Life At Sea
Copyright © 1999 Ronald D. Stalma
Life in a World War II submarine was in a way, a new experience for those in the Navy. Yes, we had submarines before WWII, but this was the first time our sailors had to go through the lengthy war patrols on such a large scale. I'm sure that you have heard of the expression "by the seat of your pants." Well, if there was ever an expression that applied, it would go something like this, "diving by the seat of your pants!" Many new techniques were developed in undersea warfare during World War II. You might think that life on the USS Springer, where my father lived and worked for three months at a time, would be a great experience. Yes, I sometimes envy him for the things that he was able to experience while on board Springer. However, at times it was not very pleasant. Imagine yourself limited to your house and front porch for three months at a time. Oh you have plenty to do inside the house, but you cannot go far, once out the door. Could you stand the stress of being inside with others for three months at a time?
Everyone on board the boat had a particular job to do. Each man depended on another man's ability to perform his duty. Dad's main duty was in the forward engine room. He was responsible for starting, stopping and taking care of those awesome Fairbanks Morse diesel engines. Many tasks had to be performed in the operation of the engines. There were valves that had to be opened and shut, gauges to watch. Timing was critical, depending upon the situation.
Many of the men also had two or more secondary jobs to do, as needed. Dad's second job was to run the water distillers, which turned ocean salt water into fresh distilled water, for use on the ship. There were two distillers on board, and he remembers "blowing" around 30 gallons per hour into the main fresh water holding tanks from each distiller. With both distillers running, he could make around 1000 gallons per day of fresh water. The two massive 126-cell batteries were always thirsty, and used a considerable amount of water. Still, there was enough fresh water left over, that the men could take quick showers once every day, and also plenty for cooking and drinking. When at battle stations on the surface, my father was also a "hot shell man" on one of Springers 5"/25 deck guns (see photo). He was supposed to catch the spent shells and "kick" them into the ocean because they were extremely hot. The 5"/25 packed quite a punch with a range of 14,000 yards, almost eight miles. Dad remembers one man who positioned a 50 cal. machine gun on one of the free swinging mounts, close to the 5"/25. When the gun crew let loose with the 5"/25, the force coming out of the gun barrel ripped a large portion of that sailor pants! He learned the hard way, to stand clear of the barrel when they fired the 5"/25! Dad had a fourth job also. While submerged and at battle stations, he manned the trim pumps. When Springer fired a torpedo, it was required to pump water to and from the trim tanks to compensate for the loss of weight, keeping the boat in "trim." Usually, there was enough work to keep the men busy throughout their shift, but during battle stations, everyone was busy. When the work shift was over, each men could relax in the galley, where I'm told that poker games were going on quite often.
Unlike some of the older submarines, each man on the Springer had his own bunk to sleep in, so it was not necessary to rotate the bunks during shift changes. Dad felt sorry for the sailors in other submarines, that had to sail without any air conditioning. They equipped Springer to handle the heat in the Pacific, but others were not as fortunate. When submerged in a boat without air conditioning, the temperature could reach as high as 125 degrees. Condensation would drip from the hull, and the men would strip down to their boxer shorts to be comfortable.
The men on the Springer had a variety to choose from at meal time. Dad mentioned that you could order what you wanted, and how you wanted it cooked. Often he enjoyed steak and eggs for breakfast! They had their own dough making machine for fresh bread daily, and there was always a fresh pot of coffee to drink. You may wonder why the Navy took such good care of those sailors on the Submarines. This is possibly attributed to the fact that situations in battle could be very tense at times, the Navy did its best to make the men as comfortable as possible on the subs. At any given moment, there could be a tense battle situation, where "one" man could jeopardize the whole boat. If a sailor made one mistake, they transferred him to a surface ship as soon as possible. Dad recalls two examples. In the first, a lookout let two destroyers slip on by, until it was too late to do anything about it. No one said a word to him, but when they made it back to port, his bags were packed and deposited on the dock. In another instance, a sailor offered to do some laundry for the rest of the crew, for two dollars a month each. While doing laundry for the crew, he left a valve open and blew all the fresh water into the saltwater tanks. His bags were also packed. Springers' war patrols were far from boring. She was constantly being attacked by enemy aircraft, which forced her to dive often. Dad remembers one plane that came by at the same time every morning. The men would joke when the enemy plane would fly over and drop a bomb. They would say, "Well here comes the milk man!"
The men got along well on Springer, and Dad really liked the Captain on the first two war patrols, Commander Kefauver. Out of all the sailors on board, the Captain experienced the most stress of anyone. He was responsible for around eighty men, and a 1.2 million-dollar boat. The men were extensions of him. He had the authority to issue a command and know that they would instantly carry it out. So, in effect, he could be anywhere on the boat anytime, by issuing a command to be carried out by a competent crew member. In essence, he became at one with the submarine, feeling her every maneuver. The men would respond to his command, and the ship would respond to the men's command. The ship would give feedback to the men, and in turn they would feedback information to the Captain, who would make split second decisions. A highly-polished operation Springer was, communication between each man component, and ship component being established beforehand. Things ran most efficiently, unless of course, error crept in under stress with man and machine. The men had to know the boat from one end to the other. As part of their training, each sailor was required to draw the boat and her main systems, and also know how each system operated. Basically they had to know each other's job and function. One never knew what he might be called upon to do, in a battle situation.
Life on a World War II submarine was not considered dull. When the crew experienced despair because of "the one that got away," they reminded each other that they were all in it together. Each victory was the triumph of the whole boat. What of the triumph for the men that gave up their lives on the bottom of the sea, they did it together......... RDS