On a crisp fall Centennial morning, Roy Christensen sat in his tidy Holly Creek Retirement Community apartment waiting to answer questions about his service during WWII. The person asking the questions is Ken Yaphe, a volunteer for the American Red Cross’s Colorado & Wyoming Region.
Since 2014, Yaphe has interviewed more than 80 veterans for the Library of Congress’ “Veterans History Project.” The Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.
Yaphe began interviewing residents at Holly Creek and its sister community Clermont Park in 2015 and has interviewed more than 25 combat veterans between the two communities. Retired from the U.S. Air Force, Yaphe now dedicates much of his time to capturing stories from veterans like Christensen.
“Some folks are surprised that the Red Cross’s Colorado & Wyoming Region interviews combat veterans for the Veterans History Project. Our region had conducted almost 200 since the spring of 2012,” said Yaphe.
Christensen’s fit physique and full head of hair belies his 91 years. He answers Yaphe’s questions with a calm and steady demeanor and an uncanny ability to recall dates and names. Christensen enlisted in the U.S. Navy in February 1943 and was assigned to the USS Raton, a submarine whose mission was to hunt and destroy Japanese Imperial Navy and merchant marine ships.
Christensen’s father, who was a U.S. Navy paymaster in WWI, was opposed to his son joining the navy. The submarines of WWI had difficulty making it from the United States coast to Europe, but technology had advanced considerably in the 23 years between WWI and WWII.
“Young men don’t look at risk, they look for action, adventure and excitement and the US government did a good job of getting young men excited to join the war effort,” recalled Christensen. “By 1943, a lot of us felt the action was going to be in the South Pacific, which is why I enlisted in the U.S. Navy.”
Christensen and his fellow crewmembers saw a lot of action. By the time Christensen left the USS Raton in February 1945, the submarine was confirmed to have sunk 25 enemy ships, including a Japanese Imperial Navy destroyer, two cruisers and two destroyer escorts. The other ships sunk were merchant marine ships transporting troops, supplies, ammunition and fuel for the Japanese war effort.
Yahphe’s questioning touched upon Christensen’s personal experiences as a torpedoman’s mate, the person responsible for loading the torpedo tube and firing.
“Typical patrols lasted 62 to 72 days but luckily, we had a great cook named Freddy Dunn who used to roll out bread dough on the floor of the submarine,” recalled Christensen. “Freddy was engaged to a girl named Janette – I never met her but I felt I knew her, heck, you got to know all of the crewmember’s girlfriends and wives because submarine crews are so close. Freddy and Janette married right after the war but Freddy died about 10 years later – I continued exchanging Christmas cards with Janette after Freddy passed and I never did meet her,” added Christensen, his voice filled with emotion.
The USS Raton held 24 torpedoes and Christensen’s bunk was located directly above a torpedo in the aft (rearward) torpedo room. Christensen recalled, “The Japanese convoys were heavily protected so as soon as we launched torpedoes, we would make a hard left or a hard right to get away from that telltale torpedo trail. They launched a lot of depth charges at us but fortunately we were never directly hit.”
The concussion from the depth charges is something Christensen will never forget. “I remember after a depth charge attack, one of our crew members had blood coming out of his nose, ears and eyes. Leaks would start popping up but the worst thing was to loose power – when you lost power, you couldn’t do anything but rise to the surface,” said the somber veteran.
The only direct hit the USS Raton did incur came from the submarine USS Lapon, which, along with the Raton, was searching for a Japanese submarine carrying an important German scientist from Singapore to Tokyo. The Lapon mistook the Raton for the Japanese sub and struck it with two torpedoes – the only known instance of friendly fire between submarines in WWII.
“Luckily, both torpedoes failed to explode upon impact, or I wouldn’t be talking to you today,” chuckled Christensen.
“Not only do these stories leave a legacy of service from which countless students will benefit and learn, but they also provide the veterans’ families a very special memento of their loved one,” said Yaphe
Author: Chuck Montera, Sigler Communications