Remembrances of WW II while aboard the Thornback
As told by William “Ski” Filakovsky
Second Class Signalman (SS).
(Selected from emails collected by Norm Hammond EN2 SS)
Back in 2000, Bill Filakovsky's name popped up on one of the submarine websites I was
looking at. The website showed him as a WW II Veteran who had served on the Thornback
during the war. I never knew anyone who had served on the Thornback during WW II, so I
decided to send Bill an email to see if he could tell a little about what it was like.
Bill and I carried on an email correspondence for over a year. We got to know each other
pretty well and he always answered my questions. I saved most of his emails because I
thought they were interesting, and perhaps of some historic value.
The following selections are from Bill's emails. Some of them are not in order to provide
One of the first emails Bill sent me included a description of his life today:
"I can no longer hunt and fish, but I still enjoy camping near New London. My wife of 47
years and I have four married kids: 3 boys & 1 girl, 12 grand kids & 1 great-grandson. One
son is a Plumber, one a Carpenter & the youngest an Electronic Technician. My Daughter is
an Author with 6 books published at last count. The two older boys live in Connecticut, the
youngest in Tampa, Florida, and my Daughter is in Illinois.
Good luck to you. Poppa Bill."
Bill signed most of his e-mails, “Poppa Bill." When I asked him where the name came from
he said, “…this name was given to me by a young friend shortly after he lost his Dad. I am
honored to go by it! He's a Great Buddy, even though he's only a little older than my oldest
Bill said that his hometown is Bridgeport, but he now lives in Shelton, Connecticut. He
enlisted in the Navy while still in High School, and reported to the New Haven, Connecticut
Naval Recruiting Station on Feb. 27, 1943. He went to Boot Camp at Great Lakes, Illinois,
then to Signalman school at the University of Illinois where he graduated as a Signalman
Third Class. He volunteered for Sub Duty, mostly so he could be at New London and close
After Sub School Bill went to Key West as a crewmember on the obsolete submarine R-14
(later renumbered the SS-91). He was on that boat from March, 1944, until September,
1944, when he became part of its decommissioning crew.
Bill then went to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where he shipped out on the Thornback in
early November, 1944. The Thornback was a brand new "Tench" class submarine, having
been commissioned just a few weeks earlier, on October 13, 1944.
Bill was on board the Thornback on November 10, 1944 when it collided with U.S. Coast
Guard Cutter #74327, sinking it off Portsmouth, NH. This little known incident was "hushed
up" at the time, perhaps because of the war effort.
After being used as a "experimental" boat for sonar testing in Panama, the Thornback was
sent to the Pacific where they made one war patrol, just before the atomic bomb was
dropped on Japan.
Bill was discharged after the war in 1946. He bummed around for a summer, then got a job
as a plumber. He later wound up as Vice President of a mechanical contracting firm, from
which he retired in 1987.
In early July, 2000 I received the first of a series of emails from Bill:
I received your email and I agree the computer is mind boggling; especially to an old geezer
like me! You are the only crew member of the Thornback that I have had contact with since
our cook 'Whitey' paid me a visit shortly after my discharge in Feb. 1946."
On July 26, 2000 Bill wrote:
"… My heart went out to you poor Black Gang (engineroom) guys, as on patrol they very
seldom got any fresh air & had to work hard in all that heat & humidity! We of the deck force
'had it made,' especially the Lookouts and the Quartermaster. The only time it wasn't so
good was during severe storms, and during freezing weather!
I remember a few times off Martha's Vineyard when I literally had to chop the lookouts free
from the conning tower shears (platform where the lookouts stood). After we got back in
port, they came to the pier with steam generators to melt the ice that covered the deck,
bridge, and rails with tons of frozen seawater. We were actually top heavy!
I never did too much sextant navigation. The little that was done was by the Executive
Officer as he was also the Navigator. I mostly took down his readings & he did the
calculations. I knew the names of the important stars & planets and also the different cloud
formations and how to foretell the weather from them, but I've forgotten most of it!"
"…I have no idea what part of the Japanese island of Hokkaido the town of Urakawa
(shelled by the Thornback from offshore) is located. 'The Brass' seldom gave us a
geography lesson with our exploits.
To the best of my memory, the Thornback had one 6" deck gun (instead of the 5" on most
of her class). There were 40-mm guns fore & aft of the Bridge and twin 20-mm guns on the
forward deck. These were the pride & joy of our gunner's mate, but they jammed on him the
first time in real combat! He did get them to fire later, but they were not a great gun under
the conditions of Sub service. I do remember that a Jap that was fishing off a breakwater in
Urakawa got the s__t scared out of him when the first round of our deck gun went off!
As for memories of life aboard Thornback, some parts are getting a little fuzzy and a little
out of sequence, but I'll do my best to share some with you. One that stands out in my
memory is the first dive I made on the R-14 as Quartermaster of the watch. It was the duty
of the Qm. & helmsman to dog the upper conning tower hatch while diving. On that Boat the
hatch had two stirrup-like dogs that were dogged down by an off-center hook; one short and
one a little longer. I some how jammed mine on top of the helmsman's and we couldn't close
the hatch completely!
The Officer of the Deck saw our dilemma. Between him & the helmsman they managed to
free it and get the hatch closed, but not before they closed the lower hatch & flooded most of
the conning tower. The Captain, William Holden, jumped from his sack & closed the
Kingston Valves (main flood valves) and surfaced the Boat with no harm done except to my
skivvies! To this day I think he thought I had something to do with closing the hatch, but I
It was the helmsman & Officer of the Deck who were the heroes, but the Capt. treated me
special after that! I guess I'll sign off for now. We're having a party for my Great grandson
this afternoon at our house and the guest will be here soon!"
"…Thanks a million for the WW II picture of Thornback & the map of Urakawa (shelled by
the Thornback in WW II). I doubt if I would have ever gotten them if not for your
thoughtfulness & expertise in calling them up on your computer!
A Quartermaster kept the ship's log, a minute by minute report of all happenings while
underway! He also stood watch as helmsman in & out of port, sometimes as battle
helmsman, especially on battle surface stations. He took all communications on the blinker
light(s) and by semaphore in the daytime.
The Quartermaster also assisted the O.D. with navigation, star sights, and weather
reports. He was in charge of the enlisted men in the conning tower during the watch at sea,
helmsman, lookouts, sonarman, and the T.D.C (Torpedo Data Computer) Fire Controlman of
his watch. Another duty of a Qm. was to maintain charts & publications, wind the ships
Chronometer and even use the sewing machine to make pennants, flags and banners if
I'll close for now, will write again soon! Poppa Bill"
"…Thanks for the picture of Thornback at Panama, I certainly was on board at that time
and remember doing experimental Sonar tests at the time. Seems the lagoons in the area
were very calm & they could detect underwater sounds clearer than other places, so they'd
listen to us as we used various machines and equipment!
I also remember that the natives on the islands still lived in Grass Huts. They would come
out each evening in their outrigger dugouts and sell us a handful of bananas, a pineapple &
a coconut for a U.S. Quarter. They could break a dollar and never make a mistake with the
change (more than most of the supermarket cashiers of today can do)!
I love to hunt and fish, although I never had too much success in either! The biggest Trout
was an 8.4 lb. Rainbow and my best deer was a 5 Point (eastern count) Buck. I did get a
couple of small deer with my Bow, but nothing to brag about. My #2 son has gotten several
nice deer, mostly with the bow & mostly right close to home which is in the suburbs (where
most of the deer are in this state!)…"
On July 31, 2000 Bill responded to my email asking about V-J day:
"…I sure do remember The Bomb! We had just bombarded Urakawa, Japan and were
sailing to Midway for Rest and Recuperation when the news came over that they had
dropped something called an Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima, killing many, many people. The
air, land & seas would be contaminated with something called Atomic fall-out, and nobody
could live in the area for many years to come! Scared the Hell out of all of us!
The bright spot was that it would hasten the end of the war, which it did, but it took a
second bomb to do it! Good thing no one had heard of an Atom Bomb before so we weren't
as scared as we should have been!
When we were in Midway a few days later they dropped the clincher on Nagasaki, and boy
did we CELEBRATE! The base barber had a few bottles of stateside whiskey, but that was
gone. So, we went to our cottage and sent a delegation to ask the Capt. to get some booze
from the Boat as we knew he had a stash somewhere aboard (he did). He sent the cook to
his stateroom for four bottles of Good Scotch, which I don't like, but I drank it that day!
Well, four bottles among ten officers & ninety crewmen didn't last too long. In fact you
hardly got a taste! Well, you can't end a party that hadn't really started, so the Capt. sent
the cook back to the Boat this time in his jeep to get the 5 gallon container of 180 proof
torpedo alky. The cook also stopped by the mess hall storeroom for a few cases of
grapefruit juice to dilute it. Then the PARTY finally picked up the tempo!
My last recollection was seeing the Executive Officer Puking his Guts out in the flower
garden at the crack of dawn. I told him he didn't look like an Officer or a Gentleman at the
time! All he said was, 'F--k you Ski!' I don't think he remembered it the next day, as he never
mentioned it again!
Norm, I don't know if you ever drank 180 % torpedo alcohol but if you haven't, don't! My
guts were on fire for two or three days! I think that's what kept me from becoming a hard
core "alky," although I've consumed my fair share over the years. But I don't enjoy it
anymore, so I quit a couple of years ago. No sense in doing something you don't enjoy.
So, that's how I remember V-J Day even though the Official signing was a little later!
Catch you later. Poppa-Bill"
In August, 2000 Bill sent me an email about dolphins that were worn by submariners during
"…In my day you could only wear the 'sew-on' cloth Dolphins on your sleeve at the cuff.
This showed you were a qualified Submariner. To wear a Silver Dolphin on your chest you
had to have at least one SUCCESSFUL patrol. There were little gold stars that you could
put on them for each additional successful patrol. I guess I still have the silver pin
somewhere, just where it is I don't know. Maybe I'll try to look it up someday. The cloth one
went with the rest of my uniform, in the trash can about 45 years ago!
You must have a real good computer as all your photos come in perfect, thanks for sending
them. I just have a mediocre one, mostly to print stuff with and play games and to keep in
touch with family and friends who have one! I really am not very good at using one, but it
keeps me occupied!
After a fairly active life, it's tough not to be able to do much of anything! I wish I knew more
about computers, but I do learn a little more almost every day. If I live another 50 years
maybe I'll learn how to turn it off! Thanks for all your letters and photos, they mean a lot.
I emailed Bill the day after the 9-11 destruction of the World Trade Center, saying how the
feelings I had must be similar to what he felt after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. He
responded with this email on November 15, 2001.
"…I will try to put into words my feelings at the time of the Pearl Harbor Bombing and days
of patrolling off Japan in the waning years of the war. I was working on my brother-in-laws
house when the bombing took place, but didn't know about it until 6:00 p.m. that evening
when a friend picked us up to take us home. We had a shack we called our clubhouse with a
radio and we heard all the gory details and bemoaned the fact that we were too young to join
The next day at a school-wide assembly we listened to F.D.R. on the radio declaring war
on Japan & Germany. I had to wait until I was 17 to join the Navy. All the Recruiting offices
were jammed and the National Guard was at every Armory & Gov. building on Monday
In my time in the Pacific the war was starting to wind down. The Subs had already done a
magnificent job of kicking the a__ of the Japanese Empire and in a short time we dropped
the Bomb and the war ended. Being on a Sub in Enemy Territory was scary I guess, but to
be honest with you, I don't remember being worried at the time.
I guess the Good Lord lets us cope with whatever we are asked to face. We were lucky; we
were never depth-charged or bombed. We did kill a few of the enemy, but never having to
come face to face with him you don't feel the impact of killing another human being. And
knowing who your enemy was made it easier; not like this (World Trade Center) tragedy.
Hope you are well & happy.
Yours from the Fleet Boats,
Bill 'Ski' Filakovsky"
* * * *
Bill's physical mobility became more limited as he got older, but he enjoyed learning to use
the computer. I enjoyed getting to know him, even if only through computer cyberspace. It
would have been nice if I could have met him in person.
Bill is now on Eternal Patrol…
|Aboard The Thornback During WW2