Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day: U.S.S. Halibut

U.S.S. Halibut

Today in the United States of America we celebrate Memorial Day, a day devoted to honor and remember America’s veterans, especially those who gave their lives in the call of duty. 

Coincidentally, I just finished reading Admiral I. J. Galantin’s “Take Her Deep! A Submarine against Japan in World War II.” *The book is primarily an account of the exploits of U.S.S. Halibut from 1942 to the end of 1944. I was drawn to the book because Silvio Gardella, my wife’s uncle, served on the Halibut throughout those three years.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, twenty five year old Silvio decided to enlist in the Navy because he did not want to be drafted into the Army. He wound up in the submarine service because one day an officer told him and some others to “volunteer.” Silvio protested that he didn’t know how to swim, but was told that swimming would not be necessary in the submarine service.

He first served on U.S.S. Sculpin under then Captain Galantin who was making his final test run before getting his own ship. The Captain must have taken a liking to Silvio because at the completion of that training mission, he chose fireman second class Silvio and another seaman to join him on his new sub, the Halibut. Silvio was an extremely lucky man because on its next voyage, the Sculpin was lost.

There might have been times during his tour of duty that Silvio thought that his luck had run out. Admiral Galantin’s account of the Halibut’s missions off the coast of Japan shows how difficult and dangerous those missions were. Contrary to popular perceptions, the Halibut and other WWII submarines had to spend most of their time on the surface where their powerful diesel engines could attain 20 knots. But below the surface they normally could only reach two or three knots. On occasion, they could reach six knots but at that speed they would quickly drain their batteries.

To avoid detection from enemy ships and planes the Halibut would usually go at periscope depth during the day looking for Japanese shipping to destroy. But practically every night it would have to resurface to recharge its batteries. Even at night the moon could betray their location to enemy lookouts. Still, much of its hunting was done at night when its greater surface speed gave it an advantage.

These long night watches when the Halibut’s lookouts strained their eyes to detect enemy shipping and their dangerous escorts were a constant source of strain on the crew. In a very poignant passage Admiral Galantin describes how the different seamen dealt with the constant threat of danger.

Often as their eyes adjusted to the blackness, the torpedoman’s mate, machinist’s mate, or electrician’s mate—men like Perkins, Kelly, Black, Gardella—would find me already pacing the short space abaft the periscope shears. Five thousand miles from our own shores, talking in hushed voices as though the enemy coast had ears, how rewarding were the frank, midnight conferences, as the gulf between captain and crewman disappeared in the night. 
In the strange, unnatural life we led, in the tensions of submarine warfare deep within enemy waters, each man sought his private, personal assurance of safety and survival. What differing faith the voices in the night revealed. Some put their trust in materiel—in the fantastic equipment we had, or in the stoutness of our hull….
Bob Black, from Brooklyn, was certain that our fine crew, our careful training, were more than equal to every challenge.
Still others sought assurance in the negative, in damning the enemy and denying his capabilities….
Silvio Gardella, from White Plains, New York, he of a family of sixteen children, was convinced that I knew all the tricks of our trade and would certainly outwit any Jap C. O. “Skipper, a good Italian boy like me don’t have to like it, but I can take it.”
Captain Galantin must have been moved by Silvio’s trust but he was aware of his own limitations. He concluded his nighttime reflection with these words.

I could give confidence in our ship and in each other, but my own support came from the Ninety-first Psalm….From frequent readings I knew it by heart.

I will say of Jehovah, He is my refuge and my fortress; My God, in whom I trust. For he will deliver thee from the snare of the fowler And from the deadly pestilence He will cover thee with his pinions. And under his wings shalt thou take refuge: His truth is a shield and a buckler.
Obviously, the Halibut completed all of its missions including a final one where the ship was almost destroyed as victory in the Pacific seemed imminent. It was detected by new Japanese equipment and subjected to a massive depth charge attack that almost ripped the ship apart 400 feet below water. Miraculously, the Halibut survived although it was so damaged that it could only limp back home with the help of another sub. When it finally got back to Pearl Harbor, the damage was so great that the ship would never dive again.

The end of the Halibut was not the end for Captain Galantin who went on to a distinguished career in the Navy. But it was the end for Silvio Gardella. His tour of duty was over and he was discharged from the Navy when he returned to New York. Within days he married his sweetheart, Iole. They raised a family and he went on to be a successful businessman. But he never forgot Captain Galatin, the Halibut, and his years in the submarine service. Like many others who served with their comrades in war, it would not be far from the truth to say that those years were the best of their lives.


Admiral Galantin's book is still available on amazon or ebay

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