By summer 1945, U.S. submarines had decimated Japan’s ability to resupply its shrinking empire. In desperation, Tokyo began coercing thousands of privately owned junks, home-built wooden sailing craft, to carry small lots of cargo. These pickup trucks of southeast Asia provided at least minimal sustenance to Singapore and other remote enemy outposts—until Allied intelligence learned of their employment. Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, ordered the USS Cod (SS-224), like many of her sister boats, to conduct junk interdiction missions.
Such missions were roundly hated by submariners, because, as Cod Motor Machinist’s Mate Third Class (MoMM 3)Howard “Doggie” Dishong explained, “It was foolish of Uncle Sam to risk a multimillion-dollar submarine, plus the lives of her crew, for a ‘spitkit’ worth a few thousand.” However, if enough spitkits could be taken out, the noose around the enemy’s neck would tighten. So, sophisticated fleet subs, bristling with the most advanced radars and weapons available, were turned into caravels carrying 20th-century buccaneers.
The manual for junk warfare was being written by the submarines, and early attacks on junks were straight surface gun actions. But the submarine crews quickly realized to their horror that the junks often carried the families of their crews. Word went out to stop and inspect the junks’ cargoes before sinking them. This would give their crews the opportunity to take to the small boats they often carried.
After weeks of this highly stressful work, often in water too shallow for a sub to dive if discovered by enemy ships or aircraft, the Cod’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Edwin M. Westbrook, had 24 junks to his credit, enough to designate the patrol a success (sinking 2,000 tons of enemy shipping) and earn a coveted battle star.
At 0807 on 1 August, the Cod approached a large junk that aroused Westbrook’s suspicions by its repeated attempts to maneuver away from him. At 0830 the Cod came alongside the junk and six men boarded. The team was led by Engineering Officer Frank Kimball, a Mustang who joined the Navy in 1929. Seaman Second Class Sam “Bo” Renfroe disarmed the junk crew and imprisoned them in their line locker while the other boarders inspected the ships papers and cargo.1
The Cod’s junk efforts were greatly enhanced by an enthusiastic Chinese volunteer from one of the junks previously sent to the bottom. To the sub’s crew, he was known as Tommy See. Tommy was raised by American missionary nuns in China and was living in Singapore when Japan invaded. Fluent in English and most of the local dialects, he was a vital member of every boarding party, serving as translator.
The cargo on board the junk consisted of Japanese army blankets, knapsacks, horseshoes, and tarpaulins. With the crew subdued, Renfroe returned to the Cod and secured a line from the junk to a cleat on the sub’s port bow and then stood watch with his Browning Automatic Rifle and pistol.2
Renfroe was joined on the bow by MoMM 3 Norm Jensen, who was assigned to the Cod as a photographer, part of the Pacific Fleet’s efforts to capture still and movie highlights of the submarine campaign. He was armed with a Magazine Cine Kodak 16-mm movie camera, a Speed Graphic still camera, and a meat cleaver, “just in case.”3 After shooting several stills, he prepared to take movies. The camera was loaded with Kodachrome film, valued for its rich colors but requiring precise exposure. Jensen turned toward the sun to look for clouds and instead spotted the metallic glint of an aircraft wing. He called out to Westbrook on the bridge, 50 feet away, “Aircraft off the port bow, bearing 355 degrees!”4 Renfroe, eyes fixed on the junk, heard the drone of an approaching aircraft and yelled a warning to Kimball, who then relayed the warning to Westbrook.
At the same time, down in the Cod’s control room, a crewman monitoring the SD aircraft radar screen belatedly spotted the threat and shouted, “Plane incoming!”5 Although the SD had a maximum range of 40,000 yards, the nearby landmasses would often obscure radar echoes. Within seconds, the crew inside the sub could hear bullets hitting the superstructure as the plane began a strafing run.
A dozen or more 20-mm slugs from the Japanese Tony hit the Cod as Jensen used his meat cleaver to cut the line securing the junk. He tossed the knife and the still camera into the sea and, inspired by the strafing, performed what he would later describe as “his best Air Jordan lift”— jumping up on the conning tower, vaulting over the bridge venturi, and diving headfirst into the hatch, becoming the last man down.6
The only man on the Cod who couldn’t rush below was Renfroe, who saw Westbrook disappear from the bridge and heard the sound of the Cod’s vents opening. As enemy bullets “chewed the deck out from under [his] feet,” he grabbed his BAR and performed his own feat of physical prowess by jumping from the Cod to the junk below.7 Tarps softened the impact, but the leap split his dungarees at the knees.
Doggie Dishong, manning dive planes in the control room, described a mass of humanity tumbling down the conning tower ladder behind him. He remembered men praying, vomiting, and bawling in the confusion.8 Many expected these to be their last seconds alive.
As the Cod reached 50 feet, Westbrook noted they could hear bullets from a second strafing run hitting the water above the conning tower. He ordered the Cod to make for deeper waters as crewmen searched for leaks. To their collective surprise, they discovered no one had been injured and none of the bullets had done any major damage. Cod Gunnery Officer Chuck Podorean would later dig out a 20-mm slug from the bridge superstructure, just a foot from where Westbrook had been standing.9
After landing on the junk, Renfroe believed he was the only member of the boarding party not to make it back to the Cod. As he crawled along the deck, he found the rest of the boarding party, including Torpedoman’s Mate Second Class William “Red” Tolle and Tommy See, who both had burrowed under a pile of Japanese army blankets.10 With the six boarders accounted for, Kimball told Tommy to order the junk captain to steer away from the submarine, fearful that the plane might report Americans on board the junk. As the Cod dove, Kimball believed he never would see his shipmates again, stating later “I thought they had gone down with the hatches open.”11
Kimball’s worries were soon directed to the increasing number of enemy planes circling above. Tommy told Kimball the junk crew was a mix of Chinese and Japanese sailors. Just then, one of the Japanese sailors attempted to attract a plane’s attention by waving his arms and shouting. Tommy See shouted “Stop him!” and leapt on the sailor. The wiry See subdued the man and dragged him out of sight. Renfroe later recounted that they faced no further resistance from the Japanese contingent.12
The planes were scouts for a small convoy coming up the coast escorted by a destroyer. To avoid looking too conspicuous, the boarding party blackened their faces with charcoal from the galley fire and donned bamboo hats.13 To their horror, the destroyer kept closing on the junk. The submariners decided that if the enemy were to board the junk, they would repel them with their weapons and attempt a getaway. Kimball loaded his pistol while making a mental note to “leave one round for personal hari-kari.”14
A few moments later, as the destroyer steamed on a parallel course close aboard, Kimball saw the Cod and another submarine attempt to entice the destroyer to turn out to deeper waters. “We saw a submarine that wasn’t the Cod surface and go high-tailing in an end-around maneuver and submerge in front of the destroyer,” Kimball would write later.15 The Cod also tracked the destroyer, but since the water under her was too shallow, she ran partially submerged, trying to entice the enemy warship away. The daring tactics failed, as the destroyer did not go after the bait. Boarding party member MoMM 2 George McKnight, broke the tension, joking, “If the destroyer had gotten any closer, they would have been able to see the whites of our eyes.”16
The convoy and escorts kept the Cod submerged until later that evening. Some of her crew were upset Westbrook did not immediately surface to search for their shipmates. However, Westbrook was afraid the junk might have had a radio and alerted the enemy to their location.17 At 2110, the Cod sent a message to the nearby USS Blenny (SS-324) asking for help searching for the lost boarders. When asked for any distinguishing features of the junk, the best the Cod could provide was that it had a white patch resembling a dog’s head on its sail. The Blenny replied that she was on her way and relayed the message to the nearby USS Boarfish (SS-327) and Lizardfish (SS-373), requesting their help.
Kimball and the rest of the stranded buccaneers took stock of the provisions on board the junk. What they found was a shock to U.S. submariners used to steak, chops, and ice cream. The junk’s galley stores consisted of rice, sugar, fried crickets (which the crewmen took for cockroaches), wormy water, and Chinese tobacco, which was described as “pretty foul.” No radio equipment was found.
Kimball ordered the junk’s captain to sail for Pulo Tenggol. This was the preassigned rendezvous point in the event any of the Cod’s boarding parties got stranded. As night fell, a storm front swept the area, making it impossible to navigate by the stars. Worse yet, the wind and waves blew the junk farther out into the Gulf of Siam.
When the storm passed the next morning, land was long gone.18 For the next day, they attempted to “beat back down south” to the rendezvous island.19 Renfroe recalled the boarding party got along well with the junk crew. It was a great relief to them that the Chinese crew maintained a slim majority over their Japanese counterparts.20 The submariners continued to wear bamboo hats to deceive any enemy plane or ship that passed by. The fear that the Cod was lost weighed heavily on their minds.
The Cod searched in the vicinity of Pulo Tenggol. In the afternoon, Westbrook came up with the idea to locate an English-speaking native on board one of the junks to go ashore and “ask for dope on our missing party. We will hold the junk as insurance.”21 Unfortunately, the man they found was unable to learn anything about the Cod’s lost crew. At 2240, Westbrook ordered the Cod to head for a rendezvous point with the Blenny and Boarfish. While en route, Westbrook contemplated what might have happened to his men. He believed the two most likely scenarios were that the boarding party was still on board the junk or that they had been taken prisoner by the enemy.22
On the morning of 3 August, Kimball gathered his men on the junk together to consider what to do next. As they had been unable to reach the rendezvous island, they discussed two possible options: Go ashore on the east coast of the Malay Peninsula, cross the deep jungles and mountains, and make the trek up the west coast to Rangoon, Burma, a distance of more than 1,200 miles, or attempt to sail across the South China Sea to the Philippines. It was agreed that the best plan was to loiter in the area for another day in hope of rescue. If unsuccessful, one of the junk crew, a Malayan coastal pilot named Abdella Borellas, offered to guide them on the trek.23
A short while later, as Kimball ordered the anchor hoisted, he and Renfroe spotted what they thought was a conning tower of a submarine in the distance. Kimball ordered Renfroe to try to signal the sub by mirror “to see if they could get a response.”
Worried about being attacked by a friendly sub, Renfroe crawled out on the highest point of the bow and communicated by semaphore flags: “We are the men of the USS Cod.” The unknown sub flashed back: “We’ve been searching for you.”24 Relief swept over the men as they realized the Cod had not been sunk. The unknown sub was the Blenny, which soon pulled alongside and took them on board.
Renfroe was so excited that when he greeted the Blenny’s commanding officer, William Hazzard, he called him “Captain Santa Claus,” because he brought them “Christmas in August.”25 Kimball asked Hazzard, an old shipmate from the USS Saury (SS-189), to spare the junk because of the nonlethal nature of its cargo and because of the crew’s cooperation over the past 52 hours. Hazzard agreed and rewarded the junk crew with canned goods and fresh bread before sending it on its way.26
At 0039, the Cod received what Westbrook called the “blessed” message that the Blenny had recovered his shipmates. “Everyone’s spirits have been wonderfully lifted,” he wrote in the patrol report.27 He ordered the Cod to make four-engine speed to the Blenny’s position. Two hours later, the subs were alongside each other, and a breeches buoy was rigged for the crew transfer. Hazzard commented that the “Cod’s crew looked like a bunch of Cheshire cats, grinning as if that was all they could do.”28 One by one, the men were transferred to the Cod. Norm Jensen, color movie camera in hand, took up a position on the conning tower to film the homecoming.
Once the crew was reunited, the Cod departed for Fremantle while the Blenny continued her hunt for junks. Arriving back at base, Tommy See was turned over to Australian immigration officials and not heard from again. Jensen’s film, delivered to naval intelligence, was developed, filed, and forgotten in the National Archives until 1992, when Cod museum curator Paul Farace discovered it by accident. The Cod crewmen’s unexpected junk cruise was dramatized in 1958 in an episode of the popular syndicated series, The Silent Service.
Westbrook, interviewed by the show’s host, Rear Admiral Thomas Dykers, at the conclusion of the episode, was asked what became of Tommy See. Westbrook offered, “If I’m any judge of character, Tommy probably has a fishing junk making catches off the Malayan coast.”29
The Cod survived postwar to become a National Historic Landmark memorial sub on display in Cleveland. “Tommy and his family are always welcome to visit as our guests,” said Farace.
1. Sam Renfroe, “Oral History,” USS Cod Archives.
2. Renfroe, “Oral History.”
3. Norm Jensen, “Camera Diary,” 1945, USS Cod Archives.
4. Jensen, “Camera Diary.”
5. Bill Gill, “Oral Testimony,” USS Cod Archives.
6. Jensen, “Camera Diary.”
7. Renfroe, “Oral History.”
8. Howard “Doggie” Dishong, 24 Torpedoes and 13 Buttons, rev. ed. (Unknown, 1981).
9. USS Cod, “Seventh War Patrol Report,” 1 August 1945.
10. Renfroe, “Oral History.”
11. Frank Kimball, “Oral History,” Veterans History Project, Washington, DC.
12. Renfroe, “Oral History.”
13. Dishong, 24 Torpedoes and 13 Buttons.
14. Frank Kimball, “Wartime Diary,” USS Cod Archive.
15. Kimball, “Wartime Diary.”
16. Dishong, 24 Torpedoes and 13 Buttons.
17. Gill, “Oral Testimony.”
18. Kimball, “Oral History.”
19. Kimball, “Wartime Diary.”
20. Renfroe, “Oral History.”
21. USS Cod, “Seventh War Patrol Report,” 2 August 1945.
22. USS Cod, “Seventh War Patrol Report,” 2 August 1945.
23. Dishong, 24 Torpedoes and 13 Buttons.
24. Renfroe, “Oral History.”
25. Dishong, 24 Torpedoes and 13 Buttons.
26. USS Blenny, “Fourth War Patrol Report,” 3 August 1945.
27. USS Cod, “Seventh War Patrol Report,” 3 August 1945.
28. USS Blenny, “Fourth War Patrol Report.”
29. The Silent Service, season 2, episode 13, “Cod’s Lost Boarding Party,” Twin Dolphin Productions, 1958.