It was late in the war. Petty Officer 3rd Class Don Alger was on his first combat patrol aboard the USS Billfish (SS-286) sailing into Japanese waters. He was scared.
Alger was a 18-year-old helmsman aboard the submarine armed with 24 Mark-18 torpedoes for the 60-day cruise into enemy territory. Like the German U-boats earlier in the war, American subs hunted in wolf packs, sinking Japanese ships. On this outing the Billfish would fight in concert with the USS Sailfish and the USS Crevelle.
“I stood right behind the captain on the conning tower steering the ship,” the 80-year-old resident of Douglas T. Jacobson State Veterans Nursing Home in Port Charlotte, Fla. recalled six decades later. “This was the Billfish’s seventh and next-to-last combat patrol.
“On her second patrol she was almost sunk. The sub flooded, the captain couldn’t handle it and got transferred. His executive officer Charlie Rush, got the Navy Cross for saving the ship,” he said
Alger wasn’t thinking about any of that while at the helm of the sub as she sailed out of Fremantle, Australia, headed for the shooting ground 12 days away off the northern Philippine coast. They ran on the surface at night and submerged during the day to stay out of sight and from being attacked by enemy aircraft.
“It was around July 4, 1945, when we got a sonar reading on an enemy ship. We stayed below 100 feet so it couldn’t detect us while tracking it for 6 to 10 hours underwater,” Alger said. “We operated strictly on sonar. We were kinda flying blind because we were steering only on instruments.
“When Capt. Louis Farley got within 800 yards of the ship he came to periscope depth, 60-feet, to take bearings and get the target’s exact range. By then our forward torpedo tubes were ready for firing.
“After getting the right bearings, he flooded the tubes, opened the outer doors and fired two ‘fish’ at what we had already determined was a tanker full of gasoline headed from the East Indies to the Japanese home islands,” he said. “Four or five minutes later we heard the first torpedo hit the mark.
“It was pretty exciting, like in the movies. What the captain didn’t know was a destroyer escort was lurking behind the tanker. That was bad news for us because the Mark-18 trooped left a wake and the destroyer came charging down the torpedo wake toward us.
“The captain ordered: ‘Take her deep. Run silent run deep!’
“In two or three minutes we were at 300 or 400 feet. We had a maximum depth of 600 feet,” Alger said. “By this time the destroyer was over top of us laying her first pattern of eight to 10 depth charges. They scared the hell out of me.
“When they went off, the concussion shook the whole boat. The lights flickered and pieces of cork came flying off the bulkhead. I turned to the captain and said, ‘Sir, I’m scared. I think I’m gonna wet my pants.’
“‘Go ahead,’ he replied.’You’re not gonna be the first one.’
“Chief Lucas, the chief torpedo-man with lots of years in the Navy, was on his fifth war patrol with us. He said to me, ‘Donnie, be glad you hear the depth charges. It’s the one you don’t that gets you.’
“Instantly I felt better about it. From that moment on I could take all the enemy ship could throw at us.”
The destroyer made another pass over the sub and set its depth charges deeper. The Billfish dove to 550 feet, 50 feet above ‘”Crash Depth.” They were flirting with death.
“We loaded the number-one torpedo tube with clothing and junk of all kinds and very quietly fired it. All the stuff floated to the surface. We hoped we’d convinced the enemy captain he sunk us. Then maybe he’d go away.
They were lucky. This enemy skipper bought their ruse.
“I felt like a veteran after that. I was a big tough guy,” he remembered with a smile.
Before the patrol was over, the USS Billfish put another Japanese supply ship on the bottom off the South China Sea. Unfortunately it was less than 5,000 tons so it wasn’t added to their score of ships sunk.
It’s Alger’s last combat patrol into enemy waters he recalls most fondly after all these years.
“It was late July 1945 and fleets of B-29 bombers were flying from Saipan and Tinian islands to attack Japan. We were sent out on rescue duty off the east coast of Japan, the Billfish, Sailfish and Crevelle.” he said. “Our bomber pilots knew we were out there waiting to pick them up if their plane got shot up and they had to ditch in the sea.
“The captain got a coded message that a B-29 was going in. We surfaced and headed at flank speed, 22 knots, to the area where the bomber was expected to hit the sea.
“These waters were full of sharks. The air crew was more afraid of sharks than they were of the Japanese,” he said. “By the time we reached the co-copilot he had been floating around in his little orange, one-man life raft for six hours. His face looked like hamburger.”
The best way to rescue a downed flier was off the stern of a submarine because the stern tapers down – close to the water.
“Because I was 6-feet, 4-inches tall, they selected me as the sailor to rescue the aviator. I put on my rubber shoes, they tied a line around my waist and I reached out and grabbed the guy who happened to be a captain,”Alger said. “I gave him one strong yank. Both of us ended up flat on our backs on deck.
“‘Welcome to the USS Billfish,’ I said to him.’
“‘Thank you sir,’ he replied. ‘If you were a broad I’d kiss you.’
“That ‘s my great war story. It’s the one I tell all my grandsons,” he said.
The USS Billfish was still in the war zone on a rescue patrol when the captain received another coded message to make tracks out of the area. He was advised the allies were about to drop a monster bomb on Japan.
“We were 80 miles off the coast, so the captain surfaced and headed east at 22-knots.
“We saw the first atomic bomb go off. I’ll never forget it. The captain got all 84 of us on deck. Then he said, ‘I’m going to circle one time. Take a good look on the starboard side. That’s where the bomb is going to explode.’
“Eighty miles away it looked like a giant flaming sun. We could see the huge mushroom cloud going up. It was the experience of a lifetime,” the old sailor said.
“We got back in the boat and headed for Pearl Harbor at flank speed. World War II was over.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, April 24, 2005 and is republished with permission.
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Donald W. Alger, 82, of Port Charlotte, FL passed away December 6, 2009 at the Douglas T. Jacobson State Veterans Home.
He was born July 6, 1927 in Greenfield, MA, son of James Alger and Lina Balch. Don lived in Westfield, MA for many years. To those he grew up with over the years, he was known as (Doc). He was a graduate of Westfield High School and attended Marietta College in Marietta, Ohio. Don served in the US Navy during WWII, aboard the USS Billfish (SS 286) submarine. He was employed by Hamilton Standard in CT, and was Vice President and Sales Manager for B and E Tool Co., formerly in Southwick, MA. He served a term as City Councilor for the city of Westfield, and was a trustee at a local bank. Don faced many health challenges in the latter part of his life. He was known for his sharp wit, his optimism, and his superior memory skills. He was an inspiration to his children.
He is survived by his son, Steven G. (Karen) Alger of Baden, Switzerland and Somers, Conn.; his daughter, Susan A. (Scott) Murdock of Suffield, Conn.; two sisters, Shirley Glaze of Tavernier, Fla., and Barbara Malcolm of West Yarmouth, Mass., and his former wife, Joan Aylward; grandchildren, David (Dorothy) Alger, Richard (Alison) Alger, Jeffrey Alger, Brian (Lindsey) Alger, Amanda (Andre Maxwell) Murdock and Scott R. Murdock; and two great-grandchildren, newborn twins, Zoey and Lucy Alger.