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Rockdale man recounts life on submarine in WWII

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Crew members employ a 5-inch deck gun on the USS Spot that Rockdale County resident Charles Crews served on. In this undated photo, Crews said the men were firing on a Japanese ship. The photo was taken by a newspaper photographer as Crews stood by.

Rockdale County resident Charles Crews fought WWII beneath the Pacific Ocean as a submariner. He and the crew of the USS Spot were depth-charged four times, twice by their own country.

Born in 1921, Crews said, "I lost both parents before my 14th birthday. We kids were raised by a compassionate stepmother, but I was on my own at 18."

Crews milked cows and delivered milk until introduced to his civilian niche as a projectionist in movie theaters.

"A friend that operated projectors in the Navy taught me the trade," he said.

Enthralled by his buddy's tales of the Seven Seas, Crews tried to join the Navy in 1939 but was turned down.

"Flat feet," he stated.

Crews found work at the fabulous Fox Theater in Atlanta.

"I ushered before a promotion to projectionist in the screening room where they censored films, like trying to cut 'damn' from 'Gone with the Wind,'" he said.

After Pearl Harbor, the Navy overlooked flat feet.

"I boarded a train at Union Station in October '42 for boot camp at Great Lakes, Ill., Our barracks was in a corn field, no hot water, no heat, but a bunch of Yankees. We refought the Civil War," Crews recalled.

Crews' first shipboard assignment was on the battleship USS Nevada.

"I boarded in Seattle," he said. "We took trial runs on Puget Sound before sailing to Long Beach, Calif. I danced with Betty Grable at a Hollywood canteen, saw Clark Gable and Bob Hope, and heard aging Sophie Tucker tell the boys, 'There's snow on the roof but there's still a fire in the furnace.'"

The Nevada joined battleships Idaho and Texas to bombard Attu Island in the Aleutians in 1943. As a 40mm gunner, Crews watched the massive 16-inch guns fire their payloads.

"We put cotton in our ears," he said. "The battleship would rock like a baby cradle when those guns cut loose."

Even so, Crews realized battleships were not his forte.

"I preferred the notion of a close knit-crew," he said.

He volunteered for submarines; passed all the tests, including the prerequisite of having all your teeth.

Assigned to submarine training in New London, Conn., Crews endured 100-foot diving tank trials, breathed underwater with the Munson Lung, endured the pressure tank (a 50 percent failure rate), mastered "the boat" from bow to stern, and trained at sea on antiquated World War I subs. Graduating sixth in a class of 150, Crews received orders for the USS Seawolf.

"The parents of a boy from Massachusetts wanted him to remain on the East Coast so I swapped boats with him. I took the USS Spot," Crews said. (The Seawolf was lost at sea in October of 1944. There were no survivors).

Crews boarded the newly commissioned USS Spot in San Francisco.

"I operated the starboard side maneuvering board, plus kept fresh water in the batteries," he said. "A WWII sub used diesel engines to run on the surface but used batteries if submerged. I'd crawl down a hole with a hose to water the batteries. Leaking acid was always a danger."

Ordered to Pearl Harbor, the crew of the Spot received a surprise upon arrival.

"We were told we'd been sunk," Crews said. "That sure was news to us."

Combat lay ahead.

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This is the battle flag of the USS Spot showing all Japanese kills and ship successfully attacked during the submarine's service in the Pacific in World War II.

"Wake Island was our first patrol," Crews recalled. "We sank merchant ships, but I don't remember any celebrations. No guilty feeling, but we weren't jovial about it either."

Occasionally, their submarine made unauthorized rendezvous with seagoing Japanese 'Junks.'

"They were everywhere," Crews said. "We knew they could radio our position in, but we still traded them our canned goods for fresh fish. The Navy finally stopped that barter system."

On a boat armed with torpedoes, a 5-inch deck gun, 40mm and 20mm anti-aircraft guns, Crews recalled one encounter between the Spot and a merchant ship. "Our 5-inch gun traded shells with the merchant ship. We won the duel then sent a boarding party to search the vessel," he said. "What the guys saw made them sick; they wouldn't even talk about it."

While taking on supplies from a sub tender off the island of Saipan, the sailors of the Spot saw the grisly results of fanatical militarism.

"The bleached bones of suicidal Japanese dotted the beach," Crews said. "We saw other bones, too -- American."

The Spot received credit for participation in the battle for Iwo Jima.

"We remained on station to rescue downed airmen, young fly boys like future President George H. W. Bush, but other subs always beat us to the rescue," he said.The Yellow Sea near China and the waters off Guam were also patrolled by men of the Spot.

"On one occasion we surfaced inside an enemy convoy and attacked with the 5-inch deck gun, sank a few, then submerged. About the time we were settling into bunks, we heard, 'Man your battle stations!' The skipper resurfaced to engage another merchant ship. He'd made a mistake. The ship was a Japanese destroyer. It raked our boys on the deck. Several were badly wounded. We immediately submerged, right into a mud bank. Depth charges pounded us for hours; it's like bombs going off in your face. I prayed for God to help us. He did."

Mistaken identity caused the Army Air Force to attack the Spot once, as did a U.S. Naval destroyer.

"That got old quick," Crews stated. Crew members of the destroyer apologized to the submariners at a recent reunion.

Crews stated, "To be honest, I didn't want to hear it!"

In early 1945 the Spot found trouble in the Sea of Japan.

"We surfaced right in the middle of a mine field. The skipper screamed, 'Shut down engines, shut down engines!' I can't describe my feelings, especially when he said, 'Follow orders and be on your toes.' I prayed a lot that day, too. Then we heard 'Dive!' and we submerged straight down, like a rock, and luckily slipped away."

The Spot returned to Pearl Harbor in July 1945 for repairs and supplies, but atomic bombs dropped on Japan made an overhaul and supplies unnecessary. World War II ended with Crews sunbathing on Waikiki Beach.

"Nice way to end a war," he said, smiling.

Crews retired as a film inspector from the Civil Service in 1997 but continued to work with audiovisual support systems.

"My last gig in 2009 was a Mercedes Benz trade show at the World Congress Center in Atlanta, five grand for a week. My first paycheck as a projectionist was $12. Change can be good."

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and author of "A Veteran's Story," a regular feature of the Citizen. Contact him at aveteranssstory@gmail.com.