Surviving an attack by surface vessels

Henry Passinger was a little hazy on some details about his service aboard the submarine USS Tambor, SS-198, during World War II.

Fortunately, a great deal of the sub’s patrols and activities have been recorded in navy archives.

The U.S. Naval Institute published an article based on interviews with her crew, after what was called one of the worst depth-charge attacks on a surviving American submarine in World War II.

During the Tambor’s tenth war patrol in the East China Sea, she survived after a Japanese patrol boat missed ramming her on the surface by no more than 15 feet.

A few days later, on February 3, 1944 the sub began an attack on a freighter and a tanker that were being escorted by a destroyer, according to the article.

The Tambor was on the surface and her skipper, Lieutenant Commander Russell Kefauver ordered three torpedoes fired at the tanker, then three at the freighter. As soon as the first torpedo was fired, Kefauver saw the destroyer turn towards the sub.

He entered into the logbook, “Saw and heard two hits amidships in freighter followed immediately by one hit just forward of the ship’s stack. Swung right with full rudder and increased speed to flank. Passed 400 yards abeam of tanker. Intense light silhouetted Tambor, and destroyer began closing the range.”

Bill Reynolds, the portside lookout spoke of a torpedo hitting the tanker.

“A flicker of flame came from the stack and completely died down,” he said. “Then a sight I’ll never forget. Suddenly night turned into day. The tanker exploded and (it looked) as though the noon-day sun was shining in the East China Sea.”

“In that hellish light I felt like a naked person on a crowded street with no place to hide. Dive! Dive! All hands below! The claxons (sounded and) I was the last man down and closed the hatch. Vents were open, all eyes were on the depth gauge, it just hung there, finally a down angle on the bow and (from)there on, my memory is vague. I think I was on the stern planes until we hit the bottom. I honestly can’t remember,” he recounted.

The destroyer dropped two depth charges on each pass, time after time. Close explosions shattered glass, loosened fittings and flooded the control room bilges.

Enginemen Ray Bouffard and Warren Link reported hearing the sound of escaping air. Rising bubbles would pinpoint the subs position.

After two hours, they no longer heard the destroyer’s screws, and Kefauver decided to start pumps to drain water from the bilges.

Within minutes, the destroyer resumed its attack, having stopped to conceal its presence, and listen for the sub.

“Red” Mayo, listening on sound gear yelled, “This guy is right on track and coming like hell.”

Kefauver wrote later, “A very bad moment for all hands, and about that time we got what we knew was coming.”

The boat was in 268 feet of water, and it took the depth charges about 30 seconds to sink. After four close explosions, Kefauver ordered the sub to the bottom. The maximum rated depth for the hull was 250 feet.

Bob Hunt later wrote in his diary, “This old boat just about broke in half and didn’t seem like she would ever stop shaking.”

Seawater began leaking into the boat through the sealing around both screw shafts. If water were to rise above the main decking, the electric motors would get wet, so men formed “bucket brigades” to deeper bilges in the aft torpedo room. With every new attack, they sealed water-tight doors between compartments and waited out the attacks.

Hour after hour, as the attack continued, Kefauver went through the ship, repeating to the crew, “I am honored to have served with you.”

After noon, with attacks coming anywhere from ten minutes apart to hours, Kefauver said, “We’ve got to get out of here.”

He ordered Chief Bill Blakenbaker to start pumping, and told the crew, “We may have to surface and fight it out.”

A submarine on the surface would not stand a chance against a destroyer, but sooner or later a charge would breach the Tambor’s hull, according to the article.

After being submerged for 14 hours, crew members began to suffer shortness of breath. The sub was to remain underwater for a total of 17 hours.

The depth gauge showed that the sub had settled 12 feet into the bottom, and Blakenbaker worked to find the right combination of power and weight distribution to free the Tambor from the bottom.

For another two hours, the Tambor took evasive action, and Kefauver order the sub into the strong current to carry revealing oil and bubbles astern.

When they finally surfaced, the destroyer was gone. Over the next few days, the crew made whatever repairs they could, remaining on the surface out of necessity. The radio was only capable of short-range transmissions, and they could not contact any American outposts.

On February 8, Kefauver wrote, “All repairs completed. All tubes will fire by hand; continued electrical work. Considered boat to be in fighting trim again. Commenced patrolling an easterly course.”

Four days later, she sank the Ronsan Maru, a 2,700 ton passenger-cargo ship, and then survived another 17 depth charges.

When she returned to Midway, ten days late, the crew found out that she had been presumed lost. After repairs, the Tambor would go on to three more missions.