World War II: Teenage Sub Hunter
by Carl L. Toney
World War II: Teenage Sub Hunter
One month shy of my 17th birthday, I stood outside a staging area on an early morning in San Diego with hundreds of other sleepy, bored sailors as we waited to receive orders to pack our sea bags. We were finally shipping out! No more hurry up and wait, at least for now. It was January 1944. We had no idea where we were going, but we were loaded onto buses and dropped off at the Navy pier. It was a beautiful sunny day, with a slight breeze that caused the ship’s flag to gently ripple. Against the sounds of seagulls squawking and waves lapping at the docks, the boatswain (bo’s’n) mate called us to attention and marched us up the gangplank one-by-one to board the U.S.S Solomons. Many of us were from small towns or farms and had never seen a ship before. All of the newness was overwhelming. I fared better than most. My previous training at the Brunswick shipyard gave me a leg up, giving me enough confidence to take on whatever challenge would be headed my way.
This was my first trip on any ship and a few hours after we got underway and out into the bay, the carrier began to roll and pitch from the ground swells. I got very sick and the only thing that helped me was lying prone on the cold steel deck with my cheek pressed to it. This cold relief could not last long, because if caught, the crew would tease me mercilessly. Worse, I could receive punishment for being a clown, splayed on the deck instead of working. Seasick newbies were often offered a greasy pork chop as a “cure.” I did not fall for that one! After suffering for a week, I gradually adapted to the sea’s rhythms.
The U.S.S Solomons was built on a cargo ship’s hull. The Navy put a flight deck on it and called it a convoy escort. Planes had a hard time getting airborne upon being launched with such a small flight deck; this was no aircraft carrier. Some planes would simply drop at the end of the deck, plunging into the ocean. The lucky ones would recover, but skim the water for miles, with the prop kicking up spray before becoming airborne. The pilots were told to stay in their plane until it sank deep enough so that the ship would not crash into it. These escort carriers were nicknamed “Kaiser’s coffins” since they had a tendency to break in half in storms. Welders frequently reinforced the steel plates while at sea, to strengthen the hull. The ship’s builders had slapped a thin skin over hastily built frames. In rough seas it would buckle, making a loud banging noise like a giant oil can. Each loud bang could signal one step closer for every one of us on board to become trapped occupants of one of the Kaiser’s coffins. However, one advantage of the thin skin was that an armor-piercing shell would go through one side and out the other without exploding. That didn’t make me feel better, though.
From San Diego, instead of staying in the Pacific, we went through the Panama Canal Zone. While there, our ship participated in joint defense exercises. The U. S. had fears that the Japanese would attack this area. We then steamed on to Norfolk, Virginia, arriving there in mid-winter. While in Norfolk, the ship was outfitted with food, ammunition and other supplies. The sailors formed long lines to load the small ammo, passing it down the line from one to the other. It was hard, cold work that lasted all night and, with no gloves to wear, our hands bled.
While in port Norfolk, one of my assignments was to stand watch at the dock. It was so cold that the river water crashing against the dock quickly froze. I carried a rifle, but had no training on how to shoot it. Luckily, no Germans came crawling up the banks to pose a serious threat. It was very lonely and dark in those early morning hours. An additional assignment while in port was to join a line handling party (lines were ropes holding a ship to the dock) relocating the newly built carrier Shangri-La from one dock to another. This was very dangerous work. While relocating the carrier, one of the sailors on a tugboat helping us stepped into the bight (a looped end) of a line. The tug reversed direction and caught his leg, crushing it against the tug’s stanchion and severing it. A year later, when we were back in Norfolk, the Shangri-La had been towed from the Pacific to Norfolk. It had been hit by a Japanese suicide plane. The plane went through the flight deck and exploded on the hangar deck. I was amazed at the amount of destruction but the carrier was still afloat.
Because we had loaded a lot of cold weather gear while in Norfolk, the rumor mill said we were going to the North Atlantic. Wrong! This tactic was used to mislead the Germans. We were headed to South America and were joined by four destroyer escort ships to protect us from submarine attacks. After a week at sea, the captain announced that our designation was Recife, Brazil. Crossing the Equator was our big diversion. We were initiated into the ancient order of the deep…King Neptune’s Locker.
It was fun and scary at the same time. This celebration was held on our flight deck when we were in safe waters. You wouldn’t think that we were heading into battle. The sea was calm and the slight breeze from the ship’s movement was very pleasant. Before the ceremony, all landlubbers were charged with various offenses and lined up before “King Neptune,” an overweight, salty sailor with a big grin. My charge was that of impersonating a sailor. He read the charges with a loud bellowing voice, after which each landlubber would have to kiss his hairy knee, slathered with a stinky cheese. Transgressors were tossed into a vat of salt water mixed with oil and forced to run the gauntlet. After seeing the fate of those in line ahead of me, I tentatively approached “King Neptune.” I did what I had to do. I still have a scar on my back from being hit with sticks and chains. After running the gauntlet, I became a “shellback.” Big honor, huh?
In contrast to the undignified “ceremony,” each of us received a certificate that I still have, framed in my office.
IMPERIUM NEPTUNI REGIS
TO ALL SAILORS WHEREVER YE MAY BE: and to all Mermaids, Whales, Sea Serpents, Porpoises, Sharks, Dolphins, Eels, Skates, Suckers, Crabs, Lobsters and all other Living Things of the Sea.
GREETING: Know ye: That on this 30th day March, 1944, in Latitude 00000 and Longitude at war, there appeared within Our Royal Domain the U.S.S. Solomons bound South for the Equator and for battle against the Axis Powers.
BE IT REMEMBERED
That the said Vessel and Officers and Crew thereof have been inspected and passed on by Ourself and Our Royal Staff
And Be It Known: By all ye Sailors, Marines, Land Lubbers and others who may be honored by his presence that
Carl L. Toney
having been found worthy to be numbered as one of our Trusty Shellbacks he has been duly initiated into the
SOLEMN MYSTERIES OF THE ANCIENT ORDER OF THE DEEP
Be It Further Understood: That by virtue of the power invested in me I do hereby command all my subjects to show due honor and respect to him wherever he may be
Disobey this order under penalty of Our Royal Displeasure
Given under our hand and seal this March 30 1944
Davy Jones Neptunus Rex
His Majesty’s Scribe Ruler of the Raging Main
By His Servant [signature missing] , U.S.N.
Notice that the longitude is not disclosed; there is simply the phrase “at war,” nor was our heading revealed. “Battle against the Axis Powers” pretty much summed it up. I can understand why the Commanding Officer would not have signed this ceremonial certificate, even if it bore the official seal “United States of America, Navy Department.” The place for attaching the embossed stamp, usually gold, too was missing. All that remains now, more than seventy years later, is a faint raised surface revealing a ghostly image: “Solomons.”
The captain kept us busy with combat drills. My battle station was a 50-caliber pedestal mounted machine gun. Later, I was assigned to a 40mm quad. I would push my chest up tight against the guide and pull the straps tight around my back, thus becoming part of the gun. When I attached the canister that held the bullets and pulled the trigger, I could empty it very quickly. I was in awe as I watched the tracers fly. They were spaced evenly throughout the canister. A day’s training at Mission Beach did not make me a marksman, but I figured if we put enough bullets in the air, a plane just might run into them! The captain also trained us for our other duties on board the ship. We had lectures on battle wounds such as what to do to prevent the lung from collapsing if a mate’s chest was blown open. We were shown movies to warn us about the harlots in Recife, for venereal disease was rampant and sailors were the target of many of these women. I imagine that the captain knew that the ship’s crew was as horny as hell!
Arriving in Recife was quite an event! The town turned out to greet us. They were happy to see us because German submarines had been sinking cargo ships that were leaving Brazil for Europe. Argentina and Brazil supplied troops and food for the Allies fighting in Europe. Beautiful women were everywhere and we took full advantage. My first sexual encounter was with a beautiful Portuguese girl. Sadly all I remember about her is that she laughed at my white butt. Because my job on the ship was to be a ship lookout, I was outdoors most of the time and wore shorts…the rest of me was very tanned!
While the ship was in port I was sent to Lookout School, where I was taught to identify Japanese and German ships and planes. I was also taught to identify the difference between lightning and gunfire and how to identify subs when their periscopes were above the water. We had five lookout stations, one in each corner of the flight deck and one in the crow’s nest. We kept a dialogue going throughout our watch. Before going to the watch station, we had to wear amber goggles to accustom our eyes to the dark. At the watch station, we sat in a chair that rotated 180 degrees and had a fixed pair of binoculars. We also had to wear a set of headphones, connected to Combat Information Systems that left your ears throbbing in pain after thirty minutes.
At night we would sneak a look from scanning the ocean for subs and look at the moon and stars. Through the binoculars the moon’s surface looked like mountains and deserts. During stormy times, the ocean would often be above our level. We would look up to see a mountain of water, then the ship crested and we rode the next wave. One knew that he was in an ominous storm when heel marks were two feet up on the bulkhead! At other times, the watches were very boring and I found myself thinking of my family and wondering how they were doing.
It was summer in Brazil, but I knew that it was very cold back home in Georgia and I worried about them living in an unheated house. I had a matching grant from the Navy and they sent money home to help assist my family.
There were other times when we were near the Equator that we encountered a strange stillness. The sea seemed motionless. There was no wind and the ocean stretched out in all directions in a glassy smoothness reflecting the clouds perfectly. One could see a ripple only when a fish surfaced but the sound could be heard with clarity. These were the times when ancient sailing ships were caught in this motionless world of becalmed. An old mariner’s tune went, “Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.”
Our stay in port was short. Apparently the reason that Captain Crist was in a hurry to leave port was that he had gotten information that a German sub was leaving the North Atlantic and heading for Brazil. After taking on supplies, we went out to sea patrolling for subs. We formed a hunter-killer group covering a sector from Northern Brazil to Southern Argentina and over to the African coast. We dropped many depth charges and I suppose we killed a few whales because they make a similar sound to a sub’s propeller. A sailor on a destroyer escort spotted a torpedo running through our group. Luckily it missed, but it did set off an alarm that resulted in a “Man your battle stations” command. We had three minutes to get to our stations. We were scared as hell and at the same time the adrenalin set in and it was exciting. I was on a 40mm quad and the noise from the gun caused the ½-inch steel plates to vibrate. Our destroyer escorts pulled away from the carrier, zig-zagging and throwing “ash cans” (bombs) into the ocean, all the while sounding their sirens to warn their crew to man their battle stations. All hell broke loose. The ash cans were thrown over to sink the sub and geysers from the explosions were everywhere. The whole carrier vibrated, causing a lot of anxiety and fear for the Solomons crew.
Later on, we did sink one German submarine off the west coast of Africa. It was a major find, for it was a supply sub coming from the North Atlantic to supply many subs in the Caribbean. We had 24-hour air coverage – our planes were looking for subs at all times. The sub was on the surface to recharge its batteries and hadn’t submerged. (I was on watch at this time and was connected to our communications center and therefore could hear what was going on.)
One of our planes spotted the sub early in the morning and we fired a missile into it. It submerged and later that evening resurfaced. They manned their deck guns and began shooting at our planes. They shot three of them down. One plane managed to drop an ash can onto the sub and it sank. The bomb caused the plane, along with its pilot and crew, to be blown apart. All were killed. It was nighttime and the surviving crewmembers were spotted floating in the water. Our destroyer escort rescued their surviving crew and captain. During the rescue, a destroyer escort sailor spotted one of the German sailors floating in the water pull one of his own off a raft and held him under water until that sailor appeared to have drowned. (German subs were serviced in France by French civilians and therefore, the dead sailor could have been a Frenchman on board the German sub to do repairs. He may have sent a signal reporting the German sub’s position, so the German sailor must have discovered this and was taking revenge.)
The next day, the sailors and their captain were transferred to our carrier because we had a jail that was big enough to hold them. Our ship’s doctors performed an autopsy on the dead sailor to determine how long the sub had been at sea. They were able to figure this out by seeing what kind of food was in his stomach – fresh or hydrated. A few days later, Captain Crist found safer waters for a proper burial. The ocean was as smooth as glass with a tropical rain in the distance. The hot sun beating down on the deck refracted the air, causing a shimmering effect. Our planes were launched for patrol, our ships guns were at battle alert, and our battle group, which consisted of four destroyer escorts and the carrier, was cruising at 14 knots. Off-duty sailors, in rank, were on the carrier deck and had been piped to attention by the boatswain’s mate. Nearby lay a pile of discarded survival gear from the sub crew. Later I went back and took a souvenir buckle from a life vest. I kept it for many years after the war.
The German sailors, guarded by Navy MP’s, were also in rank near the shroud. (The shroud had been sewn and weighted by our sail maker the day before and had been placed on a makeshift plank platform mounted on the bulwark.) Our chaplain performed a proper ceremony for the sailor and the sub’s captain tilted the platform, committing the sailor to the deep. There was not a dry eye from seasoned men that had seen many battles. I was on my lookout watch a few feet away and can still see the sailcloth shroud, sliding from the makeshift ramp into the clear blue Atlantic Ocean.
I was not afraid. I was too young to realize that another sub might be nearby to send us all to Davey Jones’s locker. The sounds, smells and vibrations of the ship made one think it was alive and indeed it was a monster created by man for the single-minded purpose of destruction. The bow of the ship made a small wake as it sliced through the smooth surface of the calm waters. After this trip, we went back to Recife to drop off the prisoners, to refuel, and to resupply. The city turned out to greet us with marching bands. The Brazilians were very grateful for our efforts. They had high officials and troops from the Brazilian Military Flying Colors there to cheer for us. They had had many ships sunk and great losses from the war. All of us who were not on duty were on deck to watch and to hear the speeches about the brave Americans. The German prisoners were singing and rejoicing, glad that their long and arduous journey was over, as they walked down the gang plank. I think that they were very relieved that the war had ended for them.
They were wearing only long johns provided by the navy (they usually wore seaman’s dungarees with POW across the back) and I can only speculate that it was to humiliate them. If so, many of their songs did that to us, for none of us spoke German.
Hunting subs was extended to the southern tip of Argentina. This is where we found ourselves on one cold, windy and dreary day as we were turning the carrier to face the wind so we could launch planes. A rogue wave slammed into the side of the ship, flipping some planes into the sea. One plane landed upside down with its cockpit inside the engine boiler smokestack. Luckily, the plane was unmanned!
Before launching planes, the mechanics had many tasks, including checking engines and removing tie-downs. While starting the engine, there was always a sailor standing by with a fire extinguisher in case the plane engine caught fire. When the planes flipped, the prop sliced into several sailors and killed them instantly. Other sailors were thrown into the sea, and didn’t survive due to their heavy clothes and failure to be able to activate their life vests.
The destruction on the deck with blood and body parts all over was a very traumatic shock for a young sailor of seventeen. My whole body went into shock, and for days I could still see the images and, for a very long time, could even smell the pungent odor of blood. Years later, while driving on the Beltway in Washington, DC, a car had run over a person and when I came upon the accident, I relived that horrific feeling again.
(At a recent reunion of the U.S.S. Solomons in Charleston, SC, I spoke to Ernie Clausen, who was a medic on the carrier during this incident. He told a rather vivid story about a sailor who had been hit by a prop from one of these planes. The sailor was lying on the catwalk and seemed to be very much alive except when you looked into his eyes. At first Ernie saw no bleeding, as the blood had drained through the catwalk into the sea. Upon picking the sailor up to place him on a stretcher, he noticed that the sailor had been sliced from his shoulder to his butt.)
One time our ship was saved from the depths of the Atlantic by one of our sailors assigned to be a lookout. Our carrier was always escorted by four destroyer escort ships… two in the front and two in the back. Early one morning, the helmsman on one of the destroyer escorts fell asleep and his ship headed for a crash with the carrier. A lookout on my ship gave the warning and prevented disaster! As a reward, he was given a weekend pass (something more valuable than gold!) for his quick action. Some sailors went to great lengths to get time off. A hospital was located near the beach and sailors would go there to get circumcised, enduring the pain for the time off. Often they would miss the next cruise.
WINTER 1944 – BACK TO NORFOLK AND THEN ACROSS THE ATLANTIC TO CASABLANCA IN NORTHERN AFRICA
We left South America, and sailed back to Norfolk, VA and then onto New York City. While in port in New York, the carrier was loaded with night fighter airplanes called “Black Widows”. These planes were used to support the troops after the Normandy invasion. For this crossing of the Atlantic, our group formed a convoy of many ships and we were guarded by multiple warships to protect us from the German subs. Often during extremely bad weather the convoy of ships would spread out to prevent ships from colliding. During a particularly bad storm, we all feared for the worst. As our carrier came off the crest of a wave and pitched into the depth of the ocean, it seemed to wallow as it compressed the water, paused briefly and then plunged deeper before returning to crest next wave. During this ordeal, if one is topside on the carrier deck, spray is stinging your face and if one is climbing a ladder/stairs you hold on tight! As all of this is going on, you can hear the buckling of the ½-inch steel plates and Damage Control is busy welding the huge plate of steel to keep the ship from breaking in half!
Hitler’s need for subs in the South Atlantic leveled off and his need to keep ships from supplying the Normandy invasion was in demand. As our convoy proceeded across the North Atlantic, some of our ships were destroyed. I only saw one of them, an abandoned tanker, still burning as it was slowly sinking into the ocean. We had therefore gone from the hunter in the South Atlantic to the hunted in the North Atlantic!
Some of our convoy carried the 101st Infantry Division for a landing in Naples, Italy. Due to a bad storm about halfway across the Atlantic, our ship suffered major damage and was redirected to Casablanca for repairs. The 101st Infantry planes were removed and flown on to bases near the invading forces. At the time our ship was arriving in October of 1944, the Normandy Beach invasion had taken place.
We had many pranksters in our company. I was one of the youngest on the ship and some of the older sailors protected me from the bullies. These guys made fun of my southern accent and one time they ganged up on me while I was on the ship’s fantail. They took my shirt and mocked me, saying that they couldn’t find one hair on my chest. Fortunately, the good guys took over. One of the favorite pranks on the ship was to give a “hot foot” by flicking off the head of a match and wedging it between the sole of the victim’s shoe and the shoe itself. Then the match head was lit! Some crewmembers had to go one better. They would spot a suitable victim (usually reading or napping) and pour lighter fluid on his shoe and light it up. They did not focus on the fact that the sleeping quarters were located over 186,000 gallons of gasoline and the slightest spark would have blown up the ship. They tried this on me – I looked down and saw a two-foot flame burning from my shoe. The sailor that did it and I got into a hot fistfight …I think that it was a draw. I slashed my fist on the steel railing on a bunk. I don’t remember what kind of damage he suffered. All of these pranks ended early one morning at 4 am when we couldn’t get one of our relief sailors to wake up. After several attempts, a head of a match was lodged and lit under his toenail. Needless to say, the sleeping sailor rallied very quickly and the culprit ended up in the hospital after a severe beating. Captain Crist found out about this episode and put an immediate end to the shipboard pranks.
Casablanca was full of refugee Arabs who had nothing. Many of them had gotten small boats and they would come along side of our ships to offer to buy anything we had. My buddy, Sam, who stayed drunk most of the time when we were in port, needed money badly for his next trip ashore, so he sold his bed sheets to the refugee Arabs and snuck off to party. We went to find him and needing money, we took along cigarettes to sell on the black market.
Being three young sailors, we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. We soon found a roving gang of sheeted Arabs who were only too willing to buy black market goods. When they shorted us on the transaction, we got into a conflict over the money they owed us. That’s when they threatened us with their huge curved knives. (Rumor had it that these refugees were from the war in the desert that had been fought a year earlier by the British General Montgomery and the German General Rommel, the Desert Fox. I can still see their long knives pointed at us! We were young, scared sailors, and thank goodness we were rescued by the Navy shore patrol and promptly escorted back to our ship.
While in Casablanca, we visited the site of the War Conference between President Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill. On our return trip back to the States, we stopped in Southhampton, England. I didn’t leave the ship, but it was awesome to see the airships tethered to the dock. This was done to keep the German planes from strafing the docks.
After a few days in England, we cast our lines that had us tethered to dock and with the aid of the tugboats we were once again slowly moved into the English Channel. It was a bright, sunny day with a slight breeze and a great view of the White Cliffs of Dover. The seagulls were swirling and diving for fish with the white cliffs as a backdrop. When the ship’s cook threw food scraps overboard, huge masses of seagulls swooped in and kept us amused as we moved closer to the Atlantic and home.
I was at my lookout station once again looking for German aircraft and floating mines that may have broken loose from their moorings. The war was still going on in Europe and was also perceived to be a threat to us on the beautiful October day in 1944.
Our trip crossing the Atlantic was uneventful, and we had no idea where we were going, but upon docking, we found ourselves in Rhode Island. Hurray, we were back home in the USA!
BACK TO THE STATES – 1944
We sailed to Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island. It was still winter and very stormy. Our assignment was to train pilots for the carrier landings. The waves were so high that they destroyed the front part of the flight deck. Before this happened, we had been having trouble launching planes in the storm with a very short runway. This was one of the times when our damage control crew was down in the hull welding metal braces in place to keep the hull intact. We had problems sleeping during these long stormy days. The constant rolling and pitching, and the banging sounds caused by the thin skin of the hull buckling was very unnerving. The only way to keep from rolling out of the bunk was to lay spread eagle. When the ship crested a wave and splashed downward, it lifted one slightly from the bunk and then slammed one back into it as the huge ship belly-flopped and rolled, paused, and then sank deeper into the ocean before returning to crest the next wave. The first time this happened, I was very frightened and feared that the ship would keep going down. My mother had taught me the Lord’s Prayer and I often turned to this prayer during the heavy storms. We got very little sleep and I felt ill and exhausted.
On this cold and windy day with storm clouds rolling in, I had rotation to take my turn in the crow’s nest, about twenty feet above the flying bridge. I could hear the extraordinarily loud noise from the flight deck below. I looked down and a TBM Catalina was taking off. As it roared down the flight deck, I noticed that the plane was being whipped from side to side due to the ship’s rolling with the heavy seas. As the rolling motion threw the plane from its straight course, the pilot would hit the brakes in an attempt to straighten the plane out. I could see smoke coming from the plane’s tires as the pilot alternated his maneuvers. Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful, and the plane got crosswise. As the pilot kept maximum power on its engine, the plane took off in less than fifty-five feet of deck and flew inland to Quonset Point to land. The plane’s tires knocked the sight off a quad-40 gun.
The Navy decided that the weather was too rough in Rhode Island, so we were ordered to sail to Jacksonville, FL to continue the pilot training program there. This was the early part of spring 1945. While in the area, our ship was drawn into the search for a group of military planes that had disappeared in the “Bermuda Triangle.” We were unable to locate any of them.
I was discharged on December 9, 1945 and went back to Georgia (“you can’t go home again”). A large group of discharged sailors were put on wooden trailers hauled by large trucks to be transported back to Georgia. One sailor flicked his cigarette into the air and it landed between a wooden door and a wooden wall. The cigarette started a fire so we stopped the truck. There were no fire extinguishers or water anywhere and the trailer was burning…so we all lined up and pissed into the burning space between the door and wall until the fire went out! Anything to get closer to our discharge…we were all eager to get home.
Carl L. Toney served during WWII with the US Navy from 1943 to 1945. Much of his duty was in the South Atlantic doing anti-submarine patrol aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Solomons. He served in the Merchant Marines from 1946 to 1949 transporting Marshall Aid cargo to Europe.