On the morning of 19 June 1945, in the waning days of World War II, the USS Bonefish (SS-223) was searching for the deepest water she could find in Toyama Bay on Japan’s northwest coast. Commander Lawrence L. Edge was the skipper for the boat’s eighth war patrol, which had started on 28 May from Guam. She had sailed with the USS Tunny (SS-282) and Skate (SS-305) as part of “Pierce's Pole Cats,” collectively commanded by the Tunny's skipper, Commander George E. Pierce.
The Bonefish, commissioned on 31 May 1943, was a Gato-class submarine, the first U.S. Navy ship to bear her name. She sank a total of 12 enemy vessels, for a total tonnage of 61,345, and damaged 7 more. She was awarded the Navy Unit Commendation for the period of her first, third, fourth, fifth and sixth patrols.
That June morning, the Bonefish had torpedoed a Japanese ship and was searching for cover. Post-war Japanese records reveal that the 5,488-ton cargo ship Konzan Maru was torpedoed and sunk in Toyama Bay on 19 June, and an ensuing severe counterattack by Japanese escorts—the Okinawa, CD-63, CD-75, CD-158, and CD-207—brought debris and a major oil slick to the water's surface.
Prior to departure from Guam, the boats in the Tunny’s submarine division had received upgraded equipment and a new mine-detecting device to allow them to transit the minefields in Tsushima Straight into the Sea of Japan to cut off the last of Japan’s overseas supply routes. The Bonefish had previously reported to the Tunny that it had sunk a ship on 16 June, then rendezvoused with the Tunny on the 18th, requesting permission to conduct a daylight submerged patrol into Toyama Bay.
The three boats were to depart the Sea of Japan through the La Perouse Strait, between the northern tip of Hokkaido and the southern tip of Russia’s Sakhalin Island, on the night of 24 June. The Bonefish did not make the scheduled pre-transit rendezvous, and the Tunny loitered in the area until June 27. Three days later, on 30 June, the Bonefish was presumed lost.
A Letter Is Shared
Several years ago, during a meeting of the Camas-Washougal Rotary Club, Joyce, another member, handed me a plastic bag with an envelope in it. With a big smile on her face, she said, “I want you to have this. I think you’ll know what to do with it.” When home, I opened the bag and withdrew the envelope, the return address including “U.S.S. Bonefish — FPO San Francisco, Calif.”
I have seen many items from hundreds of years of history in various museums around the world; now I was holding one, cautious about its contents. It was not from one of my family members or addressed to a family member.
The envelope had two 6-cent airmail stamps and had received an ink stamp showing “Passed By Naval Censor.” I slowly withdrew the contents and found a letter from Radioman Second Class Howard John Hackstaff to Miss Velma Scott, in Denver, Colorado.
Unfolding it, I found enclosed a yellowed newspaper clipping of Howard’s obituary, presumably from a Denver paper, with his photo.
I tried contacting two groups of USS Bonefish crewmen and people associated with submarine memorials, but I did not receive any response, so I noted the important details from the obituary and the envelope and started researching Howard Hackstaff.
I found his yearbook photo as a freshman, knowing from his obituary that he graduated from East High School in Denver, Colorado, and found Velma’s photo from a different year, as Velma was about four years younger than Howard. Her yearbook page noted that she was on the Senior Class Picnic Committee and was a member of the Bowling Club. After graduation from high school in about 1938, Howard enrolled at the University of Colorado and also attended classes at the University of Denver prior to enlisting in the Navy on 10 March 1942. He was 21 years old when he filled in his Draft Card, and he likely knew when he would be called for service.
Howard was interested in electrical engineering and was pursuing studies in that direction, which may have influenced his assignment as a radioman. His educational background would likely have stood out to the classifier if Howard shared that information when he enlisted. From that perspective, he was not the stereotypical farm boy pulled off a tractor to be plunked down into a highly complicated machine of war. He had a greater level of technical education than most enlistees and likely had a good feel for what he was doing.
Howard stayed with cousins in the Denver area while traveling from Submarine School in Connecticut to the Bonefish in the Pacific theatre, though I was not able to determine when he joined the crew of the submarine. He is on the muster list of the transport ship USS West Point II (AP-23) in February 1945 while en route from Hawai’i to Manila in the Philippines, and on the muster list for the Bonefish in March 1945, which is about the time the boat started operating from Apra Harbor, Guam.
Throughout this time, Howard was corresponding with Velma. Even possible, calls would not have been easy or economical, when a hundred other sailors were in line behind you at the phone booth. When at school or deployed, the old axiom—“You don’t get mail if you don’t send any”—often applies, with only very dedicated friends or family continuing to write when you reply.
Reading Howard’s letter, I found he talked of general things that were on his mind—returning home after the war and what he wanted to do. Howard knew his letter had to get past a naval censor, so he did not write about what they were doing or where he was or perhaps what he may have really wanted to share—only that he was very busy. He was looking forward to visiting a cousin near New York after the war and enjoying some of the night life he had experienced on a very brief prior visit. Velma likely never knew that Howard and the Bonefish were in Guam or that they were preparing for a push up the west coast of Japan; she could read the paper and watch the movie theatre newsreels and imagine he was out there somewhere in all that she saw and read.
Howard did write in a general sense about his eagerness to be back home. The crew must have felt that end of the war nearing, as Allied forces were growing nearer to the Japanese Home Islands month by month. The island-hopping campaign was getting them all there, leaving the question as to what they would do once they arrived. It was likely not lost on the submarine crews that their patrols were taking them into areas that a year before would have been operationally impossible.
Howard notes that prior letters from Velma—whom he refers to as “love” and “sweets”—have not caught up with him, and one was to have photos in it, which he wanted to see. Velma had been able to take a trip to New York and had written about it in a prior letter, which he references. He is anxious to get home.
All these themes are familiar to any of us who have served in the military or supported family members who were, and I easily imagined Howard’s voice as I read it.
The Bonefish was the second-to-last submarine lost during the war; the Bullhead (SS-332) was lost in August 1945.
I could imagine the telegram announcing the loss of the Bonefish and Howard as it arrived at his parent’s house in Denver, and his parents discussing who would inform Velma. Howard had a brother and a sister, and one of them may have known Velma and helped, as they were experiencing the same loss.
After the end of the war, Velma married twice and had no children, working in business through her adult life. Joyce, who originally handed me the letter, had worked with Velma for many years, told me that Velma never spoke of Howard. When Velma died in 2006, Joyce was the person designated to go through Velma’s belongings and sort them out. The letter was one of the few items from Velma’s high school years—and the one item she kept regarding Howard, with the newspaper clipping tucked inside.
My research revealed extended family members who knew of Howard but had no conscious connection to him. As he died unmarried and without children, there are no descendants who want the letter, only some distant nieces who have little sense of who Howard was. To them, he did not exist. Velma’s family similarly had little connection with her.
My father, as well as most of my uncles and many of my aunts served in some capacity during World War II, though there are few tangible objects saved as part of their memories, and few of them would ever speak of their experiences. Life moved on, and they left the war and all that went with it behind them, rarely looking back.
For several years, the letter remained folded and in its plastic bag, carefully placed on my desk where, I would see it on a regular basis and remember what I know of two people I never met: Howard John Hackstaff, who went to war, and Velma Ayres Scott, who waited for his return.
The letter has been donated to the Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum at Pearl Harbor for display through their digital media.