Typically identified as the Splinter Fleet, the tiny 110-foot wood-hulled sub chasers of World War II held the title as the smallest commissioned ships in the U.S. Navy. A sub chaser cruised at around 12 knots with flank speed no more than 20 knots. The more popular PT-boats of McHales’s Navy renown were only 80 feet in length and commonly hit 40 knots, but PT-boats were commissioned collectively in squadrons, not individually.
Sailing in a sub chaser, even in mild seas, was akin to riding a roller coaster, and seasoned sailors aboard the sub chasers were often overcome with seasickness, especially after an extended shore leave. A crew of three officers and 24 enlisted men used a 3-inch gun, later replaced with a single Bofors 40mm gun and two twin .50 caliber guns, which were later replaced with two twin 20mm guns for protection. To combat submarines the crew dropped racks of depth charges or utilized a forward firing rocket contraption called a Mousetrap Rack.
On April 16, 2013, my story was published on the Helms brothers, Brian and Jack, both Navy veterans of WWII. Brian was aboard the USS Vestal during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and again dodged the Grim Reaper as a crew member on an escort carrier sunk during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The younger brother, Jack, served in the Pacific aboard sub chaser SC-1031. Somewhere in a dusty storage box the war records of SC-1031 may be hidden away or perhaps forever lost to history. We do know that Jack Helms saw action in the Aleutian Islands, Gilbert Islands and Marshall Islands, yet little is known concerning the events. A photo of SC-1031 was not to be found.
Then in April of 2015, I received an amazing email from Jeffrey Fisk, a lawyer in Chicago. His father, Robert (Bob) Fisk Jr., served aboard SC-1031 during WWII. He discovered my article on SC-1031 and the Helms brothers by googling “News” in an ongoing research project to find all information available on his father’s ship and service. Twenty years passed before Jeff Fisk found a photo of SC-1031 and, by a stroke of luck, googled my story.
So, this is the story of two sailors, Jeff Fisk’s father, Bob Fisk Jr., and his grandfather, Bob Fisk Sr. The grandfather, Fisk Sr.. lied concerning his age and joined the U.S. Army when he was 15 years old. By 1916, he had achieved the rank of master sergeant and served as a bugler under Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing during the American incursion into Mexico to capture the revolutionary and bandit Pancho Villa.
In El Paso, Fisk Sr. saddled a horse fresh from the prairie to participate in a parade. The horse buckled and fell on the cobblestones in front of Gen. Pershing’s reviewing stand. He calmed the horse, then finished the parade. Called back to the reviewing stand, Fisk Sr. endured harsh words from his commanding officer, utterances not to be repeated in a family newspaper. After the commanding officer ran out of breath and offensive language, Fisk Sr. glanced up at Gen. Pershing and stated, “Those are the nicest words he’s ever spoken to me.”
The elder Fisk decided to leave the Army to join the Navy. He served on a submarine tender USS Rainbow off the Atlantic Coast during WWI and later sailed on a supply ship to China, which was commandeered by the Japanese after their invasion of China in 1937. Fisk Sr. was stranded in China for over a year. When finally released, he returned to America and joined the Merchant Marines in WWII, working on the oceangoing tug USS Boone Island.
Now another Fisk desired to “see the world.” Bob Fisk Jr. was itching to join the fight. Still in high school, he asked his grandparents to sign the papers, since he was underage. They refused; education came first. In 1943, high school graduate Bob Fisk Jr. joined the Navy, took his basic training on the Great Lakes, arrived in San Francisco in December 1943, then boarded a troop ship for Pearl Harbor. One of the smallest ships in the Navy was waiting for him, sub chaser SC-1031.
What follows is Bob Fisk Jr.’s story, as told by his son Jeffrey Fisk.
“I remember Dad telling me about Dec. 7, 1941, and the 10-block-long line the next day down at the recruiting station. He wanted to go, but my great-grandparents were adamant about my dad finishing high school. Our entire family contributed; one aunt worked on Dauntless Dive bombers in Corpus Christi.
“Dad said the skipper of SC-1031 was gung-ho and wanted back in the action. Apparently, the ship had seen plenty of action but was pulled back to Pearl for reasons unknown. Well, the gung-ho skipper did get back in action but not aboard SC-1031. A fresh skipper took over the helm. The officer was good friends with an admiral and talked his way into milk run patrol duties around the Hawaiian Islands.
“So, that’s what Dad and his shipmates did, most of the time. The ship was sent on missions and supply runs to the Marshall Islands and many more, but the experience was very sobering. The Hawaiian Islands were so lush and pristine, but Dad said the Marshalls and other islands were devastated, no palm trees, little vegetation, the islands looked like the surface of the moon. War isn’t pretty.
“He recalled seeing other combat ships limp into Pearl, some listing so badly they were hardly afloat. You could hear the activity aboard the ships before they made port, the hammering, welding, cutting of steel, then they went into dry dock. About 90 percent of the welders were Nikkei Amerikajin, or Japanese Americans. There were no internment camps in Hawaii. Dad said their welds looked like they had been put on with a butter knife, they were so smooth. The damaged ships were repaired and put back to sea, usually in three to four days.”
“Dad didn’t see combat. He said his time on SC-1031 was a precursor for McHale’s Navy. They had a dog on the ship; the captain owned a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and my Dad owned an Indian motorcycle. They carried their bikes around on the back of the ship from island to island so they could explore or whatever. Someone finally made them remove the motorcycles from their supposedly combat vessel.
“My father always said that he was lucky and counted his blessings. He helped turn the SC-1031 over to the Russians and train their sailors for the upcoming invasion of Japan. Dad was on his way home on a troop ship when the war ended.
“Back in San Francisco, Dad thought the entire Naval Department had become a precursor for McHale’s Navy. They put him on a train from San Francisco to New York to pick up his new orders: to serve on a yard oiler, YO105, in San Francisco. So, my father caught another train from New York back to San Francisco. Ya gotta love the military.”
Bob Fisk Jr returned to civilian life in 1946, worked at a boat yard for 10 years, then joined International Business Machine as a senior electronics technician. He worked in the SEBAB Department (Special Engineering Design and Build) and was instrumental in development of IBM’s first System One Business Computer. He retired after 32 years of service with IBM.
Enid Hanson, daughter of SC-1031 crewmember Jack Helms, and Jeffrey Fisk, son of SC-1031 crewmember Bob Fisk,Jr., now have each other’s email addresses and phone numbers. The “kids” thanked me for making this connection happen, but I was just a small cog in a big wheel. The tiny sub chaser, SC-1031, was the real matchmaker, the Little Ship That Could. Her fate with the Russian Navy is still unknown.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran. For story consideration visit his website at aveteransstory.us and click on “contact us.”