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USS Flier

Flier off Mare Island, 20 April 1944

USS Flier off Mare Island, 20 April 1944 (photo courtesy US Naval Historical Center)

 

The USS Flier (SS-250), the submarine that fatefully crossed paths with the Macaw at Midway in January 1944, is the subject of three books—The USS Flier: Death and Survival on a World War II Submarine by Michael Sturma; Eight Survived by Douglas A. Campbell; and Surviving the Flier by R. J. Hughes—and a remarkable blog, ussflierproject.com, also authored by Hughes. The story of the Flier deserves multiple tellings; it’s among the most extraordinary in all the annals of submarine warfare in World War II. The US lost 52 submarines during the war, all but four of them in the Pacific, and in every case when the loss of the boat was a direct result of enemy action, as opposed to scuttling, the entire crew was either killed or captured when the boat sank. The one exception was the Flier.

The Flier was built by the Electric Boat Company in Groton, Connecticut.

The launching of the Flier, 11 July 1943

Flier slides down the ways, 11 July 1943 (photo courtesy of Charles R. Hinman)

Commissioned October 18, 1943, Lt. Cmdr. John D. Crowley in command, the Flier proceeded to Pearl Harbor via the Panama Canal, narrowly avoiding disaster en route when an armed US merchant vessel mistook her for an enemy sub off Panama and fired thirteen shells at her. She left Pearl Harbor for what was to have been her first war patrol on January 12, 1944, and was attempting to negotiate the entrance channel to the lagoon at Midway amid heavy swells and a strong current four days later to top off there on fuel when she ran aground just east of the mouth or “flare” of the channel.

The Macaw went to assist her and promptly ran aground too. Crowley maneuvered the Flier about to face into the waves but couldn’t free her from the coral. If she had gone broadside to the waves and capsized, her entire crew might have died within a mile or so of dry land. To avoid that fate, Crowley sent a party of three sailors forward on the deck to help release a bow anchor to pin the boat at a right angle to the surf. One of the men, Torpedoman 3/c James Cahl of South Holland, Illinois, was swept overboard and drowned.

Macaw and Flier stuck on reef at Midway, January 1944

Macaw and Flier aground at Midway, January 1944

Pulled off the reef a week later, the Flier was taken in tow by the USS Florikan, sister ship to the Macaw, back to Pearl Harbor. The towline parted en route amid heavy seas and was reconnected in a delicate piece of maneuvering that took about eight hours, during which both vessels were at risk of foundering or colliding or both.

After repairs at Mare Island in San Francisco Bay, the Flier finally did conduct a war patrol, off Manila in the Philippines, in May and June 1944, during which she was credited with sinking four Japanese merchant vessels. She concluded that first patrol at her new base of Fremantle, Australia. Her second patrol was to take her to the waters off Vietnam. She was headed there, transiting the Balabac Strait between Borneo and the Philippines on the surface about 2200 on August 13 when she apparently struck a mine. Bud Loughman, the former executive officer of the Macaw, said he heard later that the Flier had executed an otherwise picture-perfect dive minus the forward third of her hull.

Nine men, including Capt. Crowley, were topside when the blast occurred. None of them, in keeping with submariner tradition, was wearing a life vest. At least fourteen men initially survived the sinking. Conditions could have been worse—the water was warm and the swell gentle at about two feet—but the water was thick with oil and the night was extremely dark. The oil made it problematic for the men to keep their eyes open, and when they did, they could hardly see. The sky was overcast and the moon would not rise until about 0300. Aside from glimpses of landforms, silhouetted by occasional flashes of lightning, they had nothing to steer by. Fourteen men congregated in the water, conducted a sort of roll call and discussed their options. The nearest island, Comiran, lay about three and a half miles away, but they suspected that it was occupied by the Japanese, at whose hands it was not uncommon for POWs to be beheaded. They decided to strike out for more distant coral reefs to the northwest. Accounts vary as to whether they set off promptly or chose to tread water for part or all of the five or so hours until moonrise.

Within about twenty minutes one of the party had lost consciousness and slipped beneath the waves. As the ordeal wore on five other men followed him, at least one by volition—after about two hours he reportedly announced “To hell with this” and stopped swimming. Others reportedly followed suit, swimming quietly off to the side to die.
As the day dawned, the sea grew rougher and some of the men still swimming got separated from the others. Five of them ended up clinging to a floating palm tree. Using palm fronds as paddles, they got to within about half a mile of Mantangule Island and were able to walk the rest of the way ashore, where they were greeted by Quartermaster 3/c James Dello Russo, who had swum unaided the whole way. They had been in the water about eighteen hours (Russo slightly less) and traveled twelve miles or so—probably a good deal farther given that they could hardly have negotiated a straight line.
That evening the executive officer, Lieut. James Liddell, went in search of food and water and found Fire Controlman 2/c Donald Paul Tremaine. About a day later Motor Machinist’s Mate 3/c Wesley Bruce Miller walked into the little encampment the others had made. Eight men had survived.

MoMM 2/c George Banchero

MoMM 2/c George Banchero of the Flier. Banchero and all but eight of his shipmates died the night of August 13-14, 1944.

Their troubles were not over. There was no water on the island and almost nothing to eat. Of hundreds of coconuts they found on the beach that first day, all but one were spoiled. They built a raft of bamboo and vines and set about island hopping, aiming for the major island of Palawan. The two men deemed strongest among them, Russo and Radio Technician Arthur Gibson Howell, sat on the raft and paddled. The others clung to it, walking when the water was shallow enough. They subsisted for the better part of a week on a few coconuts. Most or all of them had stripped to their underwear during their swim, so they were almost naked. They suffered from hunger and sunburn, from cold at night, when they would burrow into the sand to try to keep warm, only to shake it off with their shivering; from muscle cramps and insect bites and abrading their feet on the coral, and from fear of sharks—they spotted at least one shark, and must have figured the sharks would have little trouble spotting them with their bleeding feet. But mostly they suffered from thirst. Besides what few raindrops they managed to catch in seashells or their open mouths, for almost five full days they had no water to drink.

Finally, about 1700 on August 18, they got to Bugsuk Island, where they found some more coconuts and drank their fill from a cistern at an abandoned plantation house, and where they were approached the next morning by a pair of young men, one of whom spoke English and warned them not to drink from the cistern—he said it had been poisoned with the Japanese in mind. If that was true, apparently the poison had dissipated. One member of the Flier party got sick after drinking the water. No one else seemed to suffer any ill effects from it.

The young men were members of a guerrilla group, the Bolo Battalion, under whose auspices the Flier survivors were conducted to a US Army coast watchers unit on Palawan. The officer in charge of the unit, First Sgt. Amando S. Corpus, a Filipino-American, radioed news of the sinking of the Flier and of her survivors, and of the presumed sinking of another US submarine, the Robalo, in the same area about a month and a half before. The message was relayed to the headquarters of the Seventh Fleet. Corpus received a prompt, sharply worded reply asking, in part, why he had not reported earlier on the presence of mines in the Balabac Strait, where the Flier had gone down. Three days later, Corpus killed himself.

On August 31, shortly after midnight, two borrowed boats bearing the Flier survivors and a number of civilian evacuees rendezvoused with the USS Redfin just offshore from Brooke’s Point, Palawan. They arrived at Darwin, Australia, five days later. Fire Controlman Tremaine exhibited symptoms of malaria en route. His shipmates got back to Allied territory in basically good health.

Alvin and Mary Jacobson

Alvin and Mary Jacobson, Grand Haven, Michigan, June 2004

Alvin Jacobson, of Grand Haven, Michigan, the last living survivor of the Flier, died in 2008 at the age of 86. In his later years he spearheaded a campaign to locate the wreck. With the ongoing assistance of his family, that effort bore fruit shortly after Jacobson’s death. On February 1, 2010, the Navy announced that a submarine that had been found on the floor of the Balabac Strait was the Flier.

A memorial service to honor the men of the Flier was held August 12 & 13, 2010, at the Great Lakes Naval Memorial and Museum in Muskegon, Michigan. Among those in attendance was 83-year-old James Alls of Independence, Kentucky. Alls served as a motor machinist’s mate aboard the Flier on her first war patrol. He was recuperating from a broken jaw suffered in a bar fight with a New Zealander back in Australia when the boat left Fremantle for her second patrol. Alls was left behind. At the memorial service exactly sixty-six years later he represented Fireman 1/c Donald Nesser See of Columbus, Ohio, the sailor who took his place. See died when the boat went down.

Sources:
• Clay Blair, Jr. Silent Victory: The US Submarine War Against Japan, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1975), p. 564.
• Douglas A. Campbell, Eight Survived: The Harrowing Story of the USS Flier and the Only Downed World War II Submariners to Survive and Evade Capture (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2010).
• Al Dobbins, torpedoman aboard the USS Florikan, January 1944; interviewed 22 Feb 2012.
• Cmdr. John D. Crowley, USN, “Narrative of Second War Patrol of U.S.S. Flier.”
• Cmdr. Gerald F. Loughman (ret.), USNR, interviewed Dec 1991.
• Eugene D. McGee, “To Sink and Swim: The USS Flier” in Submarine Review, October 1996.
• James L. Mooney, ed., Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Vol. 2, C-F, (WDC: Naval History Division, 1959-81), p. 416.
• Michael Sturma, The USS Flier: Death and Survival on a World War II Submarine (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2008).
• The National Gold Star Family Registry
• Muskegon Chronicle on-line: photos.mlive.com/muskegonchronicle/2010/08/uss_flier_memorial_ceremony_1.html

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