The USS Flier: Death and Survival on a World War II Submarine - Michael Sturma John Crowley was assigned the Flier after serving two years on the old S series of subs. There were very unpleasant experiences with no air conditioning, no showers, and only one toilet for 50 men. Sometimes, after a patrol, the fresh air would almost act like a drug on them. Crowley had a charmed life: he survived the sinking of the Flier and even evaded capture by the Japanese and more impressive survived two boards of inquiry, one following a collision with another ship in port that caused the death of a sailor, and the other the sinking of the Flier. He was given a new command in each case. Normally those would have been career destroying events.

Sent first as captain of the S-28 to the Aleutian Islands in order the prevent the Japanese from accumulating even more islands than they already had, Crowley's men suffered. "On the submarine's bridge, icy winds could freeze a man's hands to his binoculars. Inside, the dank environment of the S-boat after forty days on patrol was a hazard in itself. Condensation, so-called, hull sweating saturated the crew's bedding along with everything else. On his first patrol Crowley noted that the air was always cold and damp. To conserve battery power they rarely turned on the heaters." And they were forced to remain submerged for eighteen hours a day because of the long hours of daylight in the northern latitudes. Fresh water could be generated on while running the diesels so there was a shortage of drinking water and what there was, was so foul it lead to nausea. Worse, scabies broke out on board. The S-28 disappeared during exercises in 8,000 feet of water a couple of months after Crowley was reassigned. The USS Flier, Crowley's next command, was to suffer a similar fate.

By 1943, submarine construction was such that a new sub was launched at Electric Boat every other week, an extraordinary pace. The Flier was one of those and was commissioned in 1943. She was also part of the new line of fleet boats that could go deeper and were more agile. Having welded hulls rather than riveted, they were cheaper to build and less likely to have rivets pop out during dept charge attacks.

The Flier did not participate in the Battle of Midway which by that time had become a refueling or rest stop, although it had none of the accouterments of the usual rest area: no girls, no alcohol except beer. The channel had been dredged to 40 feet and 400 feet wide and as the Flier was being escorted in by a tug, a squall hit, drove it sideways (it may have not had enough way on to increase the steering ability of the rudder) and slammed several times into the bottom. A tool box was knocked loose in the engine room and a screw driver flew across shorting out some terminals which caused sparks to fall on some oily rags setting them on fire. Soon they had quite a mess on their hands.

Unable to float the boat, and as seas continued to build, the USS McCaw, a submarine rescue ship arrived to assist, but became grounded itself. In the meantime two sailors were washed overboard as they attempted to release the anchor chain. After more than six days, another ship managed to get the Flier unglued from the reef. The McCaw was not so lucky as it sank, killing five sailors, including the captain. The Flier was towed to Pearl for repairs.

The reason for the sinking of the Flier has never been established with certainty although the most reasonable evidence points to hitting a mine, In any event, while on patrol and speeding to intercept a Japanese convoy, those on deck in the conning tower were blown into the water and the sub went down in mere seconds. Luckily the water was fairly warm and the crew managed to stay mostly together, agreeing to swim toward land they estimated to be about nine miles distant. After eighteen hours in the water (five hours swimming is considered a marathon) Crowley (in subs, since the captain was almost always on deck when surfaced, he rarely went down with the ship) and a few others managed to make land.

Several reviewers have downgraded the book because the author spends some time discussing upper echelon politics and decision-making. I viewed that as a plus since it’s impossible to look an individual decisions by skippers in a vacuum. Often their actions were a result of activities at command headquarters, as ill-advised as they may seem today.

I am concurrently reading “Bravest Man”, and I noted a slight discrepancy in the way the Navy regarded the use of submarines to supply guerrilla operations. The suggestion in Bravest Man is that the Navy resented and disliked using subs for non-ship action, considering resupplying guerrillas to be a waste of resources. Sturma spends some time discussing guerrilla operations and writes that the Navy, at first antagonistic, came to recognize how useful guerrillas could be in confirming ship sinkings, something not always possible from the sub, which usually dived immediately after launching torpedoes.

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