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Submariner a hero on dry land

His mom and dad were part of the World War II home front effort, working at the Curtiss-Wright airplane factory in Buffalo, but 17-year-old Ken Ditcher wanted to be in thick of the action.

So he quit high school and persuaded his father, Harlan, to sign papers allowing him to enlist early in the Navy.

"My mom was angry," he recalled.

After completing boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Ditcher decided that he could get a front-row seat to the war by joining the submarine service.

But sailors just didn't submerge themselves in this elite form of military activity. They had to prove themselves.

"There were several other fellows who'd graduated boot camp and wanted to be submariners, but I was the only one to get assigned from my group to the submarines," said Ditcher.

Even at 84 years of age, he takes pride in that accomplishment.

To get accepted into submarine school, he had to hold his breath for an extended period, withstand 44.4 pounds of pressure per square inch in a special tank and emerge at a slow pace from beneath 50 feet of water wearing a breathing device.

"If you came up too fast, you might burst your lungs or get a case of the bends," Ditcher said.

After graduating from the eight-week school, the teenager was given the privilege of serving in an occupation that, during the Second World War, had a fatality rate of 24 percent.

Assigned to the USS Barb, he went out on three successful patrols, often in what were called "wolf packs" in the South China Sea. The underwater vessels had to surface on a daily basis to charge their batteries with exhaust-spewing diesel engine generators.

It was during these periods that radio contact with the other submarines was sometimes possible.

"Each patrol lasted on average 50 days. It depended on your supply of torpedoes and fuel. Our patrols were successful because we managed to wreak havoc on the enemy. We sunk tankers, a troop ship and other vessels."

But the USS Barb also had close calls.

"The Japanese would drop depth charges on us. It was scary. The depth charges had pressure devices that were set to detonate at a given depth. Depending on how close the charges exploded by us, you could feel them. You stayed in your bunk or did your job and stayed quiet. That's one of the reasons we were called the 'Silent Service.' "

The depth charges only stopped when either the enemy thought it had taken out the submarine or its sonar could no longer detect the craft, he explained.

But Ditcher's most memorable honor, which earned him the Bronze Star, took place on dry land in Japan.

As the war was coming to end and most of the enemy's ships had been sunk or docked in port, the number of targets had been drastically reduced.

"There really weren't many targets, so the skipper decided to blow up a train. We'd been in an area off Japan for several days, and every night we saw a train go by. The skipper sent six of us out on a raft with machine guns and explosives.

"We left the submarine at midnight July 22, 1945, and we were on the raft maybe 10 or 15 minutes before we made land. We felt edgy because as we went through people's backyards to get to the train trestle, dogs started barking. That was the last thing we expected.

"When we got to the edge of the trestle, a couple of the guys dug under the tracks and set the explosives, so that when the train came by, it would push the rail down and ignite. The rest us served as lookouts."

Back on the raft and heading to the submarine, Ditcher and his fellow sailors suddenly heard a loud explosion. The train was wrecked.

The next day, he and his fellow sailors tuned in to a broadcast from Tokyo Rose, the unofficial Japanese propaganda princess who often taunted the Allied forces with her radio show.

"She tried to break our spirits, but it never worked. On this broadcast the next day, she was saying that the train had been bombed by Allied planes, but she was wrong, she was wrong about a lot of things," Ditcher said, with a chuckle.

When he returned home, he did something to make his mother happy. He returned to high school.

"I graduated from Silver Creek, and then when the Ford plant opened in Woodlawn, I got a job there," said Ditcher, who retired as a tool-and-die maker from the plant in late 1981.

***

Ken Ditcher

Age: 84

Hometown: Salamanca

Residence: Farnham

Rank: torpedoman second class

Served: Navy, World War II

Years of Service: March 1944 - October 1948

Honors: Bronze Star, 3 Presidential Unit Citations, War Patrol Badge with 2 stars, 2 combat ribbons for Pacific Theater service.

Specialty: torpedoes

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