Today’s the day.
At 10 am EDT in America, it will be 10 pm in the Balabac Strait area of the Philippines. Flier will vanish today, not to be seen again for over six decades.
The day started out like any other. The men were maintaining their torpeodes, studying for qualifications, writing letters home, talking, sleeping, trying to keep their minds and hands busy. Several were supposed to have a birthday over the next couple of weeks. It’s possible that the galley crew were planning on cakes for those days, especially since one of those men was Alvin Skow, a cook onboard.
They cleared Bancoran, giving her a nineteen mile berth around that rocky and coral infested water, and lined up to the entrance to Natsubata Channel. They were due to clear that and get on their patrol area by August 14.
At some point during the late morning or mid afternoon, they were issued an Ultra. An Ultra was the most top secret encryption for submarines. It was so top secret, only the COs of each boat were taught the code, and only the CO was permitted to be in the radio room when one was received, and only the CO could destroy it. It was jokingly called the, “Burn before you read” code.
Often, these were messages from HQ about a convoy headed straight for that submarine, provided the information was good. Most of the time, Ultras lead to wild goose chases, but they did account for nearly half of the late wartime successes, so COs of boats were always willing to consider them.
This one said the Puffer, another sub, attacked a southbound convoy along the western coast of Palawan. If that convoy stayed on her course, she should be approaching or passing the western entrance to Balabac Strait around 2:30 am the following morning. Flier was the only submarine in the area in a position to catch that convoy. Would they?
To help them transit the Straits more easily, HQ sent them a detailed description of the route sister sub Crevalle had used to go through the Straits about eight weeks earlier. HQ said it Flier was not ordered to use Crevalle’s track but it was sent to be helpful if that would help Flier go through the Straits faster.
Some information was missing though, like the tides and times that Crevalle went through Balabac. The moon was at a quarter, so the tides were weaker and lower than a strong Spring Tide caused by a full or new moon. There were dangerous currents already here, so Flier might have to deal with those changing strength or direction due to the tides.
In the end through, they decided to go for it with a modification to Crevalle’s route. Crevalle was heading sharply north, so her track would have takan Flier hours to catch, so they decided to keep on their east approach. Secondly, Crevalle passed very close to Natsubata Reef, and Crowley wanted more space between him and a reef. (Not shocking after Midway).
They decided to go a little south, keeping to the known deep water, taking continuous depth soundings to keep Flier in deep water, and put double the lookouts on deck to watch for the Japanese encampments which were known to be on Balabac Island and in the area.
Al Jacobson was paired with Ensign Herbert Baehr that night. To keep the lookouts sharp, they were rotated every four hours from above decks to below. Al and Beahr were to rotate four hours each on the map table in the Control Room and the After Bridge (Cigarette) Deck outside. While on the Bridge, he would be the Junior Officer of the Deck, watching the stern for danger and also have the “Conn” or be in charge of the speed and direction of the engines. While in the Control Room he would be the link from the Bridge and Radar ahead to the helm and men in the Control Room
Baehr took the first shift on the Bridge while Al took the Control Room maptable. (For those visiting with us this weekend–or any weekend–the maptable was removed from Silversides’s Control Room years ago to help tourists get through. It sat in the dead center of the room though, where the compass and the silver chrome sealed pipe are located.) A half hour before going outside, Al wore Red goggles over his eyes to dilate them and help him see immediately once emerging out into the rapidly descending night.
Around 8 pm, Al went outside to take his Bridge Watch until Midnight. He relieved Ensign Baehr using an age-old ceremony for relieving someone on watch, and commenced his shift.
There were four enlisted men over his head in the Lookout Deck, each watching a quarter of the horizon. His friend, Lt. John Casey, was Officer of the Deck, watching over the bow, and, in a slightly unusual turn of events, Captain Crowley was also on deck that night too.
After an hour or so, someone spotted the light on Comiran Island. Captain Crowley ordered two more officers out onto the bridge deck to cover the port and starboard watches. In a strange move, since this is considered highly improper in most cases, he took the Conn away from Jacobson. This was probably because he thought that since he was sitting only feet away from Liddell, just below him at the Maptable, it would be easiest and quickest to have the Conn in case of trouble.
Time ticked by. Jacobson decided to sit down on the after bridge gun, a 40 mm Bofurs, to watch the stern. He did take the opportunity to admire the scenery around him, scenery he later said was the most beautiful sight he’d ever seen.
Then it happened.
On or around 10 pm, Flier’s starboard side smacked a mine. It blew, tearing open the starboard side in the Control Room. Still going full speed, she gulped water, blasting the escaping air out the open Bridge Hatch in a furious tornado. Lt. Reynolds was blown into Al, injuring himself in the process. Lt. Liddell, standing directly beneath the Bridge Hatch the moment it happened, was blown bodily into the sky. When he landed, Flier was gone, and so was his shirt. Captain Crowley was thrown from the starboard side to the aft port quarter of the deck, and Flier was gone before he could get back and sound the alarm.
Al remembered seeing Ensign Mayer run past him and jump over the guardrail an instant before he went under with Flier. He was sucked down 15-20 feet before he was able to push himself off the sinking deck and pull for the surface. He swam as fast as he could, terrified that Flier’s propellers, still running at full speed, would tear him apart if he didn’t climb fast enough.
It was over.
For seventy-one men, it was over. Some, perhaps most, never knew what happened.
But on the surface, fifteen souls were gathering in the thick, oily sludge that had been Flier’s blood: her scorched oil and diesel mix. Some were uninjured, some were badly wounded.
And all were miles from the nearest land.