Vets remember in shadow of Cavalla

By Carter Thompson
Photo by Kevin Bartram

Published April 18, 2002

GALVESTON — She survived depth charges, torpedo attacks and strafing Japanese warplanes. Now the USS Cavalla has beat years of neglect.

Dozens of aging submarine veterans gathered in Seawolf Park on Wednesday to pay homage to the “lucky lady” that stalked the seas looking for Japanese ships during World War II.

About 10 veterans of the Cavalla’s patrols during World War II made the journey to Galveston from points all over the country.

They were joined by those who served on the Cavalla after the war and the nuclear-powered submarine that later carried the same name.

For many, it was their first opportunity to see the results of a restoration effort. Years of salt air and little maintenance had ravaged the submarine to the point that the park board, which operates the park, in 1998 broached the idea of getting rid of the Cavalla and the USS Stewart, the destroyer escort that sits nearby.

That was a call for veterans to mobilize and they and volunteers, with the help of the park board, made hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs to the submarine.

The Cavalla, commissioned in 1944, made six patrols during World War II.

The submarine entered the history books on its first patrol when it sank the Japanese aircraft carrier Shokaku, which had been in the fleet that attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The Cavalla had been patrolling near the Philippines and had run across a convoy of enemy tankers and destroyers and later a Japanese task force but was unable to catch up and launch its torpedoes, remembered Zeke Zellmer, the communication officer on that first patrol.

Continuing their hunt, the submariners heard the carrier and its escorts plowing through the water and spotted Japanese aircraft through the periscope.

“They were coming right at us,” said Zellmer, now 80 and living in Satellite Beach, Fla. “The lucky lady was lucky again.”

The Cavalla pumped three torpedoes into the Japanese carrier.
The submarine, tested to withstand 200 feet of depth, passed the next 3½ hours 340 feet below the surface, said Jim Rankin, a quartermaster on that patrol who now lives in Lake Wales, Fla.

The risk of being crushed like a tin can by the sea pressure was preferable to the 105 depth charges the Japanese dropped.

During that time, the crew could hear the sound of the Shokaku exploding and breaking apart. Payback, Zellmer said, was a pleasure.

“The difference in morale at that point and the time we had to let the fleet pass by us was tremendous,” he said.

The Cavalla would spend the rest of the war shooting at the enemy and being shot at in return. Even the Japanese surrender didn’t end the hostilities.

In the days between the cease-fire and Japan’s formal surrender on Sept. 2, 1945, an enemy plane tried to drop a bomb on the Cavalla. Fortunately, the bomb missed by 100 feet, said the 82-year-old Rankin.

“The war was over, but they hadn’t told everybody,” he said.

Life on the submarine was a cycle of 4-hour shifts, followed by eight hours off. Space was tight. Each bunk had three men assigned to it, said Bob Shryock, an 80-year-old Napa, Calif., resident who readied and loaded the torpedoes on the Cavalla’s last wartime patrol. The practice is called hotbunking because as one man lay down to rest after his shift, the bed was still warm from the man who had just started his.

The restoration is not complete, but the major work — the most visible being the replacement of the crumbling superstructure — is done. Next, new planking will be laid on the deck.

The veterans have hopes of building a museum between the Cavalla and the Stewart. Zellmer said he had several exhibits to donate, including the Cavalla’s original battle flag and a piece of its deck planking split by bullets fired by a Japanese airplane.

Their number gets smaller each year. The veterans tolled a bell six times during Wednesday’s ceremony for six of their comrades who died since the last reunion. Four of those served on the Cavalla during the war.

Zellmer, 80, said he wanted to pass the organizing duties to the younger veterans.

With the first battle — restoration — now won, the veterans and volunteers have turned their eyes to the second battle: to maintain the Cavalla so it never deteriorates again. Zellmer said they could not win the battle alone.

“Unless the people of Galveston, Houston as their neighbors and Texas in general say ‘hey, that’s our boat,’ we won’t be able to take care of it,” Zellmer said.