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Former WWII sailor catalogs fellow submariners lost on sea patrol

The USS Bowfin is now a submarine memorial at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

SPANISH LAKE, Mo. — Paul Wittmer, a submarine sailor during World War II, spent years compiling a list of his fellows who perished on sea patrol. He wanted more than just names.

In 2007, the federal government opened the personnel records of veterans who completed service by November 1945, three months after World War II ended.

Wittmer, a retired engineer, grabbed his notepads.

“He showed up at our door that day,” said Whitney Mahar, manager of the public research room at the National Personnel Records Center in north St. Louis County.

For the next six years, Wittmer, now 89, spent one or two days each week at the center reading individual files of sailors who went down on the 52 American submarines lost during the war. With a few helpers, Wittmer has published a six-volume work — “United States Submarine Men Lost During World War II” — that lists basic information on more than 3,600 submariners.

On Monday, the records center staff honored Wittmer and his work. Director Bryan McGraw called him “a tireless and dedicated researcher.” The 65 people attending, many of them employees who had assisted Wittmer, cheered when he was given a CD of his own military file.

Seated with his wife, Ellie, Wittmer said he wanted to “preserve the memories of these guys. If all this means they won’t be forgotten, then it was worth the effort.”

Wittmer is publishing the hardbound set privately at $300 and will not put them on the Internet. He said he has sold 11 sets and will be publishing more. He also donated a set to the records center.

Wittmer co-authored the book with Charles Hinman, curator at the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum in Hawaii. Two post-war submariners, Leon Stromlund and Phil Cowan, assisted Wittmer in his last two years of research. Stromlund, 74, and his wife, Trish, were honored along with the Wittmers.

The work provides the names, dates and places of birth, parents, service dates and “approximate” dates when they were lost.

As with most combat statistics, numbers are inexact. The Navy counts 3,505 officers and sailors lost. Wittmer compiled information on 3,628.

Either way, it was a high loss considering roughly 20,000 sailors volunteered for submarine duty. The Navy counts 325 subs during the war, meaning it lost 16 percent of its undersea fleet.

Wittmer grew up in New York City and joined the Navy in 1942. He said he volunteered for sub service to work on diesel engines.

Wittmer said he began collecting names years ago for the Submarine Veterans of World War II. ?He moved here in 1978 to work for Ferguson Machine Co.

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