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How "Cutie" Saved Our Christmas Eve
by George Folta, Captain, USN Ret.

The night was clear and warm. The moon was high, and we could see the outlines of the islands of Lombok and Bali in the distance. We were heading north to our scheduled operating area off the east coast of what was then called Indo-China. We were the US submarine BLUEGILL. We had just finished a refit in Fremantle, the harbor of Perth, West Australia.

George Folta photoIt was late Christmas Eve 1944 and many of us were reminiscing on Christmases past and praying that we could see this one through for we were approaching Lombok Strait.

"They" would be waiting for us on Lombok and in the Strait; shore batteries on Lombok and anti-submarine patrol craft in the Strait. The Japanese knew that Lombok Strait was the gateway through the Dutch East Indies where Allied submarines transitied from "down under" to the Japanese-held islands and homelands to the north. Headquarters had not reported any of our submarines lost in Lombok Strait, but we knew that the enemy had given some of them a thorough depth-charging resulting in some physical damage to the subs and a great deal of nerve shattering apprehension for the men. Furthermore, there was a strong current running through the Strait. Tonight it was running from north to south. We knew if we transited it submerged, headway would be very slow making us a sitting duck target for the anti-submarine patrol craft above. None of us cared for close depth charges.

Submarines on the surface are difficult to see at night unless they cross the moon's path, but the moon was high overhead this night, so after mulling over the pros and cons, the Captain and the Executive Officer decided to transit Lombok Strait on the surface. Our surface search radar was better than that of the Japanese patrol vessels, and because of of the moon's poisition we figured we could pass the lombok shore batteries before they spotted us.

"What if the shore batteries have radar?" I asked.

The Executive Officer, Bud Cooper, smiled and replied, "George, we'll make the decision to stay surfaced or dive after they start shooting. I don't think they'll hit us with the first shot." I muttered that maybe the Japanese had a William Tell on the island.

So we started up the west side of the Strait near Bali---as far as possible from Lombok Island. The Exec and I were in the control room plotting our position; the Captain, Eric Barr, was on the "bridge". All four engines were firing full blast; we were transiting at top speed, about 21 knots.

Suddenly there was a loud roar overhead, and I excitedly exclaimed, "Bud, a plane, we've been picked up by an enemy patrol plane; we should dive right now."

"That's no aircraft; that's a large projectile passing overhead. And indeed it was, for instantly the Captain yelled , "left-full rudder" to the helmsman. The Captain was salvo-chasing. Salvo-chasing means heading for the last projectile's splash, a tactic for confusing the enemy's range and deflection corrections. But the projectiles kept coming.

"Clear the bridge!" the Captain yelled. "Level off at six zero feet." Down came the lookouts, quartermaster and Captain, and we leveled off at that depth.

"Bud, that's a nerve racking experience, those projectiles were landing closer and closer; I thought it best to get out of there," the Captain volunteered.

"Well, I'm sure the shore battery has radioed the patrol craft our position." the Exec replied and then warned Sonar, "Keep a sharp listening watch for enemy propellor (screw) sounds. Enemy patrol craft will be closing our position." We could have gone deeper, but an earlier dive did not show us any thermal layer that we could hide under, so it was better to stay near the surface as long as possible so we could take an occasional periscope look, even though it was night.

But there was no time for a leisurely cup of coffee for sonar reported, "High speed screws bearing 020, the bearing is steady, and they don't sound like any patrol craft; they're destroyer screws!"

"Oh, God, the first team," I whispered. The Captain took a quick periscope observation and said he could barely make out the ship, but that he could see the "bone in his teeth" (bow wave). He then passed the word, "Rig for silent running and depth charges; diving officer, 360 feet,"

We had just settled out at 360 feet when sonar reported," Destroyer is 'pinging' and it looks like he has made contact on us." Our number one sonar operator, Ware, kept the bearings coming and reported that the enemy was commencing his first run. It was, and he was a professional. What a way to spend Christmas Eve. He dropped just four depth charges this first run. They were big, and they caused damage. There was an electrical fire in the maneuvering room, and the diving planes were stuck into "hard-dive". Back in the maneuvering room our veteran electrician,"Rabbit" Hare, was fighting the fire while holding in the breakers so that we could "back-emergency"; in the after engine room our leading machinist, "Silent" Turner, was bouncing among sea valves, closing those "backed-off" by the depth charges, and in the Control Room our two stalwarts on the diving planes, Basil and Cerreto, were struggling violently to get control of the planes. We finally stopped the dive at 525 feet, 200 feet below our test depth. Several more depth-charging runs caused other damage, but we were able to hold our depth.

Cutie TorpedoIt was then that Lt. Bucko Stockton suggested that we use our Mk. 27 torpedoes. This was the first patrol on which we carried Mk.27's. They were brand-new. These were the first acoustic torpedoes that the US Navy had introduced to the submarine forces, and Bluegill was one of the few submarines to carry them. We had never fired one in anger, but had made some practise runs off Fremantle. The explosive charge was about 90 pounds, and the torpedo was designed to hit the enemy ship near the propellors. It was fired when the sound (noise) of the enemy ship reached a certain decibel level. Of course it had to be fired during the destroyer's approach, and before his depth charges exploded.

Many of us were skeptical of this "Cutie", as it was called, for it might give away our position if it failed to explode. But Bucko was adamant, and the Captain was in a dilemma--though not for long.

"Go ahead, Bucko, but make it good," the Captain said.

"Captain, we've been checking his noise level, and the setup looks good."

Bucko's crew was ready, and on the next destroyer run, he fired.

There was a long wait. We had missed. The destroyer was passing overhead and the first depth charge of this run exploded close aboard. Our hopes and spirits were shattered, but suddenly sonar reported that the destroyer"s screws had stopped. Was he listening for us? Did he have us "cold" and was just waiting for our next move? Or had "Cutie" performed as designed ? Slowly our spirits started to rise and guarded smiles appeared, for we just kept creeping ahead on our northerly course and never heard from the destroyer again. We guessed that "Cutie" had hit the destroyer just after it had dropped the depth charge and before it exploded.

Bucko and his crew had performed magnificently; they were heroes. We "broke-out" the medicinal brandy for we had been undergoing this ordeal for two hours, and it was time to relax.

And as we relaxed we heard over the loud-speaker system, Strain, the ship's cook, singing softly, "Silent night, Holy night,." He couldn't sing worth a damn, but we all hummed along with him.


December 2003 Note: This story was written a few years ago by my good friend George Folta (Capt USN Ret). George served aboard Bluegill for all her war patrols and put her out of commission as her XO. Merry Christmas George... and thank you for your service to your Country! - Don Gentry




Responses To This Story

Frank Toon wrote:  I can remember the trepidation of going thru Lombok Strait on my first war patrol out of Fremantle. We had heard lots of stories and everyone was a bit anxious. Bent on all 4 and went thru at nite going as fast as possible.....think they may even have hooked in the ice-cream machine to help a bit with the speed <grin>. Going south the next time we went back to Fremantle we were going WITH the tide and made pretty good time.

Second time going north, our skipper took his time and we peeked in on the various nooks and crannies looking for possible targets.....none! That was my last trip thru the strait. Regarding cuties, we were loaded with them (don't remember how many we carried) at Fremantle, but never got in the right situation to fire one. Always wondered if the darn things worked.....guess from this story that they did.

Frank is a WWII Blenny sailor and maintains a wonderful USS Blenny website .  Frank also wrote: I understood (then or later..?) that the planes in the Atlantic that were hunting the Nazi boats carried those rascals. They could drop them on those boats and it was pretty hard to escape. Believe that why some of those boats started surfacing when attacked. Have you ever heard anything about this? 

I do not know the answer but my research thus far points to the Mk24 FIDO homing torpedo.  If you have any further info on this topic, please contact me. -- Ed .

Captain Jack Bennett wrote: That was a good story about Bluegill's Mk 27 success in Lombok Strait. Queenfish brought the first "cuties" out to Pearl. After commissioning we stopped in Key West en route the Canal to train for a week with this new half size ASW torpedo against a local DE.  It worked great and kept hitting his screws.  We offloaded our 14-3A warshots and filled up with Cuties, 2 to a rack, to deliver to Pearl. Then we carried one in an after tube for the first several runs but never fired it. 
When the Mk 18 electric became available we carried it exclusively and had great success with it (after inactivating the magnetic feature of the faulty exploders). This was strictly against CSP orders but the subs secretly did it anyway as the contact feature worked. We got hits with up to 120 degrees torpedo gyro angles, which no one had reported before. (This enabled us to fire at an AK and an AP from the middle of the convoy before firing at the lead escort which had already passed, thus not alerting the main targets until we sank them. We had to open out a little from the AP to get the after nest beyond 500 yds when the fish would arm. The Captain could see the cigarettes glowing when the soldiers on deck inhaled. The loud breaking up noises were above us as sections of the AP sank on both sides of us.
The remaining escorts dropped 6 charges and we went deep, supposedly to reload and make an end around to hit the convoy again at first light. But we couldn't reload below 150' as the fwd room shrank and the skids wouldn't line up with the tubes. I tried unsuccessfully to get permission to plane up above 150' to reload. But most thought we'd sunk enough for one night.(The COB and I just kept our mouths shut after my request was denied.) Rambling again - sorry. - Jack
Captain Bennett's comments were extracted from Harry Halls excellent Queenfish email newsletter.