A post for Memorial Day
U.S.S. Blackfin – SS 322 in 1944
Lee Casper and Dick Schmeelk served on board the submarine USS Blackfin off the Philippines in 1945, fighting in the Pacific theater of WWII. Casper shared the following story from 1944 with Schmeelk and James MacGuire, who relates it here to share with our readers on Memorial Day.
We were on patrol before Christmas in the South China Sea. We’d just torpedoed merchant ships and tankers and attempted an attack on two Japanese battleships and three heavy cruisers, which sighted us and forced us to dive deep.
Suddenly our orders changed.
When we surfaced, our skipper received a coded radio message ordering us on a secret mission. Captain Laird called 12 of us to the control room. We were to rendezvous at sea with a group of Filipino guerilla fighters and their leaders, two American army officers. These men had managed to capture a Japanese patrol boat and, with it, a set of their top-secret patrol books — a tremendous prize the US Fleet commanders wanted to take advantage of before the Japanese high command learned of their loss.
Our instructions were to meet these men in the waters off the shore of the large island on Mindoro, about 100 miles south of Manila, where a fierce battle for that city was then under way.
Because I had been sent to the Navy’s night-vision school, I was selected as one of the lookouts to be stationed topside. What a shock when I saw less than a quarter-mile away a major Japanese fortification! Even without binoculars I could clearly see soldiers milling about the gun emplacements. We got a coded message from the Army saying that enemy patrol boats had been too close for them to come out: “Let’s try again tomorrow night, same time and place.”
When we surfaced and took our watch positions the next night, we were rewarded very quickly. A dim shape appeared off our port bow. We heard a low voice call out, “Ahoy! The submarine.”
Up on the bow, Gunner Signore, boat hook in hand, answered, “Who the hell are you?” The voice came back, “Captain somebody, US Army, and seven crew.” Captain Laird ordered the men on deck to secure the vessel alongside and assist its crew to come aboard.
The vessel turned out to be a long native canoe called a banco. The American officers were dressed in khaki shorts and tattered skivvy shirts. The Filipinos were bare from the waist up.
The two Army captains, it turned out, were escapees from the notorious Bataan Death March. Friendly natives kept them alive and assisted them to Mindoro, where they discovered a small band of young men who were doing whatever they could to sabotage and disrupt the Japanese. They eagerly accepted the Americans as leaders and were trained into an effective fighting force. In addition to the Japanese code books they had acquired, the Americans had mapped all the troop locations, gun emplacements, ammunition and supply dumps on the entire island.
The Army guys handed over two large, waterproof satchels containing the captured codes and maps to Captain Laird. The captain passed the word among the entire crew that whatever clothing we could all spare would be greatly appreciated by the guerrillas. Laird then ordered all of our small-arms ammunition, Thompson submachine guns, hand grenades and a dozen Colt .45s to go with the guerrillas. We were headed for Australia as soon as this job was finished and were quite generous, even throwing in our mattress covers and cigarettes. When the stuff was ready to go, it was all passed topside and offloaded into the canoe.
That was when we got our biggest surprise.
We had all assumed that the two Army officers, having survived the torture and inhumanity of the Bataan Death March and led these Filipino men in heroic resistance to the Japanese, would call it quits and come to Australia with the rest of us.
But no: When the last Filipino man ascended the conning tower ladder, the two Army guys shook hands and said goodbye to all around. Then they followed the guerrillas, climbed quietly into the canoe, picked up their paddles and slipped away into the darkness.
Later, Captain Laird told us he had urged the men to join us. But the Americans replied that the guerrillas had become like brothers to them, and they could not even consider leaving until the Japanese had been completely driven out.
We waited an hour before starting our motors to make sure our new friends were well away. Because our commander was anxious to get the code books as quickly as possible, we rendezvoused with the Australian destroyer H.M.A.S. Kiama off the island of Morotoi in the Molucca Sea, made the transfer and arrived in Perth for two weeks of R&R well before Christmas.
A small postscript to the story: You’ll remember we had been sworn to secrecy? Imagine our surprise when the Christmas issue of LIFE Magazine contained a feature story about the taking of Mindoro Island by US forces without the loss of a single life thanks to an unnamed US submarine that had obtained maps of the island’s installations ahead of the American attack.
I’ve never heard another accounting of this incident or the incredible valor of the two American Army officers who risked their lives all over again to make it happen. Whoever they were, and wherever they are now, today we should all offer a long overdue “Thank you.”
• • • •
USS Blackfin (SS-322), a Balao-class submarine, was a ship of the United States Navy named for the blackfin, a food fish of the Great Lakes.
Blackfin was launched 12 March 1944 by Electric Boat Co., Groton, Conn., sponsored by Mrs. Charles A. Lockwood, wife of Rear Admiral Lockwood; and commissioned 4 July 1944, Lieutenant Commander George Hays Laird, Jr., in command. Admiral Lockwood commanded the U.S. submarine fleet in the Pacific under Admiral Chester Nimitz.
Admiral Charles Lockwood
Admiral and Mrs. Lockwood are buried with Admiral Nimitz and his wife Catherine along with Admiral and Mrs. Raymond Spruance and Admiral and Mrs. Richmond Kelly Turner at the Golden Gate National Cemetery, San Bruno, CA.