Three things about a submarine: “Number one, you eat three meals a day and they are all hot. Number two, you got a clean bunk to sleep in ...
“The third thing is claustrophobia. They don’t take anybody who’s claustrophobic.”
Maybe there was a fourth thing, too. Only four out of 120 in Frank Mueller’s Navy class were picked for submarine diesel school. The rest went into the amphibious force and were sent to D-Day.
“Seventy-five percent of them never came back,” he said.
Mueller was drafted on Sept. 23, 1943. Really, he needed something to do. He’d lost both his parents in 1941 — his mother in a car crash, his father from heart failure days later. “They were both dead and buried in one week, from Wednesday to Wednesday.”
Mueller was 16. His disabled sister was 6, his brother 15. They had a mortgage on the dairy farm in Oxford, N.Y. Navy money would help his aunt raise his sister. Mueller left for boot camp when he was 18.
The Navy had ways to make sure submarine sailors weren’t scared of tight places, confined under water with the same 85 to 92 men for months at a time. First, men could be no taller than 6-foot-2, no heavier than 200 pounds. Mueller was 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds.
Psychological tests weeded out men who didn’t have the temperament. “People who were hard to get along with or people who couldn’t take orders, who couldn’t understand what to do or couldn’t remember how to do it” didn’t make the cut, Mueller said.
“One thing about a submarine sailor, you knew how to do everything on the boat. You knew all the systems — the air systems, electrical systems, water systems, sea water systems. You knew how to do all of it.”
Finally, a submariner had to be able to escape in cases of emergency. Training for this meant a “swim” in the Dive Tower, 60 feet high.
The sailors were given a Munson Lung — a canvas bag filled with oxygen and attached to a mouthpiece — and entered at the base of the tower. Don’t hold your breath, they were told, or the difference in the water pressure would expand their lungs and explode them. Don’t ascend too quickly, or suffer the same fate. Lose the guide rope, get the bends.
They piled the men into a crowded room with a low ceiling and pressurized it. One by one, they were turned loose in the water.
Mueller’s submarine, the USS Tigrone, left Portsmouth, N.H., in November 1943. It traveled through the Panama Canal to Pearl Harbor to get supplies for its first war patrol, looking for Japanese ships in the South China Sea bearing cargo from Russia. They didn’t find anything on that 85-day patrol, though, and went to Guam for rest.
The Tigrone stayed underwater in the daytime to keep from being seen. Then, Mueller operated the trim manifold, moving water back forth from the bulk to maintain negative buoyancy. He worked with two rows of eight levers, opening and closing valves separating the tanks.
The submarine surfaced at night to recharge its batteries, but Mueller rarely got to leave the hull. Lookout duty went to right-arm personnel. At night, Mueller serviced and repaired the diesel engines.
From the engine room where Mueller worked, he had 140 feet between where he slept and where he ate. For weeks on end, that was as far as he got — back and forth, back and forth.
The Tigron’s next war patrol was air-to-sea rescue in the waters from the Mariana Islands to Japan. In five weeks, they picked up 31 aviators.
“Thirty of them lived,” Mueller said.
Here’s how it worked: An air crew in trouble sent out its coordinates in an SOS. If the Tigrone was close enough, it responded, day or night. Almost always the plane had already sunk, so sailors used the periscope to look for aviators floating in the ocean.
“If they ditched the plane, they were a lot easier to pick up if they were still alive because they were all together. When they jumped with a parachute, they’d sometimes be 30 to 35 miles apart and they were hard to find,” Mueller said.
“And we didn’t find all of them.”
If Japanese planes flew overhead, the Tigrone had to pull in the airmen one a time — diving and surfacing, diving again. Sometimes, Japanese planes strafed the water with bullets.
Rescued aviators stayed on the submarine until it could get them to a ship or port. One crew — all Irishmen from south Texas — were surprised to learn that the submarine had to dive with them onboard. Wouldn’t it be dropping them off somewhere? But the Tigrone had its own war duties.
“They got used to it,” Mueller said. “Like this one guy said, ‘I was claustrophobic but I got over it in a hurry. It was either that or drown.’”
The aviator who didn’t live was the pilot of an OA-10, a Navy PBY. The pilot had landed the flying boat on the water, but in his attempt to take off, a propeller hit a swell, broke off and crashed through the fuselage. The pilot died on the submarine and was buried at sea.
The Tigrone’s third patrol was in support of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s return to the Philippines in the summer of 1945. With its 5-inch guns and two 40-millimeters, it bombarded radar stations on land to give the invading force a chance.
On Aug. 14, the Tigrone was called to Tokyo Bay, part of a show of force for the Japanese surrender. They weren’t allowed on the beach, though: “Too many lice. Too many rabid dogs.”
The Tigrone stayed until the official surrender on Sept. 2. By Sept. 3, they were sailing for the states.
Mueller once heard that a million diesel mechanics were looking for jobs when he got out. After finding no work, he signed up for another two years, testing experimental submarines with an air-breathing tube that extended 60 feet above the sub. It allowed submarines to run their engines without batteries, move more quickly through the water and stay active, even at night.
The problem was that it wreaked havoc on the boat’s pressure. Until they got the kinks worked out, it busted sailors’ eardrums and caused them to bleed from the corners of their eyes. It ruined Mueller’s hearing.
“I enjoyed the service. I enjoyed getting paid every two weeks. I enjoyed having good food and, most of the time, good people around you,” he said.
But, he said, he doesn’t miss the submarines.