Published May 27. 2009 4:00AM Updated September 11. 2009 1:55PM
The crew of the submarine USS Sealion always worked together, as one team, William "Bucky" Scarano said.
"That's the way it was," Scarano said. "Nobody was a hero."
That teamwork helped the Sealion (SS-315) crew rescue 54 prisoners of war during World War II.
Scarano was part of the crew that helped commission the Sealion in March 1944, after he joined the Navy a year earlier at the age of 18.
It was during the second war patrol that the Sealion was hunting for Japanese ships with two other U.S. subs, the Growler (SS-215) and Pampanito (SS-383).
"We were like a wolf pack," Scarano recalled.
The group was en route to Taiwan on Sept. 12, 1944, when it encountered a Japanese convoy.
"It was a big convoy, a lot of ships, we got more than one that night. ... And we picked them off as we were going and we followed them, but eventually they ran away from us."
Three days later, the Pampanito radioed the Sealion and other submarines in the area to return to the scene of the action that had occurred on the 12th.
"There was the ocean, all covered with people. They were hanging on to everything … life rafts, wreckage, anything else just to stay alive."
One of the ships the Sealion had sunk, a large transport named the Rakuyo Maru, had been carrying - unbeknownst to the American submarines - as many as 1,500 Australian and British prisoners of war to Japan to work in the coal mines, Scarano said.
Now those prisoners were floating in the water and calling out for help.
"The Japanese worked them and never fed them hardly anything," Scarano said. "They were in tough, tough shape. They were so weak, and then being in the water for four or five days didn't help, covered with oil."
Scarano kept a lookout for enemy ships while others threw lines to the POWs to bring them onto the ship. With 54 aboard, the commanding officer gave the order to leave the area even though there were still men in the water, Scarano said.
"We had no more room and we were dead in the water," he said. "It's strictly up to the old man, the captain, and he thought the best thing to do was to get out of there before we probably got sunk ourselves. … Only about 180 were saved. … We wished they all got saved but it just didn't happen. It's all part of war, and war is hell anyways."
The Sealion crew cleaned the oil off the POWs, who were suffering from malaria, malnutrition and exposure, and cared for them.
"The whole crew, from the captain right on down," Scarano said. "We were all helping. … On submarines, it's not just about one person. We're a family. And we work that way ... you have to on a submarine."
The Sealion's crew held burial-at-sea ceremonies for the four former POWs who died en route to Saipan. The surviving 50 were brought to the Army hospital in Saipan. Military leaders hoped the former prisoners would be able to describe the enemy territory, information that would be critical if the American military invaded, and sent an escort for the Sealion to ensure that they made it to Saipan, Scarano said.
On the third war patrol, the Sealion managed to sink a battleship and a destroyer and damage a second battleship just north of Taiwan on Nov. 21, 1944.
"Battleships had been sunk by a combination of aircraft, other boats and so forth, but we were one ship against one ship and we sunk it," Scarano said. " … We chased it, we fired at it, it sped up and we thought, 'Well, maybe we didn't set the torpedoes deep enough.' But it slowed down, came dead in the water, and we were making another run in to hit her again and it blew up. Down it went."
Everyone was nervous whenever the Japanese fired back, Scarano said, because "when a submarine goes down, it's all hands."
"In fact, you might even say you were scared," he said. "You know, you sit there and you hope the next one doesn't blow you in half or something."
Despite the danger, Scarano loved serving on submarines.
"If my father didn't have a business for me to come back to, I probably would've stayed in the Navy," he said. "My father wanted me to go to work, so I got out, but I just loved the submarine service. My biggest fear when I was out there, believe it or not, was being transferred off the submarine onto a tender. I didn't want no part of that."
Scarano made six successful war patrols on the Sealion, meaning the submarine sank enemy ships on each of its six patrols. His submarine combat pin, which is awarded to submariners who make successful war patrols, is his most cherished possession.
Scarano was preparing for another patrol on the Sealion, which was in the shipyard in San Francisco for repairs to a torpedo tube door, when the war ended. He left the Navy in 1946.
He says his contribution to the war was "no different than anybody else that went out there."
"On a submarine," he said, "we didn't figure ourselves as individuals. We were a team. That whole ship was one team and we all worked together. That's the way it was."