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We Were Pirates


We Were Pirates: A Torpedoman's Pacific War by Robert Schultz and James Shell


On November 12, 2009, while scanning my Outlook inbox with my first cup of coffee, I found a new message from Dr. Robert D. Schultz, John P. Fishwick Professor of English, Roanoke College. In it he wrote:

WE WERE PIRATES: A TORPEDOMAN'S PACIFIC WAR (Naval Institute Press, 2009) will be of interest to your community. It traces the story of submarine warfare in the Pacific throughout the conflict, drilling down frequently to the eyewitness accounts of Robert Hunt, torpedoman on the USS TAMBOR for 12 consecutive war patrols, Dec. 1940-Sept. 1944. Missions included Wake Island patrol in the war's first day, the Battle of Midway, guerrilla resupply in the Philippines, supply-line interdiction up and down the coasts of Southeast Asia and China. Also included is a compartment-by-compartment account of a near-fatal, 17-hour depth charge attack survived at the bottom of the East China Sea. After this productive and heroic patrol many commendations were awarded to crew members, and Lt. Cdr. Russell Kefauver, the boat's skipper, received the Navy Cross. Hunt's remarkably candid accounts of liberty on Pearl and in Western Australia add spice, as well.

Given my interest in American World War II submarine operations and the "Spyron" activities out of Fremantle during the Pacific War, I decided to take a closer look. I visited the author's Web site and watched several videos of interviews by the authors with Robert Hunt, two of which took place aboard the USS Cobia (SS-245), at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum. In the interviews aboard the Cobia, Hunt uses the restored submarine to describe his duties in the Tambor's forward torpedo room and diving station, and gives the authors a nostalgic tour of the boat's galley. In another video, Hunt describes what he witnessed while on patrol off Wake Island in December 1941, and his first impressions of the carnage at Pearl Harbor when the Tambor returned there for repairs later that month. The videos convinced me to purchase the book. I ordered it that day and received it about a week later.

I found the book to be a true page-turner. At 212 pages it is a fast read. It took two days and three pots of coffee to finish it. As billed, the book is about Robert Hunt ("Bob"), a torpedoman on the submarine USS Tambor (SS-198) for twelve consecutive war patrols.

How the book was born is a unique story. One if its authors, Robert Schultz, and Bob were neighbors in Decorah, Iowa. Bob asked Schultz to help him write a book about his war time experiences. Schultz showed him how to prepare a rough draft. Bob went to work on it in his unfinished basement office. A year later, Bob gave Schultz "...a 207-page single-spaced typescript" documenting his reminiscences. 1 These written memories, together with notes Bob made in his diary while serving aboard the Tambor and conversations and interviews he had with the authors, shape the story told in We Were Pirates: A Torpedoman's Pacific War. The authors also reviewed the official war patrol reports submitted by the Tambor's commanding officers "...during Bob's service on the boat from December 12, 1940, to September 1, 1944." 2 There are numerous other sources cited in their bibliography, including Valor at Sea, the web site of the Pacific Thunder Campaign's founding father, Ray Hayden. Bravo Zulu Hondo!

In my mind, there are two principal characters in this book - Bob and the USS Tambor. After reading the book, whenever I think of one of them, I will always recall the other. Each has its own story within their common journey through the Pacific War.


USS Tambor (SS-198) patch


In one of their interviews, Bob showed Schultz "...the Tambor battle flag made at sea out of sheets and deck paint, with an eagle holding a torpedo in one set of talons and a Japanese ship in the other." When asked if the battle flag had ever been flown, Bob said, "On patrol we didn't fly a flag. We were pirates." 3 This response is telling of Bob's swashbuckling adventures ashore. They bring to mind Edgar's statement in Shakespeare's King Lear: "Wine loved I deeply, dice dearly, and in woman out-paramoured the Turk." Bob played hard when on leave. He drank heavily, gambled regularly, and had women in every port. Simple principles guided his actions. If you made a bet with him and lost, you had to pay your debt. If you were looking for a fight, Bob, a high school and college athlete, was always ready to give you one. Yet there is another side to this pirate. His letters to family show he was a loving son and brother, who wanted to ensure the treasure he had accumulated during his journey in the Pacific would reach them if he didn't make it back. He had also resolved that he would not have a serious relationship with any woman until his tour in the Navy was over. He had cheated with too many willing women whose husbands were away at war. He did not want that problem.

When liberties ended, the pirate reported back to his ship and he became the pirate warrior. His goal at sea was not to plunder for loot and wenches. His mission was to avenge December 7 and the lives of his lost comrades. Whenever battle stations sounded, he reported to his assigned post in the forward torpedo room to ensure Tambor's fish ran hot, straight, and normal. His experiences in the torpedo room led him to identify a deficiency in its design. With Bob's input, engineers at Bethlehem Steel designed a corrective modification which was made to every boat that came in for refit. "The redesign probably prevented injuries, and it may have saved lives." 4 After nine patrols he was promoted to chief.

The Tambor was the lead boat and namesake of her class. Her sister ships were USS Tautog (SS-199), USS Thresher (SS-200), USS Triton (SS-201), USS Trout (SS-202), USS Tuna (SS-203), USS Gar (SS-206), USS Grampus (SS-207), USS Grayback (SS-208), USS Grayling (SS-209), USS Grenadier (SS-210), and USS Gudgeon (SS-211). The last six boats of the Tambor class are often listed as "Gar class" submarines. Seven of Tambor's sister boats were lost in action during the war: Triton, Trout, Grampus, Grayback, Grayling, Grenadier, and Gudgeon. With them, 464 American submariners are on eternal patrol. The Tambor completed thirteen war patrols. 5 The Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee (JANAC) credited her with sinking 33,479 tons of enemy shipping in eleven vessels (ten marus and one converted net tender). 6 She received 11 battle stars for World War II service.

In my opinion the book's two most interesting chapters cover the Tambor's third and ninth war patrols. The Battle of Midway is the backdrop for her third patrol. During the battle, the Tambor and 25 other Pacific Fleet submarines were assigned to a perimeter line around Midway. In general, the performance of American submarines during the historic battle was abysmal.

The submariners, certainly, had nothing of their own to celebrate. Only two or three got off a torpedo, and none hit anything. One sent an incomplete contact report that misled Admiral Spruance and prevented the possible sinking of more major Japanese ships. The skippers blamed Bob English's plan; Bob English blamed the skippers. 7

It was the Tambor's skipper who sent the incomplete contact report cited by Blair. He and several other skippers were sacked in the battle's aftermath. However, I believe that upon review of the facts presented in We Were Pirates, a reasonable argument can be made that other actions taken by the Tambor's skipper did in fact result in the sinking of more Japanese warships by American air forces.

During her ninth patrol, the Tambor was assigned to hunt for enemy shipping in the East China Sea. In this chapter you will find the compartment-by-compartment account of a near-fatal, 17-hour depth charge attack by a Japanese destroyer. The Japanese were confident they had destroyed the Tambor. Tokyo Rose had proclaimed her sunk. The chapter is a testament to the crew's training, grit, and courage. You will find a level of detail not found in other Navy sources.

The Tambor's seventh war patrol was a Spyron mission. The boat had embarked Commander Charles "Chick" Parsons, General Douglas MacArthur's "Man in Manila," in addition to three Filipino guerrilla fighters and another officer. On March 4, 1943, the Tambor inserted MacArthur's operatives and their supplies safely and secretly at Mindanao.

I hope we see more books like We Were Pirates: A Torpedoman's Pacific War. Many Pacific War veterans already belong to the ages, and with them their memories. The few still alive are national treasures. I hope other authors will preserve these memories, as well.

Footnotes:

1. Schulz, Robert and James Shell, We Were Pirates: A Torpedoman's Pacific War, p. 4.

2. Ibid., xi.

3. Ibid., 3.  The Tambor patch shown above was produced by McGrogan's Patch Designs and is based on the design of the Tambor's actual battle flag, as discussed above. I purchased the patch at McGrogan's.

4. Ibid., 138.

5. The author's note that the numbering of the Tambor's war patrols as used in their book "...differs from the Navy's, which conflates the boat's service in the Battle of Midway (May 21-June 16, 1942) with the separate patrol that followed (commencing July 24, 1942). Correcting the misleading count that appears in the official logs and records, this book numbers the Midway battle as the Tambor's third, increasing the number labeling each subsequent mission by one." Ibid., xiii.

6. "According to records kept by the crew, the boat sank 26 ships totaling over 100,000 tons, but after the war, the Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee (JANAC) was able to confirm only 11 ships totaling 33,479 tons." Ibid., 2.

7. Blair, Clay, Jr. Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan, p. 249.