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Pat Wallis: WWII veterans were slow to share their stories

Pat Wallis
Pat Wallis

SANDWICH – It seemed that World War II veterans who served on the seas didn’t share their experiences with others until they were way past age 70, and then there could only be a maximum of two others present. At least that’s how it it seemed to me.

We first heard some of the stories when my husband, Ron, and I took a U.S. Navy veteran to three reunions of his submarine buddies. His wife, who had previously accompanied him to the every-two-year reunion, had passed away and we were proud to drive him to Nashville, Tennessee, to visit his shipmates.

On the drive down, he started talking about a cousin who was lost in a submarine in the Atlantic early in World War II. He almost felt responsible for his loss, choked-up when telling of the event. 

While serving in the Pacific in his first submarine, an old single-hull World War I sub, he’d received a letter from one of his favorite cousins, who’d asked his advice about signing up to be on a submarine. 

Because his mail was censored, he couldn’t tell his cousin that he’d heard there were problems with some of the torpedoes. It seems the torpedoes would be aimed at an enemy ship, but they sometimes could go in a circle, returning and destroying the U.S. submarine. 

He told us his own ship’s captain was smart. When they shot off a torpedo, his captain would order the crew to “Dive!” They’d quickly drop deeper into the Pacific and survive during battles with the enemy.

He went into the service early in World War II. Because he was young, his parents had to sign papers, giving their permission for him to serve. His mother asked him not to come home an alcoholic or with tattoos, and he kept his promise. 

He went to basic training at Great Lakes Training Center, north of Chicago, for just two weeks. It was winter and he was freezing standing guard outdoors.  

He said one morning when they were standing at attention outside their barracks, an officer asked if any of the men were interested in serving on a submarine based in southern California. He stepped forward because he wanted to get warm.

He got to California, went on the submarine and left port knowing nothing. He didn’t even know what “fore” and “aft” meant. His captain on the old “S” boat (that’s what he called it) was shocked by his lack of training, but it didn’t slow him down. He became head torpedoman of the forward or aft, can’t remember which, and had lots of experiences on board.

One long venture occurred when one of the sub’s engines quit working while they were in the mid-Pacific. To get to a port where the sub could be repaired, they had to stay submerged, slowly chugging in frigid water to Dutch Harbor in Alaska. There were enemy ships everywhere, so they couldn’t go on the surface during the daytime to help with battery storage and get fresh air. 

He said the men were freezing in the single-hulled sub, so they wore everything they had, socks on top of socks on feet and hands, layers of shirts and coats. They were even told to lie in their bunks as often as possible to conserve oxygen. There was some sort of powder they had to sprinkle around to help with the quality of the air.

When they got to Dutch Harbor, there were so many ships in port, they had to scramble across the deck of a neighboring ship to get to shore. The officer on board the neighboring ship yelled at the sub’s crew because they looked so ill-kempt, but the subs’ captain set the officer straight. 

The first thing the sub’s crew did was rush to the nearest post shop to buy winter coats. When they arrived, they heard the U.S. was engaged in an intense Battle of Midway. And they missed it. 

He told us of many adventures while on the next, newer submarine that came close to sinking the most enemy tonnage during World War II.  

His sub picked up survivors of several enemy airplane crashes, one of whom who graduated from a U.S. university and “spoke better English than we did.” They had to call in when they captured an enemy soldier/sailor and drop them off for questioning when they could get to a naval base. 

The crew was already crowded in the submarines, but they had to find space for the prisoners to sleep. One of crew members at a reunion said he was afraid he might be stabbed when he had to sleep in a bunk right above a spot they’d found for a captured combatant. But it didn’t happen.

At the reunions, it was so touching to see the men hug, laugh and cry. They’d gone through so much together, living in close quarters, having depth charges dropped all around them at times.

Our personal veteran had so many memories and sometimes nightmares.

He even fell out of bed one night. He said his nightmare brought back the memory of torpedoing an enemy ship, sinking it in the Pacific. During the actual occurrence and the nightmare, he could hear the enemy ship’s crew screaming while the ship went down.

He said he knew they were calling for their mothers.  

He was so upset, but, he said he told himself, “They started it.”

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