Story and Photo by Robert F. Smith - Editor
This past weekend, World War II veteran Jim Larsen of Bellows Falls had an opportunity to fly to Washington, DC and spend the day visiting a number of memorials there, along with other WW II vets. The trip was courtesy of American Warrior, an organization that flies veterans from all over the country into Washington DC for day long visits.
Larsen, still energetic and mentally sharp at 88, served in the US Navy on the submarine Crevalle (pronounced cre-VAL-ley), making six of the sub's seven, 60-day long patrols, going everywhere from Australia to Japan and the Philippines.
Larsen served from November 1942 to November 1947 as a Motor Machinist Mate.
"They trained me for six months at diesel engine school," he said, "and I never touched a diesel engine after. We were responsible for all of the mechanicals outside of the engine room."
Asked what were the best and worst parts of serving on a submarine in the Pacific during the war, Larsen is quick to answer.
"The best was that you made 50 percent more pay and you ate better than anyone else in the service," he said. "The worst was being in a sub when it was being attacked by depth charges. We were in battle on every patrol we went on. One time we had as many as 60 depth charges dropped on us in 40 minutes.
"They made two noises. There was a ping when they detonated and then the boom when they exploded. If you could hear the ping, you knew they were far enough away so you'd be safe."
Sitting on the ocean floor one time, they had a Japanese vessel drop a chain and grappling hook on them, and they could hear it sliding along the side of the sub.
Larsen had all the facts about the Navy's submarines well in mind, and he was proud of their record.
"The sailors on submarines made up only 1.7 percent of the Navy, but we were very successful," he said. "Submarines sank 55 percent of all the Japanese boats that were destroyed. The Navy lost 52 subs during the war."
The Crevalle did its share of fighting, sinking 18 Japanese ships - four in one six-day period in June of 1945 - and disabling 11 others. While on board the Crevalle, Larsen was involved in its most famous mission.
The Crevalle rescued 40 people off an island in the Philippines, an eclectic group that included a handful of American soldiers who had been Japanese POWs, surviving the Bataan Death March. They'd escaped the POW camp, driving off in a stolen jeep, and spent two years hiding out in the jungle with the Filipino resistance. Also in the group were American and Philippine missionaries and workers from a sugar plant, some of whom had been hiding from the Japanese for three years.
With the help of Filipino fishermen, the Crevalle took 40 men, women and children aboard - along with a few chickens - and brought them to safety. The trip was not without incident. Larsen said the submarine's commander still had torpedos on board, and decided to use them against a fleet of Japanese ships they spotted. The Crevalle was discovered during the attack, and had to sit on the bottom while the Japanese tried to destroy it with depth charges, doing extensive damage. They would be depth charged one other time on the daring rescue mission.
It would later be revealed that this rescue mission was actually a cover for getting into Allied hands some important, secret Japanese war plans. The plans were discovered after the crash, during a bad storm, of two Japanese planes carrying high ranking officers. One set of plans washed ashore three days after the crash and were discovered by Filipino guerrillas. Known as Z Plan , they were the Japanese military's strategy for a decisive counterattack against American forces in the Pacific. Having access to these plans was considered one of the most important intelligence achievements of the war.
Written in plain text and not code, the battle plans were quickly translated and sent to the commander of the Pacific fleet. They would prove instrumental in a one-sided victory by American forces in the Battle of the Phillipine Sea, the largest aircraft carrier battle in history and the decisive battle of the Pacific War.
The events surrounding that mission would later be the subject of the book The Rescue by Steven Trent Smith, as well as a documentary that has been shown on the History Channel.
Despite being attacked many times, the closest the Crevalle came to sinking was during a freak accident while performing a routine maneuver while on her fifth patrol, Larsen said.
"We did trim dives daily," he said, dives where the controls and trim were tested and adjusted, "and the closest we came to sinking we almost did to ourselves during one of them"
When the submarine surfaced and the upper hatch was clear of the water, a few crew members immediately opened the hatch and climbed onto the bridge to check for enemy ships or airplanes.
As was standard procedure, the Crevalle was surfacing at a steep angle, under full speed, and with the main vents open so they could quickly submerge if they came under attack. Two crewmen opened the hatch, latched it open, and climbed onto the bridge. Before a third could climb out, he was blasted back off the ladder by a torrent of water as the Crevalle started into a second, inadvertent dive.
With the hatch latched wide open, the sub was taking on tons of water, and sinking at a fast rate. With no way to get at the hatch from inside the sub, the ship and crew were doomed. Suddenly, the hatch slammed shut, and at 190 feet and a 42 degree down angle, the submarine began to surface again.
The evidence indicated, Larsen said, that when the sub began to submerge, one of the men on the bridge had been washed overboard and was later picked up. The other man, Lt. Howard Blind, knowing that the ship was doomed with the hatch latched open, had held on to the bridge long enough during the submersion to get the hatch unlatched, and the force of the water slammed it shut. He lost his life in the process, but would be awarded the Navy Cross for his bravery.
Another sailor, Motor Machinist First Class Robert Yeager, took it upon himself to order the submarine's engines all back full speed within seconds of the start of the incident, and his quick thinking was also instrumental in the sub surviving. He was awarded a Silver Star.
The Crevalle suffered extensive damage in the incident, and had to be emptied by bucket brigade after it resurfaced, Larsen said.
Larsen has attended several veteran conferences over the years, but this trip to Washington on Sunday was special. Getting to meet former Senator Robert Dole was an honor, but the best part, Larsen said, was that he saw a few of the other surviving crew members of the Crevalle.