To SEALION (SS-315) skipper Eli Reich it was a lucky shot - to the U.S. Navy it was the first Japanese battleship known to be sunk by a submarine's torpedoes - but to all it was an extreme example of a lone captain's courage under fire.
In darkened conning tower of the submarine Sealion II, prowling the East China Sea on war patrol, the yellow blob of light flickering at the extreme upper right corner of the radar set puzzled Radioman 1/c Jim Mathias. The pip was too big for a Jap convoy, too distant for the coast of Formosa.
"Something's nuts with this JC set, Lieutenant Bates!" The sailor growled into the hole. "I keep getting land."
Immediately Joe Bates climbed down from the black, overcast topsides. Squeezing into the tight knot of submarinesers standing their watches in the conning tower, the OOD squinted long moments at the strange impulse before asking the radioman if the set otherwise checked out. Land, Bates said, was 40 miles away.
"Yes, sir, Lieutenant," Mathias nodded vigorously. "Every once in a while this bastard shows me ghosts. But not tonight."
"Check it out once more." Mathias complied, methodically, taking a screwdriver to the aximuth scale and then pulling the antenna. Ater another moment, he pulled the picture tube and jammed it on the test meter. Nothing. Finally the set was reassembled and warmed, but as before the pip was still there holding its own. Bates shrugged. Then swiveling around to the messenger of the watch, a signalman striker, he snapped:
"Better wake the captain, Ski. Maybe he can figure it out."
Nodding curtly, the sailor slid down the ladder and hurried forward. In his cabin, Cmdr. Eli T. Reich [bottom-left] was sleeping off a hard day at the periscope. A rugged, good looking New Yorker (P.S. 69), Sealion II's 34-yr-old skipper was among those charged with hunting down Jap warships fleeing from Leyte Gulf. Reich's eyes were open on the messenger's first rap.
"Lieutenant Bates wants you in the tower, Captain. Funny pip up there. Looks like Formosa, Sir."
Bounding out of the sack, Reigh, still in pajamas, sprinted aft into the control room and grabbed the ladder. In a few seconds he was staring at the distant yellow impulse and asking himself how the hell can this be? Should the coast come up at these ranges? Reich thundered up the ladder - to the bridge where Bates was waiting. "What do you think, Captain?"
"Beats me. No Jap convoy ever looked like that. It has to be the coast......"
The two men stared off in the general direction of the contact. In the shears, four lookouts were silent, Reich, freezing in pajamas, twisted around to the ladder. But he stopped dead as the voice of Radioman Baker grated incisively through the hole:
"Two targets of battleship proportions and two large cruiser-size! Course 060! Speed 16-knots! Not zigging!"
The New Yorker, grinning from ear to ear, dropped like a stone into the tower and leaped toward Mathias, surrounded by the entire watch section and pointing at the impulse. Reich slammed the bluejackets' back elatedly. "Stick with it!" he roared. "Keep me posted!"
Then he scrambled down the ladder and raced to his cabin, there to slip into khakis and splash a handful of water on his face. Elsewhere in the boat, even before Battle Stations officially sent the crew into action, the officers of the plotting party converged on the control room with charts and dividers. Scuttlebutt surged through the tiny compartments of the submarine like a plague....the Old Man's chasing a big one...the whole damn Jap fleet...what the hell are we waiting for....let's go!
As the general alarm sounded and speed was upped to flank on four mains, Sealion II's skipper returned to the bridge. Bates had twisted her onto an end-around course, a course designed to have the sub first catch up with the convoy and then greyhound ahead into attack position. Nice theory, but a tall, tall order.
"Code a contact report to COMSUBPAC," Reich told the OOD, who was also the submarine's communications officer. "Tell him we're chasing the jackpot. Distance of target at least 40 miles. Amplifier follows." "Yes, sir!" Bates beamed.
Relinguishing the deck to Lt. Jim Bryant, the exec, who'd arrived topsides with the sounding of the gong, Bates quickly went below to the wardroom and his coding board.
In the shack, the chief radioman was grinding the transmitter to full peak load. In the periscope shears, the four lookouts were straining against a visibility of 1500 years. On the bridge, the urgent throbbing of the diesels pounding up through the soles of sandals spelled out the precise meaning of this fateful night: attack.
"Jim" Reich wheeled around to his exec. "lay below and tell Hagen (Lt.[jg] Harold Hagen, engineer) to wind those rheostats. And check the maneuvering room while you're there - I need knots.!"
In silent compliance, the exec plummeted through the hatch and raced aft. Reich remained on deck a few minutes longer, going over in his mind the impossible mision he'd tackled. Radar alone would proved the sub with eyes and Reich, like any other experienced underseas veteran, didn't especially thrill to the idea of an all-electronic approach. Too much could go wrong - a picture tube - a condenser - some lousy little twist of the dials inadvertently - a great sea busting over the bridge and deluging the radar recorder in the tower - or simpy a Jap admiral deciding to zigzag onto a new track which would put Sealion II too far off the base course for an intercept.
Eli Reich braced himself for the worst.
Ltieutenant Clayton Brelsford, diving officer, poked his head through the hatch. To Bryant he said formally: "Request permission to come to the bridge, sir..."
"Permission granted," the exec snapped.
Reich, hearing the diving officer's voice, wheeled.
"You're a mind reader, boy," he said evenly. "I was on my way down to tell you to pump everything. I want this bucket dry and moving."
"Negative's been blown, Captain," the diving officer said. "And the 600-lb manifold's on the line right now. Anything else?"
"Not at the monent." Then Reich added: "Did Hagen tell you what he's getting since we upped to flank?"
"Twenty-one, Captain. He says the rheos are so would up they'll probably begin sparking any minute..."
"That's a crock of stuff! Reich grinned. "That guy's always worrying about something!"
Two minutes later, Bates returned to the bridge. The contact report to COMSUBPAC had been transmitted. Reich said good, then turned to stare into a gradually rising sea. One of the lookouts was curing the lousy visibility. Reich though of the enlisted man, and of all his men wondering again how it would all turn out in the end. He wondered about the effect of the contact on V/Adm. Charles N. Lockwood, the father confessor of the submarine force. The three-star was doubtless bouncing out of bed and rushing down to his headquarters in the Pearl Navy Yard.
Reich though about the odds. Not good, really, all things considered. He thought, too, of his submarine's relieance exclusively upon radar. And that was something else that brought nagging doubts. He turned to the exec before doubling back on the radar recorder.
"Jim," he said softle, "I think we've got a chance - a good chance. I'm going to take a turn around the boat."
The exec nodded. Reich went below. In the conning tower, standing beside the operator and Lt. (jg.) Dan Brooks, the submarine skipper watched the flickering yellow blob for a long moment. Mathias offered:
"Every once in a while that pip breaks up, but you can't tell a damned thing yet."
"What was your last range?"
"Twenty miles, sir,"
"Convoy composition should be clear at 0100, Captain," Brooks said. "We're five knots ahead of them and gaining all the time...."
Reich nodded and tok a step backward. In the control room, the plotting party was hard at work. Here, without saying much, he checked the calculations and made a few of his own. He thumbed the intercom to the bridge. "Jim, everthing checks out okay. We've got this convoy cold turkey if he doesn't zig..."
Then the New Yorker made a quick tour, starting forward at the torpedo room where a chief was checking out the solenoid system in preparation to opening outer doors. Here, as everywhere, the crew asked essentially the same questions: When do we shoot Captain? Target's still up there, sir? How big do you figure they are sir? Is the radar set still perking, sir?
In the enginering spaces where the temperature now stood at nearly 100, the chief was shaking his head sadly and shouting a warning - disaster, sparking, a brush burnout, vibration....Reich, in the crew's quarters when Bates streamed back waving decoded message frm COMSUBPAC, read Lockwood's encouraging reply with one had gripping an overhead railing. His sub, pitching and creaking down to her keel, was fighting head seas and rising winds - phenomena that could end this chase in a blank.
By now, Reich realized, his sub should actually be flanking the enemy task force and going ahead on the end-around. And the picture on the screen should be up too, detailed, exact for firing bearings. He glanced at his watch: 0200, two hours since Mathias first noticed the pip. What gives up there? he growled in his mind. Black thoughts croweded his mind, blacker with every step toward the control room. But then, abruptly, the excited voice of the radar officer was booming over the intercom.
"Captain to the tower! Captain to the tower!" And Eli Thomas Reich came running.........
While the memorable 21 November 1944, would unquestionably have some bearing on the selection of the Navy's future Assistant Chief, Surface Missile Systems, a rank of rear admiral, Reich's combat days had actually begun long before the Philippines.
At Cavite Navy Yard when Jap bombers turned that area into a smoking shambles, Reich, a lieutenant, was attached to the first Sealion in the capacity of assistant engineering officer. He was ashore in the Yard when enemy planes flew over and dropped a stick on his submarine, a veteran undersea boat of the Asiatic squadron.
When the smoke cleared, Sealion was ripped apart and settling fast in the shallow waters of Manchina Wharf - the first American sub casualty of WW II. Fifteen days later, when the Navy abandoned the area, three charges were set off in Sealion's twisted wreckage and an unhappy scuttling was thus complete.
Few cases of poetic justic rival that of Eli Thomas Reich, the New York boy who was destined for Silent Service immortality. Immediately after Sealion ceased to exist, he moved over to the staff of Commander Submarines, Asiatic Fleet, to serve briefly on Bataan until the evacuation fo that hotly contsted station. Here, "in recognition of service" during the worst of that fighting, Reich earned an Army Distinguished Unit Badge, one of the few Navy men to receive the accolade.
Escaping from Corregidor and Bataan aboard the submarine Stingray, Reich served on boad as engineer and exec until September 1949, when he was detached in connection with the fitting out and commissioning of the LAPON. Then came welcome orders - back to the States for the fitting out and commissioning of the second Sealion, his own command.
But is wasn't until 8 March 1944 that Reich's commission pennant was broken from the yard of this vessel and she proudly steamed off to the war in the Pacific. After stopping off at Midway, Reich too Sealion II into a hot zone for a little torpedo retribution: Navy Cross for that first patrol, four enemby ships for a total of 19,600 tons. A good blooding.
Then, war patrol two, and this capable career officer who was shaking an enviably hot set of dice tossed out another seven: Navy Cross for a 2300-ton destroyer, two large tankers and three large transports for a total of 51, 700 tons. It was on this slam-bang sortie into enemy waters that Reich pickled, and rescued, 54 British and Aussie POW's from one of his sunken targets.
Thus affairs stood when the good-looking, rugged New Yorker came back to the barn for a torpedo reload and a long drink of fuel oil. The dice were still incredibly hot and Eli Thomas Reich was of no mind to miss the third roll.
Out of R-boats, destroyers and a battleship (Texas), the kid from Newtown High (Annapolis 35), who'd joined "out of a love of adventure and desire to serve." was already something of a legend when COMSUBPAC sent him troubleshooting in the wake of the enemy's disaster at Leyte Gulf. Admiral Kurita's Second Fleet was fleeing down Formosa Straits - destroyers, cruisers, battlewagons all seeking sanctuary in the IJN's moment of extremis.
This was where Eli Thomas Reich, 34, came in. His third war patrol, and one which successive generations of U.S. submarines would study from many angles - tactical and poetic - found him directly in the track of Kurita's van.
It was strictly a radar shase in the early phase of the fateful 21st of November. As Sealion II was closing an impossible range and doing her end-around act, Reich was in the conning tower squinting at a wondrous picture a few moments after an urgent summons from the officer in charge of this station. The sea, wild and fighting the submarine every foot of the way, was no deterrent to Reich's ecstasy when the picture finally unfolded.
"That's it, Captain!" Dan Brooks told him, standing away from the scope. "Destroyers, cruisers, battlewagons - we're in!" Reich was not so sure.
Staring at the screen, Sealion's skipper noted a perceptible change in the original pip. Now, two hours after the chase had begun, the impulse had broken up into two distinct formations and the size of each individual impulse indicated - to a trained observer - an enemy task force, destroyers flanking battleships and cruisers. It was a sight never to be forgotten, and crewmen and officers of the bridge-conning tower crew ganged around the screen oohing and aahing.
"Message from COMSUBPAC, Captain." Bates pounded up from the shack, waving Lockwood's second reaction to the contact report. Swiftly, Reich glanced at the decoded Urgent: "HANG ON X WE ARE ALL PULLING FOR YOU ELI X."
"Any reply, sir?" "Not yet," Reich replied hesitantly. "Let's see what develops with our picture."
Bates nodded and went below to tell radio to secure. Reich, swiveling back to Sealion's plunging bow, silently cursed the opaqueness. On the bridge with the skipper were exec Jim Bryant, the OOD Francis Holt, a jg,, and Lt. Cmdr. Charles Putnam, the PCO (Prospective Commanding Officer), who would be Reich's successor after this patrol. In the periscope shears about them were four lookouts. At 0246, after incessant trips to the radar recorder in the tower, a sailor suddenly growled: "Object bearing broad on the starboard bow. sir!" Binoculars snapped up to grim faces. Then from Reich: "Got it! Looks like a can - that jibes with the picture radar is getting! The can's ahead of a BB!"
Bryant stared wordlessly as his commanding officer, now wheeling around and calling into the tower for the telephone talker to tell forward room to stand by. A moment later, Reich was back on his feet softly spewing orders to his exec. This was the plan: Sealion II would fire six electric fish from the forward tubes and, time permitting, would spin about and let fly with four after jobs. The target was the BB behind the can. Next Reich passed the word for Bates to code his amplifying report, stating task force composition and the fact that he was nearing firing position. The submarine taking white water over her plunging bow, now raced ahead as the word flashed down to open the outer doors.
"Still got the can?" Reich snapped at the lookout. "Negative, Captain," came the grim reply, reflecting what amounted to utter misery. "Negative!" "Search around - keep searching!"
Reich, dripping salt spray with sweat spanking down his foul-weather gear, plunged into the conning tower and raced to the recorder. He was ahead of the Japanese task force. His torpedoes would run along a 70-degree track. He was 1800 yards ahead of the nearest destroyer, presumably the ship his lookout had seen, and the target was riding dead astern.
"Set forward for eight feet. Set after for ten. Generated run 3,000 yards. Stand by!" he grated.
In the control room, the plotting party reacted with swift adjustments as the dials of the Torpedo Data Computer whirled in the correct solution. In all the compartments, men waited, breathing in short, sharp gulps. In the forward torpedo room, a chief clasped in a tight icy grip the headphones connecting him with the tower. Beside him a white-faced telephong talker pressed the button and hissed: "Forward room standing by....."
Reich sucked in his breath as a voice below barked the order for all engines to stop.
The destroyer was passing Sealion II on the screen and the impulse of the BB was coming up. This was the moment, now - now!!!
"FIRE ONE!...FIRE TWO!...FIRE THREE!...FIRE FOUR!....FIRE FIVE!...FIRE SIX!"
From the forward room to the hot cramped tower: "All fist fired electrically....all fish away, sir!"
"Right full rudder, " snapped Reich. The sub pirouetted around toward the second column. "FIRE SEVEN!....FIRE EIGHT!....FIRE NINE!....FIRE TEN!..."
Reich's eyes darted downward to his stopwatch; the deed was done, the electrics running...clawing through the turbulence....the screen pregnant with flickering yellow blobs of light....and in his mind a long prayer, the same prayer that was on the lips of 80 men. On the darkened bridge where Bryant, Holt and Putman strained along with the lookouts on the precise bearing, there was only slience - loud, long silence lasting exactly 60 eternity-filled seconds. Then: ....WRRANGG! WRRANGG! WRRANGG!
On the bridge seven pairs of eyes widened incredulously as a tremendous sheet of flame turned the blackness to bright yellow-orange. In the tower, all hands blinked in amazement and disbelief as a smear of yellow flashed up from the angle of impulse. Topside men were shouting ecstatically, but Eli Thomas Reich heard none of it clearly. He was shouting furiously: "Course two seven zero - flank speed! Lets get the hell out of here!"
Sealion II, clawing her was against head seas, struggled to clear the area as Japanese destroyers combed the spot and loud, repeated explosions thundered in the direction of the Jap task force. Across the sea, the smear of light burned itself out and those in the submarine could only guess about the outcome. They had picked something - What? Reich moved out for a reload and then whipped around again, speed decreased by head seas and sparking motors.
Reich moved onto the bridge, wondering how badly damaged his targets were. Then, for two hours, as the Japs opened wide and he clawed for another end-around, came word from Brooks on the radar recorder: "Column is breaking up, dispersing, Captain!" "Range?" "Seventeen-thousand yards, sir..." "Stand by all tubes. We're almost set here."
The submarine closed, speed falling, seas busting over the peak and deluging the men on the bridge. Another 15 minutes...more seas shaking the boat like a terrier with a rat in its jaws...80 men wondering, praying, frantically asking compartment talkers to check with the tower - was the target still there?
On the bridge the silent knot of officers huddled together, gripping stanchions to keep from falling, watching the monstrous seas and the blackness beyond. Then Eli Thomas Reich and his officers and the lookouts above saw a wondrous sight on the Stygian ocean. Suddenly there was a flash - greater than before - and one clap of thunder - greater than before - and then the night turned to brightest noon in the direction of the targets.
"Something's happened up here!" Reich boomed into the tube. There was a long ten-second pause. Then the skipper's voice again: "My God, our damaged battleship just blew up!" The light smeared over the horizon, framing the milling task force, the battleship no longer in sight.
"All engines ahead flank! New course zero zero zero!"
But the chase of the enemy task force availed nothing more. Throughout the submarine weary men ripped loose an asortment of wild, ecstatic cheers.
One battleship1 Scratch one battleship! and a destroyer definitely hit, maybe sinking!
Reich and company reluctantly broke off the chase and turned for the barn. The weather, fast developing into a tropical storm, wrote finis to an epic chase. It was over and Sealion II was still in one piece, tired but happy.
In Pearl Harbor, Reich received his third Navy Cross and there learned the idenity of his target: Kongo, 31,000 tons! in the same shattering attack, destroyer Urakaze was put out of action. There was the Presidential Unit Citation for a fighting submarine, then rest camp and a two-week hiatus in the torpedo war against the dying Empire. Reich's patrols were all behind him forever.
The sinking of the Kongo, the only Japanese battleship acknowledged as a casualty of the war, catapulted the New Yorker into submarine limelight which has never dimmed. Others had fired pickles and unquestionably dented enemy BB's, but Eli Thomas Reich was the only skipper to have his claim recognized....a case in point for the gods of vengeance.