Silent Hunter header

USS Flier (SS-250)


The USS Flier: Death and Survival on a World War II Submarine by Michael Sturma, Eight Survived: The Harrowing Story of the USS Flier and the Only Downed World War II Submariners to Survive and Evade Capture by Douglas A. Campbell, and Surviving the Flier by Rebekah J. Hughes


On February 2, 2010, the U. S. Navy confirmed that the hulk of the USS Flier (SS-250) is resting 330 feet beneath the surface in the Balabac Strait. Since then three books have been written about the World War II submarine. Before the announcement the only book you could find her in was U. S. Submarine Losses World War II, the Navy's official summary of what happened to each lost boat. Her career was very short. Yet each time she left port during World War II, something unique happened to the Flier and her crew. This is what makes her story so fascinating.

In December 1943, on her maiden voyage from New London to Pearl Harbor, while nearing Panama in the Caribbean Sea, a "friendly" merchant ship fired thirteen shells at her. Thankfully a rain squall afforded the Flier cover and she escaped undamaged. In January 1944, after departing Pearl Harbor for her first war patrol, the Flier entered the channel at Midway Island to top off her fuel. This time the weather was not as friendly. Heavy seas and wind caused her to run aground on a reef. One crewman was lost in this incident. She had to be towed back to Pearl Harbor for repairs to her starboard shaft and screw. However, other repairs needed to get her back into fighting shape were beyond the capabilities of the navy yard at Pearl Harbor, so the Flier limped to Mare Island, arriving there on February 24, 1944. On May 8, 1944, she made it back to Pearl Harbor and spent two weeks conducting training exercises. On May 21, 1944, she departed Pearl Harbor to continue her first war patrol. This time the Flier topped off her fuel at the outport on Johnston Atoll before heading for her patrol area west of Luzon Island in the Philippines. Her orders were to terminate her patrol at Fremantle where she and her crew would come under ComSubSoWesPac's authority.

The first patrol finally produced some good news and positive results for her unlucky skipper, Commander John D. Crowley. The Flier racked up her first confirmed sinking, the 10,380-ton transport Hakusan Maru. She also survived fierce depth-charge counterattacks from IJN escort vessels and made several other attacks. When Crowley turned in his patrol report at Fremantle on July 5, 1944, Ralph Christie credited the Flier with sinking four freighters, for a total of 19,500 tons, and with damaging another freighter and a tanker, worth 13,500 tons. The outstanding performance boosted both Crowley's and the entire crew's confidence substantially, and made the Flier's captain eligible for a Navy Cross. 1

Following a well deserved rest period at Fremantle, the Flier got underway for her second war patrol on August 2, 1944. After a stop at Operation Potshot in Exmouth Gulf to top off her fuel tanks, Commander Crowley turned the Flier north. They were headed for the South China Sea where they would hunt for enemy shipping off Indochina. On August 13, 1944, as they were nearing the Balabac Strait, Crowley received an "Ultra" communication informing him of a southbound convoy in the South China Sea. He ordered the Flier to fifteen knots as they entered the Balabac Strait with the intent to intercept the enemy convoy. Crowley and extra lookouts were stationed on the bridge. In all, there were nine men topside, including the skipper. At 10:00 P.M., a terrific explosion rocked the Flier. Within twenty to thirty seconds, the submarine sank, leaving Commander Crowley and thirteen other men struggling to survive in the water. Later Crowley concluded that the Flier must have struck an enemy mine.

Eight of the men, including Crowley, survived a perilous journey across enemy controlled waters and islands, without food, water, or medicines. Their courage, innovativeness, and determination was remarkable, in the face of the impossible odds stacked against them. Thanks to the effectiveness of the SpyRon radio network that the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB) had implemented throughout the Philippines, AIB-trained Filipino guerrilla fighters and coast watchers worked together to rescue and repatriate stranded Allied military personnel. On August 31, 1944, at Ipolote Bay, near Brooke's Point, on the eastern coast of Palawan Island, the USS Redfin (SS-272) evacuated seventeen people including the eight survivors of the USS Flier. She transported the seventeen evacuees to Darwin.

Rebekah J. Hughes is the author of Surviving the Flier. She is also the curator and exhibit designer at the Great Lakes Naval Memorial and Museum, in Muskegon, Michigan. As a result of her job she met one of the Flier's survivors, Al Jacobson. Jacobson had written his memoir describing the tragedy, the struggle to survive, and the rescue, as he lived it. He encouraged Hughes to use it tell the Flier's story. Much of Hughes' book is presented in the first person, using Jacobson's memoir. We see and feel things through his eyes and emotions. It produces a very compelling narrative. Of the three books, Hughes' effort is the most innovative, especially in regard to the survival story and the rescue. I should note that each of the other two authors also interviewed Al Jacobson and reviewed the same memoir.

Michael Sturma is the author of The USS Flier: Death and Survival on a World War II Submarine. He is the chair of the history program at Murdoch University in Australia. He has written two other books about American submarines in the Pacific war. I have found his other books to be well written and thoroughly documented. His book on the Flier is no exception. From each of his books I have learned things I never knew before. And for me, that is one of my measures of a good author. I give his book on the Flier high marks for his coverage of the investigations conducted into her grounding at Midway Island and her loss in the Balabac Strait. It is telling of the politics and favoritism (or lack thereof) within the Navy bureaucracy at the time. I also enjoyed his chapter about John Crowley's first command as captain of the USS S-28 (SS-133) in the Aleutian Islands.

Douglas A. Campbell is the author of Eight Survived: The Harrowing Story of the USS Flier and the Only Downed World War II Submariners to Survive and Evade Capture. He has penned one other book. He worked as a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper for twenty-five years, and also writes for Soundings magazine. The author visited the locations in the Philippines where the Flier's survivors made it ashore, and his trip is telling in the depth of his narrative. His book on the Flier is very well written, making it very readable. However, he makes several factual mistakes that bring into question the thoroughness of his research. He mistakenly places the friendly fire incident during the Flier's maiden voyage in the Pacific Ocean. It happened in the Caribbean Sea. He also says the Robalo sailed from Port Darwin on her final patrol. Not so - on June 22, 1944, she sailed from Fremantle with an Operation Order specifying she stop at Exmouth Gulf to refuel and then pass through the Barrier via Lombok Strait. She was no where near Port Darwin on her last patrol. He cites the "Record of Proceedings of an Investigation into the Loss of the USS Robalo and the Loss of the USS Flier" as a principal source for the chapter in which this mistake is made, and the Robalo's Operation Order is an exhibit in that document. He also states that the Robalo hit a mine and sank on July 2, 1944. That's what the early intelligence from Sergeant Pasqual de la Cruz indicated. But later information provided by Trinidad Mendosa via the guerrilla leader, "Dr. Mendosa," established the Robalo was lost on July 26, 1944. He also cites the "Japanese Palawan Military Police Report No. 56, August 28, 1944," as his principal source for his story of the Robalo survivors, however he does not provide a pedigree for the record, so it is impossible to verify it.

If you are considering getting one of the Flier books, I recommend you go with Rebekah J. Hughes or Michael Sturma.

Footnotes:

1. After the war, the Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee (JANAC) reduced the credit to just the 10,380-ton transport Hakusan Maru.