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The USS Flier

The USS Flier: Death and Survival on a World War II Submarine

Michael Sturma
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 232
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    The USS Flier
    Book Description:

    The fate of the USS Flier is one of the most astonishing stories of the Second World War. On August 13, 1944, the submarine struck a mine and sank to the bottom of the Sulu Sea in less than one minute, leaving only fourteen of its crew of eighty-six hands alive. After enduring eighteen hours in the water, eight remaining survivors swam to a remote island controlled by the Japanese. Deep behind enemy lines and without food or drinking water, the crewmen realized that their struggle for survival had just begun. On its first war patrol, the unlucky Flier made it from Pearl Harbor to Midway where it ran aground on a reef. After extensive repairs and a formal military inquiry, the Flier set out once again, this time completing a distinguished patrol from Pearl Harbor to Fremantle, Western Australia. Though the Flier's next mission would be its final one, that mission is important for several reasons: the story of the Flier's sinking illuminates the nature of World War II underwater warfare and naval protocol and demonstrates the high degree of cooperation that existed among submariners, coast watchers, and guerrillas in the Philippines. The eight sailors who survived the disaster became the first Americans of the Pacific war to escape from a sunken submarine and return safely to the United States. Their story of persistence and survival has all the elements of a classic World War II tale: sudden disaster, physical deprivation, a ruthless enemy, and a dramatic escape from behind enemy lines. In The USS Flier: Death and Survival on a World War II Submarine, noted historian Michael Sturma vividly recounts a harrowing story of brave men who lived to return to the service of their country.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7289-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. 1-4)

    The thirteenth proved unlucky for the USSFlier. On Sunday night, 13 August 1944, the submarine was speeding on the surface through the treacherous waters of Balabac Strait between Borneo and the Philippine island of Palawan. At 10:00 p.m. an explosion came without warning. In less than sixty seconds the submarine was plummeting toward the bottom of the ocean, leaving only fourteen of the crew struggling on the surface. After nearly eighteen hours in the water, eight men made it to land in enemy territory.

    The story of the USSFlierhas all the elements of a classic World War...

  5. 1 The Aleutians
    (pp. 5-14)

    Lieutenant Commander John Daniel Crowley had paid his dues. Before being given command of the newly minted USSFlier, he had spent nearly two years in charge of an antiquated S-boat, popularly known in the navy as a “pigboat” or “sewer pipe.” Conditions on the S-boats were atrocious. There were no showers on board and only one head for nearly fifty crewmen. Without air-conditioning, the boats accumulated an incredible stench during prolonged dives. Once the submarines surfaced, the sudden burst of oxygen could render the crew giddy. Even so, the sailors who served on S-boats took a certain pride in...

  6. 2 A New Boat
    (pp. 15-20)

    John Crowley’s reward for his perseverance with theS-28was command of the brand-new fleet submarine the USSFlier(SS-250). After being replaced on theS-28in March 1943, Crowley attended the Prospective Commanding Officer School at New London, Connecticut. All officers receiving their first command or a newly constructed ship were required to take a four-week course of lectures and practical training. With its focus on attack techniques and rigorous exercises at sea, the course would later be called the “Command Class in Attack Technique.”¹

    Beginning in July 1943 Crowley was involved in fitting out theFlierat Groton,...

  7. 3 Midway
    (pp. 21-26)

    War manufactures death and irony in abundance, as the men of theFlierwould discover only days into their first war patrol. Although John Crowley had managed to evade the myriad hazards of the Aleutian Islands for five patrols in the antiquatedS-28, he would come to grief in his brand-new submarine on its first outing in the Pacific. TheFlierdeparted Pearl Harbor at 1:23 p.m. on 12 January 1944, and only four days later it would be a wreck at Midway.

    The circular atoll known as Midway lies some 1,250 miles from Pearl Harbor, about one-third the distance...

  8. 4 Grounded
    (pp. 27-32)

    TheFlier’s stopover at Midway, intended as a brief visit to refuel, turned into a weeklong ordeal. Waiting outside the Midway Channel, theFlierprepared to take a pilot on board from the tugboatYT-188. The tug pulled alongside the submarine’s lee side, but the seas were too high to contemplate transferring personnel. Someone shouted through a megaphone from theYT-188, but he could not be heard over the roar of the wind and the ocean. The tug then signaled by semaphore for theFlierto follow it into the lagoon.¹

    At about 3:00 p.m., some half a mile south...

  9. 5 USS Macaw
    (pp. 33-38)

    By 4:00 p.m. the USSMacaw(ASR-11) was anchored off the Midway entrance buoys. The plan was to float a line to theFlierand tow the submarine off the reef. Unfortunately, theMacaw’s next message stated starkly: “We are aground.”¹ TheMacawhad grounded less than 100 yards west of the submarine.

    The 250-foot-long, 2,000-tonMacawwas a Chanticleer class submarine rescue vessel. Built in Oakland, California, the ship had been commissioned on 12 July 1942, making it about a year older than theFlier. TheMacawcarried a complement of 102 crewmen, heavy-lifting machinery, and deep-sea diving equipment,...

  10. 6 Board of Investigation
    (pp. 39-46)

    TheFlier’s tow back to Pearl Harbor was not without incident. The day after leaving Midway, 23 January 1944, the ships encountered a severe storm in the predawn hours. At 5:42 a.m. the towline to theFlorikanseparated, leaving theFlierwallowing in the rough seas. TheFliertried to regain some steerage using the starboard screw, but it continued to drift. It took five hours under “the most adverse circumstances” to shackle up a new towline. John Crowley praised the efforts of theFlorikan’s commander, George Sharp, as well as the work of several of his own crew, including...

  11. 7 Resumed Patrol
    (pp. 47-56)

    The work required to restore theFlierwas beyond the scope of the navy yard at Pearl Harbor. After the submarine’s starboard shaft and screw were repaired, theFlierlimped to Mare Island off San Francisco, arriving on 25 February 1944. It would be more than two months before theFlierwas ready to resume duty.¹

    Workers at the Mare Island shipyard had been recruited from all over the United States to staff continuous shifts that ran seven days a week. The population of adjacent Vallejo had increased fourfold following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Indeed, the population of California...

  12. 8 Fremantle
    (pp. 57-64)

    TheFlierended its patrol at Fremantle, arriving at noon on Wednesday, 5 July 1944. After spending forty-seven days on patrol and traveling 10,552 miles, theFlierhad only 100 gallons of fuel left when it reached port.¹

    The crew, like so many before them, received a warm reception. Although it was the middle of winter in Western Australia, temperatures could still climb to the sixties and seventies during the day. Apart from the inverted seasons, visiting Americans were often struck by what one U.S. journalist described as a nation “sturdily loyal to its British traditions and ancestry.”² Even so,...

  13. 9 Death in Thirty Seconds
    (pp. 65-72)

    By 23 July theFliercrew was back on board, carrying out exercises with theMuskallungeand theGunneloff Fremantle. What would be designated theFlier’s second war patrol began when the submarine departed Fremantle at 3:00 on the afternoon of Wednesday, 2 August 1944. Initially theFliertraveled in the company of its former training partner, theMuskallunge, skippered by Michael Russillo. The submarines sailed together up Australia’s west coast and reached Exmouth Gulf two days later. In what had become routine for Fremantle-based submarines, they topped up their tanks from a fuel barge there.

    For a time...

  14. 10 Cause and Effect
    (pp. 73-84)

    Why did theFliersink with such destructive force? The extent to which John Crowley pondered this question in the desperate hours and days that followed is unknown, but by the time he filed his “survival report,” he stated: “It is my opinion that a mine was in contact with the hull just below the waterline at the time of the explosion.”¹ There were, of course, other possibilities. It is intriguing that neither Earl Baumgart nor Alvin Jacobson specifically mentioned an explosion in their firsthand narratives. Jacobson referred only to “a terrific gush of air” coming through the conning tower.²...

  15. 11 Black Water
    (pp. 85-90)

    Immediately after theFliersank, the survivors began to gather in the water. In the dark they shouted out their names, and fourteen men were accounted for. The ocean was mercifully warm, with a relatively low swell of about two feet. There was an oil slick, however, that discouraged them from opening their eyes or mouths. The oil clung noxiously to exposed body parts, but later this may have offered some protection from the tropical sun.¹ Alvin Jacobson, recalling his lifesaving training, stripped down to his underwear (though he later considered this a mistake). He decided to keep the binoculars...

  16. 12 Castaways
    (pp. 91-96)

    The survivors of theFlierfound themselves in a situation similar to that of other shipwrecked sailors for centuries: they were isolated, hungry, and exposed to the elements. In one sense they were more fortunate than most, because among the survivors were several officers, including Commander John Crowley. Studies of sailors left adrift in lifeboats and rafts after the loss of a ship indicate that the presence of commissioned officers significantly increases the survival rate. With a respected leader, men are more confident and less likely to fall into a sense of hopelessness.¹ However, theFliermen also faced a...

  17. 13 Guerrillas
    (pp. 97-104)

    At daybreak the next morning, 19 August, Alvin Jacobson was the only one up when a young Filipino man approached him, using sign language to indicate that he was friendly. Another Filipino then emerged from the jungle, and John Crowley appeared and asked them whether they were American or Japanese. One of the young men smiled and replied “Americanos.” He then said “Japanese” and made a cutting motion across his throat.

    When the rest of the survivors had gathered, the Filipinos explained, using their best English, that they were from a guerrilla group known as the Bugsuk Bolo Battalion. They...

  18. 14 Brooke’s Point
    (pp. 105-110)

    Once at Brooke’s Point, theFlierparty was taken a short distance from the beach to the home of Captain Narizidad B. Mayor, who commanded Sector D of the Sixth Military District as part of the Palawan Special Battalion. Allied intelligence was unimpressed by the organization, characterizing it as “weak, ineffectual, and badly in need of arms and supplies.” Mayor was described as “not generally liked by his men who are afraid of him.”¹

    Whatever his personal faults, Mayor was proud to be a representative of the U.S. military. Although a native of the Philippines, Mayor had graduated from the...

  19. 15 USS Redfin
    (pp. 111-116)

    The USSRedfin(SS-272) was one of twenty-eight submarines constructed at Manitowoc, Wisconsin, under license from the Electric Boat Company. At one stage theRedfinhad lain side by side with the USSRobalo, which was also being built there. The Manitowoc yard’s most distinctive engineering feat was the manner in which the submarines were launched: they were dropped sideways into Lake Michigan instead of the traditional stern-first launch into the water. From Manitowoc the submarines were floated more than 1,000 miles down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers until they reached New Orleans.¹

    After being commissioned on 31 August 1943,...

  20. 16 Evacuees
    (pp. 117-122)

    From shore theFliersurvivors also watched with unease as a Japanese ship parked itself near the designated rendezvous point at 1:30 in the afternoon. Crowley and his men had arrived at the beach that morning, transported by water buffalo. Some of the men were still without shoes.

    The Japanese craft was described as a smallmaru, or sea truck, of about 200 tons. The Japanese relied heavily on such small wooden cargo ships for logistical support. The sea trucks were typically distinguished by their boxlike design, and they were sometimes armed with machine guns, mortars, or a three-inch gun.¹...

  21. 17 On Board
    (pp. 123-128)

    With the stores for the guerrillas off-loaded and the passengers safely aboard, Austin decided to attack the Japanese ship that had made such a nuisance of itself. At 2:41 a.m. theRedfinpulled within 2,500 yards of the ship and opened fire with its four-inch and 20 mm deck guns. The four-inch gun was capable of firing thirty-three-pound high-explosive shells up to 16,000 yards; the 20 mm gun had a more modest maximum range of 4,800 yards.¹

    Sitting against the darkened landscape, the Japanese craft presented a difficult target. When the firing commenced, the ship quickly hoisted anchor and headed...

  22. 18 Fallout
    (pp. 129-134)

    While theFlierwas heading toward disaster in August 1944, the crew of theCrevallewas heading back to Fremantle for two weeks of rest and recreation. On the last night of their leave, a ship’s party was held at the Cabarita Restaurant, where, for the most part, the crew remained well behaved and sober. TheCrevalle’s skipper, Frank Walker, led a sing-along accompanied by the Cabarita band.

    That evening’s conclusion contrasted sharply with the wild scene at an officers’ party a week earlier. The wardrooms from four submarines, including theCrevalle, had gathered at Molinari’s Restaurant on the outskirts...

  23. 19 Bend of the Road
    (pp. 135-138)

    The man appointed by Admiral Ernest King to investigate the losses of theRobaloand theFlierwas Rear Admiral Freeland Allan Daubin. Born in Lamar, Missouri, on 6 February 1886, Daubin came from the same landlocked county as Charles Lockwood. By some freak of fate, Daubin was destined to become commander of submarines in the Atlantic, while Lockwood served as commander of submarines in the Pacific. Lockwood described Daubin as “one of his closest personal friends.”¹

    Daubin initially attended the University of Missouri with the intention of studying law, but in 1905 he entered the Naval Academy. He graduated...

  24. 20 Inquiry
    (pp. 139-146)

    Even at the time, the terms and objectives of Daubin’s inquiry were a matter of some confusion. In hindsight, Christie’s chief of staff, Philip “P. G.” Nichols, was unsure whether it had been a board of investigation or a court of inquiry. Christie described it as the latter, but Herb Andrews remembered it as the former.¹ A court of inquiry was the normal means of looking into the loss of a ship, but Daubin’s activities could more accurately be described under navy regulations as an investigation by one officer.

    Naval discipline and penalties were set out in the colorfully phrased...

  25. 21 Report Incognito
    (pp. 147-152)

    Admiral Freeland Daubin departed Perth on 21 September 1944, flying on Australian National Airlines. The precise content of Daubin’s report on his inquiries at Fremantle remains a mystery. Under the terms of the investigation, he reported solely and confidentially to Admiral Ernest J. King. No extant copy of Daubin’s report can be located at the National Archives, Library of Congress, Naval Historical Center, Naval War College, or Office of the Judge Advocate General. Everything currently known about the report’s substance is secondhand.

    Admiral Ralph Christie would later claim, “Daubin had nothing but praise for the way we conducted our operations.”...

  26. 22 Back in the USA
    (pp. 153-156)

    Before leaving for the United States, John Crowley traveled to Brisbane on 26 September to give a firsthand account of his evacuation from Palawan to the Seventh Fleet command.¹ Along with executive officer James Liddell, Crowley was also debriefed at Pearl Harbor in early October 1944. Each man was interviewed about theFlier’s two war patrols, and a verbatim transcript was made of their comments.

    There are few clues as to how the loss of theFlieraffected Crowley. Even during a routine war patrol, submarine commanders were under enormous stress. Decorated skipper Slade Cutter recalled having severe stomach trouble...

  27. 23 Next of Kin
    (pp. 157-162)

    For the families of theFlier’s deceased crew, there was initially a roller coaster of misinformation and false hope. TheNew York Timesreported the loss of theFlieron 20 September 1944, stating that “apparently there was no loss of life aboard the submarine.” The article speculated that theFlier’s crew “might have been picked up by other American craft.” When theWashington Postreported the loss of theFlieron 29 September 1944, it claimed that “the skipper and probably some if not all of the officers and crew of theFlierare safe.” ThePostmade this...

  28. Epilogue
    (pp. 163-166)

    John Crowley’s career survived two formal inquiries, and before the war was over, he was given command of another brand-new submarine. Crowley took charge of the USSIrex(SS-482), launched on 26 January 1945 and commissioned on 14 May 1945. TheIrexwas one of twenty-five new Tench class submarines built between 1944 and 1946. These submarines represented a further evolution of the American fleet boat, with a reduced silhouette, better internal layout, and improved machinery. With stronger hulls, the Tench class had a test depth of more than 400 feet. Eventually theIrexbecame the first U.S. submarine fitted...

  29. Notes
    (pp. 167-190)
  30. Bibliography
    (pp. 191-200)
  31. Index
    (pp. 201-214)
  32. [Illustrations]
    (pp. 215-222)