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The USS Flier

Death and Survival on a World War II Submarine

Michael Sturma

Publication Year: 2008

The fate of the USS Flier is one of the most astonishing stories of the Second World War. On August 13, 1944, the submarine struck a mine and sank to the bottom of the Sulu Sea in less than one minute, leaving only fourteen of its crew of eighty-six hands alive. After enduring eighteen hours in the water, eight remaining survivors swam to a remote island controlled by the Japanese. Deep behind enemy lines and without food or drinking water, the crewmen realized that their struggle for survival had just begun. On its first war patrol, the unlucky Flier made it from Pearl Harbor to Midway where it ran aground on a reef. After extensive repairs and a formal military inquiry, the Flier set out once again, this time completing a distinguished patrol from Pearl Harbor to Fremantle, Western Australia. Though the Flier’s next mission would be its final one, that mission is important for several reasons: the story of the Flier’s sinking illuminates the nature of World War II underwater warfare and naval protocol and demonstrates the high degree of cooperation that existed among submariners, coast watchers, and guerrillas in the Philippines. The eight sailors who survived the disaster became the first Americans of the Pacific war to escape from a sunken submarine and return safely to the United States. Their story of persistence and survival has all the elements of a classic World War II tale: sudden disaster, physical deprivation, a ruthless enemy, and a dramatic escape from behind enemy lines. In The USS Flier: Death and Survival on a World War II Submarine, noted historian Michael Sturma vividly recounts a harrowing story of brave men who lived to return to the service of their country.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Copyright page

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Dedication

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Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-

Numerous people assisted in the research for this study. Charles Hinman and Nancy Richards extended the aloha spirit at the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum at Pearl Harbor. My special thanks to Charles for his lunchtime conversations and his Web site On Eternal Patrol. I am grateful to Steve Finnigan and Wendy Gulley...

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Prologue

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pp. 1-3

The thirteenth proved unlucky for the USS Flier. On Sunday night, 13 August 1944, the submarine was speeding on the surface through the treacherous waters of Balabac Strait between Borneo and the Philippine island of Palawan. At 10:00 p.m. an explosion came without warning. In less than sixty seconds the...

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1. The Aleutians

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pp. 5-13

Lieutenant Commander John Daniel Crowley had paid his dues. Before being given command of the newly minted USS Flier, he had spent nearly two years in charge of an antiquated S-boat, popularly known in the navy as a “pigboat” or “sewer pipe.” Conditions on the S-boats were atrocious. There were no showers on...

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2. A New Boat

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pp. 15-20

John Crowley’s reward for his perseverance with the S-28 was command of the brand-new fleet submarine the USS Flier (SS-250). After being replaced on the S-28 in March 1943, Crowley attended the Prospective Commanding Officer School at New London, Connecticut. All officers receiving their first command or a newly...

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3. Midway

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pp. 21-26

War manufactures death and irony in abundance, as the men of the Flier would discover only days into their first war patrol. Although John Crowley had managed to evade the myriad hazards of the Aleutian Islands for five patrols in the antiquated S-28, he would come to grief in his brand-new submarine on its first...

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4. Grounded

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pp. 27-31

The Flier’s stopover at Midway, intended as a brief visit to refuel, turned into a weeklong ordeal. Waiting outside the Midway Channel, the Flier prepared to take a pilot on board from the tugboat YT-188. The tug pulled alongside the submarine’s lee side, but the seas were too high to contemplate transferring personnel...

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5. USS Macaw

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pp. 33-38

By 4:00 p.m. the USS Macaw (ASR-11) was anchored off the Midway entrance buoys. The plan was to float a line to the Flier and tow the submarine off the reef. Unfortunately, the Macaw’s next message stated starkly: “We are aground.”¹ The Macaw had grounded less than 100 yards west of the...

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6. Board of Investigation

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pp. 39-45

The Flier’s tow back to Pearl Harbor was not without incident. The day after leaving Midway, 23 January 1944, the ships encountered a severe storm in the predawn hours. At 5:42 a.m. the towline to the Florikan separated, leaving the Flier wallowing in the rough seas. The Flier tried to regain some steerage using the...

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7. Resumed Patrol

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pp. 47-56

The work required to restore the Flier was beyond the scope of the navy yard at Pearl Harbor. After the submarine’s starboard shaft and screw were repaired, the Flier limped to Mare Island off San Francisco, arriving on 25 February 1944. It would be more than two months before the Flier was ready to resume...

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8. Freemantle

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pp. 57-64

The crew, like so many before them, received a warm reception. Although it was the middle of winter in Western Australia, temperatures could still climb to the sixties and seventies during the day. Apart from the inverted seasons, visiting Americans were often struck by what one U.S. journalist described as a nation...

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9. Death in Thirty Seconds

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pp. 65-72

By 23 July the Flier crew was back on board, carrying out exercises with the Muskallunge and the Gunnel off Fremantle. What would be designated the Flier’s second war patrol began when the submarine departed Fremantle at 3:00 on the afternoon of Wednesday, 2 August 1944. Initially the Flier traveled in the company of its...

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10. Cause and Effect

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pp. 73-83

Why did the Flier sink with such destructive force? The extent to which John Crowley pondered this question in the desperate hours and days that followed is unknown, but by the time he filed his “survival report,” he stated: “It is my opinion that a mine was in contact with the hull just below the waterline at the time of the ...

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11. Black Water

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pp. 85-89

Immediately after the Flier sank, the survivors began to gather in the water. In the dark they shouted out their names, and fourteen men were accounted for. The ocean was mercifully warm, with a relatively low swell of about two feet. There was an oil slick, however, that discouraged them from opening their eyes or...

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12. Castaways

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pp. 91-96

The survivors of the Flier found themselves in a situation similar to that of other shipwrecked sailors for centuries: they were isolated, hungry, and exposed to the elements. In one sense they were more fortunate than most, because among the survivors were several officers, including Commander John Crowley. Studies of sailors...

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13. Guerrillas

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pp. 97-104

At daybreak the next morning, 19 August, Alvin Jacobson was the only one up when a young Filipino man approached him, using sign language to indicate that he was friendly. Another Filipino then emerged from the jungle, and John Crowley appeared and asked them whether they were American or Japanese. One of the...

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14. Brooke's Point

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pp. 105-110

Once at Brooke’s Point, the Flier party was taken a short distance from the beach to the home of Captain Narizidad B. Mayor, who commanded Sector D of the Sixth Military District as part of the Palawan Special Battalion. Allied intelligence was unimpressed by the organization, characterizing it as “weak, ineffectual, and badly...

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15. USS Redfin

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pp. 111-115

The USS Redfin (SS-272) was one of twenty-eight submarines constructed at Manitowoc, Wisconsin, under license from the Electric Boat Company. At one stage the Redfin had lain side by side with the USS Robalo, which was also being built there. The Manitowoc yard’s most distinctive engineering feat was the manner in which...

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16. Evacuees

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pp. 117-121

From shore the Flier survivors also watched with unease as a Japanese ship parked itself near the designated rendezvous point at 1:30 in the afternoon. Crowley and his men had arrived at the beach that morning, transported by water buffalo. Some of the men were still without...

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17. On Board

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pp. 123-127

With the stores for the guerrillas off-loaded and the passengers safely aboard, Austin decided to attack the Japanese ship that had made such a nuisance of itself. At 2:41 a.m. the Redfin pulled within 2,500 yards of the ship and opened fire with its four-inch and 20 mm deck guns. The four-inch gun was capable of...

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18. Fallout

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pp. 129-133

While the Flier was heading toward disaster in August 1944, the crew of the Crevalle was heading back to Fremantle for two weeks of rest and recreation. On the last night of their leave, a ship’s party was held at the Cabarita Restaurant, where, for the most part, the crew remained well behaved and sober. The...

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19. Bend of the Road

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pp. 135-138

The man appointed by Admiral Ernest King to investigate the losses of the Robalo and the Flier was Rear Admiral Freeland Allan Daubin. Born in Lamar, Missouri, on 6 February 1886, Daubin came from the same landlocked county as Charles Lockwood. By some freak of fate, Daubin was destined to become commander of...

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20. Inquiry

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pp. 139-145

Even at the time, the terms and objectives of Daubin’s inquiry were a matter of some confusion. In hindsight, Christie’s chief of staff, Philip “P. G.” Nichols, was unsure whether it had been a board of investigation or a court of inquiry. Christie described it as the latter, but Herb Andrews remembered it as the former...

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21. Report Incognito

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pp. 147-152

Admiral Freeland Daubin departed Perth on 21 September 1944, flying on Australian National Airlines. The precise content of Daubin’s report on his inquiries at Fremantle remains a mystery. Under the terms of the investigation, he reported solely and confidentially to Admiral Ernest J. King. No extant copy of...

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22. Back in the USA

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pp. 153-156

Before leaving for the United States, John Crowley traveled to Brisbane on 26 September to give a firsthand account of his evacuation from Palawan to the Seventh Fleet command.

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23. Next of Kin

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pp. 157-162

For the families of the Flier’s deceased crew, there was initially a roller coaster of misinformation and false hope. The New York Times reported the loss of the Flier on 20 September 1944, stating that “apparently there was no loss of life aboard the submarine.” The article speculated that the Flier’s crew “might have been...

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Epilogue

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pp. 163-166

John Crowley’s career survived two formal inquiries, and before the war was over, he was given command of another brand-new submarine. Crowley took charge of the USS Irex (SS-482), launched on 26 January 1945 and commissioned on 14 May 1945. The Irex was one of twenty-five new Tench class submarines built between...

Notes

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pp. 167-190

Bibliography

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pp. 191-199

Index

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pp. 201-209

Image Plates

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813172897
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813124810

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2008

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Subject Headings

  • Flier (Submarine).
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Naval operations, American.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Naval operations -- Submarine.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Campaigns -- Pacific Ocean.
  • Shipwreck survival -- Philippines -- Palawan.
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