THE FIRST atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Three days later the second A-bomb was detonated over Nagasaki. A defeated Japanese government immediately sent out peace feelers.
On Aug. 13, two days before the Japanese surrender, dispatches were sent to all U.S. submarines in the Pacific to "cease fire" and return to base.
All submarines acknowledged the message except the USS Bullhead, operating off Bali in the North Lomboc Strait in the Java Sea. Just a week before the cease-fire order, she had been attacked by a Japanese Army plane, which reported direct hits with two depth charges.
A Japanese eyewitness described the scene: "For 10 minutes there was a great amount of gushing oil and air bubbles rising in the water."
Eighty-four officers and men died.
The Bullhead proved to be the last U.S. Navy ship lost in action in World War II.
But just before the Bullhead's last fatal run from Fremantle, Australia, more than a dozen men were transferred off, including the captain, Walter T. Griffith. Griffith's nerves were worn from a lengthy tour and his physical condition weakened by severe dysentery. A few of the men were sick with minor ailments; one requested to remain ashore after marrying an Australian.
For Griffith, the sinking of the Bullhead came as a shock from which he never recovered. The years that followed were long, haunting ones that never erased the searing memories of what might have been. A watery grave, in retrospect, might have been no worse a fate than the anguish that was to dog him through the rest of his life.
Walter T. Griffith, 33, was the kind of officer who attracted loyalty. When he took command of the Bullhead in March 1945, an engineering officer and three torpedomen requested transfers off the USS Bowfin to be with him. On his first war patrol as skipper of the Bowfin, Griffith and his men had sunk more than 70,000 tons of enemy shipping, a record that stood for two years. For that feat and subsequent ones, Griffith was awarded a Navy Cross, a Silver Star and a Gold Star.
Griffith was an enlisted man's kind of officer. He had once been one of them and had gotten to Annapolis the hard way. Born in Mansfield, La., he had joined the Navy on his 17th birthday. After two years at sea, he was accepted at the Naval Academy, graduating in 1934. Slight of build, 5-foot-9, 145 pounds, he was known as "Red" because of his auburn hair.
But by the time he was captain of the Bullhead, according to Martin Sheridan in his 1947 book "Overdue and Presumed Lost," "his hair has faded a bit . . . He's only 33 but he has lived a thousand years." Sheridan, the only World War II correspondent to sail aboard a sub during a patrol, noted that Griffith "gets very little extended, uninterrupted sleep . . . Day and night, someone is always breaking in on him to tell him of the sighting of vessels . . . ." When he did sleep, Griffith revealed, it was often fitful, full of dreams of dodging torpedoes.
A submarine is never out of danger from human or mechanical failure, enemy or friendly planes. The Bullhead picked up three downed Army fliers from a B-25 crew within swimming distance off the China coast right from under the noses of the Japanese. Caught on the surface a few days later, the Bullhead dived quickly and was depth-charged by a float plane (investigation later proved it to be an American plane).
After one particulary long and tense day, Sheridan quotes Griffith as saying, "Wonder why I feel as if I had been through a clothes wringer?" as he sank wearily into a wardroom chair.
At its battle station in the Gulf of Siam and the Java Sea, Griffith directed operations despite suffering severe dysentery. A 150-ton two-master lugger was sunk, and a few days later 500-ton and 700-ton ships were sunk. Weak and exhausted, Griffith managed to make it to the bridge to order his gunners to spray a dock where two 300-ton crafts were tied up.
Griffith got the most out of his men with gentle chiding, according to Sheridan. One day at dusk, the Bullhead was surfaced less than two miles off an enemy island. Two officers on the bridge were contemplating native huts, other local color and the aromas of native cooking. Totally neglecting their watch, they did not hear the skipper come onto the bridge but heard him yell, "Goddammit, if you don't pay more attention to your watch, I won't take you sightseeing anymore."
By the time the Bullhead had tied up in Australia, she had been highly successful: 1,850 tons of enemy shipping destroyed, 1,300 tons damaged. The trip had taken her 11,623 miles in 43 days.
At a wild ship's party held in a cafe, Griffith and the lowest enlisted man sang "Paper Doll," cementing the comradery that came with life aboard a submarine.
Griffith was assigned to a staff position on Guam. On the day of his departure, the Bullhead crew, training off the coast of Australia, sent him a farewell message. Griffith had to fight back the tears, according to Sheridan. It was the last message sent by the Bullhead. Griffith got news of the sinking in a Navy hospital on Guam, where he was recuperating from exhaustion.
I served aboard the sub USS Pilotfish. Most patrols were long and boring.
We played cards and listened to records of Jack Benny radio shows until we knew every line. Writing letters was fruitless; they couldn't be mailed for at least two months. Diaries were not permitted and the news came late. It was months before I knew my brother was alive; he was in the Normandy invasion and was taken prisoner.
When an enemy ship was sighted, the adrenalin flowed. During one nine-day period, it seemed we were on battle stations most of the time. We worked in a sub pack with the Shark II and the Pintado and were credited with sinking five ships, our part in the invasion of Saipan.
A few months later, the Shark II was lost with all hands aboard.
Lt. Cmdr. Edward R. Holt Jr., with 10 war patrols on his record, succeeded Griffith as captain of the Bullhead. In his last letter to his wife, according to Sheridan, he wrote of his determination to "live up to the wonderful job Cmdr. Griffith" had done and added, "I couldn't have been more fortunate if I had written my own ticket."
Jack Yobski, as fate would have it, did not sail with the Bullhead on its last run.
During an earlier layover in the Philippines, a machinist mate second class, Jerry K. Davidson, was anxious to see a brother he hadn't seen in years who was serving in an Army unit about a half day away. Ignoring orders, Davidson took off to find him. On his return, he received his punishment -- he was to be passed over for promotion and Jack Yobski was promoted to first class instead.
The day before the Bullhead was to set out from Fremantle for the last time, Yobski went to the executive officer, complaining about not feeling well. He was told that if he could find a qualified submariner with the same rank who would be willing to swap, he could sit out the patrol on a relief crew.
Yobski went to the barracks to shop around. The recently promoted Yobski was lucky to find Robert J. Perry, tired of the relief crew and wanting some action.
The two returned to the Bullhead and the transfer was okayed.
They swapped bunks and lockers, shook hands and went their ways, both happy.
The Ones Who Got Off
The chief of the boat is an important job on a submarine. He is the go-between for the captain and executive officer and the crew.
They are usually wise, experienced, gentle men who can reach out to a homesick sailor or come down hard on a crewman who is fouling up.
This was the position held by chief torpedoman Chester H. Fitzjarrald, 27, for two patrol runs before he transferred off at Fremantle.
"I think there were 16 of us who got off," said Fitzjarrald, now 63, of Norwich, Conn. "It happened so quick. It seemed they had just left port and the ship's party had just ended."
Fitzjarrald spent his last working years as a civilian employe at the sub base in New London.
"When Griffith came to work in public relations at Groton after his retirement , I saw him once in a while. He wasn't happy.
"Griffith was a sailor's skipper, a fine submarine man. He wrote a personal letter to every one of us when he heard the news, and he also wrote to the families of all the men who went down.
"He had so much courage. His decisions were quick and always right. I would have gone anywhere with him."
Jack Yobski feels the same way. Today Yobski is a successful real estate broker in Decatur, Ill., married, with a son and two grandaughters.
"The Navy closed out the base at Fremantle and the personnel sailed back to the states aboard the Clytie, through the Panama Canal and docked in Philadelphia 30 days later.
"The first thing I did when I got ashore was to cable my wife.
"She called my mother and she thought she was dreaming. They heard the announcement that the Bullhead went down with all hands and they had no idea I had transferred off," he recalled.
"My health is good, I am strong, I'm 60 now, a strong Methodist and believe that when He nods his head for you to come home you're going to go.
"I think about the Bullhead and the guys who went down with her. I think of Bob Perry, who swapped with me at Fremantle. And, of course, Jerry Davidson, who went AWOL to visit his brother -- maybe he would have made first class instead of me and transferred off, who knows?"
Like Yobski, Paul Rogers, engineman third class, transferred off the Bullhead at Fremantle. Rogers had married an Australian.
"I was 21 and requested a transfer. It was granted by Griffith, who said, 'It's only for one patrol. When the Bullhead returns, you're back on again.' "
As Rogers was sitting with his wife at a base movie one night, the film was interrupted and the sinking of the Bullhead was announced.
"I felt pretty bad. My wife became hysterical. Everyone just got up and left," Rogers said.
"When I remember Griffith on his last patrol, his hands shook a lot," said Rogers, from San Bernardino, Calif. "But I'd go to sea with Griffith anytime. He was a hell of a guy."
John Cuccurullo, an electrician's mate first class, remained ashore at Subic Bay in the Philippines.
"I had a lot of stomach problems," Cuccurullo said. "I figured I'd sit out a run and pick her up later."
Cuccurullo was watching a Navy variety show at Subic Bay when the performance was interrupted by one of the actors, who announced the Japanese surrender.
"No one believed it, we all laughed, we thought it was part of the act," he said.
"Then word got out about the Bull. We couldn't believe it. I got sick, I didn't even want to come home. I was sad, disappointed, I took it very hard.
"My godson was on the Bull, Charles Day. He was only two years younger than me. I got a letter from his mother after the war . . . ."
Cuccurullo, now tending bar at a lounge called Cloud 9 at Logan Field in Boston, thought about Griffith.
"He was one hell of a guy, he was part of the crew, knew everyone.
"He used to come and sit in the crew's mess. One day we went down to 500 feet by mistake. The diving officer came into the crew's mess and said, 'Give me another drink and I'll take it down to 600 feet.' That's how relaxed it was.
"When I think of Griffith and the crew I could almost cry. My feeling is that if he remained aboard, the Bull might have made it."
Torment and Tragedy
After the war, Griffith went to staff school in Newport, served at Norfolk, then Pearl Harbor and, in 1952, as a rear admiral, was attached to the Pentagon. He and his wife, who were later divorced, lived in Fairfax. They had two grown daughters.
Griffith's retirement was a lonely one, the nights being the longest.
He felt that he had deserted his men and should have gone down with them, according to his former wife, Lynn, who lives in Grand Cane, La., only a few miles from where Griffith was born.
He was alive and they were dead; he was tortured with guilt.
The Navy took care of him with honors and promotions, but it only seemed to make him feel worse.
"Griff never got over the war," Lynn said. "He was in and out of hospitals, his nerves were completely gone.
"Years after it happened he was still jumping up in bed at night shouting about Japanese planes, bombs, torpedoes."
The Griffiths retired to New London, where he went to work for the Electric Boat Company. He left there to do some private consulting work.
"He couldn't work, he was a tortured man, he would stay awake all night, pacing like a caged tiger," she said.
"He had a terrible guilt complex that he didn't go down with the Bullhead and he would say, 'My boys shouldn't have gone down without me. All so young. I should have been with them.'
"Another night he would play records a while, thinking aloud, 'The Japanese ships I sunk, the children I made fatherless.'
"He went to several psychiatrists and they all said he was just as much a war casualty as the ones who are six feet under.
"He had a pistol the Japanese gave him and he gave it away. He said, 'I'm scared I might do something.' "
One day in January 1966, at age 54, Rear Adm. Ret. Walter T. Griffith, USN, checked into a motel in Pensacola, Fla. There, he took his own life, never knowing that his two daughters were to give him five grandchildren.