Short Stories About Subchasers

Though they fought and spilled blood all the way from Australia, the Solomons and New Guinea, the Gilbert and Marshalls, the Phillipines, Guam, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, no subchasers were invited to be present in Tokyo Harbor on 2 September, 1945, the day the Japanese surrendered aboard the battleship Missouri.

Bill Thomson was on SC 638 in the Atlantic. He writes “We spent the war on the edge. We did it all and then some, except Normandy. In retrospect we lived charmed lives. We returned from each expendable assignment with everyone aboard. Nobody knew we existed nor did anyone care except when they had a nasty little job that had to be done. Not even the navy. Who would read such an account? Most war stories require a hero or heroic events. We didn’t get any credit for going in harms way. The big ships were the heroes. We were the working stiffs.”

Subchasers had long, low, flush decks and boxy pilot houses. At night at sea or in poor visibility they could look like surfaced submarines Once SC 1470 was almost cut in two by PC 1123 off Alligator Reef, FL when the PC mistook it for an enemy submarine and made a ramming attack. It was not the first, nor would it be the last time this happened.

Pierre Salinger was commanding officer of SC 1368 in the Pacific. He distinguished himself during Typhoon “Louise” in Okinawa by making a daring rescue of some men stranded on a reef. For this act he received the Navy and Marine Corps medal.

For a brief period of time SC 998 had 3 officers exactly reversed in role and rank - an ensign as skipper, a Lieut. (j.g.) as executive officer and a Lieut (s.g.) as third officer.

Life on a subchaser was not very glamorous and although most SC sailors say they wouldn’t trade the experience for anything they’ve ever done since, others give those years on a subchaser a low grade. One ex subchaser sailor says: “I served on SC 510 in the Hawaiian Sea Frontier. It was a boring, dirty, stinking life.”

Joseph W. Barr, who later became Secretary of the Treasury during Lyndon Johnson’s administration, was skipper of SC 651 in the Mediterranean that captured a German midget submarine.

SC 680, commanded by an inexperienced skipper, had three collisions in the Brooklyn navy yard harbor within two hours after her commissioning.

“Bud” Talarico ex sailor on SC 1022 writes: “We took possession of the ship at Luders in Stamford CT in May of 1943. Of the 26 people who put the ship in commission, outside of the skipper and an electrician’s mate no one else had been to sea. It didn’t seem to bother any of us. We just cranked up the engines and set sail.”

Fred Cusick, now retired, for many years was the well-known radio announcer for Boston Bruins hockey. During World War II he commanded SC 1322 and refers to subchaser duty as “the best duty in the navy.”

At night when porpoises swam alongside a ship they often left a phosphorescent wake. Oftentimes the porpoises, playful creatures that they are, seemed to take delight in coming straight at the ship, causing many a subchaser sailor to start, because it looked so much like the wake of a torpedo.

Another subchaser man tells how luxurious a destroyer seemed in contrast to the cramped, uncomfortable life on a subchaser. He says, “Destroyers were always supposed to be the most rugged duty in the navy. They were actually good living ships. We liked tying alongside a destroyer. They had daily movies, cake and pie in the mess hall, an exchange store that sold candy, a laundry, a comfortable radio room - they were really quite comfortable. On our SC a night snack in the galley started with taking a piece of bread out of the warm refrigerator, holding it up to a light and picking out the maggots before eating it.”

Here’s another quote: “I was seasick most of the time but still performed my duties as a radioman. Lived with 15 other men in the forward compartment that was no bigger than a large bathroom and smelled like one.”

On the way to Guam in a slow convoy that took 19 days the men of SC 536 ran into a squall which was welcomed because no one had been able to take fresh water showers. All the men were topsides soaping up and bathing in fresh rain water when the squall suddenly ended. Most of the men were still soaped up. They had to rinse themselves in salt water.

Subchasers often requisitioned things for the ship using methods that weren’t exactly legal. Once when a few members of the crew of SC 632 were in Key West they stole a bar stool from the famous Sloppy Joe’s saloon and brought it back for the captain to use in the pilot house.

SC 636 had a fearsome experience in the typhoon that hit Okinawa in September 1945. Several times the ship almost broached, giving the men the most frightening experience of their lives. Somehow they were able to get off the ship onto land. The last they ever saw of SC 636 was when it floated out to sea, down by the stern, a derelict if there ever was one.

SC 676 was steaming alone on one of her numerous trips from Bizerte to Palermo when she was attacked by a rogue whale. The creature apparently resented the echo ranging of the ship’s sonar gear and surfaced under the ship’s port side, rolling it dangerously 50 or 60 degrees to starboard and disrupting everything in the ship. The port screw cut the whale rather badly and soon there was a large area of blood in the water. The 676 wound up in drydock as a result, and the entire port screw had to be replaced.

I was commanding officer of SC 648. We operated with the 7th Fleet Amphibious Force, which was nicknamed “MacArthur’s Navy.” We came up from Australia to New Guinea, participating in several operations during MacArthur’s island hopping march back to the Philippines, the Admiralties, then Leyte. Several pet lovers were in the crew and during my tour of duty we had a wallaby, a cockatoo, a monkey and two fighting gamecocks aboard - not all at the same time however.

On SC 981 one day at Cape Gloucester the 40mm crew was busy firing on some Japanese planes. The gun got so hot one of the shell magazines in the ammo ready box caught fire. The ready box was attached to the pilot house bulkhead. A gunners mate picked up the flaming magazine and tossed it over the side.

Once SC 983 had to escort a tanker from Pearl Harbor to Johnson Island. The SC’s skipper agreed with the tanker’s navigator to check and compare each other’s daily positions. After they arrived at Johnson Island without incident they compared notes and realized each was relying on the other’s dead reckoning, neither of them so much as lifting up a sextant nor doing any celestial navigation.

Bill Pappas, who served on SC 986 tells this story: “One time we had a Mexican kid on board. I don’t recall any other name but Poncho. I came topside after chow one day while on convoy duty and saw him sitting on the deck by the lazarette. I said ‘Hey Poncho, what’s up?’ He looked up and said, ‘Señor, are we doing what that sheep is doing?’ (pointing to another SC off to starboard rocking, rolling and all the other bad things that happen in a storm.) I told him ‘Yes’ and he said, ‘Cheese, no wonder I am seek.’”

Once when John K. Carl was trying to sleep in his bunk on SC 1332 he suddenly felt a hard bump. Opening his eyes he could see daylight through a hole in the side of the ship just above his bunk. It seems the subchaser had been refueling at sea and the fuel ship hit the SC, tearing open the hole. In the heavy sea water kept coming in and Carl’s bunk was soon thoroughly soaked. He got tossed out directly into a large trash can 6 feet below his bunk, so deeply embedded he had to be pried loose - to permanent kidding from his shipmates.

James T. Hay’s ship, SC 1333, operated out of Norfolk, VA. Hay went on an all night liberty and returned just as the ship was pulling out. He stayed ashore all that day and sneaked aboard when the ship came in, thinking the captain wouldn’t notice his absence. But he did notice and Hay received a summary court martial the result of which reduced his rating by one stripe. Today Mr. Hay says, “I am not proud of this, but it is rather amusing 51 years later.”