In Their Words: Torpedo memories

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Navy man toured world with diesel-powered USS Blackfin sub

By C.J. Risak, Correspondent

Born north of Pittsburgh, where he spent the first 22 years of his life, Paul Sable figured if he was going into the service, he should try and get something worthwhile in return.

For example: It was 1958, and he was going to have to leave a good job with Bell Telephone Co. of Pennsylvania to join the military. Might as well try to educate himself further in his career choice.

“It looked like I was going to get drafted,” the current Lecanto resident said of the reason he joined, “so I went to every recruiting place, passed all the tests, and said I wanted electronics training, electronics schooling.

“None of the recruiters would guarantee electronics training until I got out of boot camp or basic training, at least not before I got in — except the Navy.”

Sable got the first part of his wish list from his military tenure, although it took some time. “Went to San Diego for boot camp. After that, they flew me back to Great Lakes (Naval Station, in Illinois) for electronics training,” he said.

“When I got there, I had to wait almost a year to get into the school because they were all filled up, they were all backed up. So I had to work in the Naval Exam Center.

“Finally I went to electronics school, which was 38 weeks, and after that I went to New London (Connecticut) for sub school. Then after that, I had advanced electronics school (also at New London), and then, they sent me to Hawaii.”

Sable had spent half his enlistment time learning to do what he finally had a chance to do.

As he noted, “I’d been in the service for two years and I hadn’t seen the water yet.”

He was sent to Pearl Harbor for assignment to a submarine, but — in keeping with his service experiences thus far — the boat he was supposed to report to had to sail, leaving him behind.

“When they sent me to Pearl, I had a two-week wait to get on (another boat) because the submarine I was supposed to be on sailed to Australia,” he said. “I wish I’d made that trip, because we never did get to Australia. I would have like to have made that trip.”

He might have missed that patrol, but he didn’t miss many others — fulfilling another of his desires from his time in the Navy, to see the world.

“When I got out of sub school, they said where do you want to be stationed?” Sable recalled. “First place I said was Hawaii, because I wanted to travel. I had three choices, so I put Hawaii, Hawaii and Hawaii.

“The captain didn’t like that. He called me in and said, ‘Why you being a smart (guy) and putting down all three of the same thing?’ I said I’m 24 years old, I’m not like a kid out of high school. I wanted to go to Hawaii. If you send me there, fine. If you don’t, you’re going to send me wherever you want anyway.”

Challenging an officer is not smart, and Sable knew it. 

“He said they could send me to somewhere like Alaska. But they sent me to Hawaii.”

Sable was assigned to the USS Blackfin, and — with only half his enlistment remaining — he would still do some traveling. Although not quite as much as his nickname aboard ship might indicate.

“I actually graduated from Mars High School,” he said. “On the sub, I was called the man from Mars, believe it or not.”

The Blackfin was a World War II sub, diesel-powered, its main armament 21 torpedoes launched through six forward tubes and four aft.

Although those launchings weren’t always perfect. As Sable explained: “One time, while we were on maneuvers, we shot ourselves with our own torpedo, on a trial run.

“I was on sonar at the time, but I wasn’t the (main) sonar man. This electric torpedo we shot out on practice, it came back at us. I heard it, and I said, ‘I think that thing’s coming back at us.’ We both heard it and gave it to the captain, and he said, ‘Surface, surface.’ As we’re coming up, it hits us.

“We eventually had to go into drydock to get it fixed because it hit us in the superstructure, which is just above the hull. It took a week or two to fix it. It made a big hole there, but it was practice, the torpedo wasn’t armed.”

He added, “We were known for that (around the fleet), we shot ourselves with our own torpedo.”

The three-month patrol Sable spent aboard the Blackfin included plenty of stops at foreign ports, but its primary mission would put the boat “submerged for 64 days in 1960, when they were playing the World Series.”

That was a special time for Sable. There were plenty of New York Yankee backers on board, the American League’s representative to the Series. He was the only one from Pittsburgh, the National League’s team.

“We come up to the surface to snorkel, and we’d get news about the Series,” he said. “I had bets with everybody on the sub.”

Diesel boats had to snorkel — come up just below the surface and extend a device onto the surface to refresh its air supply and charge its batteries — about once a day.

Fortunately for Sable, the 1960 Series ended with what’s regarded the most dramatic play in Series history: The Pirates’ Bill Mazeroski hitting a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 to win the title for Pittsburgh.

“If (the Pirates) would have lost, I would have lost a lot of money, but when Mazeroski hit that home run to win that seventh game, that was it. I won a lot of money.”

A part of their trip included something Sable could only speculate about. “We were a spy, and I’m the one who saw the light of day, because we made pictures of a shoreline,” he said. “It was Russia. They wouldn’t tell us, only the officers could know.

“I was the ship photographer. We had two periscopes, I was on one and the captain was on the other. At least I got to see the light of day. We never snorkeled (during the day), we snorkeled at night.

“All we were told was, if we got caught where we were at, all that would be sent home was that we were lost at sea. You’re someplace you’re not supposed to be. That’s why we had no idea where we were at.”

Life aboard the Blackfin, commissioned in July of 1944, wasn’t easy. The crew numbered 80, including 10 officers; there were no showers: “We took sponge baths,” Sable said. “We had to conserve water, so we all had beards.”

Also: “We pulled bunks out from under torpedoes and slept, next to a torpedo. You had to share bunks, you’d be four hours on duty and eight hours off, four on and eight off.”

Still, on that patrol he saw a lot, the Blackfin making stops in Yokohama, Yokosuka and Sasebo in Japan; at Hong Kong; in Chinhae, South Korea; at Kodiak and Adak, Alaska; and at Subic Bay in the Philippines, where he has photos of himself water skiing on Christmas Day.

They even took a trip to the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle.

After investing so much in training Sable, the Navy of course wanted him to stay in, for various reasons: “When I got out in ’62, they were looking for guys to ship over for nuclear boats, especially technicians, because they couldn’t get enough of them.

“They were offering us bonuses to re-up.”

But for Sable, that wasn’t plausible. “I had a job to go back to,” he explained. He was still with Bell Telephone, as an unpaid employee; he still received his pay raises, and his seniority was intact.

“I had eight years of seniority and was making top pay when I came out (of the Navy),” he said.

Sable would stay with Bell for more than 38 1/2 years, retiring in 1996. He and his second wife moved to Hawaii for four years, then purchased a place in Citrus County’s Beverly Hills. In 2008 they moved to California, staying there four years before moving back to Beverly Hills.


Name: Paul Sable.

Rank: E3 Electronics Specialist.

Branch: U.S. Navy Submarine Fleet.

When served: 1958-62.

Where: Basic training in San Diego; electronics training at Great Lakes, Illinois; submarine school and advanced electronics training at New London, Conn.; based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, assigned to USS Blackfin, a diesel-powered submarine; on patrol, visited Yokohama, Yokosuka and Sasebo, Japan; Hong Kong; Chinhae, South Korea; Kodiak and Adak, Alaska; Subic Bay, the Philippines.

Job: Trained as an electronics technician, operating the boat’s radar; also operated sonar system and, like all submariners, knew basic operating systems everywhere on the boat.

Awards: Good Conduct Medal.

Veterans Organizations: Submarine Veterans Association, American Legion.