Tony Curtis and the Flier Investigation Continues

Posted by Rebekah
Oct 04 2010

Before we resume the Flier investigation I thought I would take a moment to remember Tony Curtis, legendary Hollywood actor, who passed recently, and whose funeral was held today in Las Vegas.

Why remember Tony Curtis in this blog, about a lost WWII submarine?  Well, Curtis was involved in the US Submarine Force, in a way.  At 17, he was assigned as a member of the crew of the Submarine Tender Proteus, stationed, at the time our story takes place, in Guam.  He was a Submarine Relief crewmember, which meant every time a submarine tied up to the side of his Tender and her official crew vanished for two weeks R&R, the relief crew would become temporary members of that submarine and do all the dirty work that needed to get done, inside and out: scraping barnacles, fixing systems, running tests, upgrading equipment, anything and everything that needed to get done in order for the submarine to be ready for her tests when the crew returned.  It was an important, if labor intensive job.

Curtis, as a member of Proteus, also witnessed history.  Proteus was the Submarine Tender in Tokyo Bay the day the Japanese surrendered on the Missouri.  He apparently watched the ceremony from the signal bridge, a place he would have been familiar with since he was a signalman.

He was a great actor (Some Like It Hot is one of my personal favorite movies) and will be missed, but if you want to read an interesting interview about his time on Tenders during WWII,click here. It’s a great interview from the site Tender Tales, all about the unsung (and now, vanished) heroes of the Submarine Force, the men and ships of the Submarine Tender.

Back to our story.

Two men down, now a Motor Mac was up.  Earl Baumgart was one of the plankowners of Flier, (a sailor who was assigned to a ship from her first day in service) who always believed that she was jinxed.  I saw a letter from him written in 1996, talking about how she never felt right to him and he knew from the first that she wasn’t going to make it.  Short of leaving the Submarine Force altogether, there wasn’t much he could do about it, but I wonder why he thought that.  Did something happen during the launch? Or the Commissioning?  Was it Midway?

Baumgart reported to the Courtroom for his interrogation, and the initial questions were the same as the other men faced: Name, Rank, present duty station (“attached to USS Flier”), location the night Flier went down (“After Starboard Lookout”), had he adapted his eyes for night lookout duty, (yes), what was the visibility, (“Overcast, not too visible”) and so on.

Baumgart really wasn’t on the hot seat, nor could he offer much about the cause of Flier’s sinking, though he was asked whether he saw the same light Miller mentioned seeing that night, but he hadn’t.  Considering that Miller was looking over Flier’s bow, and Baumgart the stern, this isn’t that odd.

The opposition declined to cross-examine Baumgart and he left the room.

Next up was Art Howell, the Radio Technician.  Now, I was quite interested in the Flier crew list when I was writing this book because I noticed that she didn’t carry any radarmen or sonarmen aboard.  Come to find out, these titles were not generally used during this part of WWII because these men, if captured, might be tortured for information about the specs of the Sonar and Radar systems of their submarines.  By keeping their job rating something like “Radio Technician” or “Radioman” it helped them blend into the background, because the Japanese and Allied radios were essentially the same.  So Howell, despite his rating, was frequently on the Radar and Sonar systems of Flier, though his efforts on Palawan proved that he really could fix a radio using anything but coconuts if necessary.

The night Flier sank, he was her Radar Operator for navigational pruposes.  With an overcast sky, this was vital, since one of the ways they could make sure Flier didn’t stray out of her path was to keep a radar eye on the peaks of the surrounding mountains to triangulate Flier’s position and keep her on track.

On Radar, Howell had seen the lighthouse that Miller saw with his eyes on lookout two decks above.  There were no ship’s contacts, no other people around, and Howell fed information continuously to navigation as it came in.  The Radar was working efficiently as well, so the trouble was not with their equipment.

Seconds before the Flier exploded, Howell fed the last coordinates to Liddell at the maptable.  Since the investigation was being held almost exactly one month following Flier’s sinking, it’s understandable that Howell didn’t remember precise coordinates, but he did say that the nearest last was between 5,000-7,000 yards away, and the large island dead ahead (Balabac) was between 14,000 and 18,000 yards away.  Considering Flier was found right in that area, I guess Howell had a good memory.

But now it’s late, and I have a horrible urge to find a copy of Operation Petticoat somewhere.  I’ve always wanted to see it, and now, it seems really appropriate, considering Curtis’s passing.

Tomorrow:  Dello-Russo’s testimony and Liddell along with the conclusion.

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