Being a child of the ‘80s, I’m of the generation whose grandparents fought in World War II.
One grandfather, Marvin Payne, fought in the Pacific, enduring the hell of combat on Guadalcanal.
My great-uncle, Karl “Kayo” Mollan, was a duplex-drive Sherman tank driver. It’s family lore that he was of the few to successfully land the complex amphibious tank on the Normandy beaches on D-Day. Other great-uncles also fought across Europe.
Then there was my other grandfather, Albert Oscar Rustad.
A first-generation Norwegian-American, Grandpa Rusty had joined the Navy shortly before Pearl Harbor and had found his way into the submarine service.
It was exciting, but harrowing work, to hear my grandfather tell it. He began the war in Manila, where he survived a tense escape from the besieged city on one of the last boats to leave the harbor. By 1943, he was posted to the new Gato-class sub Tinosa.
He often found inventive solutions to problems aboard the submarine.
Once, the Tinosa was believed sunk after a fierce depth charge bombardment. She had instead limped to a Free Dutch outpost in the East Indies.
Neither the dockworkers nor the Tinosa’s sailors could speak the other’s language. However my grandfather was a near-native speaker of Norwegian, and used the slight similarities between Norwegian and Dutch, to cobble together a simple pidgin to get the word to Allied forces that the reports of Tinosa’s destruction were greatly exaggerated.
But the story I remember the most was the affair of the torpedoes, and how he helped to finally prove the Navy had provided faulty weapons.
During the early portion of the Pacific War, the U.S. Navy was handicapped by inferior torpedoes.
The Mark 14 torpedo couldn’t run as far or as fast as Japanese models and, worse, were defective. Many hits reported by sub commanders that should have been sure kills were resulting in nothing more than dents in ships’ hulls. And the higher-ups in the Navy hierarchy didn’t seem interested in hearing about the problem, deeming it anecdotal.
That all changed the morning of July 24, 1943.
At 5 a.m., the Tinosa was patrolling around Truk. She’d been sent to those heavily-trafficked Japanese shipping lanes, alerted by reports from codebreakers that the Japanese Navy’s largest tanker, the 19,000-ton converted whaler, Tonan Maru 3-Go, was in the area.
Grandpa Rusty was manning the sonar station when he heard the propellers of a solitary ship. The skipper, Lt. Cmdr Randall Daspit, looked through the periscope to see the Tonan Maru 3-Go, and the considerable amount of fuel she was carrying, served up on a silver platter.
Commander Daspit ordered a salvo fired.
Grandpa Rusty heard the rush of the four Mark 14s, and the noisy wake they left as they sped to their target. As he counted down the time to impact, he registered two explosions. One of the torpedoes had detonated near the stern, doing slight damage. Another blow likewise did damage, but the remaining two hits that would have surely broken the ship in half, failed to explode.
For hours, Tinosa and the Tonan Maru 3-Go would engage in a slow-motion battle, the tanker firing off shots from its deck gun at the Tinosa’s periscope, while Tinosa fired off torpedo after torpedo.
Every time, my grandfather had to listen to torpedoes impacting the tanker’s hull and dutifully report, with a growing frustration shared by everyone else on the sub, “impact, no explosion.” The Tonan Maru 3-Go, with unwitting help from Navy torpedoes, was plain and simple refusing to die.
At around 11 a.m., Grandpa Rusty heard a chilling sound over the sonar.
The sound of high-speed screws coming toward the Tinosa. A destroyer, sent from Truk in response to distress calls, had arrived.
Tinosa took one last shot at Tonan Maru 3-Go. Again, over the din of the now chaotic battle, my grandfather listened to the track of the torpedo as it impacted.
And yet again it did not detonate, as if fate was mocking them. Tinosa was able to flee with a solitary torpedo left in her arsenal.
Out of 15 torpedoes fired by the Tinosa, 11 failed to detonate.
That finally grabbed the attention of Navy brass, including Admiral Charles Lockwood, the commander of submarine forces in the Pacific.
Tinosa was ordered to return directly to Pearl Harbor, where Navy research teams tested her sole remaining torpedo and others in Navy stores. It was finally discovered the problem was, ironically, that in dead-on perfect hits, the firing pin couldn’t act with enough force to set off the Torpex warhead.
Tonan Maru 3-Go’s luck would only last less than a year.
In February, 1944, the ship would be targeted by Navy aircraft and destroyed in Truk harbor.