THE "WAR HERO"
L. RON HUBBARD AND THE U.S. NAVY, 1941-50
3.5 War in the Pacific: the PC-815
Hubbard, an old hand at knocking tails off enemy subs, is typical of the high type naval officers commanding Albina subchasers ...
- Oregon Journal (April
L. Ron Hubbard's second and last command was aboard the USS PC-815, a Pacific Ocean subchaser. His career aboard lasted just 80 days; its disastrous conclusion ruined any chance Hubbard might have had of commanding another warship.
What was the PC-815?
The Church of Scientology has long claimed that PC-815 was a "corvette". However, it quite definitely was not. "Corvette" refers specifically to a class of small British warships of between approximately 600-1300 tons. The first modern corvettes (the term was originally coined for flush-decked sailing frigates in the 19th century) were built in British yards in 1939. A number were transferred to the US Navy in a reverse lend-lease arrangement and were referred to as Temptress-class vessels. They were not referred to as "subchasers"; that name was coined and used for a generic type of US anti-submarine vessel. The 38 corvettes lend-leased to or built for the US Navy had a different hull nomenclature, PG- (for Patrol Gunboat) rather than PC- (Patrol Craft, aka subchasers). Their specification was also significantly different from PCs. Compare the following - PCs in red bold, Temptress-class corvettes in blue italics:
Displacement: PCs - 280 tons Corvettes - 925 tons Dimensions: PCs - 170 (wl) 174¾ (oa) x 23 x 7½ ft Corvettes - 190 (wl) 205/208¼ (oa) x 33 x 14½ ft Machinery: PCs - 2 x General Motors 2-shaft diesel engines, S.H.P. 2,880 Corvettes - 1-shaft reciprocating diesel engine, S.H.P. 2,700 Speed: PCs - 20 kts Corvettes - 16 kts Armament: PCs - 1 x 3", 1 x 40mm anti-aircraft guns; depth charge launchers Corvettes - 1 x 4", 1 x 3" anti-aircraft guns; depth charge launchers Complement: PCs - 80 Corvettes - 87
There can be no doubt that the PC-815 was not a corvette, as almost every physical characteristic is different. (In fact, the term "corvette" as used by the British covered a wide variety of small warships, with displacements of anything from 700 to 1,500 tonnes; but even the smallest corvette still had more than twice the displacement of the YP-422).
In all, 317 steel-hulled PCs were completed. Unlike corvettes, they were not long-range oceanic vessels but were tasked with escorting ships along the USA's long and vulnerable coastlines. It has to be said that they were not particularly well-suited to this task, though in fairness it was not what they were designed to do. The original purpose of PCs was to operate as harbour-based craft that could be used in groups to hunt down submarines operating offshore. The USA's desperate shortage of anti-submarine vessels at the start of the war necessitated the use of PCs as escort vessels instead.
The weak armament of PCs made them fairly ineffective at sinking submarines. Only 3 submarines were sunk by the entire PC fleet in the course of the war; all, curiously, within a single eight-week period. 1 Their usefulness lay more in the deterrent effect which they had upon enemy submarines and in the support which they were able to provide to more capable ships.
News of Hubbard's big break reached him at the Submarine Chaser Training Center (SCTC) in Miami, Florida, at the start of January 1943.The Chief of Naval Personnel informed Hubbard that he was to be detached to Portland, Oregon, for "duty in connection with the fitting out of the USS PC-815 at the Albina Engine and Machine Works, and for duty as commanding officer of that vessel when placed in commission". (DOCUMENT A) This must have been a happy moment for Hubbard. Following the debacle of his month-long command of the USS YP-422, he must have relished the prospect of another command and the renewed chance to demonstrate his worth. Hubbard's original candidate for executive officer (XO) was unavailable, so he asked his friend at the SCTC, Lt Thomas S. Moulton, to be his executive officer. Although Moulton really wanted (and was soon to get) his own command, he agreed as a favour to serve as Hubbard's temporary XO.
Hubbard first reported to the Fleet Sound School, Key West, Florida, for training in the use of sonar equipment. He concluded the 13-day course with an "average" rating but was rated only 20th out of a class of 25. This was to have potentially important consequences when he took command of the PC-815.
By January 18, Hubbard had reported to the Navy's Supervisor of Shipbuilding in Portland, Oregon. It was conveniently close to Hubbard's old home at Bremerton, only 150 miles to the north, and his wife Polly was able to visit for dinner parties with the Moultons.
Exactly what Hubbard did at the shipyard is not recorded, but it is possible to reconstruct the scene. The PC-815's sister ship, PC-816, was under construction at the same time in an adjoining dock (see photo on right). The British writer Nicholas Monsarrat described the scene at the fitting out of his corvette, HMS Rhododendron, in 1940:
[We] toured the ship together, as green as grass. Neither of us had seen a corvette before, though there were certainly enough of them around... Ours was afloat, almost finished, and jammed with workmen: the chief noise was supplied by some last-minute riveting going on on the after-gun platform, but there were several minor performers of note among the welders, caulkers, joiners, carpenters and plain crash-and-bangers employed on board. We were an hour on our tour, mostly climbing over obstacles and avoiding paintwork, but examining every discoverable corner and going over the ground from bridge to magazine to fore-peak to tiller-flat: we liked the look of her, though she was as yet more like an unfinished factory than a ship.
(Source: Nicholas Monsarrat, HM Corvette, 1940)
Only a few days into his stint at Portland, Hubbard was again being pursued for unpaid debts. This time Dave Margolis of 22nd and G Streets, Washington, D.C., wrote to the Navy requesting that it make Hubbard pay his unpaid bill of $120.75 and enclosing his (presumably fruitless) previous correspondence with Hubbard. The letter was forwarded to Hubbard with an instruction, dated February 5, that he attend to the matter (DOCUMENT B); for its part, the Navy informed Margolis that it could not legally control or direct the financial affairs of its officers. Unfortunately, neither the original letter nor Hubbard's reply is preserved in his file.
The PC-815's Prospective Commanding Officer remained otherwise untroubled during the rest of the ship's precommissioning period, during which Hubbard oversaw the ship being fitted out and made ready. He was given an approving report by Commander Whitgrove, the Supervisor of Shipbuilding at Portland:
This officer has performed his duties as Prospective Commanding Officer during the precommissioning period in a highly satisfactory manner. He has taken a commendable interest in his ship and undertaken his work conscientiously and energetically. No comment is submitted regarding his fitness for promotion as he has not been under my observation while on sea duty.
(Source: Report on the Fitness of Officers, L. Ron Hubbard #113392, January 15, 1943 - April 20, 1943)
Commissioning and Putting to Sea
At 10 a.m. on Tuesday April 20, 1943, the USS PC-815 was commissioned. Hubbard and the rest of the crew signed the logbook to register their reporting aboard for duty. Two days later, as the ship was being tested and readied for sea, the Albina Engine and Machine Works held a photo-opportunity for the Oregon Journal. Moulton and Hubbard were photographed in their sea jackets (below), Hubbard posing with a suitably nautical pipe rather than his usual Kools cigarettes. The article (DOCUMENT C) was certainly entertaining, if more than a little inaccurate:
Ex-Portlander Hunts U-Boats
Guides New 'Hell Howler'
There can be no doubt that the primary source of the personal information on Hubbard was Hubbard himself - there could have been no other source. Some strange inaccuracies appeared to have crept in, however.
Hubbard was not even a full Lieutenant, let alone a Lieutenant Commander. Having only been temporarily promoted, his substantive rank at the time was still Lieutenant (junior grade). His father was a Lieutenant Commander but was demoted to lesser rank in the article. His grandfather "Captain" Waterbury had been a small-time vet and coal merchant and had never served afloat. "I.C. De Wolfe" was in fact the maiden name of Hubbard's grandmother, Ida Corinne, not his great-grandfather, John DeWolfe, who had been a wealthy banker. Hubbard had not participated in either the Battle of the Atlantic or the Pacific. His youth was spent not in Portland, but mostly in Helena, Montana, Washington, D.C. and Bremerton, Washington State. He had, of course, never visited most of the world's seas and oceans (nor did he in later life). There is no record of any underwater films having been taken on his Caribbean expedition and he definitely did not take a bathysphere or diving bell. He did not become a member of the Explorers Club until 19 February 1940 and had, by April 1943, undertaken only one expedition (to Alaska) under the Club's auspices. The Navy Hydrographic Office had had no involvement; on his own initiative, in mid-September 1940 Hubbard had forwarded a package of films and sailing directions to the Office in the hope that they might prove useful. His "cartographic survey of West Indian waters" in 1935 never took place; he was working in New York and Los Angeles, writing pulp fiction stories. Nor did he embark on an expedition in 1939.
These fictions were all harmless enough. But they illustrated how truth and fantasy were interchangeable for Hubbard - a theme to be repeated many times in his later life.
The PC-815 remained in Portland until the end of April, outfitting and conducting trials. Her departure was delayed by another week due to damage caused to the propeller during the trials, which necessitated a brief period in dry dock. In the second week of May, the PC-815 got underway down the Columbia River, headed for the naval yard at the Pacific coastal port of Astoria. She arrived around May 17, 1943. There she took aboard a small quantity of ammunition for structural firing tests. The purpose of these was to test the ship's weapons - the guns and depth charge launchers - which, for obvious reasons, could not be done in the river.
On May 18, 1943, the PC-815 left Astoria for Seattle to have radar and Mousetrap depth charge launchers fitted at the Bremerton shipyards. Her journey was interrupted almost immediately when a Navy aircraft crashed offshore and the ship, along with others in the vicinity, was ordered to undertake a search and rescue operation. After a day's searching, the PC-815 received new orders: progress south to San Diego, pick up radar equipment there and undertake a shake-down cruise. But the ship had barely left the search area when, at 3.40 a.m. on May 19, about ten miles off Cape Lookout, her sonar equipment detected a return echo. Hubbard was immediately convinced that it could only mean one thing - the presence of an enemy submarine.
three submarines sunk by US Navy PC-class subchasers were:
- U-521 (German) by USS PC-565, off US Atlantic coast, 2 June 1943;
- I.9 (Japanese) by USS PC-487, off Aleutian Islands, Pacific Ocean, 10 June 1943;
- U-375 (German) by USS PC-624, in Mediterranean, off Tunisia, 30 July 1943.
Source: German, Italian and Japanese U-Boat Casualties during the War (British Admiralty, June 1946)
|A. Order from Chief of Naval Personnel assigning Hubbard to duty aboard USS PC-815, January 19, 1943|
|B. Memo from Chief of Naval Personnel concerning Hubbard's indebtedness, February 5, 1943|