20 April 2011


Readers Digest used to have a monthly feature entitled “My Most Unforgettable Character.” I have many in my life, but there is one who I met for less than an hour and whose name I never learned, only his wartime Navy nickname: “Ski.”

It was in the late summer of 1979. I was stationed in Chicago while attending law school on the Excess Leave Program. My wife was hosting a Sunday afternoon wedding or baby shower and I was tasked with getting the boys, then aged 8 and 6, out of the house. In that morning’s paper, I had seen a blurb announcing that USS Silversides, a WWII submarine undergoing renovation as a memorial, was holding tours at 3:00 pm each Sunday. The boys and I headed for Navy Pier.

To understand the rest of this story, it is necessary to learn just a little about USS Silversides. (Historical Note: Submarines are traditionally referred to as “boats” rather than “ships”.)

USS Silversides (SS-236) is a Gato-class boat, named for the silversides, a small fish marked with a silvery stripe along each side of its body. She was launched on 26 August 1941 and commissioned on 15 December 1941, eight days after the Jap attack on Pearl Harbor. Silversides made 14 war patrols in the Pacific, received twelve battle stars for World War II service, and was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. She is credited with sinking 23 ships, the third-most of any allied World War II submarine, behind only the USS Tang and USS Tautog. The tonnage of the ships sunk by Silversides amounted to 90,080 tons, second only to the Tang's total. Judged by such standards, Silversides has the most prolific combat record of any still-extant American submarine.

[Historical Note: Tang’s records are truly amazing when one considers that she made only five war patrols before she was lost. USS Tang (SS-306), a Balao-class boat was built and launched in 1943 and was sunk by one of her own torpedos on her fifth war patrol, after only 10 months of service. Nonetheless, Tang sank 31 ships displacing 227,800 tons, a record unequaled by any American submarine before or since. Her commanding officer, LCdr Richard H. O'Kane, USN, received the Medal of Honor for her last two engagements (October 23, 1944 and October 24, 1944). Commander O’Kane had learned his trade in Wahoo as XO under the legendary Mush Morton.

USS Tautog (SS-199), a Tambor-class boat, was credited with sinking 26 Japanese ships, for a total of 72,606 tons.]

Silversides was a lucky boat. She lost only one of her sailors during the war. On 10 May 1942, just after 0800, she engaged a Japanese gunboat in a 75 minute surface action. Firing her 3 inch deck gun, she heavily damaged the enemy vessel. During this action, one of her deck gunners, Torpedoman’s Mate 3 Mike Harbin, was killed in action by enemy machine gun fire. The only man lost in action aboard Silversides during World War II, Petty Officer Harbin was buried at sea later that evening.

On 17 December 1942, Silversides departed Brisbane, Australia on her fourth war patrol. On the night of Christmas Eve, the submarine's pharmacist's mate, PhM1 Thomas Moore, informed the Captain that Fireman Second Class George Platter was suffering from appendicitis. There was no way to get Petty Officer Platter to a medical facility. As the only medically trained member of the crew (submarines did not rate having a ship’s surgeon), “Doc” Platter performed a successful emergency appendectomy on FM2 Platter using the wardroom table as an operating table, ether as anesthesia and a tea strainer as the mask, and rudimentary “surgical instruments” primarily fashioned by the ships motor machinists mates from galley utensils. The operation was over early on Christmas morning, and FM2 Platter was standing watches within 6 days.

After the war, Silversides was decommissioned and placed in reserve as a training ship for naval reservists at Chicago, Illinois. On 30 June 1969 her name was struck from the Naval Vessel Register.
The City of Chicago acquired the boat with the intention of using her as a war memorial. On 24 May 1973, Silversides became a part of the Combined Great Lakes Navy Association in Chicago and was moored behind Chicago's Naval Armory. She was moved to Navy Pier in 1979.  [She is now permanently berthed at Muskegon, Michigan.]

Now, at the time the boys and I visited, she had just moved to Navy Pier where she was tended by a small crew of dedicated volunteers. Several of the active duty sailors assigned to Naval Reserve Center, Chicago to train the reservists were actually living aboard the boat.

We walked out along the pier and joined the other 12 or so people who had mustered on the forward deck at the forward torpedo loading hatch. Two active duty (but on liberty) sailors were guiding the tour. A coffee can was passed for donations and the tour was about to begin when we heard a shout from the pier.

“Ahoy, the boat. Hold the tour.” Two couples were walking down the pier. They were in their 60s, the men wearing aloha shirts and khakis and the ladies in sun dresses. They hurried up the brow and joined the tour.

A flight of wooden stairs had been built to allow people to enter the boat through the forward torpedo room. I held the boys back to keep them from being stepped on. We were right behind the foursome.

As the guide explained the layout of the torpedo room (“ten 21-inch torpedo tubes--six forward, four aft--with a wartime load of 24 torpedoes…”), and the berthing arrangement of the torpedo room in which bunks were literally atop the spare torpedoes, one of the men whispered to his friend, “that was my buddy, Tex’s bunk” pointing to one of the bunks and shaking his head. “He was transferred to Harder and is still on patrol.”

Oh, wow, I thought. This is something to remember. I decided to stick close to the two men.

As the tour continued and we moved aft through officer’s country, beneath which was the forward battery room, the “old guy” continued to regale his friend with his stories of the daily life of a submariner. We looked into the wardroom (the officers dining room which is just a bit larger than a large booth in a modern restaurant), we heard of the famous appendectomy. We next moved into the control room, beneath the conning tower, the warfighting center of the boat. From here on her tenth war patrol, she sank 6 enemy ships. And then it happened…..

The old guy pointed aft to what appeared to be a telephone booth. “That was my battle station, the radio room.” Oh, yeah, he’s a Silversides sailor! Then, pointing to a large fitting in the overhead, he said “That’s where this happened.” He held up his right hand to show the ring and little fingers were missing above the large knuckle.

“What happened,” his buddy asked?

“Oh, we were diving and that valve opened. I went to close it and caught my fingers in it. I got it closed, but . . . Anyway, they took me to sickbay, that bunk right there (pointing to a single bunk), and Doc bandaged me up. Then the skipper,Cap’n Coye, he came back and said ‘Well done, Ski, you saved my boat.’ Can you imagine that? The skipper  himself said that to me.”

Well, yeah, I can, Ski. I mean, you saved his boat.

The tour moved aft, through the crew’s quarters, the galley, the engine rooms and maneuvering room to the after torpedo room. The guides gave a summing up, listing Silversides’ many accomplishments, and directing folks to the wooden stairs that led topside through the after torpedo loading hatch. Once again, I held the boys back to avoid the rush.

The two old guys had stepped away and I was behind their wives. One woman sighed impatiently. “Gawd. I need a cigarette. How long have we been down here?”

“About 45 minutes,” I offered.

“How long were they down here,” the other woman asked?

“Sixty to seventy-five days,” I replied.

“Gawd,” the first woman repeated.

“Excuse me ladies, but is one of you married to ‘Ski’? Did he serve in Silversides?”

“Oh, that’s my husband,” the first woman answered. “These are our friends who have been visiting us from Iowa. We live in Centralia and this morning my husband just up and said ‘we ought to take them up and show them the boat.’ The boat, the boat, the boat. That’s all he ever talks about. The boat, the boat, the boat.”

Well, sure he does. I mean, damn! He saved the boat!

The crowd had gone and she and her friend started topside, followed by the Iowan husband. I started the boys up.

As I looked back, there was Ski, all by himself, leaning on one of the after torpedo tubes. He was looking forward the length of the boat through the open watertight doors. There were tears on his cheeks and I knew that he was seeing things we could only—imperfectly—imagine.

And for a minute, he looked 20. I’ll never forget him.


Alan said...

thanks for the unforgettable character.


Michael McMahon said...

Hartland, Michigan Cubscout Pack 380 just spent the night in that old boat! What a great story - thanks for sharing!

Michael McMahon