In the middle of Charles Esch’s war book are 11 drawings: three boats, two islands, one submarine and five black mines.

They represent the USS Haas’s victories in the Pacific — though the submarine was only a partial win.

If you ask Esch, he’ll point to the symbols and tell you about most of them. The three boats and two islands run together, their stories joined.

“Once we got orders to go to three small islands,” he said.

“They skipped over the little ones when they were going up the Philippines, and our assignment was to launch with the 4-inch guns.”

His destroyer escort landed on one of the islands just as Japanese soldiers on a nearby island launched three torpedo boats. American sailors called the Japanese torpedo boat a “Q” boat, after the name of a similar British ship. It was small, fast and often disguised as a merchant ship with hidden torpedoes.

The USS Haas lined the Japanese boats up with their 5-inch cannons and shot. They hit each with ammunition to spare.

Esch’s mother died when he was 15, his father moving to Oklahoma City with his new wife. At 17, young Esch didn’t see any reason to stay in school in Colorado Springs, Colo., so he tracked his dad down, had him sign the release paper and joined the Navy.

“We took aptitude tests, and I flunked every one of them but the dih-dah tests,” he said.

On that one, the test used to find radiomen, he scored 100 percent.

The Navy pounded code into the sailors, and in two weeks Esch could translate five to six words and type 10 words a minute.

Out of 150 sailors in radio school, he graduated 11th in 1944, and the Navy made him a radioman.

Esch is proud of the picture of the submarine.

His destroyer escort sailed in a convoy to Okinawa when sonar told the crew a submarine lurked nearby.

The ship found the submarine’s location and started dropping “hedgehogs,” groups of 24 three-foot-long torpedoes that exploded on contact. They also dropped death charges, which were barrels that would explode at certain depths.

“We went back and forth and back and forth all night,” Esch said.

“And at that time my general quarters were in the bridge at the wheel house, so I got to see all of it.”

A plane from Manila flew over the top of the USS Haas to check for submarine wreckage. No parts floated to the surface, but the pilot reported an oil slick five miles long. In the morning several officers launched a smaller boat into the water to look for signs.

“If you don’t get anything that comes up you only get partial credit, and we wanted full credit for the submarine,” Esch said.

They never found any wreckage and assumed it was a one-man suicide submarine, used like a kamikaze in the water.

One of Esch’s strongest memories isn’t on page 30 of the book.

It’s when things didn’t work as planned, when the system failed.

In February 1945, the USS Haas and five other destroyer escorts were headed to Leyte.

Destroyer escorts worked as a team in a convoy, with one in the front, one on the back and two on each side.

Their radars would travel back and forth between the ships, creating a 360-degree circle around the center ships. If anything approached, it would have to cross their radar line.

As they traveled through the Philippines in the pouring rain, a radio man saw the torpedo. He hollered there was one on the port side of the USS Haas. The sailors ran to the deck and watched as it barely missed their ship and hit the LST 577.

No one survived.

“We didn’t know how it got past us,” Esch said.

“We thought we had contact and it never should have happened.”

The pictures of the five black mines make Esch chuckle. Some of his funniest war stories relate to those mines, even though they were deadly and dangerous.

“When we came across those free-floating mines we would take a 20 mm and shoot at it until it blew up,” he said.

Only the fifth one they couldn’t blow up with the gun. They tried and tried until the skipper lost patience.

He ordered the 5-inch cannon crew to take care of the mine. They lowered the cannon into the water and fired.

“One shot, and that mine was gone. We blew it out of the water.”

Another time, while two gunner mates were on shore in Manila, they found a 50 mm machine gun. The men brought it aboard with an idea.

“They told the skipper they could weld a bracket for it on the starboard side and slip it in, and then we could shoot the mines with that,” he said.

Fed up from the failure of the 20 mm machine gun, the skipper gave them permission.

“The gunner started firing and the bracket broke and the gun came back and almost cut his jaw in half,” Esch said.

“That was the end of that experiment.”

Reach Open Spaces reporter Christine Peterson at (307) 460-9598 or christine.peterson@trib.com.

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Managing Editor

A Casper native, Christine Peterson started as a Star-Tribune intern in 2002. She has covered outdoor recreation, the environment and wildlife since 2010, and became managing editor in 2015. If not tracking bears or elk on assignment, she's chasing trout.

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