Having just finished training to become a Navy radioman, Deen Brown headed to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to join the crew of the USS Nevada.
It was December 1941 and Japan had just attacked Pearl Harbor. He was 19.
"Perhaps fate had steered me in the right direction. And of course when I saw the Nevada (BB-36), I was very much surprised that it was sunk. … I saw the rest of the destruction in the harbor. Then I was absolutely drained, I think, of all of my senses. I couldn't believe what I was seeing; it was just an appalling sight. The ships were sunk, there were fires burning, there was oil all over the harbor, there were crews working frantically to remove stranded sailors that were entrapped in their ships. So the place was rather chaotic, to say the least, and a terrible mess with all the oil and smoke and all of that. It was definitely a bad, bad scene.
"I had orders to report to the ship, the Nevada. I attempted to do so but all the crew and officers from the Nevada had dispersed, I couldn't locate any of them. So in desperation, and being a young sailor, I wasn't quite sure what I would do, so finally I went to the Navy receiving station at Pearl Harbor, which is kind of a clearinghouse for people, and I told the officer in charge there what my plight was. … He said, 'Well, go where you think you can do some good and report in.' So here I had a chance for once in the Navy to write my own orders, and I decided I would go to the submarine base."
Keeping an eye on the weather
Brown first went to a submarine tender, then he was assigned to the USS Trout (SS-202), a Tambor-class submarine that served in the Pacific from 1941-44.
The Trout was about to leave for its third war patrol in the spring of 1942, to support a U.S. air raid on Japanese cities in retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The officers planning the raid "needed intelligence and they needed it very badly. The reason was because our Navy had been decimated at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, our Pacific Fleet was anemically weak, to put it that way, the nation could not afford to lose an aircraft carrier. … We were told that they (the pilots) would be doing visual bombing, which meant low-level bombing visually. For that, of course, they needed to know whether or not the weather situation would permit them to do visual bombing. So we had to keep our eye on the weather, and if it became so that we thought that they could not use visual bombing, then we would have to let them know.
"All this time we had a program set up where if there was no problem, we would not use our radio transmitter because we could not afford the possibility of having the Japanese detect our radio transmission, get a bearing on us and locate us with radio-direction finding intelligence. So we would not transmit if the weather was satisfactory. It was, so we lucked out there.
"Our other part of the mission was to keep our eye on the Japanese naval fleet. If the Japanese naval fleet left the harbors off Tokyo and Kobe, the (USS) Thresher and the Trout were to report that fact immediately to Adm. Halsey (William Frederick Halsey Jr., the Navy officer who commanded the South Pacific forces and who led the carrier toward Tokyo to launch the Army planes for the initial bombing of Japan) because if they left either one of those harbors it would be assumed that they had detected Adm. Halsey and his task force and the carriers with the bombers and they were headed out after him.
"So we had a constant lookout for these Japanese naval ships. Fortunately they did not come out so again we did not have to report that, which pleased us that we didn't have to transmit by radio. So that was our mission there … just a few months after the war had started and that also happened to be my first submarine war patrol, 19 years of age, knowing very little about the Navy and finding myself off the coast of Japan."
Tricking the Japanese
Patrolling around China, the Philippines and Vietnam, the Trout destroyed many enemy ships but also came close to being sunk on more than one occasion.
"The water around the island of Truk is just azure blue, crystal clear, it's just beautiful. But that was a detriment to us because that meant the aircraft, the Japanese aircraft that were patrolling those waters, could see us even though we were submerged. … The Japanese airplanes were bombing us in the daytime from the air, then the Japanese patrol craft were after us at night. We were chased day and night. We had difficulty sometimes at night staying up on the surface long enough to fully charge our batteries. That was very, very vital to us. So we finally learned a trick. For some reason or another, we discovered the Japanese on these patrol ships, these patrol crafts, never looked backwards in their wake. As soon as we discovered that we would fall in astern of her, in their wake and just follow them around. They never detected us back there. So we could get a battery charge in that way. … The other thing that I wish I could forget was the fact that a Japanese aircraft bombed us and came very close to sinking us. They dropped two bombs, they must have been 500-pound bombs, but they straddled our conning tower, one on either side, and we were in shallow depths. We were at periscope depth and those bombs caused some very significant damage. They shattered our periscopes. … The conning tower hatch sprung a leak and there is no way we could stop it from leaking. ...
"We only had one master gyrocompass and that was of course the principal thing that we navigated by, well it was shattered and our technicians could not repair it so really we were stranded all the way out near Truk island with almost no way to navigate. The only thing we had was a magnetic compass. A magnetic compass on board a submarine was almost worthless so we had to radio our plight to the sub force commander and he ordered us to leave the area of Truk and head toward eastern Australia, which was the closest port for us. (After repairs in Brisbane, Australia,) we went back into the same war zone."
The Trout is lost
Some of the most frightening times on the submarine were when the Trout's torpedoes did not detonate.
"What that meant was that our position, our secret position so to speak, had been compromised. … That meant one thing, that we were going to be attacked. So then the next thing we could do was wait for that attack to occur. And generally it did. They would beat us up if we fired faulty torpedoes because they were not damaged, you know, they had full control of the situation so they would pounce on us and give us a hard time."
As a young sailor, Brown said he was "learning an awful lot, awfully fast."
"Like everybody, when I first experienced the depth charges and the bombs, it was very frightening, I have to admit that. But then as time went on, I think I became a little bit hardened to these battle conditions. And finally one day I just sort of woke up and thought, 'Well, I'm just being sort of foolish because even though I just now heard 25 or 30 depth charges explode, none of them killed me. I'm standing right here. I heard them all so don't worry about them, they're gone.' I always knew, though, that the ones I really had to worry about were the ones that were coming, that had not been launched yet."
The Trout left for its 11th war patrol in February 1944. Brown, who had made eight war patrols on the ship, was not on board, having been sent to school to learn about a new radar system that would be installed on submarines. He was supposed to rejoin the ship when it returned from that patrol.
But the Trout never returned.
It encountered a Japanese convoy and managed to sink one transport ship and damage another before it was apparently sunk by Japanese destroyers. The Trout, with 81 crew members, was presumed lost April 17, 1944.
"That was the second ship that I lost simply because I had been in school. It shocked me because I had complete and total confidence in that ship and the crew. It was very shocking, but I knew that I had to keep going, we were at war and military men can't stop just simply because their shipmate or their buddy, who may be standing right beside them, happens to meet a fatal situation. So I could not stop after it was lost. I was asked if I would go to sea again on another war patrol on board a different submarine, and I volunteered for that."
Brown, who did his last war patrol on the USS Gar (SS-206) and stayed in the Navy until 1959, said he was "just one man of many."
"I didn't, as far as I'm concerned, do anything that was heroic, but I always felt what I was doing was of some importance. Radiomen, I think, had quite an important job on board a submarine. We were really the ears of the submarine. We were the only contact with the outside world, and very often we were the first to learn about something, information was coming in to us. And so it was an interesting job, and I always appreciated it and found it interesting."