A Letter Home from the Combat Zone: An Encounter with a Submarine

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Lt. Col. U.S. Army (Ret.) 17164 Courtney Lane, Huntington Beach, California 92649

It was my ill luck to be thrust into the Pacific War soon after the Japanese attack on the U.S. Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Fighting was still raging on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines when we arrived at Thursday Island.

Never before having been in combat, my arrival there was a shocking introduction to the war making power of the Japanese. The waterfront area of Thursday Island (T.I.) was a shamble. T.I. was the pearling center of the Southwestern Pacific, and thus, was the home port for hundreds of pearling loggers (A logger is usually a sloop rigged sailing craft of fifty to sixty feet in length). The beach was littered with the wreckage of these beautiful boats. The meager port facilities had been bombed to bits. T.I. was not the only target of attack in the immediate area. Port Moresby, the most important settlement in New Guinea, which lay just across the Torres Straits, was under daily attack, with Japanese land forces making steady progress along the Kakoda Trail aimed at Port Moresby. Our neighbor to the west, Darwin, was virtually cut off from the rest of Australia, with its harbor littered with sunken supply vessels and warships which had been caught in the port.

Hell was busting out all over. The Japanese intentions were clear, Australia was to be invaded, and here we sat right in the path of this onrushing formidable war machine. The first reaction was to get the hell out of there, but one couldn't entertain thoughts like that when we knew all the armed forces of Australia were fully engaged in fighting the Germans in North Africa and the Japanese in Singapore and Malaya.

In that kind of situation, even though we had no experience in warfare, everybody knew we had to defend as best we could with whatever equipment we had. And that brings me around to my encounter.

Much on my own initiative, I had developed into a specialist on machine guns, especially the American made Browning automatic weapons. As a tiny piece of lend-lease, a quantity of these weapons were allocated to an Australian Reserve Force being organized to defend the northern entry into the Great Barrier Reef, some fifteen or so miles from Thursday Island.

It fell my duty to go to this nearby island, which lay right in the Torres Straits, to conduct familiarization and training on the Browning 50 Caliber machine guns which they had just received. In order to carry out this assignment, a launch was allocated as transportation.

Now about the boat. This part is significant, since the launch plays an important part in the encounter. My initial impression was that this was something left over from World War I. It was of wood construction, about twenty feet in length, with a small cover over the bridge section. The engine was a marvel, a curiosity, even to one totally unacquainted with water craft. Its name was Ronaldson-Tippetts; a single cylinder diesel made in England, probably just after the turn of the century. It had what was known as 'hot ball' ignition. And that was just how it worked. Mounted over the cylinder head was a great blowtorch which was fired prior to starting the engine. The engine head was heated with the blowtorch for about fifteen minutes until it came to a glowing red. Then the huge flywheel, about two feet in diameter, was rotated by hand. If the 'hot ball' was hot enough the boat could then get under way.

The Aussie dock hand pointed us 'that way' through the Straits toward the island we were to visit. Yes, we got there safely, stayed overnight and headed back late the next day.

Another aspect of this incident which you should know, and we did not at the time, is that the ocean current can run from five to seven knots, dependent on the tide.

The return trip seemed very slow, but the old Ronaldson-Tippetts was banging away without a miss.

Suddenly, one of my helpers spotted an object off the starboard beam. It was cylindrical in shape, about four or five feet out of the water moving toward Thursday Island right up the middle of the channel at the same speed we were making. It was concluded with no doubt whatever, that this was the conning tower of a two-man Japanese submarine of the type spotted in Sydney harbor weeks before. To use airplane terminology, I shoved the throttle to the fire wall, but that little submarine hung right along. The water was breaking around the structure, and it stayed about fifty yards distance in the dimming twilight.

Now, I won't say we went into panic, but the heaviest weapon on board was an Army 45 hand gun, no match for a Japanese submarine headed in the same direction we were. Without a second thought I swerved the boat hard to port and made for the nearest island where we mushed into a mangrove swamp. There we stayed all night, with no supper, fighting the mosquitoes. When dawn finally came, looking off the stern, there it was, our Japanese submarine sitting calmly in the water just where we left it. In case you have not already guessed, we were trying to outrun a Torres Straits Channel marker buoy with the current moving faster than the old Ronaldson-Tippetts hot ball could drive our boat.

It was embarrassing that we were so inexperienced that we could not recognize a Japanese submarine from a channel buoy!