We were Pirates
Book recounts World War II submarine experiences of Decorah's Bob Hunt
Tuesday, August 11, 2009 4:27 AM
Bronc buster, bootlegger, poker hustler, loan shark, ski instructor, husband and father.
These are just a few of the many hats Decorah resident Bob Hunt has worn during his 90 years of life.
But it's one of his most treasured, albeit dangerous, roles - pirate -- Hunt recently chronicled in a book he collaborated on with former Luther professor Robert Schultz and James Shell.
Schultz, a former neighbor of Hunt's, and Shell helped organize the memoirs of WWII veteran Hunt, who served on 12 war patrols as a crewman on the USS Tambor submarine in the western Pacific.
The result of their labor, "We were Pirates: A Torpedoman's Pacific War," recently was published by the U.S. Naval Institute Press and is available for purchase.
Schultz and Hunt will attend two book signings Thursday, Aug. 13.
The first will take place from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at the Luther College Book Shop, the second is at 7 p.m. at the Decorah Public Library.
Hunt said when he is asked why he wanted to take on the monumental task of preparing a book, he answers, "I've never read a submarine book where they really told what was going on. To me, it was my life. So I said, 'By God, I'm going to write one and tell it like it was,'" said Hunt.
Growing up near Colby, Wis., Hunt established himself as a tough guy by the young age of five.
"My parents ran Elmbrook Farm Guernseys, but we also raised and sold ponies and Boston Terriers," said Hunt.
Afraid of nothing, Hunt was bucking out ponies before he started kindergarten.
"If someone would bring us a pony with a bad attitude, my dad would say, 'My son can ride him.' Then he'd put me on that pony and I'd just let it run until it stopped. Sometimes they ran a long time," said Hunt.
Hunt enjoyed a good relationship with his favorite Welsh pony, Babe, until the year she foaled and he made the mistake of trying to "fool with her colt."
"She kicked me and cut my nose practically off. When we moved away from Wisconsin when I was in the fourth grade, my mother said I had 14 visible scars from that encounter," joked Hunt.
Hunt's family was always on the move when he was young. His father worked for Montgomery Ward and was often asked to relocate as new stores cropped up in the region.
The family lived in Mason City, Fredericksburg, Waupeton, N.D., and Hibbing and Duluth, Minn. before landing in Decorah, where his father, R.C. Hunt, started a Ben Franklin store.
"All that moving, hard as it was, had served as good preparation for living on a boat that was constantly in motion," wrote Schultz and Shell.
While Hunt said it was tough starting at a new high school his sophomore year, his athletic interest and aptitude took him far.
"I was voted the most athletic boy of 1937, the year I graduated. They also made me secretary of the senior class," said Hunt.
A tough blow
But life in Decorah was bittersweet, as Hunt and his family watched his mother, Bessie, slip away from cancer at the age of 40.
Following the tragedy, Hunt, along with brother Dick, and sister Marge, "pulled together and watched out for one another as their dad attended to his duties at the store the best he could," wrote the authors.
After graduation, Hunt worked at Decorah's new outdoor swimming pool before a year's stint as a Coca-Cola salesman and truck driver.
He also worked the concession stand at Niagara cave, before landing a football and track scholarship at Coe College, where he made quick work of breaking the school's pole vault record.
But despite his scholarship, which covered tuition and books, Hunt and his family struggled to pay for his living expenses.
By 1939, with both of his boys now graduated from high school, R.C. sat down to have a heart-to-heart with them.
"Mom was gone, he had two boys out of school, there was no more money for college and there were no jobs," recounted Hunt in the book.
When R.C. mentioned the Navy to his two sons, Hunt recalls thinking, "Why not?"
The Hunt brothers embraced their new life as military trainees, and Bob was intrigued by stories of life on submarines.
"You got the best food, extra pay, and as long as you did your job, nobody bothered you," said Hunt.
After being assigned to a sub, Hunt learned quickly and was promoted to seaman 1st class. He later passed a "seemingly endless battery of written and hands-on tests" and attended torpedo school.
"We were Pirates" chronicles Hunt's life over three years and eight months, during which he served 12 consecutive patrols aboard the Tambor.
"They usually wouldn't let you stay on more than four runs in a row," said Hunt.
But Hunt did. And over the years, he said he's had many people ask him how he didn't go insane being submerged for so many weeks at a time.
"I tell them I was crazy before I started, so it wasn't a problem," quipped Hunt.
To pass the long days and nights on board, Hunt and his fellow sailors played a lot of poker, with Hunt usually emerging on top.
"Back in high school, I had gotten a job driving Ed Waterbury out to Oneota Country Club. He was the best poker player in town, and I used to sit right behind him when he played. By the time I enlisted, I was a real expert," he said, adding he also became the sub's unofficial chief loan officer.
"I used to lend the guys money, but I quit that because I felt so bad when we went ashore. They'd get their checks and have to pay me back first, and they'd be left with nothing," he said.
Following Hunt's first patrol, he took a short leave in Decorah, where he became a little unsettled after being fussed over and treated like the town hero. After his visit, he eagerly headed back to the Pacific.
"With its fuel tanks topped off, the Tambor departed Midway (Island) for the heart of its second wartime patrol ... the Tambor would go where U.S. surface vessels could not, performing surveillance on Japanese-held ports at Wake, Truk, the Enewatak Atoll in the Marshalls, and New Britain and New Hanover in New Guinea," wrote Schultz and Shell.
It was on this mission Hunt had the chance to shoot his first torpedo.
In "Pirates," Hunt recounts dozens of close calls - many due to enemy fire, some due to his comrades' own stupidity.
He recounted an above-water respite, when some of his shipmates had decided to go swimming, despite the fact they were traveling in shark-infested waters.
Hunt watched as a man with a rifle stood watch over the swimmers.
"Disgusted, he wandered toward the bow of the boat, where he saw another group of shipmates leaning over the side and pointing excitedly. One of them was holding a line in the water, and when he brought it up Bob saw a red hunk of beefsteak stuck on a big fishhook ... 'A swimming party at one end of the boat with an armed lookout to protect them from sharks, and a fishing party at the other end trying their damndest to attract them.'"
In another close call of a different nature, Hunt recounts how a barmaid at the King Edward Hotel in Perth, Australia, saved him from being swindled after Hunt, in a drunken stupor, threw thousands of dollars in poker winnings onto the bar.
"She swept up the bills into a linen sack, and led him by the hand to the hotel safe. Facing him and speaking slowly, the barmaid explained that she had seen more than one sailor come through, flash a wad of money and leave with empty pockets. The next day Bob sent his winnings back to Decorah for safekeeping," Hunt recounted in "We were Pirates."
His 10th mission
Hunt said that throughout his many missions, he became somewhat accustomed to "depth charges" from the enemy and a variety of close calls.
But it wasn't until his 10th patrol, and his first since being promoted to Chief, that he grew concerned.
Soon after the sub left Pearl Harbor, it experienced difficulties during practice dives.
"Doesn't look too good for operating in enemy waters," wrote Hunt in his diary.
Early in the war, the Japanese had enjoyed little success with their depth-charging tactics. But they soon received a little help when U.S. Representative Andrew May, a member of the House Military Affairs Committee, foolishly announced the Japanese were aiming too shallow at a press conference, and the tip quickly made it back to enemy lines.
It was later estimated that May's comment may have cost the Navy as many as 10 submarines and the lives of 800 enlisted men.
Hunt recounted that during his 10th mission, "The Japanese commander pummeling the Tambor knew his business. Methodically, the destroyer made pass after pass, dropping two charges at a time ..."
Hunt said the sound of the explosion was like a hammer striking the hull.
"When one of them struck, Bob was standing on a crossbeam used as a support during reloading, and the vibration burned his feet as if he stood on hot coals," wrote Schultz and Shell.
After the attack that lasted 16 hours, the crew began to experience breathing difficulties as the oxygen in the air was depleted. Finally, they were able to surface for some fresh air.
"It had been one of the worst depth chargings survived by an American sub during the war ... most who had undergone a similar experience died in their subs."
Following the harrowing experience, Hunt was commended for his actions and was recommended for the Bronze Star and issued a citation for "heroic and outstanding duty ... During a severe and prolonged depth charge attack you directed repairs in the forward torpedo room." He was also commended for his "fearless and skillful performance."
He also received a commendation ribbon and citation from Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief, United States Pacific Fleet:
"His calm manner and devotion to duty contributed directly to the success of his vessel. His conduct throughout was an inspiration to all whom he served and in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."
Following his 12 missions aboard the sub, Hunt took an assignment teaching the Navy's first torpedo-tube school in San Francisco.
"Bob soon discovered that he enjoyed teaching and was good at it. His combat experience gave him instant credibility with his students, and being only a few years older than them helped him communicate effectively," wrote Schultz and Shell.
Hunt had already gained respect among his superiors on a previous trip to San Francisco, when he had the opportunity to collaborate with the engineering and design department at Bethlehem Steel on some modifications he had suggested in the design of the forward torpedo room. Hunt said the change likely prevented injuries and saved lives.
A good life
After the war, Hunt was granted a discharge on Christmas Day, 1945.
He soon returned to Decorah, rekindling an old flame with Barbara Bishop, who had written him a couple of letters during the war. Within a year, they were married.
In 1950, Hunt purchased his father's Hunt Variety Store, which he ran for 20 years before taking a job as the head of Decorah Parks and Recreation. He held the job until his retirement in 1980, spending his free time as a ski instructor at Nor Ski Run in Decorah.
He and Barbara were the proud parents of two sons, Craig and David. .
Submariner in Iowa
Schultz recounted after starting the book in 2006, he would often walk by Hunt's house, just down the street from where he lived, and see him working on his memoirs late into the night.
"I saw through the tiny basement window a single bare light bulb burning in what I knew to be Bob's room. I always pictured him there, in that unfinished space - its exposed pipes, wires, and insulation - surrounded by his maps, notebooks, and photos, submerged again in that past time. I did not stop to go in and see him, but as I walked on, part of me stayed there, wondering at the submariner at home, underground in Iowa, remembering," wrote Schultz.
Of his years spent at sea, Hunt concluded, "We had a hell of a time."