Cornered at the Bottom of the East China Sea

By Robert Schultz and James Shell

It was during the Tambor's tenth war patrol, at 2035 on 28 January 1944, that a convoy heading north was spotted. Visibility was poor, however, and it was difficult to fix its position and course to plan an attack. But finally, at midnight, her captain, Lieutenant Commander Russell Kefauver, latched onto the convoy and approached it on the surface from astern of port.

There were seven ships-three large transports escorted by four patrol boats-and Kefauver diagrammed the formation in his patrol report. As the Tambor maneuvered to attack the nearest maru-a 10,000-ton freighter-crewman Tom Lampley stood a lookout post and gunner's mate Carlos Clifton "Nip" Howard was assigned to the 20-mm gun, in case a "battle surface" was called. Bob Hunt manned the phones in the forward torpedo room, prepared to fire a spread of three torpedoes on orders from the conning tower. In the tower, the captain stood near Bob Dye as the radar officer monitored range from the target. Kefauver asked Executive Officer Ed Spruance, son of Admiral Raymond Spruance, to man the bridge, explaining later, "I didn't want to scare myself by seeing the ships so close."

It would be a close shot-closer, even, than Kefauver intended. He brought the sub to within 1,650 yards of her target when the freighter zigged 45 degrees to the left, unwittingly nearing the Tambor. When the captain gave his order to fire, the range was just 600 yards, near the minimum for the torpedoes to arm before they struck their target. No sooner was the first fish away than one of the convoy's escorts turned on her red truck light, increased speed, and headed for the Tambor. Kefauver ordered the second torpedo away and then turned the boat hard to port to evade the onrushing escort. In the forward room, water flew as the tubes vented into the bilges, sucking air bubbles and seawater back into the boat to prevent detection and maintain the sub's trim. Then the reload process began, but Bob Hunt knew something was happening above when the boat went to left full rudder and all-ahead full. 

Close Call

Both torpedoes ran properly, and when they hit their target smoke and fire shot from the freighter. At such close range, the impact knocked the Tambor's lookouts back against the periscope shears. Tom Lampley, the starboard lookout, saw bodies and debris spinning in the flash. The patrol boat, however, continued on, her bow pointed straight at the Tambor, her searchlight probing for the sub. As she loomed, gunner's mate Howard saw Japanese sailors in white uniforms on board her running to man their deck guns. Kefauver, who had stepped to the bridge to fire the torpedoes, reported, "[A]ll hands . . . were convinced that ramming amidships was inevitable."

Tom Lampley, on his lookout perch, braced for impact. "I considered that [the patrol boat was] 12-15 feet from hitting us," he recalled. "I know when their searchlights hit me I thought they were bullets and I thought, well, it really don't hurt to die, after all." The bullets, however, were flying in the other direction. Firing in a continuous burst, Nip Howard raked the deck of the patrol boat, knocking out the searchlight, sending a hail of fire into the bridge, and stopping the sailors racing for their guns. As the 20-mm gun blazed, the escort was so close that Kefauver read the numbers on her bow by the light of the tracers. Bullets may have struck the Japanese helmsman, because the patrol boat veered off course and passed within a mere 20 yards of the Tambor's stern. Lampley, with a front-row balcony view, later said: "I believe that when Nip was shooting out the searchlights and raking the bridge with his fire that the helmsman was knocked down while holding onto the wheel, and as he went down he put right full rudder on his craft."

Bob had listened to the gunfire from below in the forward room, and once he had secured from battle stations learned the full story of the encounter. "We are very lucky to get by with this deal we just pulled," he wrote in his diary. "This guy on the machine gun will probably get a medal, as he really saved us from getting rammed."

When daylight arrived, the Tambor submerged and patrolled southward along the Ryukyu Islands, surfacing in the evening and heading west to intercept convoys at the mouth of the Formosa Strait. At dawn, 2 February, her radar detected ships that proved to be a freighter and tanker escorted by what appeared to be a brand new destroyer. Timing and plotting the ships' maneuvers, Kefauver and his tracking group planned an approach that would allow the Tambor to fire at both the freighter and tanker with the destroyer on the far side of them. "We sure have a lot of nerve cruising with this can [destroyer] all night," Bob wrote in his diary, "but he still doesn't know we're here."

At 0400 3 February, the boat finally made her approach. Bill Reynolds, the portside lookout, faced the Japanese ships. "As always, the queasy feeling in my stomach and the trembling of my legs and hands returned when I heard the target ranges shorten up and eventually when the targets were discernable," he recalled. In the forward room, Bob and his crewmates had readied all six tubes. At 0416 Bob heard through his headset the order to commence firing a spread of three torpedoes. Everyone in the boat felt the familiar, gentle tug as a burst of compressed air sent each fish out of its tube. As soon as they were on their way toward the freighter, Kefauver turned the boat and fired a spread of three at the tanker.

On the bridge, as soon as the first torpedo left its tube, Kefauver saw the destroyer turn, and Red Mayo heard her change the sonar pinging to a short scale. What happened next the captain recorded tersely in his patrol report: "Saw and heard two hits amidships in freighter followed immediately by one hit just forward of tanker's stack. Swung right with full rudder and increased speed to flank. Passed 400 yards abeam of tanker. Saw men on fantail of tanker in light of huge fire, which followed explosion on tanker. Intense light silhouetted Tambor, and destroyer began closing the range."

The lookouts remembered that the tanker's explosion was like nothing they'd seen before. First, Bill Reynolds had his binoculars trained on the freighter, Ariake Maru, when the torpedoes struck. A plume of seawater flew up, followed by the boom of the explosion that would send it to the bottom. Next he shifted his glasses to the tanker:

. . . the same geyser, the same report. A flicker of flame came from the stack and completely died down. Then a sight I'll never forget. Suddenly night turned into day. The tanker exploded and [it looked] as though the noon-day sun was shining in the East China Sea.

. . . In that hellish light I felt like a naked person on a crowded street with no place to hide. Dive! Dive! All hands below! The claxons [sounded and] I was the last man down and closed the hatch. Vents were open, all eyes were on the depth gauge, it just hung there, finally a down angle on the bow and [from] there on my memory is vague. I think I was on the stern planes until we hit bottom. I honestly can't remember.

The Initial Attack

As the Tambor dove, the destroyer passed directly overhead, and the crew heard splashes when the depth charges hit the water. Three exploded close by, shattering gauges and sending cork insulation flying, then three more boomed just as close, then two more. Reynolds remembered a momentary panic in the control room-the explosions were closer than anything he'd experienced. But Kefauver gave orders calmly, and due to the captain's demeanor, Reynolds said, "discipline was returned and we were a crew again." Kefauver took the sub to the bottom at 268 feet, and the boat went quiet.

The Japanese captain pummeling the Tambor knew his business. Methodically, the destroyer made pass after pass, dropping two charges at a time, all of which exploded extremely close by. Each time the crew heard the ship's approach, a rumble that grew louder until it roared like a steam locomotive crossing a trestle directly overhead. Then, through the hull, they heard the splash of the charges, waited as they sank, then heard and felt the explosion. The shock was like an immense hammer striking the hull. It shattered glass, sent paint fragments and cork flying, and loosened pipe fittings, causing leaks throughout the boat. A bad leak in the conning tower flooded the control room bilges and ran down to fill the bilges in the pump room below.

Enginemen Ray Bouffard and Warren Link, standing in the engine room's throttle area, felt a blast and saw a wall of water. Their first thought was that the hull had been breached and their boat was finished. Jack Semmelrath and John Scaduto were there, too, and threw out their arms, but the wall of water, instead of flooding over them, persisted eerily in the room. Their arms had passed through a veil of water backlit by a lantern. A cooling water gasket flange on one of the engines had been jarred loose, sending the thin stream across the entire room. As soon as the men realized what had happened, Ray Bouffard tightened the connection and stopped the leak-but there was a more serious problem. The men heard the unmistakable sound of air escaping the boat and quickly concluded that a ruptured line in a nearby ballast tank was leaking. Rising bubbles, they knew, would give away their position to the relentless destroyer.

Back in the control room, Nip Howard and Bill Reynolds were sitting on the deck with broken cork lying all around them. "Hey Bill," Nip said, "are you scared?"

"No," Bill lied.

"Me, neither," Nip replied. Perhaps saying it would make it so.

After an hour of listening to the destroyer churn over them and absorbing the blows of her depth charges, the crew heard a new sound through the hull. It was a loud crackling noise that the long-timers recognized as the sound of a ship's hull breaking up. One of their targets was imploding as she sank. Then the destroyer passed again and two more close charges banged the Tambor. When one of them exploded, Bob Hunt was standing on a crossbeam used as a support during reloading. The vibration burned his feet as if he stood on hot coals.

After two hours there was a lull in the attack, and no sound of the destroyer's screws came through the hull or sound gear. Kefauver decided to make a move. But that involved starting the loud drain pump to clear the flooded pump room bilges so the boat could be properly balanced. Kefauver later wrote in his report, with heat, "This pump is a menace." Within minutes the destroyer was upon them again-she had stopped to conceal her presence and listen. Red Mayo, on the sound gear in the forward room, yelled: "The guy is right on the track and coming like hell." When the sound of the screws came through the hull, Bob felt like they were drilling right into his head. "A very bad moment for all hands and about that time we got what we knew was coming," he wrote. In 268 feet of water the depth charges sank for 30 agonizing seconds while the crew waited for the inevitable explosions. Two went off close to the Tambor, and minutes later another pair exploded even closer to starboard, causing the sub to hog and sag. Bob's diary says, "This old boat just about broke in half and didn't seem like she would ever stop shaking." Kefauver quickly ordered the Tambor back to the bottom.

During this action Claude Brown, who had celebrated his 16th birthday earlier in the patrol, met Johnny Scaduto in the engine room. Brown remembered: "We stopped, facing each other, and he had his right hand on the cover of the Kleinschmidt salt water evaporator while I clutched the railings beside the engines. [The destroyer] roared over and dropped two . . . . I saw a streak of blue fire start from the forward bulkhead, travel the length of the electric cable, and shatter the light bulb over Scaduto's head raining pieces of glass down into his hair-then he took off running aft as the deck plates shifted under our feet, and I took off running forward to the aft battery compartment."

Two Hours

It was now 0655, and the Tambor had been under attack for more than two hours. As the depth charges continued to explode around them, one crewman shook his head, saying, "Some boat-she sure can take it." But they had to wonder how much more she could take. The Tambor was the first of her class, an older "thin-skinned 250," which meant that her steel pressure hull was rated to a maximum depth of 250 feet, compared to the 400-foot rating of the later, thicker-skinned subs. Sitting on the bottom at 268 feet, absorbing blow after blow, the Tambor had taken damage in every compartment.

In the maneuvering room, near the back of the sub, water leaked through the packing glands around both screw shafts. When close charges exploded near the boat's stern, Rex Harvey and Robert Galloway swore they could see flashes around the shafts, followed by the scent of cordite. In an attempt to stem the leaking, Roy "Foo" Rausher fastened a wrench to the tightening nuts and cranked hard. The crew had a saying about Foo, the strongest man on the boat, "When Foo tightens something it takes two men and a boy to loosen it." But he couldn't stop the leaks around the shafts. If water overflowed the shallow maneuvering-room bilges and rose above the deck plates in the motor room below, the main motors would get wet. So, between depth-chargings, the men formed a bucket brigade, frantically transferring water to the deeper bilges in the aft torpedo room. With every approach of the destroyer, they stopped, closed the water-tight doors between compartments, and sat out the attack.

And the attacks kept coming, sometimes 30 minutes apart, but for one terrifying hour they arrived every ten minutes. The destroyer crossed them from port to starboard, then back again, then down the port side, then down the starboard side. She had a fix on the Tambor. With air leaking from the boat, and given good depth and current charts, the Japanese captain could pinpoint the sub's location. At 0840, Kefauver recorded: "Destroyer ran down the port side, close aboard and dropped two duds. These were labeled Tambor and were close enough to be heard falling through the water." Some crew members recalled hearing these charges land on the deck, roll off, and bounce against the side of the boat.

The forward torpedo room was crowded. With the sub sitting on the sea floor, the main sound receiving heads on the bottom of the boat were useless, so radiomen Bill Shoop and Red Mayo were using the auxiliary sound gear there. And since this was the only way to track the destroyer-except when her screws were audible through the hull-the captain was there, too. Bob, in charge of the room, tried to keep his team occupied between attacks, instructing them to shut down leaks, mop up water, and sweep up debris. It was better than having everyone just standing around waiting for the next big jolt.

Then a big blast came. It sheared a pair of bolts from the overhead and sent them ricocheting through the compartment like rifle bullets. One bolt with its nut still attached struck Bob Dye, but most of its energy was spent and he was not badly hurt. Bob Hunt knew that the bolts held motors to the overhead, and if more of them were blown off the heavy machines would crash down. He told the men in bunks under them to move so they wouldn't get hurt when the motors fell. "This did scare the hell out of them," he wrote in his diary, "but it [got] them moving rather than laying in a bunk and getting smashed by [a] motor."

As the attack wore on, Kefauver made his way from room to room, assessing the Tambor's condition. As he went, he made a point of speaking with every man. And as he departed each compartment he said the same thing, over and over: "I am honored to have served with you."

If it sounded like the captain was preparing for the end, it only made plain what everyone was thinking. Nevertheless, the crew kept working, and gradually the air leaks were brought under control. One daring effort was made by machinists Gus Builder and William Wood, who crawled across the top of the sub's powerful batteries on a rubber blanket to get into the pressure hull and tighten fittings inside the Number 1 air bank.

During the long ordeal, there were periods of quiet when the men tried to get some sleep. One lull persisted for three hours, raising hopes that the destroyer had finally departed. Bob wrote in his diary:

Most of us had turned in for some rest as best we could at depth charge stations with water and cork all over everything. About noon we came out of our bunks like divers as the can had eased in and laid one right on top of us. It looks like the end as we thought he was gone and can't figure out how he found us there on the bottom. It could only be one thing?oil leaks. . . .

After that, he turned around and headed back?so close we could hear those screws right through the hull. Right over us again, up one side and down the other letting us have a pasting that we were sure the boat wouldn't stand. We just stood around and waited.

Eight Hours

It was now past noon, and the Tambor had been under depth-charge attack for eight hours. And still the destroyer dropped charge after charge, all of them on target. Then, in a pause between blasts, Commander Kefauver turned to his long-time crewmate, looked him in the eyes, and asked, "Bob, did you ever hear depth charges this close before?"

"Not that close, captain," Bob replied.

Then Kefauver said, "We've got to get out of here."

Immediately, he turned and headed to the control room, making his way as quickly as possible through the closed watertight doors of each compartment. Once there, he ordered Chief Bill Blakenbaker to start pumping so the Tambor could get under way. He warned the men, "We may have to surface and fight it out." A destroyer, bristling with guns, would make short work of a sub, but the alternative was waiting for the charge that would breach the Tambor's hull.

Checking the depth gauge, diving officer Blakenbaker saw that the boat had settled 12 feet into the sea bottom. The explosions had churned up sand and muck, and the boat's vibrations had settled her downward. As he gave instructions, the control room became a hive of activity to break the sub free. The trim manifold men pumped bilges into the sea to lighten the boat, the man on the hydraulic manifold opened and closed valves to shift weight from tank to tank, the men on the blow and vent manifolds did the same, and the crew in the maneuvering room applied power to the screws, running them forward and reversed, one at a time or both at once. The idea was to shift the boat from side to side, forward and back, like rocking a car stuck in mud.

Jack Semmelrath, in the forward engine room, watched anxiously as the lights dimmed with every attempt to break free. He was concerned about the waning battery power. "That was the real danger at this point," he thought, "NO BATTERY, NO PUMPS." The Tambor was stuck fast with dwindling air and power, and making a lot of noise for the destroyer above.

The crew on a submerged sub after 14 hours begins to experience shortness of breath as the oxygen content of the air diminishes. During the near-fatal East China Sea depth-charging, the Tambor remained submerged for 17 hours.

Methodically, Blakenbaker searched for just the right combination of weight distribution and thrust to free the boat. Bob remembered the ordeal of freeing the sub from the bottom lasting for about two hours. Clarence Erich thought it was five.

When at last the sub broke free, the crew was in for a white-knuckle ride. With flooded rooms, the boat-badly out of balance-tipped side to side and nosed upward, out of control. The control room gauges no longer worked, or flying debris had knocked their indicators out of calibration, so Blakenbaker worked by feel, continuing to pump water and air among various tanks. The trick was to keep the Tambor more or less upright and to keep her from broaching the surface where the destroyer would finish her off with gunfire. Blakenbaker called for full power on both screws to steady the boat, but trim was hard to establish. With great expertise and quick responses in the control and maneuvering rooms, he gradually brought the sub under control and kept her beneath the surface. Given a stabilized boat, Kefauver maneuvered, running for deeper water. The destroyer dropped another charge, and Red Mayo, still in the forward room, listened intently to its movements. 

Breaking Free

For another two hours the Tambor took evasive action, listening for the destroyer and waiting for full darkness. Finally, at 2100, Kefauver dared to surface the boat while improvising a tactic to conceal his position. On the way up, the helmsman fought to maintain his given heading, indicating a strong underwater current. Observing this, Kefauver ordered him to steer directly into the flow, causing any leaks of air or fuel oil to be carried far behind.

When the Tambor reached the surface, Kefauver couldn't be sure he'd lost the enemy, and even opening the conning tower hatch would be a risky venture. Without functioning gauges, equalizing the pressure in the boat with the pressure outside was a matter of guesswork, and when the hatch popped it nearly carried a man up the ladder. In the burst of decompression, the air in the conning tower turned smoky and blue. When the lookouts ran topside and scanned the area, however, they were relieved to see that a surface battle was not necessary. The East China Sea was dark around them. The Tambor had escaped.

By daylight the next morning, repair parties examined the sub topside and were shocked by what they found. Jack Semmelrath marveled at the white blotches on the superstructure that smelled like TNT. Jagged pieces of depth-charge shrapnel were embedded in the wooden decking. On the aft deck, the heavy 5-inch gun had been knocked off its trunnions, despite the bracket that held its barrel in place. The conning tower had been driven back three inches against the pressure hull and was misaligned. And, most disturbing, a 21-inch-long crack was visible in the outer hull. From the split, thousands of gallons of fuel oil leaked from the port-side fuel ballast tank.

The Tambor continued to trail oil, her ability to dive was compromised, she could not radio her location or condition and was nearly blinded by the damage to her periscopes and radar, and her only remaining weapons were the 20-mm gun, small arms, and the forward tubes. But without a working Torpedo Data Computer, it would be hard to hit anything with the remaining fish. Again, the crew went to work.

To reattach the turbo blower to its base, Gus Builder and Warren Link used the boat's lathe to fashion new bolts from raw stock. Builder hand-filed the bolt's hexagonal heads and retapped the old holes, and the blower was soon back in place. Chesty DeBay then rebuilt the blower motor, restoring it to use. Builder and Art Strickle cannibalized the two ruined compressors to make one good one, and the Tambor could once again jam air for future dives.

Bill Shoop, Harvey Refensterf, and Red Mayo worked to re-establish radio communication, drying the transmitter and running a lead up through the control room and the conning tower hatch to serve as an antenna. In case of a crash dive, a man was stationed at the hatch with an axe to chop through the lead. In this radio work, Red Mayo was hampered only slightly by the deafness in one ear caused by the explosions that had boomed in his headset. The radiomen managed to achieve a short-range signal, but it was not strong enough to reach an American outpost. So they did not hear that Tokyo Rose reported the Tambor's destruction, a report that did reach Gunnery Officer Vito Vitucci's wife, who worked at the Naval Communications Station in Washington, D.C.

Combat Ready-Almost

As repairs continued, Bob Dye sat on the control room deck, examining the burned out leads on the tube that drove the SD radar coils. Without radar, there would be no advance warning of aircraft. And without the Torpedo Data Computer, their most potent weapon was compromised, so a plan was devised to retrieve its dials from the bottom of the periscope well. Warren Link was the skinniest man on board, and he agreed to be lowered into the narrow well. Walter Post and Elmer Atchison fashioned a yoke out of heaving lines and a pillow, and Link went down head first, with ropes tied to his ankles and a flashlight hanging from his neck. It was a tight fit, and only the grease smeared on his skin allowed Link to slide 35 feet down the dark well. When they pulled him out after several tense minutes he was holding the crucial dials. Then, after 14 hours of continuous work, Post had the TDC working again.

The boat would have no aft protection, however. Neither the deck gun nor the aft torpedo tubes could be repaired, and no matter what Carl Johnson and his men tried, both of their hatches continued to leak. More serious than the leaking hatches was the cracked fuel ballast tank. After three days of repair work, on 7 February, Bob wrote in his diary:

Still have an oil leak and we're spreading oil all over the ocean-tried again to send the message but can't get it through. . . . [H]ave all repairs made in the forward room and are now looking for the Jap again-we're in very bad shape to be operating out here, but if we can get the oil leak stopped we won't be in so much danger.

Two days later, the leak was finally located and a repair plan devised. After the remaining fuel was shifted to other tanks, the damaged tank had to be flushed to fully stop the trail of remaining oil. Its pumps had to be converted to draw and expel seawater as in a regular ballast tank. The task required two men to go under the main deck, crawl through a jumble of lines, and remove a set of plates. This could only be done with the boat on the surface in broad daylight. Warren Link and John Scaduto, nicknamed "the Oil King" for his work with the fuel supply, volunteered for the job. Kefauver warned them: He would not jeopardize the boat and the entire crew if the Tambor was spotted. He would have to dive, even if the two men could not crawl out and reach the hatch in time.

Working in close quarters by the light of a lantern shone down through the slats of the topside deck, Scaduto and Link worked quickly but carefully, tucking nuts and bolts into their breast pockets as they went. Deep in enemy waters, just miles from Japanese territory, a plane could appear at any moment, especially with the early-warning SD radar out. The duo understood the situation and finished their work with dispatch. When, at last, they tightened the final bolts, the converted valves were tested and they roared, producing the same sound the boat made when it dove. Scaduto got out of the cramped space and ran for the hatch, shouting as he went: "Don't get in my way!"

The job was completed just in time. "[S]ighted a periscope quite close and really got out of there in a hurry," Bob wrote in his diary. "[W]e figured he was ready to fire when we sighted him." That day-8 February-Kefauver wrote in his patrol report: "All vital repairs completed. All tubes will fire by hand; continued electrical work. Considered boat to be in fighting trim again. Commenced patrolling an easterly course."

The Tambor and her crew had been at sea for 36 days, nearly all of that time in enemy waters. After the boat's near destruction, first by ramming and then during the long depth-charging-and operating now with extensive damage that included foggy vision through her single remaining periscope-the Tambor resumed her mission.

Four days later she sank the Ronsan Maru, a 2,700 ton passenger-cargo ship, and then survived another 17 depth-charges.

When the sub arrived back at Midway-ten days late-the crew learned that their mail had not been forwarded from Pearl Harbor. The Tambor had been presumed lost with all hands, but after extensive repairs she would go on to complete three more missions. 

Robert Schultz, a novelist and poet, is the John P. Fishwick Professor of English at Roanoke College, Virginia. James Shell, a freelance writer, is working on a memoir of his family set in Roanoke. This is an excerpt from their book, We Were Pirates (Naval Institute Press, 2009).

Robert Schultz is the Fishwick Professor of English at Roanoke College in Virginia. His books include a novel, The Madhouse Nudes, and two collections of poetry. He has received a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Award in Fiction, Cornell University's Corson Bishop Poetry Prize, and, from The Virginia Quarterly Review, the Emily Clark Balch Prize for Poetry.

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We Were Pirates
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