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Midshipmen Ramirez de Arellano during his senior year at the U.S. Naval Academy. Photo courtesy of USNA.

by Mike Smith

During USS Balao’s (SS-285) sixth war patrol of World War II, her crew fought a harrowing battle that, to the outside observer, would have seemed merely an inconvenient sideshow to her regular combat duties in the Pacific theater. Quoting the Aug. 22, 1944 post-patrol report from Balao’s commanding officer: “A grim battle was waged throughout the patrol between the crew and cockroaches. At many times, the decision was in doubt, especially when copra bugs (from the enemy sampan loot) reinforced the roaches.”

This lighthearted anecdote regarding the habitability of Balao was written by her then-commanding officer, Cmdr. Marion Fredrick Ramirez de Arellano—an interesting, notable, and oft-overlooked submariner who made history as the U.S. Navy’s first Hispanic submarine commanding officer.

Like the majority of those Americans called to duty during World War II, Ramirez de Arellano was, on the whole, an “ordinary guy” who was put into extraordinary situations and capitalized on them as best he could. He was one of millions of Americans who fulfilled their patriotic vocation and in turn—with the rest of the “Greatest Generation”—would garner the respect and admiration of future generations.

From Puerto Rico to the U.S. Naval Academy

Marion Ramirez de Arellano was born on Aug. 8, 1913, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His parents, Rafael William Ramirez de Arellano and Lucille Kemmerer, were both professors at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras. Ramirez de Arellano spent most of his formative years on the island, save for a short period when his family moved to Athens, Ga., where he attended the Baxter Street School. Ramirez de Arellano briefly attended the University of Puerto Rico before he was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1931 by the Governor of Puerto Rico, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., the eldest son of President Teddy Roosevelt.

Ramirez de Arellano excelled as a midshipman at the Naval Academy from the moment he arrived on the Yard. He was lauded by his peers for his efforts both in the classroom and on the tennis courts. During his time at the Academy, Ramirez de Arellano earned varsity letters in tennis, soccer, and gymnastics. He also distinguished himself from his fellow Midshipmen in the scholastic arena, earning the Society of the Cincinnati Award for holding the highest ranking in the Department of Languages. During these heady days, Ramirez de Arellano was also a member of the Reef Points (pistol club) and the Juice Gang (electrical club).

Early Naval Career

Upon receiving his commission as an ensign in 1935, Ramirez de Arellano was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CV-4), where he served as the ship’s gunnery officer and was recognized for his excellent handling of the ship’s 5”/25 caliber battery in surface gunnery exercises, “scoring a fine percentage of hits on the target.” This skill would pay dividends later in life. Ramirez de Arellano served aboard Ranger until 1937, when he reported to Submarine School in Groton, Conn.

After graduating from Submarine School, Ramirez de Arellano reported to the Porpoise-class submarine USS Pickerel (SS-177) as division officer in January 1938. Pickerel was part of Submarine Division 203 of the Asiatic Fleet, and she spent the majority of her time between commissioning and the outbreak of World War II keeping a rigorous training schedule near the Philippines. When Japan attacked the Philippines on Dec. 8, 1941, Pickerel raced to the waters of Indo-China to harass the enemy’s communication lines and the Japanese warships coming out of the Japanese naval base at Camranh Bay. After failing to sink any ships due to faulty torpedoes (a problem that would plague submarine skippers for most of the war), Pickerel returned to Manila for a quick load-out. New Year’s Eve brought the order for all submarines to evacuate Manila and Pickerel was ordered back to sea to patrol the areas south of the Philippines. Pickerel’s second wartime patrol was more successful, with her crew sinking the 2,929-ton Kanko Maru in the Gulf of Davao off Mindanao, but she again came up empty handed on her third wartime patrol. Nevertheless, Ramirez de Arellano was awarded both a Silver Star and a Legion of Merit for his actions aboard Pickerel.1

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Then-Lt. Ramirez de Arellano (third from the left) posing with his fellow officers during USSSkate’s (SS-305)
commissioning on April 15, 1943. U.S. Navy Photo.

USS Skate (SS-305)

Following his time aboard Pickerel, Ramirez de Arellano reported to the Balao-class submarine USS Skate (SS-305) as the boat’s executive officer and became a “plank owner” when Skate, under the command of Cmdr. Eugene B. McKinney, was commissioned on April 15, 1943. On Sept. 25, Skate departed on her maiden war patrol en route to Wake Island with orders to operate with Task Force FOURTEEN under Rear Adm. A.E. Montgomery and to assist in directing U.S. carrier planes to their targets on Wake Island and perform lifeguard duty for any downed pilots.

On the morning of Oct. 10, Ramirez de Arellano sighted a red distress flare, and two hours later Skate rescued Lt. j.g. William E. McCarthy and Lt. j.g. Paul T. Bonilla. Not six hours later, Petty Officer 2nd Class Daniel Howell sighted the life raft of USS Lexington’s (CV-16) Air Group Commander Lt. Cmdr. Mark Grant. Despite being quite anxious to come aboard, Grant was able to add a bit of levity to the situation when he popped his head out from under the raft’s cover and queried, “Dr. Livingston I presume?” Grant also managed to leave his “prized” false teeth in the raft. Continuing his mid-battle comedy routine, Grant held up his half pint tin of water and quipped, “How are you fixed for water?”

Lt. Cmdr. Grant was the sixth downed airman rescued by Skate during this patrol. In gratitude, the carrier’s skipper, Capt. Felix Stump, sent McKinney a message: “Anything on Lexington is yours for the asking. If it is too big to carry away we will cut in small parts.” Skate dropped off her happy airmen and headed to new hunting grounds around Truk Atoll.

On Feb. 16, 1944, during Ramirez de Arellano’s third war patrol aboard Skate (which was now commanded by Lt. Cmdr. William Grunner), Skate sighted the superstructure of an unidentified ship heading towards her at a range of 12 miles; at the same time her radar picked up the presence of a plane at 13 miles. Skate submerged to commence her approach on the ship; shortly thereafter the plane dropped a bomb in Skate’s vicinity. Assuming the plane had spotted them, Skate went to 90 feet and waited there for five minutes. Upon going to periscope depth, Skate sighted the foremast of the approaching ship and identified it as a Japanese heavy cruiser. Skate continued to stalk the cruiser, which Lt. Cmdr. Grunner believed to be of the Kako-class, and as dusk was approaching she fired her four bow tubes at the ship at a distance of 2,300 yards. Three explosions were heard, but none were observed, as the ship was directly in line with the setting sun. As Skate went deep to avoid one of the cruiser’s destroyer escorts, a fourth, weaker explosion was heard.

Skate spent the next hour engaged in a game of cat and mouse with the cruiser’s escorts as they dropped numerous depth charges, many of which were well off the mark. However, some exploded close to Skate, damaging one of her radars and her master compass.

When all was clear, Skate reacquired the wounded cruiser at 19,000 yards and approached it cautiously as its two escorts were still in the vicinity, circling within 1,500 yards of the stricken vessel. A fiercely burning fire and occasional explosions were observed on the cruiser. Skate began the slow process of positioning herself for the kill; so as to avoid being silhouetted by the moon, she was forced to take a longer route to the target. As Skate executed a trim dive to prepare for her second attack, an explosion was heard. Upon surfacing, the target cruiser did not appear on radar and was not visible on the surface. With the target no longer afloat, Skate set course for her next assigned patrol area some 93 miles away, near the Woleai and Ulithi Atolls in the Caroline Islands, where she conducted reconnaissance missions until concluding her patrol and Lt. Cmdr. Ramirez de Arellano’s time aboard Skate.

As a result of his actions in assisting in the sinking of the Japanese cruiser on Feb. 16, Ramirez de Arellano was awarded his second Silver Star Medal.

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The aftermath of USSBalao’s (SS-285) surface attack on the Japanese sampan on July 29, 1944 off the coast of Peleliu Island.
U.S. Navy Photo.

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