“Hellcats” is what Admiral Thomas Lockwood, commander of submarines in the Pacific, dubbed the first “wolf pack” to breach the Tsushima Straits minefield and anti-submarine nets between the southern island of Kyushu in the Japanese chain and the Korean peninsula during the closing months of World War II.
Seaman 1/C Leonard “Bull” Durham of Port Charlotte, Fla. served as the radio operator aboard the USS Crevalle (SS-291). She was a Balao Class sub that led the pack through the minefields and other underwater obstacles into the Sea of Japan to attack enemy shipping in the “Emperor’s Own Pond.”
On that war patrol with Crevalle were the USS Seadog (SS-401), USS Spadefish (SS-411), USS Tunny (SS-282), USS Skate (SS-305), USS Bonefish (SS-223), USS Flyingfish (SS-229), USS Bowfin (SS-287), and USS Tinosa (SS-283).
Equipped with new sonar systems the American submarines were supposed to be able to detect enemy mines and cables in advance. Problem was it was sensitive equipment that could give false readings if not finessed by expert operators.
In addition, each sub had steel cables running from its bow to both diving fins to fend off Japanese mines. They were of questionable value.
However, Durham recalls hearing one enemy mine cable scraping along the cable protecting the bow of the Crevalle as the sub slipped slowly through the maze of underwater obstacles on June 9, 1945.
“Our wolf pack left Guam on May 25, 1945. It took 10 or 11 days to reach the Tsushima Straits,” he said. “When we got through the straits we spent 15 days in the Sea of Japan sinking as much enemy shipping as possible.”
What happened was that the USS Seadog, skippered by Cmdr. E.T. Hydeman, in charge of the expedition, was to be the lead submarine going through the minefield. Unfortunately for the crew of the Crevalle the Seadog’s radar went out and Cmdr. E. H. Steinmetz, skipper of Crevalle , was ordered to lead the way.
“We went through the minefield early in the morning. It took us five or six hours because we were going very slowly about 150 feet below the surface,” the 78-year-old former sailor recalled. “Once we got through we had to wait until the other eight subs made it and reached their appointed areas of operation.”
The whole process took several days. Meanwhile Cmdr. Steinmetz and his fellow skippers watched unsuspecting prey sail by with light ablaze aboard their ships not realizing that the security of the Sea of Japan had been violated by American subs.
“… on the night of 9 June 1945, Crevalle fired two torpedoes for two hits, which rapidly sank a freighter,” according to Fighting WWII Submarines of the U.S. Navy. “The next morning three tubes were fired at another freighter and two solid hits sank the ship so rapidly it was impossible to take pictures.”
The Japanese were caught unaware the U.S. Navy had slipped through the Tsushima Straits until they began losing ships.
“Once they figured out what was happening to their ships we came under attack,” Durham said. “I was just a green kid and the first time we got depth charged I thought to myself, ‘I should have stayed in college.'”
Every time they sent a Japanese ship to the bottom the crew of the Crevalle was hammered by the enemy. Despite the Japanese defensive efforts the American sub fleet only lost one submarine during this outing.
“Sometimes they’d pound us for several hours. Their sonar was pretty good, but not as good as ours,” Durham recalled. “We had some leaks from these depth charges. One time our regular power went out and we had to use emergency power. There were other times when we’d be on the surface and a Japanese plane would fly over and we’d have to quickly submerge.”
Because of faulty torpedoes the Crevalle failed to sink several enemy ships. Despite this problem, before the sub’s seventh war patrol concluded she had put three freighters, totaling upwards of 6,600 tons, on the bottom.
The 68 sailors aboard the Crevalle ‘s closest brush with death in their raid on shipping in the Sea of Japan came on June 14 when she tried to knock off ships in a coast-hugging enemy convoy. The Crevalle sub was attacked by two Matsu Class destroyers providing protection for the convoy.
“Capt. Steinmetz ordered three torpedoes fired down the throat at the leading destroyer, but no hits were detected. Crevalle went deep to avoid being rammed by the destroyers. For the next six hours the Crevalle was depth charged while the convoy slipped away,” according to official records.
Several days later the USS Bonefish was sunk in the Sea of Japan off Honshu Island. All hands were lost. During the 12 days the wolf pack roamed the area the nine American subs sank 27 Japanese merchantmen, one I-Class submarine and heavily damaged a destroyer. There were also a number of smaller wooden sampans sunk.
Escaping the Sea of Japan the Crevalle and her fellow subs took the northern route through the Le Peterouse Strait, off Otaru Island, the northern most main island in the Japanese island chain.
“One of our cables from the bow to the boat’s planing fin, that was supposed to protect us from mines, broke and got tangled in the screws,” Durham said. “We were sitting ducks on the surface until this one officer went over the side and untangled the cable.
“Walter Mazzone was his name. I guess he had some diving experience. He used an air compressor, hose and mask we had aboard ship,” he said. “They had to hand crank the screw while he pulled the tangled cable off the shaft.
“It took him about an hour and when they brought him out of the cold water he was blue,” he added. “I remember when the skipper got his hands on the cable he threw it over the side.”
The USS Crevalle (SS-291) returned to Pearl Harbor with her consorts. Cmdr. Steinmetz, skipper of the sub, received the Navy Cross for the part he played in leading the wolf pack into the Sea of Japan.
Almost 60 years later “Bull” Durham has a small white card in a place of honor in a stand-alone frame at his Port Chrlotte home. It shows the Navy Cross for gallantry. The inscription below the picture of the medal reads: “The Navy Cross was awarded USS Crevalle (SS-291) for its 7th War Patrol for official performance of duty by all hands including Seaman 1/C Leonard Durham U.S. Navy.” Signed: “E. H. Steinmetz, Commander.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Sunday, June 13, 2004 and is republished with permission.
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