Published May 28. 2009 4:00AM Updated September 11. 2009 1:57PM
At 18 years old, Warren Wildes did not think about dying even though he was traveling through mined waters and facing enemy fire on the USS Flying Fish during World War II.
"You're just excited and anxious to do something, you know, for the war effort," he said. "... You knew the danger but you didn't dwell on it."
Wildes, who enlisted in the Navy in 1943, joined the crew of the Flying Fish (SS-229) just in time for its 12th, and final, war patrol.
"The war was on and I knew I was going to be drafted anyway, so I went over before my 18th birthday and enlisted. … I just wanted to serve like everybody else at the time."
The Flying Fish joined a submarine task group that had been assigned to go through the heavily mined Tsushima Strait and enter the Sea of Japan to destroy any ships that could possibly be aiding the Japanese war effort.
"It was two years in the planning. It was an idea of Vice Admiral Charles Lockwood (commander of the Submarine Force Pacific Fleet during WWII) to send a wolf pack of (nine) submarines into the inland Sea of Japan, which was protected by the strait. … It was heavily mined, so he tried to figure a way of getting boats in there without being blown up. They developed this mine-detection equipment in San Diego and eventually they perfected it, or they thought they did, and it was installed on our boat."
In late May 1945, the Flying Fish left Guam for the strait.
Going through the mined waters, Wildes said, "everyone had to be in their bunk that wasn't on duty for some purpose. And it was very slow moving, dead slow speed, so that we wouldn't make any errors."
"The equipment worked fine except that it broke down about halfway through," he said. "But our soundman, who had been trained in that, managed to correct it very quickly and we kept going. … We went in in three groups, and our group was the last group to go in. It took 16 to 18 hours at dead slow speed and every boat got through safely. Once we got into the Sea of Japan, we all headed to a different station, and our station was on the east coast of Korea, the northern part, and we patrolled there."
The Flying Fish sank two cargo ships on June 10 and later sank 10 small craft with gunfire and damaged two others.
One of the cargo ships was carrying Japanese troops back to Japan for the expected invasion.
"The ship went down and there were a lot of them in the water clinging to wreckage. … The captain had a book of Japanese and he was attempting to communicate with them. He kept urging them, somebody, to come aboard. But they absolutely refused except this one soldier, finally. It was very cold; the water was probably around 45, 50 degrees. So he came aboard and he was almost frozen, he was very cold.
"We took him down through the hatch, through the conning tower and into the control room, and then into the crew's quarters, and wrapped him in a blanket, gave him some hot soup. He was scared to death; obviously he thought we were going to torture him. We chained him up in the forward torpedo room and kept him busy polishing the torpedo tube doors during the day, which he didn't like, but he never gave us any problems. And after awhile everybody relaxed, we realized he was no danger to us and he began to realize that we were treating him humanely."
The Flying Fish also fired on a tanker in one of the harbors, Wildes said.
"The tanker must have been unloaded because it was high in the water and the torpedoes went right underneath it," he said. "We heard them hit the beach, the shore, and explode. And right away there was a Japanese patrol boat that came after us. They dropped a few depth charges but they weren't anywhere near close enough to do any damage to us, so we just beat it out and left."
After two weeks, the task group reunited at the northern end of Japan to leave the area, Wildes said. But the strait was too shallow for the submarines to dive so they exited on the surface, he added.
"To me, that was scarier than when we went in because we had no idea what we were going to run into," Wildes recalled. "But we all got safely out except the Bonefish, which had already been sunk in the northern part of the Sea of Japan. The eight of us survived and we came back to Pearl Harbor and spent two or three weeks at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, which was taken over during the war by the Navy as a rest camp for submarine crews. After that we came back to the ship."
The crew had been ordered on another deployment to the very same area they had just returned from.
"By that time, (the Japanese) probably realized how we got in … although about a month after we went in, another six boats went in successfully and got out OK, no casualties at all," Wildes said. "But this would have been our third invasion of the Sea of Japan, and by then it might have been a different story."
Two-thirds of the way to Guam, the Flying Fish received a message that the war was over.
"We were pretty happy when we got the message to turn around and come back, I'll tell you that, because we realized that the danger part of the war was over. … We celebrated. I heard for some crews, the captain passed out some sort of alcohol to drink but we didn't get that. We just turned around and came back, and that was pretty much the whole story."
Wildes, who got out of the Navy in 1946, describes himself as "a tiny cog in a machine."
"I was just a kid," he said. "I had no real heroic things to report, I just did my job and I was just there. It was exciting and it is something I'll never forget. It was an important part of my life, I know that."