Sub Skipjack’s MIA …Toilet Paper?!

Posted by Rebekah
May 07 2015

Quick Note: If you haven’t seen NOVA’s “Nazi Attack on America” which aired last night ( May 6, 2015) on PBS , I really encourage you to catch it on pbs.org or the PBS app. It’s an amazing story, about just how close the German U-Boat Navy got to our shores during WWII (which was largely hidden by the military/government/media for morale reasons) It also shows how history is made, then reconsidered as new evidence comes to light. Besides, who can resist a Ballard and Ritchie Kohler flick? (I doubt Kohler remembers me, but I was curator of the Silversides Submarine Museum when Kohler and John Chatterton came to film part of their Deep Sea Detectives show aboard our USCGC McLANE for the episode “Caught in a Killer Storm: Bedloe and Jackson” (Season 5, Episode 7). They were very professional, courteous, and shot some wonderful footage aboard McLANE on her second-to-last time out on Lake Michigan[1] .)

I’m breaking from the MUSASHI posts for reasons detailed below[2], but while I’m prepping the wreck phase of the Musashi, I thought I’d share one of the most unique and well-known WWII-era letters in the submarine force. (This story even has its own Snopes Entry!) And it concerns this “unidentifiable” item:

2015-05-07 13.38.06 HDR

Nothing compares to the original letter, Cmdr James Coe was very…eloquent.

 

The Letter

USS SKIPJACK

SS184/SS36-1                                                                                                                                     June 11, 1942

From :                   The Commanding Officer

To:                          Supply Officer, Navy Yard, Mare Island, California

Via:                        Commander Submarines, Southwest Pacific

Subject:               Toilet Paper

Reference:         (a) (4608) USS HOLLAND (5184) USS SKIPJACK

(b) SO NYMI cancelled Invoice No. 272836

Enclosure:           (a) Copy of cancelled invoice

(b) Sample of material requested

  1. This vessel submitted a requisition for 150 rolls of toilet paper on July 30, 1941 to USS HOLLAND. The material was ordered by HOLLNAD from the Supply Officer, Navy Yard, Mare Iland, for delivery to USS SKIPJACK.
  2. The Supply Officer, Navy Yard, Mare Island, on November 26, 1941 cancelled Mare Island Invoice No 272836 with the stamped notation, “Cancelled—cannot identify”. This cancelled invoice was received by SKIPJACK on June 10, 1942.
  3. During the 11 ¼ months elapsing from the time of ordering the toilet paper and the present date, the SKIPJACK personnel, despite their best efforts to await delivery of subject material, have been unable to wait on numerous occasions and the situation is now quite acute, especially during depth charge attack by the “backstabbers”
  4. Enclosure (B) is a sample of desired material provided for the information of the Supply Officer, Navy Yard, Mare Island. The Commanding Officer, USS SKIPJACK cannot help but wonder what is being used in Mare Island in place of this unidentifiable material, once well known to this command.
  5. SKIPJACK personnel during this period has become accustomed to the use of “ersatz” i.e. the vast amount of incoming non essential paper work, and in so doing feel that the wish of the Bureau of Ships for reduction of paperwork, is being complied with, thus effectively killing two birds with one stone.
  6. It is believed by this command that the stamped notation “cannot identify” was possibly an error, and that this is simply a case of shortage of strategic war material, the SKIPJACK probably being low on the priority list.
  7.  In order to cooperate in our war effort at a small local sacrifice, the SKIPJACK desires no further action to be taken until the end of current war, which ahs created a situation aptly described as “war is hell”

J.W. COE

Skipjack TP Crisis

The Original Letter, from the Navy History and Heritage Website.

 

And if you just read it and said, “The Navy can’t identify toilet paper?!” You read it right. The story gets even funnier with more research.

 Before the War

Coe wasn’t the CO of SKIPJACK in July of 1941, when the requisition was made. SKIPJACK was in Mare Island California under overhaul.

Cmdr. Charles Freeman became CO of SKIPJACK on July 29, and based on the requisition, asking for 150 rolls of TP was one of the FIRST things he did (was this a continuous problem?)

Ten days later, SKIP left California, heading out to patrol Wake, Midway, the Marshalls, among other things, ultimately heading to be part of the sub fleet in the Philippines. and by December 6, 1941, was sitting in drydock in Cavite Naval Yard, Manila, with her engines disassembled for repairs, still no requisitioned toilet paper in sight.

Unbeknownst to SKIPJACK, while she was doing all this, back in California, someone in supply stamped the usually-routine requisition form “ Cancelled-cannot identify” and shipped it off to Manila and the SKIPJACK.

And then December 7 happened.

 

The War…and still no “relief” in sight…

Pearl ii

Digital Photo Collage of Pearl Harbor, colorized.  Own Work.

 

We talk about Pearl Harbor here in America, but it was really just the first in a series of attacks the Japanese carried out in 24 hours on December 7 (in the Philippines it was already December 8, due to the International dateline. ) SKIPJACK survived the attack, and headed out on patrol a day later, on only one of four engines, (the other three were reassembled and repaired at sea on patrol by her crew) and yes…still no toilet paper.

She completed two war patrols as the Americans scrambled to evacuate south as the Japanese landed and advanced too quickly for reinforcements. SKIPJACK refueled wherever the American base was when she needed to come in: Manila, then Balikpapan in Borneo,  then Darwin, Australia, then finally Fremantle, where the second-largest submarine base in the Allied Pacific would be located.

It was now March, 1942…and STILL no toilet paper!

Cmdr. Freeman was detached, and Cmdr. Coe, formerly of the S-39, came aboard as CO, and SKIP headed out on her third patrol, sinking four ships over 50 days….yup, you guessed it, still no single, double or any ply.

SKIP returned to Fremantle, where I’m sure her crew was happy to depart for the various hotels and resorts the Navy had rented for them…all of which would have toilet paper!

As SKIP was prepping for her fourth war patrol, the requisition form, with its cancellation, (having likely bounced all around the Pacific pursued by the Japanese and trying to trace the sub base’s constantly mobile location), finally reached SKIPJACK.

And the next day, Coe’s most famous Naval correspondence was born.

 

A Legend is Launched

The scuttlebutt goes that Coe wrote it up, passed it to the boat’s Yeoman, Evert Tuttle, to type up and send out. Tuttle did so, but before sending it out, asked the XO and OD (Executive Officer and Officer of the Deck, for civilians) about it for advice.  The three of them went back to Coe and asked, “Do you really want to send this?”

Coe allegedly replied, “I wrote it, didn’t I?”

The letter was sent, and SKIP headed out on patrol….you guessed it, STILL no toilet paper (I have to believe the men of SKIPJACK by now were hoarding any TP roll they came across at their hotels!)

Cmdr. Coe of the Toilet-paperless SKIPJACK was awarded the Navy Cross eleven days after composing that letter for his leadership of the S-39, but I think he and his crew should be commended for working under such additionally arduous conditions…but as the letter states, at least this deficiency allowed the SKIP to find a use for all the additional (and useless) paperwork the SKIP was given! (I’ve held some of the original papers from submarines, the onion skin was quite thin…)[4]

Sent through official channels, hundreds of people heard about (and read) the “Toilet Paper Letter” long before it officially arrived at Mare Island. President Roosevelt’s son aboard the USS WASP  even heard about it, and got his father a copy! The reaction at the Mare Island Supply Depot when the letter finally arrived was spectacular: according to the one member of that office, all the officers of the Supply Depot were compelled to “stand at attention for three days because of that letter.”

It was way too late by then, the letter was legend.[5]

Now normally, when submarines came into port, they were met with a band, their mail, fresh fruits and veg, and ice cream.

But due to the letter, the SKIPJACK received an unusual greeting: pallets and pyramids of toilet paper rolls stacked on the dock, seven feet high. Toilet paper streamed from the dock lights. The band wore toilet paper neckties, and the brass section had toilet paper rolls instead of dampeners in their horns! The crew said TP continued to stream out of the horns as the band played.

And that became her signature return all during the war. Other sbus might be greeted with fruit and mail, milk, and other culinary delights. The Navy made damned sure the SKIPJACK never went without the other end of the necessities of life ever again.

 

SKIPJACK survived the war after ten patrols. Sadly, Cmdr. Coe was detached from the SKIPJACK and became the first CO of the new submarine CISCO. CISCO was lost during her first patrol, her circumstances and resting place still a mystery.

But his infamous, sarcastically humorous letter survives…everywhere.[6]

 

Sources:

“The Infamous Toilet Paper Letter” http://www.submarinesailor.com/history/toiletpaper.asp (accessed 7 May, 2015)

Wikipedia entries for SKIPJACK, James Coe, USS S-39

Official Navy History for USS SKIPJACK; War Patrol Reports of the Same

USS Skipjack Toilet Paper Memorandum: http://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/research-guides/z-files/zc-ship-files-in-the-navy-department-library-s/uss-skipjack-toilet-paper-memorandum.html

 

Footnotes

[1] Bedloe and Jackson were sisters to the McLANE, hence the reason they came. The particular day they were scheduled to shoot, was also part of our window to tow/push McLANE to Grand Haven for the Coast Guard festival, so they actually got shots of McLANE out at sea (or rather, lake) than simply docked as she usually is. To my knowledge, after she returned from that festival, she’s never moved again.

[2] I’m breaking from the Musashi in part because my computer decided to blow the motherboard hours after posting, and now, of course, my wonderful computer-tech savvy husband is reloading programs and drivers and the remnants of the hard drive from my old computer to the new one (and discovering just HOW MANY large psd files, duplicate files, ect that I have put on the old machine…sorry dear!)

So while I’ve only just gotten to the point where I can create the images for the Musashi wreck post, it’s going to take a while…and this is one of my favorite sub stories from WWII.

[3] Well known enough to have its own Snopes Entry! http://www.snopes.com/language/document/skipjack.asp

 

[4] Now, was the SKIP without Toilet Paper entirely? I doubt it. Checking the “Habitability Remarks” sections of her first four patrols reveals no complaints in this area. That being said, subs were notorious wheelers and dealers (think Radar and Klinger on M*A*S*H). They likely traded some of their high-end goodies for some TP and resorted to the reams of “essential paper” the Navy supplied when that ran out. Still, having to give up some good supplies for what should have been a basic supply (and easily identifiable) must have been aggravating. I sure would like to check SKIP’s Deck Log, which had more of the personal day-to-day records form this time…there might be some choice remarks in there!

[5] That letter would eventually become the basis for a scene from “Operation Petticoat”, as well as a part of Edward Beach’s book, Submarine!

[6] Another copy of that letter hangs on display at the Navy Supply School at Pensacola Florida with a nearby sign: DON’T LET THIS HAPPEN TO YOU! The original letter from Coe is, according to my resources, in the archives of the Bowfin Museum at Honolulu. And of course, the Internet. It will never go away now!

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