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USS Bowfin celebrates 75th anniversary of its launch

The crew of the Virginia-class fast attack submarine USS Hawaii man the rails aboard WWII museum ship USS Bowfin on Aug 22, 2016.

COREY BARKER/U.S. NAVY

By THE HONOLULU STAR-ADVERTISER | William Cole | Published: December 5, 2017

(Tribune News Service) — In the aftermath of Dec. 7, 1941, much of the U.S. Pacific Fleet surface force at Pearl Harbor was in shambles. Twenty-one ships, including eight battleships, were sunk or damaged.

But the Navy still had another weapon to which it could turn.

“Within hours of the attack, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Harold Stark ordered, ‘Execute against Japan unrestricted air and submarine warfare,’” former Pacific Fleet submarine force commander Rear Adm. Frederick “Fritz” Roegge said in a Navy news story last year. “Our submarines were the only forces able to immediately begin war patrols. They carried the battle across the Pacific and into Imperial Japanese home waters while the fleet was repaired.”

One of those World War II warriors remains at Pearl Harbor, still very much a symbol of the fight the United States brought back to Japan.

The USS Bowfin, now part of a museum, this week celebrates the 75th anniversary of its launch a year after the attack on Dec. 7, 1942 — receiving the nickname the “Pearl Harbor Avenger.”

Between 1943 and 1945, the Bowfin went on nine war patrols. Since 1981, the sub has been the focal point of the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park.

“It was a good ship,” said Chuck Merkel, the museum’s executive director. “She claimed a total of 44 vessels sunk during the course of the war. The post-war analysis was … she was officially credited with 16. Some of that was because anything below 500 tons wasn’t even evaluated or awarded.”

Merkel calls the nearly 312-foot Bowfin, located next to the USS Arizona Memorial visitor center, a “hidden gem.” The museum said the Bowfin is one of just 15 World War II subs that weren’t scrapped.

“Everybody can see the (battleship) Missouri across the harbor, but the Bowfin is right underfoot and you hardly notice her,” said Merkel, a retired Navy captain and submariner.

That hasn’t kept people away, though.

The nonprofit Bowfin heads into 2018 with a name change, increased visitation and hopes for a long-planned expansion. The museum recently adopted the name “Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum” because “we tell more than just the Bowfin’s story and more than just World War II,” Merkel said. “We also have the Cold War, and then with our upcoming renovation, we’re going to go into more about the modern story and a look toward the future of the submarine force.”

On Wednesday, as part of the Bowfin’s 75th anniversary, the Spirit of Liberty Foundation’s America’s Freedom Bell will be on the museum grounds. A ceremony that’s open to the public will be held at 10 a.m.

Merkel said the bell will be available through Sunday “for anybody to ring in honor of members of their family who have served or are serving” in the military.

In 2016, the museum had about 390,000 visitors, Merkel said. This year it’s expected to top 400,000. The museum is in the process of negotiating a new lease with the Navy for its Pearl Harbor berth, and hopes to expand its 10,000-square-foot museum to 13,000 square feet in the next few years.

Balao-class subs entered service in 1943. The Bowfin’s first patrol that year took it from Australia through the Philippines and South China Sea, and back south again past Bali, sinking three large vessels and two small craft. The crew also picked up nine men in the Philippines, including Army Air Corps 2nd Lt. Samuel Grashio, a Bataan Death March survivor who escaped from the Davao Penal Colony.

On its ninth and final war patrol from May 24, 1945, to July of that year, the Bowfin and eight other subs entered the Sea of Japan, known as the “emperor’s backyard,” through the heavily mined Tsushima Strait. The Bowfin had been outfitted with FM sonar mine-detecting equipment that became known as “hell’s bells” because of its gonglike sound when a mine was detected.

Through the Tsushima Strait, “the hell’s bells were a near-constant tone as (the Bowfin) came within 300 feet of a mine,” the ship’s history states. At one point, the crew could hear the sound of a mine cable scraping along the sub’s hull.

The Pearl Harbor Avenger carried 24 torpedoes: 10 in its fore and aft tubes and 14 reloads. The diesel-electric sub had two 126-cell batteries. Each cell was 4-1/2 feet tall and weighed 1,650 pounds.

When the sub was submerged, it was on battery power, and to conserve power, fans might be turned off, creating a stifling environment. Merkel said the crew knew that oxygen was getting low when cigarettes wouldn’t light.

“It’s one of the few surviving World War II submarines, so (coming aboard) you get a feel for what it was like for 80 men to be inside of a steel tube that was 16 feet in diameter for up to 60 days at a time,” Merkel said.

©2017 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
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