World War II submariners share stories that never grow old
FORT WORTH, Texas — The four men in yellow vests stand out in the Golden Corral restaurant, where about 30 U.S. military veterans are gathered on a recent Saturday to eat and talk about submarines.
Their hair is a little grayer. They move slower. And the younger men there don't hesitate to remind anyone talking to the United States Submarine Veterans Inc. Cowtown Base to speak up so these fellows can hear.
They are World War II veterans, a small but treasured generation of submariners now in their 80s and 90s. Nationally, their numbers have dwindled as the men have grown old and died. Reunions have gotten scarce. Organizations have dissolved.
But Dallas-Fort Worth remains home to a handful of World War II submariners whose sea stories hold an irreplaceable spot in U.S military history.
"It's only a pretty small group of us left," said Joe H. Allison, 89, of Fort Worth, who served two years on the USS Silversides. "We had a pretty good crew here for a long time. But like all World War II veterans, we got old and lost a lot of people."
Allison and other World War II submarine veterans had a national organization for decades, the U.S. Submarine Veterans of World War II. However, the group established in 1955 finally disbanded at its convention in September.
In its heyday, between 1,500 and 2,000 veterans came together for the organization's annual meetings. But as veterans died, got ill or lost the energy for travel and the required administrative duties, turnout dropped until only 64 appeared at the last convention.
At meetings, veterans always voted on whether to keep the organization together. Two years ago, about 60 percent of attendees voted to stay until the last man was standing, said Walter "Gus" Kraus, the last president of the organization. Last year, the vote was closer to 50-50.
This year, 75 percent voted to give it up, he said.
"We had mixed emotions," Kraus said. "Time caught up to us, and that's just the way it goes."
The local United States Submarine Veterans group has always welcomed the World War II vets. The organization is open to veterans of all eras as long as they earned their "dolphins."
Of the World War II veterans, Cowtown Base Commander James A Fox says: "These guys really are a national treasure."
Allison and Les Hewett, 92, of Arlington served more than half a century ago but they can still recall with detail sea stories, the names of fellow submariners, dates and islands.
Both men served as a chief yeoman, Hewett on the USS Pargo and Allison on the Silversides. Hewett tells a story about the worst day of his life: Nov. 26, 1944, in Brunei Bay, near the coast of Borneo in the Pacific Theater.
The Pargo had just blasted a Japanese tanker in half with torpedoes when it endured the most frightening barrage of depth charges from a Japanese frigate that Hewett had ever experienced. The Pargo usually evaded at 300 feet of water but was caught in only about 180 feet.
The submarine survived at least 24 depth charges, he said.
"We were really rocked around," Hewett said. "I can tell you, I gave up. I thought we were gone for sure. My prayers were for my folks."
But the boat survived. Hewett and his shipmates waited for another string of depth charges, sure to be fatal, but it never happened.
"I have surmised that they ran out," Hewett said. "They just didn't have any more, and we managed to get away."
One of Allison's most memorable stories was also a close call. The Silversides was running silent — the engines completely shut down — while under attack from the air near Honshu.
The Japanese lowered sonar buoys so, if the submarine rose, they would hear the propellers and locate the ship. The Silversides was stuck deep below for about 30 hours without surfacing for fresh air, he said.
"At one particular point, we just about ran out of oxygen," he said. "The air got so thin that you couldn't even light a match. That was one time I thought, 'I don't know if we're going to make it or not.'"
But not all memories are of near death. Funny things happen on submarines. Hewett recalls that, even on war patrol, American submarines traded the movies they kept on the boat to entertain the crew.
To exchange, two submarines got close enough that some men could ride a rubber boat carrying a movie to the other submarine and trade it for whatever that vessel had on board.
But the Pargo had one movie the crew would never trade — Somewhere I'll Find You featuring Clark Gable and Lana Turner.
For its time, the movie had a "few risque passages," though nothing like you see in movies these days, Hewett said.
"We would never give that one up," Hewett said. "I can still remember lines from it."
Friendships from shared experiences mean a lot to the men. Allison woke up Wednesday morning and found an e-mail from an old Silversides submariner. The two men have been in touch over the years.
"He's just like me and the rest of the World War II veterans: getting too old," Allison said.
On Nov. 26, the anniversary of Brunei Bay, Hewett will reach out to his shipmates who survived battle. Of the 70 enlisted men and nine officers on the Pargo, only six are still living, he said.
He'll either call them or send an e-mail with his usual message.
"I'll tell them "Happy Brunei Bay Day,'" Hewett said. "Then I congratulate them on still being alive."