The following is a greatly condensed adaptation from the book Full Fathom Five: A Daughter’s Search, by Mary Lee Coe Fowler, University of Alabama Press, 2008.
Fifty-five years after my father, Cmdr. James W. “Red” Coe, was lost with all 76 men aboard the submarine Cisco (SS-290), I went looking for him. I had no idea what I’d find. My mother, who remarried when I was just a year old, had told my siblings and me little about our father. In 1999, when I went to my first conference of World War II “orphans”—the term the post-war Bureau of Veterans Affairs assigned us, even though we had mothers, and often stepfathers—I found that this bare-bones account was typical of an era when war widows were advised not to look back but to move on and make up for lost time.
So most of us “orphans” were starting from scratch, typically in middle-age, with our kids grown and careers winding down. When I first heard what some others had discovered in their research, I wobbled a bit in my determination to “find” my own father. One told me that his father died on the Bataan Death March because he disobeyed Japanese orders and grabbed as much discarded stuff along the road as he could carry. His son concluded that his dad was probably a victim of his own greed, or at least foolishness. Another discovered that his father did not die in battle, as he thought, but apparently committed suicide while under suspicion of stealing from his regiment. Others found that their father’s relatives quickly cut off all contact with his widow and children.
Hearing these stories, I figured maybe I was lucky my father remained shrouded in silence, which at least ensured that I would not be disappointed. But mementos I found in my mother’s apartment after her death in 1998 persuaded me otherwise. They showed that she cherished Red Coe’s memory, tending his 1935 overcoat, polishing his Naval Academy ring, and keeping close at hand a picture of him with my siblings that she had never shown me. This evidence of her abiding love compelled me to find out more about my father.
One of the first things I found was that he was funny. Veterans of S-39, my father’s first command, recalled him and Wreford “Moon” Chapple, skipper of S-38, playing a version of polo at the Army-Navy club in Manila, riding bikes straight at each other while trying to whack a soccer ball with golf clubs. Another time, the two boats had a softball game, and Red Coe, having discovered that his radioman, Howie Rice, had been a high school gymnast and could walk on his hands, arranged for a hand-walking contest between innings. But the S-38ers learned that Rice was a teetotaler and plied him with beer. At a submarine veterans’ convention some 50 years later, Rice recalled not even being able to walk upright, much less on his hands.
Later, when Red was captain of Skipjack (SS-184), a supply officer at Mare Island, Calif., rejected his requisition for toilet paper, stating that the “requested material couldn’t be identified.” Attaching a square of toilet paper to his reply, Red wrote that he couldn’t help wondering what they were using in Mare Island in place of this “unknown material, once well-known to this command.” He went on to say that in the 11 months Skipjack’s crew waited for a response, they frequently hadn’t been able to wait, making the situation quite dire. Meanwhile, they were making do with all the non-essential paperwork flowing into the boat, in compliance with the Bureau of Ships request to reduce paperwork.
Eager to find out more, I spent the next three years piecing together my father’s life from interviews, submarine literature, World War II archives and naval documents. I made a collage of Red Coe pictures for our living room; read many submarine books; toured World War II-vintage submarines like Lionfish (SS-298), in Fall River, Mass.; pored over Skipjack patrol reports; queried sub vets about the war years; and talked with my sister and brother about their vague childhood impressions of our father.
Three of the Asiatic Fleet’s six S-boats, including S-38, the boat
by Red Coe’s close friend, Wreford “Moon” Chapple.
U.S. Navy Photo.
Red had dreamed of being an aviator; a large photo of Charles Lindbergh adorns his Naval Academy scrapbook. He was assigned to air training after graduation, but poor circulation kept him from passing the physical, so he went to surface ships. After completing Submarine School in Groton, Conn., in December of 1933, he went to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where he worked his way up on two World War I-vintage S-boats (also known as “pigboats”). In 1937, he was assigned to teach navigation at the Naval Academy. In 1939, he and my mother went to Manila, in the Philippines, where—at the young age of 30—he got his first operational command: S-39, another old “pigboat.”
Pigboat 39, a book by Bobette Gugliotta that chronicled my father’s years in that decrepit but gallant boat, led me to retired Capt. Guy Gugliotta, widower of the author. Guy lined up some other Skipjack veterans for us to meet, and they inspired me to continue my research. They all had that wonderful combination of keen intelligence, passion for the boats, and modesty that I have come to associate with submariners—as well as a zest for life that came from knowing how lucky they were to survive.
My father took command of S-39 as the era of “no strain in Asia”—Navy shorthand for luxurious living in the Far East—came to an end. With hostilities looming, the Navy brought in strict, no-nonsense Adm. Thomas C. Hart to head the expanding Asiatic Fleet. Hart beefed up training and sent Navy wives and children back to the States. Although S-39 had no air conditioning, Red Coe worked his men hard to make up for its lack of sonar and radar and its constant leaks and mechanical breakdowns. He kept up morale with competitions with S-38, “field-trips” to local breweries, games of liars dice, chess by blinker-light with other subs at the dock, and competitions for the best sea stories.
S-39 was on patrol near the San Bernardino Strait when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the order went out to “execute unrestricted…submarine warfare against Japan.” On Dec. 8, the sub spotted a cargo ship flying no flag, surfaced, and prepared to sink it with gun fire. But first Red Coe did everything possible to make contact. He used a megaphone to order the ship to identify herself, and he signaled by whistle, but the ship kept going. Only when he ordered a shot across the bow did someone on board finally hoist a Philippine flag. My Quaker upbringing and protests against the Vietnam War made me a pacifist when I was in college, but this event put the lie to the glib assumption of Vietnam-era protesters that everyone in uniform was a warmonger. Far from trigger-happy, Red Coe hesitated to attack an unidentified ship. The sub vets I interviewed told me that career Navy men of that day were the last to want war because they knew what it meant. Once it broke out, they didn’t expect to make it home.
On Dec. 11, S-39 ran into a Japanese convoy. Japanese destroyers spotted them and gave them their baptism of fire, holding them down for a full day of vicious depth-charging. Oxygen deprivation made the crew lightheaded. The temperature soared to 110 degrees, and the men had to take off their undershirts and wrap them around their necks like scarves to prevent their sweat from making the deck any slipperier. Finally, the destroyer sounds receded, and they could surface, but as soon as they had replenished the boat with fresh air, they saw what looked like a ship. My father ordered the men to fire two torpedoes. Hearing no explosion, he approached cautiously and realized he had fired on an island.
The next night, they sighted a Japanese submarine but chose to creep away. The skipper then spotted an enemy freighter through the periscope, about 12,000 yards off the port bow. Ordering battle stations, he began the cautious approach required in pre-war training, with short glimpses through the periscope to plot target range, course and speed alternating with depth excursions to a hundred feet to close range. S-39 fired two-torpedoes from within 3,000 yards and, after a tense two and a half minutes, heard two explosions. The target went down by the stern, listing to port. In a 1943 newspaper interview, my father said he was so entranced that he failed to spot destroyers approaching from behind until they fired at the periscope.
Diving to 150 feet, he ordered the crew to rig for silent running and depth-charge attack. This time, they were pinned down even longer, with four destroyers pinging but, strangely, not dropping depth charges. At last, with little oxygen left, my father prepared to surface in the face of the enemy. He ordered then-Ensign Guy Gugliotta to pack the boat’s documents in a canvas bag for quick dispatch overboard, with some wrenches to weigh it down. As they were about to surface, the sonarman reported the pinging receding. The sounds died away, and they surfaced to find the sea blessedly empty. My father, in another newspaper interview, speculated that the Japanese submarine they spotted earlier must have been the reason the destroyers did not drop depth charges.
Returning to Manila to refuel and stock up on torpedoes, they found the city, airfield and navy yard in ruins. S-39 received orders to patrol southward in the Philippines and then proceed to Java. They made it to Surabaya, Java, in February and were just getting crucially needed repairs under way when the Japanese bombed the port to rubble. Grabbing repair materials, the crew of S-39 hurriedly put to sea. They were then ordered to look for a group of downed British airmen reported on the nearby island of Chebia but found only evidence that the Japanese had beaten them to the hapless airmen.
S-39 turned dispiritedly towards Fremantle, Australia, a voyage of at least five days though waters reportedly heavily patrolled by the enemy. As they set out on March 4, 1942, they spotted Japanese ships and sank the tanker Erimu Maru. They paid for this with the most vicious depth-charging yet, with the Japanese calling in aerial bombers to join the destroyers. Misled by erroneous Dutch charts, S-39 had grounded on the muddy bottom and inadvertently churned up telltale clouds whenever she tried to creep away. When the skipper finally realized S-39 was churning up mud, he ordered a sharp burst of speed to break her loose, took her up just enough to let the mud-clouds dissipate, and crept away. Still, it was seven more hours before the sounds of destroyers and planes faded away.
It was night when they surfaced near a low, dark island, which seemed a safe place to recharge batteries. But well before they finished, they heard a Japanese destroyer approaching. It shined a searchlight on one end of the island, then started a precise sweep along the shoreline in the direction of the sub. Trapped in water too shallow to dive, S-39 could do nothing but turn off all sound and reduce its silhouette by turning to face the destroyer. The men stood by the deck gun ready to fire as the light swept nearer. Some fortunate wobbliness or carelessness on the part of the sailor handling the searchlight suddenly sent the beam up to the treetops behind them. It hovered there a second, then descended to shore-level on the other side of the boat. The S-39ers stood there, hardly breathing, as the light swept on to the end of the island, and then the destroyer slowly turned and chugged out to sea.
Giddy with relief, the S-39ers fled toward the Sunda Strait, where, as crewman Charles Witt told me, Red Coe pulled them through hell that night, struggling to control the boat while a swift current 100 feet down swept her sideways and Japanese ships swarmed overhead. The exhausting voyage continued. Short of drinking water, the crew had to catch rainwater in a barrel on deck. Food was almost gone as well. Tropical heat prostrated the men and gave them painful white blisters and skin rashes. The port engine blew, and the boat lost three days trying to fix it before giving up and proceeding on one engine. With a worn out clutch to boot, the old boat limped along at only seven knots, a sitting duck, for the roughly ten days it took to reach Fremantle.
Morale at Fremantle was low. The submarine crews all had stories of defective torpedoes and desk-bound brass blaming the poor results on improper set-ups by the skippers. The brass also blamed the skippers for lack of aggressiveness, despite pre-war training emphasizing daylight submergence and cautious approaches. Skippers now had to come up with offensive tactics on the fly or be “bilged” out of submarines. My father escaped criticism because of S-39’s two credited sinkings, a rare success for any S-boat. On March 28, only a week after reaching Fremantle, he was given command of the fleet-boat Skipjack (SS-184).
In his first patrol (Skipjack’s third), Red Coe sank four ships, the best single patrol so far in that theater. Aggressive and innovative, he even turned a mistake into the first successful “down-the-throat” shot. Misjudging an approach and getting too close to wait for a favorable track and gyro angle, he had to shoot a spread from only 650 yards at the narrowest angle as the ship approached. The magnetic exploder of one MK 14 torpedo functioned perfectly, blowing the bottom out of Kanan Maru. But defects in other MK 14s ruined many attacks. Red’s patrol report pulled out all the stops, describing vapor from torpedo wakes going all the way to a target as the torpedoes passed harmlessly underneath, running too deep to detonate. What’s more, this occurred most often in runs of less than 1,000 yards—wasting hard-won attack positions. The patrol report recommended controlled tests at short ranges so submariners would at least know the torpedoes’ limitations. Rear Adm. Charles Lockwood, Commander, Submarines, Southwest Pacific, had Skipjack run tests with the three torpedoes remaining from her patrol, leading to the first of many fixes needed to make the MK 14s reliable.
The six S-boats of the Asiatic Fleet’s Submarine Squadron FIVE
alongside the submarine
tender USS Canopus (AS-9).
S-39 is on the right. U.S. Navy photo.
Red Coe received the Navy Cross for his high-scoring first patrol in Skipjack and his work in S-39. But two more patrols and over two years of continuous command left him exhausted. Skipjack also badly needed an overhaul, limping into Pearl Harbor in December 1942 with the crew sick from bad drinking water. On the dock at Pearl was a mountain of toilet paper in belated response to the skipper’s June letter to the Mare Island supply depot. Toilet paper flew from masts and flagpoles, people meeting the boat had toilet-paper ties, and a brass band had toilet paper unrolling out of their trumpets with every blast.
Skipjack went to the shipyard, and my father to “new construction.” In January 1943, he joined his family at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, where he would monitor the construction and sea trials of Cisco (SS-290), a boat of the new Balao (SS-285) class. He spent a precious six months with my mother, brother and sister. (I was not born until the following year.) Portsmouth was vying with other shipyards for who could build boats fastest. A Balao-class boat typically took more than 100 days from keel-laying to launching; Cisco did it in a record 56 days. But she may have paid a price. Records of her sea trials show continual repairs to fix a persistent oil leak. While she was docked one night, a fuel tank with all valves closed was ruptured by a high-pressure air bank that was bled into it. The tank had to be cut out and dimpled plating replaced and re-welded.
Cisco reached Fremantle in late July 1943. After training off Brisbane, she proceeded to Darwin, where she was to start her first patrol Sept. 18th. A few days before her departure, the head radioman, Howie Rice—the gymnast from the S-39’s softball game—who had petitioned for a berth under his former skipper, came down with a case of jaundice and was ordered ashore. In sick bay, he ran into Red Coe, who was getting a physical as part of his promotion to commander. Rice remembers saying goodbye on the street outside the sick bay. The skipper was quiet and somber, and when he got into the jeep, and the driver took off, he turned around and stared at Rice until they were out of sight. Rice remembers it as a puzzled look, as if he were thinking, “Why am I losing my head radioman at a time like this?”
This makes me think of a passage from a letter my father wrote to his mother earlier in the war: “I am finally a lieutenant commander…but rank doesn’t mean a thing to me now, and that’s no fooling. This war has changed all that—it’s the job you’re doing and how you’re doing it that counts. The gold braid is superfluous…” (J.W. Coe to Phoebe Coe, Aug. 11, 1942). He amply demonstrated this attitude by an egalitarian leadership style that had him up to his elbows in the bilges of the S-39, feeling for leaks, or eating with the enlisted men on Skipjack and Cisco to make sure their food was as good as the officers’.
On Nov. 6, the day Cisco was due back from patrol, Rice went down to the docks and climbed up to the bridge of the squadron’s submarine tender. Escorts waited at the entrance buoys to guide Cisco in, but the horizon remained empty. Rice spent the next few weeks returning Cisco’s waiting mail to the senders, little distraction from the guilt he felt for not being on Cisco, where perhaps he might have done something in her final hours that a less experienced radioman wouldn’t think of. Fifty-five years later, when I met him at a sub vets’ conference, the first question he asked me was, “Did your mother get her returned mail?”
This is the feeling that tinges Memorial Day services for the 52 boats lost in the war, which I’ve attended ever since I “found” Red Coe. “Why me?” the old submariners wonder, some of them out loud. World War II memorial services would have been the last place you’d have found me until I started my research, but Red Coe changed that. In interviewing sub vets who had served with him, I discovered a rare mix of competence, humility and first-hand knowledge of their own mortality that gave their words weight.
I learned at a late age to separate the men and women in uniform from the policy-makers when I thought about war. That’s what we didn’t do—to my shame—
Red Coe taught me more. Now, when I look in the mirror, I no longer bemoan new gray hair, more lines around the eyes. I look for him in my face, curious about how he would have aged if he had what I now know is the privilege of a natural lifespan. He lives inside of me in the new recognition of traits that match what I’ve discovered about him. These days, when I meet other war orphans and hear their stories, I know that I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve found gold, with glints of red in it.