'Those were some mighty brave boys'

Nov. 09, 2013 @ 04:38 PM

Robert A. Harris’s memory of it is still clear.

The Japanese airplane came at them, they put their combat submarine into a dive, the fighter plane dropped a bomb but the explosion only shook them up.

As a torpedo man, third class, on the USS Cobia, Harris knew that they were not yet out of hot water that morning in July 1944. Their first patrol out from Pearl Harbor put them in action near the island of Iwo Jima, the Bonin Island group south of Japan.

“Then the destroyers came,” Harris said. “That morning, we counted 67 depth charges dropped down at us. We dove deeper to get away from them. At about lunchtime, we got away from them.”

The hunters were hunted that day, but on most occasions they found their prey and did the job that the Cobia was commissioned for on March 29, 1944. They sank enemy ships, eight of them while Harris was aboard.

Sometimes it was torpedoes, sometimes they’d use the topside ordinance: a deck gun to take down small gunboats.

“My job was helping to hand up shells for the deck gun,” Harris said. “It would fire, and it sounded like it was tearing up the deck right where it was bolted down. The whole boat would shake.”

The topside crews also manned a 20-millimeter machine gun.

“Those were some mighty brave boys up there,” Harris said.

On that first patrol, the Cobia had sunk four Japanese freighters: on July 13, 17 and 18. It was July 20 that saw action against small armed ships in a running gun battle. One gunboat turned to ram, striking midships.

“It didn’t do us any damage,” Harris said. “It just shook us up.”

And it became a statistic: one of three gunboats that the Cobia sank in that battle. The Cobia was aiming to make its mark in the annals of the World War II submarine service.

That service as a whole sank 201 Japanese warships, including a battleship and eight aircraft carriers, plus 1,113 merchant ships of 500 tons or more, during the war.

Harris said the Cobia got its piece of big meat soon: sinking a 500-ton converted yacht that the servicemen later learned were laden with 28 tanks and equipment. They took out the heart of an armored battalion that would never be available for action against U.S. Marines on Iwo Jima.

“I was proud of being in the submarine service which did so much for the war effort,” Harris said.

The Cobia scooped up a survivor from the transport, a Japanese Marine Harris said he remembered by the name of Ona.

“We had to keep him alive in the forward torpedo room,” Harris said.

At about that time, Harris fell part of the way into a deck door as it opened downward, and he caught the edge of the doorway with his knee. With the cartilage torn, he was not fit for serving on the submarine.

He was transferred, as was Ona, onto a submarine tender ship that was bound for Pearl Harbor.

When Ona was bound over to Marine guards at Pearl Harbor, “they took away all the cigarettes we had given him on the submarine,” Harris said.

Harris got his operation, he was well again but not in certified perfect shape for returning to patrol service. He worked at the Pearl Harbor torpedo shop from that point on.

“My knee wasn’t that bad,” he said. “I could walk on it. But you got to have perfect health to work on a submarine.”

Harris is the youngest of four brothers who each served in World War II. He said his oldest brother missed an enlistment opportunity for the Navy, then had to explain that to their parents after the second oldest, Thurston Lee Harris, was already gone to serve as a Navy radioman.

James Ernest Harris ended up serving in the Coast Guard instead. Third was Norman Edison Harris, who served in the Army at a London-area air base.

Harris said that at age 89, he is the only one remaining of his family that once saw his parents, brothers and a sister living in Henderson.

“I am the youngest,” Harris said. “I am the only one in my family still alive. I was born and raised over there on Davis Street.”

Harris survives two wives, having married Myrtle just before shipping out overseas. They had Robert Allen Harris, who at 68 is a grandfather now.

“He was just a little bitty baby when I came home from war,” Harris said.

Daughter Gayle Harris Tuttle came along after that. And later, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“Oh, and I’ve got oodles of them,” he said.

He worked 38 years at Carolina Bagging Company. In retirement, because he just could not stay idle, he drove school busses for several years with Young Elementary School and Northern Vance High School.

He married Margie in 1970, at about the same time that the Cobia, SS-245, went to its shipyard town of creation at Manitowoc, Wis., to become a museum.

In August 1995, Harris travelled there for a special 50th anniversary commemoration. It was 51 years later for him when he was able to revisit that forward torpedo room again.

It had been his home for the months of traveling and waiting for the battles to come, sailing out from commissioning in March, down through the Panama Canal, on to Hawaii and finally out to that first patrol, sailing past Midway Island where a turning-point battle had taken place two years earlier.

Harris said that sailors of the combat submarines suffered one of the highest casualty rates of any armed service: about 20 percent never returning to their families at all.

“We had 52 submarines that never did come home,” he said. “We never did know where other submarines might be out there, but there were a lot of them.”

At a predetermined point shortly past Midway, his captain opened sealed top-secret orders. There were 69 years of life challenges between that young torpedo man, third class, and this year’s celebration of Veterans Day.

First, there would be the challenge of diving down from a dropped bomb and dodging 67 depth charges.

 

Contact the writer at mfisher@hendersondispatch.com.