Torsk marks 50th anniversary

October 07, 1994|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Frank D. Roylance contributed to this article.

The bow of USS Torsk is painted like a face, its red eyes and snarling mouth a reminder of its menacing days as a World War II killer submarine. But the years have caught up with this Navy old-timer, and its war face has grown a beard of rust and barnacles.

The ship, a floating museum in Baltimore's Inner Harbor since 1972, is celebrating its 50th birthday this weekend. And while the creaky submarine can't blast an enemy ship to smithereens anymore, it exerts a nostalgic power on its former crewmen. Fourteen of those former fighters will help to mark the anniversary of the ship's christening.

"I felt very much at home there," said Bafford E. Lewellen, the commanding officer of the Torsk during its yearlong tour of duty in the Sea of Japan in 1945.

Mr. Lewellen, 85, will descend the narrow stairways and walk the narrow corridors once again during this weekend's event, which is sponsored by the Baltimore Maritime Museum. Mr. Lewellen ** and other former crew members will tell tales of the Torsk, which the museum's staff will videotape for an oral history exhibit aboard the ship.

Officials at the Naval Sea Systems Command in Arlington, Va., said their most recent inspection of the Torsk found no serious deterioration. Nevertheless, the museum has scheduled the sub for two to three weeks of scraping, painting and cathodic rust protection in dry dock this winter.

The Torsk was last dry-docked in 1986 and received $117,000 in repairs. The latest work will be more thorough, complicated and costly, but no dollar amount has been set, said Jennifer Hevell, the museum's acting director.

"We want to do the preservation work necessary to keep her around for as many generations as we can get out of her," said Ms. Hevell. The work will be paid for from the museum's maintenance fund.

The Torsk is best known for sinking two Japanese frigates on Aug. 14, 1945, the last to be sunk in combat in World War II. A cease fire order was sent to all U.S. forces the next day.

"There's at least some kind of ritual importance attached to the Torsk's last attack," said Lee Oestreicher, the museum's director of educational programs. "It wasn't a great battle, but it was, in fact, a melancholy footnote to the war."

Events this weekend include an opening ceremony and reception for the veterans, re-enactments of wartime drills aboard the Torsk and a rechristening ceremony. Tomorrow, an exhibit opens documenting the ship's service in World War II.

Made 11,884 dives

The ship completed two war patrols in the Pacific before the fighting ended. Later used as a training vessel, the Torsk made 11,884 dives in its lifetime, more than any other submarine in the Navy. It became a National Historic Landmark in 1988 and now is operated by the Baltimore Maritime Museum.

Nothing illustrates the Torsk's heyday better than the recollections of the people who served on it during World War II. Their longest combat patrols lasted 90 days and spanned 15,000 miles.

"Well, I was the commanding officer and as such I was the only person on board that had a private room, so I made out quite well," Mr. Lewellen said. "Even the officers shared a room."

A shared room probably sounded positively posh to the 14 crewmen who slept on bunks suspended above the torpedoes. Bunks protruded from every available space, including support poles in the middle of crew quarters. Measures like these enabled the Torsk to house 80 men.

The Torsk was not without tragedies. Joseph Grant Snow was working above board one January day in 1946 when the Torsk began to submerge, water spilling over the empty decks. The hatches were sealed tight from the inside. The lifeboat was out of reach. Mr. Snow disappeared in the frigid water, the only Torsk crewman ever lost at sea.

High-tech gadgets

The submarine was crammed with what were considered state-of-the-art gadgets in 1944. Among the high-tech items: air conditioning and a torpedo data computer.

The submarine was built to store a huge stash of equipment into as little space as possible. Gauges, levers, maps and buttons lined the gray steel hull like wallpaper. One toilet was stowed in a closet for 79 crew members to use -- the commander was allotted his own.

Nearly every item had a dual purpose. Officers planned military strategy around the same tables that medical aides used to perform appendectomies and other operations.

The all-volunteer crew underwent a year of training and a psychiatric exam -- none could be claustrophobic -- before being assigned to the ship.

"One of my first recollections is the youth of the crew," said Roy Werthmuller, 74, an executive officer who stood at the periscope during torpedo attacks. "I was one of the older ones at the age of 24. Most of them were in their late teens, early 20s. It was really amazing a young group like that could be trained so quickly and do so well."

While many enlistees joined the Torsk to see the drama of war, the reality was often noisy, smelly, damp and crowded. The days were so long and the crew so tired that when news of the cease fire broke, many enlistees were in a daze.

"After we sank the two frigates -- we had been working several days before that and sank two more ships -- we were so tired," Mr. Werthmuller said. "We went down to take a little rest and when we came up we found that the war had ended. But as I remember it, everybody felt elated."

TORSK EVENTS

Former crewmen of the submarine USS Torsk -- now part of Baltimore's maritime exhibit in the Inner Harbor -- are reuniting here this weekend to commemorate the ship's 50th anniversary.

Two public events are part of this reunion: Surviving crew members will honored at noon today at the Top of the World, at the World Trade Center. And visitors can witness living-history re-enactments aboard the Torsk all weekend; it's docked next to the National Aquarium.

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