Saturday Snippet: USS Archerfish and her sixty thieves

USS Archerfish was a Balao class fleet submarine that served during and after World War II.  This photograph of her was taken in June 1945.

She is famous for sinking the largest aircraft carrier ever launched by Japan (and the biggest of any World War II combatant), the Shinano, while the latter was on her maiden voyage.  Shinano is shown below during sea trials in Tokyo Bay in 1944, shortly before she was sunk.

Shinano was originally designed and laid down to be the third Yamato class battleship, but was converted to a super-large aircraft carrier after the Japanese lost four carriers at the Battle of Midway in 1942.  She displaced approximately 72,000 tons, more than twice as much as a contemporary US Essex class fleet carrier.  She remains the largest warship ever sunk by a submarine.

After serving as a training submarine through the 1950’s, USS Archerfish was reclassified as an auxiliary submarine, tasked with measuring the earth’s gravitational variations for the benefit of the guidance systems of intercontinental ballistic missiles.  The last decade of her life was spent on this task.  The US Navy insisted that because she spent years away from any home port, she had to be crewed by bachelors only.  Needless to say, this led to some of the wildest parties in the Submarine Service when Archerfish pulled into some exotic foreign harbor.  She developed quite a reputation as the “bachelor party submarine”, and competition to join her crew was reportedly intense.

The fun began even before she started her surveying career.  When she was assigned to the task, she was badly in need of a full dockyard overhaul;  but there was no budget to provide one, and since she was no longer a combat vessel (her guns and torpedoes having been removed), it was difficult to justify diverting scarce funds from fighting submarines for her benefit.  Accordingly, she was allocated minimal funds, and told to do the best job she could using her own crew and resources at the quayside, because no dockyard could be spared.

That was a mistake of gigantic proportions by the US Navy bureaucracy.  Keen to get down to work, and knowing the fun that awaited them, Archerfish’s crew proceeded to demonstrate the fine old arts of scrounging, cadging, wheedling, repurposing, misappropriating, and just plain stealing what they needed, to an extent seldom, if ever, equalled by subsequent ships.  In their book “Gallant Lady:  A Biography of the USS Archerfish“, authors Ken Henry and Don Keith (both former crew members) devote an entire chapter to the chaos that ensued.

They named the chapter for the ship’s captain at the time, and called it “Kenny Woods and his Sixty Thieves”.  Here are some excerpts.

Archerfish arrived at Philadelphia in early 1960 to find that there was very little money available for the refitting she desperately needed.  The navy didn’t want to spend any money on the boat.  They had turned her over to the Hydrographic Office already.  The Hydrographic Office maintained they didn’t have any money allotted for that purpose.  They were under the impression that the navy was going to fix up Archerfish so that she would be seaworthy.  The orders were that the boat was to be made safe to dive to a depth of two hundred feet and be able to maintain a speed of ten knots.  The two-hundred-foot restriction would keep them from having to find and fix problems with the boat’s watertight integrity at greater depths.  The only work that was approved was whatever it took to accomplish those two simple goals.  Not another penny was to be spent on Archerfish.

The crew quickly realized the quality of the overhaul they were to receive was directly proportional to their ingenuity and the limited time they had to accomplish it. Not only that, but time was as scarce as money. The first phase of [Operation] Sea Scan was to be conducted mostly in Arctic waters. If they didn’t complete the overhaul quickly and get away on schedule, the weather in the higher latitudes would quickly worsen in the fall. The mission would have to be postponed for a full year. It was far too crucial a job to be put off that long.

. . .

When the seriousness of the job they faced was fully realized, the crew of the Archerfish turned to and performed miracles. Despite the continual crap games and long nights in the bars, these dedicated men performed superhuman feats of strength and endurance. They also displayed a streak of larcenous ingenuity that was beautiful to watch, unless the observer was the one having his pocket picked … Often they could not afford to go through channels or do the proper requisitioning paperwork. They simply found what they needed and did whatever they had to do to appropriate it.

The creative acquisitions began as soon as they berthed in Philadelphia. Even before leaving Key West, they had requested new sonar equipment to replace the totally outdated JP system … There was no money available for such a luxury. About the same time, they learned that the sonar school in Key West was replacing some of their obsolete but far more modern JT equipment. Instead of being scrapped, that gear ended up on Archerfish … Once they acquired the sonar gear for nothing, Ted Armstrong ordered cable for it. It was supposed to be waiting for them in Philadelphia. It wasn’t … Armstrong, with the help of Tom Salisbury, scavenged up enough cable around the dockyard to get the job done. Maybe it did belong to another submarine that was to be refitted, but it was not being used at the moment, so Armstrong and Salisbury put it to immediate good use on Archerfish.

. . .

[The submarine got a new skipper and a new executive officer while she was undergoing overhaul. The latter was Lt. David Dimmick.]

“If I had demanded a textbook relieving procedure, I’d still be there [in the naval yard],” Dimmick says. He quickly took his cue from the crew. Their job was to get the boat shipshape by the first of May, whatever it took. He was willing to do his part. He learned to turn his head and ignore the crew’s actions when appropriate and to do whatever it took to expedite them when called for. If someone handed him a paper to sign, he simply signed it without reading it and told the bearer, “Now go away.”

. . .

All liberty was canceled [for the engineering crew]. Gene “Doc” Barboza gave the men little white pills that helped them stay alert. Someone else discovered another way to keep awake. The electricians were using half-gallon cans of “gilly”, 190-proof alcohol that was used to fuel torpedoes and clean electrical parts. If the sailors took the rags and dirty parts out of the liquid and allowed the bits of dirt and solder to settle to the bottom, they could then pour off the cleaner liquid from the top of the container, mix the stuff with coffee or soda, and drink the devilish mixture or use it to chase down Doc’s little white pills.

The need for sleep disappeared entirely.

. . .

The commissaryman in the submarine barracks took an immediate dislike to the guys from Archerfish. Thirty-five-pound cans of coffee and sugar seemed to suddenly begin disappearing not long after the boat first sidled up to her berth in the yard. The large tins made wonderful cumshaw, or bartering material. “Greasy Joe” Osier recalls that they managed to get all the boat’s handhole covers and injector drip pans for each of the four main engines chrome-plated in exchange for the items that had been appropriated from the galley.

. . .

It was common knowledge that the other submarines in the yard for overhaul had an abundance of [spare parts] in their cages, the fenced, locked storage areas that were assigned to each boat, but they were not willing to share.

The Archerfish crew happened upon a scheme that worked quite well. They sent a couple of guys to the cage area that had been assigned to one of the other boats. They went on the pretext of trying to find someone who they needed to talk with. While one sailor engaged the other boat’s men in conversation, an accomplice slipped around and unlocked one of the windows to the cage. He also memorized where all the parts were stored.

All the other boats in the yard were on normal daytime working hours. Only Archerfish’s crew worked around the clock. That meant the other boats’ cages were locked but unguarded at night. Since the weather was cold, the windows stayed closed and were rarely checked at quitting time when everyone left for the day. In the wee hours, the men from Archerfish sneaked back and crawled through the window that had been unlocked the previous day. They were able to “shop” at their leisure for the parts they needed.

Once inside the cage area, it was often necessary to pick locks to get at the stuff they wanted. Mike “Mother” Lintner and Galen O. “Turkey Neck” Steck became very adept at it. They fashioned burglar tools from tap extractors and hacksaw blades, and these implements became invaluable in filling the “orders” for the parts they were unable to obtain through normal channels.

It’s important to note that there was a strict ethical code in place during the entire process. The Archerfish crew never took anything they didn’t specifically need. And they never took anything personal. Since it was navy property in the first place and they were going to use it on a navy boat, it wasn’t really stealing. They were merely enhancing the navy’s distribution process, redirecting items to where they were most needed. Besides, it kept the supply petty officers from having to worry about all that paperwork, so their methods were good for the navy in the long run.

. . .

Mike Lintner … spotted a desk and a safe in [USS Hake‘s] yeoman’s office that he knew Archerfish needed worse than Hake did. He had to take the desk apart to get it through the torpedo-loading hatch. Lintner also managed to remove the captain’s bridge-wing chair from the aircraft carrier USS Tarawa. These items went into Lintner’s “office” in the after torpedo room and became the home of the slush fund. Using cumshaw, he was able to Formica the fronts of all lockers on the port and starboard sides and added stainless steel trim. He gathered two years’ worth of “Playmates of the Month” from Playboy calendars and had the beauties laminated into the Formica. The whole thing added a nice decorative touch and made life in the after torpedo room much more pleasant.

. . .

David A. “Loony” Stevens recalls that a crucial part of the periscope assembly needed to be replaced. Naturally, there was no money available to buy a new one. Stevens and Joe Cronin, the chief auxiliaryman, borrowed a couple of pairs of overalls and two hard hats from one of the shops, grabbed their tools, and went aboard one of the other boats that was in the yard for overhaul. They had long since discovered that if you act as if you belong where you are, you can usually bluff your way into any place. They proceeded to the conning tower, removed the built-in stadimeter housing assembly from the bottom of the periscope, and calmly walked off the boat, back to Archerfish. No one challenged them along the way.

“Speedy” Gonzalez was walking through the yard one day when he spied a small water valve. It was just like the one they needed in Archerfish’s pump room but had not been able to get through proper channels. There was a rub, though. The valve was attached to a copper line that supplied water to a spigot outside one of the yard buildings. Gonzalez happened to have his tubing cutter with him and promptly liberated the required valve. He ignored the spray of water and the quickly forming puddle he left behind as he returned to his boat to install the much-needed part.

Then there were the aluminum deck plates from the after engine room and the angle iron framing that held them in place. The old ones somehow got misplaced during all the confusion when the boat first hit the yard and they began tearing her apart. Again, no problem. One night, the guys from the engine room found what they needed, right there on the dock on a pallet where they had been removed from USS Angler. At least the deck plates were there. The framing was still rigged inside the other sub. It took them most of the midwatch (midnight to four AM), but they managed to get the framing unbolted and everything moved to Archerfish. Before daylight the entire deck assembly was installed, deck mats fitted, and bench lockers in place.

. . .

Next on the shopping list were new mooring lines. The old ones were seriously frayed but, as usual, there were no funds for new ones. This time the USS Cutlass was selected to be the latest donor to the Archerfish “refurbishing fund”. They had 1,200 feet of brand-new nylon line lying right there on the pier, prime for the taking. By morning, new eyes had been spliced in the line and all the old stuff had been replaced. For a nice touch, dirt and grease had been tossed on it so it looked well used.

A lot of people were looking for the line the next day. They never noticed that Archerfish had already put it to good use. The boat was tied up with it!

It wasn’t long after that incident that an irate executive officer … showed up in Dave Dimmick’s office.

“One of your thieving crew stole a watertight locker right out of our superstructure,” the officer charged.

“No way,” Dimmick answered. “We don’t need your damn locker. We already have one.”

And to prove his point, he took his fuming counterpart down to the boat to show him. Sure enough, there was the locker, welded into the forward superstructure up by the escape trunk, just as Dimmick had said.

Neither man knew that the Archerfish crew members had gone aboard Cutlass in the dark of the night, removed the locker, brought it over, welded it into place, cleaned the welds, then painted it to match the superstructure of its new home. They had accomplished all that before anyone aboard Cutlass even knew it was missing.

. . .

By the last few weeks of the refitting, all the other submarines in the yard set up rotating watches on both the Archerfish’s brows to stop any more of their stuff from finding its way to the boat. They made lists of anything coming aboard to check against items that suddenly turned up missing. Eventually, no one from Archerfish was allowed on any other submarine in the yard. Each boat checked yard badges and navy ID cards. If an Archerfish sailor needed to see someone on another boat, he had to wait on the pier until the person came out to talk to him.

No matter. The crew had somehow accomplished the impossible.

On May 5, 1960, the overhaul was pronounced complete, at a cost of $562,910. Of course, there is no way to determine what the work and equipment would have cost if a lot of it had not been creatively appropriated.

. . .

Rumor has it that soon after Archerfish’s departure from Philadelphia, one of the boats in the shipyard sent a priority message to the submarine base in New London. Its contents were supposedly quite straightforward. “Lock up your wives and daughters and all your loose equipment. Kenny Woods and his sixty thieves are heading your way!”

I guess that amounted to a master class in “unofficial” appropriations!  I experienced very similar “creativity” during my own military service, but not to anything like that extent.

You’ll find more information about USS Archerfish at a Web site dedicated to her, and to those who served aboard her.  It contains many photographs of her adventures (and the crew’s misadventures).

A final note.  USS Cutlass, mentioned in the excerpt above, now serves in Taiwan’s Navy as ROCS Hai Shih.  She was recently overhauled and updated.  The 75-year-old boat is now the longest-serving submarine in history.



  1. When I was a WCS in one of the electrical shops of my ship, I had a storage closet that was filled with "unofficial" spare parts that we had acquired over time. Once, when the ship needed some spare parts that were not on the Navy's list of parts we were supposed to have, I produced them. My Division officer was furious that we had parts that were not on our officially approved inventory list. The Department Head told him to shut up, that every good petty officer had a stash of spare parts that the Navy didn't know about.

  2. I would add that the guys in my work center and I would occasionally go ashore in a truck borrowed from the motor pool and barter for (or otherwise acquire) items that I thought we needed. We must have raided every Navy installation from Charleston Navy Yard all the way North to Quantico. We once raided Langley, and I even managed once to hitch a ride on a helicopter in Sardinia from my ship to the USS America, where I liberated some electrical parts.

  3. Worked with a number of submariners over my somewhat checkered career. They were all universally smart, creative somewhat conniving and, if you wren accepted by them, would give you the shirt off their back (or steal one) if you needed one, I loved working with them. Of course none of that rubbed off on me andI have no knowledge of how certain items from around the site ended up in our plant. 😉

  4. @heresolong: Actually, USS Archerfish was one of the submarines involved in the filming of Operation Petticoat. That story is told in the book, too.

  5. My ship, was entering a repair availability period, but many of the parts we needed had been officially denied as being too expensive. The captain took his petty cash, turned it into coffee and distributed those cans to every workcenter as barter material. We traded with the shipyard and other ships for the parts we needed, and when we next headed out to sea, we were fully functional. We had a good reputation from it as well, since we traded for parts instead of stealing them.

  6. @Borepatch: At our regular Saturday evening get-togethers, you'll find myself, Old NFO, aepilotJim, and Lawdog, all swapping "Hell, I was there!" stories about our more-or-less nefarious military experiences. Apoplectic hysterics among the audience have been known to occur…

  7. Being "behind the door" for so many years, there were many times when we (myself and my co-consp. . . compatriots did things that needed to be done, but that no one had the clearance to come in and do. That frequently included "finding" things that worked.

  8. In the words of an old Navy guy I once worked for in a civilian job, (said with a smile) "There ain't nothin' wrong with a little cumshaw."

  9. When I read a book titled Shinano, the sub was spelled Archer-Fish, and pointed out the fact it was the only US ship with a dash in the name (only sub?).

  10. @Overload: Yes, the ship's name was supposed to be Archer-Fish, but there was a mixup during her commissioning. That's also explained in the book.

  11. (Don McCollor)…I think the prize may go to the French black market/resistance in German-occupied France. Goods were disappearing at an alarming rate, but the Germans could never find any evidence of pilfering or even a "misplaced" boxcar. Much later, the Germans discovered that they were forging train movement orders, and were stealing stuff two trainloads at a time…

  12. As a MM3 trying to replace aging water coolers on our ancient Liberty Ship converted to an AGTR, I made the greatest discovery of my career, requisitions for equipment “lost at sea” were never questioned by the supply depot at Subic. Over the course of a couple of ports, we eventually lost 17 water coolers at sea. Only one E6 ever questioned how that could happen, but just grinned as they loaded the coolers in my truck.

  13. I think the editors missed one.. In 75-81 we had 5 pound cans of coffee, not 35 pound cans… I can see that 30 cans of coffee disappearing during stores load for barter in the yards. We got a nice survey map holder built for a few cans.

    Now impromptu acquisition still occurred. During what we thought would be our last trip to the builder's yard the word went out to the E5 mafia we needed extra handling gear (porta-power, come-alongs, chain falls) so we got to work and augmented our base load out. We did too good a job, because when we had to back to the yards we were told we could go straight from the gate to the ship and back again, anyone found wandering around the shipyard would be handed over to the Groton police..

    There were a few times that 10 ton chain fall really came in handy!

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