(This is the conclusion to a two-part story on World War II veteran and Cary resident Bill Edwards.)
When Bill Edwards volunteered for submarine duty, he envisioned scores of dangerous missions while stealthily preying upon enemy ships.
The type of duty the 17 year old ended up with couldn’t have been any more dissimilar.
For nearly four months, Edwards was assigned to an assortment of menial tasks while stationed at bases in the Australian cities of Brisbane and Freemantle.
Day after day, Edwards painted, cleaned and restocked submarines in preparation for the vessels’ next combat patrol.
In fact, he was laboriously chipping paint on a sub when he was summoned to headquarters and presented with an offer that seemed too good to be true.
An officer aboard the submarine tender USS Eurayle was looking for help. Among the 1,300-man crew, only one sailor had the skills necessary to butcher and cook. Edwards’ records showed that he had plenty of experience in both areas.
The officer asked Edwards if he would like to take over the ship’s butchering duties.
“I hesitated,” said Edwards. “I hadn’t been out to sea yet and I was ready to go. But I hesitated long enough for him to convince me. He said if I stayed and butchered I could keep my liberty card. He said, ‘Once the butchering is done, you’re free. Just be here the next morning for butchering.’ So, I stayed.”
Edwards was loaned to the Eurayle, which remained in Freemantle for several months, and quickly became the envy of all his buddies.
“It was wonderful duty,” said Edwards. “It only took about six hours to butcher. Then I could go shower and get ready to go out. I was free to leave the ship. It worked out very well.”
But in early 1945, the submarine USS Sea Robin docked in Freemantle while preparing for a combat patrol.
Once again, Edwards was summoned to headquarters and was surprised to discover that his services were apparently in high demand.
An officer from both the Sea Robin and the Eurayle were arguing about Edwards’ next assignment.
“The executive officer for the Sea Robin said, ‘We are short a man and I haven’t been able to locate anybody else who is qualified to go with us,’” said Edwards. “’We’d like you to go with us.’ The (Eurayle) officer said, ‘We need him here to butcher’ and then he offered to give me a promotion if I stayed.”
Edwards was speechless.
“Then the executive officer said, ‘If you don’t go with us, you’ll become part of that ship’s company and you’ll lose your hazardous duty pay. We need you,’” said Edwards. “I said, ‘Yes, sir. I’ll go.’”
The officer told Edwards to get his gear and report immediately to the Sea Robin. The submarine was leaving within the hour.
Off to war
Edwards had been living very well as a butcher aboard the Eurayle. He was receiving hazardous duty pay, rarely had to work more than six or seven hours a day and was free to leave the base pretty much whenever he wanted.
Now, in a matter of two hours, he was aboard the Sea Robin heading out to sea in search of the enemy.
In his usual easy going manner, Edwards wasn’t ruffled one bit.
“It was fine, it was no problem,” said Edwards. “There were three or four of us that had never been on a submarine before.”
The combat patrol would last 66 days and cover more than 18,000 miles. The Sea Robin would sink six Japanese vessels, rescue a P-51 pilot and arrive in Pearl Harbor in late April with 16 prisoners of war that were plucked out of the sea.
“We ran into some convoys and had a pretty good (patrol),” said Edwards. “We sunk some ships.”
Edwards, who served as both a lookout and helmsman, also experienced his first depth charge attack.
“That is pretty rough,” said Edwards. “You can’t do anything but go down (deeper) and be as quiet as you can. You don’t move around and you don’t make noise. You have to turn everything off. Of course, it gets hotter than the dickens because you can’t run any fans. You just have to stay still until the destroyers move away. Then you can go hunting again.”
The Sea Robin arrived in Pearl Harbor on April 29 where it was refitted for another patrol.
The vessel remained in port until June 1 and the submariners enjoyed their time in Hawaii.
“When we got back to Pearl, another guy and I had this wonderful private room overlooking the ocean,” said Edwards. “They had to make a lot of repairs to the submarine so we were there for a few weeks.”
Edwards’ second – and final – combat patrol began on June 1 and lasted to early August.
Once again, the Sea Robin was credited with sinking six vessels and rescuing numerous Japanese survivors.
Searching for survivors after sinking a vessel led to several disturbing experiences.
“The Japanese used sampans and they would radio planes that would attack you while you were surfaced,” said Edwards. “Some of them even had small guns that could shell you. Every once in a while we would shell or machine gun them.”
Unfortunately, these vessels occasionally had women and children aboard.
“We sunk one of the sampans and surfaced to see what was going on,” said Edwards. “There were some people swimming around in the sea, including a woman with a baby on her back. Another woman had a little boy maybe 6 or 8 years old. When the captain saw them he had us pick them up. We got the woman with the baby but when we got to the other woman the little boy was no longer with her.”
A Korean POW aboard the Sea Robin later told the crew that the woman had deliberately drowned her son because she feared what the Americans would do to him.
“(The Japanese) gave them some awful stories about us so I guess they would die before being taken prisoner,” said Edwards. “It made you feel bad that what you had sunk had women and a baby on it.”
Another group of survivors also included several women and a baby and, once again, they believed the Americans meant them harm.
“We tried to figure out what to do with them,” said Edwards. “We made some beds for the older women and made another bed for the young woman with the baby. Our chief was trying to tell her that it was a bed and was pointing to it. She climbed up and starting taking her clothes off. She thought we were going to rape her. That’s what they had been taught about us. Well, it embarrassed the dickens out of him.
“We gave them food, clothes, extra dungarees and stuff like that. One of the guys gave the young mother one of his t-shirts so she could cover the baby.”
Not all the Japanese survivors welcomed rescue from the Americans. Some swam away from life preservers and one even asked for a knife in order to commit hara-kari, a ritualized form of suicide.
Some were intent on trying to kill at least one American before dying.
“When we picked up the one group with all the women there was one guy with a knife and he tried to stab one of our guys,” said Edwards. “So, we shot him and pushed him back overboard.”
Rescuing downed American pilots always gave the crew a great sense of accomplishment.
Some of the pilots relished the chance to spend time on a submarine. Others were counting the minutes until they could get off of it.
“We picked up one pilot who stayed with us for several days and just loved the submarine,” said Edwards. “He said he hated to leave. He really enjoyed it. But we had a couple more who were ready to leave as soon as somebody could come and pick them up.”
The crew of the Sea Robin very nearly experienced the same fate as all those survivors they plucked from the sea.
The submarine was cruising along the surface charging its’ batteries during the early morning hours of July 10 when it spotted a sampan. After closing in, the crew began firing their 40-milimeter gun and a portable .50-caliber machine gun at the vessel.
Edwards, who was assigned to the machine gun as a loader, was standing topside when a Tokai anti-submarine bomber suddenly appeared out of the low-lying clouds.
“It started coming right at us,” said Edwards. “Immediately, the diving alarm sounded and there were quite a few of us still on the deck. Usually, in an emergency like that, you had about 45 or 50 seconds before you had water coming over you. So, you don’t climb down the ladder, you jump down and try not to have someone jump on you. Once you get in the conning tower, if you don’t have any duties, you just get out of the way.”
The Tokai passed directly over the sub at a very low altitude but, fortunately, didn’t drop any bombs on its first pass.
“We were thankful he wasn’t a suicide pilot,” said Edwards. “Instead of ramming right into us he pulled up and missed us.”
As Edwards ran toward the hatch, the captain grabbed his shoulder and told him to go back for the .50-caliber machine gun.
Edwards darted toward the gun, grabbed it and threw it down the open hatch before jumping in.
“The captain was right on my shoulders as we went down,” said Edwards. “By then, water was already pouring in.”
As Edwards exited the control room he could feel the submerging submarine shudder from the Tokai’s bombs. The attack damaged the submarine’s bow torpedo tubes, which caused numerous torpedo misses during the remainder of the patrol.
Two other close calls resulted in Edwards being verbally accosted by men of higher rank.
Once again, the submarine was cruising on the surface when an approaching Japanese plane was spotted.
Edwards, who was posted as a lookout, started running for the hatch when he noticed a new ensign near the conning tower still standing in place.
“The alarm sounded and everybody was running for the hatch,” said Edwards. “The ensign was standing there looking through his binoculars. I ran over and picked him up and carried him to the hatch.
“Well, he was trying to break free and just as we reached the hatch he broke loose. He turned around and started yelling at me, ‘How dare you put your hands on an officer.’”
Luckily for Edwards, the captain saw everything that happened and was not amused by the young ensign’s theatrics.
“As he was yelling, the captain grabbed him and shoved him down the hatch,” said Edwards. “I followed him down with the captain right behind me and water was pouring in the hatch. I never heard another word about it from the ensign or the captain.”
The next incident occurred during a very stressful cat-and-mouse game with three Japanese destroyers.
The warships continually crisscrossed above the deeply submerged Sea Robin and loosened a barrage of depth charges with each pass.
All depth charge attacks brought some apprehension but this one Edwards recalls as being one of the worst the men ever endured.
“You weren’t supposed to go below around 350 feet or you were subject to being crushed by the pressure,” said Edwards. “But we went deeper than that. In that type of situation, you had to take the chance.”
As the duration of the attack wore on, the tension among the 80-plus crewmen began to build.
“The attacks didn’t last more than an hour or an hour and a half before they give up,” said Edwards. “But that hour seems to be a long time when you are sitting there.”
The attacks might have been worse for the men who didn’t have anything to do. There they sat, in the dim light and stagnant air, trying to stay as quiet as possible.
It was enough to unnerve even the most experienced sailor.
“Most of the guys who didn’t have a battle station would sit in the mess hall,” said Edwards. “The chief of the boat and the machinist chief were both sitting there with me and they both had been out on patrols a good bit.”
With each exploding depth charge, the machinist chief grew more agitated and, more alarmingly, he began to talk loudly.
“We were supposed to be very quiet and he was getting pretty shook up,” said Edwards. “I said, ‘Chief, stick close to me because I’m going back home.’”
The confident words from the laidback teenager set off the older sailor like a Roman candle.
“Well, he jumped up and called me some names and then he grabbed me,” said Edwards.
The scuffle became louder and more heated until the other chief tried to defuse the situation.
“The chief whispered to him, ‘Shut up. All he is trying to do is calm you down. Now settle down.’ So we sat there until it was over and they finally stopped depth charging us,” said Edwards.
Edwards thought the matter was forgotten until the next day when the machinist chief approached him.
“He came up to me and apologized,” said Edwards. “He told me, ‘Edwards, I’ve been depth charged quite a few times and it starts getting to you after awhile.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, chief,’ and he said, ‘No, you were just trying to help me a little bit.’”
He then gave the teen a compliment that still makes him smile all these decades later.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Edwards, you should be a deep sea diver. I have a brother who is a deep sea diver and nothing ever fazes him, either.’”
Time to go home
The Sea Robin was patrolling the Yellow Sea in early August when it was ordered to head back to a base at Midway. It was there they heard the news about Japan’s surrender.
“We were at Midway and they told us we could all go for a beer,” said Edwards. “While we were there we learned the war was over. It was a great feeling.”
The Sea Robin returned to Pearl Harbor and within 24 hours Edwards was on a troop transport heading for California.
“I had been overseas a lot longer than most of the other guys,” said Edwards. “So, I don’t think I even spent the night at Pearl Harbor. The (transport) was getting ready to leave and I was on it headed back to the states.”
Edwards traveled by train from San Francisco to New York before beginning the final leg of his journey to North Carolina.
“I got on a train in New York and I asked the (conductor), ‘Does this train stop in Franklinton?’” said Edwards. “He told me it only stopped in Henderson and Raleigh. I said, ‘Well, I’ll get off in Henderson because it’s a lot nearer.’ Then he asked, ‘Why, are you just back from overseas?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and he said, ‘Don’t worry, this train will stop in Franklinton.’”
Edwards remained in the military several more months before receiving his honorable discharge. He ended up married and divorced and spending too much time in pool halls.
“My sister told me to leave Franklinton and stop playing pool,” said Edwards. “I was pretty good with a pool stick but she told me that wasn’t the life for me.”
Edwards eventually heeded his sister’s advice and moved to the Raleigh area where he landed a job with Taylor Food Company. He was quickly promoted to a managerial position.
In 1953, he and his wife, Lois, were married and the couple raised three daughters and a son.
Looking back on his time as a submariner, Edwards doesn’t regret any of it – not even the day he asked his father to sign his military papers.
“I always thought when I went in (the navy) that I would get back,” said Edwards. “Sure, there were some scary moments. We sat in a minefield one night and you could hear the chains (attached to the explosives) scraping the side of the submarine. But I always believed I would get home. I never worried too much.”
Spoken like a true submariner.