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A similar incident, 52 years ago

Walter Kuhle was aboard a submarine in 1949 when it hit a destroyer.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 13, 2001

NEW PORT RICHEY -- As government authorities try to figure out how a U.S. submarine hit and sank a Japanese fishing boat on Friday, Walter Kuhle recalled a similar accident he was involved in as a young Marine more than 50 years ago.

[Times photos: Janel Schroeder]
Walter Kuhle was on the submarine Perch on March 22, 1949, when it collided with the destroyer Orleck off San Diego.
Kuhle, 72, was aboard the submarine Perch when it surfaced underneath the destroyer Orleck during a training mission off San Diego on the evening of March 22, 1949. As with Friday's collision between the USS Greeneville and the fishing boat Ehime Maru, the Perch struck the other vessel with its conning tower, the large square structure rising from the deck of a submarine.

"As we were going up, bang-o! We hit a destroyer," said Kuhle, who was just one day shy of his 21st birthday when the accident occurred. "Part of (the Orleck's) propeller was left lying on our deck."

The Perch dived back beneath the surface and settled on the ocean floor while its crew determined what happened, Kuhle said. Nobody was injured in the accident, and both ships returned to port under their own power.

"The whole ship shuddered and they ordered us to our bunks," said Kuhle, who retired from the Marines as a staff sergeant and now lives in New Port Richey. "We knew something was wrong."

The sub resurfaced after about an hour on the bottom. Immediately after the collision, it released a rescue buoy that contained a radio transmitter. Radio stations in San Diego picked up the signal, and soon, the whole country knew of the collision.

"Mothers were calling asking if their sons were still alive," he said with a chuckle. "They wouldn't let us talk to anybody about it. It was supposed to be a secret."

Kuhle wasn't part of the Perch's operating crew. The submarine had been converted into a troop transport ship, and he and about 100 other Marines were on board as part of a secret training mission.

After the collision, he went to Korea, where he was wounded in both legs and lost part of a finger to frostbite. After returning, he posed for several war posters that encouraged U.S. citizens to donate blood and to thank their veterans.

"What really gets me is that they're going to ostracize this captain (of the USS Greeneville)," he said. "Our captain looked through his periscope and didn't see the destroyer. These things happen."

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