The War Below focuses on the unique stories of three of World War II's top submarines— Silversides, Drum, and Tang and vividly recreates the camraderie, exhilaration, and fear of the brave volunteers who took the fight to the enemy. Based on more than 100 interviews with submarine veterans and thousands of pages of previously unpublished letters and diaries, award-winning journalist James Scott recounts incredible feats of courage and moments of unimaginable tragedy.y.
By James Scott
Foul weather seemed to forecast Silversides’ arrival in hostile waters. Gray skies pressed down on the empty ocean as heavy waves pounded the bow, sending sea spray over the bridge. The lookouts perched above on the periscope shears in foul weather gear suddenly spotted a Japanese trawler in the distance at 8:05 a.m., Silversides’ first enemy contact of the war.
The officer of the deck summoned [Silversides’ Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander Creed] Burlingame, who arrived on the bridge in seconds. The skipper pressed the binoculars to his eyes and studied the 131-ton Ebisu Maru No. 5, which tossed on the angry waves some three miles away. The wooden boat proved a far cry from the enemy aircraft carrier, battleship, or tanker Burlingame had hoped he would find. Though Ebisu Maru appeared to be just a fishing trawler, Burlingame knew such boats often doubled as patrol and picket boats, gathering far more than tuna, cod, and salmon. These trawlers and ocean sampans bobbed hundreds of miles offshore and served as a defensive perimeter, radioing any sightings of enemy ships or submarines. Burlingame recognized that the tiny boat didn’t warrant an expensive $10,000 torpedo, but he decided Silversides could sink it with its deck gun. He ordered his men to battle stations at 8:06 a.m.
Officers and crew throughout the submarine, many of whom had just finished breakfast, hustled to prepare for Silversides’ first battle. Submarines are best suited to attack from a distance with torpedoes, firing either on the surface at night when protected by darkness or underwater during the day. Daytime gun battles on the surface were risky. Silversides would lose the element of surprise, one of its best tactical advantages. Such an attack also would expose the gun crew to return fire and risk damaging blows to the submarine’s thin steel skin, a serious danger since it needed to operate at great depths and pressures. But Burlingame judged Ebisu Maru a worthy target, an opportunity to rob the enemy of an intelligence collector. The gun crew reported to the conning tower, strapping on steel helmets. Other sailors climbed down into the magazine below the crew’s mess and handed the thirty-four-pound rounds up the ladder, forming an ammunition train that ran from the mess deck through the control room and up the ladder to the conning tower.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Carswell, a sight setter for the deck gun, crouched in the conning tower. The skinny eighteen-year-old South Carolinian had enlisted as a signalman. Down the ladder from him in the control room stood Petty Officer 3rd Class Mike Harbin, a loader for the deck gun. Five years older than his friend Carswell, the burly torpedoman had traded life in rural Oklahoma for that of a sailor in the fall of 1940.
Silversides cut through the rough waves at fifteen knots. The gun and ammunition crews waited largely in silence as the submarine closed the distance to about 1,200 yards. Carswell felt little fear as he anticipated his first battle. The target after all was only a small fishing boat, not an armed warship such as a destroyer or cruiser. Burlingame ordered the crew to man the deck gun at 8:25 a.m. The conning tower door popped open and the gun crew darted one after the other across the wet deck as waves crashed over the bow. Bolted on a pedestal on the submarine’s after deck, the three-inch .50-caliber gun packed a punch, firing thirteen-pound projectiles a half mile per second at targets up to eight miles away. The massive gun required a team to operate. A pointer and a trainer sat on opposite sides, using hand wheels to swivel the gun and move the barrel up and down. A sight setter stood on a platform on the back of the gun and adjusted the scope’s accuracy while a team of loaders fed rounds one after the other.
Carswell hopped up on the sight setter’s platform. Sea spray drenched him and the other members of the gun crew. Gunnery officer Lieutenant j.g. Robert Worthington studied Ebisu Maru through binoculars, shouting range and bearing changes to Carswell. A loader slid a projectile into the gun’s breech and rammed it into place. The trainer sighted the enemy boat through a scope, and the pointer seconds later mashed the firing pedal. The gun roared. The spent shell clanged to the deck. Water splashed off the target’s bow. A miss. A loader rammed in another round. The gun roared again. Then again. Errant projectiles peppered the waves around Ebisu Maru. Executive officer Lieutenant Roy Davenport and Worthington both barked changes to Carswell. The sight setter struggled to hear as violent waves hammered the submarine, soaking the gun crew and making it difficult for the men to sight the target.
Suddenly the Japanese boat returned fire. Machine gun bullets whizzed past the sailors. One missed Burlingame’s head by just a few centimeters, singeing the hair on the skipper’s right ear. Others pinged off the conning tower. Burlingame’s instincts were right: this was not just a fishing boat. What had begun as a simple task of sinking an apparent trawler now evolved into a furious gun battle. One of the loaders, caught under the barrel when the gun first fired, felt blood run down his beard; the thunder had broken both of his eardrums. The loader now tasted a salty mix of sea spray and blood. Sailors in the magazine below ripped open ammunition boxes with bloodied fingers and fed shells to the hungry ammo train that passed them one after the other up through the submarine. Ebisu Maru now struggled to escape as Silversides’ gun roared almost every twenty seconds. With each shot, the gunners’ aim improved. The men could see that the projectiles now blasted the wooden boat. Carswell noted that the powerful projectiles, best suited to shred the metal skin of an airplane or warship, seemed to blow right through Ebisu Maru.
Rollicking waves thrashed Silversides, making it difficult to load and fire the gun. A wave hit Carswell from behind and knocked him off the sight setter’s platform. He landed on his back and slid toward the edge of the deck before he stopped himself. The soaked sight setter climbed back up on the gun only to have another wave knock him off again moments later. He struggled again to stop his slide as he plummeted toward the side of the deck. If he went overboard in the middle of the battle, he knew Silversides wouldn’t stop to pluck him from the churning seas. He would drown in minutes without a life preserver in the cold and turbulent ocean. Carswell’s heart pounded. He fought to stop himself as he slid from the wooden to the metal deck where his speed accelerated. He banged into the hatch over the after torpedo room before his leg snagged a second later on the wire extension that ran along the edge of the deck and stopped him.
Ebisu Maru caught fire and billowed smoke. Still, its crew peppered Silversides with machine gun rounds. Burlingame watched from the bridge as the picket boat, which throughout the attack had tried to escape, now turned on his submarine. The wounded trawler planned to fight it out. “Suddenly he realized his case was hopeless,” the skipper later recalled of the Ebisu Maru. “He turned around and came toward us with his machine guns going full blast.” The sailors on deck tried to take cover as the bullets zipped past. A projectile struck the underside of the foot-firing pedal on the three-inch deck gun and sprained the pointer’s ankle. Machine gun fire knocked the steel helmets off of two loaders, but did not injure them. A bullet hit Seaman 2nd Class Hal Schwartz’s helmet as he passed shells to Harbin next to him. The eighteen-year-old loader dropped to the deck. “It broke the strap and knocked me out,” Schwartz later recalled. “It was like getting hit in the head with a sledgehammer.”
Harbin handed a shell to the next loader in line just as a bullet hit him. His red blood splattered on the shell, which the ammunition crew reflexively loaded and fired as Harbin collapsed facedown on the wooden deck. The gun and ammunition crew stopped and stared. Blood seeped out from beneath him. Less than an hour into the first sea battle and Silversides already suffered a man down. No one had expected this. Carswell and the others jumped down from the gun to pick up Harbin even as the Ebisu Maru still charged toward them. Worthington unholstered his pistol and lowered it by his side so the men could see it. “Get back on that damn gun or I’ll shoot everyone,” he shouted. “We’ll take care of Mike.” Petty Officer 1st Class Albert Stegall and another sailor grabbed Harbin and struggled to pull him inside the conning tower. Harbin’s head rested against Stegall’s shoulder. “His mouth was working. I thought his helmet was causing him to choke. I got his helmet off. I found out it wasn’t his helmet that was causing it. He had been hit in the head,” recalled Stegall, who looked at Harbin’s wound and knew immediately the loader was dead. “It pretty much went through his head.”
An hour to the minute after the sailors had vaulted onto the deck, Burlingame ordered the gun crew to stop firing. Flames engulfed Ebisu Maru, its guns now silent. The skipper watched his victim burn. The wooden boat would not sink, but Burlingame suspected—albeit incorrectly—that the fire eventually would consume it; the submarine Scorpion would, in fact, later sink Ebisu Maru, in April 1943.
Regardless, the skipper knew the torched guard boat would serve as a beacon to other enemy ships that might patrol the area, its black clouds alerting them of the submarine’s passing and foreshadowing more destruction to come. No other ships would venture near. Burlingame recorded the battle’s outcome in his patrol report. “He was on fire but did not sink,” the skipper wrote. “Since he could not reach land in his condition and further expenditure of ammunition was futile, resumed course.”
James Scott specializes in reporting on unusual inventions that fail to succeed in the marketplace despite their innovative nature. He currently serves as the Executive Director of The SILOE Research Institute’s Archival Division.