Harry Royer at age 90.
Harry Royer at age 90

Harry Royer shares his experiences as a WWII Submariner.

But for the grace of God, this 90 year old World War II Submarine Veteran is here with us today. Harry Royer was assigned to one submarine from which he sought to be transferred. Shortly thereafter that submarine was lost at sea with all hands on board. He was assigned to another submarine on which he endured over 100 depth charges being dropped on them and miraculously survived. Later, their boat was hit by a Japanese torpedo that failed to detonate. He was transferred from that submarine and during the very next war patrol, that sub was also lost at sea with all hands on board. He later was the skipper of a landing craft that suffered an explosion at the bow so severe that a half-track on board was blown into an upright position on its stern and hung over Harry. His “Boat Hook,” (the person at the bow of the boat) unfortunately was killed.

Harry was born and raised in various places in Northern California. In May of 1942, he enlisted in the regular Navy as a minor (a "kitty cruiser" which was for 17 year olds, to be discharged the day before you turned 21,) and soon after, caught the bus ride to the Naval Training Station (Boot Camp) at San Diego, California.

Following boot-camp, Harry moved to the destroyer base on San Diego Bay. There he attended Torpedoman School for eight weeks and then on to Submarine School. After completing sub school Harry was promoted to Seaman Second Class and assigned to the USS S-28, an "S" boat that had been built in 1923, and was assigned to coastal patrol from Panama to Dutch Harbor Alaska and home ported in San Diego. He only made one run on the S-28 boat and never saw land. On returning to San Diego Harry bribed a yeoman with twenty dollars, almost a month's pay, to ship him out to better duty; he wanted to get into the thick of the war. Harry was transferred to Pearl Harbor, HI. The S-28 boat was subsequently lost with All hands in June 1944 off Pearl Harbor.

Harry Royer in 1944
Young Harry Royer in 1944
“I will always wonder why any American could ever have felt bad about dropping the atomic bomb, where we killed 180,000. If we had invaded Japan we would have lost one half million of our guys and killed over five million Japanese. I fully believe there would have been at least ten times more casualties had the US not ended the war when and how it did. Plus the fact I might have been one of the casualties myself as I really believe the landings on Japan would have been a disaster for everyone involved.”

When Harry arrived, Pearl Harbor was still a mess from the Japanese attack about a year earlier. Several of the battleships were still in the process of being salvaged. The thing that struck him most was all the oil on the water that was still leaking from the wrecks. The next training he received was Underwater Sound School aboard the Submarine USS Dolphin, built in 1932. Sometime in January 1943 he was shipped out to Midway Island Submarine Base. This was about six months after the Battle of Midway and things there were still in a mess from the pounding they had taken.

As a member of a relief crew, their job was to clean up and refit Subs that came in to rearm and resupply fuel, ammo and food for their next war patrol. One job he had was painting the inside of bow buoyancy tank on the USS Pompano when he found out they needed a Quarter-master. At the time he was a Seaman First Class and decided to become a Quartermaster. A Quarter-master is the crewman that takes care of navigation and the ships bridge operations.

The USS Pompano, SS-181, was a 300 foot long boat that was built at Mare Island, Vallejo, California in 1937. She had six-21 inch torpedo tubes; four forward and two aft, with a five- inch deck gun and two-20 mm. anti-aircraft guns. She carried a crew of 50 and could do 19 knots on the surface and nine knots submerged. She had just returned to Midway from her 4th war patrol, which was off the East coast of Japan. Her 5th war patrol with Harry aboard was to the same area. Sometime in March 1943 they set out from Midway for the East Coast of Japan, loaded for bear with a 60 days' supply of fuel, food, ammunition and a load of magnetic mines.

Their primary mission was to lay a mine field in the Tsugaru Strait which separates Honshu, the main island, and Hokkaido, the island to the north of Honshu. This strait was the main shipping route from the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean. After completing the mine laying they proceeded to patrol the East coast of Japan from the Tsugaru Strait to a small rock called O-Shima that was just south of the entrance to Tokyo Bay. The trip was about 350 miles each way. Harry couldn’t remember how many times they made the round trip which was pretty quiet as they didn't want the Japanese to know they were there until we were ready to depart. As a result we spent most of our time dodging aircraft and patrol boats. Submarine crews, when on war patrol stood watch; four hours on and four hours off duty. The off duty was largely filled with training, eating, laundry and even some sleep. The sleeping arrangements for the lower ranks were hot bunked; that is, someone had to get up before you could get in the shared bunk. “I can't remember who I shared with but there were no problems.” Fresh water was made in two evaporators, so the supply was limited to drinking, cooking and battery use. Everything else used sea water. You haven't really lived until you have a salt water shower with salt water soap. Hot food was only available at night as no cooking was allowed when submerged. They had to keep the air as clear as possible. Can you imagine what 50 men breathing and all the machinery could do to a limited amount of air in 12 hours? Lots of humidity to say the least without air filters or air conditioning.

Harry underwent a growth spurt that was getting him into trouble as he had grown from 5' 10" to 6' 4" since he enlisted and the Executive Officer, Lt. David Condole, had him doing exercises on the cigarette deck at night to keep him from being hunched over all the time.

USSVI Emblem

His battle station on the surface was on the 5" deck gun as hot shell man. This amounted to catching the hot shell casings with asbestos gloves as they were ejected and throwing them over the side so no one would trip over them if they were left lying about. His submerged Battle Station was in the conning tower and control room where he conveyed target information to the Captain or torpedo control officer from the Torpedo Data Control (TDC) panel which consisted of dials that were set to figure target angles etc. for aiming the torpedoes. In the afternoon of April 9th, 1943, as they were near Tokyo Bay they picked up on Radar a group of ships in a task force coming out of the harbor. This task force consisted of one aircraft carrier, three troop transports and four destroyers. They were only going about 15 knots so they had no trouble staying in sight of them. This they did by staying just over the horizon from them using a raised periscope so they could see them but there was very little of their boat for them to see. They trailed them all day and until about midnight when they were sure where they were headed, they radioed the information back to Pearl Harbor before starting their attack. This they did by charging in on their starboard flank at flank speed with a plan to take out the aircraft carrier. Harry was in the conning tower as they closed in to about 2000 yards. When the command was given, Harry fired the four forward torpedoes one at a time then after the boat executed a 180 degree turn and he fired the two stern torpedoes they took off to get out of the area as fast as possible. As they were leaving they heard three explosions, so they figured they had done a good job on the aircraft carrier. They learned later that they had severely damaged the aircraft carrier UNYO. After the attack they ran full bore until just before daylight when they submerged and changed course in an attempt to lose the two or three destroyers that were hot on their tail. When they did catch up, there was hell to pay as they counted over 100 depth charges dropped on them over a period of one day. “One learns fast when to panic as there is a click before the main explosion because the primer fires and is a higher pitch than the main blast.

So you learn to check the time between the sharp click and the big boom. The longer the time between tells you how close the depth charges are when they explode. After about 10 hours of trying to kill us, they gave up and left us alone.” “I should tell you that my depth charge battle station was in the magazine, a small compartment below the mess hall, 6' by 8' and was where the ammunition was stored. I sat there sealed in with a water tight hatch, a battle lantern, a mallet and a canvas bag of wood plugs and wedges to pound into any leaks that might appear. Thank God none did. After we had been left for dead we found that the high pressure air banks had been damaged. Probably the large volume of air bubbles breaking the surface convinced the destroyers that they had won the battle and left us for dead.” ( It is hard for the average layman to understand what it is like to be contained in a large fully enclosed “pipe” submerged a couple of hundred feet below the surface while explosives are being dropped on you. It is like being in a sauna with gradually more depressingly stale air with ever reducing levels of oxygen available while enduring a major earthquake; Extremely frightening to say the least.) Then the struggle to survive began.

They were on the bottom deeper than their allowed test depth (350 feet) with no high pressure air to blow the ballast tanks so they could surface. They had suffered many minor damages; the air was fouled with all the cork dust from the insulation on the inside of the hull, jarred loose by the depth charges. Plus there were many other inconveniences that needed to be attended to before they tried to surface. What they ended up doing was to draw a vacuum inside the hull to get enough air pressure to force the water out of the ballast tanks and give the ship the buoyancy needed to rise to the surface. This whole procedure from the time they submerged till they were back on the surface took over 70 hours and created a vacuum in the ship that caused noses and ears to bleed and made breathing very difficult. The trip to the surface was swift and they broke the surface like a cork. “Boy, oh boy, can fresh air smell this sweet?” It then took some time to repair and clean up the ship. As they returned to their patrol area and it got near the time to leave the area they had a ball shooting up fishing boats with their deck guns. After several days the Japanese got on their case by putting a motor torpedo boat in the midst of the fishing boats, which caught them by surprise. As it came out from a group of fishing boats and fired two torpedoes at their broad side, they were traveling full speed so one missed astern but the other hit aft of the superstructure where the hull is rounded. The torpedo was running shallow and did not have time to arm when it hit. (A torpedo has to run in the water a certain distance before the firing mechanism is armed and it can explode.) Harry said: “I didn't at the time, but I sure do now. Thank GOD for his cover through the time I spent off the Eastern Coast of Japan.” As they were getting low on fuel and food they headed back to Midway and then on to Pearl Harbor for much needed repairs. While most of the rest of the crew was able to take time off for liberty, rest and relaxation, Harry stayed aboard since he was being transferred off the Pompano and being disqualified from submarine service due to having grown too tall.

When the crew returned he was sent to the Royal Hawaiian for R & R along with David Connole who had been promoted to Lt. Commander and was on his way to become the Commanding Officer of the USS Trigger which was later lost with all hands during March of 1945.” I will always have a special place for Dave Connole, Executive Officer and Navigator as he was the one I worked closest with on the Pompano and was the one that was concerned about my posture and had me disqualified.” The Pompano returned to the same area as we had been on her 5th patrol and was lost during August 1943 with all hands. There was no report of sub contact in the Japanese records after the war so one can only guess as to what happened; maybe a mine or some mechanical problem. The last report was from near where they had laid magnetic mines on the 5th patrol. At that time Harry was awarded the Asiatic Theater Medal and the Submarine Combat Insignia to go with the American Defense Medal. Harry studied and passed the test and was promoted to Coxswain, as a third class petty officer. Big bucks! He was now making about $70 a month.

On October 28, 1943 Harry was awakened in the middle of the night and told to pack his gear and report to a ship that was due to leave in the early morning. He reported aboard and was assigned to the First Division on the USS Pierce APA50, an amphibious attack transport which carried 30 landing craft, could transport 4200 troops and was on her first trip out to train troops for amphibious landings with the Fifth Amphibious Force Pacific Fleet. They held a full dress rehearsal with army troops on the beach at Lahaina Roads, Maui, Hawaii. They unloaded troops and all their equipment just like a real invasion. They then proceeded to Tarawa to back up the marines that were having much tougher resistance from the Japanese garrison there. “That engagement was a real doozy and received all the news coverage.” Back to Pearl Harbor, liberty, a few beers and of course Wo Fats was a must. Then in January 1944 they loaded the Army’s 7th Infantry Division and headed for Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands. Harry had been assigned to the beach party and went ashore with the 5th wave of landing craft. Their job was to communicate with the ship and keep the landing craft moving. There was always a few boats that broached (turned sideways) on the beach, or broke down and needed a tow. They had to keep the beach clear so troops and material could come ashore, then later they would evacuate casualties back to hospital ships or whatever ships could take them. Harry’s ship later spent six weeks training the 81st Infantry Division U. S. Army and the 4th Marine Division on San Clemente Island off the southern coast of California. In early May they returned to Pearl Harbor with the 4th Marine Division and joined up with a task force which would be part of for the upcoming invasion of Saipan just north of Guam in the Mariana Islands. After a final meal and a glass of beer at Wo Fats their battle group was on its way to the invasion of Saipan. They were to land the 4th Marine Division on the right flank of the landing beach near the town of Charan-Kanoa where there was a large sugar refinery. In the early morning of 15 June 1944 the sky was lit up with star shells as the bombardment and bombing of the landing site was in full force.

Map of Mariana Islands

Several days and air raids later Harry was transferred off the Pierce and sent to the aircraft carrier USS Bon Home Richard for transport back to Pearl Harbor for reassignment to San Diego. He now had three battle-stars on his Asiatic Pacific Theater medal, and was promoted to Boatswain Mate Second Class. On arrival at San Diego he was assigned to two weeks Landing Craft School at the Destroyer Base.

There was time to head out for Los Angeles which was not as crowded with military types as San Diego. It was on one of these trips to LA that he went to the Hollywood Canteen. There he got to dance with Marlene Dietrich, the movie star. “ Big deal! The dance lasted about four steps before someone cut in”. The next stop was San Francisco Bay where during August 1944 a new attack transport was being fitted out for service. The USS Goodhue APA 107 was almost a carbon copy of the Pierce. Harry was assigned to the Second (Boat) Division. Then on 4 Jan 1945 they headed out to the South Pacific again with the Army’s 7th division aboard. They arrived at Manus Island in the Bismarck Archipelago near New Britain. Then; forming a convoy they proceeded to Hollandia, New Guinea where more ships joined up to make the largest concentration of navy ships he had seen. On 12 February 1945 they made the landings near Tacloban, Leyte in the Philippine Islands. During the big naval battle with the remaining units of the Japanese navy that raged a few miles away they landed our troops. During this operation Harry managed to drop the ramp of his boat, a LCM (Landing Craft Medium) on a land mine which destroyed the boat and an army half-track he was trying to land on the beach. The half-track was blown to where it was standing on its rear end with the hood directly over his head, killing several soldiers and his bow hook at the same time. Returning to the ship, Harry was assigned another smaller landing craft, an LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel) which could carry a Jeep and Troops or 36 Troops.

The next day as they were transporting supply's from a cargo ship back to the Goodhue they received a cargo net full of Spam. As it was being loaded into his boat they dropped it the last few feet causing some damage that wasn't noticed until after the boat sank out from under them while waiting to come alongside the Goodhue to be unloaded. For the loss of those two boats, Harry stood for a Court of Inquiry to determine cause, where it was determined by the court that he was not at fault. They then went to Guiuan, Samar then on to Cagayan on the island of Mindanao. For the Leyte operation, Harry was awarded the Philippine Liberation Medal with one battle star. The Goodhue was designated as the Flag Ship for the 51st Transport Division that consisted of twelve attack transports and attack cargo ships.

The first landings were on several small islands just east of Okinawa called Kerama Retto. On one of these islands was where Ernie Pile a well-known news correspondent was killed. Then on April 1st they hit the beaches of Okinawa itself. For the next 25 days, they were only a few hundred miles from the main land of Japan. There were constant air attacks as the invasion proceeded. They survived 82 attacks in 32 days. The Goodhue shot down three enemy aircraft; the last of which was doing a suicide attack, missed the bridge and hit their aft mast head at the crow's nest and exploded. Damage was moderate but they lost two shipmates and 78 wounded, mostly on the after deck and in the aft gun mounts. The Okinawa operation was the Navy's heaviest losses ever, with 36 ships sunk, 368 damaged and at a cost of 13,241 dead of which 8,343 were sailors and marines. It was by far the highest single campaign toll in naval history. Almost two thirds of the casualties were on ships. All told more Americans died at Okinawa than at Gettysburg during the Civil War. While the Army was bogged down at Naha, their transport division pulled a diversionary landing on the South coast; hoping to draw the defenders to that end of the island so the Army could take Naha. “This was kind of a blast as everything was to be as realistic as possible except the boats were empty.” All went well until 200 yards from the beach; then the artillery and mortars cut loose on them. At this point they turned tail and ran for their lives. Harry says “I will always be amazed that we didn't lose a single man or boat but most of us were wet from the near misses. There were many damaged ships. The harbor looked like a gigantic junk yard as far as the eye could see.” That harbor must have been the biggest junk yard in the world. The name of his boat was “The Scoffin Coffin”. Harry was awarded his 4th battle star for my Asiatic Pacific Theater medal.

Shortly after that time Harry had a real downer. One thing you should never do is to set down and get to thinking about all the death and carnage you had witnessed during three years of war. What he did was to spend time thinking about all the shipmates that were no longer among the living; this really made him wonder why he was still around and what the purpose for his life might be. He thought about God but unfortunately, at that time, he had nothing to build upon, so he just charged his good fortune up to luck.

The Goodhue proceeded on to San Francisco for repairs. Then back to Honolulu for a few beers and a visit to Wo Fats for a good meal. Then they moved on to Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands, on to Ulithi, and finally on to Manila, the capitol city of the Philippines. After a while they moved north up the west coast of Luzon to Subic Bay. Then it was on to Lingayen Gulf where they were training the Army's 33rd division for what we knew would be the big one, the invasion of the mainland of Japan. However on 15 August 1945 peace broke out, to our great relief, as we were sure the invasion of Japan would make Okinawa look like child's play. “I will always wonder why any American could ever have felt bad about dropping the atomic bomb, where we killed 180,000. If we had invaded Japan we would have lost one half million of our guys and killed over five million Japanese. I fully believe there would have been at least ten times more casualties had the US not ended the war when and how it did. Plus the fact I might have been one of the casualties myself as I really believe the landings on Japan would have been a disaster for everyone involved.” Royer said.

As his enlistment was due to expire, Harry was given liberty while the Navy did their paper work. “Look out Los Angeles! Here I come!” While on liberty Harry was picked up by the Shore Patrol for being out of uniform. Old hot shot Harry had bought a white scarf, a blatant disregard for regulations. The brig at San Pedro was still under construction; cold damp concrete, no windows, no mattress on the bunks, fog coming in the windows, a really mean situation. In the morning he went to Captain's Mast and was sentenced to 50 hours extra duty for his crime. When he went to report to the Chief Master at Arms he took one look his my papers and said "you're on 30 days leave, then to report to Shoemaker, California for discharge. Get the hell out of here." and by golly that's exactly what I did, hitch hiking to Vallejo.” In the middle of April 1946 at the end of his leave he reported into the discharge center at Shoemaker by Livermore, California to be processed out of the Navy. The Navy awarded Harry the Good Conduct Medal as “I had spent three years ten months and eleven days without getting caught off base.” He was awarded the Nationalist China Defense Medal, awarded to those who were instrumental in the defeat of Japan.”

Harry maintains an amazing physical condition by going “al-in” to a fitness program consisting of three to four days per week at the gym, swims laps at the pool and sets in the hot tub/sauna. We can only wish that we can be as agile and healthy as Harry is when we turn 90. Harry is thankful to God and his “guardian angel” for getting him through those perilous days during the War!

Harry is a life-time member of the United States World War II Submarine Veterans and joined the United States Submarines Veterans Base 51, Las Vegas approximately four years ago. Harry is the only remaining World War II Veteran member of Base 51.

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