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We Remember the Tambor, SS-198

We Remember the Tambor, SS-198 by the Crew

The depth charge landed on the submarine deck with a loud, ominous sound. It rolled very slowly, thump, thump, thump, thump across the slotted wood deck...but that's getting ahead of the story. To better understand the incident you are about to read, you must know more facts.

Most people are not aware that a fleet-type submarine of World War II was 312 feet long. Longer than a football field she carried a 57 men crew, including 6 officers.

Physically, the fleet submarine of WWII was built to withstand sea pressure of 44 pounds per hundred feet with a test depth of 300 feet. (A "pressure hull" is the interior "skin" of the submarine, tubular in shape, with tapered ends and is extremely water tight.) The outer hull consists of ballast tanks similar to saddle bags on a horse, which have equal pressure on either side of the vessel.

A submarine is designed to operate underwater. This is accomplished through the use of ballast tanks to change the buoyancy of the vessel. A ballast tank with a bubble of air is used to regulate the submarine to a point of negative buoyancy. Adding or blowing water from the tanks raises or lowers the submarine above or below the surface of the water.

There is a tank appropriately called "Negative" buoyancy, which, when flooded will enhance the submarine's descent. There is another tank called the "Bow Buoyancy" which can expedite the action of the surfacing or submerging. Three thousand pounds of compressed air on the surface is stored in a very large, steel, air bottle in the ballast tanks is essential to surfacing and starting the four 1,800 horse power engines.

On the surface, the submarine functions as any other craft. It is driven by diesel generators which supply the electric power to the motors driving the ship's propellers. This electric power can be directly supplied to the motors, or used to charge the batteries, which in turn operate the submarine when it is submerged.

A submarine also has a bow and stern planes, which with the motion of the boat can control the operating depth to a fine degree. These planes function as a total surface moving up and down. The bow planes can be retracted to flat position against the bow when on the surface.

The diving officer must keep track of all weight changes: fuel, food and water consumption, and loss of torpedo weight when fired, in order to help maintain the even balance on the ship through the use of ballast tanks and diving planes.

Now that you understand the basic principles of submarine operation, you can better realize the severity of the this particular predicament.

It is truly said, "war experiences are never forgotten". We may try and try, but we can't forget. Even when we succumb to gentle urging of friends to describe incidents that hold special meanings in our memories, we tend to minimize the actual events--often narrating things in a light vein lest we appear boastful.

Well, December 7, 1941 came upon us all without warning.

Little is known of submarines, because silence became the key note of the submarine service. When the American Navy was devastated at Pearl Harbor, submarines immediately began operations in Japanese home waters. As Admiral C.W. Nimitz said, " is to the everlasting honor and glory of the submarine personnel that they never failed us in great days of peril". Submarines sank almost six-million tons of Japanese shipping. Carrier based planes were next in damage statistics with two-million tons of Japanese shipping sunk. This was not accomplished without the loss of 52 submarines. Ten of the twelve submarines in the sixth subron (Submarine Squadron) were lost; only the TAMBOR and the THRESHER survived. The following is one of the TAMBOR's stories of survival.

The TAMBOR, under the command of Lt. Cdr. John Murphy, was the flagship of the Sixth Subron, patrolling off Wake Island. The TAMBOR was one hell of a good boat, and today, after some 50 or more years, it somehow still feels strange to use the word "was". We who served in her, can recall the many engagements she endured, and her ways of always somehow managing to come out in one piece. Well, nearly in one piece. The TAMBOR was the first to report a Japanese task force off Midway Island and this, for the TAMBOR and her crew was the beginning of action. Action which today reflects a unique achievement, and well deserved glory.

In the "Midway Battle", the TAMBOR received half-credit for sinking the"Japanese cruiser MIKUMA, and also for inflicting heavy damage to the cruiser MAGAMI without firing a shot. (The two Japanese ships sailing in parallel columns tried to ram the TAMBOR as it ran submerged down the middle, and ran into each other.) When the Japanese made a concentrated effort to salvage parts of the heavy cruiser USS HOUSTON, the TAMBOR was dispatched to stop that operation. Further, the TAMBOR transported ammunition, medical supplies, guerrillas to the Philippines, laid mines in Hainan Strait, and engaged in many "wolfpack" operations.

Attesting to these exploits, as we all remember, was TAMBOR's part in the Midway Battle, as featured in Life magazine.

Landing the guerrillas in Pagodian Bay in Mindanao became a motion picture with John Wayne in the leading role. In another action when the TAMBOR sank a Japanese gunboat, we made the front page of New York's Daily News and were written up and pictured in newspapers across the entire United States. The depiction of these actions can be read quickly and effortlessly, but the reading and visualizing can in no way be a substitute for the physical and emotional stress endured by the Captain and the crew, not to mention feeling the inherent quality and character of a submarine like the TAMBOR. We remember the TAMBOR for what she was. She survived more than 70 depth charges in just one attack in the China Sea. She could almost be heard to console us-"don't worry, I'll bring you home".

With Lt. Cdr. R. Kefauver in command, we were making an end-around run to get ahead of a small Japanese convoy of one freighter, tanker, and one brand new destroyer. The calculation was the convoy would reach its destination the following day. Therefore, we had to close-in quickly for our attack. With the sky brightening in the East, we knew we had a now-or-never situation.

The tracking group began its work. Bill Shoop was on the radar in the conning tower calling out readings to Plotting Officers William Wood and Elmer Atchison, Radar Officer Vito Vitucci, and T.D.C. Operator Walter Post. Battle stations were sounded at 0400.

In a flooded-down approach, we closed for the attack. Captain Kefauver, with the Executive Officer Ed Spruance, as Assistant Approach Officer, were on the bridge. Bill Reynolds was on the port side of the periscope shears, Tom Lampley on the starboard, and Clarence Erich to the stern.

Bill Reynolds was directly facing the convoy; later he said he got a queasy feeling in his stomach and a trembling in his hands and legs as he heard the target ranges shorten and the targets become discernable. The freighter and the tanker loomed into view, but the escorting destroyer was hidden by the haze.

The order to fire was given and there was the usual gentle tug on the boat as the high-pressure air expelled the torpedo from the tube. Bill Reynolds' glasses were on the freighter, ARIAKE MARU. He saw the first hit...a plume of sea water spewing upwards and a split second later...the loud explosion! One Japanese freighter consigned to the deep. Bill shifted his glasses to the tanker, GOYO MARU. The methodical calculations, the torpedo on its way, then the geyser and the explosion. Bill Said he saw a flicker of flame appear from the stack, and then it died down completely—but in the next instant, there was a sight never to be forgotten. The whole horizon turned into day as the tanker exploded, lighting up the whole China Sea.

While our radar had picked up the relative position of the escort destroyer, we at last saw her in the brightness of the exploding tanker.

Radarman Bill Shoop's voice rose to a high pitch. The angle on the bow was 90 degrees starboard. Within seconds it was zero degrees. The range was closing fast. The claxon sounded. DIVE! DIVE! All hands below!

The bridge was cleared, the last man closing the hatch, vents were opened and all eyes were on the depth gauge. The needle seemed to just hang eternity before the bow got on the down angle and we were headed below.

The Japanese destroyer had no intention of losing us. Even as we were diving, he was right on us. On his first run, he dropped about a dozen depth charges. We were forced to take evasive measures and race for deeper water.

Gordon "Red" Mayo was on the sound gear, and he heard the destroyer change to short scale pinging and increased her speed. It meant we could expect another run. Captain Kefauver decided to head for the sea floor.

Down...down...down and we finally settled on sand at 268 feet. We were now a completely silent submarine, just sitting and waiting.

The next stream of charges were too close, far too close. Something was betraying our position to the destroyer up there. And that destroyer was stubborn—for the next 15 hours the TAMBOR was taking depth charge after depth charge. Every man was wondering how much pounding the TAMBOR could take without splitting her hull.

The depth charges came, one on top of another, and with the most uncanny accuracy! It was Bob Freedman who asked "was that one closer than before?" Sitting next to him, Claude Brown just shrugged and didn't bother to define close or closer.

We were in shallow enough water to hear the destroyer's screws above us; the sound was like a train crossing a railroad trestle. First, a distant sound, like a hum, then increasing rapidly in volume to a roar as he approached, and then the sound decreasing quite rapidly. And on each run, we had to take two depth charges. We could hear them hit the water, then came the click of the firing pin, the snap of a detonator, and then the loud rumble of the depth charge. When a depth charge is close, you lose the sound of the detonator and hear only the click and very loud explosion. The sound and implication of a depth charge landing on deck, rolling slowly, thump, thump, thump, thump, bouncing on the outer hull and then sloping in the sand, can only be understood from experience. It can put dryness in your throat and dampness in your pants.

Pause, and then the renewed attack. We can think of it now, forty-five years later, and it still produces chills up and down your spine. Any one of those depth charges could have been the last one we would ever hear....

The movie depictions of a depth charge attack, with the violent rocking of the boat (in the studio set-up) and the crew being tossed around, is ludicrous. In reality, it just doesn't happen that way, as anyone in the crew can tell you. What really happens is something like an instant concussion! A shock! It can cause a lightbulb, hanging from a six inch cord to burst. The shock of the concussion will cause pipe connections, gauge glasses and mirrors to break.

Enginemen Ray Bouffard and Warren Link were standing at the throttle of the engine room when one of the blasts went off, and in that instant, they found themselves staring at a wall of water.

"This is it!", they thought. Jack Semmelrath and John Scaduto, standing alongside Ray and Warren, thought the same thing. "Trapped! No Escape!"

But the strange thing was the wall of water didn't move. Reacting automatically, the men put their hands out to stem the flow, but their hands went right through the water! They realized then the cooling water gasket flange on the number two main engine had been forced loose and water was shooting across the entire area of the engine room.

Ray resolved the problem almost as quickly as it had happened. We waited and listened. The sound of air escaping under pressure was definite and unmistakable. We agreed we had ruptured a line to our air bottles in the fuel ballast tank located just aft of the battery compartment bulkhead. The situation was serious, because escaping air would indicate our position to the enemy. Knowing our depth and the run of the current, that destroyer could figure out our exact location.

Captain Kefauver came through later for a personal assessment of our problem and the boat's condition. We had done the best we could under the circumstances, and the Captain knew it. He took the time to speak to each man individually; when living in close confinements for along period of time you get to know unique characteristics that lock a man in memory, and Captain Kefauver added to that moment a personal remark to each man that fitted the occasion and made the incident very special for us. As the Captain was turning to leave, he gave us a long look and said "Good Luck. I'm proud to be your shipmate." Yes, sir. We were proud to be in the TAMBOR with him!

Topside, that destroyer was making perfect runs, dumping depth charges all the time. He just wasn't going to stop until he was sure he'd done a complete job.

In the TAMBOR, everything was a mess. The conning tower and pump room bilges were full of water. With the air conditioning out, we were breathing humid air. Cork was everywhere. (A submarine is lined with cork to reduce condensation.) No need to say the situation was wearing us down. The crew members in sleeping areas not assigned to specific duties tried to get what sleep they could.

But rest was impossible. Two depth charges were laid right on top us! The destroyer turned and put two more so close that our ears rang. This was a contest—who could stand the hammering best, the crew or the TAMBOR. It was definitely not the time for humor, but there's always one in every crowd. Fred Richardson said, "When you hear the rumble of 'the depth charges you know the TAMBOR has made another attack." He was right--we never sank an enemy ship without getting depth charged.

Carlos "Nip" Howard, a very popular and valued shipmate, just five days earlier had saved us from being rammed. During a lull after Fred's wry humor, we had time to reflect how Nip had fired his 20mm gun (barrel diameter 20 millimeters) at nearly point blank range at the bridge of the SHUNAI MARU, with the startling result that the enemy lost control and gave us the momentary advantage and time in which to sink him. Now Nip was sitting on the floor of the control room, staring into space. "Hey, Bill, "Nip called out, "Are you scared?" Bill Reynolds said "no" in a flat voice. "I'm not either", Nip retorted dryly. Everyone laughed. At this point the only thing we had was a kind of suppressed bravado.

We went back to sweeping cork, paint chips, and glass on the control room deck. It was better to keep busy than to wonder how many more depth charges would be dropped on us, and how we would react to them. As two more depth charges went off, one of the men shook his head in wonderment, said "Some boat—she can sure can take it." Now, thinking back, the remark certainly did justice to the glory of the TAMBOR.

The maneuvering room was having its troubles. The packing glands of both screw shafts were leaking. Long ago we had conceded that Roy "Foo" Rausher was the strongest man on the boat--when Foo tightened something, it always took two men a boy ' to loosen it. Yet, even his strength was of no avail as he struggled to crank tight the six large nuts in an effort to stop the shaft leaks. When the water reached the motor room deck plates, we had to form a bucket brigade to the after torpedo room with Charles "Chesty" DeBay, Rex Harvey, Robert Galloway, Robert Koostra, and "Foo". They worked feverishly, bailing and passing buckets as fast they could after every depth charge attack. Anticipating the next depth charges, they would shut the water tight door and wait out the attack.

The after torpedo room was having water problems. They had to chain-fall the escape hatch as well as the torpedo loading hatch because the latch dogs wouldn't hold tight after a close depth charge. The torpedo room bilges could accept more water than the maneuvering room, and the above procedure was necessary to protect the main motors from getting wet.

By now it was getting late in the day and we were counting on the tell-tale escaping bubbles to be difficult to spot by the enemy. Also, we felt our silence on the sea floor should make him believe he had destroyed us. After all, what boat could withstand seventy depth charges, placed quite accurately, and survive?

The hours passed. The TAMBOR lay silent on the ocean floor. All we could do was remain silent and wait....

No sound was reaching us from above for quite some time, and Captain Kefauver decided to risk surfacing. Was the enemy cunning enough to be waiting for us? There was no way to tell. We went into action, but deciding to surface, and really surfacing were two different things. The TAMBOR had been sitting on the bottom for over fifteen hours, and the sand had locked her in solidly. Instead of being at 268 feet, we had settled to 280 feet! Even with all the tanks blown, she wouldn't budge. Power to the screws had to be used cautiously; the screws couldn't turn. We were stuck!

If you have ever stood in the surf at a seashore you will remember your feet were buried in the sand after a couple of waves. This should give you a mental picture of the problems and the task of getting that size boat free from twelve feet of sand. The sea bottom was well stirred after about eighteen hours and seventy depth charges.

We were now in an extremely precarious situation. With the loss of almost all the air in our starboard storage bottles, we were left with only a limited supply. (Submerged, we could not compress more air.) If we were to survive, we must now use our remaining air in the most judicious manner. Air bubbles were carefully measured into all tanks in an effort to put equal lift by tank volume throughout the ballast system. Finally, there was a shudder and then another and we were free. Free!

Words cannot describe the tension and anxiety of those last few minutes stuck on the bottom. Every man knew that as the use of stored air was consumed, we came closer to remaining forever locked there on the bottom surrounded by tons of sand and bottom silt. We must shake free before all our compressed air was gone.

All stations had to be manned to react to surfacing and other necessary underway operations. We pumped bilges. We even blew the heads (toilet holding tanks), and with thanks to William Blankenbaker, Chief of the Boat, and his skill as a diving officer, he resorted to using air bubbles in the tanks for added buoyancy, and at last we broke loose. It was a tense few minutes to the surface, all the while maintaining control of the boat. Blankenbaker had two compartments still partially flooded, so keeping the TAMBOR level was far from an ordinary job.

With most of the gauges inoperative, we did not know how much pressure we had in the boat. The gauges were either not reading correctly because of the shocks from the depth charges, or broken glass had shifted the original setting.

When the Conning Tower hatch was finally opened, the pressure almost carried the man up the ladder. The sudden change in air pressure was far more than we had ever before experienced. In an instant, the conning tower air turned to a smokey blue vapor, and topside the odor of diesel fuel was heavy. As we scanned an empty horizon, we breathed a sigh of relief. No enemy destroyer in sight.

When the engines were called on the line, we found the governor base (used to control the speed of the engine) on Number 2 engine was cracked. With some extra coaxing, the other engines responded. The seven hundred KW, auxiliary engine was put on battery charge and, with some jury rigging, we finally got the governor to perform and eventually had all four engines putting distance between us and that unlucky location.

The time had arrived to assess our damage in detail and then attempt to restore the TAMBOR to fighting trim. Even a casual glance told us that nothing had escaped serious damage, so we set to work.

It took many hours of concentrated work, with Bob Hunt directing the forward torpedo room repairs to restore the most crucial parts to use and reload the torpedoes in the tubes. The turbo blower had been ripped off its base, the bolts totally stripped. Gus Builder, auxiliary-man, worked with Warren Link to fashion bolts from raw stock on the boat's lathe. Gus hand-filed the hex-heads on these bolts and retapped the old holes, making it possible to refasten the blower to its base.

Both our compressors were destroyed, almost beyond use, which meant we could not jam air. We would be restricted to the use of whatever air remained in the stored bottles of dives and torpedo shots. Not a good prospect. In the end, Gus and Art Stickle cannibalized the two compressors into one good one. It goes without saying that the motor on the turbo blower needed repair. This was efficiently handled by "Chesty" DeBay.

Our air conditioning system was so full of line leaks that it could not be repaired. The refrigeration for our food freezer was also finished—the food had already started to defrost. Number one periscope was flooded, as was the S.D. radar mast; the radio antenna was also gone.

The radio compartment itself was not in bad shape, except for the damaged antenna allowing water to leak into the transmitter. Bill Shoop, Harvey Rebensterf, and "Red" Mayo divided the work into areas of expertise, and went to it. They somehow succeeded in getting a weak signal by running a lead for the transmitter through the control room and out conning tower hatch. We stationed a man there with an axe, just in case we had to dive in a hurry. Another antenna was rigged to makeshift style across the deck as far as its length allowed. Incidently, during this work, "Red" Mayo discovered he was deaf in one ear from listening to the depth charges on the sound gear. His condition lasted ten days.

Robert Dye sat on the control room deck struggling to fix the S.D. radar. The filament leads of the tube that drives the spark coil were shorted. Our cipher keys were outdated, and we had no reception from Pearl Harbor. Since our messages were not being received by our operational commanders, the TAMBOR, ten days overdue, was presumed lost. "Tokyo Rose" reported us as being sunk! This presumption was brought to the attention of Vito Vitucci's wife while she was on duty at the Naval Communications Station in Washington, D.C., but as soon as our weak radio transmissions were picked up our real fate was known.

The conning tower, to keep the record straight, was a near-total wreck. Glass, cork, charts, and anything else that could be torn loose was on the deck. The Torpedo Data Computer was hanging from its fastenings; two dials were missing, but we located them in the periscope well. (A periscope "well" is eighteen inches in diameter and about twenty feet deep to house the periscope when not extended.) How to fish them out? Walter Post and Elmer Atchison made a yoke out of a pillow and two heaving lines, and lowered Warren Link with a flashlight hanging from his neck to the bottom to pick up the much needed dials. Then, working continuously for fourteen hours, Post got the computer into operation and "Atch" managed to get the navigational and plotting gear in order.

The five-inch, fifty-one gun on the after deck was off its trunnions. (Trunnions are the supporting gear like pivots by which a deck gun of this size is elevated in firing.) Imagine the power of the depth charge that lifted such a weight, and with the muzzle bracketed in place!

The depth charges that went off real close to the TAMBOR left several large grey-white blotches on the superstructure. Subsequent examination revealed a twenty-one inch split in the port side of the fuel ballast tank. We had thus lost a few thousand gallons of fuel oil, along with the air we heard escaping from the air bottles. At the time the destroyer kept hammering us, the vast amount of fuel oil escaping must have convinced the enemy that he had done us in completely. The TAMBOR, we felt, seemed to have her own way of fooling the enemy-to protect us.

Now we shifted fuel, but soon realized that the only way to rid ourselves of the oil leak was to flush the tank, and this could only be accomplished by reconverting the valves in the superstructure. John Scaduto, our "Oil King" and Warren Link volunteered to make the conversion, which meant crawling among a jumble of lines and removing the blanking plates so the tanks could be blown and then reinstalled and tightened sufficiently to hold the pressure of the entire tank. All this was done by the light of a battle lantern which a man handled from the deck. When the job was completed, the valves were quickly tested—when the high pressure air hit those valves there was a roar like the sound of a boat diving. As our "Oil King", John Scaduto, ran past the men on the deck on his way to the conning tower, he yelled, "don't get in my way." So, with the fuel ballast tanks converted and flushed, the oil hazard was presumably, overcome.

The maneuvering room was under "Chesty" DeBay's care, and he had serious problems there. When we started the battery charge, it was with a full voltage ground. We had survived seventy depth charges, and now we faced a possible battery explosion that could wipe us out. "Chesty!s" men scurried through the boat trying to resolve all kinds of electrical problems and many days later when we reached Midway, they were still chasing problems and fixing them!

In spite of our continuous efforts to pull the after torpedo room hatches tight, they were still leaking. A spirits tank (fuel tank for servicing torpedoes) had ruptured from the bulkhead where it had been secured with 3/4 inch bolts. The torpedo tube spindles were bent by the concussion and there was no way we could make them operational. The after tubes were useless. Ole Claussen, George Venditelli, and Carl Johnson worked tirelessly to regain use of even one tube so we would have stern protection, but all their efforts were unsuccessful. To think that seventy depth charges could do this to the TAMBOR.

Nine days later the Captain's voice came over the P.A. system. "Boys, I've just completed a thorough inspection of our boat—as you well know we're in one helluva shape, but I think she's good enough for another shot at "01 Tojo", so if you'll back me up I'd like to see what we can do to another convoy out there. I promise, one more try and then we'll head for the barn." Objections? You kidding?

We sank another ship, the RONSAU MARU with one good hit out of the torpedoes spread—and we received the usual reply of depth charges for our audacity. But this time we were in deep water and our evasive action put us well in the clear. There was not even a close one.

At last, we were heading for Midway.

The "Three Musketeers" from Philadelphia, Bill Raymond, Jack O'Brien and Bill Shoop, finally got a chance to get together. They said they felt as if they were each returning from another world. Their experiences had transformed them into true believers. There was only one thing they could say, the one thing all of us could say: "Thank God--and the TAMBOR".


As I read back through the story, I realized I would be remiss if I did not mention the variety of nationalities represented in this crew. Their names suggest the many heritages represented, i.e.; Black, Filipino, American Indian, as well as French, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Norwegian, Polish, Jewish, English and others.

Perhaps, more than any other vessel, a submarine is very complex. Everyone aboard is dependent on every single man to perform his particular function. Failure to do so could have disastrous results. A "qualified submariner" must know every operational process to wear the coveted "dolphins" emblem of a submariner.

This "dolphins" emblem emphasizes the importance of every man. Long before the issues of "civil rights", each and every man on a submarine was equal and equally important.


"I Remember the Tambor" was originally written in October 1987 for the Submariner's Magazine, "Polaris". After the first rough draft was created, a copy was submitted to the twenty-six remaining crew members that were present during this incident described. They were asked for strictly factual material that they would like to add to this incident, and from their point of view. Twenty-two of the twenty-six wrote back with comments and more factual data as they remembered it. The details and comments from each of these twenty-two crew men were added. The comments made in this story are direct quotes from the various crew members. As a result, this story was indeed written by the crew and not just one member of the crew. Today (April 1997), approximately twelve of those twenty-six crew members remain.

Some greater details have been added to this story (approximately in 1989), not to subtract from the facts, but to explain and give greater details, so that all that read this will truly experience a moment of the TAMBOR and maybe grasp a little understanding of this event.

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