“Lucky Lady,” is World War II slang and humor for a long, sweaty, stinking, steel tube, effective killing machine: a submarine. USS Cavalla (SS244) commissioned on Feb. 29, 1944, earned the nickname first by the date, a leap year, and then through combat service record in the South Pacific.
The sub was home to 54 sailors and six officers who operated a complex football field long contraption with six forward and four aft torpedo tubes, diesel engines for surface sailing and tons of batteries for underwater propulsion.
Almost 75 years later, I unlocked the hatch and slowly climbed up the narrow twisting ladder to the Cavalla conning tower. “Come on up,” I yelled down. John Zellmer, a wiry gray haired, recently retired special education teacher quickly appeared next to me, a smile of satisfaction as he absorbed the cramped quarters. “Amazing. During an attack there were up to 12 men in here.” Moving to the back he added, “I think this is where dad stood to chart the shot.”
His dad, Capt. Zeke Zellmer, a plank owner — an original officer, visited Cavalla just last year to help direct a re-enactment of the attack. He will be interred with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on Jan. 15.
During the first patrol, on June 19, 1944, Cavalla quickly fired a spread of six torpedoes, securing three hits, which sank the Japanese aircraft carrier, Shokaku, whose planes had attacked Pearl Harbor.
In the quiet, we stood on the same deck as John’s dad had, 75 years ago. But his dad and the crew suffered through hours of 106 depth charges from three destroyers. John stood with his hands on the small table, his dad’s table, as emotions took over. War continues to impact families even years later. I respectfully retreated.
Life aboard the “Lucky Lady,” as with most WWII subs, was difficult service, physically and mentally. Every sailor trained constantly, needing to know all of the complex tasks in case that person was injured. Ten-second showers (if any) and close quarters skunk up the small space. Hot bunking meant no bed to yourself.
Loud diesel engines and the smell of fuel, not to mention being knocked about as pipes leaked during depth charging, added to the emotional stress. Then there was the fact that proportionally more submariners died in combat than any other service.
Today, we’re the lucky ones to have USS Cavalla, part of the Galveston Naval Museum, which also displays USS Stewart, the Memorial Plaza, the sail of USS Tautog and USS Carp’s conning tower. The museum at Seawolf Park is a living exhibit.
Visitors may walk through Cavalla and experience the living and work spaces of this war machine. Even children speak softly, as in a sanctuary. Thanks to volunteers’ hours of work, this is a site of remembrance and understanding.
Come celebrate Cavalla’s special birthday with a VIP tour with Chief Garcia followed by birthday cake at 1 p.m., Feb. 28. For information, call 409-770-3196.