The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

September 18, 2011

Surviving the war beneath the waves

By Phyllis Zorn, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID — Joseph Blanchett didn’t want to spend the war years carrying his meals and his bed on his back, so with World War II looming, the Minneola, Kan., man cheated the Army out of drafting him by hurrying to Kansas City, Kan., and volunteering for the Navy.

That was in 1942. Blanchett reported for duty on Sept. 10 of that year.

After boot camp at Green Bay, Wis., he volunteered for submarine duty. Not only could a submarine submerge and hide from the enemy, submarine duty paid better.

“We got the same as flight pay,” Blanchett said.

Blanchett was assigned to the USS Seal. The submarine, commissioned in 1938, was designed to withstand a depth of 260 feet, he said.

That caused problems on one patrol, when the Seal fired at a ship on the surface. The depth charges the surface ship dropped in response forced the submarine lower and lower, to a depth of about 360 feet.

Life on a submarine had its built-in hardships. The only way to get fresh air was to surface and open the hatch. While submerged, the air grew stale and the oxygen grew thin. Sometimes the crew would pant, but they tried to avoid using the ship’s oxygen supplies because they never knew whether they might need it worse the next day.

Blanchett said limited supply of fresh water was another hardship. The men were allowed about a bowl full of water to take care of hygiene needs. Often, they did not bother to shave because the water could not be wasted.

During the first patrol Blanchett went out on, the submarine surfaced to take in fresh air one night. As dawn was spreading across the ocean, it was time to close the hatch and submerge before any enemy planes or ships on patrol saw the sub.

The commander didn’t get the hatch sealed properly before diving, and as the ship dove, sea water came pouring down the hatch, knocking three of the sailors down the shaft and filling the sub’s pump room.

“Here we were on the surface for about two and a half hours to get the boat where we could dive again,” Blanchett said. “If any patrol planes had come out during that time, we’d have been sitting ducks. Wouldn’t have been anything we could do about that.”

The assignment for a submarine crew was to prowl beneath the surface and shoot at any ship they encountered. There was no way to know if the ship was friend or foe, Blanchett said.

“It’s kind of like going fishing: Sometimes you hit and sometimes you miss,” Blanchett said. “It’s a whole lot better to hit with the torpedoes than to miss with them. If you miss, the escort boats have nothing better to do than come after you. If you hit, they are busy picking up survivors.”

Blanchett said the close quarters of the submarine demanded the crew work well together.

“You talk about a band of brothers,” Blanchett said. “We slept head to toe. For two patrols I did what they called ‘hotbunk’ with somebody. He’d get out, and I’d get in.”

On the Seal’s final patrol, the crew took along a terrier as a mascot. “Sally Seal” was tended by a Louisiana seaman.

While at the submarine base in Pearl Harbor, a male dog got on board — and sure enough, Sally Seal got pregnant. Blanchett said the commander was furious when he realized the male dog had gotten on board.

Sally Seal went into labor as the sub was passing through the Panama Canal, giving birth to five puppies.

There were 80 people on board and everyone wanted a puppy, Blanchett said. Names were dropped into a hat and five names pulled out.

Blanchett was part of the Seal’s crew for the last 5 of the 12 war patrols the sub made. He said the Seal sunk 10 ships and damaged five others during its run.

Blanchett was discharged from the Navy at Long Island, N.Y., on Dec. 10, 1945. He returned to Kansas to join Wanda Holland, whom he’d married two months prior.