Our Submarine History - Page One

From:   Commander Submarine Force U.S.Pacufic Fleet Press Release
WWII Navy Cross Recipient Honored
By Rowena J. Obrero         COMSUBPAC Deputy Public Affairs Officer
Posting date:  12 August 2004

Submariner Receives Navy Cross
Copied from the Naval Institute Proceedings, June 2002
Interview: Captain Charlie Rush, USN (Ret.)

On 5 April 2002, Rear Admiral Paul Sullivan (left), director of the U.S. Navy's Division of Submarine Warfare, presented Captain Charlie Rush with the Navy Cross at the U.S. Naval Academy's Memorial Hall - for heroic deeds performed 58 years before. On 11 November 1943, in the Japanese-controlled Makassar Strait off the Dutch East Indies, he took over control of the USS BILLFISH (SS-286) during a depth-charge attack that had incapacitated the submarine's top three officers. His efforts, along with those of several crew members, saved the boat. Captain Rush, whose Navy career spanned 20 years, recently told the story behind this extraordinary medal presentation to the Naval Institute's Paul Stillwell and Fred L. Schultz. It is published here for the first time.

Proceedings: Take us back, if you will, to the day you took over command of the BILLFISH.

Rush: Let me start by telling you how I came to be aboard the BILLFISH. I'd come in from five war patrols in the THRESHER (SS-200), and before going out on number six, I had an infection beneath my wisdom teeth. That wasn't surprising, since I had not seen a doctor or a dentist for two years. In any event, I could not possibly go out with that [infection]; the doctor said it would be life threatening. So I stayed aboard the tender while they packed it with sulfa drugs; there were no antibiotics. After a certain time, the doctor and the dentists decided they could pull the wisdom teeth.

As I recovered, the Navy posted me in charge of relief crews. As a submarine came off war patrol, we would relieve the ship's company and go aboard with their list of deficiencies. We'd correct them in two weeks. For each submarine that came in, you built a team of enginemen and electricians and torpedomen - the whole works. I'd been in this job for maybe a couple of months.

This was in Fremantle, Australia, and I enjoyed it very much. I liked the fact that I had a girlfriend there, and I could see her every night. So things were pretty good.

Apparently we did a fine job in the BILLFISH, because the captain [Frederic Lucas Jr.] and the executive officer [Gordon Matheson] asked me to meet them at their hotel for a drink. They asked me to come aboard as chief engineer. At first I declined. But they persisted, and I sensed they really needed me. Finally, I agreed, and to this day I don't know why I did.

Proceedings: What was your reluctance?

Rush: I had a pretty good life. I had just completed five war patrols, and I knew what was going on out there. Compared to the life I was leading in that shore job, there was nothing like being on patrol. So I agreed to go.

Captain Charlie Rush, USN (Ret.), winner of the Navy Cross
(David Hofeling).

One of the men in the relief crew, First-Class Electrician's Mate John Rendernick, had come to me and said he had completed his paperwork for Chief and wanted me to sign the papers. I said, "Have you ever made a war patrol?"

He said, "No, Sir."

And I said, "Well, there are lots of First Class out there on war patrol that take precedence over you. I think the guys making the war patrols should be promoted first."

He was quite upset. But when I got orders to the BILLFISH, I saw the ship's company had no Chief Electrician's Mate. So I went to the squadron office on the tender and said, "Assign Rendernick to the BILLFISH and promote him to Chief." He didn't know I had done this, and he didn't even know I was on board.

We left and got maybe ten miles out to sea, and I had the watch on the bridge. I sent word below, "Tell Rendernick the chief engineer wants to see him on the bridge." The look on his face said it all: "Look who I've got to work for." It turned out to be the best assignment I ever gave anybody.

So everything went very well. We got into Makassar Strait, and we were cruising submerged at 200 feet. I had the afternoon watch in the conning tower. Every eight to ten minutes, I had to take a look around. So I came up to periscope depth and saw a destroyer. He had an angle on the bow, starboard 90. I put down the scope and called the captain. "Captain, we have a destroyer angle on the bow, starboard 90, abeam of us."

The captain put the scope up and looked. Then he said, "He's zigzagging. The angle on the bow is now starboard 10."

I said to him, "Captain, he's not zigzagging, he's got us."

"Impossible," he said. "He's too far away."

Then I said, "Captain, I'm telling you, if you don't do something, we're dead."

He was quite shocked at a junior officer telling him this, but it was obvious to a war-patrol-experienced lieutenant that this captain - who had never been on war patrol and had been in staff jobs up to then - didn't know the enemy very well. So he asked, "Well, what should I do?"

I said, "Go deep." I judged the ship to have been one of their small destroyers, which were extremely dangerous. They were shallow-draft, they were quick, and they were well armed. No submarine could possibly cope with one of them. Anything we could fire at them was going to run too deep, and probably the chances were 1 in 100 of ever hitting one.

So, I took the dive. We were going dead slow, and the captain said, "Don't make any noise." Well, that in itself was an indication he didn't know what was going on. What difference did it make if you made a little noise when the enemy ship was using echo-ranging sonar? The BILLFISH would not respond to dive, so I ordered two-thirds speed to get some way on. We got down to approximately 200 feet when this guy came straight over us. We could hear him when he went to short scale on his sonar. He had us cold, and he let go six depth charges. That did a lot of material damage and it also damaged the psyche of the captain and the third officer. The captain was in the conning tower, and I was in the control room. The sonarman reported that he was worthless. "He's out of it," the sonarman said.

Proceedings: Who was out of it?

Rush: The captain.

Proceedings: What was the contribution of the executive officer at this point?

Rush: He was in the conning tower, and he was giving orders to the wheel. He was a good and competent executive officer, really a fine guy. I don't think he was shaken up by all this; I think he kept his head. But later, he was overcome. We had been down since 0500 that morning. As time went on, we had less oxygen in the air and more carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Then the refrigeration lines burst, and refrigeration gas and some other poisonous gasses escaped.

The Chief Of The Boat, Emmett Carpenter, was standing next to me when the depth charges went off. He was knocked flat to the deck. He was a boxer, and he got up off the deck just like he would in a match, manned his station, and stayed there for the duration.

It seemed like the attacks would never cease. The third officer came into the control room screaming, "They're going to get us next time! We're all going to die!" So the pharmacist's mate and some of the men gave him a shot of morphine and put him in his bunk. He didn't come out for ten days. He was really damaged.

The sonar reported two ships above us. Then there were three of them. They were apparently taking turns at depth charging, because this went on for 12 hours. Finally, Max Ostrander, [U.S. Naval Academy] Class of '42, offered to take the dive. He was inexperienced, but he had his wits about him and I thought he could handle it. So I said, "Fine, take the dive."

At that point, I went up into the conning tower. The captain was there, but he was ineffective. And the exec was suffering from exhaustion. He was a heavy smoker, and I've often wondered whether that, combined with the lack of oxygen in the air we were breathing, was his problem. We didn't think about it much then, but he was just plain tired. He said to me, "I've tried everything and nothing works." His head was down. There was no one on the wheel.

I went over to the dead-reckoning tracer [DRT] and looked at what we had done. Our [past] course was all one direction - northeast. We had made sinuous turns going there, but it was all northeast. This had been going on for 12 hours. I shouted down the hatch to the Chief Of The Boat, "Send the helmsman up on the double." The sonarman, John Denning, took off his earphones and offered to take the wheel. I said, "Put those earphones back on, we're going to need you." And he did. Then we got a helmsman up there. I just said, mostly to the exec but to no one in particular, "I have the conn." And I was very definite about it. The exec nodded.

At that point, the sonarman said, "They're starting a run." I had the helmsman put the wheel over; I went 45° right, and then left-full rudder 270°, and then 45° right again. It was a buttonhook.

Proceedings: Like a Williamson turn?

Rush: It is a Williamson turn, yes. But this is before anyone heard of Williamson. He can have his name on it, but I did it. [Laughter]

Proceedings: Was Ostrander controlling the depth at this time?

Rush: Yes, he was.

Proceedings: And how close were you to test depth and crush depth?

Rush: Test depth, 412 feet. Our depth, 650 feet. Crush depth, I estimate was probably 850 feet. The depth charges were coming down while we made this maneuver. The disturbance they made in the water blanked out echo-ranging sonar completely. And that's probably what saved us.

While I had the dive, I was one on one with Chief Rendernick, who was checking the entire boat. Anything that was seriously damaged, he got right on it. He had help from Engineman Charlie Odom. The things they did were remarkable. The bolts were sheered on the port main motor. They got a hydraulic jack and jacked that thing back into position using the pressure hull as the other end of the jack.

The carbon tetrachloride container burst; this was one of the poisons in our air. They put on some stuff the sailors called "monkey shit." That prevented all of it from escaping into the air. Since they were having real trouble back aft, they let this into the whole boat to dilute it. In other words, instead of the poison occupying 10% of the air they were breathing, it was 1% in the whole boat.

For the men in the maneuvering room, the pressure and the heat meant that their eyes would not lubricate. The after-torpedo room was cooler because there were no tanks around it. There was nothing between you and the ocean but 7/8 of an inch of steel. Rendernick put them back there with wet towels over their eyes, and as their eyes recovered, he would rotate them into the maneuvering room to help.

We were leaking badly aft, and because we were carrying a 17° up-angle, the pumps on the diesel submarines would not take suction from the after-engine room. So Rendernick formed a bucket brigade and brought some of the water forward, where we could pump it out.

As we reversed our course, I watched the DRT the entire time. And every time there was a turn in our previous track, I would use that turn going in the opposite direction. I figured that we were losing diesel oil through the fuel ballast tanks and that we would go under the old oil slick that we'd made before.

Gradually, the sonarman said, "Hey, they're searching away from us." After we could no longer hear them, I came up to periscope depth. I could see three ships with their running lights on and using searchlights. We just proceeded farther and farther away, and then we surfaced. Only one main engine would start, out of four.

Odom did a remarkable job of getting the other three engines going. The battery was so hot that if you were to put in a quick charge, you'd get hydrogen generated, and that's explosive. So we opened the forward torpedo room hatch and all the water-tight doors between the forward torpedo room and the engine room. We shut the main induction, which was the source of air for the diesels, and took the air through the hatch and through the boat and over the batteries. I don't think the cooling effect on the batteries was anywhere nearly as important as sucking out the hydrogen.

(Photo courtesy of Captain Rush)

Proceedings: How long would you estimate this whole ordeal lasted?

Rush: I would say it lasted about 16 hours.

Proceedings: How bad was the air by the time you could surface?

Rush: We had no way of testing it. We could test for carbon dioxide, but we never did that. There wasn't much we could do about it anyhow.

Proceedings: Talk about the damage-control contributions mentioned in your citation.

Rush: My damage-control decisions were based on the condition and situation of the boat as they developed - angle, speed, depth, and mostly how much I judged the ship could withstand without sinking.

The coordination with Chief Rendernick was outstanding. He would come right into the control room and report in person. He was an eyewitness to what I had to do. Every time the depth charges exploded, I used the noise to mask the sound of blowing ballast from the safety tank. That was to compensate for the weight of water leaking into the boat.

The bucket brigade was Rendernick's idea. Most of the water was leaking through the stern tube, so he and Chief Odom pumped grease into that. They did not stop the leak, but they slowed it quite a bit. At that point I could pump water from the forward engine room to keep the boat from sinking.

Proceedings: The story is that the captain made some sort of deal with you.

Rush: Approximately two weeks later, we had progressed into the South China Sea. We were in a two-boat, loose wolf pack with the BOWFIN (SS-287). It was night, I had the watch, and we were on the surface. Radar picked up a Japanese convoy, coming our way - five big ships and two small escorts.

Our radar also reported the enemy had no radar, so we had the advantage. It was overcast. The BOWFIN detected the same convoy, and it was supposed to be a coordinated attack. No one was on the bridge except the captain and me. We went to battle stations, and he started to make an approach. He got to exactly 10,000 yards. Now, as far as hitting anything is concerned, the maximum you could expect from a Mark 14 torpedo was 3,000 yards. At 10,000 yards he did a 180° turn and pulled away at full speed. I told him, "Captain, you can't do this. This is wrong."

He said, "You're right," and turned around and started his approach again.

During this time, the BOWFIN requested permission to attack. We responded on the radio to go ahead. Meanwhile, again at 10,000 yards, the captain turned around and ran away a second time. And again, I got on him about it and told him he had to go back.

He said, "I can't do it."

And I said, "I can. Let me do it."

Then he said, "I can't turn over command of the ship."

I said, "I don't want command, I want the conn."

He said, "I can't do that, but I promise you that when I go back I'll resign from submarines."

That was it. I didn't want to talk to any naval person about what had happened.

Proceedings: Why not?

Rush: It would have been accusing the guy of a general court-martial offense. He was going to resign from submarines. Did I want to get him shot? I didn't see anything to be gained. I thought it was a dirty mess. If I had started a big furor over it, not only would he be damaged, but the Navy and the submarine force would be damaged, too.

So I put in for two weeks' leave and I bought myself a ticket to Adelaide, which was 2,500 miles away and where there were no Navy people. When I came back, there was a new captain.

Proceedings: How were you nominated for this Navy Cross?

Rush: I really didn't say anything about this to anyone for 57 or 58 years. I have a classmate by the name of Jack Bennett who cannot travel. He lives alone in Solana Beach, California, and I went to see him. We had a couple of beers and some Mexican food one night and began telling sea stories. When I mentioned this, he said he'd never heard of such a thing. So I said, "Look, I've got to go tomorrow, but why don't you call Chief Electrician's Mate Rendernick, who lives not far from here, and talk to him."

So he did. I guess they had maybe three or four sessions together. Jack called me and sent me e-mails saying, "Remember, I was in the cruiser SAN FRANCISCO (CA-38) when two battleships bracketed her off the Solomons and just ruined her. I saw heroic acts and got a Navy Cross myself during this action. I also wrote citations for the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor." Then he said, "Charlie, I think you deserve a Medal of Honor. But after 58 years, I think we'd be unwise to go that route. I'm going to turn in a citation for you for a Navy Cross." And he did.

The immediate reaction from the OpNav [Office of the Chief of Naval Operations] assistant was to send back a message saying that the rules require that the person being awarded must have been witnessed by a senior officer at the time of the action. So I told Jack to withdraw it. I had written the citation for Chief Rendernick and said that I'd be the senior officer who witnessed his action and we'd just put it in for Rendernick.

An active-duty naval aviator in OpNav, Jeffrey Campbell, had seen this whole thing go through. He had a statement signed by Rendernick, and one from the Chief Of The boat, Carpenter, and another one from Odom, the engineman - three chief petty officers. I've never met this naval aviator, but he said he was going to retire in a couple of months and he wanted to get something done right before he left. So he reinstated my citation, even though it broke the rules.

Proceedings: Why had Captain Lucas not recommended you for an award?

Rush: Lucas did everything possible to go out with a good reputation. He falsified his patrol report; none of this got into it. I'm sure he analyzed it and said to himself, "If I recommend Charlie Rush for this, the word will get out on me." He didn't tell the admiral or anyone else senior about it. The admiral [Rear Admiral Ralph Christie] actually encouraged him to stay and go back out on patrol. From what I heard, Lucas said, "Admiral, you don't understand. I just can't command a submarine. But I'd like to go to surface ships." So he did. There was never any bad blood between us. I felt sympathy for his having been thrust into a position he really wasn't capable of handling. I certainly didn't dislike him.

Proceedings: What sense of satisfaction do you feel that this injustice finally has been corrected after all these years?

Rush: I do have a sense of satisfaction. But it's really never gnawed at me. I found it inexcusable that they would put officers - not just one, but several - in command of submarines when they were not qualified for the job. That was understandable at the beginning of the war, but after two years, there were many battle-tested officers who should have commanded submarines. That bothered me the most. Men's lives were at stake.

© 2002 U.S. Naval Institute

"Without courage, you might as well not be in it. You’ve got to have courage--moral courage, physical courage--and honor. Honor means telling the truth even when it might not be to your advantage"

Retired Capt. Charles W. Rush Jr. (85), Navy Cross recipient, when asked to give advice to Chiefs and Junior Officers in today's submarine service.

WWII Submariner Awarded Navy Cross Downlink

Retired Navy Captain Awarded Navy Cross

Naval Submarine League Captain Charles Rush 3-18-09 - YouTube

USS BOWFIN (SS-287) - Info.com

USS THRESHER (SS-200) - Info.com

 Article copy: Captain Charlie Rush, USN/Ret gets the Navy Cross

 USS Billfish (SS-286) - Info.com

(External links) Boats mentioned in article