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To the casual eye, Tang had appeared ready for sea upon launching, but she was now securely moored abreast our shipbuilding office. Electrical cables had been snaked below, and already shipyard workmen had resumed the tasks that had been interrupted by the christening. According to the schedule, their work would continue for nearly two months. During the first few weeks, our ship’s company assembled. Some men arrived from submarine school or schools pertinent to their particular rate. Many came directly from other submarines or after extended periods with one of the manufacturers of Tang’s major machinery. A few reported from bases or ships and had no submarine experience, but there was a place for each of them as well.
The senior officers and petty officers brought with them, perhaps, more varied patrol experience than had ever before been assembled for fitting out and fighting a submarine. Those men who had served in some of the 29 Asiatic Fleet submarines had experienced the general Japanese onslaught that coincided with the attack on Pearl Harbor. During the retreat from the Philippines, their submarines had been assigned trying and sometimes impossible missions in the delaying actions. Then, from bases in Australia, their boats ranged the Southwest Pacific and adjacent seas after enemy ships. At the outset, the men from Pacific Fleet submarines had had an easier time of it. Only the five submarines undergoing repair were at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Neither they nor the submarine base was damaged. Another five were out on patrol, with torpedo tube outer doors open for firing. The remaining 12 were at sea or on the West Coast. Offensive action against enemy shipping started immediately. Their patrols ranged from the Solomons to the Kurils, through the Pacific islands to the Japanese Empire, and on to the Yellow Sea.
For those members of Tang’s crew who had not yet patrolled in submarines, these officers and petty officers formed an experienced nucleus to point the way. They would make it their business to instruct the new hands, for in submarines perhaps more than in any other fighting unit, the survival of all could depend on the performance of any individual.
If our ship’s company brought something unique to Tang, she more than matched it. Great sections for other boats of her class were now moving from shop to ways, and they appeared identical to sections of previous submarines. A close end-on look at the cylindrical pressure hull, however, showed steel plating of twice the former thickness. The external frames, welded to the pressure hull, seemed to be rolled T-bar and had dimensions you might expect to see in the girders of a steel bridge. In the torpedo rooms, where the ballast tanks and framing were inside the pressure hull to permit streamlining, the frames remained visible; they were massive, both in depth and thickness of plate. Thus Tang would be the first deep-hulled submarine in the Pacific, with tactical capabilities due to her superior depth still unknown.
Lieutenant Murray B. Frazee, Jr., from Gettysburg, had reported early as executive officer and navigator. Fraz was of medium height, and his firm features bore the touch of a smile, evidence of the sense of humor he’d surely need. Seven patrols in Grayback had given him confidence, and with this came enthusiasm for the task ahead. Though he and I had served in boats of different temperaments, their basic organization was the same, and I liked what I heard and saw.
Fraz’s assistant in many of the administrative tasks, and a key figure in the ship’s company, would be our chief of the boat, Chief Torpedoman’s Mate William Ballinger. Fraz handed me Ballinger’s file. His home was Rosemead, California, but he came to Tang from patrols in Tunny, and with an outstanding record. At my nod, the exec sent for him. It was some minutes before Ballinger reached our shipbuilding office, having come from witnessing tests of Tang’s torpedo tubes. He was a bit taller than Fraz, and his dark hair, strong features, and military countenance took my eyes from his greasy dungarees. It was evident that he already understood his dual responsibilities, for much of his prestige as chief of the boat rested upon his billet as our leading torpedoman. We spoke of his skipper in Tunny, Commander John Scott, whom we both admired, and I congratulated him on his new billet.
Already, some of the men were assembling spare parts in the storerooms provided ashore for each ship’s department. Those not engaged in this or the necessary fire watches incident to the welding aboard were attending specialized schools. All hands were busy. Now when you have someone who is carrying the ball, don’t stand in his way. I took my own advice, leaving Fraz in charge, and proceeded to the shipyard’s design section to investigate the true strength of Tang’s pressure hull. As I hoped, it could probably take twice the pressure of the stipulated 438 feet. Various hull fittings, however, were considered to be of lesser strength. We would look into that later.
At a naval shipyard, where construction does not follow a strict production line, it is possible to include new equipment not shown in the original plans and to make other innovations that have proven desirable in actual combat. We stretched this a bit to include items that would improve our habitability, though generally this was just a matter of installing a particular piece of equipment in a more convenient location. One item that did not fall into either category was a Taylor ice cream machine. Such a luxury was unheard of for submarines but was authorized for the wardroom of capital ships. That didn’t really mean much, for where could even a battlewagon find one? Well, Tang’s chiefs had—and apparently only an hour ahead of the wardroom on the just-modernized Tennessee. If I did not take immediate action the battleship would get the machine by default, my forged signature on the chit notwithstanding.
Why, only the Chief of the Bureau of Ships could authorize such an installation!” It was the answer I had expected from the shipyard commander, but the key was in the way he’d worded his negative reply. My phone call reached the acting chief, who was at first lukewarm but became quite receptive when I pointed out that the installation would be entirely independent of our own refrigeration system and so could not cause its failure. He simply said, “Get it.” With the whole conversation on a green transcribing disk, we did just that, though I’m not sure who or even if anyone paid for it.
Ensign Fred Melvin Enos, Jr., from across the causeway in Vallejo, took on a somewhat simpler task. Mel was fresh-caught; a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps graduate of the University of California and submarine school, he had yet to go to sea. But much of what he lacked in experience he made up for in eagerness. His project involved a useless warming oven built between the frames of wardroom country’s forward bulkhead. I wanted it converted to a thermostatically controlled baking oven for our stewards, as it was right there in the pantry. If a steward became adept at making pies and pastries he could very nearly write his own ticket in the navy, and I’d never been averse to sampling their experiments. It seemed that I’d barely turned my back when the installation was complete, and on this one I don’t know if a pound of butter or half a ham did the trick.
These were typical of the fun projects. There were others much more serious, which affected our ship and her fighting ability. One of these involved the target bearing transmitters (TBTs). Our periscopes did not transmit sufficient light for any dark night use, so on all but moonlit nights, attacks had to be carried out with our boat on the surface, and bearings taken from the bridge were transmitted to the conning tower by the TBTs. The brackets holding the TBTs were often welded onto the bridge structure in any convenient place, though the shipyard had seen the light in locating Tang’s after TBT on a centerline pedestal. We took care of the forward one ourselves. Down came the gimbal-mounted gyrocompass repeater, which was rarely used for taking bearings from the bridge. The repeater was rigidly reinstalled flush through the bridge cowl, with its face still in plain sight. In its place on the centerline, where alignment could be checked by a sighting on the bullnose, went our forward TBT. The V-shaped receptacle of the TBT would take the center hinge pin of a pair of binoculars to transmit bearings, including my firing bearings, below.
Our diesels, generators, and main motors were aligned, a task that must be done after a ship is waterborne. The 300 tons of batteries were installed, bringing Tang close to her surface trim, and one after another our major pieces of machinery were being tested. Participating, or just observing all of this was the best possible way for our ship’s company to learn the boat. If there were building yards where workmen loafed on the job, Mare Island was not among them. On the contrary, it was not at all unusual to see an electrician or a machinist continue at his task well into the next shift so that others’ work would not be delayed. With this type of effort, Tang’s completion stayed right on schedule.
Commissioning is not given the fanfare of a christening, for it is not as spectacular as a launching. In many ways, however, it is more solemn and significant to the participants. It marks the state of a ship’s completion, when the responsibility and authority pass to the prospective commanding officer. Tang’s commissioning ceremony was short and to the point. With her crew and officers assembled, the shipyard commander read his directive. I read my order to take command and nodded to Sidney Jones, our chief quartermaster; the jack and colors were hoisted smartly as the commission pennant was broken from our main. The first watch was set. Tang was now a part of the United States Navy and I was in command. I took this occasion to read to all hands my charge from Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox:
Immediately after her shaking down period the U.S.S. Tang will be assigned to duty wherever she is then most needed. It is entirely possible that you will proceed directly into combat. Your first action may be by day or night, against any type of vessel or aircraft possessed by our able and ruthless enemies.
Your future Fleet, Force, and Unit Commanders must rely on the U.S.S. Tang as an effective fighting unit from the hour when she reports to them for duty. It is your task to justify their confidence.
If there was any doubt in the mind of anyone concerning the seriousness of the coming weeks, this letter would square them away, for a charge to me was a charge to every member of the crew.