By Kelly Rayl

A farmer turned into a dolphin and journeyed from the coast of California across the Pacific Ocean to Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, and Korea. A fairy tale? Definitely not.

John Schroetlin was 19 years old in 1964. He decided to beat the draft and join the Navy. After qualification and training, he became a member of the USS Catfish SS-339.

The USS Catfish was the last diesel-powered submarine in the US Navy. It could travel 11,000 nautical miles (12,661 miles) at 14 knots (16 mph) surfaced and 18.5 knots (21 mph) submerged. The Catfish could go 90 minutes at full speed, and 102 hours at three knots submerged. The propulsion was three GM diesel engines that powered two electric direct-drive motors at 2700 horsepower each. The crew was comprised of 10 officers and 70 enlisted men housed in a space 307 feet long by 27 feet wide. The submarine had two bathrooms to accommodate those 80 men.

“The officers’ bathroom was just off the torpedo room, so every once in awhile, we’d sneak in there,” John remembers.

It took 21 days to cross the Pacific Ocean, 6,468 miles from San Diego to YoKu SuKa, Japan. The chow was good! We would pack the bilges full of canned goods, fresh fruits and steaks to keep them cool.”

John slept in tight quarters, roughly 12 inches of top space and it was located in the forward torpedo room between steam-powered MK-14 and electric-powered MK-44 torpedoes. The MK-14 had 660 pounds of TNT and the MK-44 contained a nuclear warhead.

John Schroetlin is pictured above on the USS Catfish, the submarine on which he served during the Vietnam War. (Photo courtesy of John Schroetlin)

To earn Navy Dolphin distinction you must learn every position on the submarine. Most Navy recruits complete the training in 6-8 months, John earned his Dolphin pin in two months.

I have always been pretty mechanical,” he said. “I earned a commendation for completing the training in such a short period of time.”

To keep the sub running, it’s necessary for the crew to learn how to run the other positions. If one man goes down, there must be another to take his position so the others could survive.

John was an underwater weapons specialist. It was his job to build, maintain and fire torpedoes through a 21-inch pressurized tube. The Catfish stored 24 torpedoes and always kept six in the forward and four aft, ready to fire. The torpedoes were fueled and mechanisms checked. Detonators were inserted before the shot.

Being in a submarine isn’t for everybody, there were a few that went a little crazy, got claustrophobic,” Schroetlin recalled. “We had to stop a couple of times and let people off. They brought out helicopters to transfer them. It never really bothered me.

The entire sub is pressurized, so I never did get the bends or anything, but there is not a lot of room to walk around. I wasn’t really ever scared, it’s pretty important to be confident in your own abilities and the crew. We had a very good Captain.”

The USS Catfish participated in War Games off the coast of San Francisco. She earned an Efficiency Award and sank a boat. The award allowed the “E” status emblem to be displayed on the conning tower. Eighteen torpedoes that weighed 1,900 pounds each were fired that day. The torpedoes were loaded into the tubes by physically pushing them (two men sitting back-to-back).

“I got a hernia,” John said with a chuckle, “but we set a record for firing that many torpedoes in a one-day span.”

It was the Catfish’s job to provide reconnaissance, support and protect aircraft carriers and battleships during the Vietnam War.

“On a reconnaissance mission for the USS Pueblo in North Korea, our Captain figured out how to sneak into the bay when they dropped these huge steel nets to keep the submarines out — we’d sneak in there early and leave at night. A couple of divers surfaced from the Catfish to get a look at the Pueblo, to try and figure out what equipment was still on board and how the crew was doing.”

[The USS Pueblo was a spy ship for the Navy intelligence. North Korea attacked and captured the Pueblo with 83 crew members on January 23, 1968, a week before the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam. The Pueblo is still held by North Korea today, but remains a commissioned vessel of the United States Navy.]

John Schroetlin used this map to chart his route while on the USS Catfish. Also pictured is his Dolphin pin and medals he was awarded.

The Catfish was quiet, that’s why we were sent to North Korea,” John said. “They tortured those people. For 25 days we sneaked in and out of there. When they figured out we were there, they dropped depth charges to try and sink us. But we were able to evade them. That’s the closest we ever came to harm.

I knew what was going on in Vietnam, had a tremendous respect for the soldiers that had their boots on the ground,” he continued. “We were ready to help them out any way we could. Doing my job well meant a lot to me, I was helping them out.

When our tour of duty in WestPac was over, we headed home. Along the way we encountered many refugees in sorry-looking boats, we picked some up, they weren’t allowed below deck. They just wanted to get out of there.”

[The Vietnam War began November 1, 1955 and ended April 30, 1975. In April of 1969, the United States had 543,000 soldiers in all branches of the military involved. A total of 58,318 died and 303,644 were wounded.]

John Schroetlin made it home.

Note: John and Deb Schroetlin were a big help in editing this article. Many thanks.