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

By Staff

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

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

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!

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