WWII vet says he’ll always choose peace
November 10, 2012
AVON, Colorado – Ninety-three year old Arthur Farr smiles when he tells you the secret to longevity is no secret.
“A Scotch with one ice cube each evening,” said the grinning World War II submariner.
Also, longevity is longer when you can keep Japanese bombs, mines and depth charges from blowing holes in your submarine.
He had a pregnant wife but when World War II erupted and his country called, Farr answered. He volunteered for the Navy and spent three and a half years in the Pacific, mostly under water. The Navy suited him because he thought he might use his mechanical engineering degree from the University of Michigan. They sent him to the military’s three-month officer training school and he came out a newly minted ensign.
The cost of war
Farr has not only been alive a long time, he has lived. His amazing life has left him with some clear ideas about war and peace.
Peace is better.
The stories are hilarious and fly in rapid fire succession, but when he tells war stories he makes certain you understand one thing above all others.
“If we knew how terrible wars are maybe we’d get smart about it and stop having wars. We could shoot basketball or play chess, something other than killing each other that way,” he says.
He stays away from war memorials where people rubbing their hands over the names, crying for lost comrades, husbands, fathers, sons and daughters.
“We try to make war sound heroic,” he said. “If we’re not careful we glamorize it.”
Yes, pilots won the Battle of Midway, he said, but the cost was terrible – 3,057 Japanese died and hundreds of Americans in three days.
“We wiped out a whole lot of guys. Some might have been presidents, others might have made all sorts of important contributions,” he said.
There are lessons in war, but we don’t seem to learn them.
“I thought after Vietnam it would change because it was so terrible and unpopular, with its stories of killing children and women and indiscriminate bombing,” he said.
But it didn’t.
“We’re right back to war again. It seems we go seven, eight, nine years without a war and we get anxious and start to think we need one. We don’t,” he said.
The equation is not complicated: Hate causes war and war kills people unnecessarily.
The Japanese were wooed by their military, he said. He said he carried a war-sized chip on his shoulder for years.
“I hated them. I’d see a Japanese and say, ‘I hope I killed your grandfather.’ That’s an awful thing to say, or even to think.'”
In his part of World War II, if a submarine was late it’s presumed lost and everyone on it is presumed dead. The U.S. lost 52 subs, 20 percent of its subs and crews – one of every five that put to sea, each one carrying eight officers and 70 men.
“We have a lot of friends at the bottom of the sea in their metal coffins,” Farr said.
His submarine, the Guitarro, cost $3 million to build. Each torpedo cost $10,000. The taxpayers got their money’s worth.
“We sank 15 enemy ships, 10 merchant ships carrying ammunition and supplies and five warships,” Farr said. “From our standpoint we paid the government back.”
Stories and smiles
Then the smile returns and the stories begin to fly.
There was the time in 1942 they were in Wisconsin and their sub, the Guitarro, was getting its finishing touches before joining the war. The dive alarm malfunctioned and sounded, so one of the officers started to submerge.
But the rest of the officers were in the tower, which filled up with 34 degree water up to their chins. They lived. They were furious and frost-bitten, but alive.
The Guitarro navigated drainage canals to make its way to the Chicago shipyards where it was drained and repaired, then down the Mississippi toward the Gulf of Mexico, which was another adventure.
The Guitarro drafted 17 feet in the water and Big Muddy was about four and a half feet deep in spots. A paddle wheel riverboat had to push it down the Mississippi, and they spent a few days tied up to two trees in St. Louis waiting for the river level to change so they could get to New Orleans and pick up the rest of the crew.
They passed the time in St. Louis shooting geese with one of the sub’s guns. Grinning, Farr said he soon learned that Navy regulations frown on that sort of thing.
Finally they made it down the river, through the Panama Canal, into the Pacific and the war.
There was the time he and his commanding officer in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, motivated by rum and Cuban cigars, challenged each other to a foot race around the bay. After 500 yards of running cleared their heads, they asked themselves the obvious question, “What the hell are we doing?”
He was an ensign and figured out quickly that you needed to be a commander to get the Navy to move. He didn’t wear his rank insignia and had one of his men, a Harvard grad, call him “Commander.” It worked like a charm until one day they were in port on a Pacific island and they were assembled for some function or malfunction that required them to wear their full uniform. Upheaval ensued on the ensign when the people in port learned his real rank.
U.S. admirals at the time tended to suffer from torpedo envy. The Germans had these torpedoes with twin propellers and the Americans should have them too, the desk-jockeys declared.
But too often one of the propellers malfunctioned and the torpedo would run a big circle. The admirals figured that if the circular route took the torpedo into a convoy of enemy ships, it would likely hit something.
It sometimes did – the submarine that had fired it. Farr’s Guitarro was barely missed by one of its own torpedoes. Other American subs weren’t always so lucky, he said.
“The first one was the scariest. We could hear it through the hull coming straight at us,” he said.
The Japanese mined every bit of water they could. During the day the Guitarro crew would shoot mines to blow them up before they blew a hole in their sub and killed them all. At night they couldn’t see the mines to shoot them, so they kept moving and hoped one didn’t find them.
Farr developed the life-long habit of sleeping on his right side, facing away from the hull, just in case.
“It wouldn’t have made any difference, of course,” he said, shaking his head slightly and smiling.
Then there was the time a Japanese plane dropped a bomb on the Guitarro’s tail section. He and a couple crew members spent 39 straight hours cobbling it back together so they could make their way out of a shallow lake with Japanese on both sides. He was almost court-martialed for drilling a hole in an 8-inch shaft.
“I guess they wanted me to use bubble gum,” he said.
Life and death and life
The war against Japan ended in horror.
Still, Farr was there, surviving countless near-death experiences for three and a half years, so it’s his perspective that counts about dropping the atomic bombs on Japan that ended World War II.
“It was the only way to end the war, besides invading Japan and we were preparing for that,” he said. “That would have cost 1 million Allied lives and 2 million Japanese.”
The lessons seem to have stuck with us, at least for now.
“It teaches us that it’s not a good weapon,” Farr said. “We have them and the Russians have them, but we’re scared of each other.”
Rogue nations run by “idiots” with nukes is a problem.
These days he’s living with family in Avon and is being cared for by Hospice of the Valley.
The Guitarro crew stopped having reunions a few years back.
“We’re down to a small handful of guys,” Farr said. “I’m beginning to think I’ve been chosen to turn out the lights.”
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.