Mystery Submarine off California, 1943



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In 1943, my father, R Thomas Christopher (born Thomas Comontos in Tacoma Washington) was in the Navy on the Charlotte P Gilman, an oil tanker traveling between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

One clear morning a submarine began to surface next to the ship and the crew immediately set off an emergency response. My dad jumped to his gun and began firing off rounds. He clearly remembered seeing bullets ricocheting off the sub’s hull as it descended. An air search was called, but nothing was found.

In his haste to respond, my father neglected to put on ear protection and the next day he went to a civilian hospital to be seen. He had lost a minimal amount of hearing but was considered fit to return to duty

This became just one more incident of war to him, but when he retired he applied to the Veteran’s Administration for compensation for his hearing loss and to his surprise found that parts of his service records were missing, and upon further research, so were the ship’s logs for the time of the incident, and the civilian hospital records. All he could find in the official record was a report that indicated a gunners’ target had been mistaken for a submarine. My dad thought that was nuts; a gunners’ target would’ve remained stationary, not sunk, and if hit and destroyed left debris. No one witnessing this debris would order an extensive air search.

My dad was an extremely smart and determined guy, and during the last couple of years of his life corresponded with a number of professional archivists at the National Archives and whatever military archives he could find as well as amateur naval historians and no information on this incident could be found. The general opinion of these experts was that it was highly unusual that all records would be gone.

The closest thing my dad could find to a shipmate was somebody who’d been put on the boat about 3 months later, and he said that all the crew was new, so he never would’ve heard a story.

It’s common knowledge that a Japanese submarine shelled an oil refinery in Santa Barbara in 1942 and it’s been more recently declassified that the Japanese were sending small incendiary balloons across the pacific in the gulf stream which resulted in a few small fires in the Northwest of the United States, a fact which was censored at the time to avoid panic and to avoid letting the Japanese know this was a workable idea, so it’s possible that this story was classified for these same reasons. Or it’s possible that the sub was friendly, possibly sunk, and the story classified for that reason.

But whatever the reason, I heard the story all through my childhood, and I have no doubt it was a submarine that surfaced that day, not a loose gunners’ target.

I’m passing this story along as an historic curiosity, and I’m interested in hearing from anyone who might know something about this


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