From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communications and Outreach Division
Eight submariners have received the Medal of Honor, but only one earned his during combat on the surface rather than under the water.
On July 31, 1944, Cmdr. Lawson P. “Red” Ramage was commanding officer of the new Balao-class USS Parche (SS 384). A 1931 Naval Academy graduate and a 13-year veteran of the Navy, Ramage spent his early career on surface ships like destroyers and cruisers before attending the Submarine School and a two-year tour on USS S-29 (SS 134).
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Ramage was a staff member of Commander, Submarines, Pacific.
By early January 1942, Ramage was on his first war patrol as a navigator on USS Grenadier (SS 210). Six months later, as commanding officer of USS Trout (SS 202), the sub scored several hits on the Japanese light carrier Taiyo near Turk, the first damage inflicted by a U.S. sub on a Japanese carrier. By the end of his tour on Trout, Ramage’s crew had sunk three ships during four war patrols.
Ramage returned to the U.S. in 1943 to commission the newly-minted USS Parche as her commanding officer and was back in the Pacific by 1944.
On the night of July 29, Parche sighted and began to stalk a convoy, along with Steelhead. Finding the convoy had changed direction, Ramage was determined to close the 30-40 mile gap using his faster surface speed (World War II subs had more narrow bows to allow them to go faster on the surface than underneath).
During the early morning hours of July 31, Ramage was on his bridge with the war patrol commander when he spotted three escorts.
“I decided there was no point trying to go in around these escorts, so I made a reverse spinner, turned outboard, and then came around and under all of them to get inside the escorts,” Ramage told John T. Mason Jr. for his book Pacific War Remembered: An Oral History Collection, published by the Naval Institute Press in 2013.
But when Parche changed direction, so did the convoy, 90 degrees to the southwest.
“Now we were dead ahead of them and closing fast, so fast that we hadn’t really had time to get a set up on them. One of the ships was right on us. Before we could do anything we were alongside and going by at 20 knots at about 100 yards.”
After firing off a couple of torpedoes on the fly, none hit. About this time, Ramage sighted what appeared to be two carriers off to the west. He ordered everyone below, including the war patrol commander, with the exception of one quartermaster manning the sub’s gun on the bridge.
Parche bore down and took aim on the lead ship, firing off four torpedoes. Every one hit.
“We were firing now to kill with every shot, we weren’t firing spread. The ship turned out to be a tanker and she went straight on down.”
Parche swung around to get a bead on the second ship, also a tanker, while loading up the stern tubes expertly using the new rapid reloading technique devised by Parche’s torpedo officer, Lt. Frank Allcorn. Three torpedoes later, the tanker went down by the bow and there was a small fire, Ramage recalled.
Reloading on the fly, when Parche saw a transport dead ahead they fired two torpedoes and with hits on the bow and beam, she, too, went down.
With three ships down and one sinking, Ramage decided to go back and finish off the stricken tanker by reloading the aft torpedo tubes. Parche slid by the tanker just feet away.
“As we came under the stern of the tanker we cut as close as we could to keep out of the way of her depth gun. She couldn’t train it down on us; she was well down by the bow and the gun was practically pointing straight into the air. We came tight under and cross her stern.”
Just as Parche sighted another good-sized ship, the tanker crew began shooting.
“The whole place was alight with gunfire. Everyone was shooting at every body and anything but we were invisible, I felt, except for the rooster tail we were laying out as our boat went through the convoy at 20 knots. When the tanker began shooting right down our wake it began to get a little bit hot. So we decided we had best put her out of her misery,” Ramage said.
As soon as Parche was within range at about 700 yards, she fired three torpedoes out of the stern, sinking the tanker. “Now we had two tankers and a transport down and a hit on the first ship,” Ramage said.
But the convoy wasn’t rolling over yet.
“Just as we got to this point we saw one of the escorts trying to ram us. We called for all the speed we could from the engine room and got across her bow. Then I turned right to come parallel with her and throw our stern out from under her way. We passed each other at about 50 or 100 feet, close enough so that we could have shouted at one another,” Ramage recalled.
Dodging and weaving among the ships, Ramage guided the submarine as the stunned Japanese crew tried to adjust their guns down into the water, often shooting up their own ships.
“There was another escort just beyond. I didn’t want to run into her, but she was closing fast. As soon as we cleared her we saw another big transport dead ahead. They reported from below that torpedoes had been loaded again, two forward. So I said, ‘Give this fellow (the transport) one right down the throat.’ ”
Parche fired off two torpedoes, hitting the ship with one. After getting a better bearing, a third torpedo was released. With two hits, the ship began to go down at the bow.
As Parche passed that ship, another came into view.
“We fired down the throat of this ship and got her down by the bow and then continued to the left to bring our stern to bear on her starboard side. Then we let one more go and that hit her directly amidships. It put her down,” Ramage said.
By dawn, Parche, which hadn’t taken a single hit, had sunk four ships and damaged one out of a 9-ship convoy. As the sky lightened, Ramage decided it was time for Parche to take a dive.
“We couldn’t see any other ships that were of consequence. There were mostly escorts now, just charging around and firing flares and shooting whatever small arms they had. … We needed to get some distance between them and where we were going to dive. As we maneuvered we saw them signaling to each other and trying to make a reading of what had happened. One of the quartermasters said, “I guess they have a lot of reports to fill out, too.”
Ramage’s rampage didn’t go unnoticed. After arriving at port, Ramage recalled Adm. Charles Lockwood coming down to greet them.
“He was very pleased and congratulated all of us. But in due time the patrol report was reviewed. Then the chief of staff usually wrote a little note to the commanding officer and summed the whole thing up – whether it was good, bad, or indifferent. Commodore Merrill Comstock wrote a note to me and said, “This was foolhardy, very dangerous and an undue risk. But he added, ‘I guess it’s okay as long as it came out all right. You got away with it but don’t do it again. That isn’t exactly what we expected you to do.’ “
If only Commodore Comstock knew the whole story. For you see, back in 1935, when Ramage requested submarine training, he failed the vision test due to a wrestling injury he received at the Naval Academy that weakened the vision in his right eye, according to a Submarine Force Museum blog posted Jan. 16, 2014.
Undaunted and determined, Ramage memorized the eye chart for one exam, and for another, when the examiner asked him to move the card to cover his left eye, in the darkness he didn’t notice Ramage was reading the chart again with his left eye. He passed the exam and was cleared for sub school.
Who would know years later – especially during the early morning hours of July 31, 1944 – that eye injury would give Ramage an advantage.
“I didn’t have to fool around with the focus knob on the periscope. Before I raised it, I turned the knob all the way to the stop (extreme focus). When the scope came up, I put my bad eye to the periscope and could see perfectly.”
On Jan. 12, 1945, Cmdr. Lawson P. “Red” Ramage received the Medal of Honor from President Franklin D. Roosevelt for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of this life above and beyond the call of duty as commanding officer of the USS Parche.”
Not to mention the hutzpah that got him driving a submarine between enemy surface ships while shooting them down at their own level.