The Sub (?) That Probably Never Was

Date: Sat, 27 Nov 1999
From: tientsin, R. E. Sullivan, USMC ('44/'67) (Ret.)
To: Bert Kortegaard
Subject: The Sub (?) That Probably Never Was... The Wantuck....And Other Things That Go Bump In The Night.....

Bert, I wonder if you know anything about Wantuck's depth charge drop on a submarine (?) in the Outer Harbor at Kodiak in January, 1950?

I have fond memories of Wantuck unlike many other ships that I rode that belonged to the US Navy. Another of my favorites was the USS Perch, (SSP 313), a submarine converted to troop carrying. Both Wantuck and Perch considered their mission to aid the troops that utilized them for transportation. There was never a feeling of "Us" and "Them." Wish I could say as much for the many APAs and AKAs that I rode over a long career in the Marine Corps.

There was a truism during WW II that went like this: After a Marine Infantryman spends thirty days in an APA riding to battle, when he gets off he just has to kill someone." Lo, the plight of the poor Japanese who happened to be on an island where that Infantryman disembarked.

I recall that the Wantuck's First Lieutenant, Gunnery Officer, Navigator, and Lord knows what else was Lt. Jerry Stoddard. Jerry was a particular friend of mine, and I was delighted to serve as his Assistant Gunnery Officer. Lt. Young was the ship's XO, and a good one. Very businesslike as a good XO is, but very approachable if there was a problem to solve. The Captain, LtCmdr Throe was a pro of the old school. A quiet man who had no need to bluster for a very simple reason: Captain Throe was so well liked by All Hands that we all would have busted our collective humps to make him happy. As we'll see a little later, he could also be decisive and could quietly make command decisions with far reaching implications. I've always grieved that Captain Throe was not on the Quarterdeck of the Pueblo. Had he been I'd bet there would have been quite a different outcome. That gentleman, unless I miss my guess, just wasn't the surrendering kind.

As stated above, I was Jerry's Assistant Gunnery Officer. Jerry was another of those born leaders you so infrequently come across. With Jerry's and the Captain's permission the Marines were allowed to man all ordnance positions except the single 5" 38 forward, and the depth charge racks aft. This meant the 20mm and 40mm tubs belonged, at least temporarily, to the Marines, and they enjoyed the hell out of maintaining the guns and gun drills. The Wantuck was one happy ship while we were aboard, at least so far as the Marine contingent was concerned. One of our Corporals had been a Quartermaster on a destroyer during WW II and he stood regular watches with the crew. The junior Marine Officers stood Junior Officer of the Deck under the Navy OOD, and were being schooled in the skills necessary to become OODs themselves. We had a number of Marines, including one officer, who had been sea-going during WW II and knew secondary batteries like the backs of their hands. Marines at the time prided themselves on the slogan: "Everything a Soldier can be, and half a Sailor to boot." Back in the days when we rode Navy ships for months at a time the slogan was true.

Caveat: The following was written from memory and without the aid of notes or references to maps or other source documents or participants. Many of the spellings of place names and individuals will undoubtedly be incorrect, but they are as close as I can come at this distance from the events.

n December 1949 the Reconnaissance Company of the 1st Marine Division embarked in the USS Wantuck, APD 125, for transportation to the north coast of the Alaskan Peninsula. Other elements of the 1stMarDiv embarked in other Navy shipping at the same time. A Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, under Captain Kenny Houghton had been an organization which for over two years had been charged with developing doctrine for employment of Marines from troop carrying submarines. The West Coast version of this submarine was the USS Perch, SSP 313. The Barbero, SSA 317, another submarine and configured to carry troop supplies, was to accompany Perch and the convoy north.

I had reported to Camp Pendleton in June, 1949, fresh from nine months in the 5th Basic Class.  The Marine Corps at that time insisted that all newly commissioned second lieutenants graduate from Basic School.  Every one of the some 200 members of that class went to either the 1st or 2d Marine Divisions as platoon commanders.  As was some ninety percent of my class, I was a former staff non-commissioned officer who held the rank of gunnery sergeant and had been, for several months in 1947 and 1948 the Acting Sergeant Major of the 5th Marines.  I had reported to Basic School from my station in Tsingtao, China.  I had a secondary SSN (Specification Serial Number, the forerunner of the MOS, or Military Occupational Number) of 636 (Scout and Reconnaissance), which I had qualified for when I was the Intelligence and Operations Chief of the 1st Marines.   The 1st Marine Division Reconnaissance Company required two platoon commanders in June 1949.  I was to be one, and a Second Lieutenant by the name of Dana B. Cashion, a former navigator on Marine Transport Aircraft was to the other.

On reporting I was told that my platoon was embarked with A/1/7 aboard the U. S. S. Perch, (SSP 313), a submarine rigged for carrying troops and performing other amphibious reconnaissance chores.  I caught up with her at North Island, and will never forget stepping aboard for the first time.  There on the in port quarterdeck was a brass plaque attached to a steel "ball" some two feet in diameter, and positioned in (not on) the superstructure, announcing to the world that the "USS Perch (SSP 313) was sunk here.  Telephone inside."  Captain Kenneth J. Houghton commanded the company, with 1stLt Jim Williams the XO.  2dLt Wallace Reid was the platoon commander of the other platoon embarked.  Together we comprised the troop officers for Perch.  About a year before I joined Perch, she was rammed by a U. S. destroyer in "C" Lane off the "Strand" at Coronado.  The sub was a periscope depth, and Cmdr Oly Paine, the skipper had let her bottom before very gingerly blowing her back to the surface.  Whatever, it was an adventure which I very much missed having experienced.  Captain Houghton's charge along with Captain Paine's was to develop "tactics and techniques" for the use of SSPs.  Why SSPs?  Because during the Makin Island raid, launched from the submarine Nautilus, during WW II, the operation had not gone smoothly.  In the melee some eight Marines were left on the beach.  Eventually, those eight Marines were to be beheaded by the Japanese.  The development of the SSP, the troop carrying submarine, was a natural outgrowth of the perceived need for amphibious reconnaissance launched from submarines.  

A/1/7, with Captain Houghton, commanding, embarked in Perch for the journey. Also in the convoy was to be an AMTRAC (LVT) contingent, embarked on an LST and the Gunston Hall, LSD 5. The Eastwind, a Coast Guard Icebreaker, would lead the convoy. A Commodore Sharp would be in overall command, and the Marine Contingent would be commanded by Major Frank Stewart, a tank officer with Major Mike Mosteller, an Engineer Officer his XO. Our orders were to sail to Kodiak, and from there through Unimak Pass then northeast to the Cape Sinajaven Peninsula some 200 miles northeast of Unimak.

This was arguably the strangest collection of cats and dogs which ever put to sea in one convoy. The exercise was to be called MICOWEX (Minor Cold Weather Exercise) 50A attached to it. Our mission was to discover a maneuver area on the north coast of the Alaskan Peninsula that would be suitable for the entire 1st Marine Division to conduct landing operations and field exercises later that year. These forthcoming exercises had already been dubbed MACOWEX (Major Cold Weather Exercise) 50B. It was to take place in December, 1950/January, 1951. For those of you who know a little about the Korean War, you realize that the 1st Marine Division did, in fact, participate in a Major Cold Weather Exercise in November and December of 1950. However, the maneuver ground was the Chosin Reservoir rather than the coast of Alaska. The Chinese were even good enough to provide the Maneuver Enemy (Aggressors). But that's another story.

n a Saturday afternoon in late January '50 Wantuck was tied up in the inner harbor at Kodiak. At about 1400 a Naval Officer, I believe he was a LtCmdr, was driven up in a staff car, and boarded. He seemingly was in a hurry, and he asked to be taken immediately to the CO. Lt. Jerry Stoddard, the ship's Navigator/Gunnery Officer, was the SOPA (Senior Officer Present Afloat), since the Captain and XO were both ashore. I was with Lt. Stoddard in the wardroom when the visiting naval officer ordered that the ship be immediately made ready for sea, and get under way ASAP. Detailed orders were to follow. It seems that there were islands in the outer harbor and a (here I'm fuzzy) Coast Guard (?) station had spotted a submarine between Long and Bloodsworth Islands. And there was no chance that the sub was ours.

[Are there two islands by those names in the Outer Harbor at Kodiak? The names sound like they came out of Treasure Island. But that's what I remember, and I' going to stick with them.]

[I need to add here that somewhere along the line we had been made aware of the fact that Kodiak was a hotbed of pro-Russian activity. I really can't recall much more than that, and I have no idea if this was given to us in written form or whether it was part of a classified briefing. And I'm not sure whether this information was given to us before or after the incident discussed below. Sorry for being so imprecise, but I'm giving you as much as I can remember, and that part of the factoid has vanished from the hard disk attached to my brain.]

So Jerry did whatever he had to do (lit off the boilers, cut the galley kettles into the steam line, or whatever--all that was beyond a Jarhead who had no clue as to how one started up a boat) to get under way. As I recall it would take about an hour to raise enough steam to cast off from the dock. In the meantime a call had been put out over the Kodiak Radio Station for all crew to immediately return to Wantuck. Most, but not all the crew made it, and we were singled up with the gangway lifted when Captain Throe, the Skipper scrambled aboard with Lt. Young, the XO. By that time it was rather late in the afternoon and getting dark, and we had that dog-leg channel to navigate to get out to the outer harbor. As soon as we were underway the skipper ordered that the crew be fed, and called for the first sitting in the officer's mess. Whom Captain Throe had talked to, or if he had talked to anyone, or whether he had additional orders via radio or other means I haven't a clue. But at dinner one of the officers asked, in effect: "OK, we're going out to investigate the sighting of a sub in the outer harbor, but what are we going to do if we find him?"

What follows I'll never forget: The Captain turned very slowly and said: "If he's submerged, we'll sink him." Not I have orders to sink him, or anything like that, just "....We'll sink him."

Nothing was mentioned about notifying higher authority, or a committee in the White House or anyone else. What had begun, as many of us thought, as a lark in the dark, had now turned deadly serious.

By the time we cleared the last bit of dog leg and debouched into the outer harbor it was dark. The ship was at modified battle stations, and condition (what was it X-Ray, or Yoke or something like that) was set. The only armament that was manned were the depth charge racks, although the Marines, who had been snapped in, were chomping at the bit to break out the 20s and 40s. My memory is that just as dinner was breaking up in the wardroom the Captain was called to the bridge because Sonar had a contact.

Then a game of apparent cat and mouse ensued where the contact would make a run for one of the exits from the bay, only to be turned back by Wantuck. Wantuck varied her speed, but occasionally would make a high speed run on the (?), then come about and reacquire contact.

Were we sending sonar signals for (?) to surface? I don't know, but if that sonar crew is around I'll bet they know.

The depth of the harbor varied as I recall, but in many places a fleet type sub could barely submerge, so we began to speculate that we must be dealing with some kind of a midget. While all the maneuvering was going on Jerry and I were aft with the depth charge crew freezing our patoots off.

Finally, at about 2300, word came down from the bridge that we'd drop on our next high speed (on an APD--you've got to be kidding!) run. And so we were ordered to set the depth charges for 50' and I'm told made the run at 15 knots.

I'd seen a thousand depth charges dropped while I was sailing peacefully in a convoy and you could hear the booms and see the pretty flowers. But this is the first time I'd ever been aboard a ship that dropped one. And I can't recall how many we dropped, but it must have been half a dozen or so. After the first one I was numb anyway. Whatever. When the first charge went off I was sure we'd been torpedoed. The stern lifted, it seemed, 10 feet in the air, and looking from the stern, the ship had taken on the appearance of a banana.

(There was a troop officer's cabin aft, and when the first depth charge went off only one officer was down there, and he was asleep. Wakened by the first depth charge, before he could get out of his bunk the others went off and rolled him around which kept him from getting out of his bunk. He, like I, was sure we'd been torpedoed. When he finally was able to put one foot on the deck he froze....My God, he was ankle deep in freezing water! What had happened is that the toilet in that compartment had sheared off at the base, probably when the first depth charge went off, and salt water was pouring in. There was a vertical ladder in the passageway outside the quarters, and a hatch cover which debouched onto the fantail.Anyway, this poor guy boiled out of that hatch wild-eyed, in his skivvies, life jacket and helmet and looking as though he'd just escaped from the nearest cracker factory. Took him awhile to live that down. It took even longer to convince him that he shouldn't bunk in the wardroom. He definitely didn't want to go back to his former quarters, and understandably so.)

About that time Lt. Stoddard, I guess, was called to the Bridge, and I tagged along. As we opened the hatch on the port side of the ship (the Marine Troop's quarters) you couldn't see two feet in front of you. Every speck of dust that the ship had acquired since commissioning, and God knows what else, was suspended in the air. The Marines were spitting and coughing, and wondering what in the blue-eyed world was going on. They were wide eyed and somewhat distressed as were the sailors we encountered, including those on the depth charge detail who had been complicit in making all that racket and shaking around to begin with. Anyway, when we got to the bridge we were told that the contact had disappeared, and after another hour or so racing about the outer harbor trying to make contact, the Captain simply let the ship drift until daylight.

That night, however, looking back toward the mountains above the harbor I saw what I considered astounding then and still do to this day. There were lights, green lights, which appeared to be sending code. And there was one long burst of tracer fire--green tracer fire. There was no accompanying sound of a machine gun which meant that the source was a great distance away. I had seen a great deal of tracer fire in my life, but never green tracer fire. However, within eight months, on the Pusan Perimeter, I'd see a great deal of it, courtesy of the People's Army of North Korea.

Come daybreak Sunday morning and the outer harbor was as still as a mountain lake, absolutely glassy without the hint of a swell. And there was an oil slick, a pretty good sized one, I guess, as oil slicks go and we moved over to get a better look. But among other things I'm not expert in is oil slicks. Did anyone get an oil sample? In hindsight that would have been a smart thing to do.

Then we got underway, negotiated the channel, and tied up back at our usual spot. I don't recall that any Higher Authority met us dockside, or the Captain going ashore and reporting to anyone. But something like that had to occur, I guess. Sunday afternoon there seemed to be great activity on one of the barges across the harbor and Monday a tug moved her down the channel and out of sight. And that was the end of the incident so far as Wantuck was concerned.

When we left the harbor for Unimak Pass a few days later we did see a barge anchored roughly in the middle of the outer harbor and she seemed to be working.

equel 1: On the way home from up north Wantuck was detached from the convoy and ordered to accompany the LST, worse luck. The LST first was ordered to put into Kodiak and pick up a dewinged transport plane that had skidded off the runway. While the plane was being loaded we got liberty and the officers headed for the club. Can still remember what was reputed to be the largest Kodiak Bear skin in the world that was displayed on a very large wall just as you entered the club. Anyway, while standing at the bar we were asked if we were the Marines who were on Wantuck, and then told by this officer (a jg) who was introduced as/or introduced himself as being on an intelligence staff of some kind that divers had discovered the midget sub that we had sunk, and recovered very valuable documents (?). He was very matter of fact about the whole affair. We were surprised that anyone would broach the subject out loud. We automatically assumed that the entire incident was hush-hush and that's how we played it. When we got back to the ship the subject was broached, very gingerly, but if any of the Navy types knew anything they sure didn't let their Marine brethren in on the gag.

Sequel 2: A news article appeared in San Diego saying that a Navy Destroyer [Ahem] had been ordered to sea in great haste from Kodiak, and that loud explosions had been heard later that night. The entire article was only some 4 inches long and speculated on what all this had been about. Any researcher willing to spend the time to find this article can do so I'd bet. The clipping had been forwarded by someone's wife or sweetheart, and I first saw it when we returned to Kodiak as detailed in Sequel 1 above.

Sequel 3: In 1952 I was stationed at Quantico and living in housing on base with my family. Our neighbor was a CWO _______ and his wife. Turned out that the Gunner had been stationed at MB Kodiak during the time Wantuck had visited. I said not a word to anyone concerning the (?). Again, I thought that I was dealing with something classified. One evening Mrs. ________was describing a most unusual incident that had occurred to them while stationed in Kodiak. They lived offbase in a house that overlooked the sea which was at a distance of a hundred yards or so. Whatever, on a Sunday morning she had been looking to sea when she saw what appeared to be a nun buoy. No big deal, that, but this buoy was slowly proceeding east off shore at a distance of maybe 500 meters from the beach, and was obviously smoking. She called this to the attention of her husband who put the binocs on the object and immediately identified it as a conning tower, but shaped more like a triangle than those on US subs. His reaction was to notify the Coast Guard of what he had seen. Within a few minutes the object disappeared, and that was the end of that. No one ever questioned them about what they had seen and the matter died there so far as he knew. [I know the name that was omitted above, but without permission to use it here, will not do so.]

Now, what do I make of all the foregoing? I haven't a clue. But it sure is interesting. I saw nothing myself except green lights, that could have been sending code, and one burst of green tracers without the sound of the gun that fired it indicating that the source was probably miles away. I could see it because the backdrop was a snow covered mountain although the night itself, in my memory, was rather brightly lit by a moon at least part of the night. (I'd guess that someone with an almanac could check my memory for the light conditions that night.) And that much I'll swear by. The rest is mystery.

The kind of life I've lead I really don't have to invent stuff. And I am the antithesis of those who compound or believe conspiracy theories.

And before some wiseacre asks: No, I saw no Little Green Men associated with the Little Green Lights.

When we returned to Camp Pendleton we never mentioned the incident to anyone. Nor, so far as I know, was it ever reported to anyone officially or unofficially. We did discuss it among ourselves and argued the case from a number of angles with no conclusion. We were never debriefed by anyone. No one ever got us together and told us to keep our mouths shut about the incident, as I know had happened in similar circumstances.

For nearly fifty years I've wondered about the incident, and came to Bert, a man who had been a member of the crew of the Wantuck, although at a slightly later date, to see if any kind of institutional memory was residual among crew members whom had been there. If anyone out there has an answer, I'd really like to hear it. If you weren't aboard Wantuck at the time, and joined later, have you any recollection of hearing the incident discussed among crew members who were there?

A very personal note. One of the reasons that I'm so fascinated by this incident is that I was at Hsin Ho, North China on 5/6 April, 1947. The 1st Battalion of the 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division was charged with guarding the Division Ammunition Supply Point (ASP). Mao's 8th Route Army had reconned the ASP the previous October, and a few rounds were exchanged. When they came back in April they were loaded for bear and pretty decent firefight left some 5 Marines dead and over 20 wounded. This was something of a mile marker at the time and considered somewhat unusual because of the potential sizes of the forces engaged. Chairman Mao must really have needed the ammunition that he managed to steal. The next time an engagement with the enemy was fought by Marines was on 7 August, 1950. My company, D/2/5, was one of the first to make contact with elements of the 4th and 6th NKA Divisions. And damned good soldiers they were. Their employment of heavy machine guns, specifically the 1904 Maxim w/shield that laid down indirect fire at a range where the sound of the gun frequently could not be heard was classic. Suddenly the air would be filled with whistling, men would go down faceless, headless, or clutching their throat, and you had no idea where the fire was coming from. And the PAK could put a 120 MM mortar round in your back pocket without first firing sensing rounds nine times out of ten. I have a Purple Heart from that afternoon to prove it. This incident in January '50 then becomes even more personally interesting. Was there something in the Outer Harbor at Kodiak? If so, what was there? Was it a sub, or could there have possibly been two? You could build a case for the latter scenario if you accept Sequel 1 and 3 above as gospel. Was I a witness, and, in a very limited way, a participant, to yet another precursor of what would be the Korean War, as the Hsin Ho incident could be considered? Any one with any information bearing on this now nearly fifty year old incident, pile on.

Semper Fidelis, Sully


Copyright 2002.  R. E. Sullivan, Ph.D.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be copied, faxed, electronically transmitted, or in any other manner duplicated without express written permission of the author.