CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Robert Polk was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in August 1921. He was raised in Charlotte, NC. Upon graduating from high school in 1939, Polk was not able to afford college, due to the economic squeeze of the Great Depression. He got a job working for Western Electric as a telephone equipment installer. Polk recalled that the war in Europe was never discussed at his home, even though his brother had been a Navy submarine crewman for a decade. He did not recall what he was doing at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. In June 1942, Polk enlisted in the Navy, along with his best friend. He stated that his primary reason for service choice was due to his brother’s naval service at the time.
Polk completed his five weeks of basic training at Norfolk, Virginia, in the last trainee unit located at Norfolk before the Navy moved its basic training school to Great Lakes, Illinois. He remembered having issues with the swimming test, which required trainees to swim for 100 yards as a requirement to complete boot camp. Polk was able to pass the test after a few tries, but he still could not really swim well. After basic training, he volunteered to join the submarine service. Polk attended Electrical School in Kentucky before being transferred to New London, Connecticut, for submarine training, which included being exposed to underwater depth pressure, and learning to escape from a submerged submarine, all done in a 100-foot-deep tank filled with water. Older submarines were used for other training exercises in the sea around New London.
After completing submarine training in late 1942, Polk was assigned to the USS Rayton, which was part of a submarine squadron assigned to duty in the Pacific Ocean off the Australian coast. During the voyage, the Rayton encountered engine trouble, which was suspected to be sabotage, as an investigation discovered a grinding compound tearing up the engine bearings. Polk was reassigned to the USS Puffer (SS-268), which operated out of Freemantle, Australia, near Perth, in Submarine Squadron 10. The Puffer was the first of several submarines constructed in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and had sailed down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico and then through the Panama Canal to reach the Pacific.
An 80-man submarine crew was composed of radio technicians, electricians, radar specialists and seven officers, including the commander, executive and radar officers, in addition to ordinary seamen. Polk was an electrician, and his battle post as “Senior Battle Station Controller” was forward of the torpedo room, where he handled and monitored the Puffer’s engines. During an attack on an enemy ship, the submarine’s air conditioning was shut down to preserve power.
A typical day for the USS Puffer involved traveling submerged sixty feet under the South China Sea, with radar scanning for potential targets. Occasionally the submarine would rise to periscope depth, six feet under the surface, and scan the horizon for telltale smoke, which would indicate a ship on the horizon. At night, the Puffer would travel on the surface.
Enemy ships would zig-zag to confuse a submarine, and would use depth charges to attack it. Polk explained that depth charges dropped by surface ships and aircraft were a submarine’s “Achilles heel.” Exploding depth charges were intended to break the welds holding the submarine’s relatively thin steel skin together. On one occasion, after a thirty-one-hour counterattack by enemy ships using depth charges, the Puffer had to be refitted and repaired at Darwin, Australia.
While he was a crewman, Polk’s ship made six war patrols, destroying and damaging enemy troop transports and freighters on every voyage. He recalled getting excited when he heard the first torpedo strike a ship. The Puffer carried twenty-four torpedoes, and once they were expended, she had to return to Guam for a resupply. To claim credit for a sinking, the submarine commander had to wait until the target ship disappeared beneath the waves. The USS Puffer was credited with sinking a total of 34 ships, including a 15,000-ton oil tanker, during the war. Polk recalled that Japanese ships were sunk three times faster than they could be built in Japan’s shipyards.
Polk was discharged with the rank of Electrician’s Mate First Class in October 1945. He was awarded the Submarine Combat Pin with six stars, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two stars, the Presidential Unit Citation with two stars, and the Good Conduct Medal.
After the war, Polk attended college and became an electrical engineer. He moved to Neptune, New Jersey, after being hired at Fort Monmouth in 1949, where he worked until retirement. Polk was a member of several organizations, including the U.S. Submarine Veterans of WWII and the American Legion Post 846 in Neptune. Robert Polk passed away on April 17, 2010 at the age of eighty-eight, with his family by his side.