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USS Bluegill (SS-242) WW2
Reunion 2001

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2001 Reunion: 11-13 September 2001, Mystic, CT

The opening day of the reunion, 11 September 2001, turned out to be a very fateful day for America. There are two photographs below which show the great contrast I felt there. One shows the WW2 crew of USS Bluegill proudly displaying their original battle flag on the wharf leading to USS Nautilus (SSN-571) and the other shows the national ensign of USS Nautilus (just a little further down the wharf) at half mast because of the tragedy. A battle flag of conquest when the world was at war and a national flag dipped in grief and loss when the world is at peace. There is a lot said about how the USA has changed over the years between these two pictures.

Many popular places were closed the week of the reunion because of the tragedy. Our host, John Deane, was popular enough and resourceful enough and determined enough to still get us places! Although the Navy had closed the Submarine Force Library and Museum after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, John got them to open it for the Bluegill crew.

USS Nautilus (SSN-571) USS Nautilus (SSN-571)

The crew proudly displaying their original battle flag at Nautilus' wharf on 13 September 2001.
This battle flag is always on display indoors at the Museum.
Front Row, Left to Right: Bob Moore; Elmer Freier, Charles Foehner; Captain Eric Barr; Hugh Story; Chuck Maynard
Back Row, Left to Right: Bill Roney; John Deane; Read Gwyer's ear; Gene O'Donnell; Herb Lewis
Crew Displaying Battle Flat on Nautilus' Wharf

Bluegill crew at the National Submarine Memorial East of the USSVWWII on 12 September 2001. (Two views)
Back Row, Left to Right: Dennis Madden; Herb Lewis; George Folta; Elmer Freier; Read Gwyer; John Deane; Bill Roney
Front Row, Left to Right: Bob Moore; Captain Eric Barr; Chuck Maynard; Hugh Story; Dick Molyneux; Gene O'Donnel
Crew at WW2 Sub Memorial in Groton, CT Crew at WW2 Sub Memorial in Groton, CT

Sixteen of the crew and three widows were able to attend the reunion.

And a reporter for The Day newspaper interviewed the crew:

Serendipity Rode With Bluegill Sailors
Former Crew Members of WWII Vessel Recall Memories at Reunion
By Robert A. Hamilton
Published on 09/15/2001

Mystic -- During its third war patrol, the USS Bluegill, SS-242, surfaced in the middle of a convoy, and fired six torpedoes at two tempting nearby targets. The crew thought one of the shots was a miss, but found out after the war that it actually went under the intended target and sank a destroyer escort on the other side.

On another occasion, the ship was trailing a freighter that it had damaged in an earlier attack, and came in so close on its attack that when it fired a spread of torpedoes it had to veer sharply to avoid a collision. Again, after the war they learned they had sunk a destroyer that had been tied up alongside the freighter, towing it to port.

"Serendipity," said Dennis Madden of Maryland, as he met with other former Bluegill crewmen this week at the Mystic Best Western. "I was young and that was my first patrol, and I thought they were all going to be like that. It was damned exciting. I wouldn't want to do it again, but if we had to, I would."

Bluegill had a reputation of firing its "fish" in the right place at the right time, which is one reason it was ranked 17th out of 465 submarines in World War II in terms of ships sunk.

The former captain of the Bluegill, Eric Barr, recalled that as they finished their attack on the convoy in the third patrol, three destroyer escorts rushed in to exact retribution, and he decided the safest thing might be to dive right under one of the targets, rather than turn into their attackers. "The sinking target blew up right on top of us, and that was probably as bad as any depth charges," Barr said. "But we made it."

In fact, Barr said with some pride, apart from a few injuries, every sailor who went to sea with the Bluegill returned home.

Barr, of San Antonio, Texas, was skipper of the Bluegill for all six patrols, which was unusual for that time -- typically, a submarine captain would do no more than five patrols before he was relieved. A New London native, Barr's grandmother was once a mathematics teacher in the New London schools and whose father was commodore of a squadron of submarine chasers in World War I.

He got a trial by fire when he was on his first war patrol, and came upon his first target, a warship he originally thought might be a destroyer. They followed it to an island and were waiting for it to come back out one morning. "The next thing I know, out comes this mammoth cruiser," Barr said. "It was the biggest thing I've ever seen in my life." It was the Japanese cruiser Yubari, bristling with armament. The ship came out at a very high speed, then reared up in a sharp turn and went back to the island, while an aircraft dropped depth charges. "I don't think she saw us," Barr said. "I think it was a maneuver to try to scare any submarines in the area. She didn't realize submariners don't scare." Later in the day, another destroyer came out, and Barr was preparing to fire when he saw the Yubari behind it. Though he was in a bad position, he fired a spread of six torpedoes. He thought two hit; postwar records say only one hit. "Regardless, she sank," Barr said.

John Deane of Niantic, who coordinated this reunion, was on the commissioning crew of the Bluegill, 18 years old and fresh out of submarine school in Groton. He recalls the sea trials on a frigid North Atlantic, and then taking it into the Pacific to begin the first of three patrols he would make with the boat. He recalled going ashore in one of the Pacific islands on one patrol, to collect rocks that would be used to weigh down garbage bags. Submarines did not want their garbage floating to the surface, to give away their operating area, and direction of travel. "There were some soldiers around where we were collecting the rocks, and they asked us what we were doing," Dean said. "We told them, and they said, 'OK, just be careful, because there are still some snipers around.' We finished up pretty quick after that."

Barr said during the war he got used to going shallow, putting up the periscope, taking a quick look around, and then submerging quickly, to avoid detection. He tried to keep it under six seconds. "Your orders to me were, if I keep it up more than 15 seconds, you kick me in the butt," said Nicholas Ferro of New London, who made all six patrols with Barr. "I never had to kick him," he added.

Still, Bluegill came under frequent attack, and on one particular day they logged 116 depth charges fired at the boat. That was on the days that they could count them. "I remember at one point the skipper asked me, 'how many did we take that time?' and I told him, 'Captain, I just can't count that fast,'" recalled one crewman.

Doug Smith of Florida, who was a quartermaster on the Bluegill, recalled being on the bridge with Frederick "Abey" Gold when they came under attack by three freighters armed with machine guns. Their own guns had jammed and the bullets were flying as they raced to get back into action. "All of a sudden he turns to me because he thought I had kicked him in the head," Smith said. "I said 'Abey, look at your helmet.' And when he saw the crease that a bullet had made in it, he damned near passed out."

Bluegill also became the only submarine to actually take back some enemy held territory, seizing a Japanese naval garrison on Pratas Island. Barr sent a message home asking for air cover so the crew could hold a baseball game; the joke was not well received.

Elmer Freier of Michigan was a chief quartermaster on the Bluegill, and learned during one attack on a small freighter holed up in a lagoon that while the captain had a sense of humor, it only went so far. "We were going to have to fire over a reef into some pretty shallow water, and I was talking a little bit too loud, and said to someone, 'I'll bet you two beers we don't get it,'" Freier said. "Well, the captain sort of stiffened up, and pulled away from the periscope, and if looks could kill then there would have been a burial at sea. He didn't say a word, but he didn't have to." They missed the shot, but Freier never collected the beers.

All photographs courtesy of Pat St. Romain.

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