Gallant Lady

A Biography of the USS Archerfish

Don Keith and Ken Henry

Forge Books

Good Scotch And Cigarettes
MALVTNA Thompson laughed out loud when she read the invitation that had just arrived from Rear Admiral Thomas Withers. The admiral had addressed the letter to “Mrs. Malvina Thompson.” He had also felt the need to instruct her to keep in a “restricted status” the rather vague launch date of the submarine she was being invited to sponsor.
Thompson took a long draw on her cigarette, downed another swig of Scotch, and once again let loose that distinctive cackle of hers.
Not only was she most assuredly not a “Mrs.,” but the letter had also given very skimpy information. It only told her that this submarine…what was it called? USS Archer fish…was to be launched “sometime in the middle of June 1943.” Even if she happened to be sharing tea with some Nazi or Japanese spy, she seriously doubted that such vague details would be of much use to him. She knew from the idle conversation she overheard around the White House that they were launching submarines up there at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, all the time and floating them off to the Pacific. Almost one a month by now. She figured the enemy was adept enough at espionage to already know far more about the schedule than “sometime in the middle of June.”
Still, she was quite pleased to be asked. It was an honor to be selected to sponsor a new submarine, and she appreciated the invitation. As the first lady’s personal secretary, Malvina Thompson usually remained in the background, behind her decidedly “foreground” boss. She had the thankless tasks of keeping up with Mrs. Roosevelt’s daunting daily schedule and then reading it out loud to the press before each day’s news conference. She had been Eleanor Roosevelt’s right hand since being picked out of a Red Cross secretarial pool way back in 1917. The first lady appreciated her secretary’s hard work and efficiency, but Mrs. Roosevelt was quick to point out that Thompson’s openheartedness and sense of humor were equally valued.
Actually, Thompson was quite happy about sponsoring this submarine and was sure “ER” would not mind her taking a couple of days to go up to New Hampshire for the event. After all, Mrs. Roosevelt had experience sponsoring ships. The first lady had christened the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5) in Newport News in 1936. There was another benefit, too. Malvina Thompson could invite her sister to serve as matron of honor and have her niece come along as well. That would give them some time to visit during the train ride up to Boston and back.
“Terrible waste of good champagne, though,” she said out loud, and laughed some more.
“Tommy, what’s so funny?” ER called from next door. The first lady always called her “Tommy.”
Malvina hopped up and went to show her the letter. She knew the first lady would also get a chuckle over the admiral trying to marry her off.
Meanwhile, in the U.S. Navy Yard in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, C. M. Elder, a retired navy captain who was serving as the treasurer of the New Hampshire Auxiliary Navy Relief Society, had inadvertently made another error. Elder was charged with selecting the final design for launch tags to be distributed to attendees during the ceremonies for all the submarines that were being built in the yard. When he corresponded with the people at the Fraser Label Company in Chicago, he selected scarlet red on golden yellow as the colors for the Archerfish’s tag. However, in the correspondence, he omitted the hyphen in the submarine’s official name. All 8,500 tags should have had the boat’s name spelled “Archer-Fish.”
To this day, those who served on the submarine’s first commission, during World War II, still spell the name with the hyphen, as it was originally intended. Those who came after have dropped it and call their boat Archerfish.
Such trivial mistakes were easily made in the rush of early 1943. There were far more important details to worry about. The United States was involved in a two-ocean war, one in Europe and another in Asia. The construction facility in Portsmouth was bustling, working night and day to turn out submarines for the war. At the height of production, 24,000 people worked there. Five Balao-class diesel submarines were under construction at the end of 1942 and in the first half of 1943. In addition to Archerfish, Apogon (SS-308), Aspro (SS-309), Batfish (SS-310), and Burrfish (SS-312) were either already undergoing sea trials or were well on the way to completion.
Scheduling was crucial. The boat builders made do as best they could. For example, construction on Archerfish was not far enough along to permit installation of her torpedo tubes when they arrived at the yard. The workmen simply installed the tubes in Batfish. Batfish, the only one of the five sisters still around today, is on display in a grassy park in Muskogee, Oklahoma. She still has the Archerfish designation SS-3II stenciled on her torpedo tubes. It’s interesting to note that she made good use of her borrowed tubes. She was officially credited with sinking nine Japanese vessels, though the crew was certain of at least fifteen.
The keel of the Archerfish was laid down on January 22, 1943, and she was far enough along to float, ready to launch, on May 28. That was no small feat. Even as late as the day before she was to be officially launched, workers were still installing mooring lines, flashlights, fire extinguishers, and life preservers. Chippers and caulkers still hung from her sides, removing the last temporary clips. Painters were assigned to touch up the hull with anticorrosive and antifouling paint as the blocks, shores, and cribbing were removed. Welding ground wires and the lightning ground were not taken away until the night before launch.
Still, she was finished and presentable enough to launch on time. On Friday night, May 28, 1943, she rested in Slip 1 at the yard, ready to get the 8:20 PM ceremony over with so she could have her controls installed, begin sea trials, and get to her assigned port. The seemingly odd time of 8:20 PM was chosen for the launch because that was when the rather capricious tide would be most favorable. The Piscataqua River’s high and low tides could vary by as much as seven feet, and an ebb current of twelve knots was not uncommon.
Navy Commander J. H. Spiller, the launching officer, and Captain S. E. Dudley, the production officer, were too busy getting ready for another send-off to ponder this latest boat’s future. It was routine for them now, these launching ceremonies, with all their detailed paperwork and onslaught of memos that covered every possible contingency, right down to who was responsible for pulling up the christening bottle and to whom he delivered it. The men whose job it was to send these boats out to sea doted on minutiae. It likely kept them from thinking about where their charges might end up once they had left their care. They knew the odds. Many of the boats they saw launched down the Piscataqua toward the Atlantic Ocean would eventually rest on the bottom of the sea for eternity. So would many of the brave submariners who manned them.
Thirty-five riggers and laborers from Shop 72 stood by to help get her out of the slip and over to Berth 2 after the festivities, along with men from various other shops and the tugs sent over by the captain of the yard. A hospital corpsman was assigned to the submarine’s deck beginning an hour before the ceremony. Divers were scheduled to inspect the slip and skids from beneath at two o’clock that afternoon, and another crew would do a thorough inspection an hour later to make sure everything was tied down for the launch.
Those yard workmen who would be busy on other projects in the area around the new submarine would be allowed to cease their work for the twenty-five minutes that the launching festivities would take. But that was all the rest they would get. They would have to resume their regular tasks immediately after the ceremony.
Commander H. Ambrose would be aboard Archerfish, in charge of riding her out of the slip and supervising the trip from there to her berth. Though he was the first “skipper” of Archerfish, his tenure would only last a few minutes, until the tugs had eased the submarine into Berth 2, port side to, and tied her off. Someone else would eventually guide her toward the Pacific Ocean and the war.
Before, during, and after the launch, the Coast Guard patrolled the fairway, making certain no one was in the area who shouldn’t be, either accidentally or on purpose. Such a ceremonious occasion was hardly a good time to have a spanking new submarine collide with some errant tug. A special marine contingent kept watch, both at the launch slip and at Berth 2. There had been no incident of sabotage at Portsmouth. The commandant intended to keep it so.
Miss Thompson rode the train up from Washington that day, traveling with her sister and niece. They arrived in Portsmouth at about 6:30 PM. She enjoyed dinner prior to the launching with Rear Admiral Withers and his wife. Withers had a special place in submarine history. He was considered the father of long-range submarines, the man who had convinced the navy that subs could do more than defensively patrol our own coasts and harbors. New generation submarines like the Archerfish were built to carry more men, go farther, dive deeper, and run faster than their predecessors. For the first time in U.S. Navy history, these “plunging boats” were being designed to be aggressors.
During dinner, Miss Thompson refrained from mentioning the marital mix-up in Admiral Withers’s first letter to her, though she still chuckled when she thought of it.
There was reason for celebration that evening. Archerfish was the sixth submarine to be launched from Portsmouth in the first five months of 1943. That was a matter of considerable pride to everyone involved. Still, it was to be a muted event. Gala receptions for guests had traditionally been held either before or after launch ceremonies in Portsmouth, where such events had been held for various type vessels for over 150 years. However, the parties had been discontinued during wartime. It was necessary to get the area cleared and everyone back to work as quickly as possible. Only a limited number of guests, officers, and shipyard workers were allowed to take part. That was both for security and scheduling reasons. Anyone wishing to attend had to have an invitation or direct orders or get special permission from the commandant of the yard to be there. A newly completed warship would be a juicy target for saboteurs. But, more practically, the space around Archerfish’s slip was quite cramped. It would be embarrassing to have some distinguished member of the sponsor’s party bumped into the drink.
This would be one of the few parties Archerfish missed in her colorful life.
Miss Thompson’s sister, Mrs. Charles Lund of Washington, D.C., who served as matron of honor, and her niece, Cynthia, were among those on the platform that night. So were Leon W. Gridmore and his wife. Grid-more was a toolmaker from the navy yard’s central tool shop. He had been designated to present the employees’ gift to the sponsor. It was a silver bowl with her name engraved on it. Thompson subtly checked to make certain it was engraved to “Miss Malvina C. Thompson,” as she had specifically requested. It was.
The band began playing naval favorites promptly at 7:50 PM. The official party marched up onto the sponsor’s platform, and Gridmore presented the employees’ gift at 8:05. Lieutenant Ralph Curtis, a navy chaplain, offered a prayer at 8:07. After a few short speeches, a bright red warning flag flew at 8:15, followed three minutes later by one long blast on the warning klaxon and a single bell to alert Miss Thompson that it was time for her to go to work.
As she posed for the photographer, the first lady’s secretary carried in her left arm a dozen roses, purchased for the occasion by the taxpayers of the United States for $24, and held the christening bottle in her right hand. When the bell sounded, she laid aside the flowers, seized the bottle in her left hand, and sang out, “I christen thee Archerfish” Then she whacked the bow of the new submarine hard. Everyone who had gathered in the area of the slip and on the deck of the new boat applauded heartily as the bottle shattered and its contents spewed all over.
Immediately, the triggers were released, and Archerfish eased down the carefully greased skids, out of the berth and into the water. After all the frenzied work, the detailed preparations for the ceremony, the launch was over in less than half an hour.
Archerfish had been conceived on January 22. Now, on May 28, she had been birthed. It was a gestation of just over four months.
The message went out the next day to the Bureau of Ships:
There was no way any of those gathered there at Slip 1 that gentle New England spring evening could have suspected what lay ahead for the boat they had set afloat. Nor could they ever have fathomed the role she would play in her country’s history over the next quarter century.
In retrospect, though, it seems especially appropriate that her sponsor       was a woman who was respected for her hard work and efficiency, yet well known for her sense of humor and her fondness for cigarettes and good Scotch.
Copyright © 2004 by Ken Hendry and Don Keith