Share this article

print logo

Dodging depth charges as a submariner is among vivid memories for North Tonawanda veteran

Kermit M. Cooper, 91

Hometown and residence: North Tonawanda

Branch: Navy

Rank: Torpedo man second class

War zone: Pacific

Years of service:1943-46

Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three battle stars, Philippine Liberation Medal, World War II Victory Medal

Specialty: Torpedo man

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Joining the Navy was a natural for Kermit M. Cooper. He and his older brother William loved the water, growing up beside the Niagara River in North Tonawanda.

When they weren’t swimming off the shores of Tonawanda Island in the summer months, they were passing the time fishing.

William almost made it into the U.S. Naval Academy. He was designated as a first alternate, but the principal candidate succeeded. Still, the Cooper family was honored that William had gotten that far in the selection process.

And while Kermit Cooper enlisted, William, five years his senior, was eventually drafted into the Navy, leaving at home a wife and three children.

Getting drafted, according to Kermit Cooper, allowed his brother to “fulfill his visions of Navy grandeur.”

Yet it was the younger Cooper brother who saw the action as a submariner in the Pacific aboard the USS Mingo. William served in the Pacific, too, but on a Navy repair ship as a storekeeper.

The crew of the Mingo sank three Japanese ships – a brand-new destroyer; a 10,000-ton tanker carrying aviation fuel, and an escort ship protecting the tanker.

Chalking up successes on the high seas also exposed the Mingo’s crew to nerve-racking dangers.

Cooper recalls how the enemy ships fought back, by launching depth charges.

“That usually could go on for an hour or more. When the depth charges were going off, it was like putting your head inside a washtub and having somebody pound on it with a club on the outside,” he says. “It was a real thumping, but we didn’t spring any leaks. That was a testament to how the submarine was designed and fabricated.”

Cooper also credits the captain of the Mingo for keeping the crew safe and taking down the enemy. He knew just when to cut the engines and maintain silence so that enemy ships, using sonar, could not detect their precise location.

But there always was the danger of being detected when the submarine surfaced and cruised on the water, which was common, according to Cooper.

“That’s when we encountered that Japanese destroyer,” he says of how the Mingo had become the prey rather than the hunter. “When ships spotted us, they would try to ram us before we submerged. Then we’d get the depth charges. That’s what happened with the destroyer. But our skipper was pretty clever. Once we were under, he used our sound gear and periscope, and we were able to torpedo the destroyer.”

The Mingo’s duties also included rescues.

If they sank transport ships that were manned by islanders in the Pacific, the Mingo would often give them the opportunity to catch a ride.

“They’d have to strip down if they wanted to come aboard,” he says of the security precautions taken in the war zone.

The Mingo was also a welcome sight for American fliers who had been shot down during bombing missions. More than a dozen were plucked from life rafts or collected from tiny islands where they had found refuge.

When the war ended, the Mingo returned to Pearl Harbor, and Cooper was assigned to the USS Euryale, a tender ship that serviced submarines. The ship was soon on its way to Japan to serve as part of the occupation forces.

There, Cooper discovered that his days as a submariner were not over. He was told of how the Americans had captured Japanese submarines that were capable of carrying airplanes.

“When the submarine surfaced, the plane would come out of this big, ramplike door, and they’d put pontoon landing gear on it,” Cooper says. “The purpose of these planes was to bomb the Panama Canal, but they never got to it. They had used the planes to supply some of the islands that had been bypassed by our forces.”

Navy officials were interested in taking a closer look at the unusual submarines.

“I was part of a crew that learned how to operate one of these Japanese submarines, and we brought it back to Pearl Harbor,” Cooper said.

“It was very interesting operating the Japanese submarine, but it was also confusing. All of the valves were marked in Japanese characters.”

And what became of those enemy submarines?

“Our Navy eventually used them for target practice and sank them,” Cooper says.

After completing his service, he returned home and married Ann Lucsok, and they raised two daughters. Cooper also earned an industrial arts degree at Buffalo State College and was hired at Bell Aircraft in Wheatfield as an electromechanical engineer.

Throughout the years, he says, he has stayed in touch with other submarine veterans, serving several years as president of the local chapter of the World War II Submarine Veterans. And though many of his fellow submariners have died, Cooper remains optimistic about life and his time in the service.

“Even though it was only three years out of my life,” he says, “it was especially good because I lived through it.”