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Home arrow Sea Stories arrow Sea Stories - SSG arrow The Submarine versus the Panther
The Submarine versus the Panther Print E-mail
Contributed by Ray Olszewski   
Jul 07, 2011 at 12:14 PM

The USS TUNNY (SSG-282) was a proud guided missile diesel submarine of the United States Pacific Fleet. This grand dame was honored by its' being the oldest "boat" in the Fleet when I was aboard in from 1958 to 1962.

I boarded TUNNY in June 1958 as a seaman apprentice at the age of 18 years while this vintage WW II submarine was moored at Yokosuka, Japan. At the time, I held grand visions of a brand new and exciting career as a submariner in an elite and honored service. Lieutenant Marvin S. Blair, US Navy, commanded the TUNNY at the time and the Executive Officer was Lieutenant Commander Douglas Stahl, US Navy.

The crew of the TUNNY showed me a warm and friendly welcome even though the boat itself was made of cold steel and covered all over in black paint with black wooded decks. It looked like it meant business. As I crossed the bow, I saluted the Ensign proudly. The men who served TUNNY were standing on deck waiting for their two months worth of mail, money, and fresh vegetables. I went below to check-in at the ship's office, which was about the size of an office desk (a small one at that)! Not much room aboard these vessels. I didn't know it at the time, but this is where I would eventually work as the boat Yeoman in the latter part of my four years aboard TUNNY. I was given the day off to get myself "squared away" and the next day I was assigned to the seaman gang. I began "my submarine" career chipping, scrapping, painting, standing fire watches, and getting the boat ready for a return trip to sea.

One of the most exciting experiences I had aboard the TUNNY was one that I will not forget and it has caused me to write about it. I'm no literary wizard, but believe this should be shared with others in the archives. The experience I had was stealing a Panther off of another submarine, which came about a year after I checked aboard the TUNNY.

The Submarine versus the Panther

It was a bright sunny day, as they usually are in the Hawaiian Islands, where I was stationed aboard the USS TUNNY (SSG-282). On this particular day in April 1959, another submarine by the name of USS RONQUIL (SS-396) based out of San Diego, arrived and moored at the Pacific Fleet Submarine Base Pier 11. The RONQUIL and her crew of about 80 men, were on their way to Japan. This long sleek, dark submarine looked majestic standing at the pier, but there was something very different about her. On her sail (the upper most part of the submarine's deck where crew members stood lookout along with a deck officer) was mounted the RONQUIL's most cherished mascot, a black cast iron Panther figure.

The men of the RONQUIL were anxiously awaiting liberty after they arrived so they could investigate what these beautiful islands had to offer a love-starved and thirsty submariner, ready to spend their extra submarine pay. Liberty call was announced and the men disbursed leaving only a duty section on board.

Across the submarine base at pier lA stood the TUNNY and the word was passed around the boat by some of its crew members that the RONQUIL had just docked at Pier 11. This generated interest among some of the TUNNY crew because the RONQUIL crew boasted that no submarine crew could ever remove the Panther from "his" mount on the submarine's sail. Please note the gender of the Panther at this stage of the story. It was a known fact that several unsuccessful attempts were made by other submarines to dismount the Panther.

The TUNNY crew was very interested in becoming the new owner of the RONQUIL's Panther. TUNNY had gained a reputation for swiping mascots from other submarines. In 1956, before TUNNY was transferred from San Diego to Pearl Harbor, several crew members stole the REMORA's Buddha from the submarine's sail. RONQUIL didn't know it, but the sporting blood was still in TUNNY and the visiting submarine was a target.

First Attempt Failed

A plan was devised by a number of the TUNNY crew to steal the Panther. The first plan turned out to be a feeble attempt. During the afternoon of 16 April, about 20-30 TUNNY sailors made their way across the submarine base to Pier 11 where RONQUIL was moored. The TUNNY expedition hid themselves behind a huge pile of wooden pallets sitting on the Pier near the RONQUIL. We waited patiently and trying not to look too obvious for the right time to make our move. The plan was to get the Panther while the crew was below decks during the lunch hour, and secure the hatches, so the crew could not get out. A member of the RONQUIL spotted us and yelled "Panther Stealers." RONQUIL crew members literally poured out of the boat yielding ballbats and large wrenches. With lightening speed, we disbursed. Fortunately, the RONQUIL crew gave up their pursuit and no one was caught.

Second Attempt Failed

We later regrouped and came up with Plan Two which pushed the time to the evening hours when the movie was being shown. We showed up and found the movie was being shown topside, so that killed that idea quickly.

Success!

They say three times is a charm! Well, Plan Three was nothing less than daring imagination. We decided that we would have to attempt the raid in the early hours of the morning while the crew slept. I typed a phony set of transfer orders and made up a package of personnel records to accompany the orders. A van was commandeered from the Guided Missile Unit #10 on the base and used that to carry the crew and the "transferee" to the pier.

After piling into the van, we drove to Pier 11 and pulled up beside the gangway of the RONQUIL. It was 0500! The new "Cook" opened the door and jumped out yelling to the RONQUIL's Topside Watch "Is this the RONQUIL?" The Topside Watch thinking this appeared to be a normal event, yelled back "yes, it is! Why?" The "new cook" in dress whites, replied "Well, looks like you have a new cook reporting for duty. How about giving me a hand with this seabag, it's pretty heavy." "Sure, why not?" answered the Topside Watch as he crossed the gangway to the Pier. The "new cook" grabbed the Topside Watch, put his hand on his mouth, and at the same time, the driver of the van came out of the truck and helped tie-up the RONQUIL Watch. As this was taking place, TUNNY crew members who were stashed in the back of the van came out and leaped aboard the submarine, diving to the hatches they were previously assigned and secured them.

I was assigned with another shipmate to secure the Conning Tower hatch. We found the phone and power connections from the Pier to the Submarine were fed through this hatch and holding it down was difficult to say the least. As soon as the chipping and hammering started on the Panther's mounts we knew we were on our way to success as long as we were able to contain the RONQUIL crew in their own submarine. While the two burly enginemen (Elo Foyt and Keith Sawyer) assigned to removing the Panther worked, we continued to sit on the hatch, as did the others. We especially could hear obscenities being hurled from the crew below because our hatch was opened a good 5 inches or more. We knew we would be dead if caught and we were able to hold our own while the Panther was being removed.

The Panther was mounted with half-inch diameter bolts through each of the Panther's four paws. Additionally, they were welded over so it took some time, which seemed like an eternity. When I heard someone yell, "we've got it." That was the signal to take off and run like hell away from the boat. I jumped from the Conning Tower onto the deck and to the Pier, not looking back, as I ran. I could hear in the background, water splashing, knowing that some of the TUNNY crew dove into the water.

The TUNNY crew members involved scattered throughout the base. Some ended up in the base barracks, some back at the TUNNY. I ended up at the barracks, myself, catching my breath thinking that I was safe there amongst the rest of the unwary TUNNY crew. I learned later that those who went to the TUNNY began breaking out wrenches, and anything else to defend the boat. Remember now, this is about 0530 and of course, we were the only "noise" that was heard at that time of the morning on the base. The TUNNY Duty Officer was awakened by the noise and he was trying to focus on what the heck was happening.

As we found out later, the RONQUIL sailors who came out of their submarine chasing us went to our part of the barracks. They had found out which boat was responsible because they had caught one of our crew who was not quite fast enough. At the barracks, the RONQUIL crew didn't expect to run into EM1(SS) Kelly Elkins who had been out the previous night on one of his drinking sprees. They woke Kelly up from a deep drunken sleep, and started roughing him up. Kelly didn't take that too lightly and some of the RONQUIL crew suffered from a few well-placed punches as a result.

Fortunately those who were involved and had regrouped at the barracks left and went to the boat. At about 0600 (or so), there were a number of us who were involved who managed to gain the support of several others from the crew waited to see what was going to happen. About that time, here comes Captain Blair's yellow Chevrolet convertible rounding the turn towards the TUNNY. Chasing him was about 20 to 30 RONQUIL sailors carrying those darn ballbats and wrenches. It looked at though they were trying to kidnap our CO? But, he wasn't about to be stopped by anyone and stopped his car right at the gangway. He jumped out, crossed the gangway with stepping precision, and poured himself down the forward torpedo room hatch. He sought out the Duty Officer who didn't know what was going on anyway and couldn't tell him anything. He told him little of what he knew enough to have the Captain order those involved to report to the forward torpedo room. We waited, and waited. We found out later why the Captain was even coming to the boat that early in the morning. It turned out that the CO of the RONQUIL had called our Captain at his residence and told him that he was the CO of the Carbanero who was tied up behind his boat and that he called to tell him that his maneuvering room was flooding. That's enough to get anyone out of the bed at that time in the morning – right? Well, obviously it worked.

During that long wait, the Captain found out more about what was going on and he finally turned us loose. Things started to calm down a bit when we heard about 1000 over the 1MC "RONQUIL, RONQUIL." Well, you would have thought World War III had happened! A bunch of us bounded out of the boat onto the decks and caught a bunch of RONQUIL sailors trying to steal our TUNNY JUNIOR. TUNNY JUNIOR was a small rowboat that we kept in the hangar for various reasons. It had been lying on the pier and before any of us could get to any of the RONQUIL sailors, they were gone like the wind. A most feeble attempt on their part to steal something from the TUNNY.

On this particular day, 17 April 1959, the Submarine Base was having a Civil Defense Drill. This is when the base police have an exercise to make sure whomever is on the base is authorized to be there. Anyone who did not have proper identification would be detained for questioning at the Submarine Base brig. Earlier, sometime between 0600 and 0800 while this Civil Defense drill was taking place, several of the RONQUIL sailors were caught by the base police and taken to the brig for detention as they apparently were running around the base without their identification cards. It just so happened that one of our crew members (name forgotten) was taken along with them and there he was, a lone TUNNY crew member in the brig with a bunch of RONQUIL sailors. You know he didn't tell them he was a TUNNY crew member, for sure!

Remember that TUNNY sailor who was caught trying to get off the boat? Well, he shows up mid-morning at the boat. What the RONQUIL crew did to him was just awful. He was a big guy with lots of body hair and he shows up with his hair shaved off of his head, his back and chest areas. Imagine this too. One half of his head was painted with black paint and the other side with red lead. His chest was painted black on one side and red on the other and so was his back. They poured a can of paint down his trousers, front and back! And, on his back was written in large black letters "PANTHER STEALER." We laughed when we saw him and we all had a time getting that paint off his body. Poor guy! The RONQUIL did a job on him. Wish I would remember his name and hope he reads this story.

After all this, the Captain wanted the Panther and wanted it on the double. Some of us spent time looking for it, but found out that someone had taken it from one of crew member's locker where we had stashed it in the barracks. We reported back to the CO that we did not know where it was. The Captain called an all hands muster on the pier. One crew member was missing. So, we put two and two together and found out later that this crew member had taken the Panther to the shipyard. We didn't know what he was doing with it there.

At about noon, the CO and the XO of the RONQUIL came over to the TUNNY. The Topside Watch announced over the 1MC that they were waiting to see him on the pier along with a hoard of RONQUIL crew members. Captain Blair and LCDR Stahl squared off with the CO and XO of the RONQUIL. I overheard various exchanges of words about getting their Panther back and at one point, I heard Captain Blair say: "How would you like it if you were called at 0530 in the morning and telling you that your maneuvering room was flooding?" "Hell, I could not get out of my submarine at 0530 this morning" replied the CO of the RONQUIL and began storming off yelling back "I want that Panther and I want it before I set sail this afternoon."

After that exchange of unpleasantness, Captain Blair demanded both the Panther and the missing sailor found. An hour later we had our missing sailor and the Panther when both showed up at the boat. We all crowded around him and found what he had done at the Shipyard. He had the Panther's sides engraved with the following inscription "CASTRATED IN HAWAII USS TUNNY (SSG-282) 4-17-59." We all laughed and laughed, enjoying the moment. But, there's more. Remember my mentioning that the Panther was of the male gender. The Quartermaster who was instrumental in getting the engraving done also took his tools of trade and actually made a "sex-change" by removing the male configuration and leaving it with a female configuration.

We all thought the ordeal was hilarious and everyone felt a great deal of pride in this mission. It unified the boat even more and made us all even more proud of the TUNNY name. That afternoon, as promised, the Chief of the Boat, the Executive Officer, and six of the TUNNY crew marched in military formation over to the RONQUIL where they were preparing to set sail. The "modified" Panther lying on a silk oriental pillow was presented to the CO of the RONQUIL.

In July 1960, Captain Marvin S. Blair, USN departed TUNNY. Upon his departure, he presented to the crew a black Panther that was very similar to that of the RONQUIL but with everything intact. The TUNNY crew mounted the Panther also on the sail. I'm told that the Panther remained on TUNNY until the day she was sunk, as a target, in the Pacific where she had proudly served for nearly 30 years.

Legend has it that another submarine crew tried to steal the RONQUIL's Panther while they were in Yokosuka, Japan. The Captain became so upset at this attempt that he ordered the Panther removed and threw it over the side!

The End!

Or is this the beginning of the search for the TUNNY Panther. I've heard stories about a former crew member having possession of the TUNNY claxxon. I wonder if anyone removed the Panther and has it in their possession? Keep those cards and letters coming. Keep it at a Zero Bubble.



User Comments

Comment by Nash on 2011-11-26 09:47:02
I am not really sure of the next bit of information, but I hope it can be confirmed by other SSN682 Crew. I belive that the SS282 claxxon ended up on the SSN 682. THis sems to stick in my mind from my Submarine Quals. We also had a Cook on board 682 that had been on 282 but I can't remember his name. 
 
Mark Nash 
STS1(SS) 
USN RET

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