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Volume 15, Issue 21 ~ May 24 - May 30, 2007

Pickerel Lost and Found

Lost submariner Paul T. Cynewski.

A Memorial Day Memoir

by Jane Elkin

During the relatively carefree 1990s, after the Cold War but before the War on Terror, I struggled to find a way of impressing upon my children the importance of Memorial Day. Because my husband was a submariner, it seemed particularly important that they appreciate it as more than just another day off of school. As Navy kids, they understood frequent moves and extended deployments as inconveniences that come with military life, but I was naively confident they would never have cause to appreciate the ultimate sacrifice that countless service members and their families had made in years past.

This thought was foremost in my mind on Memorial Day, 1997, the first day of summer in our new home on the Little Magothy River in Annapolis, when my daughter Julia caught her first fish. It was a pickerel, and I was struck by its connection to the only war casualty in our family. My father’s cousin, MoMM2 Paul T. Cynewski, was on board the USS Pickerel (SS-177) when it disappeared off the northern coast of Japan, presumably on April 3, 1943. The Pickerel was the first submarine to be lost in the Central Pacific in World War II, amid circumstances that remain a mystery to this day.

The Family Line

Julia’s grandfather Bill was only about her age when he learned of Paul’s death on a warm day in May, much like this one. (The Pickerel was not reported missing until five weeks after the fact, when it failed to reestablish radio contact following an extended silent mission.) Staring out his classroom window trying to make sense of it all, he was chided to Stop day dreaming and concentrate on something important! and he wondered what could possibly be more important than a human life. People were fiercely patriotic in those days, so the teacher must not have heard the news yet through the small town rumor mill.

Even now, as my father recounts the events leading up to that moment, he speaks so earnestly and with such precise recollection of details that it might have been three months ago rather than 53 years ago.

On Paul’s last visit home, my father had found him building a kayak in his basement. It was constructed of wood, and all that remained was to cover it with canvas. That boat was never finished — not by Paul, his brothers or his cousins.

Cousin Bill happened to walk by the bus station in a neighboring town on the day of Paul’s departure. The lanky sailor in his Cracker Jack uniform with a large duffel bag by his side caught Bill’s eye. They smiled and waved, the sailor boarded the bus — and that was the last any one from home ever saw of Paul Cynewski. He was 22 years old.

The Lost Pickerel

The story of the USS Pickerel’s last patrol is the stuff of war movies. The sub earned three battle stars during its six-year career, sinking five enemy ships and inflicting damage on another 10 before its luck ran out on a seventh patrol, taking all 74 men on board out of existence.

After refueling at Midway on March 22, the Pickerel left on a seven-week patrol off the northeastern coast of Honshu, the largest in the chain of Japanese islands, and home to Japan’s capital city and main naval base of Tokyo.

Perhaps the captain strayed from his assigned area looking for excitement in nearby waters not patrolled by other U.S. forces. If so, they were most likely sunk by depth charges on April 3, just three days before the USS Flying Fish was to arrive in that area. The Japanese Navy dropped 26 depth charges that day on a target that had been previously damaged by air attack, causing a huge oil slick to bubble to the surface. No other submarines were known to be in the area at that time.

The story may not be so cut and dried, however. Japanese naval records credited the Pickerel with sinking both a Japanese sub chaser on April 3, near Shiramuka Lighthouse on the northern tip of Honshu, and a cargo ship, the Fukuei Maru, four days later.

The Pickerel might have struck the chaser, prompting the aerial bombing. But if she was already at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, who sunk the Fukuei Maru? Could the Pickerel have remained afloat long enough to launch both attacks?

Julia Elkin and her pickerel.

Still on Patrol

Paul was later immortalized on a war memorial erected by the Polish Club in his hometown of Amesbury, Massachusetts. Bill eventually joined the Navy and spent the better part of his life as a civilian building and repairing submarines.

The Naval Academy’s monument to World War II submarine casualties stands on the farthest point of land overlooking the Severn River. Capped with a Mark XIV torpedo, the main armament of the subs, it lists USS Pickerel along with 51 other boats Still on Patrol — as are their crews of 374 officers and 3,131 enlisted men.

The Fish on Julia’s Line

Julia seemed appreciatively touched by the details of her grandfather’s young experience with tragedy, but not in a morose way. She smiled for a picture with her pickerel before tossing it back in the water and watching it swim away — only to catch the very same fish again not five minutes later.

It seemed too remarkable to be mere coincidence, as if the sailor himself had arranged this strange turn of events to reassure us of its relevance. We have never since seen another pickerel from our dock.

Since submitting this story in February, Elkin — a Renaissance woman who lives, works and kayaks in Annapolis — has joined Bay Weekly as a theater reviewer.

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