Remembering submariners

Timothy Hemphill hopes the USS Robalo and its crew, other submariners and those with other units who have served this country won’t be forgotten.

This past week, Hemphill, a retired submarine crew member now living in Coleharbor, pointed out to The Minot Daily News that the USS Robalo is the state’s memorial boat.

A USS Robalo SS-273 Memorial is located in Lindenwood Park in south Fargo. Hemphill hasn’t visited there yet but said he plans to this summer. He is an associate member of the U.S. Submarine Veterans of World War II.

When the organization’s members wanted to honor the memory of those who lost their lives in submarines, they asked states to adopt one of the submarines that had been lost at sea. North Dakota was assigned the USS Robalo.

The USS Robalo SS-273 was a Gato-class submarine built in Manitowoc, Wis., and launched May 9, 1943. During World War II, while passing through the Balabac Strait in the South China Sea on the night of July 26, 1944, it strayed into an enemy minefield. A violent explosion jolted the ship and she quickly sank, losing 77 of her 81 men.

Four Robalo crewmen managed to swim away from the stricken submarine. Some accounts say they were taken aboard a Japanese destroyer. Accounts also say the men swam to shore where they were captured by Japanese who imprisoned them and a Japanese destroyer later removed them from Palawan island. The destroyer’s destination and the fate of the four men are unknown.

The monument in Fargo was given by the North Dakota U.S. Submarine Veterans of World War II and unveiled in September 2003.

Benches near the monument have the names of prominent Navy veterans of World War II including Capt. Joseph Enright, Lt. Cmdr. Verne Skjonsby and Lt. Cmdr. Harold “Hal” Wright.

Enright, a highly decorated combat veteran of World War II, was born in Minot in 1910. Under his command, the submarine USS Archer-Fish sank the Japanese aircraft carrier Shinano, the largest vessel ever sunk by a submarine. The Shinano, Japan’s 72,000-ton “super ship,” was on her maiden voyage when she was sunk in November 1944. Enright was inducted in the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame in Minot in 1995. He died in 2000 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va.

Skjonsby, of Hickson in Cass County, was among 80 men who died when the USS Wahoo, a Gato-class submarine, went down in Oct. 11, 1943, in the La Perouse Strait, northern Japan. The submarine was sunk by a combination of air attack and depth charging. Skjonsby was the submarine’s executive officer.

Wright, of Antler, was in the Navy, including service during World War II. His nephew, Erwin Wright, of Minot, recalled an incident in 1944 when his uncle was a radio officer on the submarine USS Salmon. “They came up in the middle of a Japanese convoy. They tried to drop down and did,” he said. He said the Salmon was able to sneak past the convoy. He said his uncle’s Navy career always was with submarines. Harold Wright died several years ago. He is buried in Federal Way, Wash.

“Submarine duty is rather hazardous duty,” said Hemphill, who retired from the Navy after 20 years of service. During his career he served on several submarines.

He was born in Miles City, Mont., and went to high school in Belfield and South Heart. He makes his home in Rock Springs, Wyo., but now lives in Coleharbor and works in the oil field.

Hemphill has been involved with other memorials or recognitions for submarines and their crew members, including the USS Wyoming and Wyoming’s state memorial boat. The U.S. Submarine Veterans of World War II assigned the USS Barbel SS-316 to the state of Wyoming.

Hemphill’s current plans include attending the commissioning of the Virginia-class nuclear submarine being built that will carry the state’s name USS North Dakota. The commissioning is scheduled for 2014.