YAKIMA, Wash. — Down a smoky, claustrophobic corridor, 60 feet below the horizon of the South China Sea, Herb Brunkhorst helped write history.
But like so many other World War II submarine veterans, the Yakima man did so in obscurity, hidden by the ocean’s surface and his own sense of humility.
”We had a lot to do with finishing the war,” said Brunkhorst with a tone just as factual and understated as when he recounts other details of his life: marrying his high school sweetheart, driving trucks for a living, raising three children.
Brunkhorst, now 88, served as an electrician aboard the USS Darter, a submarine that played a crucial role in the Gulf of Leyte, a momentum shifter against the Japanese and arguably the largest naval battle in the history of the world.
The Darter took out two Japanese warships in some of the first shots of the four-day conflict, which cost the lives of more than 1,000 U.S. and Australian sailors but ultimately led to the Allied victory in the Philippines and later, the war.
Little known is the fact that submarine servicemen comprised only 2 percent of U.S. sailors in World War II but accounted for more than half of the Japanese sinkings. They also suffered the highest mortality rate in the Navy, according to the U.S. Submarine Veterans, a congressionally chartered veterans group.
Brunkhorst knows the history, and today, as he gears up to watch Yakima’s annual Veterans Day Parade, he often discusses his role with those who will listen.
Last month, he was the guest speaker at a submarine veterans meeting. Thursday, he was a guest at the dedication of a submarine sail in Richland. And he routinely joins other veterans to swap tall tales over free coffee in his retirement apartment on 40th Avenue.
But that’s nowadays. For decades, he lived up to the submarine forces’ nickname: ”Silent Service.”
”When I checked out of the service, I left it all behind,” Brunkhorst said.
He didn’t stuff the memories; he discussed the events with close family members shortly after the war, but few others asked about his service.
He left the Navy as soon as he could after the war and dedicated his energy to his family in Grandview, and driving trucks for Snyder’s Bakery, a distributing firm and the city. He never pursued an electrical career in the Northwest’s booming hydropower industry that his Navy training might have helped with.
All this wasn’t unusual. History books record many examples of World War II vets returning to civilian life just as humbly as they left, knowing they did their job, nothing more, nothing less.
”When I got out, that was it,” he said. ”I didn’t want to know anymore about it. I was done. I was leading a different life.”
Stalking the enemy from below
In 1942, Brunkhorst, then a 19-year-old directionless product of Great Depression Nebraska, joined the Navy to escape the draft and, therefore, the Army trenches of Europe, which few new servicemen wanted. He couldn’t swim, but he was assigned to submarine duty anyway.
”This is wartime,” he recalled. ”They’re not really particular about your know-how.”
Commanders were more concerned with the psychological and physical strength of their young charges. Missions lasted 30 days, during which men lived in close quarters breathing air thick with cigarette smoke, coming to the surface to fire up the diesel engines and recharge batteries every night. Claustrophobia sent many home.
”You’ve got to be pretty crazy to be in a submarine,” Brunkhorst said.
Decades later, during the Cold War, America shifted to nuclear-powered submarines that were bigger, cleaner and could stay under water for up to 90 days.
But World War II veterans inspired that next generation of the ”Silent Service.”
”It was guys like Herb that motivated me to join the submarine service,” said Robert Rains, elected base commander for the Yakima chapter of U.S. Submarine Veterans. Rains spent 1972 and 1973 aboard patrol subs that launched from Guam. They never fired, but each day brought the threat from Soviet subs.
”We never knew if the battle was going to be a drill or an actual prepare-to-launch command,” Rains said. ”All of that, it was very real.”
The start of Brunkhorst’s service involved more boredom than danger: sub maintenance in Australia and New Guinea. For a while, his only job was to run the 16 mm projector to play movies for sailors with downtime and nowhere but jungle to go.
Later, he joined the Darter for 30-day patrols in the South China Sea.
The action started just after midnight on Oct. 23, 1944, according to Brunkhorst’s memory and several historical accounts.
Radar and lookouts spotted a fleet of 32 Japanese gunships headed toward Leyte, where American forces were massing. The Darter dove and stalked the enemy as silently and secretly as possible. The men on board communicated with hand signals whenever they could and walked around the narrow corridors barefoot to avoid sonar detection by the enemy above.
Just after dawn, the Darter fired six torpedoes and sank the Atago, the fleet’s flagship. Another spread of torpedoes damaged an accompanying cruiser, the Takao. A nearby submarine, the USS Dace, sank another heavy Japanese cruiser, the Maya.
The Darter and the Dace then pursued the crippled Takao back toward its launch port of Brunei into the next day when the Darter ran aground on a reef of the Bombay Shoals. The men abandoned ship with rubber rafts, destroyed intelligence and hopped aboard the Dace, which took them to Australia.
That was the last of the action for Brunkhorst. He came back to the United States, married his wife, Dorothy, in New York, and was assigned to a crew that put new submarines into commission after they were manufactured in Wisconsin. He recalls being towed by tug through Chicago, down the Mississippi River and through the Panama Canal. By the time they reached the West Coast, the war had ended.
He served on other sub patrols to finish out his six years of active duty. After one of them, he realized that his 1-year-old daughter didn’t recognize him.
His in-laws had moved to Kennewick and Grandview, where he briefly partnered at his brother-in-law’s Chevron station at the corner of Division Street and what is now Wine Country Road. He sold out about two years later and drove trucks for nearly 50 years.
His wife died on their wedding anniversary, April 11, 2008.
His adult children, seven grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren still live in Central Washington, many of them in Yakima. He visits them a few times every month.
They don’t always show much interest in his war stories; it’s a shame, he said.
”I think all these kids should learn about history,” he said. ”Give them some idea that it wasn’t all a bed of roses.”