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Local man recalls silent service during WWII

Springfielder served on submarine crew that sunk 6 enemy ships.

Bill Deselem was obviously relieved when word came down that World War II was over.

But no one should still be more relieved than the crew of the Japanese ship targeted by Deselem’s submarine off the eastern coast of Honshu on Aug. 15, 1945.

“We were counting down to zero,” Deselem, a torpedoman aboard the Navy’s USS Gato, recalled. “We were dead on ‘em.”

When they got to six, a message was received — “cease fire.” The war was over.

“To this day,” Deselem, now 88, said, “they don’t know they were six seconds from the bottom of the ocean.”

The lifelong local resident told his wartime story this week to the Springfield News-Sun as part of the newspaper’s monthly Hometown Heroes series — and Deselem’s adult daughter, Becky Bishop, was glad she sat in on the interview.

“Some of this stuff I didn’t know,” Bishop confessed. “He didn’t talk much about it.”

Deselem’s silence for the past 68 years probably has had a little to do with the well-known humility of the Greatest Generation. But, mostly, it’s professional practice.

“A submariner isn’t supposed to divulge anything,” Deselem warned at the outset of the interview. “We’re supposed to be a silent, secret service.”

Case in point: Even though the USS Gato was sold for scrap some 53 years ago, Deselem hesitated after realizing he’d revealed the exact amount of time it took for the Gato to submerge and dive once a Japanese plane was spotted.

“That doesn’t need to be in the newspaper,” he instructed.

Nearly seven decades after the end of World War II, Deselem still wishes he could’ve flown a P-38, but being in the Navy’s submarine service was the next best thing.

“Where else are you going to get a $7 million casket?” he joked.

Statistically, the odds were against the men who volunteered — and they only took volunteers — to essentially live underwater for stretches of 45 to 60 days at a time.

Of all U.S. armed forces during World War II, no one suffered a higher percentage of casualties than the submariners. One in five never again set foot on dry land.

Of the 16,000 submariners during the war, 3,506 were killed.

In all, the U.S. Navy lost 52 subs during World War II, which wasn’t actually too bad considering Germany lost between 700 and 800 subs and Japan lost 128 subs.

In return, a submarine offered relative comfort compared to what frontline troops experienced.

“It’s just like sitting here in this chair,” Deselem explained. “It’s nice and quiet.”

Often, they were a godsend to downed aviators, like the 18-year-old bomber crewman the Gato once fished out of the ocean after bobbing there for two days.

That’s not to say there weren’t terrifying moments, like the April night in 1945 that Japanese torpedoes audibly whizzed past the Gato, narrowly missing it.

Then there were the depth charges dropped by Japanese destroyers that would rock the sub — what you see in the movies is pretty accurate, Deselem said — along with mine fields that had to be navigated.

“I’ve been scared plenty of times,” he said.

Once, while patrolling the Yellow Sea, picking off Japanese merchant ships, the Gato became the target of a long search by an enemy destroyer intent on revenge.

“After you sink a couple of ships,” Deselem said, “you usually have the destroyer escorts coming after you, and they’re eager to drop a few depth charges.”

To evade the destroyer, he recalled, the Gato dove 475 feet to the bottom of the Yellow Sea, then laid there silently for a tense 12 hours.

“You lay down and you don’t do nothing,” he said.

If a man so much as dropped a screwdriver, Deselem said, the resulting ping would’ve been picked up by enemy sonar.

“All 96 of us were as scared as I was,” he said.

To burn off the stress of a 60-day patrol, submariners typically received days on end of rest and relaxation in some of the most beautiful spots on the planet.

“It’s as good a place to have R&R as you could ask for,” Deselem said of Hawaii.

In Guam, the Gato’s crew played baseball and enjoyed some brews while combat in the nearby mountains continued.

“You always had beer,” Deselem said. “The government furnished us with a lot of beer.”

A 1942 graduate of Springfield High School, Deselem was perhaps born to be the Navy man who personally loaded, fired and even slept in between the torpedoes that sent six Japanese ships to a watery grave.

After all, he shares a birthday, Dec. 7, with Pearl Harbor Day.

But, for Deselem, who was drafted in early 1943, it was better to give than to receive.

He still brags about what he was able to do for his girl back home on Feb. 15, 1944 — her birthday.

Barbara Kellis was that girl, and their marriage would eventually last 67 years until her passing last October.

“I sunk a ship for her,” Deselem said.

According to Navy records, it was a trawler.

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