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Just Another Day On Patrol
Captain Leon “Lee” Rathbun. USN (Ret)

Captain Leon “Lee” Rathburn of the submarine USS Blueback tells of patrolling the Japanese controlled waters near the island of Chichi Jima. He describes the day the submarine had a harrowing experience of an attack on a Japanese patrol, where the submarine torpedoed the Japanese freighter.

I entered the Submarine Force in June of 1944 after completing Submarine school. I was assigned a new submarine under construction at the Electric Boat Company in Groton, USS Blueback. At this time in the war new submarines were coming out of the shipyards at a rate of almost one a week. To man all these new boats the Navy provided a commissioning crew of about two-thirds veteran submarines and one-third newcomers; both officers and enlisted. We were fortunate that our commanding officer was M.K. “Giffle” Clementson. He had previously been awarded the Navy Cross after a successful patrol as captain of USS Snapper (SS 185). Our Executive Officer, Jim Mercer, 3rd Officer Max Kerns, engineer Carl Kunz, and 1st Lieutenant J.D. Huggins were all veterans of numerous patrols in some well known boats, Snook and Harder. My classmate, Jim Gibson and I were the novices, although we each had completed two years of destroyer action in the Central and Southwest Pacific.

After commissioning in August 1944, we made our way down the East Coast, a trip not without risk for any submarine whether U.S. or enemy. Even though we were on the surface in so-called submarine havens, some enthusiastic aviator on ASW patrol might not be aware of our safety zone and go in for a quick kill. But we went on through the Panama Canal and on to Pearl Harbor. We arrived at Pearl in September 1944. We loaded up with torpedoes, fuel, and ammunition for the deck gun, lots of food, and everything we might need for our first submarine patrol.

We were destined to travel four thousand miles into the heart of Japanese controlled waters. We were going to the little island of Chichi Jima, one in a string of islands stretching from southern Japan to Okinawa. In order to get there, four thousand miles, as rapidly as possible, we had to run on the surface, four engines, full speed, making about eighteen knots. Even after entering Japanese waters we remained on the surface unless attacked. Incidentally, running on the surface for a submarine is putting it in the most vulnerable position. We did lose at least three submarines to air attack that I know of... The very last was the Bullhead sunk in August 6, 1945, only seven days after the war ended, an unnecessary tragedy.

Question, didn’t we have air search radar? Answer, yes we did. We did have air search radar called the SD, which had a reliable detection range of maybe three to four miles. This does not inspire a lot of confidence in a submarine on the surface. In fact, the only possible reaction to an air contact is to submerge as quickly as possible. You have perhaps sixty seconds to get completely under, and this requires a well-coordinated effort by a trained crew. “SD contact, four miles, closing”.

The officer of the deck on the bridge yells, “Clear the bridge” and sounds the diving alarm throughout the submarine. A number of things must happen immediately. First, get four lookouts and two officers down through the conning tower trunk, which is about twenty inches wide. That in itself is pretty exciting because at the same time that the diving alarm goes, the chief of the watch has opened the vents, shut the main induction and flooded negative tank and the submarine is going down no matter what anyone else does. Other crewmen are doing a lot of things. In the engine rooms they are shutting down four main engines, closing exhaust valves, shutting the intake valves and shifting propulsion to the battery. In the control room the planesman now have the diving planes on full dive. The submarine is going down and if you don’t have a green board-, which is the display of hull openings, red for open, green for shut- then you are in deep trouble.

We did have to make one or two such crash dives en route to our patrol area but we finally reached our destination to begin our first war patrol. Over the next ten months and three war patrols there were many encounters with the enemy, many torpedoes fired and many depth charges endured, but there is one event which stands out in my mind and I will never forget it. It happened not long after we reached Chichi Jima.

One afternoon in early October 1944 we were patrolling submerged, waiting and hoping for some enemy ships. At this time in the war the Japanese merchant marines had been badly damaged by our submarines. As a result, their southbound convoys hugged the shoreline along the island chain. This was shallow water, less than 200 feet in many areas, very hazardous for any submarine, as there was no way to go deep for invasion if necessary. Nevertheless, our skipper was willing to attack any worthwhile targets. I happened to be the OOD on watch in the conning tower keeping a periscope watch, making occasional visual sweeps with the #2 periscope. Sure enough I saw telltale smoke on the horizon to the north. Immediately I called the captain “Giffle” Clementson and he took the scope and after making several observations over the next several minutes identified the enemy as a small convoy with possibly one or two escorts.

The captain ordered “battle stations, torpedo” and the boat readied quickly. The attack center was the conning tower and it was quickly filled with the fire control team which besides the captain consisted of the executive officer, Jim Mercer, Max Kerns and myself on the TDC {Torpedo Data Computer} the helmsman and the quartermaster to assist at the scope. The conning tower was not much larger than a good-sized walk in closet, so we were to be in close quarters for the next hour or so. The captain began maneuvering to get into firing position. It wasn’t an easy thing for a submarine to run up to the firing point and let go a spread of torpedoes. The boat can make maybe six knots submerged but most slow to two knots to make an observation and avoid showing the periscope wake. The periscope only shows a minimum amount, maybe two feet, and the captain only takes about a five second look. So we would run at six knots, trying to get firing position, slow to two knots, take a quick look, get bearing, angle on the bow, estimated range, pull the scope down and run six knots again. Finally the captain was satisfied with our position. The convoy had two small escorts and several medium sized cargo vessels. The captain had designated a medium sized freighter as the primary target. He ordered a three-torpedo spread, 150 % coverage. The exec was on the phones connected to the torpedo room and also sonar station. We have six torpedoes fully ready forward.

“Open the outer doors on one, two, and three.”
The captain said, “This will be final bearing and shoot. Up scoop. Bearing mark” “Fire one”
Off went the torpedo. The executive officer said, “Sonar reports running hot straight and normal.”
“Fire two”
“Sonar reports running hot, straight and normal, captain.”
“Fire three”
Just about this time the diving officer had lost about two feet of depth and the periscope was dunked- under the surface. The captain could not see. “Get me up dammit” The diving officer said “Aye, aye sir” and started changing the depth.
But right after that the exec said in a remarkably calm voice, “Captain, sonar reports that the third torpedo is coming back at us.
This was a circular run, an erratic torpedo, not unknown in the submarine force. So now the captain was saying instead of ‘get me up”-”GET ME DOWN” “Take me down, 100 feet, flood negative, all ahead full.”
We did everything to get deep. That torpedo, a three thousand pound mindless monster with five hundred pounds of explosive in the nose, was coming back at us at forty-five knots and there was no way to stop it. As it came closer and closer you could hear it. It sounded like a runway train and it came right over the after battery hatch, which is slightly aft of midships.

I’ve never been so scared in my life, - and so was everyone else. Had we not been a little deeper, or had the torpedo been a little more to the right it would have hit our superstructure and I wouldn’t be here today.
I have to say that there was an aftermath. We had hit the target with one torpedo and the Japanese escorts were very upset with us, as you can imagine. So for the next several hours we were under depth charge attack. But we survived to fight another day.

There was a tragic and ironic event that occurred a few days later to a sister submarine. On
October 24, 1944, the USS Tang, making a night surface attack, fired a torpedo, which was
also a circular, - only this time they were hit and sent to the bottom in 180 feet of water.

Nine survived and became war prisoners.