As part of its Human Cities Initiative, AkzoNobel is proud to present a unique story of heroism and international cooperation on the high seas. In the summer of 1945, the U.S.S. Cod submarine came to the rescue of the Royal Dutch Navy submarine O-19 trapped in the South China Sea. The struggle to save O-19 has lived through personal accounts, official records and websites. On July 11, 2015, at an event AkzoNobel sponsored, dignitaries from The Netherlands and the United States, descendants of Dutch and U.S. sailors and others gathered at the Cod where it’s docked on Lake Erie in Cleveland, Ohio, to mark the 70th anniversary of an incomparable international naval rescue. Here is the story of how 152 sailors prevailed, together.
In the fall of 1938, the world was lurching toward the unthinkable, another world war. While Europe convulsed, America debated whether the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean would isolate it from the inevitable outbreak of hostilities.
As the world careened headlong into conflict, the Royal Dutch Navy launched submarine O-19 on September 22, 1938, from the Wilton-Fijenoord shipyard in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Equipped with some of the most advanced equipment The Netherlands could provide, the O-19 was the first submarine in the world with a system that allowed it to run its diesel engines while being submerged in order to recharge its batteries and ventilate the boat.
Within a year, O-19 navigated the Suez Canal to reach the Dutch East Indies, where it was under patrol when World War II ignited. The crew of 55 was ordered to attack the enemy in the Pacific Theater.
Launching the U.S.S. Cod
On the other side of the world, the question of America’s participation was answered on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Seven months later, with the United States firmly on a war footing, workers with the Electric Boat Co. in Groton, Connecticut, laid the keel for what would become one of the storied members of the U.S. Naval submarine fleet. The U.S.S. Cod was launched on March 21, 1943, to begin the first of seven patrols that would take the Cod around the world, including into the Pacific Theater.
Dutch sailor Siem Spruijt was looking forward to getting some sleep. It was 4 a.m. in the South China Sea. A dangerous place, to be sure, but for the moment, his world aboard the O-19 appeared calm. Finally, he could get some rest. The ship was steaming ahead at 18 knots as it carried 40 fake mines and supplies for the American naval base at Subic Bay in the Philippines. Two more days and the submarine would deliver its cargo before beginning yet another patrol.
Spruijt approached his bunk but before he could lie down, the O-19 came to a violent stop. Spruijt was thrown against a bulkhead as the O-19 began to shake violently. And then the ship stopped, completely.
“I was practically flying through the air and thrown against the bulkhead,” Spruijt later recounted. “The impact was immense. Just imagine 2,300 tons…coming to a complete standstill within 20 meters!”
O-19 had run aground on the Ladd Reef, a coral reef in the South China Sea that had been submerged during high tide. The watch never saw it. The O-19 had no warning until its hull struck the coral. Ltz. I (Lt. Commander) Jacob Frans Drijfhout van Hooff immediately tried to dislodge the boat, setting both diesel engines on full astern, with the screws hitting the reef, causing the entire ship to shake. But to no avail. The proud submarine, with its crew of 55, was stuck on the surface in enemy waters. The O-19 was helpless.
Lt. Commander Edwin M. Westbrook of the U.S.S. Cod was concerned for one of his crew. J.N. Hemphill was ill with a fever and abdominal pain. It was likely appendicitis, and if Hemphill didn’t get more medical aid than his onboard crew could provide, Hemphill could die.
The Cod had seen its share of dangers during the war. After all, this was its seventh patrol and it was familiar with the waters of the South China Sea. But Westbrook also had a responsibility to his crew, and on July 8, 1945, that responsibility required him to get Hemphill medical attention at Subic Bay naval base as quickly as possible.
Within hours, Westbrook’s priorities changed. That morning, he received word that a Dutch submarine had run aground 200 nautical miles from his current position. Stranded on the surface, the O-19 was unable to defend itself. It was only a matter of time before it was detected by the enemy, captured or destroyed. The Cod was ordered to do all it could to free the submarine. If necessary, it would need to destroy the O-19 to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.
“Westbrook had a real conundrum on his hands,” recalled Toby Oothoudt, vice president and trustee of the non-profit Cleveland Coordinating Committee for the Cod, Inc. “He told the crew caring for Hemphill to pump him full of penicillin and hope for the best.”
Westbrook ordered the Cod to change course. The submarine steamed toward a rendezvous with O-19. By the morning of July 9, the Cod located O-19, partially elevated above the ocean over Ladd Reef. The captains and their crew were about to tackle the first and only international submarine-to-submarine rescue in naval history.
The options available to Lt. Commanders Drijfhout van Hooff and Westbrook were few. The Dutch crew had lightened the submarine as much as possible, dumping overboard water and fuel not needed for the journey to Subic Bay. Other cargo was moved within the submarine with the hope it would help shift the O-19’s position on the reef.
When the Cod arrived, the crews connected the two vessels with a heavy steel cable and attempted to use the Cod’s powerful engines to tow the O-19. The cable snapped under the strain. A second attempt was equally ineffective.
For two days, the commanders, engineers and crew worked to free the O-19, trying everything they could devise, including firing their weapons.
“We found a way to make the boat jump,” Spruijt wrote. The O-19 pressurized its ballast tanks, then released the air, “making the boat jump some inches” while the Cod tried to pull the O-19 off the reef. “The attempt began at high tide, with both diesels running astern at full power, torpedoes being fired from all bow tubes, the gun being fired, the jump-effect being used and the Cod pulling on the screws with her powerful engines. All to no avail, as the O-19 did not move an inch.”
Out of options
The work under the constant threat of enemy detection had been fruitless. The O-19 remained stuck. The two commanders were out of options. The O-19 had to be scuttled.
On July 10, the Cod brought the O-19 crew aboard. Drijfhout van Hooff was the last off the stricken boat, even as the Cod’s crew set demolition charges on board. The vessel’s highly secret radar and sonar were destroyed.
From a safe distance, the crew of the Cod opened fire on the submarine they had worked so hard to save. The 55 Dutch sailors could do nothing but watch.
“We abandoned our beloved sub on which we had been so very successful…and which had also shielded us with her strong body against ever so many depth charges…With our captain the last one to leave, the destruction began,” Spruijt wrote. “Charges exploded inside, two torpedoes and a number of 5-inch shells were fired into her hull. I felt very sad as we sailed for Subic Bay in such a different way than we had first expected.”
Cod sailors, many with tears in their eyes, opened fire with their guns. The combined assault caused several explosions and destroyed the ship that had set sail from Rotterdam nearly seven years earlier.
“What began as a cavalier mission to blow up a sub quickly changed to a very serious and somber act as they witnessed the tears in the eyes of their Dutch counterparts,” said Paul Farace, president and curator of the Committee for the Cod. “Before the O-19 was a total wreck, men of both nations cried, knowing that the only home the 55 Dutch sailors had known for the entire war was being destroyed.”
His duty completed, Lt. Commander Westbrook set sail for Subic Bay with a combined crew of 152. Hemphill was still ill, but the penicillin had done its work. By the time the overcrowded submarined landed at Subic Bay three days later, Hemphill had recovered. All hands were safe.
The crew of the O-19 made their way to Perth, Australia, which had been their home port in the Pacific Theater. Meanwhile, the Cod returned to its patrol area off the coast of Vietnam and survived encounters with enemy aircraft. The Cod returned to Perth, also its home port, on Aug. 13, 1945, where, to their delight, they reunited with the Dutch crew they had rescued. During the ensuing celebration, the combined crew learned of the Japanese surrender. The sailors who had come to know each other during a week in the South China Sea celebrated victory and the end of a terrible conflict.
To commemorate their experience, and the party in Perth, the crew of the Cod added the image of a cocktail glass above the name “O-19” to both the ship’s battle flag and its conning tower.
The Cod was decommissioned in 1954 and placed in reserve. In 1959, the ship was towed to Cleveland, Ohio, to serve as a naval reserve training vessel. In 1971, the ship was stricken from the Navy register. A handful of Clevelanders formed the Cleveland Coordinating Committee to Save Cod, Inc., and in 1976, the Navy gave guardianship of the submarine to the group. In 1986, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated the Cod a National Historic Landmark.
Today, the Cod is one of the finest restored submarines open to the public. Each year since 2004, the submarine has hosted an anniversary celebration to mark the rescue of O-19’s crew, and the international friendships that resulted from the effort. In 1995, Siem Spruijt and some of his fellow sailors traveled to Cleveland to mark the 50th anniversary of the rescue.
“We were able to have several O-19 crew attend Cod reunions and they were treated like superstars by the Cod veterans. But as the new century dawned and the men of the two subs were claimed by time, we realized that their valor would vanish if we didn't share their story with the public,” Farace said. “Sadly, we have none left for the 70th. But I am very touched by the fact that many sons and daughters of these brave men have reached out to us via Facebook and e-mail and shared their stories with us. “
On July 11, 2015, the committee marked the 70th anniversary. Dutch dignitaries who participated in the celebration included Consul General Klaas van der Tempel; Deputy Consul General Stephan van de Wall; Carlo van den Berg, Colonel in the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps and a Naval and Assistant Defense Attaché to the United States; and Captain Hugo L. J. Ammerlaan, Commanding Officer of Submarine Service Netherlands. They were joined by U.S. Navy Commander Eric Stein and several sons and daughters of crewmen from both Cod and O-19, including Edwin Westbrook Jr., the son of Capt. Westbrook.