(Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of student essays written by McCall-Donnelly High School juniors for their Spring 2018 Literary Journalism course.)

The War Adventures of Charles May, by Rylie DeLuna

Stepping Inside a Submarine

I walk down the stairs sensing a musky smell. Every sound echoes back at me. No sunlight shines in. The small rooms are lit by bright white light, yet it feels dark because there are no windows leading to the outside world. The confined space makes me feel like the submarine was built for Smurfs, not humans. It feels secluded and separate from the rest of the world. Ducking my head at every entrance to the next room, I wonder how any human managed to get around quickly. I walk up and out of the submarine, take a deep breath, and soak up the sunshine. I can’t imagine any teenager going to live and serve on a submarine.

Charles May. Photo courtesy Carleen Gans.

Teenage Submariner

American patriotism was popular among young people in the early 1900s. They wanted to get involved and do everything they could to serve their country. My great-grandpa Charles May, born in 1910, was one of those young patriotic men. In 1926 at the age of 16 he went into the Navy, lying about his age to be accepted. This was the best option he had to be fed three times a day and have a bed to sleep in. Once accepted in the Navy, he was trained in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and New London, Connecticut to be chief electrician on submarines. From there, he started his journey in war and was stationed on many submarines. Years later, he found himself in World War II.

World War II Begins

In 1939 the Nazis invaded Poland, igniting World War II along with Italian fascism and Japanese militarism. Hitler was in control of the Nazis and a mission to create a superior race. He dreamed of dominating the world but only got as far as most of Europe before committing suicide. According to History.com’s program Adolf Hitler, “Obsessed with race and the idea of ethnic ‘purity,’ Hitler saw a natural order that placed the so-called ‘Aryan race’ at the top.” Hitler was trying to take over the world, so he could have his superior race at the top. His goal in taking over Poland was to give living space to the German people. He told Britain and France that the invasion was a defense tactic, but they didn’t buy that, which led to the start of World War II.

The U.S. didn’t get involved in World War II until December 7, 1941. They tried to stay out of the war for as long as possible, using tactics such as Cash and Carry, which meant that foreign countries could come to the U.S., pick up materials, and pay for them immediately so they wouldn’t be in debt. Later on, they used a policy called Lend and Lease which was when foreign countries such as Britain would be lent U.S. arms to be paid for later. The U.S. did this so they could help foreign countries but not be involved in the war.

Pearl Harbor 1941

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese fighter planes dropped bombs on the U.S. Hawaiian naval base. The Japanese destroyed nearly 20 U.S. vessels; not only did they destroy America’s ships, but they also killed more than 2,400 people and injured 1,000 others. This attack on the U.S. led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to declare war on Japan the next day. The U.S. avoided war as long as they could, but the Japanese provoked them to enter the war and defend their country.

The USS Trigger. Photo courtesy uboat.net.

The Battle of Midway: In the Thick of It

Six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Midway took place. The U.S. was able to crack Japan’s code and counter their next surprise attack at Midway Islands. Having the advantage to the battle, the U.S. managed to surprise Japan’s forces. According to History.com’s program Battle of Midway, “The Americans sank four fleet carriers–the entire strength of the task force–Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu, with 322 aircraft and over five thousand sailors.” This is considered one of the reasons America won the battle – we practically eliminated the majority of Japan’s naval power. America’s win in the Battle of Midway is often considered the turning point of the war because it put America and their allies in the offensive position in the Pacific Theater.

My great-grandfather Charlie was stationed on the USS Trigger during the Battle of Midway, the largest naval battle of World War II. His submarine was being bombed and attacked, but the crew managed to withhold fire, probably so they wouldn’t be detected any more than they already were. According to the journal that Charlie kept, “…Trigger managed to run aground in the dark early hours of the morning.” This meant that his submarine managed to get stuck in a sandbar in the middle of the battle. His submarine watched the battle go by and managed not to get blown up. However, at the end of the battle, a Japanese amphibious airplane was ready to fly in with “demolition charges” to destroy Trigger. According to Charlie, their sub was fortunate enough to get pulled out by a tugboat before the patrol bomber came. Charlie and his crew were extremely lucky to pulled out by a tugboat considering they weren’t able to do anything other than sit, wait, and hope that wouldn’t get bombed. I would’ve been panicked and flustered if I was stuck in a submarine with nowhere to go when the worst was expected to happen.

USS Pilotfish. Photo courtesy uboat.net.

USS Pilotfish

In 1944 Charlie was put aboard the USS Pilotfish where he and his crew shadowed a Japanese convoy. They wanted to attack but had to wait until the Pintado and Shark arrived, two other subs. The Pilotfish was several miles ahead of the convoy when it was forced to dive because of the Japanese escort ships. Charlie wrote, “Heard 1st escort passing slowly overhead (eerie)….” Charlie’s sub wasn’t quiet enough due a propulsion shaft that couldn’t be heard from inside the sub. The Pilotfish crew couldn’t hear the noise, but the Japanese escorts could detect it. Because of this noise, the Pilotfish suffered several depth charges from the escorts for three days. The depth charges targeting the sub didn’t allow them the chance to fire back. Pilotfish wasn’t destroyed in this fight and moved on to patrol.

Depth charge. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

While patrolling, Pilotfish shot many torpedoes at a vessel; the torpedoes failed to explode. Eventually they saw debris from the vessel and figured one of the torpedoes managed to sink the vessel. Moving along on patrol, Pilotfish was near Guam. During this time Charlie and his crew saw a group of about 25 vessels. He wrote, “No vessel was large enough to use a torpedo on so the captain decided to use deck gun, with high explosive ammunition.” They got out the ammunition and called the gun crew on deck. The lower gun hatch would not open and the sub continued toward the vessels. Charlie wrote “…they must’ve thought we were a Japanese submarine for they did not scatter as we expected.” Charlie and his crew gave up after 40 minutes and submerged back into the water. As they submerged, the people handling the high explosive shells (H.E. shells) were growing tired because they had nowhere to put the ammunition due to the stuck gun hatch. The men started bumping around, making everyone nervous because of how explosive the shells were. According to Charlie, they found out the gun hatch wasn’t opening due to life jackets on the other side of the hatch. I can’t imagine how I’d feel if my life was in the hands of men with high explosive shells trusted not drop or bump into each other too roughly.

Pilotfish was next sent near Manila in the Philippines. While quietly making their way over there, they received orders to turn around and intercept Japanese vessels leaving Guam. They searched for the Japanese vessels for a week before they returned to normal patrol. After surfacing in the nighttime, a “near miss” was seen and heard throughout the boat. More shots were taken at their subs. Charlie wrote, “About 20 gun flashes were observed and shell impact was heard but gradually diminishing. The captain had coaxed enough speed out of the maneuvering room and using avoiding tactics to lose him.” The Pilotfish crew was lucky no considerable amount of damage was done to their sub. They shot blindly due to the failure of their radar. Once in the clear, the repair crew went to work on fixing their radar.

Charles May – circled in red – with submarine crew during WWII. Photo courtesy Carleen Gans.

When Pilotfish was patrolling in the China Sea west of Kyushu Island, they spotted several targets. According to Charlie “Pilotfish got in position at periscope depth, ‘sound’, heard screws approaching and Pilotfish went to 100’….” After dodging the torpedoes their sub surfaced. They continued to take fire at and had to submerge. Multiple depth charges were aimed at them when they were at 175 feet. They went out of control at 425 feet and regained control at 525 feet. They continued to go down and heard the depth charges above them. Charlie wrote, “It was estimated that 100 were dropped.” The Pilotfish managed to escape due to the fact that the enemy had found them at 100 feet and set all their depth charges to that depth.

With Some Luck and Much Skill, A Successful Navy Career

My great-grandpa was a lucky man. Twice, he wasn’t allowed to be stationed on subs due to injury. Both times he wasn’t allowed on the subs, they went missing. The first submarine had 105 men on board and was called the USS Argonaut (SS-166); it went missing January 10, 1943. Fortunately, a case of hives stopped him from being deployed. The second submarine had 76 men on board and was called the USS Dorado (SS-248); it went missing on October 12, 1943. There would have been 77 men on board that sub, but luckily my great-grandpa broke his leg, which prevented him from going.

Charlie worked his way up to Master Chief Petty Officer, which meant he was third in command of the sub and the ninth highest rank in the Navy. He must’ve had to work hard and know his stuff to get that rank in the Navy. He also received a service ribbon for the Coral Sea battle that was full of “scattered fights,” but he didn’t even know he was in the battle.

Charlie was a very patriotic man who did everything he could for his country. At the end of World War II, he retired to live in California. Though he was retired, three years later he was called up and shipped out on a sub to fight in the Korean War. After he was done fighting in Korean War, he ended up in McCall, Idaho, in 1952, with his wife, Betty May, son, Jim May, and daughter, Carleen May. In McCall he worked at the fire station as the chief. He stayed in McCall and raised his family. Both his son and daughter graduated from McCall High School. His daughter married Gene Gans, also a graduate of McCall High School.

Map of Pearl Harbor Memorial.

Charles May put in many hours, days, and years of service into the Navy. He and his crew lived a secluded life below Earth’s waters to make my life and many others better. I am thankful for what he did for America and me. He lived in a submarine, in constant danger, with nowhere to run or hide. His only options were to use his knowledge, defend, and fight for what he believed in. He was a man who truly served his country.

Pearl Harbor 2018

Since the Pearl Harbor bombing, the site has been transformed into a beautiful memorial with plaques and articles about the many crews and submarines that fought in World War II. The site looks out onto the water where the USS Bowfin lies, one of the largest submarines that fought in World War II. The site also looks out onto the USS Arizona Memorial and the Battleship Missouri Memorial, which is the ship where the Japanese surrendered on in 1945. The U.S. has turned a horrific event into a beautiful, honorable memorial. Touring a submarine gave me the chance to see how Charlie lived and the conditions he had to serve his country under.

(Editor’s Note: The first Student Voices essay, The Rocks In Us: The Geology of Valley County by Natali Hutcheson, is here.)

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