When WWII veterans were asked to stand to be recognized at Horry Electric Cooperative's Annual Meeting May 14, only Robert German rose—and HEC members promptly followed suit, giving him a standing ovation.
Serving on two submarines in World War II in the South Pacific that combined to sink 34 Japanese ships, retired First Class Petty Officer Robert “Bob” German has plenty of stories about successful combat action at sea.
Those aren’t the ones he likes to tell the best, not because they’re too graphic, or painful, but because two others, two rescue missions, stand out in his memory above all else for their raw emotional power.
‘10 to 12’ passengers
The first came on just the second patrol for German, an Horry Electric Cooperative member in Murrells Inlet. A call came in for a rescue mission for a group of “10 to 12” Americans who had been hiding from and being harassed by the Japanese Army on the island of Panay. His boat, the USS Angler, responded.
“Instead of 12, it turned out to be 57 people,” says German, who turns 89 this month. “The sub carried a full crew of 77. “We got everyone aboard, putting all the women and children at one end in the forward torpedo room, and the men and boys in the aft quarters with the crew amidships for eight days and nights, and we ran out of food two days before we got them safely back to Darwin, Australia.”
‘You rescued me’
The second story involved the rescue from the Japanese-occupied Philippines of an American woman who was seven months pregnant and carrying pages of hand-written notes about how for two-and-a-half years she’d been running from the Japanese, hiding in caverns and caves until she could escape.
“We came into some action and it got real loud, and I remember thinking, there’s nothing in the submarine manual about delivering a baby,” German says, joking. “But we also safely delivered her to Australia.”
Fast forward after the war, and thanks to the G.I. Bill, German received his degree in industrial engineering from the University of Maryland, where his wife and baby boy were staying with him. After class he went to pick up his son from being cared for at a converted barracks facility on campus, and greeting him at the door was a young Filipino woman.
“I smiled warmly at her and asked her where she was from, and she said ‘Panay,’” says German, who also served on the USS Bluefish. “I got chills. I told her that during the war I’d served on a submarine that rescued people off Panay, and she said, ‘Sir, I saw your boat surface. You rescued me.’ I was absolutely floored.
“She then went in and brought me a book to look at, and it was the story of the pregnant woman we’d also rescued that had been published as an autobiography, and the last chapter was about our rescuing her. You talk about a small world.”
Streams of bubbles—and other memories of WWII
In WWII, submariners called torpedoes “fish,” and once fired, they became a dead giveaway to a sub’s position because the propellant, a mix of 190-proof alcohol and distilled water, created a stream of bubbles leading right back to the firing position. In German’s case, however, aboard the sub Angler, he had an advantage few others did. “Because one of the skipper’s older brothers was an admiral, we received some secret weapons, the first new electric-propeller torpedoes, and were able to score kills for the first time without having to give away our position to the enemy.”
The Angler’s first combat experience was sinking a patrol boat not long after going on patrol. “It was about 100-foot long and had two radio antennas on it and two machine guns on the stern,” German says. “After fooling around with them for half a day, the gunner wore glasses and couldn’t see the target, he’d be over it, under it, over it, under it. We fired 98 rounds of ammunition of 100 total on board. We got enough hits to stop the boat, knock the machine guns off the stern, then we set it on fire with incendiaries. We picked up one survivor, a Japanese kid who was 14 years old. We had a Chinese radio operator, who found out he was from Nagasaki, and we saved his life. He claimed it was a fishing boat and his father was the captain. They were fishing, all right—fishing for submarines!”
In between submarine assignments while in Australia, German had the rare chance to serve as a chauffeur for the squadron commander for two months. “That was a super job, because the commander, a former shoe salesman in Seattle, had rekindled a friendship there with a friend of his he knew from back home, this professional wrestler from Canada who now had a chicken farm in Australia,” German says. “So my job every day was to go pick up the commander’s girlfriend, who lived in Perth. Every morning I had fresh ham and eggs. I loved it, but after a couple of months I was ready to get back to the war.”
German married his wife, Ruth, on the deck of his second sub, the Bluefish, while it was in dry dock in Connecticut. After the war, German went back to school. First earning his GED, then his degree in industrial engineering from the University of Maryland, German went on to work for the federal government for nine years. For the next 40 years, he worked for the American Bank Note Company, Washington, D.C., which printed stock certificates and the official currency for 65 foreign nations.