Rescue at Truk – From YANK Magazine

Posted on April 5th, 2016 by:

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Rescue at Truk

By Sgt. Larry McManus

Yank Staff correspondent

Pearl Harbor- A submarine, many people believe, is a sleek, stealthy craft devoted to the science of destruction and manned by pallid sailors who consider a mission successful only when thousands of tons of enemy shipping have been sent to the bottom of the sea.

If that is true, then the U.S.S. Tang’s mission in the two-day attack on Truk was a failure. For on that trip, the sub sank only two objects-which were set afire by the Tang’s deck guns.

truk submarine rescue

Some of these Truk attackers were shot down

It was in the first raid on the first day of the Truk attack that a Japanese shell blew a four-foot hole in the port wing of the TBF (Grumman Avenger) piloted by Lt. (jg) Scott Scammell II of Yardley, Pa. Scammell continued his run and dropped his bomb on the atoll before banking steeply for a crash landing in the ocean. A fire kindled by the shell near the wing tank changed his plans, and to prevent an explosion that probably would have killed him and his crew, he ditched the plane in the lagoon two miles south of Dublon Island, principal Japanese base of the atoll. “The indicator read 200 knots when we hit the water,” said Harry B. Gemmell ARM2c of Philadelphia, Pa., the radioman, “and we usually land at about 80. Somehow nobody was hurt. We just climbed into the raft and took a look around. We saw Dublon a short distance away and started paddling like hell.”

Scammell, Gemmell and Joseph D. Gendron AMM2c of Oakland, R.I., the turret gunner, wanted to raise the sail but they were afraid the Japanese would spot them if they did.

“The sail is yellow on one side and blue on the other,” said Gendron. “It’s okay when you’re sailing away from the Japanese you can face the blue side toward them. But what can you do when you’re right in the middle of the Japanese?”

The three airmen solved that problem, after a fashion, by folding the sail to hide its yellow side. This left a ridiculously small surface but enough to help somewhat as they paddled toward the sea.


Saved from the sea after their planes crashed during the attack on Truk, these 11 air crewmen stroll on the grounds of Honolulu’s Royal Hawaiian Hotel, A Navy Rest Center. L to R.. GIll, Hill, Lenahan, Thompson, Gemmel, Gendron, Tabrum, Gruebel, Livingston, Hranek, Bentley

Two more strikes hit Dublon while the raft was in the lagoon, and Japanese planes fled into the clouds as American flyers blasted the navy yard there. Between raids the men in the raft watched the Japanese come out of their cover, make ferocious passes at the empty air and then go into hiding again as the Americans returned.

“We’d see a flight of planes overhead,” Gemmell said, “and we’d make believe they were F6Fs (Grumman Hellcats) coming down to protect us. Then those damned meatballs would show up on each wing.” When that happened, the men tried to cover the bright yellow raft with their bodies and with the blue side of the sail.

At noon, four hours after their crash inside the Truk reef, the three men steered their raft into the open sea between the islands forming South Pass. Joe Gendron, the only one aboard who wasn’t seasick, bailed out the raft until the Tang-directed by fighter planes circling above-pulled alongside four miles southeast of Ollan Island. The three men were hauled aboard the sub. Lt. Comdr. Richard H. O’Kane of San Raphael, Calif., commanding the Tang, told them to bring the raft aboard, too. “For my kid,” he said. Some time later another flyer was reported down off Kuop Island, 30 miles to the east. To save time, Comdr. O’Kane decided to keep the Tang on the surface for a full power run. This meant that the sub had to pass close to Ollan Island. The commander figured the Japanese might open fire, so he ordered his men to fire first to keep the Japanese busy. A tall, red-haired subman named James M. (Gunner) White GM1c of Springfield, La., was the first man to shell Truk. By the time the Japanese recovered and opened fire, the sub was 1,000 yards out of range. After searching vainly for the flyer until dark, the Tang pulled out for the night.

truk submarine rescue

Perched on rescuer’s wings, 7 flyers taxi to sub

Early the next morning the Tang spotted a Japanese sub escaping from Truk through the South Pass. The Tang dived, made an approach and came up for a quick periscope search, but the enemy sub had dived, too, because American planes were overhead. All the way back to Pearl, the Tang’s crew blamed the flyers for driving away its quarry just when the American sub was closing in for the kill.

After the Japanese sub had escaped, the Tang dived again and cleared away from the area for an hour at good speed. Then she surfaced and found American fighter planes overhead. The Tang followed them toward Ollan Island, expecting to find the pilot sought the night before.

Instead Comdr. O’Kane’s men found one of the Kingfisher planes, piloted by Lt. (jg) John A. Burns of Wynnewood, Pa., with Aubrey J. Gill ARM2c of Compton, Calif., as his radioman. Crowded aboard the plane were Lt. (jg) Bert F. Kanze of Freehold, N.J.; Lt John J. Dowdle Jr. of Wilmette, Ill., and Robert E. Hill ARM2c of Houston, Tex.

Lt. Kanze had been piloting his F6F over Fefan Island around noon of the first day of the Truk strike when his plane was hit by antiaircraft fire. He was forced down into the lagoon, climbed into his raft and put up the sail.

“But I yanked it down in a hurry,” said Kanze, “when ack-ack tried to blast me. I camouflaged the raft and myself with the sail and drifted till dark, when I set sail again. I wasn’t thinking about being rescued; I was scared stiff I would wash up on the Japanese shores.”

The wind carried Kanze away from Fefan Island, and once out of range he set sail again. Finding that he was drifting toward Ollan, he rigged up a sea anchor to slow the raft. Then, by paddling and sailing all night, he managed to cross the reef of the lagoon at high tide, the only time it was possible to do so. At daybreak he was two miles out.

Soon after, Lt. Burns and Lt. Dowdle, who was flying the second Kingfisher plane, spotted Kanze. While Burns patrolled above, Dowdle went down to make the rescue. His Kingfisher landed in the heavy seas, bobbed dangerously and finally overturned as a gust of wind caught under one wing. Dowdle and Hill, his radioman, were tossed in the water alongside Kanze.

Then Burns landed in the waves five feet high and the men climbed on the wings of his plane. Fifteen minutes later he taxied up to the Tang, put the three flyers aboard and took off again with Gill, his radioman, to resume the patrol. Dowdle’s overturned plane was sunk by the sub’s guns.

Meanwhile the Tang’s crew had seen a TBF crash near Ollan and throw up a column of thick smoke. Following Lt. Burns’ plane, the Tang cruised toward the island and hove to 4,000 yards offshore, giving Gunner White a chance to throw more shells at Ollan. Comdr. O’Kane also called for planes as support and they blasted the island’s gun emplacements while the sub sped on to pick up the pilot of the crashed TBF, Comdr. Alfred R. Matter of Butte, Mont., and his two crewman. Matter, who was also the air-group commander, said that his plane had been hit as it made an approach to the target, Param Island, 25 minutes earlier.

“I was taking pictures through the bomb-bay windows when I felt a thud,” said James J. Lenahan ARM2c of Westfield, N.J. “When that shell hit our engine,” added H.A. (Tommy) Thompson AOM2c of San Bernardino, Calif., turret gunner, “the oil covered my turret and I thought, ‘What a pot-poor way to die.’”

After landing in the water, Comdr. Matter and Thompson had worked for several minutes to inflate the raft while Lenahan rested, one arm thrown over the fuselage just forward of the fin. He was holding the emergency rations and chute pack in one hand. When the plane plunged toward the bottom, 250 fathoms below, Lenahan was momentarily dragged down with it. “What did I do?” he asked when questioned later. “I dropped the rations, of course.”

Matter and his crew were hardly aboard the Tang when Lt. Burns radioed Comdr. O’Kane that three more rafts had been sighted east of Truk. The sub started after them but was still 15 miles away when F6Fs reported sighting two other men down between Truk and Kuop. Since this was nearer, the Tang followed and picked up Lt. Harry E. Hill of Virginia, Minn., and Lt. (jg) James G. Cole of Killeen, Tex.

truck submarine rescue

Crewmen from submarine Tang help one flyer aboard from his rubber raft while another one waits

Hill had been in his raft overnight, while Cole had been in the water less than an hour. Cole, however had been supported only by a Mae West and was ill from sea water he had swallowed.  To pick up Cole was a ticklish job. Lt. Comdr. Murray B. Freeze, navigator of the Tang, stood in the tower watching the reefs as the sub came in slowly within 400 yards of the surf.

In the meantime Lt. Burns, worried by the delay of the Tang’s arrival had landed his Kingfisher again to continue his private taxi service for stranded airmen. The first man he picked up this time was Lt. (jg) Robert T. Barbor of Rockville Center, N.Y., pilot of an F6F. Then, at 1415, with Barbor on his wing, Burns taxied up to a raft bearing three more men.

The wind, still strong, caught Burns’ plane as it had caught Dowdle’s and plunged the lee wing into the water for half its length, but radioman Gill somehow scrambled out to the tip of the high wing and brought the plane back to an even keel. As he did so, a wing float punctured the life raft and it shortly disappeared, carrying along the meager supplies its three occupants had salvaged from their TBF. The airmen-Lt. Robert S. Nelson of Great Falls, Mont., a section leader; Robert W. Gruebel AMM1c of Memphis, Tenn., his gunner and J.L. Livingston ARM1c of Lander, Wyo., his radioman-climbed on the Kingfisher’s wings where Barbor was already perched.

Then Burns taxied the plane toward another raft half-mile farther out to sea. He found Ens. Carroll L. Farrell of Ada, Okla.; and Owen F. Tabrum AMM2c of Portland, Oreg., whose plane had been next to Lt. Nelson’s when Nelson’s was downed during a formation approach to Dublon. Ens. Farrell’s plane and another from the formation had circled Nelson’s life raft until fighter cover was available and then asked for permission to go in and dump their loads on Dublon.

“There was a jar,” said radioman Hranek, “just before we dropped our bomb. We pulled out around 3,000. It was too high for a good strafing but I couldn’t resist all those targets so I gave them a few rounds as we left.

“The engine was windmilling-no power-and we set down about a half-mile seaward of Nelson’s crew. It was a beautiful landing. I’ve landed with more force on carriers now and then. We had plenty of time. Mr. Farrell and Tabrum inflated the raft on the wing and stepped into it, barely getting their feet wet. I had to climb out of the bomb-bay hatch into the water”.

Burns took the men from Hranek’s raft aboard, and spaced his passengers three on each wing and one on the ledge of the cockpit beside him. Everyone on the plane is still awed at the way Burns taxied his overloaded Kingfisher toward the Tang, which was coming to meet them.

The cross wind was severe and the plane took a terrible beating, but Lt. Burns radioed the sub that he had plenty of gas and was doing all right. After taxiing more than two hours with the seven-man overload, the Kingfisher met the Tang at 1730 hours.

The pounding waves had spring the rivets in the float, and the plane had a severe angle. “If we’d had to remain in the water much longer-“Lt. Burns said later, not finishing the sentence. So Burns and his radioman Gill went aboard the Tang with the men they had rescued. “We sent Burns and Gill below so they couldn’t see,” said Comdr. O’Kane, “and then we sank their plane with gunfire.” In its last 7 ½ hours of existence, the Kingfisher had saved 10 men.

truk submarine USS Tang

Commander O’Kane with flyers rescued from Truk

The Tang’s final rescue took place just at disk. Lt. Burns had heard earlier that an SBD (Douglas Dauntless) had been downed by ack-ack from Eten Island and had landed in the ocean 500 yards from Ollan Island, the Tang’s familiar hunting ground. Burns had passed up this crew for the larger group. But now the sub sped to the scene, arriving just as Lt. Donald Kirkpatrick Jr. of Evanston, Ill., and Richard L. Bentley AOM2c of Los Angeles, Calif., fired their last Very flare. Kirkpatrick had been shot down once before and was once pictured on Life magazine as the “typical dive-bomber pilot.” Bentley enlisted in the Navy on May 8, 1942, his seventeenth birthday.

The two had rowed desperately against the wind, which was forcing them toward Ollan’s shores. “Then, when the wind died down,” Bentley said, “we figured to stick around for a while and if we weren’t picked up we’d try to sail to New Guinea. We had our parachute for a sail, and even if that was too far for us to make, it would have been a lot better than sitting around waiting to die.”

After rescuing Kirkpatrick and Bentley, the Tang headed for sea and a 16-day patrol assignment. Comdr. O’Kane put the flyers to work standing watches so there would be enough bunks to go around. Even so, it was crowded.

“They can have it. I’ll stick to planes,” said Gruebel, who has a Japanese plane to his credit. “If the navy did away with the air arm, I’d go into subs, but not before.”

“If you like the air so much,” drawled Gunner White, “why don’t you stay in it? Then, on our next run, we might have time to get us some Japs-instead of sailing around to fish you flyers out of the water.”

*A War to be Won editor’s note: The USS Tang was sunk on October 24, 1944 when its own torpedo circled back and struck her abreast the aft torpedo room. Nine crewmembers including Commander O’Kane, survived the sinking but 78 sailors were lost.

For more information about the USS Tang, please read Lt. Commander O’Kane’s written account of his wartime experiences:

 Clear the Bridge!: The War Patrols of the USS Tang

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