Submariners reflect on Silent Service action
SALEM- Bo Whinnery can spot a submariner’s ensignia from a block away, let alone from across the room.
So not long ago, Whinnery spotted a ballcap with the dolphin insignia.
A Cold War submariner who served on the ballistic missile Submarine USS Ethan Allen, his pulse ticked up as he got a closer look.
The older gentleman wearing the cap was Hubert Brown of Salem and Whinnery zeroed in on the dolphins and the name “USS Pampanito” across the crown of the cap.
Whinnery wasn’t about to let this opportunity to meet a fellow submariner slip by and introduced himself.
Former sailors wearing the distinct twin dolphin badge of one of the armed forces’ most elite services are very rare within the ranks.
In the civilian world, good luck in finding one anywhere, especially from WW II.
The two got together on March 31 and shared their stories.
When he enlisted in the navy in October 1942 from his home state of West Virginia after service in the Civilian Conservation Corps, Brown had 14 months on the Pampanito, known as a Balao class sub, in his immediate future.
He didn’t graduate from high school, and Brown noted the army “was breathing down my neck.”
It was too late, he was already in the navy.
“I didn’t know about the navy, didn’t even see a sailor before joining. I volunteered for it. The only advice dad gave me was ‘don’t volunteer for anything.’”
So disregarding that advice he volunteered a second time for the silent service.
Brown served on the Pampanito from its commission date and on four of the subs six war patrols from 1944 to 1945.
World War II Navy subs ranged out far ahead of fleets and the Pampanito had a range of 11,000 nautical miles, enough to take Brown and his crew to the deadly, feared and celebrated Bungo Straits … and back.
In the 1958 movie “Run Silent, Run Deep” with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster a sub is deployed to the Bungo Straits, Japan’s biggest sub base, deep into Japanese territory.
At 311-foot long, a 27-foot beam (width), the Pampanito was crewed by10 officers and 71 enlisted personnel and was named for the pompano fish.
Brown, who is 92 today, was a Torpedoman 3d Class.
He and Whinnery, decades apart, attended the same submarine school in Groton, Conn.
Brown boarded the Pampanito after 16 weeks of torpedo school. Whinnery explained that submariners are cross-trained on every aspect and must know every compartment in a submarine.
“They have to know everything,” he said.
Brown agreed, “I did well … I learned to study in the Navy and learned the mechanics of a torpedo.”
So the Navy sent him to eight more weeks of advanced torpedo school.
The Pampanito disembarked on its commissioning cruise (sea trial) from Portsmouth Naval Yard in November 1943 and headed to Pearl Harbor via the Panama Canal.
Brown said when sailing down the coast of the eastern United States “you were in a war zone” all the way to the canal because German U-Boats menaced the western Atlantic Ocean and beyond.
Despite November’s cold, rough seas, Brown said, “I enjoyed being a lookout. I liked the idea of being on the bridge in the fresh air … most of the crew never saw the outside until we got back into port.”
At Pearl Harbor, Brown remembers seeing there was “still a lot of damage.”
The Pampanito was outfitted with supplies for her first war patrol.
When submerged, Brown said he worked the Gyro plot “feeding the officer on the chart readings so he could chart out our attack.”
When surfaced, Brown man-handled the machine up the ladder, setting it on a bridge mount. Later he was the barrel changer on a 20mm anti-aircraft gun.
“On a torpedo attack on the surface, I was the lookout to make sure there were no surprises,” he said, like enemy subs firing torpedoes at them.
March 15, 1944 was his first patrol.
“I was wondering how I was going to stand it … I was concerned if we got in a rough time how I was going to handle it,” he said, “I wasn’t smart enough to be scared.”
Whinnery chimed in, noting submariners are all volunteers.
“The Navy psychologists … what they can tell by asking what seem like a few dumb questions is amazing,” he said.
Careful screening finds people who are hard to rattle.
“I never had a person in a sub I couldn’t get along with. Everyone has everyone else’s back, 24/7,” Whinnery said.
World War II subs spent most of the time on the surface at night running on diesel engines (they cut through the water faster) and charging the batteries that drove them underwater.
Five sailors manned the bridge, the officer of the deck, quartermaster and three lookouts. Repeated battle-dive drills cleared the bridge in about five seconds, Brown said.
On April 7, on the western edge of Japanese convoy routes near Guam in the central Pacific, the Pampanito was submerged when two convoy escorts (destroyers) picked her up on sonar, leading to a four-day cat-and-mouse game.
The Pampanito suffered “considerable damage” after a string of five depth charges were dropped, the after action report said.
“It was very enlightening,” Brown said, noting that people above were circling “trying to kill us.”
Light bulbs popped; anything not fastened would fly around. Brown recalled the fine dust from the insulation powdering the air. Repairs were made and the sub caught back up with the convoy consisting of two large freighters, three destroyers and a sub-chaser.
The Pampanito fired four torpedoes and got two hits triggering the usual response- a destroyer wheeled around but the sub dove to about 300 feet where it waited out a 25 depth charge attack that damaged the outboard induction piping causing flooding.
“He had us dead to rights but pulled off,” Brown said.
Again repairs were made and, unable to locate any targets and running short of fuel, the Pampanito made a beeline to Midway Island.
During the second patrol, from June 3 to July 23, the Pampanito sailed to the Bungo Straits where the level of peril, routinely high anyway, pegged the danger meter.
Heavily guarded on sea and by air, it was the home of Japan’s largest submarine base. The Pampanito came under attack with two torpedoes barely missing it due to lookout alertness and the fact it was zigzagging.
Days later, on July 5, the Pampanito made a submerged attack on a convoy firing six torpedoes with three hits near Nii Shima, an island south of Tokyo.
Because of heavy air cover, no observations could be made and post-war records said Pampanito sunk a 100 ton cargo ship, the Toyokowa Maru.
Again, days later, near Hachyo Shima Island, an after-action report said, “Just before dawn on July 16 a torpedo wake was sighted by lookout Hubert Brown …”
The official report goes to say the USS Pampanito took evasive action, but that’s not how Brown remembers it.
He recalled it was 4 p.m. and he was on port watch. Lookout stands were 10 feet above the officer deck.
Brown kept seeing something he couldn’t identify and reported it.
“The officer kept telling me to keep an eye on it … I kept reporting it … soon the waves changed or something happened and I saw a torpedo wake and reported the same.
“Again, the officer said to keep and eye on it. By this time I’m getting quite vocal and the thing is in plain site and couldn’t miss us. I know what it feels like to know in seconds you are going to be dead or wish you were.
“About this time the captain came storming on deck, but it was all over and I was still dry.
“I never thought about it before, but a torpedo traveling 30 miles per hour at 10 feet deep, the wake is coming a ways behind the torpedo. They figured the torpedo passed a couple of yards ahead of us, and we ran over its wake. I don’t think the officer ever saw it.”
Brown added, “When they wrote up the reports, the officers always saw it first.”
What about the evasive action? Brown shakes his head. “He did not maneuver, it was just luck.”
As lookouts go, Brown had a keen ability to spot a wisp of smoke on the horizon before anyone else.
“I was the only one who could pick things out.”
Whinnery asked Brown if he felt anything passing over the Marianis Trench, the deepest part of the ocean, a place where if something went wrong it was truly a time to abandon all hope.
“I definitely did,” Brown said.
On its third patrol the Pampanito was part of a wolf pack that torpedoed a Japanese ship, unknown to them, that was carrying Australian and British POWs.
The Japanese rescued their shipmates and left the POWs in the water. The Pampanito picked up 73 survivors and radioed for help.
The subsequent Pampanito war patrols are documented in great detail on the maritime.org website.
Brown was at Midway when the war ended after two atomic bombings of Japan.
Whinnery asked what he thought.
“Of course I didn’t care if they sunk the whole island,” he said, and the destructive force of the atomic bombs … “I couldn’t conceive of it … it saved a lot of Japanese and American lives.”
He said the navy “was a defining part of my life.”
Whinnery said, “You grow up fast.”
For years Brown owned the Sohio gas station at the corner of Ohio Avenue and East State Street.
The USS Pampanito is a showpiece at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Visit: www.maritime.org/tour/index.php.
The USS Ethan Allen was decommissioned in 1983 and recycled via a ship and submarine program.