(This is part one of a series on WW II veteran Bill Edwards.)
It took a very special type of person to serve aboard a submarine during World War II.
The kind of man who could remain calm and levelheaded under extreme duress, didn’t mind sharing cramped quarters 100 feet below the ocean surface and displayed nearly limitless patience with both people and circumstances.
They were exactly the characteristics that Cary resident Bill Edwards seemed to possess in triplicate.
Throughout his life, Edwards was never very fazed by much of anything. Even as a young boy he was armed with an almost unnatural ability to shrug off situations that would cause most people to break out in a cold sweat.
Edwards was not the type to fret about the future. If he could do something to improve a situation, he would do it. If the circumstance was out of his control then he would simply face the results the best way possible.
These traits would prove invaluable to him during his two combat patrols aboard the USS Sea Robin in the Pacific theater.
There were numerous times when Edwards, just 18 or 19 years old, would silently sit in the dim light of the mess hall and listen as Japanese destroyers crisscrossed high above on the water’s surface fruitlessly searching for their prey.
Three hundred – at times maybe even as deep as 350 or 400 – feet below, the submarine would shudder as depth charges pried the watery darkness.
Even worse than being hunted was the night that the Sea Robin was forced to submerge in an area filled with mines. The chains dangling from the floating explosives could be heard scraping against the submarines’ outer hull.
Through the worst of it, Edwards not only kept his cool but seemed to become more placid as the danger increased.
That impenetrable calm would eventually trigger an emotional outburst from a much older veteran of submarine combat. But in time, that same man would come to marvel at Edwards’ unshakeable temperament.
Just like most people in his hometown of Franklinton, N.C., Edwards was no stranger to hard work.
Born on April 8, 1926, he was one of two sons and three daughters raised by William and Nora Edwards.
The Great Depression had been pretty hard on Franklinton. The town’s biggest employers, two large cotton mills, felt the crunch of the struggling national economy.
But William owned a grocery store that included a butcher shop, pool room and gas station that allowed the family to fare well during those tough times.
Edwards worked for his father from a very early age, including helping with the killing and butchering of cows, pigs and calves.
“My father was able to provide pretty well for us,” said Edwards. “I did a little bit of everything for him. I went to school and pretty much came home and went to work in the store or the pool room.’
Edwards was caught up in his ordinary teenage life when he heard the news that Pearl Harbor had been attacked.
“I remember where I was,” said Edwards, who was just 15 years old at the time of the attack. “It was a Sunday and I was with my aunt and her son. She had a big Philco radio and could get all kinds of news.”
The sudden dawn of a new world war, along with all the corresponding fears and concerns, dominated most discussions.
“It was talked about a good bit,” said Edwards. “People were afraid the Japanese were going to land in California. Of course, they rounded up all the (American-Japanese) because they were worried.”
Prior to Dec. 7, 1941, Edwards pretty much kept his focus on his hometown. Once the war began, however, he became keenly aware of world events.
“I wanted to know what was going on all the time and always tried to keep up with the news,” said Edwards. “One of my first cousins, Eugene Poole, was at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed. His mother and dad just lived right down the road from us and his younger sister was my age.
“You think more about what is going on and what is happening. For a long time we didn’t even hear from him but he survived the war.”
Franklinton soon began to feel the effects of the war and it wasn’t all bad.
“It was pretty much life as usual for a while but then the mills started producing more and then they started running around the clock,” said Edwards. “It created a little extra money to bring things out of the Depression.”
After graduating from high school in 1943, the 17-year-old moved to Virginia where he attended an airplane assembly course. But after the course was terminated because of funding problems, Edwards returned to Franklinton and resumed working for his father.
Young, restless and eager to get involved in the war, he and a friend, Joe Dennis, son of the Franklinton police chief, traveled to the naval recruiting station in Raleigh.
“We took the examinations and then they handed us a piece of paper and said, ‘All you need to do is get your father’s signature,’” said Edwards. “That’s when things got a little rough, getting him to sign the papers.”
Both teens worked hard at convincing their fathers to sign on the dotted line. Edwards’ father was angry that his son wanted to volunteer for the war but, eventually, he acquiesced.
“He told me he would very much like to kick my ass,” said Edwards with a laugh. “But he said he imagined about six months from now I would like to kick his ass (for signing the papers). To tell you the truth, I didn’t regret it.”
The two friends were sent to Bainbridge, Md., for basis training in November of 1943. It was there that Edwards learned volunteers were being sought for submarine duty.
“The guy told us we would get a whole lot of extra pay for hazardous duty,” said Edwards. “I decided to volunteer.”
His buddy wanted no part of submarines and the two soon parted ways. Edwards was sent to New London, Conn., for training while Dennis ended up remaining in the U.S. the rest of the war on shore patrol.
The Silent Service
One of the first hurdles to becoming a submariner is the battery of psychological tests administered by navy doctors.
Many of the questions are borderline insulting, asked in a manner intended to evoke an emotional outburst.
Those that can’t handle the questions have no chance of stepping inside a submarine.
“Temperament was very important,” said Edwards. “We had 83 men on a 311-foot submarine. Once you are on a submarine there is nowhere to go.”
Many of the sailors didn’t like the the tests and were quickly involved in a heated exchange with the interviewers.
Edwards, on the other hand, was simply amused by the entire experience.
“It didn’t bother me,” said Edwards. “I just wanted to make sure I qualified. There were quite a few of us who volunteered who were not accepted. They asked you many questions, some embarrassing. I sometimes wondered if they were just trying to see if they could make you mad.
“They asked you personal questions about your life and they got into a lot of detail. I think I just smiled and laughed at him more than anything else.”
It was exactly the type of response the navy wanted from its young volunteers and Edwards breezed through the exams.
After spending four or five months of training in New London, Edwards was sent to the Mare Island Naval Shipyard for advanced training.
It was here the volunteers learned how to escape a damaged submarine.
The training was not for the faint of heart.
The men were shown how to use a Momsen lung, which was a small oxygen-filled bag that connected to a mouthpiece. They were then submerged in a 100-foot chamber filled with water.
“You put it in your mouth with a close pin over your nose,” said Edwards. “You could breathe for a few minutes and they put you in this pressurized chamber. You had to be able to hold your nose and blow to equalize the pressure in your ears. It would hurt some at first but you gradually learned how to do it.”
Once inside the chamber, the men were told to exit by climbing a long cable that stretched to the water’s surface.
“You took hold of the rope and learned not to go too fast or you would hit the guy above you and knock (the Momsen) out of your mouth,” said Edwards. “You couldn’t go too slow and get hit by the guy behind you or you might knock his (mouthpiece) out.”
Even Edwards had his laidback nature pushed to the limits inside the chamber.
“That was the worst part of the training,” said Edwards. “Some men panicked. They had some people in there who were experienced. If something happened a guy would pull him out to keep him from drowning. I don’t remember hearing about anyone ever drowning but people did foul up at times.”
On to Australia
Once his training was complete, Edwards was placed aboard a troop ship and sent to a submarine base in Brisbane, Australia.
The duty was anything but glamorous. As a member of a relief crew, he had to refurbish and restock submarines while the crews were on leave. Some of the submarines would also need to be fumigated and painted.
It was in Brisbane that Edwards risked his life to save a fellow sailor.
An officer wanted one of the men to go into a recently fumigated submarine and turn the exhaust fans on so they could air out the vessel.
Edwards and two other sailors volunteered and the officer asked them how long they could hold their breath.
“We said three minutes, maybe four if we had to,” said Edwards. “We were young and in good shape. We always had to swim under water at the base. That was just part of the training.’
The officer told one of the sailors to go inside the submarine while he timed him with his watch. The sailor took a deep breath and disappeared down the hatch.
One minute passed, then two and three. The officer began to look worried.
“He said, ‘He needs to be back here. He’s run out of time,’” said Edwards. “I jumped down the ladder because at that age when someone said jump, you jumped. I found him in the next compartment laying on the floor. I grabbed his arms, put him over my shoulder and went to the hatch.
“Some other guys ran over and helped lift him through the hatch. When I got topside I started to pass out.”
The sailor was rushed away by ambulance while a pharmacist’s mate attended to Edwards.
“I don’t know what happened to the other guy,” said Edwards. “You really didn’t ask a lot of questions. It was about noon the next day before I could get out of bed.”
Just a couple of days later, Edwards’ three-month stay in Brisbane came to an end. He was sent by train to Perth, a two-and-a-half day excursion across the barren landscape.
“There were four of us in a little compartment,” said Edwards. “I slept in the luggage rack.”
Once in Perth, the hapless routine of chipping paint and stocking shelves resumed.
But an old skill he had mastered years ago in his father’s butcher shop was about to change his fortunes.
(Part two of Bill Edwards’ story will appear in next week’s edition.)