Tudor Davis, 88, is one of the last six, living crew members who served aboard the USS Halibut SS-232, the Gato-class submarine which was damaged beyond repair during its 10th patrol off the coast of the Philippines, Nov. 14, 1944.
The Halibut became the 52nd U.S. submarine lost in World War II though it was not sunk. The early morning attacks were described as “one of the most devastating” against a submarine during the war by Clay Blair, Jr. World War II historian and author of “Silent Victory,” a chronicle of submarine combat during the war.
Five explosions from Japanese anti-submarine aircraft decimated the submarine’s conning tower, control room, forward battery compartment, torpedo room and main air bank. Davis said it was later determined that at least 40 detonations rained down on the boat that day, which dented the hull “like mom’s old washboard on both sides.”
Dents were two feet wide and 8 feet high, according to Blair. The Halibut dove to 600 feet, double her crush depth in evasive maneuvers and stayed there for four hours until the onslaught was over.
“It is an experience I can never forget,” Davis said. “It shook the hell out of us to be blunt. We weren’t thinking then, just acting, going on automatic reaction because you couldn’t think.”
“Today’s Navy has technology that is far superior to the old submarines,” said Fred Davis, Tudor’s son, “But those sailors haven’t been tested by the horror of depth charges like dad.”
Davis enlisted in the Navy in 1941 as a young torpedo man. His father, Tudor Davis, Sr., was a coal miner who served in the Navy during World War I, and raised the family of five in Potsville, Penn with Louis Davis, a homemaker.
“We were a very poor family. There was no work available in town,” Davis said. “I had a job in the small steel mill, but there was no future, and the Navy looked like the place to be.”
Davis explained that he was put on a wait list when he tried to join in October 1941. But the 17-year-old was immediately called in when the attack on Pearl Harbor happened two months later.
The newly keeled USS Halibut was launched from Portsmouth Naval Shipyard of Kittery, Maine on Dec. 3 of that same year, and sailed to the Aleutians for her first patrol. She displaced 1,525 tons surfaced, carried 24 torpedoes and sailed at 21 knots.
Davis came aboard Halibut for her fourth patrol in 1943, sinking freighters off the coast of Japan.
He described the Halibut crew as a close-knit and lively bunch.
“Submariners know they’re in that iron coffin together, with only each other, and they depend on each other very much. That dependency leads to forever friendships,” Davis said.
The crew also had a mascot named Skeeter, a mutt picked up at Lefty’s bar in San Francisco in 1944 during ship overhaul. Skeeter was sent to captain’s mast twice, once for being “surly and belligerent” in the battery compartment and the second time for relieving himself on a chief petty officer’s leg.
But it was Skeeter’s canine senses that alerted the crew that something wasn’t right on the morning of Nov. 14.
Davis recalled that the Halibut had just finished torpedoing four Japanese freighters in the Bashi Channel and were changing course to go deep and rig for depth charge. At 200 feet, Skeeter began barking at the port aft corner of the sonar operator’s station and would not stop until the crew paid attention.
“I reported Skeeter’s behavior to conn, and so did the sonar operator who added, ‘but I have nothing on my screen.’ But luckily, because of Skeeter, we were at our battle stations when it hit the fan,” Davis said.
As the explosions hit the Halibut, rocking the submarine violently, deck plates fell out from under the crew and a few crewmen fell into the bilges, according to Davis. The lights also went out leaving the crew to endure the attack in relative darkness.
Davis said that his only thought during the attack was securing the ship’s torpedoes since it had been in the reload position when it was hit, and the skid could have caused torpedoes to roll loose. He called several crewmen to scramble for torpedo straps while the Halibut continued to take a beating.
Air pressure in the forward torpedo room rose to 52 psi as number one air bank ruptured and the crew had to seal off that section and try to equalize pressure with the rest of the ship. The Halibut lost all radio, compass, depth gauge and main instruments.
“The depth gauge was frozen at 480 feet so we knew we were in trouble,” Davis said. “How much, we didn’t know until we tried to surface four hours later.”
When the Halibut surfaced four hours later, the crew was battle-weary and unsure of the total damage. With complete loss of hydraulic control, every part of the ship, from steering to opening vents, had to be hand-operated. The ship was able to radio to Pearl Harbor, but not re-submerge.The Pintado (SS-387) arrived to tow it to Guam.
The Halibut crew was flown back to Portsmouth, N.H. and dispersed. The USS Halibut received the Navy Unit Commendation for her performance. She was decommissioned on July 18, 1945 and sold as scrap.
Davis went on to meet his wife Betty during a shore tour in Portland, Oreg., and have three children, Kathi Lee Garrison, Mary Louise Williams and Frederick Tudor Davis. He also served on the USS Pomodon, USS Capitaine, USS Chopper, USS Pickerel, USS Cubera, USS Rock, USS Pargo, USS Greenfish, and the USS George Washington, retiring in 1961.
Davis founded the United States Submarine Bremerton branch in 1981.
“I consider Tudor as one of my later year mentors,” said Don “Red” Bassler, USSVI historian and webmaster. “He is the typical torpedoman of his era, rough and tough.”
Bassler added that Davis has worked tirelessly for the last 30 years to keep an active submarine veterans association, even though “many have lost interest over the years.” The story of the Halibut, which he has heard many times, “does not change.”
Davis said that he continues to send out Christmas cards to the six remaining crew members of the USS Halibut and their families. He visited Norma Thomas, a widow of Norman “Tom” Thomas, the Halibut’s cook who adopted Skeeter after the war.
“The list gets smaller with the years,” Davis said. “But you have remember each other and the history. It’s your nation, and you’re the one that is going to suffer or enjoy the future through the actions you take now.”