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Rear Admiral William D. Irvin, USN (Ret.) (1905-1993)

Rear Admiral William D. IrvinBased on 11 interviews conducted by John T. Mason Jr. from March to October 1978, the volume contains 673 pages of interview transcript plus an index. The transcript is copyright 1980 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee placed no restrictions on its use.

After Naval Academy graduation in 1927, Irvin served in Atlantic and Asiatic fleets. In 1932 he attended submarine school and then reported to the USS S-48, in which Lieutenant H.G. Rickover was XO. Irvin served in various submarines in the late 1930s and early 1940s and commanded the USS Nautilus (SS-168) during three war patrols in middle of World War II. She provided photo reconnaissance of beaches at Tarawa, Apamama, and Makin prior to invasions. He later commanded Submarine Squadron Two; was CO, Service School Command at Great Lakes; attended the Naval War College; and served on SubPac staff and as liaison between CinCNELM and Commanding General U.S. Forces Austria. While Commander Service Force Pacific Fleet he initiated automatic data processing and was involved in planning for Naval Support Activity Danang. From 1965 to 1967, commanded the Pacific Area of Military Sea Transportation Service.


An index to this volume can be viewed here (.pdf).


Rear Admiral Irvin: The Marines would go ashore from the Nautilus in in rubber boats and would land and work their way along the south shore and the plan was that they would put up panels in the trees which would tell us where they were and what, in particular, they needed. We would provide them with more ammunition, food and other necessities and take off any wounded, etc. So we put them ashore the next night and they got off in their rubber boats. I recall saying to Captain Jones, who had been with me on the first patrol, "Now be damned sure you keep us informed where you are because I'll be totally in the dark out there and submerged all day long and you appreciate the fact that when we come up at night we have a flat battery and we have to make early contact and then get back out to charge our batteries so that we would be in survival state for the next day."

John T. Mason, Jr.: What kind of opposition did they expect from the Japanese in taking Apamama?

Rear Admiral Irvin: Well, they knew there were these Japanese Marines there but they didn't think there were many.

So, we let them off on this south island during the night and the next morning we took up our patrol along the south shore of the Atoll and there was nary a sign of anything - no panels, nothing - we couldn't see a damned thing. We stewed all day long about where they were and what progress they were making and how they were making out. Then I began to have misgivings about the opposition on the island that perhaps it was much greater than we anticipated and they might very well have been ambushed and wiped out.

So we went through a long and hard day of looking for them and came up that night and searched as close as we thought was possible to the beach and there was no sign of anything. No lights, no fire - nothing.

We went off and charged our battery and went back into the beach early to try and discern something before the sun rose - we got nowhere. That meant the second day and we'd still had no contact with them, absolutely nothing. By the end of the second day, I was really upset. The whole thing had blown up. I was trying to make up my mind about what we should do. We had a few rubber boats left and I knew that I could get some volunteers who would be willing to go ashore and look for them but I thought I might lose them as well.USS Nautilus (SS-168)

We drew off into the second night and we came back the third day and searched again - and we saw a panel. Far short of the progress we thought they would make, but nevertheless we saw the panel and later on during the day, we saw another one that indicated that they wanted to come off that night for ammunition, etc. Different panels meant different things had been hung up in the trees. So we positioned ourselves that night and Jones came up in a rubber boat and had two men with him. One man was badly shot with an automatic rifle and the other man had a hernia that was blowing out and strangulating him. He wanted ammunition badly and more food and he thought that their progress was all right once they could get settled down and that he hoped he would be around the corner during the course of the rest of the night (southeast corner) and up along the eastern shore. His men had made a reconnaissance up there and they found that they had to get across a stream that ran from the ocean into a lagoon and that they were pretty certain that they could see Japs en­trenched on the other side of this stream. There was a coconut grove and they saw the Japs under the coconut trees in this grove and his thought was that he would line his people up from the south side of this stream and face the Japs from the north side because he thought they were entrenched there. If I would surface off this point and open up with the guns on this coconut grove then our guns would be able to blast the Japs out.

Well, we were equipped with some super quick fuses that went off on palm fronds and we arranged a fire control staff with a walkie talkie radio and we had one abroad and we were to work into a position as close as possible to the beach just off this stream and after establishing communications, we would open up on them and shoot into the palm trees and also shooting down if we could do so - but we were so close that the trajectory was such that it was extremely difficult to bring it any closer to the trees.

With this makeshift communication system we'd worked out, we opened up and fired. The shell hit the palm fronds and fell onto the ground below. He radioed back to me that that was fine and to make the next one a little bit to the right, etc., or lower, or to the left, etc., and a couple of times he shouted, "You stupid jackass, I said to the right. You shot to the left and you almost hit me." We had that kind of exchange going. There had only been-one shell coming over - we'd see both guns going off, but only one shell going out. Our two guns were such, that when they fired, one gun would squat - the breech would go down and the brow would go up - and the shell would go way over into the center of the Atoll. Our elevating mechanism had gone haywire on this one gun and when it fired, it would slip and throw the barrel up into the air and throw the shell way out - miles away.

I kept shouting from the bridge down to the gun men to train the gun on the water so that when it went off it would at least kick it high enough to go into the palm trees. We got nowhere with that and the fore gun was the only one that did anything. It wasn't very long before he thought that the blasts had combed out practically all the coconuts and he didn't think there were any Japs left.

He told us to cease firing and they would attempt to get across. In a very short period of time he called back and said they were across but there was nothing but debris and dead bodies - Japs all over the place - all dead bodies.

With that, we had agreed that if he did succeed, I was to go off and do the next thing I was told to do. I was still supposed to go to Nauru Island and do a life guard mission down there.

(Note: Due to edits, corrections, and/or amendments to the original transcription draft, there are some inconsistencies between the recording and the text.)



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