Early Life and Enlistment

First Patrol and Qualifying

Daily Routine, Patrolling the North Atlantic and Capturing the I-401

Life Aboard a Sub and the Japanese Surrender

Evolution of Submarine Warfare

Depth Charges and Deep Thoughts

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Harry Watson was born in Boston, Massachusetts in August 1926. His father was a glazier, his mother a housewife and he had a pretty good upbringing, even though things were rough during the Great Depression. There were soup and bread lines, but everybody was in the same boat. Things were getting better around 1940, but Watson could see what was happening in Europe. Then the war started. Watson was 15 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He heard about it on the radio at his girlfriend's house. Watson said things were not like they are today, and people were "pissed off." [Annotator's Note: Watson begins to cry.] He and all the other kids in neighborhood wanted to go down there. He was only 15, too young to enlist, and went to Bethlehem Steel, where his age didn't matter, and got a job as a welder on destroyers. After a while, he decided to enlist in the Marines. He headed to the recruiting station very early one morning, and found the doors of three armed forces offices standing next to each other. The first door to open was the Navy, so that was the branch he joined, once his mother signed his papers. Within a few days, he was on his way to Newport, Rhode Island.

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Harry Watson went to Newport, Rhode Island [Annotator's Note: for Navy boot camp training], and couldn't understand why he was up at 5:30 in the morning, with a rifle, marching around in the snow, if he was supposed to be in the Navy. His chief told him not to ask questions. He got through boot camp, finished gunnery school, and got on a troop train to Oakland, California. Watson ended up at Pearl Harbor, and was at the submarine base when he got interested in what the relief submarine crews were doing. At three o'clock one morning he was called up for assignment on the Segundo [Annotator's Note: USS Segundo (SS-398)]. Two and a half hours later he was underway to Japan. Aboard the submarine he heard strange noises and saw strange equipment, and thought he was going to die. About three days out, however, Watson started to love being a gunner's mate on a submarine. They spent 58 days on their first patrol, and Watson said they shot up a couple of ships. When they spied their first, a merchant ship, Watson was standing lookout watch, high up on a tiny platform. He learned to get off the deck quickly, with a headfirst plunge when they called "dive". They went under, circled, and planted two torpedoes into that ship. Watson said the noises were fantastic, like the world was exploding. Watson had no formal submarine training, and didn't yet know the technical aspects of the ship, so his exec gave him a portfolio and instructed him to learn every nut and bolt and why and how. And in that highly unusual manner, Watson qualified.

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Harry Watson described the daily routine of the Segundo [Annotator's Note: USS Segundo (SS-398)]. They would surface at dusk and submerge when it got light. It could stay out 57 or 58 days on a run and go back when there was need of food or torpedoes. There always seemed to be enough cigarettes and diesel. The Segundo had been on a cruise covering the Sea of Japan and the China Sea, and had used her deck guns on several smaller ships. It was time to refit, and the crew thought they would go into Pearl Harbor and get to stay at the Royal Hawaiian. Instead, the skipper headed the ship to Midway Island, because it was closer and had what was needed. After a short stay, the sub went north to the Sea of Japan, between Alaska and Russia. Watson said the targets were getting slimmer and slimmer. The Segundo traveled through the La Perouse Strait submerged. When they came out, it was so foggy Watson couldn't see his shoes. He was up in the conning tower, monitoring radar and sonar, when he spotted a blip that looked like a destroyer. The crew was carefully tracking this phenomenon that was moving at about four to five miles an hour, and followed it through fog. After about three miles, the fog lifted, and revealed a Japanese submarine that had a beam of 40-something feet and was approximately 400 feet long, twice the size of a normal submarine, and highly armed. The Segundo got on the international radio, found someone who spoke English, and received instructions to "stop it!" It was the Japanese submarine I-401. Another boat was sent over, and together they captured the I-401, which was out of torpedoes and low on fuel, and heading back to Tokyo when it was captured. It carried seaplanes, and its capture was one of the high points of the war. The skipper of the Segundo sent word to the I-401 that if it deviated more than one or two degrees off course while it was being escorted back, he would put a torpedo in it. The crew was very excited, and took the captive into Tokyo Bay. The admiral in charge of the Pacific fleet [Annotator's Note: Watson said he couldn't remember his name], instructed them to turn the boat over to the Japanese. The Segundo stayed in Tokyo Bay with the fleet until the Japanese signed the surrender.

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Harry Watson said describing life aboard a submarine can be confusing to someone who isn't qualified. Once qualified, a sailor has a lot of confidence, and can do what has to be done right away. [Annotator's Note: Watson snaps his fingers.] Watson said the work space is not really that cramped; there is only one deck, and down below there is storage space. There are two engine rooms and torpedo tubes fore and aft. And it was safe, compared to a destroyer that has nowhere to go when the Kamikazes attack. When a sub submerged, the planes couldn't touch it. It was the same with storms and typhoons; the sub would just submerge and ride it out below the surface. After a while, a sailor wouldn't want anything else. He said the younger guys were dismayed when the war was over. The Segundo [Annotator's Note: USS Segundo (SS-398)] was in the Sea of Japan when the announcement came, and there was to be no more shooting. Watson said some 18 or 19 year olds "got pissed off" [Annotator's Note: Watson's words] and groused that they didn't come out to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee. But you couldn't shoot or you'd get put in jail. Nevertheless, it was a happy boat. Not that everybody loved their fellow man, but by and large, they would do anything for each other. Watson feels that was more so on a sub than on the surface crafts, where the sailors are segregated by section. Every time the sub went in for resupply, misfits could be sent away. The captain who put the ship into commission left at Midway, and the sub got a new skipper, Slick Johnson [Annotator's Note: US Navy Lieutenant Commander Stephen Lobdell Johnson], who was "ready," and a good skipper. Watson said his crew would follow him into hell. [Annotator's Note: There is an emotional pause.] Watson said some of what the more well known heroes accomplished is unbelievable. When the fleet left Tokyo Bay, Watson said it was a grand sight on the ocean. Ten thousand ships, all going to the west coast.

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Harry Watson said that when the war started, the submarines were used merely as a scouting force. They would get underway with the battleships and cruisers, and their function was to look around and report to the admiral. Later, the submarines had skippers who were out there to fight. Watson was one of the young sailors upset when the war ended. In his age bracket, they were over there to kill the enemy; then one day, no more torpedoes. The older guys were happy to get back to the wife and kids, and back into a peacetime routine. Watson said they were right. After the war ended, his sub went in for a four month overhaul, and tied up in San Diego. Watson was making a lot of money and got an apartment in San Diego, bought a car, and started partying. He thought life couldn't be better. When asked what having been a submariner means to him today, Watson takes an emotional pause. He said that he knew he was a member of the best outfit in the whole Navy, and has never lost that feeling. Watson said submariners in his area have gatherings every month. Sometimes they have lunch or a tour on one of the newer submarines. Now they are all computerized, all nuclear, all attack submarines, and that is a different world. Watson said those kids are ten times smarter, and have 18 months' training before they get on the boat, so they know what they are doing. He mentioned the new Virginia class, a billion dollar ship that does not a have a single valve, and feels sure he could never qualify on that sub. The ship can stay submerged for 50 or 60 days, and that takes a certain kind of guy.

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Harry Watson remembered that his sub [Annotator's Note: USS Segundo (SS-398)] was subjected to depth charges twice. He said it usually happens very fast, and happens because you were unlucky, and the enemy found you, and you were dead if you didn't dodge in the right direction. The Segundo was one of the Navy's fastest submarines, and when they pulled the plug, it went down quickly. Once, Watson's ship was in the China Sea, which is shallow, and the depth charges were dropped from a seaplane. Watson jokes that if that pilot knew how to fly the plane, he wouldn't be here today. He described the sound as something like a low roar. The other time was in the open ocean, and the depth charges were dropped by a big Japanese plane. He noted that the torpedoes are influence operated, which means if the frequency is right, they explode. A depth charge exploding too close can set off all the torpedoes on board, and the whole boat blows up. Watson laments that there were too many submarines sunk by mines. He said the Japanese floated hundreds and hundreds of them, and they couldn't be seen at night. Watson believes it critical that kids today learn and know about the Second World War. The message he has for future Americans is learn from the past, so you won't repeat it.

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