USS PAMPANITO (SS-383)
by ENC(SS)(DV) C. Mike Carmody, USN(RET)
Republished with permission from the October 2006 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW, a publication of the Naval Submarine League, PO Box 1146, Annandale, Virginia 22003.
In September, 1940 I was employed by a shipping company located in lower Manhattan, New York. The job entailed getting ships Bill of Ladings passed by the U.S. Customs House. Customs would only pass cargo that couldn't be used as war material. This was a time when Germany was saber rattling in Europe.
A cargo ship was being delayed from sailing because of some doubtful cargo it was carrying. Customs eventually approved the ship's Bill of Ladings. It was the shipping company's responsibility to deliver the necessary paperwork to the ship. My boss instructed me to hand deliver the paperwork so the ship could sail on the morning tide.
The ship was docked at Pier 44 on the Hudson River. When I arrived, I was amazed at its enormous size. I climbed the forty foot gangway leading to the Quarterdeck. A seaman instructed me to stand fast while he went to fetch the ship's First Mate. While waiting, I read the inscription on the bulkhead plaque. It identified the ship as SS Wolverine State, a 540 foot passenger cargo ship, with a displacement of 10,600 tons. She was owned by the U.S. Dollar Line and was constructed in New Jersey in 1921.
The First Mate appeared in his impressive blue uniform. He signed for the manifest and thanked me for getting it to him. He told me their next port of call was Hamburg, Germany. Little did I know then, through a sequence of events, I would come in contact with this ship again. It would be four years later and 12,000 miles from where I was standing. The results of the next encounter with this ship would prove to be disastrous. Information pertaining to this story was uncovered after World War II through Merchant Marine transcripts, and interviews of some of the 600 allied POW survivors rescued at sea by the U.S. submarine, Pampanito. Statements were later taken from many of the survivors liberated from Japanese prison camps. This information, along with my personal war time experiences, assisted me in writing this saga.
In December, 1940, the SS Wolverine State was sold to the American President Lines and renamed the SS President Harrison. She was transferred to the Pacific routes under the command of Master Orel Pierson. In January, 1941, she sailed out of Philippines and China ports. A few months prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the SS President Harrison was chartered by the U.S. Navy. Her new job description was to transport Navy and Marine personnel from cities in China and deliver them to the Philippines.
In late October, 1941, SS President Harrison departed from Manila, Philippine Islands, with orders from the Navy, to proceed to a Hong Kong shipyard, where she was to be converted into a troop transport ship. After completion, the President Harrison was ordered to Shanghai to evacuate three hundred men and equipment of the 4th Marine Division and Peking and Tientsin Legation Guard. They were to be transported to Manila.
President Harrison and her crew of 155 men departed Hong Kong en route to Shanghai. The voyage was to be a secret. Unfortunately, the enemy knew of her destination and that contributed to her capture by a Japanese destroyer. The Destroyer's captain told Captain Pierson he knew of all his ship's movements. He said the Harrison's itinerary was the talk in every bar and hotel in Manila and Shanghai.
The following is an excerpt from Master Pierson's official report: "On the morning of December 7th we were at sea on the north side the Yangtze Estuary. At 0330 a.m. I received a radio message from Cavite Naval Base, Philippine Islands, stating that Pearl Harbor, Hawaii had been attacked by the Japanese, "The show was on."
Harrison was now completely outfitted for the carriage of troops and, if captured, could have been loaded and used within a matter of hours against our forces in the Far East. I was bound and determined to use every means in my power to prevent this. After informing the officers and crew as to what was happening, we immediately painted the stack and superstructure with gray paint. We were trying to hide our identity if we met up with any Japanese vessels.
"At daylight, a Japanese plane, with bomb racks full, signaled us to stop with a burst of machine gun fire. Then, Nagaski Maru, a fast 22 knot Japanese Mail Carrier, appeared and started to trail us. I tried ramming him, but she was smart enough to keep well clear of us, while still keeping guard over us. I then planned to run up on the beach of nearby Shaweiskan Island. I conceived the idea of ripping the Harrison's bottom out completely. If I should achieve this, the vessel would go down and be a total loss.
"As we approached the island, a Japanese destroyer came into sight, making for us at full speed. He did not open fire, the reason I learned later, they wanted the ship intact. It became a race as to whether we could make the island before the destroyer could intercept us. Minutes before we struck the island I ordered the engineers out of the engine room. I told them to leave the plant running wide open. Making sixteen knots, we struck the edge of the island on our port side. We rode along the island's edge for a considerable distance, and then rolled off. We had ripped a hole 90 feet long. Unfortunately, the gash didn't reach to the engine room spaces. Now, the plane opened up on us again, presumably, to stop us from using the radio. The ship almost turned over on her side, but she righted herself. She was then carried off the rocks by the strong currents and settled on a mud bank. The order was given to abandon ship. One lifeboat, before it could be pushed away from the hull, was caught by the swift current and wind. The ship's exposed turning propeller split the lifeboat in half, killing three men and severely injuring many others. A Japanese landing party then stormed aboard our vessel and ordered all personnel in the lifeboats to return to the ship. The crew spent the next forty days aboard while sufficient repairs were made to enable us captives to take her to Shanghai. There the entire crew was interned in a Prisoner of War Camp." This was the end of Captain Pierson's report.
There was a woman crew member onboard the President Harrison. She was Mrs. Clara Main, a stewardess, the first American woman to become a Japanese prisoner of war. After the war she received the Meritorious Service Medal for her dedication to duty, under fire, and for tending to the injured crew members for 40 days. Her actions saved many from dying.
Master Orel Pierson was lucky to survive the war. Twice, he came close to being executed for attempting to scuttle his ship.
The Japanese renamed President Harrison Kachidoi Maru. For two years and eight months she made numerous voyages transporting Japanese troops and transporting raw material, confiscated from captured territories, to Japan.
On a hill, overlooking Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, there was a building surrounded by a barbed wire fence and patrolled by armed Marines. Very few people knew of the building's real purpose. A sign affixed to the building with the letters FRUPAC was its only means of identification. It stood for Fleet Radio Unit, Pacific. It housed the Navy's Japanese code breakers. One branch of FRUPAC was responsible for breaking H25, the Japanese Merchant Marine code used for convoy movements.
In early September, 1944 the code people intercepted and decoded a transmission relating to a convoy movement from Singapore to Japan. Its code name was HI-72, and was scheduled to depart Singapore on 6 September 1944. The information was dispatched, however, no mention was made that two ships, within the convoy, would be transporting 2,218 prisoners of war, more than 300 wounded Japanese soldiers and thousands of Japanese officials and their families, fleeing South East Asia.
On 4 September 1944, Kachidoi Maru was being loaded at a Singapore dock with raw rubber and bauxite. She was scheduled to sail with convoy HI-72 on 6 September 1944. She was one of several ships being readied for the voyage. Waiting to board, were half of the 2,218 prisoners of war, needed by Japan, to be used as slave labor. They were selected from the River Kwai area of Rangoon. They were each given a 25 pound cube of rubber to be used as a flotation device. Everyone doubted the cubes would be able to support a man in the water. They concluded it was just a clever way of cramming more raw rubber onto the ship. In addition,every ship had a large number of Japanese civilians onboard.
On the morning of 6 September 1944, at 0700 hours, the convoy departed Singapore en route to Japan. It merged with another convoy from the Philippines on the morning of 11 September 1944. It numbered 15 ships, including 5 destroyer escorts. Messages were dispatched daily, giving the exact location of the convoy.
Tension within the convoy heightened as it entered the center of the South China Sea. For they knew they were outside air cover range and knowingly entering U.S. submarine hunting grounds. Lookouts were tripled and guns were manned around the clock.
Admiral Nimitz's submarine staff was plotting the convoy's course. Three submarines patrolling in the South China Sea were alerted, USS Growler (SS215), USS Sea Lion II (SS315) and my submarine, USS Pampanito (SS383).
Pampanito' s position was the furthest north, near the Formosa Strait. At 1200 hours, 12 September 1944, seven ships had been sunk, including the Japanese destroyer, Shikinami. This is where my sequence of events comes into play.
At 2210 hours Pampanito approached the convoy on the surface with a perfect attack situation. A torpedo in the number four torpedo tube moved forward against the closed outer door and began running. It was now armed and could explode by any kind of a jolt. The attack was aborted in order to disengage a jammed gyro setter. Our Captain, Peter Summers, decided to press the attack and not lose our advantage.
The following was taken from Pampanito' s official log, written by Captain Summers, in his exact words: "We bored in on the surface at flank speed. At 2240 hours we fired five torpedoes from the forward tubes. Three targeted for a large transport (AP) and two at a large freighter (AK). Swung hard right and at 2243 fired four stern torpedoes. Two at each of the two ships in the farthest column-Saw three hits in large transport, two hits in large freighter, (targets no.1 and no. 2) and one hit in tanker (AO) farthest column, heard and timed hit in fourth (AK) the leading ship also in farthest column. In all seven torpedo hits out of nine fired. From the bridge we watched both the large (AP) and large (AK) one with two hits sinking. We also saw the after deck house on the (AO) in which we saw one hit go up in the air with the ship smoking heavily. The fourth ship could not be observed because of the smoke. A short interval after the seven torpedo hits the escorts started dropping depth charges and firing in USS Pampanito's direction.
When I read Master Pierson's post war official maritime report about the capture of SS President Harrison, he mentioned the ship was originally the SS Wolverine State, the same ship that impressed me as a sixteen year old delivery boy.
On the night of 12 September 1944 when USS Pampanito sank the Kachidoki Maru, previously named SS Wolverine State and SS President Harrison, it was four years and exactly 12,000 miles from Pier 44, Manhattan, New York, that I stood on her quarterdeck in 1940.
After taking three torpedo hits, this gallant ship, slipped beneath the sea in less than twenty minutes. Sadly, post war records revealed 350 allied prisoners of war, 450 Japanese civilians and 300 badly wounded Japanese soldiers, went down with her. Post war records also revealed that Japanese rescue vessels from Hainan Island rescued many survivors the following day, including 656 prisoners of war. This ends the history and loss of a gallant President.