No Ordinary Joes

No Ordinary Joes by Larry Colton

Book Review by Maggie Elice Turner

History is getting older and older every day, and we must decide what deserves a place in the records books and what events can be skimmed over.  Americans of the “Greatest Generation” are aging along with history, and fading into it faster than we are able to count.  The importance of preserving their legacy and stories was not lost with Larry Colton and his book No Ordinary Joes.  Colton opens his book with a quote from President Kennedy regarding his pride for having been in the Navy; a sentiment also worn like a badge of honor by those in the submarine service.  Colton chronicled four men, Bob Palmer, Chuck Vervalin, Tim McCoy, and Gordy Cox who served aboard the USS Grenadier submarine during WWII.  Unlike other veteran narratives, he wanted to document a mini-biography of their pre and post war lives.  Colton does a good job of dividing the book into by giving each man a chapter related to the topic and then unifying the story again.  

Prior to the war, each man had been ordinary in terms of being a victim of the Depression Era, struggling to make ends meet, and seeking out a way to improve their home lives.  This motivated them all to join the Navy more so than patriotic duty.  Specifically, joining the Navy could provide them something domestic society couldn’t; a steady income and “three hots and a cot.” After successful completion of sub school, each of the men were assigned to different submarines before coming together on the USS Grenadier.  On the 6th war patrol, 23 April 1943, the sub was attacked by a Japanese aircraft with a torpedo sending them 300 feet to the ocean floor suffering with the bow pointed up at a 20 degree angle; a damaged propeller; a fire in the maneuvering room, water coming in the engine room and a smashed radio.  After 15 hours under water, the sub was able to surface and were eventually taken prisoners.

Many things in life can make a man extraordinary, but none more than becoming an American Hero after coming out of a POW camp alive.  The gruesome details of the torture at the hands of the Japanese bring the realities of war to life and one can’t help but feel their own anger towards the enemy.  Colton’s book continues up to 60 years after the war to a point readers see an ordinary picture of the men- ones that sill wear the badge of POW and Hero, but also an depiction of men facing domestic problems like every other ordinary man does partly from their upbringing and experience during the war.


In the United States there are 25 submarine museums, and with my recent vacation to Cleveland, I can now check another submarine off of the list of those that I have visited. (Click the picture for an enlarged- readable view)

As of June 12, 2016 I have toured 13 out of 25 submarines

As of June 12, 2016 I have toured 13 out of 25 submarines


The USS COD (SS-224) is a Gato class WWII submarine that was constructed by the Electric Boat Company in Groton, Connecticut and launched into service on March 21, 1943.  COD endured 7 war patrols and a total of 221 men called her home during those 7 war patrols.  The sub was decommissioned in 1954 and placed in reserve.  The COD was returned to the Great Lakes, by way of the newly opened St. Lawrence Seaway, to serve as a naval reserve training vessel in Cleveland, Ohio where the COD resides to this day. 


 A very busy attraction, the COD sits in Lake Erie and is a short walk from the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame and the Cleveland Indian’s Progressive Field downtown.  On the National Register of Historic Landmarks, the COD is open to visitors from May 1st through September 30th from 10 am to 5 pm.  

COD Memorial


Each submarine I have visited has something unique about them and is presented in different ways.  The COD’s hull and deck have been preserved.  This submarine does not have a modified visitor access door such as the COBIA or U-505 do.  Visitors to the sub have to climb down a vertical ladder through a hatch to the forward torpedo room in the same manner than the men did during the war.  


I call this the “lived in” sub.  The museum curator chooses to display the submarine as if it were still on active duty during the war.  It’s as if the crew were still on patrol because throughout the sub you will find personal artifacts such as towels, blankets and pillows on the bunks, stuffed bunk bags, cans of food in every nook and cranny, dishes on the tables in the Mess, clothes hanging out to dry in the Engine Room as well as photos of the men who worked in these compartments.  Seeing the sub this way brings to life the picture that this was not only a weapon of war,  but also a place of employment and a home away from home for the brave submariners.  

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Ralph Clark Huston Jr.

By chance this year, February 27th lands on a Friday, thus it’s a perfect time for me to add a post to my “Famous Person Friday” page.  This person might not be famous in the sense of academy award winning actors or platinum selling recording artists, but still I chose to feature him on this page for being a World War II hero.

* Rank/Rate: Seaman, First Class
*  Service Number: 755 96 96
* Birth Date: September 27, 1925  
*   From: Parkersburg, West Virginia
  *  Decorations: Purple Heart
  *   Submarine: USS Cobia (SS-245)
  *   Loss Date: February 27, 1945
  *  Location: Near 6° 02’S x 114° 0’E
  *  Circumstances: Killed in surface gun action
  *  Remarks: USS Cobia is on display in Manitowoc, Wisconsin
  info from:


On 2/27/1945, Ralph Clark Huston Jr. lost his life on board the USS COBIA while in a surface battle against he Japanese.  He was not yet even 20 years old.  In 6 war patrols he was the only fatality on this submarine.  So on this day, I commemorate his courageous service to the United States by volunteering for submarine duty.

It was Ralph’s job when called to battle stations to assist with the loading of the 20mm gun ammunition. According to Doc (Herbert L.) Starmer’s medical examination as written up in his book War Patrols of the USS Cobia SS-245, pages 80-84, (ISBN 978-1-105-37342-8), Ralph was shot in the left shoulder leaving the bone in his upper arm shattered.  He was also hit in the upper left rib cage and the bullet exited in the lower portion of his back on the right side.  Doc did what he could to control the loss of blood, which included removing Ralph’s arm.  He treated him for shock and was hopeful that he could save his life if they could just get him to a hospital.  Unfortunately his condition deteriorated over night and he passed away and was buried at sea the following morning.  

The logs pin point his burial at Near 6° 02’S x 114° 0’E.   With modern technology these days, it’s possible with Google Earth to see the location.  He was committed to the deep in the Java Sea.RCH1

Doc had to weigh Ralph down with several fire bricks from the crews mess and encased him in mattress covers, which he sewed closed.  He was wrapped in the American flag and taken up to the deck of the submarine, where they held a Protestant service, played a recording of taps, and ceremonial rifle fire.  The photo below can be found on the website, as well as in Doc Starmer’s book.


Today this is the plaque that sits near the 20mm on the COBIA


Image of Ralph Clark Huston, Jr. on deck of the Cobia.

Image of Ralph Clark Huston, Jr. on deck of the Cobia.

The Wake of the Wahoo



A gentleman on one of my tours suggested that I read this book.  He said since I like re-telling submarine stories that this would be a great choice for me, and it was !  He also told me what happened to the submarine, but promised he wasn’t spoiling it because the dust jacket would say the same thing.  The Wahoo was sunk by the Japanese.

Navy Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, retired,  wrote in the foreword that, “Postwar examination of enemy records reveals a report that, on Oct. 11, 1943, in La Perouse Strait, ‘Our plane found a floating sub and attacked it with three depth charges.’ That may be the epitaph of the Wahoo and 80 American fighting men,”

I started reading the book in late May and finished it a few days prior to this review.  I guess I read it so slow because I didn’t want the men to die.  I liked this book so much because the author, Forest J. Sterling incorporated dialogue into the book as if he were recording the events verbatim as they happened.  It made the book feel more lifelike as opposed to the books that read like a war log or an ultra technical how to manual.  He began writing the book 15 years after WWII ended.  So although he probably didn’t recall word for the word the conversations, he most likely remembered what could have been said.  I don’t dwell too much on the absolute accuracy of the conversations.  I take them for what they are because the enhance the story.

Sterling was the Yeoman of the boat.  Reviews also say this is unique as most sub stories are written by the Officers and their point of view.  In my opinion, who better to write the story than the Yeoman who is so apt at keeping records?  (I may be biased because that would be the job I would want on the submarine).  The majority of the crew stayed the same and Sterling made sure to introduce the crew members to the reader as they appeared by giving their full name, rank and hometown.

The majority of the story tells of the men on the boat, what it was like on the submarine, the intensity involved in being attacked and how scared the brave men actually were, as well as the skill and patience it took to attack and sink the enemy.  He also added details about their shore leaves in Australia, Midway, and Pearl Harbor.  They were given a special commendation party in Australia.

Sterling served on the Wahoo for 5 of the 6 war patrols in the Pacific theater.  That should give you an indication of Sterling’s fate compared to the submarine.

He had applied for Stenography school, and never expected to be accepted, but he was.  In fact, it seemed like he applied to spite and taunt his shipmates who begged him not to go.  Several men on board began to see Sterling as somewhat of a good luck charm.  Sterling was older than the other enlisted men as his Navy career began in 1930 when he was 19 years old.  As Yeoman, sometimes he was assigned to look out duty and would help the Captain and Executive Officer identify enemy ships and planes out of a book thus he had an important part in the sinking of the record number of enemy vessels.  Some men also began to feel that their luck was running out, and felt that the Wahoo minus Sterling would lock in bad luck.  The Captain asked Sterling if he would please serve out the rest of the war patrol before going back to the States.  Because Sterling was so close to the crew, he agreed.   Mid war patrol the Wahoo had to return to Midway to have the defective torpedoes looked at.

For some reason that even Sterling doesn’t know, the Captain changed his mind about how soon Sterling could leave. He let him off on Midway island before the end of the patrol and told him to head out to the school.

I can imagine the amount of survivor’s guilt that Sterling was left to deal with.  In the epilogue he stated, “…Sorry, fellows, I should have been with you. I can never understand why Captain Morton changed his mind and transferred me at the last moment. My spirit has been with you all these years!”

It was really sad for me and I cried when I finished reading the book even though I knew exactly what was going to happen.  Sterling made these submariners real to me and not just a list of names.  That’s what attracts me to history so much is the knowing and feeling that the people we study WERE REAL and that was part of his motivation for writing the book.  He wanted people to see how these men lived and who they were.  It is the way that Sterling wrote this book that the Wahoo has become my second favorite submarine. (Cobia has to be 1st favorite).  

Sterling passed away in 2002 and is buried in Biloxi National Cemetery.


Click on Sterling’s photo to read an extensive article from the website.

As an update, and not included in the book The Wake of the Wahoo:

July 2006, the Wahoo has been found !  Russian divers find the Wahoo sitting upright on the bottom of the La Perouse Strait in 185 feet of water.  You can read about it on the link above.  




Hackensack, New Jersey- USS Ling

Whenever I am going somewhere on vacation, I always check to see if there is a submarine in the area to tour.  In 2013, I was making my first major trip to the East Coast for the Davy Jones Memorial Monkees Convention in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  I went to the submarine museum website and found that Hackensack, NJ is the home or (more correctly stated and you’ll see why) final resting place of the USS LING 297.  The submarine museums website said that LING still had all the batteries and was the last sub to patrol American shores in WWII. 

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The USS GROWLER is in New York, but I wasn’t brave enough to venture into New York City.  Also in Fall River, Massachusetts is the USS LIONFISH.  I toured it in March 2014, but that is a different post another Tuesday. 

I only had 3 days in New Jersey so I needed to make sure ahead of time everything I would need to know about visiting the LING so I went to their website.  Something just didn’t seem right.  After the experience I had in Seattle where I was searching for a submarine that was no longer there, I wanted to make sure this info was up to date.  No one would answer the phone or my emails.  So I did what I could to find someone in the area to help.  I work at City Hall in Milwaukee so I decided to reach out to the local government in Hackensack.  I wound up corresponding with Mr. Albert Dib, Legal Analyst, Local Historian.  He did some research and found an article stating that the USS LING and the museum sustained substantial damage as a result of Hurricane Sandy.  He even went to far as to drive by the property and snap a picture of the the sign stating that it was closed.


Photo courtesy of Albert Dib

I was very grateful for his help, and needless to say, disappointed.

I did go to the property anyway and took a look around, even though all I could do was stand at a distance from the USS LING with a fence separating us like a prisoner and its visitor.  The museum was a trailer and the entire museum park was in a small grassy area, next to the Hackensack River in what appeared to be the back end of a shopping center parking lot.  It was not a fitting location for a WWII hero.  

I didn’t have to look far to see the damage from Hurricane Sandy.  Other displays in the yard were broken in two, such as the case with a torpedo and missiles and a propeller on its side.  On display as well is a World War II Japanese suicide torpedo, a German defense submarine and Vietnam War-era riverboat.

Sadly, when I returned again the following year in March of 2014, it still didn’t appear to be open but it had been cleaned up.  I hope something happens eventually to help the museum as there should be a better way to preserve this WWII submarine, although the information sounds bleak about the ability to raise funds to remove the LING from the Hackensack River.   

These are the photos that I took.  Please take a moment to view the short slideshow. 

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Overnight Submarine Experience

Most people who know me well, understand that I have an insatiable attraction to submarines.  I am by no means an expert on the subject, but they fascinate me so much as I continue to learn more about them every day.  I like all submarines, but my favorite is the WWII diesel electric sub.

To date, I have been on 5 U.S. submarines, 1 German U-Boat, and 2 Soviet submarines.  Of the U.S. boats, the one I visit most frequently is 86.1 miles north of my house in Manitowoc-  the USS Cobia SS-245 which is now a National Historic Landmark and the main feature at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum.

Distance from Milwaukee to Manitowoc, both of which have been home to the Cobia at one time or another.

The unique thing about this sub is that the museum has created a program whereby visitors are able to sleep overnight on the submarine.  I’ve had this wonderful experience twice and don’t think I’ll stop until I’ve hit some kind of record for the most nights slept on a submarine by a non-military person!  (I’m not actually working towards this goal as I’m sure museum staff has a head start on it)  Several years have passed since my first experience so I suspected it to have changed, but in a way, still knew what to expect.

Having just recovered from surgery, this was my first major outing.  I have only been back at work for 4 days, but as soon as I slid though the first compartment hatch in the Forward Torpedo room, I forgot all about taking it easy!

I left work early on Friday because I knew I would struggle to arrive in Manitowoc on time for the program to start due to rush hour traffic at the start of the weekend.

Don’t worry folks about me taking pictures while driving ! Traffic wasn’t moving as I left downtown Milwaukee.

Getting Closer !


I arrived with a few moments to spare, and waited patiently outside in line with the rest of the overnighters.

Cobia Crew Passage Door

After checking in and meeting our tour guides for the night, we (19 of us) watched a video about the sub/Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company.  Next was the forward to aft (head to toe) tour of the submarine.  The length of the sub is just over the size of an American football field.  I still remember how excited I was the first time I stepped on the deck.  (Technically that was my 2nd submarine tour because I had been on the USS Croaker (SS-246) in Buffalo, NY but my memories of that are vague.) The deck is covered in teak wood and painted black so that it blends in to the water at night to avoid being spotted by planes flying over head.

Looking towards the aft of the Cobia. The white stairs from the museum are slightly visible on the right.

Turning around, you see the conning tower

At this point in the tour, before going below deck into the submarine visitors are confronted with a plaque commemorating the one and only casualty in the 6 war patrols the Cobia embarked on during WWII in the Pacific.

Ralph Clark Huston, Jr. was killed in action, while on the surface, by Japanese machine gun fire, and subsequently buried at sea.  Click to read an excerpt from the Cobia logs about the incident.

Image of Ralph Clark Huston, Jr. on board the Cobia at sea.

There is a distinct smell when you get inside the submarine. I call it “smelling 1945,” and it clings to you long after you’ve left and gone home. My pillow, even after being put in the dryer, still smelled like 1945 for weeks after.  My purse held on to the smell for me so the next week while I was sitting at my desk at work, I could pull my purse out of the drawer and give it a secret sniff to take me back.
You have to experience it for yourself in order to know what I mean when I say it smells like 1945. First it hits you as sort of stale, like a cabin that has been closed up for the winter, mixed with a musty smell of an attic filled with newspapers and magazines that have gotten wet and dried several times over.  Finally add into the mix the lilting smell of diesel fuel and lube oil.  Add in there the remnants of 79 sweaty men working in a confined space where temperatures over 90 degrees with fully saturated humidity, smoking when ever they felt like it.   Hence submarine= pig boat.    I hate to mention things like that to people who have never been on a submarine before, because I think it might put them off to the experience.

This is an unusual view inside the conning tower. I’m at the top of the ladder before entering looking up at a mirror that is reflecting me and the floor.

I don’t mean for this post to be super packed with information about submarines and the experience of the crew because that can be saved for future posts.  I just want to highlight August 3rd -4th 2012 overnight program.  I highly encourage you to check out the virtual tour of the Cobia .  The museum website provides compartment by compartment views and information.

The tour is longer and more detailed than what is offered during regular museum hours.  So far each time, I’ve learned something new from the guides.  Usually at night, I take myself though the sub again in my mind and try to remember all the information given about each compartment or various pieces of equipment.

Once you enter the submarine in one of the torpedo rooms, you are already under water.  When you hear them say they are going to submerge to periscope depth, it means approximately 67 feet.  This is measured from the top of the periscope to the keel of the boat and this type of dive can be completed in 30 seconds during war time emergencies.

After the tour, and a brief intermission back inside the main museum, we were divided into teams to play a game on the sub.  It was so much fun, that I wanted to keep playing all night.  The guides would hand you a photograph which was taken somewhere of something on the submarine and you had to identify it.  It wasn’t as easy as some of the pictures I’ve posted here.  The pictures were zoomed in and cropped so that you really didn’t know which gauge was in the picture.  I must have run the length of the submarine half a dozen times looking for the items.   We were on a time limit and trying to be the team with the most identifiers.  Just by dumb luck the first picture I was handed, I had actually taken a picture of during the tour of a part on the sonar in the forward torpedo room.  They got much harder from there.  My second to last photo entailed locating a string of painted cables that ran into a wall.  if you stand still on the sub and look around, they are EVERYWHERE !  (wink) I found it though !!

This of course was a hard game, and I don’t mean just banging your knees on stuff as you hurry though the sub, but it was hard to remember where you’ve seen things before.  The men who actually serve on the submarines have a more difficult game to play than us.  They need to know where each and every thing on the boat is, what it’s for, how to operate and fix it, AND to be able to do it virtually blind in the dark or they wouldn’t be allowed in sub service.   Fun little games like us over nighter’s played, easily bring you back to the reality of war and how specialized of a service this was.

After the games we were broken up into smaller groups and got the chance to operate the deck gun and venture down into the pump room (below the control room), conning tower, and into the cooler and magazine (below the mess).  By now it was getting late into the evening and we were allowed to bring our over night gear onto the sub and pick out where we want to sleep.

Bunk assignments for two crew members aboard the USS Cobia circa WWII

I slept where both of these men are pictured.  My quarters that night were in the aft torpedo room, which I shared with two other men, whom were my teammates during the photo ID game.  It takes skill and acrobatics in order to get up into the bunk that is over the torpedo. The clearance between your bunk and the curve of the sub is maybe two feet.  See below

Those are my feet lying on the top bunk over the torpedo

Opposite end view on the top bunk over the torpedo

I would have been fine had I not needed to go back inside the museum one more time that night.  I then decided that it would be easier to make up my bed the next level down, adjacent to the torpedo storage rack, but still above another torpedo below.

I thought for sure that I would sleep good that night.  I had a full day at work and was tired.  Plus the running the length of the sub made me want to flop down and drift off to sleep before they were even ready to shut the lights off.  I knew from last time that our compartment had a red light on the ceiling that stayed on so being down a level would help to not have the red light shinning in my face.  The aft torpedo room was also the coolest place on the sub, temperature speaking.  The Cobia NOW has air conditioning on it, but in places like the crews quarters or even the control room, you couldn’t feel it.  In the aft torpedo room, there was a strong breeze from the air blower.   It also made a lot of noise.  I didn’t think about that.  Then there was the snoring I had to contend with.  I ended up putting my rolled up blanket over my face to block out the red light, and noise.  The smell intensified as well, and I sort of had trouble breathing.  Needless to say I didn’t sleep well.

When the air conditioning would turn off (I assumed it was on automatic and that we hadn’t lost power), you could hear the waves sloshing up against the hull, and hear water trickling.  You could also hear the traffic and police sirens outside.  Earlier in the morning hours, I could hear the sea gulls crying and even planes flying over.   I tried to be considerate and not make too much noise as to wake the other guys by shifting around too much in my bunk because it would squeak and rattle terribly.  I don’t think it was secured very well and was trying to slide back under the torpedo rack.  Of course with how those guys were sawing wood they probably didn’t hear me at all.  But lying there motionless like a corpse, I thought to how important it was for the real submariner to keep quiet during an attack so as to not give their position away.

As much as I wanted the air conditioning on, I liked it more when it was silent.  I think next year, I need to try another location even though it would mean being by more people in the general crew area.

My bunk would be below the surface and just beyond where the words Cobia is painted

In the morning, after 12 hours on the submarine, it’s time to pack up, clean up, and go home.  I always have so much fun, despite being dead tired.  They have 3 dates a year where families can sleep over night on the submarine in July and August.  I would love to try it when it was cold, snowy and icy.

If you have any questions about things I didn’t mention, please feel free to leave any questions in the comment section below because, like I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t trying to make a comprehensive post covering everything on and about the submarine, but I love discussing submarines.

To round out the post, here’s a quick list of my favorite sub themed movies.  Disclaimer, of course the fictionalization of sub service never quite gives you the true experience on board, I’m not listing them here with the intention of inferring that these movies are true and accurate.  But they sure are fun to watch !!!

(No particular order)

Run Silent, Run Deep – starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster

The Hunt For Red October – {{{awesome}}} starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin with the use of the USS Blueback sub located in Portland Oregon

U-571 – starring Matthew McConaughey- A movie about deception and capture

The Silver Fleet  A movie from Holland about Dutch Hero Piet Hein and sabotage

Down Periscope – starring Kelsey Grammer in a comedic role of sub captain to a crew of misfit sailors  filmed with the use of the USS Pampanito located in San Francisco

Das Boot – classic German U boat movie

Good Documentaries to watch

Attack and Capture- The story of the U-Boat 505  (located in Chicago at the Museum of Science and Industy)

Lost and Found: The Legacy of the USS Lagarto – about a Manitowoc sub lost at sea