Remembering Anders with gratitude, sense of loss

May 28, 2000|By JOHNS STEADMAN

Wistful bugle notes and the dimming refrain of an echoing gun salute crowd the mind - when each in his own way on this ceremonial Memorial Day remembers courageous, assertive men from past encounters who went off to war ... and never came back.

They were self-recruited, motivated by an intense desire to do what was right, leaving farms, villages, cities, factories, colleges and high schools. Hills, dales, riverbanks, mountainsides and prairies. Each contributed in an unselfish way and too often gave their life for freedoms held dear.

Don Anders.

We can see him now. A lithe end on the Baltimore City College football team, class of February 1942, who combined his skills in track with football ... speed, hurdling ability, explosive moves on the end-around and an otherwise innate talent to play the game. In the state track meet, he had set a record of 5 feet, 11 1/2 inches in the high jump.

It was said Ohio State and Southern California were interested in having him on scholarship because of his diversified abilities. Maryland, too. But he never got to sing his song. He had been an all-state high school selection and considered the "best bet" to become a future standout on the team selected by The Sun.

Don Anders.

"I will never forget him," said a former teammate, Joe Pokorny, who becomes emotional when reflecting on their high school days of more than 50 years ago. "I loved him as a brother and always will."

Anders enlisted in the Navy in 1943 and became a radioman on the USS Escolar, a submarine, and took final training for combat at Pearl Harbor. The Escolar joined with the USS Croaker and USS Perch and left Hawaii on Sept. 23, 1944. They later topped off with fuel at Midway Island. They were to conduct a coordinated patrol in the Yellow Sea.

On Oct.17, the Escolar messaged she was moving into other waters and gave a projected location - 33!-44'N;129!-06'E. It was to be the last transmission. Neither Perch nor Croaker could raise Escolar again. No `May Day' call, scratchy signal or further advisory. Gone. Dead air.

Imagine the concern on the Croaker and Perch as they reached out to contact their soul-mate comrades on the Escolar. Ships of the silent service, devoted to each other in spirit and trust; responding to those in trouble - in or out of the pack.

All attempts to reach the Escolar were futile. To put a date on the limited details, it was presumed she vanished about Oct.17, but it wasn't until 20 days later that the Navy made the official announcement: All officers and crew, numbering 82, on the Escolar were lost. And, once again, as the haunting, eerie tone of the traditional farewell of the sea attempts to console the entombed:

"Sailors, Rest Your Oars."

Don Anders.

Before he left for the Navy, Don married his hometown sweetheart, Bertha Pfeil. And twice, while heading home on liberty by train from sub school in New London, Conn., he casually met another City College athlete, Ed Haire, now living in Stratford, Conn., who had enlisted in the Coast Guard. Haire was only 15, but falsified his age and became a signalman on the Wakefield, a troop carrier taking soldiers to Europe and bringing German prisoners to Boston.

"We had a great rapport riding home together; it was kind of magic that we met," said Haire. "Every time, after all these years, when I see a submarine, even a picture of one, I think of Don Anders."

And a former football teammate, Ray Wilhelm, now living in Hampstead, N.C., believes he was the last close friend to actually see Anders before his submarine disappeared on its maiden voyage.

"I was with another sailor friend, Marty Greiner, a boy from around Philadelphia," recounted Wilhelm, "and we were walking down the street in Honolulu, near Waikiki, not far from the sub base, and I was telling him about the greatest high school athlete I ever saw. And just like that, I said, `I can't believe it, but here he comes now.' I was almost in shock. It was Don Anders.

"He was walking the same sidewalk, coming toward me, dressed in Navy whites, just as I was. We had a wonderful visit. Just an outstanding guy, never a moaner or a groaner. Shortly afer that, he went on his first mission, and I couldn't believe it when a short time later my mother sent me a newspaper story that said Don was missing."

What Anders had looked forward to turned into a sudden finality. It was to become his first and last trip. Investigation of Japanese records after the war could not establish the cause of the Escolar's demise. Mines had been laid in Tsushima Strait in April 1945, but that was well after the Escolar had been there. Yet quoting directly from one U.S. report: " ... There were mines in the general area of the Escolar's predicted position, and the most likely explanation for her end, at present, is that she detonated a mine."

In addition to Anders, another Baltimore native, Lt. (j.g.) Robert W. Searls, a graduate of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and the Naval Academy, who lived only 150 feet from our house in the old neighborhood, met his death on the exact same trip on the Escolar.

His mother, when she called him for meals, always sang out his name in a melodious, distinctive manner. Bobby Searls was wanted. It was supper time. But she never had a chance to sing for him to come home again. Her heart was broken.

Don Anders. Robert Searls.

And, yes, all the other thousands who made the ultimate sacrifice in war. They are now fulfilling the will of the Master of Mortality ... manning the Eternal Patrol.

Paul McCardell of The Sun library assisted with research on this column.

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