The Gato-class submarine USS Halibut (SS-232) slid through the waters of the Luzon Strait, prowling for Japanese surface vessels. As the sun rose over her stern on 14 November 1944, her skipper, Lieutenant Commander Ignatius J. “Pete” Galantin, ordered the boat to dive. Increased aerial traffic observed during the night was a promising sign that the Halibut was in the right place.1 Galantin had a hunch that Japanese shipping, bound to reinforce or resupply beleaguered enemy troops in the Philippines, would soon pass through the Bashi Channel at the north end of the strait.
The Halibut was on her tenth patrol of the war. Operating alongside the USS Haddock (SS-231) and Tuna (SS-203), she had sunk the Japanese destroyer Akizuki during the Battle of Leyte Gulf three weeks before. Now the crew, a mix of plankowners, veterans, and new recruits, was ready for more.2 They did not know this would be the Halibut’s final cruise.
The boat dove to periscope depth, and for the next five hours, she scanned the seas for enemy traffic. At 1146 Tokyo time, the Halibut spotted her prey: masts on the horizon to the southeast. The ships were northbound, perhaps withdrawing troops and equipment from the Philippines. The Halibut closed at high speed, ready to kill.
Launched just four days before the attack on Pearl Harbor and commissioned into service in April 1942, the 311-foot Halibut displaced 1,500 tons and could run at 21 knots on the surface.3 Her first five patrols, under Commander Philip Ross, took her from the Aleutian Islands to Japanese home waters. The boat claimed five enemy vessels under Ross’ command.
Galantin, a 1933 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, took command in August 1943 and ranged the Pacific, sinking five Japanese merchant or shipping vessels, bombarding a shore installation, and sinking the minelayer Kamome in the 18 months prior to the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Joining the crew in mid-1944 was Skeeter, a mutt adopted from the vicinity of San Francisco’s Lefty O’Doul’s, a famous sailor’s haunt near Union Square.4 Skeeter was the lone dog in a crew of 82.5
By 1244, the Halibut’s conn had made out seven vessels: one large, one small, and two medium freighters and four escorts, three of which Galantin believed were No. 13-class antisubmarine vessels, with one more that might have been a Type D-class kaikoban patrol vessel.6
Torpedoman’s Mate Third Class Tudor Davis, on board since the Halibut’s fifth patrol in 1943, helped prep her six bow torpedo tubes.7 The boat was ready to fire as soon as targets came in range.
In the forward engine room, Motor Machinist’s Mate First Class Clayton Rantz, a Halibut plankowner who had lied about his age to enlist in 1940, stood by his beloved diesel engines, silent while the Halibut, on battery power, cruised submerged.
Galantin, meanwhile, anxiously surveyed the closing distance to the convoy. The Halibut needed to get close enough to score a hit, but not so close as to give the escorts a fighting chance of catching and sinking the submarine.
Skeeter took a spot near the sonar operator, his canine senses alert for trouble.
The boat closed to 3,100 yards, just over 1.5 nautical miles—long range for an attack, but the escorts and possible presence of aircraft meant the Halibut had to “fire at long range or not at all.”8
“Fire!” commanded Galantin. Four Mk 18 Mod 1 torpedoes leapt from the Halibut’s bow and streaked toward the targets.9 He estimated the torpedo run would take about three minutes. “Come about!” ordered Galantin. “Prepare to fire with the stern tubes!” The boat began a sharp, 180-degree turn as the aft torpedo room prepared four more fish for sea.
“Mark!” cried the chief quartermaster. The sonarmen’s headsets were silent. A tense minute passed. The range was too long, and the targets slipped the attack.
The bridge clock read 1324:10, and an explosion reverberated through the submarine; black smoke billowed from one of the freighters. Another explosion boomed from the convoy; the fish had missed the nearer target but hit one farther away on the same azimuth. Two hits out of four torpedoes, so far so good. Galantin waited for the firing solution for the stern tubes to settle. Four more torpedoes should finish off the wounded freighter.
Despite having gone to mast twice, once for being rude and surly and once for soiling a chief petty officer’s trouser leg, Skeeter suddenly sprang into action, acting curiously and growling.10 The sonar operator heard it, too, a strange buzzing noise in his headset, and thought it was probably an aircraft’s jikitanchiki system, an early magnetic anomaly detector.11 The Halibut raced for the depths as explosions rocked her port side. The aircraft, likely a Mitsubishi G3M Type 96 “Nell” bomber, was dropping bombs on the submarine.12
“Take her deep!” roared Galantin, and the boat dove deeper underwater to escape the attack. As she passed 200 feet, more explosions followed. Galantin held the dive. The Halibut’s test depth, the maximum safe depth for normal operations, was about 300 feet, but she did not stop there; the only thing more dangerous than going deeper was not going deep enough.13
The Nell’s bombs bought time for the escorts to close on the Halibut’s position. Depth charges began to rain down around the boat. She continued deeper as the hull creaked under the strain of the building water pressure. The explosions shook the boat, while concussions close aboard forced the sub ever lower “as though a giant hand was pushing a toy boat underwater.”14 The Halibut rattled as she plunged to 425 feet below the surface. One explosion off the port bow tossed Torpedoman Davis and his companions into the air. The violence dislodged the deckplates beneath their feet, and a couple of the sailors fell below into the bilge. The torpedoes, in a ready state for easy loading, were similarly thrown about.
The explosions eventually abated, and the Halibut stabilized her depth. Tense seconds ticked by as the crew braced for more attacks. The men worked feverishly to keep the boat seaworthy. The main induction valves, meant to bring in air on the surface, had been damaged and were letting in seawater. Everything in the boat had been rattled. The gyro compasses no longer worked, and the control room’s clock had stopped, reading 1346:24.15
However, the Halibut’s recent overhaul in San Francisco seemed to have been worth the time away from the war: Pipes were leaking, bulkheads were warped, gear was strewn, and the conning tower was mangled, but the hull held, and no serious injuries were reported. The Halibut crept along, far below the surface, with as much as 16,000 feet of crushing ocean beneath her keel.
“Chlorine gas!” someone shouted. “Gas in the forward battery well!” Between the control room and the forward torpedo room was officers’ country, beneath which was the battery well, housing the lead and sulfuric acid batteries that powered the boat while submerged. Any exposure of the acid cells to seawater would trigger a release of deadly chlorine gas.
Damage to the air tanks in the vicinity of the wardroom allowed high-pressure air to suddenly flood the space. The men in the compartment scrambled out of the wardroom and into the control room aft or the torpedo room forward. Faced with the prospect of deadly, overpressurized gas, the airtight doors were shut as air pressure built within, sealing the forward torpedo room off from the rest of the boat.
Although the sailors had trained for such a scenario, none of the men had experienced it for real.16 The inability to accurately simulate a gas leak in training resulted in confusion on board the damaged submarine. Was the wardroom filled with overpressurized chlorine gas at the same moment the rest of the ship fought a seemingly endless number of leaks? How could the boat surface to vent the space with the enemy overhead? When would the next attack rain down? No matter the answers, one thing was clear: The men in the forward torpedo room were trapped.
Galantin had to make a decision. The rising air pressure in the contaminated space threatened the integrity of the whole boat. It was already at 52 pounds per square inch. If the batteries were letting off more gas, the pressure could continue to build. Someone would have to lower the air pressure in the space by equalizing it with another, adjacent space, potentially exposing themselves to the chlorine. The high-pressure air held the aft control room door closed, but the forward door to the torpedo room could be opened. The men there would have to open the door to the contaminated compartment, potentially sacrificing themselves to save the boat. The skipper ordered Davis and his comrades to open the door to the wardroom.
Still submerged and under threat of further Japanese attacks, Galantin braced for the consequences of exposing the torpedo room to the high-pressure gas. Meanwhile, around the boat, the crew worked in stifling conditions to get her sailing again. Leaks in the forward part of the boat had admitted enough seawater that the Halibut could barely climb, and with no compass, the best she could do was drive slowly with the rudder amidships.
The torpedomen carefully cracked the door to the wardroom. Slowly but noisily, air started venting into their space. They quickly resecured the door and cautiously sniffed the air. In other circumstances, the handful of men impersonating Skeeter might have been comical. At the time, though, it was deadly serious. The sailors conferred briefly. There was an odor, but it was not of chlorine. Maybe. Probably. The men reached a conclusion: There was no chlorine gas leak, and they were going to open the door and start equalizing the pressure.
Galantin determined that the attack that had so severely tossed the Halibut about had upended almost everything in officers’ country, including “hair tonic, shaving oil, [paint], and food.”17 The resulting mélange smelled understandably unpleasant and unfamiliar. The damage to the Halibut’s sea valves and air lines, the sudden odor, the inrush of gas, and the presence of seawater prompted the men in the wardroom to sound the alarm and escape the area.
With the threat of poison gas abated, the crew began to balance the boat’s internal air pressure while working on repairs. The process was a noisy one, complicating the sonarmen’s work; even Skeeter’s keen ears could not make out whether the Japanese were still far above, on the surface.
Three hours after the attack, the wounded Halibut crept upward. Hydraulic failures throughout the boat required manual actuation of numerous systems. Every action took twice as long to accomplish. In the forward engine room, Petty Officer Rantz gleefully reported that “his” two big diesels were ready to go (the aft engine room was not, he added mischievously).18
“Up periscope!” Galantin commanded. It was late afternoon now, and the skipper scanned the sea for the enemy. For reasons unknown, the Japanese had left the area. There was no sign of the convoy, and no evidence that any of the Halibut’s targets were sunk. Only after sunset did the submarine finally surface. She had been underwater for 12 hours. The crew was exhausted and rattled, and the boat was severely damaged.
The conning tower and hull were heavily “dished in” from the forward escape trunk aft to the forward engine room. The breech on the deck gun had been pierced by shrapnel. Sheetmetal bulkheads within the sub were warped, and hydraulic fluid was leaking throughout the boat. The gyro compasses were still inoperable, as was the radio. With the air pressure finally equalized within the hull, Galantin and his crew worked slowly and carefully to bleed the high-pressure air out through the tower while surfaced.
The wounded Halibut steamed slowly westward, hoping to make contact with the rest of her scattered wolfpack. At 2120, the boat picked up a radar return, possibly another U.S. submarine. With the radio out of commission, Galantin used the SJ radar array like a long-range signaling light.19 The Halibut sent a message to the contact: “Need help.”20 The radar contact turned out to be the USS Pintado (SS-387). The Halibut asked her to close to visual range to help with navigation to Saipan, where the battered sub would rendezvous two days later with the USS Fulton (AS-11), a submarine tender, and effect repairs before setting course for Pearl Harbor.
The boat was badly damaged but seaworthy. Galantin, in his patrol report, declared that “[the] beating our ship took and survived brings our admiration and respect to the men who designed her, the people who built HALIBUT, and those who recently overhauled her at Bethlehem Steel Company.”21
On reaching Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in early 1945, and with the war in the Pacific winding down, the Navy determined the damage to the Halibut was too extensive to justify repairing the boat, and she was scheduled for decommissioning.22 Plans to convert her to a school ship did not materialize, and the Halibut was sold for scrap for $23,123.23
The Halibut effectively became the 53rd U.S. submarine lost in the war.
“No praise is too high for the performance of duty by all officers and men,” Galantin wrote in his official war patrol report. “It is a source of great pride to the commanding officer to serve with men who so completely conform to the highest traditions of our navy. It was the unfailing fighting spirit, team work, and initiative of all hands that made possible the HALIBUT’s success and safe return.”24 Galantin’s superiors agreed. “The stellar performance of duty by the officers and men of the HALIBUT undoubtedly saved this ship from destruction,” proclaimed Commander, Submarine Forces, Pacific, in his endorsement of Galantin’s report.25
For her actions against the convoy, her resilience under Japanese attack, and her crew’s efforts to keep the boat alive, the Halibut earned a Navy Unit Commendation. Galantin was awarded the Navy Cross.
Over ten war patrols, the Halibut won seven battle stars and sank 12 enemy ships totaling 45,257 tons; she damaged 13 more enemy vessels. These tallies make her the 35th most successful U.S. sub of the war by vessels sunk. Her name lived on in her famous progeny, the Cold War–era USS Halibut (SSGN-587), which served as a special-mission submarine from 1960 to 1976.
Skeeter was adopted by the boat’s cook, Norman “Tom” Thomas, after the war.26 Torpedoman Davis retired as a chief petty officer in 1961.27 Galantin rose to the rank of admiral, and his close relationship with his crew persisted. Machinist’s Mate Rantz’s daughter would call him “Uncle Pete” for life. The nickname caused much confusion when, at Officer Candidate School, young Ms. Rantz told her chain of command that her Uncle Pete was coming to her commissioning. The school went into a minor panic when Uncle Pete turned out to be a four-star admiral.
The Halibut’s last cruise took its toll on her crew. Many struggled with the harrowing memories of the attack for the rest of their lives. The story of Skeeter’s keen senses, the tossing about of the torpedo room, the frozen clock, the crushing depth, and the sounds of a creaking hull and reverberating explosions would stick with the men forever. Perhaps the stories grew in the retelling, like all sailors’ yarns, but every tale of the Halibut’s last cruise includes the fear of the moment giving way to a deep connection between shipmates.28 At crew reunions, which persisted into the early years of the 21st century, each man would scramble to reserve room 232 at the chosen hotel.
In the last photo taken of the entire crew together, after the boat’s final long crawl from Saipan to Pearl Harbor, 80 men (and one dog) crowd behind their captain on the deck of the boat that saved their lives, the boat that they saved.
The Halibut did yeoman’s work in World War II. Her record was respectable but not dazzling, her patrols were successful but not legendary. In that way, she represents the dozens of other U.S. submarines who similarly, silently, turned the tide of war in the Pacific with an everyday heroism belied by its practitioners.
At 96, Tudor Davis is the last known living Halibut crewmember. “All the men on that boat were wonderful,” he said in a phone conversation from his home in Washington state. Despite serving on board a variety of nuclear and conventional submarines in the years after the war, Davis’ time in the Halibut stands out to him, even now. “It was my home for [six] war patrols, and some things you cannot forget.” Galantin was “greater than great! We had total faith in him,” Davis said. “He was not a hero kind of guy. He didn’t think of himself as a hero. But to us he was [because of] how he saved our boat. . . . We were young and eager to serve our country,” said Davis. “We were regular Joes, nothing special.”29
The Navy, however, disagrees with Davis, proclaiming in the Navy Unit Commendation award: “A seaworthy and gallant ship, HALIBUT escaped destruction only by the heroic performance of duty of her courageous officers and men. . . . in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”30
1. I. J. Galantin, Take Her Deep!: A Submarine against Japan in World War II (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1988), 229.
2. Appendix to Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee, “Japanese Naval and Merchant Shipping Losses During World War II by All Causes” (Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee, 3 February 1947), 21, history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/j/japanese-naval-merchant-shipping-losses-wwii.html.
3. U.S. Navy, “Halibut (SS-232) WWII Patrol Report” (Washington, DC: Naval District Washington, 16 October 1978), 7, usshalibut.com/Vets%20Page%20Rework/SS-232_HALIBUT.pdf.
4. William Galvani, “Sea Dogs,” American Heritage (October 1994), americanheritage.com/sea-dogs#2.
5. Galantin, Take Her Deep!, 261.
6. U.S. Navy, “Halibut (SS-232) WWII Patrol Report,” 314; Mark Stille, Imperial Japanese Navy Antisubmarine Escorts 1941–45, vol. 248, New Vanguard (Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2017), 44, books.google.com/books?id=TGErDwAAQBAJ&dq.
7. Cameron Kast, “Ebbs and Flows: The Life of Battle Ground WWII Veteran Tudor Davis,” The Reflector, 17 June 2019, thereflector.com/life/article_fe29d326-9139-11e9-a0dd-7bbfeaab70dc.html.
8. Galantin, Take Her Deep!, 229.
9. U.S. Navy, “Halibut (SS-232) WWII Patrol Report,” 315.
10. Galantin, Take Her Deep!, 246.
11. Galantin, 248; U.S. Navy, “Halibut (SS-232) WWII Patrol Report,” 328.
12. “U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, Interrogations of Japanese Officials” (Washington, DC: Naval Analysis Division, 1946), 197, history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/i/interrogations-japanese-officials-voli.html.
13. C. Bishop, The Encyclopedia of Weapons of World War II (New York: MetroBooks, 2002), 446, books.google.com/books?id=MuGsf0psjvcC.
14. Galantin, Take Her Deep!, 232.
15. Galantin, 232.
16. Galantin, 234.
17. U.S. Navy, “Halibut (SS-232) WWII Patrol Report,” 316.
18. Galantin, Take Her Deep!, 243.
19. U.S. Navy, “Halibut (SS-232) WWII Patrol Report,” 337, 340.
20. Galantin, Take Her Deep!, 244.
21. U.S. Navy, “Halibut (SS-232) WWII Patrol Report,” 316.
22. Naval History and Heritage Command, “Halibut I (SS-232),” in Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships (Washington, DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2004), public2.nhhcaws.local/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/h/halibut-i.html.
23. Galantin, Take Her Deep!, 260.
24. U.S. Navy, “Halibut (SS-232) WWII Patrol Report,” 342.
25. U.S. Navy, 353.
26. Jessica Swanson, “Profile: Tudor Davis One of the Last USS Halibut Veterans,” Kitsap Daily News, 23 March 2012, kitsapdailynews.com/news/profile-tudor-davis-one-of-the-last-uss-halibut-veterans/.
27. Kast, “Ebbs and Flows.”
28. Several articles, written long after the war, say the Halibut went as deep as 600 feet. In some tales, Skeeter’s senses also seem to provide enough advance warning that Galantin dived the boat before the attack began in earnest. As neither a contemporary source nor Galantin’s memoir confirm some of these details, their veracity will remain shrouded in mystery, as all good yarns should be.
29. Tudor Davis, phone interview with Graham Scarbro, 11 January 2020.
30. Galantin, Take Her Deep!, 262.