Cup of coffee leads to submarine duty


Senior Member
Oct 5, 2009
Cup of coffee leads to submarine duty

On this command, a sub would quickly plunge into the ocean depths to duck out of sight from the enemy.

It was an action U.S. Navy veteran Jacques Abels became very familiar with during his time as a submarine officer on the first USS Thresher and the USS Shad.

While patrolling the Indian Ocean in December 1942 a convoy of Japanese ships appeared around 8 p.m. Christmas Eve, Abels said.

"We sunk the first three ships," he said. "They came after us with depth charges. It was really scary. The water was only 150 feet deep. We had to do evasive action to get away from the destroyers."

Less than a week later, the men fired four torpedoes at a big transport ship, but didn't made a dent in that huge hunk of steel.

"They all bounced off," he said.

Deck guns — 551's with 5

"We had 80 to 90 rounds," Abels said. "We fired all the rounds into the transport."

The transport ship returned the favor, spraying the sub's top side with bullets. "It was the only time I was under machine gun fire," he said.

The ship was finished off with a torpedo, sinking in the place it was attacked.

Whenever the sub attacked Japanese ships, the enemy dropped depth charges. The crew could hear when the explosives were dropped into the ocean. Then, after a few seconds, "we heard a crackling sound and we knew it was arming itself."

Abels said the pressure of the submerged sub was 51 pounds per square inch and when a depth charge exploded, it caused additional pressure inside the submarine.

"If they got close enough, they could make your submarine implode," he said.

Abels said he swore he'd never go aboard a submarine, but after an officer friend asked him to just try it out, he consented.

"I said, 'I'll go for one patrol,'" he said.

That Sunday, he packed his sea bag and went aboard the USS Thresher (SS 200).

He was offered a cup of coffee soon after boarding. He accepted, took a drink from the cup and enjoyed a pleasant surprise.

"It was half alky (alcohol) and half coffee," he said, laughing. "I said, 'Man, I'm going to enjoy this duty.'"

Abels was quick to point out this was not standard operating procedure and alcohol was strictly prohibited aboard the sub.

Abels ended up staying for three patrols, performed admirably and was recommended for a battleship promotion to an officer's rank of ensign. But the higher-ups went one better. They suggested he attend midshipman's school at the University of Chicago.

"Out of a class of about 600, I was the only one who had combat duty," he said.

Later, he was sent to officer's submarine school in New London, Conn., a 90-day training program. There, one of his captains on the USS Thresher was in town — a man Abels greatly admired.

The captain was getting a sub degaussed (eliminating the magnetic field around the ship).

"He looked me up he said, 'I want you to be one of my officers in Pearl Harbor. I'll leave orders.'"

After finishing his training, Abels reported to Pearl Harbor for his assignment to the USS Escolar.

When Abels checked in, he got some bad news.

"I was told, 'She's overdue,'" Abels said. 'If you'd have been here two weeks ago, we would have flown you to Saipan and you would have been aboard.'"

"I almost fell over," Abels said.

"Overdue" meant she was sunk.

Abels was then assigned to the USS Shad, where, as a line officer, some of his duties included standing watch for two-hour shifts on the bridge.

"On the bridge there were three lookouts, a quartermaster and myself," he said. "I had control of the submarine" if anything happened.

The sub patrolled areas in the Pacific off of Japan, China, New Guinea and Indonesia, among others.

Abels' father served with Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders during the Spanish American War. He counseled his son about the military.

"He said, 'Do not join the Army. Don't get drafted. Join the Navy. You get three square meals a day and a warm place to sleep.'"

His father also encouraged him to try to get a commission as an officer.

"I followed his advice," Abels said. "He was so proud."

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