Monday, May 16, 2011

They Didn't Get to Keep the Gold, but They All Got Silver Stars

Frank Fenno was one of the finest American submarine commanders to serve in the Second World War. During the course of his career he was awarded the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, the Distinguished Service Medal and *three* Navy Crosses (that’s just one down from the Congressional Medal of Honor). He retired as a Rear Admiral and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. I read of his most amazing mission many years ago, and I’ve often wondered why no one made a film about it.

In early 1942, Fenno was Lieutenant Commander of a new submarine, the USS Trout (SS-202). He was ordered to carry a load of 25 tons of anti-aircraft ammunition to the besieged island of Corrigador in Manila Bay. Since the Japanese had that island completely surrounded, it’s hard to imagine the courage it took for the captain and crew of the Trout to approach Corrigador under cover of darkness and unload their cargo of desperately needed supplies.

Once they’d finished unloading, Commander Fenno discovered he had a new problem: the Trout needed over 20 tons of ballast to enable it to quickly submerge. Believe it or not, the US Army authorities on the island denied him permission to take on that many tons of sandbags because sandbags were in short supply. Fortunately, an aid to the Philippine High Commissioner had a solution. Before evacuating government offices in Manila, the American authorities had transferred over 20 tons of gold and silver to Corrigador. They loaded 5 tons, over 10,800 lbs of gold and close to 15,000 of silver. The gold alone was worth 6 million (by 1942’s standards; today it would be worth aprox $200 million).

The next night, the Trout stealthily slipped past the blockading Japanese ships and headed for Honolulu. There were between 60 and 70 men on board the Trout. I can only wonder if any of them thought, “What the hell?” The Portugese are neutral. Let’s head for Macao and see if they take gold bars at the casinos!” They managed to make it to Honolulu unscathed, sinking a Japanese freighter along the way, and after unloading their precious cargo, they found they were exactly one gold bar short. After a thorough search of the ship, they found one of the cooks had been using one of the gold bars as a paperweight.

The crewmen of the Trout did not get to keep any souvenirs. However, the Army was decent enough to reward each and every one of them the Silver Star.Commander Fenno was soon transferred to another submarine, where he was awarded 2 Navy Crosses for his aggressive leadership.

Sadly, the Trout was lost, with all hands, 1944. I haven’t been able to find out much about the future Rear Admiral Fenno’s post-military career. I often wonder why one of the major political parties didn’t encourage him to run for office.

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