Life aboard submarines during World War II tested the resolve of thousands of sailors who spent tireless days disrupting the enemy’s navy and maritime shipping. Many sailors who served aboard U.S. submarines knew the dangers of the grueling duty with inside temperatures soaring above 100 degrees affecting 80 to 90 men onboard; the inside air slowly grew foul with a combination of cooking, sewage, cigarette smoke, diesel and body order due to a shortage of water for bathing.
Nothing, though, compared to sailing into enemy water — many times alone with an escort — to launch an attack on a ship and then hurry out of the zone into the open seas.
REMEMBERING THE USS CORVINA
World War II submariners William Parsons of Sparks and Delmar Scwichtenberg of Carson City remember the harsh duty of serving on a submarine during World War II. They were among the guests Monday for the unveiling of a new home at the Nevada State and Archives Building in Carson City for a model of the USS Corvina, the only U.S. Navy submarine sunk by a Japanese submarine during the war.
A plexiglass display protects the model, and an adjacent display of photos will keep the memories vivid for the submarine and its crew of 82 who died during an attack near the Truk (Chuuk) Islands, the Japanese’s most forward naval base in the Pacific Ocean.
Stephen Salzman, commander of Corvina Base in Reno, gave a short history on the Gato-class USS Corvina and its fate. Commissioned on Aug. 6, 1943, the Corvina under the command of Cmdr. Rodney S. Rooney left New London, Connecticut, in September and arrived in Pearl Harbor one month later. The Corvina began her maiden patrol on Nov. 4, and according to her service record, topped off with fuel two days later at Johnston Island before entering enemy waters. Her mission was to attack enemy naval forces south of Truk, and on Dec. 14 the submarine was then to proceed to eastern Australia for refit and duty.
Salzman said when three messages notifying the Corvina of its next assignment went unanswered, the command sent out another message directing the submarine to proceed to Tulagi, but it did not arrive. Eventually, Japanese records revealed submarine I-176 launched three torpedoes against the Corvina on Nov. 16, two of which ripped into the submarine causing it to explode. The Navy announced her loss on March 14, 1944, almost four months after the attack.
Others who spoke included Mike Willden, chief of staff to Gov. Brian Sandoval; Kat Miller, director of the Nevada Department of Veterans Services; Pete Juhos, commander, Western District 5, United States Submarine Veterans Inc.; historian Alicia Barber; and acting Corvina Base chaplain, Terry Bolen.
Salzman said bases or chapters were established in the 1960s for each state to adopt a submarine that was sunk during World War II. Because of their population size, New York state and California each adopted two. While some states selected submarines based on historical or cultural reasons, Nevada had no significant ties with the Corvina.
Terry Sheldon-Brown said her late husband Donald began the Corvina Base in Reno after the submarine veterans held their 1999 convention at the Peppermill. She said Jim Avitt, who died in 2007, and her husband distributed fliers everywhere – libraries, supermarkets, military service organizations and bulletin boards.
“They had enough people to charter in February 2000,” she said.
The base began with 32 members, but Sheldon-Brown said the number has swelled to between 80 to 90 submariners who live in western Nevada including Fallon and Fernley. Occasionally, a submariner assigned to Naval Air Station Fallon or the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center joins the Corvina Base.
“It’s amazing more people haven’t joined the Corvina Base,” she added.
According to Salzman, a sailor from Carlin, 22 miles west of Elko in northeastern Nevada, worked on the Corvina as a plankowner, one who is assigned to a ship or submarine from the time of commissioning at the shipyard, before it left for New London. But Salzman doesn’t know what happened to the Nevada sailor.
“I don’t believe we had any members lost (from the Japanese torpedo attack) who were from Nevada,” Salzman added.
SAILING THE SEAS
During World War II, 263 submarines patrolled hundreds of thousands of miles of open oceans and seas, but 41 of them were lost to the enemy, while another 11 disappeared because of accidents or other reasons. According to Salzman, the Navy’s submarine force, which consisted of about 2 percent of the U.S. naval fleet, destroyed more than 30 percent of the Japanese Navy and more than 60 percent of the Japanese merchant fleet.
Salzman spent six years in the Navy and served on the USS Seawolf, a nuclear submarine commissioned in 1957, and two other nuclear ballistic-missile submarines. His duty aboard the nuclear-powered submarine in 1973 contrasts to Parsons and Scwichtenberg and the conditions they faced 30 years prior during World War II.
“I was aboard the USS Thresher (SS 200) which was commissioned in December 1940,” said Parsons, who was trained in communications and sonar. “I was never worried about dangers, but we had close calls.”
The Thresher patrolled the South Pacific, and Parsons said he was with a naval group that was part of the firebombing of Tokyo during the war’s waning months. Parsons and his wife, Mercedes, have been married for 75 years, and their son, a pilot in the U.S. Navy, was assigned to Naval Air Station Fallon 15 years ago. Parsons also served on the USS Queenfish and USS Cubera, both submarines.
Scwichtenberg served in both the Pacific and Atlantic theaters on three submarines — the Sea Dog, Sand Lance (SS381) and 0-6 (SS 67), which was recommissioned for World War II — but the duty was just as strenuous on each boat with long days, harsh conditions and the uncertainty of each day.
“We had our challenges … weather-wise in the Atlantic and enemy-wise in the Pacific,” said Scwichtenberg, who remembers how aggressive the German U-boats were in sinking ships.
Scwichtenberg, though, remembers one attack in the Pacific where the Japanese destroyers zeroed in on his submarine.
“We had two destroyers holding us down 15 hours,” Scwichtenberg recalled. “They dropped 105 depth charges … and every time we tipped, we thought we were going to drown.”
COLD WAR SUBMARINERS
Keeping tabs on the Soviet Union’s navy also brought angst for the Cold War veterans.
Master Chief Petty Officer Robert Colavecchio of Gardnerville spent 32-and-a-half-years in the Navy, having retired Feb. 1, 1987. Becoming a submariner was not Colavecchio’s first choice. He began his career on an aircraft carrier but eventually transferred to a submarine because he could earn more money.
“Making $75 a month more in pay prompted me to go in,” he explained.
Colavecchio said he served on the USS Parche, the Navy’s most decorated warship but least known. During the Cold War against the Soviet Union, the submarine carried a payload of torpedoes that could be launched quickly to destroy enemy vessels, both surface and underwater warships. Commissioned in 1974, the Parche was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet before moving to the Pacific Fleet two years later. The submarine performed hundreds of clandestine missions, and to this date, the Navy has kept many of her missions classified.
“We had a lot of cat and mouse missions,” said the Long Island (New York) native, explaining most of his career was served in the Pacific.
Earlier in his career, Colavecchio also spent several short tours off the South Vietnam coast. When enemy aircraft downed a U.S. plane or helicopter, he said the rescue ships would search for the pilot, who may or may not ejected from the aircraft. Colavecchio never regrets the time he spent on submarines, however.
“We had a lot of camaraderie … the whole group knew everybody including the captain, whom we always saw,” Colavecchio said.
Norm Peterson, the Corvina Base’s newsletter editor, was another Cold War veteran who remembers the games the Navy and Soviets played.
“Once in a while, the cat got its tail caught by the mouse,” he said with a grin.
Peterson reflected on his career in the Navy. He received training at the Nuclear Power School at Vallejo, California, and Idaho Falls, Idaho and served on the submarines USS Growler and USS Scorpion from 1964-67. He then told of the Scorpions’ fate the following year, when the submarine disappeared in May conducting intelligence on the Soviet navy.
The initial court of inquiry and reviews in 1970 and 1987 indicated an explosion, possibly from one of the torpedoes, caused the catastrophe; however, other theories included a Soviet sub or surface warship sinking the Scorpion as well as the malfunction of a trash disposal unit.
Peterson thought about the submarine’s disappearance and the loss of life.
“I was lucky,” he said.