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  • John Metzger

Harry O. Metzger's Time in the Navy

The below is a first-person account of Harry O. Metzger's time in the Navy aboard the submarine the USS Halibut.

On December 18, 1942, Leroy Pate, Herb Haller, Clete Wannemuehler and I were in a group of new enlistees that left Evansville, bound for the Great Lakes Naval Training Station near Chicago.

It was a very cold and very windy Great Lakes Naval Station when we arrived late at night. I had a head cold and a head full of long hair. I knew the Navy would scalp me, so why should I spend my hard-earned money, right?

We were herded into a big room for our issue of clothes and I was totally flabbergasted when I found that every thing fit! I remember, particularly the shoes, dress shoes and work shoes. They were Florsheim and I’ll never forget how good they felt when I put them on.

I learned a lot in Boot Camp. I was there, I believe, 13 weeks. I learned how to salute and to salute all officers and CPOs!

I learned a new language. The words “floor,” “wall,” and “ceiling” were replaced with “deck,” “bulkhead,” and “overhead.” A “toilet” became a “ head.” I also added words to my vocabulary that would have gotten my mouth washed with soap if I used them at home!

Our boot camp company was made up of people from Indiana, Illinois and Massachusetts, which led to a never-ending argument about who talked the funniest.

Everything was so new to me at that point, I didn’t spend any quality time trying to discern where I was going to end up, or what kind of ship I would ultimately sail since, at that point, I really didn’t have any say in the matter.

That thought processing took a sharp turn, however, when I got the news that I would be going to torpedo school. Some surface craft (battleships, light cruisers, destroyers and PT boats) had torpedo capability, but they all also relied, for the most part, on other elements in their war activities. There was only one ship that used the torpedo as its main weapon: the submarine. And my thoughts of being a submarine volunteer were enhanced when I found out that the sea pay was higher for that group. Plus, the scuttlebutt was that chow at submarine base mess halls was not only of a higher quality, but also more plentiful. That really got my attention.

And, to be honest, I was intrigued by the fact that submarine service was entirely voluntary. I thought the word ”voluntary” had a special ring to it.

So, I put in for submarine school and it wasn't long before I was sent to advanced torpedo school, located in San Diego, Calif. It seemed a step in the right direction and I also looked forward to southern California and the Pacific Ocean, a first for this Indiana guy.

When the opportunity presented itself, I again volunteered for submarine duty. Later, a letter was posted that only the two volunteers with highest graduation marks would be accepted for submarine training. It was the only time in my life that I really didn’t mind being number 2. My good friend, Fred Ordway, from Concord, New Hampshire, was number 1.

We trained on S-boats, which were WWI submarines, and I will say that I had to give myself a talking to when I saw them for the first time. But I assured myself that the Navy would not being using them if they weren’t safe. When I made my first dive in an S-boat-I was surprised at how calm and pleasant everything felt as we reached periscope depth, but, when I saw sea water dripping from the overhead, I had to have another serious talk with myself.

I put my fears in my pocket and subsequently made the grade. I was then assigned to the Submarine relief crew. which is holding tank, if you will, of qualified submarine people awaiting assignment to a boat. There were new shooters like me and others who had made patrols, but were between assignments.

While in the relief crew, we stood watches, helped in overhauls, and, generally, just tried to be ready when called. We were shipped out to Midway Island, with a short stop at Pearl. Midway was secured by that time, of course, and had become a major submarine stopover point in the Pacific.

I was on Midway about a month when the USS Halibut came through, needing a torpedoman, and I finally became a submarine sailor. There are two torpedo rooms in submarines, appropriately identified as forward torpedo room and after torpedo room. In everyday conversation the word “torpedo” was omitted and they were referred to simply as the forward room or the after room. I was assigned to the after room under the leadership of Torpedoman First Class, John Perkins. John was not only a first class torpedoman but was also a first class person. He was small and wiry with eyes that made him look half asleep, but his actions, knowledge and, being a general, all round good guy, belied his appearance and I am forever thankful to have served with him.

Jokesters have remarked that “living on a submarine is not so bad if you like to sleep with your knees under your chin.” Well, not so. We had comfortable bunks, small lockers for day to day living, storage lockers for unneeded personal gear. It was a simple case of a place for everything and everything in its place.

However, I was a little unnerved when I found I would be sleeping along side of a 2000 pound torpedo stored next to my bunk.

When we were underway on the sea surface, I stood watches as a lookout. Normally, there would be three lookouts and the duty officer as the only people topside, with periodic visits from the quartermaster and/or Captain Galantin, depending on the situation. When we were submerged, I stood watch on the bow and stern planes. The planes are machinery used for diving purposes and for depth control after diving. They are operated from the control room by large hand wheels.

The diving and surfacing of a submarine were exercises in organized chaos. In both events, time is a very important factor. When surfacing, the coordination of stopping battery propulsion and the starting of engine propulsion was very critical. The engines could only be started after the upper hatch of the conning tower was opened, to allow a free flow of air, and the hatch couldn’t be opened unless it was above the level of the ocean. Lying still in the water is not good when in the middle of enemy waters.

The silent problem in the operation is that of air pressure. If it were greater outside, opening the hatch would be very difficult, if not impossible. If it were greater inside the boat, a man could be blown through the partially opened hatch and be critically injured.

After the pressure was equalized, the officer of the deck would be first man through, would take a quick look around, then order the lookouts to their stations. Precision and speed were the prime requisites.

With order to dive, air pressure was not an immediate problem, but efficient speed was at the top of the list of importance. The lookouts were the first coming through the hatch into the conning tower then the control room hatch, followed the officer of the deck. Binoculars were stuffed under our jacket or shirt to avoid bouncing off the rim of the hatch into our face. In most cases, our initial goal when diving would be to periscope depth – 63 feet. We would make it in less than 90 seconds.

In addition to standing watch, 4 hours on and 8 hours off, I also had to learn the boat and had to qualify as a crewmember. Each crew member needed to have enough knowledge of all departments to be of educated help when an emergency arrived. But I qualified in good time and was then eligible to wear the submarine dolphin insignia on the right sleeve of my dress uniform to indicate that honor.

As far as spare time is concerned, when we weren’t on watch, qualifying, or on mess cook duty, our time was our own. Regulations were softened and were inspections rare.

Cribbage and euchre were popular games, along with checkers and a game called acey-deucy. It was played with a pair of dice, and a marker on a backgammon board. There was very little actual gambling going on. We did have a movie projector and movies were shown periodically in the forward room. And, of course, personal friendships were established which enabled us to talk a little more personally and confidentially, if desired.

Our food was always good, even after our fresh milk, meat and egg supply would be exhausted a week out of port. Our cook/baker knew his way around the galley and we had great homemade bread and other baked goodies that went a long way toward eliminating the distaste for powdered eggs and milk. We always had good meals considering our circumstances. And, for supplying these meals in the small space in which he had to work, we have to give our cook/baker an A plus.

On November 14, 1945, we spotted a tanker convoy with escorts. Capt. Galantin made our approach and we sank one of the oil tankers. Shortly afterward, an unusual humming or buzzing sound was heard. It sounded like different things to different crew members, but a short time later several very loud explosions occurred just forward of the conning tower, then four more explosions to the starboard, and slightly above us.

Just when we thought it was over, there was another tremendous explosion forward of the conning tower. The cork lining of the hull cracked as the hull was deformed, gauges broke, air lines broke, the periscope hoist motors were blown off and the conning tower was ordered to be abandoned.

The explosions had blown the Halibut deeper – we were now at 435 feet and sinking by the stern. When compared with the modern atomic submarines, with their 700 foot depth capabilities that sounds rather tame. But the Halibut’s ”safe depth” was set at 335 feet. Unbelievably, there were no more depth bombs. Capt. Galantin reasoned that the enemy had apparently orderd the escorts to return to the convoy, assuming we were mortally injured.

It was about this time that chlorine gas was reported to be coming from the forward battery room. This compartment was the officers’ quarters, but below decks were housed some of the batteries use for propulsion and it was located between the control room and the forward torpedo room. It was sealed off, of course.

After a while, the officer in the forward room was ordered to loosen the watertight door. He reported that the odor smelled funny, but that it was not chlorine. At that time, the Navy had not developed a way to identify chlorine gas, so nobody actually knew what the scent was like, only that it was deadly.

The decision was made to try to get to the source of the odor and it was found that the explosion had damaged the officers living quarters, and food, shaving lotions and other toiletries were thrown about and broken thus producing an odor what was first thought chlorine gas.

Smiles and color returned to the crews faces as we sighed with relief.

Through all of this, the Halibut proved herself as a strong warrior and we slowly, but surely made our way back to the ocean surface to yet another problem.

During the attack several airlines were broken, sending more air into our submarine interior and this was the problem as we reached the surface. That pressure had to be equalized with the outside pressure and to solve the problem, access to the conning tower was a necessity.

Since it had been evacuated earlier, the usable condition of the conning tower was very much in question at that point. The dogs of the conning tower hatch were loosened, and when no water appeared, the hatch was thrown open. It was dry but in shambles. The hull was distorted and shattered glass and cork insulation littered the area. One periscope was too damaged for use, the other was dirty and foggy but usable. To crack the conning tower upper hatch to topside, so as to completely bleed the whole boat to normal levels, would expose us too long. We were still in enemy waters.

The decision was then made to seal off the conning tower again, bleed the compartment to normal, get the necessary personnel topside, and get the engines running which would then equalize the rest of the rest of the boat.

The Captain sealed in the conning tower with two other lookouts and me, cracked the hatch to topside, bled the excess air from the conning tower, and we scrambled up. Engines 1 and 2 were then started, the main air induction line was opened, and the water-tight doors between compartments, which had been sealed the entire time, were opened.

I can tell you honestly there is nothing in all of the Almighty’s creation to match the smell and feel of that cool, fresh sea air as it flowed through the Halibut that night.

While we didn’t know the full extent of our damage, we knew we needed help, and Capt. Galantin made contact with the USS Pintado, another submarine in the area. He explained our circumstances and asked the Pintado to set the course for us to Saipan, at least until we were sure of our capabilities.

Through radio contact with submarine headquarters at Pearl Harbor, the Pintado was ordered to accompany us all the way to Saipan. By this time, most of Halibut’s systems were more available, and, since we were still deep in enemy territory Capt. Galantin wanted to know if we could dive, if it became necessary. We eased down to periscope depth and back to the surface amid groans, creaks and grinds – The Halibut was not the smooth graceful sea warrior of the past to be sure. It was to be the her last dive.

The powers-to-be at Saipan immediately recognized that our damages would require more than the repair capabilities of a submarine tender. We were ordered to Pearl Harbor for further examination. There, through conversations with other submarine officers and personnel, up-to-date information found that it was possible for submarines to hear air planes if the planes were very large and flying very low.

It was also concluded that The Halibut had been the victim of jikitanchiki, the Japanese version of Magnetic Airborne Detection.

The anomaly in the earth’s magnetic field caused by a submerged submarine can be detected by an airplane, if the plane was carrying suitable instrumentation. This information explained the buzzing noise we heard and how the enemy had pinned us down so well.

It was deemed the Halibut was unsafe to dive and too costly to repair. It would be cheaper to build a new ship. We were ordered back to Portsmouth, N.H. with a stop in San Francisco, where we all got leave and I was home for Christmas.

The trip back to Portsmouth, N. H. was a pleasure cruise, with balmy weather, smooth seas and, even though we were in peaceful waters, we were given two escort ships to be on hand in case trouble of some kind reared its ugly head. We even had a few chairs topside to enjoy our last voyage.

Going through the Panama Canal was quite an experience. As we traveled up the East River in New York, traffic backed up, cars honked their horns, people were hanging out windows and waving and we celebrated in return by flying our battle flag and signal flags and sounding our diving alarm. All hands were topside. I think an appropriate description would be spine tingling.

At Portsmouth, the crew was disbursed and the Halibut was eventually towed to New London, Conn. for decommissioning. But we were together long enough for one of our guys made close contact with a local telephone operator. This was important to all of us, as she was instrumental in seeing that the rest of could make free telephone calls home. But he ended up getting married and at the hotel reception afterward, the rest of the crew broke out the mops, brooms, squeegees and all to form an official, unofficial salute as they left for a short trip.

With the war winding down, further overseas duty was not likely. I was assigned to the USS Bergall and began accumulating points toward my discharge. Portsmouth’s U.S. Naval Prison was also the home for some German U-Boat sailors whose boats had been captured and it gave me the opportunity to go through those boats.

My time in Portsmouth was also enhanced by a week’s visit from Rosalie. We made a sightseeing trip to Boston and while we were there, the news came out prematurely, that the war was over. It was premature, but the end wasn’t long in coming.

I was discharged on February 2, 1946. In December 1946, the USS Halibut was sold for scrap. The U.S. Treasury received a check for $23,120.

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