience. Americans should know this story well, for without the nearly unimaginable courage and skills displayed under the most stressful if not horrific conditions imaginable by our submariners in WWII, we would not know and enjoy our world today in its present form. Were it not for the inclusion of only one high level map of the Pacific (several more would have been helpful) and the too small (for me, at least) font, this might be a perfect book. The patrol sequences, frequently ending in the fiery and acrid destruction of enemy shipping and warships, are not merely thrilling but highly educational. One learns time and again of duty fulfilled that in fact went well beyond the call of duty. The recounting of a pharmacist's mate performing an emergency appendectomy while the skipper held the boat deep enough to minimize turbulence is simply beyond the pale. Get this book and devour it. And if you can get to the end-- right through the passages about our men being tortured in captivity-- without being emotionally overcome then perhaps you should make an appointment with the Wizard of Oz to see if you can be granted a heart. Six stars.
excellent reading !