The Real World Record Musky

By Tony Welch

In the waning days of 1942, an avid fisherman by the name of Louis Spray forfeited his 1940 world record musky title, together with all bragging rights.

The new record – and we’re under oath here – was nothing short of colossal. It weighed in at 3,052,000 pounds and measured a stunning 3,744 inches in length. Any mention of its girth would only provoke further disbelief.

Spray’s record catch was bested by the United States Navy, when on December 13, l942 the fleet submarine Muskallunge (SS-262) slid down the ways at the Electric Boat Company in Groton, CT. The Muskallunge – “musky” in angling lingo –numbered among an eventual 205 Gato/Balao class submarines, joining earlier boats named after fresh water fish such as Sturgeon, Perch, Pike, Trout, Bass and Bluegill. Before war’s end the Bureau of Ships even found room to squeeze in the Chub, Dogfish and Carp.

Muskallunge set sail September 7, l943 from Pearl Harbor on the first of seven war patrols. True to its namesake, the boat’s primary mission was to lie in ambush undetected and wait for prey to enter her strike zone. Including travel time, the average submarine patrol lasted 60-70 days and consumed 110,000 gallons of diesel fuel over the course of 11,000 miles. Fewer than half the 85-man crew would see the sky until home port was reached at patrol’s end.

The outbound Muskallunge held a bellyful of 24 “fish,” as the 3,000-pound torpedoes were labeled. Aboard were the very first electrically-driven torpedoes to be fired in combat. The electrics traveled at a modest 28 knots, but had the advantage of leaving no tell-tale surface turbulence in their wake, as did the earlier steam-driven projectiles which they gradually replaced. Still, faulty torpedoes plagued submarine skippers well into 1944. Many a Japanese vessel arrived safely in port displaying fender benders — deeply dented hulls, clear evidence of a dud torpedo.

Charles A. Kennedy, an electrician’s mate, helped commission Muskallunge and was aboard during the boat’s first two war patrols. His responsibilities were many, including attending to the 300-ton bank of batteries that drove the ship when submerged. The sub’s diesel engines, used for surface running, were another matter; they proved inherently defective in the Gato class subs and tormented the motor machinists responsible for their care and feeding. Gradually, all twelve boats in Kennedy’s squadron were re-booted with dependable General Motors diesels, packing 6,400 hp.

Charles Kennedy helped commission Muskallunge and served aboard for two war patrols before transferring to Bergall (SS-320). Kennedy’s pictured here at a 2003 Bergall reunion in Reno, Nevada, where 28 surviving crew members and their wives met to reminisce. WW11 “smokeboaters” (diesel engine sub crews) customarily wear vests adorned with colorful patches and decals to such gatherings. The names of the submarines they served aboard are displayed in large letters on the backs of the vests — as one vet described it “….so we can easily spot a fellow crew member from one end of the bar to the other, despite our failing eyesight.” Image courtesy USS

“The skipper on our first patrol was a sun worshipper,” recalls Kennedy, now age 86 and a Camarillo, CA resident. “Day after day he’d sit in a comforter chair topside, wearing only shorts and sunglasses while reading a book and munching candy bars as we cruised along.

“On this particular morning, one of the three bridge lookouts spotted a distant Japanese aircraft preparing to attack the boat. The diving klaxon sounded and everybody ran for the open hatch, including the captain. His sunglasses and cap went flying, his book and chair and candy bar went flying, so I’m told. And none of it was ever to be seen again.

“At the time I was way aft in the maneuvering room,” Kennedy continues, “and noticed the propellers were making a commotion – – a very different sound. I happened to glance at the angle of dive indicator and noticed immediately the switch was on the wrong setting, so I ran over and reset the stern hydroplanes to speed up our rate of descent. Moments later a bomb exploded close overhead – it shook the boat badly and scared hell out of me. We continued down to about 200 feet when I heard my name shouted over the intercom – “Kennedy – report forward to the captain.” Well, I got all puffed up – I was going to be complimented by the skipper. Maybe even get a medal on the spot for having saved the boat. Except I wasn’t wearing a shirt, so what would he pin it to? Maybe my bare chest.. “

Nothing could have prepared Kennedy for what happened next, and to this day he remains somewhat shaken. “Mind you,” he chuckles, “I was only 18 at the time. And here’s the ship’s captain, the lord our god, standing there with a .45 automatic strapped to his waist. And he yanks the sidearm out of its holster and jams it in my belly, and he says – ‘Kennedy, you (expletive), I’m going to kill you!” And I half-turned away, and he said it again, and that’s when the ship’s executive officer grabbed the captain from behind and pinned his arms to his sides.”

"There's room for everything on a submarine....except a mistake."

Kennedy continues: “I later learned that one of the mess cooks had got to poking around looking for certain food ingredients. Like all subs, we had food stashed in every possible nook and cranny and the mess cook thought he might have moved the control switch by accident. So that’s what happened. But the captain somehow concluded I had intentionally altered the switch on the sly. And then while under attack, that I’d rushed over and reset the controls so I could appear the hero who saved the day.” Kennedy notes that none dared approach the captain with a plausible explanation, adding that “.. with all our ongoing engine troubles and various electronic malfunctions, the captain gradually became more and more distrustful of the crew. On more than one occasion he made that point pretty clear, and in salty language we all understood.”

Leland D. White, CMoMM(SS) Leland White served as motor machinist mate aboard Muskallunge from launch to layup — 40 months. Lee retired in 1960 — a half-century ago — as a chief petty officer after 23 years active duty. Post-war, he had duty tours on four other submarines. Now age 91 and active, he numbers among four known surviving crew members of Muskallunge. Image courtesy

Despite his bizarre encounter, Kennedy is quick to note that the skipper went on to command other submarines, and eventually retired a deeply tanned rear admiral.

Prowling off the Palau Islands in her assigned sector, and using radar, Muskallunge detected a distant enemy convoy at 22,000 yards. Running surfaced in the dark, the boat set off at 20 knots on an intersecting course. A setup on various targets was calculated, followed by a spread of six fired torpedoes. Kennedy pitched in helping to reload the launching tubes.

“Below deck we could hear a series of distant explosions,” says Kennedy. “But except for what sounded like it might be an ammo ship blowing up, we couldn’t tell what other damage we’d inflicted.” The exploding vessel illuminated the night sky, Kennedy adds, and assorted debris rained down on the surfaced sub, including sections of the ship’s smokestack. The electrician spent 14 months and two war patrols aboard Muskallunge before being transferred. Kennedy later served on four other subs prior to ending his naval career as a commissioned officer.

Now meet Leland D. White, another Californian (Chula Vista), who says he goes to exercise class twice a week and is still adept at mixing a “just so” before-dinner martini. Approaching his 92rd birthday, Lee’s 24-year naval career began in 1937. “I’m a triple dipper,” he notes, having collected Navy retirement pay for close to half a century, plus a corporate retirement pension and social security. Lee helped commission and decommission Muskallunge, and sailed on all seven of her war patrols over a 40-month period.

Lee White joins electronic technician Steve Gillett at the 52 Boats Memorial, San Diego — all generational gaps aside. Gillett served aboard a number of Nuclear subs over a 20-year span, retiring in 2006. The ties that bind are reflected in the engraved names of 3,506 sub sailors “on eternal patrol” — lost in action and honored at this site.

We asked Lee a burning question: were there any musky fishermen aboard the boat?

“Well, yes.. .I’m certain of it. One would be Leonard Johnson, a chief torpedoman. We were tied up at Staten Island and the crew was given a month’s R&R. Do as we pleased, the war’s over. Len invited me to visit his home town, so we hopped the ferry to Manhattan and off we went by train from Grand Central Station to Eau Claire, Wisconsin for Thanksgiving. Besides carousing and terrifying the natives, we went deer hunting. Never got musky fishing, though. Too cold. And no venison as it turned out, but we drank lots of beer and ate platters of bratwurst. ” Lee even remembers – 64 years later — that the Wigwam Tavern was on Madison Street, “.. just before the bridge.” (And still is).

Lee had two close calls aboard Muskallunge. The first took place at Camranh Bay, Indo-China. The boat lay suspended well offshore at periscope depth as it waited for the departure of a convoy tracked the previous day entering port.

At 0800 hours, a mixed bag of 15 merchant marine and anti-submarine escort vessels got underway for Saigon. At 0952, a sharp-eyed Japanese lookout aboard transport Durban Maru gave the alarm. With its wheel hard over to port, the 7,163-ton vessel narrowly avoided the first of three torpedoes. Moments later a second “fish” lanced into Durban’s number four hold, causing serious flooding. Within an hour the order was given to abandon ship, and Durban sank stern-first in mid-afternoon. Unknown to the Muskallunge, a full regiment of Imperial Japanese Army troops – 3,354 men –was jammed on board, of whom 515 lost their lives. Long after the war, Lee would relive the events of August 21, 1944 in a fashion he never could have foretold.

“Shipmate Carl Urbany and I both coincidentally answered a Navy publication classified ad that was seeking contact with former Muskallunge crew members,” Lee explains. “To our total amazement up pops this Japanese fellow, a survivor from the transport we sank. Only now he’s the owner, president and board chairman of Kimoto and Company Limited and its American subsidiary, Kimoto USA in Atlanta.”

As honored guests of Ujihito Kimoto, Urbany and White were given the best hotel accommodations at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Marina Del Ray, CA. Floral arrangements adorned their suite, with a full liquor bar. Following introductory “Ice Breaker” cocktails, the trio and their spouses were driven to dinner and a show in Hollywood. “Mr. Kimoto even provided an interpreter,” Lee notes.

Lee learned that Kimoto had survived 24 hours adrift in the South China Sea, first aboard a flimsy bamboo raft and then supported by a piece of flotsam when the raft broke up in a storm. Of the 12 men in his group, only three remained alive to be rescued by a Japanese patrol boat. “We talked about our lives past and present, anything and everything” Lee recalls of their meeting. Kimoto held the belief that personal friendship between victors and vanquished was the path to forgiveness and a lasting peace between nations. “And he was on a mission to prove just that,” Lee concludes.

Hours before Durban Maru settled to the bottom, the Japanese anti-submarine vessels began punishing Muskallunge with the first of more than 50 depth charges. The counter-attack went on intermittently for eight hours. One or more “ashcans” detonated close enough to the sub to cause serious leaks. “We tried sneaking off at a couple knots – no good,” Lee recalls. “Their sonar kept right on tracking us, even below 300 feet. Lots of water accumulated in the aft engine compartment and this extra weight slammed our stern into the ocean bottom, burying the props. Finally we formed a bucket brigade and hauled the water forward, then packed a bunch of the crew into the forward torpedo room for added weight. And that’s how we finally broke the stern free – rather like a teeter-totter.” A long voyage to Fremantle, Australia followed, for repairs.

Muskallunge departs Pearl Harbor September 4, 1943 on her first war patrol. A year later, Musky narrowly escaped an 8-hour depth charge pounding after sinking a 7,160 ton transport off Cam Ranh Bay, French Indo-China. Aboard was a regiment of 3,000 Japanese soldiers, of whom 515 perished. (National Archives)

On August 8, 1945 Muskallunge suffered its first and only onboard casualties. Merchant shipping had been scarce for months, so the captain decided to target lesser prey with the deck gun. “We called these cargo vessels ‘sea trucks’,” Lee explains, “They ran around 200 tons – too small for torpedoes. We’d locate them on radar and then move in on the surface.”

A heavy fog blanketed the Sea of Japan that day. The radar range shortened until suddenly a cluster of three sea trucks came dimly into view. Selecting a target, Muskallunge commenced firing its main deck gun.

“My battle station was to train this modified artillery piece,” Lee says. “Meaning, I maneuvered the gun horizontally while the gun pointer to my left moved it vertically to get the weapon on target. It was tough going because we kept poking in and out of dense fog banks.”

Higher up on the conning tower’s cigarette deck, electrician’s mate Chuck Whitman of Mayfield, N.Y. was busy manning a .50 caliber rail mounted machine gun. As the running battle progressed, several hits from the deck gun were observed. Then sudden return fire from one of the Japanese vessels struck Whitman, killing him instantly. Lee escaped the volley, while two nearby sailors received shrapnel wounds. The firefight was terminated, and later that day Whitman — believed to be the last submariner to die in action during the war — was buried at sea off the Kurile Islands in a brief ceremony. Three weeks later Muskallunge joined eleven other subs in Tokyo Bay for the formal surrender ceremonies ending World War Two.

Louis Spray poses with the largest of three record-breaking muskies he caught in his lifetime (69 lbs/11 oz). Note the musky’s four pectoral fins, located fore and aft in pairs. They almost perfectly match the four diving planes (hydroplanes) on the Muskallunge (SS-262) — and serve the self-same purpose by allowing both fish and sub to angle bow-upward when surfacing and bow-downward when submerging. In short, technology mimicking nature.” Image courtesy

Muskallunge was decommissioned in 1947 and laid up for a few years, then loaned to the Brazilian Navy and returned in 1968. “By pure chance a former Muskallunge shipmate who was still on active duty, Val Scanlon by name, happened to be at a Navy pier when the boat came in and tied up,” Lee recalls. “He went aboard and it was a mess. Paint peeling off the bulkheads, trash everywhere. Not the Muskallunge any of her old crew would ever care to see.”

Steel ships, iron men. And a touch of irony. Three months later Scanlon was ordered to join a certain Atlantic fleet sub for temporary one-day duty. On July 9 the boat departed New London, CT and steamed to a Navy target practice area off Long Island, N.Y. In the distance, Scanlon spotted the submersible he’d helped commission a quarter-century earlier. Now the boat was empty, a derelict rolling in the ocean swells and straining at her anchor chain as though determined to get underway on her own.

The chief torpedoman’s duty that day? To accomplish what the Imperial Japanese Navy strove for 32 months to do, but failed. No salvage yard for this aging warrior, nor the indignity of a welder’s cutting torch.

Scanlon pushed the red firing button. Two minutes later, her back broken by an exploding torpedo, Muskallunge began her final plunge to the ocean floor. Half a world away from where she earned her laurels — but less than 50 miles from her birthplace.

And what of Louis Spray? In 1949, Louis went on to top his old record with a 69 pound/11 ounce Wisconsin musky that likely will never be bested. Unless, of course, the Bureau of Ships decides to launch another Muskallunge.