CUA Hall of Famer Fought Aboard Submarine During World War II

CUA Hall of Famer Fought Aboard Submarine During World War II

by Chris McManes

Stan Levy was the top player on Catholic University’s tennis team during its most successful era. His play in singles and doubles helped the Cardinals win nearly every conference match across a four-year period and capture two league championships. And he did it all after fighting in World War II. 

“Thanks to tennis, thanks to the Navy and thanks to Catholic University,” Levy said, “I’ve had a great life. I lived the American dream.”

Levy (pronounced leh-vee) played No. 1 singles as a freshman in 1947 under new Coach Bill Dorasavage and helped the Cardinals win their final four matches. He also ran four years of cross country under fellow CUA Hall of Fame member Dorsey Griffith.

“I didn’t run cross country for the sport itself,” Levy said in January 2013. “I ran for conditioning for tennis.”

Levy and his tennis teammates went undefeated in league play in 1948 to win the Mason-Dixon Conference championship. The squad was bolstered by the addition of Bill Gifford, who the previous year was ranked fifth in the Middle Atlantic Tennis Association. Levy was team captain.

In the 1949 season opener, a 7-2 victory over Johns Hopkins, Levy won his match, 6-4, 6-1. He later teamed with Jim Keating to win at doubles, 7-5, 6-3. CUA finished 11-1 with its only loss to Loyola (Md.). The 14-1 Greyhounds won the Mason-Dixon Conference title based on having a higher winning percentage (.933 to .917).

The 1948-49 Cardinals won 17 straight conference matches, including the first 12 of 1949.

Levy, Keating and Dick Pincus each won their first six singles matches in 1950. Playing No. 1 against Georgetown, Levy helped propel the Cards to a 6-1 victory.

CUA’s student newspaper, The Tower, summed up the win: “The boys from across town were taken to task as the C.U. netmen won five out of six of the singles matches and the only doubles match.”

The Cardinals capped an 18-match league winning streak en route to the 1950 Mason-Dixon Conference championship. They defeated Loyola 7-2 in a playoff match to take the crown. Art Hennessy, a Tower sportswriter, gave the club his “team of the year” award in the May 12, 1950 edition:

“Playing most of its matches out on the tennis courts behind the stadium before small crowds, usually no more than 100 people, its accomplishments have been great although they are little known by most of the student body.”

Hennessy, in the same column, said Lynchburg’s coach considered Levy the league’s “second best singles man.”

On the court, from 1948-50, the Cards were 35-1 in conference play. In the classroom, Levy completed his studies with a degree in architectural engineering.

“Those were great years,” he said. “I just loved my time at Catholic U.”

Levy said he never experienced any prejudice being Jewish at Catholic University. He recalled how non-Catholic students were required to take a class called “Life’s Problems.” The renowned Bishop Fulton Sheen – then a monsignor – made a guest appearance one time. During the first class, Levy found out that more than 25 faiths were represented among the approximately 32 students.

“It was a great class, once a week, and it really had a profound effect on me,” he said. “What it showed – just look around – all of nature. Everything you see just couldn’t have happened by happenstance. Everything had to be organized, planned.”

When Levy was inducted into the CUA Hall of Fame along with four others on Jan. 16, 2010, Coach Dorasavage attended the ceremony. Dorasavage, also a World War II veteran, was 89 and died seven months later.

“I was honored to have him there,” Levy said. “He was a masterful coach.”

Answering the Call to Serve

Stanley Stephen Levy was born on July 31, 1924 and grew up during the Great Depression. His family, like many others, “didn’t have two nickels to rub together.” Using a Jack Kramer wood racket, he won the Montgomery County (Md.) junior championship at 16. He graduated from Washington’s Central High School in 1941, where he played No. 1 singles.

Levy wanted to become a U.S. Navy pilot, but because he was only 17, he needed both of his parents’ consent. His father agreed; his mother did not. So he went to Wilson Teacher’s College in the District for a year and played on the basketball team. He said the tuition was free if you took a course in education. In 1943, at 18, he joined the Navy. The United States had been thrust into the war by Japan’s surprise attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor, Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941.

Levy continued playing tennis while in the military and was judged worthy to attend the Naval Academy Prep School at the U.S. Naval Training Center in Bainbridge, Md. The grounds also included the Navy’s Physical Instructors School, which Levy described as having some of the finest professional athletes in various sports. One was Bobby Riggs, who had won six singles and doubles championships at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the late 1930s, early ’40s. Levy played with Riggs.

“That was great training for me,” said Levy shortly after turning 90 in 2014.

After receiving a fleet appointment on recommendation from his commanding officer to attend the U.S. Naval Academy in early 1943, Levy answered an “emergency call” for volunteers to serve on submarines. A few weeks later he was in submarine school in New London, Conn. He was eventually assigned to the USS Skate in late 1943. The sub used Pearl Harbor to launch its patrol runs.

“Moments of excitement, elation, boredom, fright and outright terror occurred during submarine war patrols,” according to U.S. Submarines in World War II by William P. Gruner, one of the Skate’s commanders during World War II.

Life as a Submariner

Levy worked aboard the sub as a battle station helmsman, steering the ship according to the duty officer’s orders. Because the captain manned the periscope, “I was always no more than 10 feet from him,” Levy said. “I knew everything that was going on, including being 10 feet from what they called the TDC – torpedo data computer – so I knew every bit of what was happening.”

His vantage point had its perks.

“It was an interesting job because the men down below – the torpedo men, the motor machinists, the electricians – they don’t really know what’s going on,” he said. “They’re just getting orders. And when I’d come down, they’d all converge on me to give them the straight scoop.

“We were a very, very close-knit group.”

One of Levy’s occasional duties was to go in the water after an enemy vessel had been sunk to see if any intelligence could be gathered.

“My claim to fame aboard the boat was I was the best swimmer,” he said. “After we sunk a ship, I went overboard and picked up papers or books or anything floating and brought it back to the boat for intelligence.”

Levy, a seaman first class, was one of 78 men aboard the Skate (68 enlisted men, 10 officers). Only three are still alive.

The common perception of life aboard a submarine is that it’s cramped, there’s little privacy and being underwater for so long is stressful.

“It sounds that way, doesn’t it?,” Levy said. “But actually, looking back, it was livable. First of all, it’s not crowded, as people think. You’ve got three shifts, so there’s always one-third of the crew asleep, one-third working and one-third not on duty. So it’s not crowded. That was our reputation, though – submarines were crowded, claustrophobic. Not at all.”

That’s not to say everything aboard the ship was pleasant.

“We didn’t have air conditioning; we had circulating air,” Levy said. “We were down [in the water] at least 23 hours a day, and we had to come up for one hour to get the batteries recharged with diesels. So now, when you’re down there for 23 hours, all that air is circulating. You’ve got your cooking odors, you’ve got the diesel oil, your body odors, cigarette smoking, which everybody smoked then – I didn’t but everybody smoked – and other odors.

“But when you’re 19 or 20; we were all young – our skipper was only 31 – there’s a lot of things you do under wartime conditions you wouldn’t normally do.”

Dangerous Duty

The Skate, in June 1945, was one of nine U.S. submarines to go into the Sea of Japan. Their mission was to cut off Japan’s vital supply lines to and from China and Korea, and to demoralize the Japanese people. It was the Skate’s seventh war patrol.

To reach the sea, the subs had to travel through Tsushima Straits, the narrow waterway between South Korea and the Japanese island of Kyushu. 

Each of the subs had been equipped with mine-detecting FM sonar equipment, but that was no guarantee they could traverse the waters safely. The Sea of Japan had been so heavily mined that no enemy vessel had attempted to enter it since 1942.

“They had four rows of concrete and mines on cables at different depths,” Levy said. “You’re going in submerged, very, very slowly, and we scraped the cable from one end to the other. You’re concerned about the mine going off, but when that doesn’t happen, then you’re concerned about the cable getting into the screws of your ship, which could incapacitate it.”

On June 10, 1945, the Skate fired torpedoes from 800 yards and sunk the huge Japanese sub, I-122.

“One sweep of the periscope, battle station submerged, and we fired four torpedoes at that submarine,” Levy said. “The first two torpedoes sunk it. The other two just kept going. The sub just totally disintegrated. A submarine is nothing but a pressure hull full of battery wells and diesel fuel; it was just a bomb. So we sunk it.”

Levy and his crewmembers received the Navy Unit Commendation for “heroism in action against enemy Japanese shipping and combatant forces during first, second, third and seventh war patrols.”

The Skate, on that seventh war patrol, sank five ships, and Levy was among 28 crewmembers to receive a Meritorious Mast commendation. His commanding officer characterized the patrol as “the most daring in the history of United States submarines.”

After the war, all of the men aboard the nine submarines that ran the gauntlet of mines were inducted into the order of “Mighty Mine Dodgers.” They were honored among “a small band of brave men of high courage who have completed with skill, ingenuity and tenacity a task that required transit of the most dangerous of war waters through enemy minefields and penetrating what the Emperor of Japan considered his inviolable waters … the Sea of Japan.”

One of the Skate’s patrol partners, the USS Bonefish, did not make it out with the other eight subs. After sinking a Japanese cargo ship on June 18, the Bonefish was counterattacked by the escort destroyer Okinawa and four other vessels with a series of depth charges. It was destroyed.

Levy explained that the Skate was able dive about 200 feet deeper than the Bonefish.

“The Japanese, hopefully, didn’t know this when they dropped their depth charges,” Levy said. “We were able to escape, and the Bonefish didn’t.”

Levy knew many of the men on board, all 85 of who perished.

“It could have been both our ships, or it could have our ship,” he said. “The Bonefish was operating right with us, within sight of us. I can remember our skipper talking to himself like he was talking to their commander, Larry Edge, while he was at the periscope [after the attack].

“I remember him saying, ‘Larry, I hope you’re OK.’”

Final War Patrol

The Skate’s eighth and final patrol run was to take it back to the Sea of Japan when it was ordered to turn around and return to Pearl Harbor. The order came after the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima (Aug. 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (Aug. 9). Japan formally surrendered on Sept. 2 aboard the USS Missouri, which is today docked in Pearl Harbor within view of the attack area that drew the United States into the war.

“As far as I’m concerned – I say this very sincerely – the reason I’m here is because President Truman dropped the atom bombs,” Levy said. “And millions of Americans came back, and millions of Japanese were saved because they would have fought till the bitter end. They were relentless.

“When they dropped the atom bombs, the war ended abruptly. We made a U-turn and we were back in San Diego in several weeks. We were one of the first boats back.”

From the time it entered World War II on September 25, 1943, the Skate sank 12 Japanese vessels, including eight merchant ships. Gruner, the former Skate commander, said sinking merchant ships was important because it prevented Japan from supplying its “far-flung empire with arms, fuel, food and troops.”

The Skate – named for the fish – also counted a light cruiser and destroyer among its casualties. In addition, it damaged another light cruiser, a large aircraft carrier and the 63,000-ton Yamato battleship.

“It was an honor and a privilege to be on that submarine,” Levy said.

 

A Grateful Man

 

The United States, France, Great Britain, Russia and its Allies were essentially fighting two wars, one in Europe and one in the Pacific. The Axis powers, principally Germany, Italy and Japan, were powerful enemies.

“They were huge wars, and they were wars to the death,” Levy said. “We won, thank goodness, but it wasn’t a pushover. If they had won, that might have been the end of us.”

Marty Dowd, who in 2014 celebrated his 52nd year as head coach of the CUA men’s tennis team with an NCAA Tournament appearance and induction into the school’s Hall of Fame, nominated Levy for the hall. He respects Levy more for his military service than his forehand.

“All of the guys who fought in World War II are heroes,” Dowd said. “The guys who volunteered for the kind of duty Stan did are superheroes.”

“I’m proud of my service,” Levy said.

Levy, like many of his fellow veterans, attended college after experiencing the horrors of war. He estimates that about 85 percent of the students studying engineering and architecture at CUA from 1946 to 1950 were World War II veterans.

“The greatest thing this country ever did for us was give us the G.I. Bill, which put so many veterans through college,” he said. “That’s why they call us the greatest generation when it comes to developing doctors, lawyers, engineers and others.”

Levy appreciates the post-war opportunities the United States and Catholic University gave him.

“The most amazing miracle is, as I look back, where we could spend three or four years in the most brutal war imaginable and then suddenly be rehabilitated as civilians,” he said. “A lot of the credit goes to Catholic University and of course our country for giving us the G.I. Bill.”

Levy wants people to know that the men he attended school with at CUA were extraordinary human beings.

“Any man in the infantry who marched through that mud from North Africa or Germany did as much or more than I did,” Levy said. “How about those Marines on those Pacific islands – Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Okinawa? I mean, good God. And how about those guys who flew all those missions, over Germany and Japan? And the sailors who were in the greatest sea battles of all time – Coral Sea and Midway.

“It was one hell of a war.”

Levy turned to God often while at sea.

“I prayed, I said, ‘Lord, please bring me back. If you bring me back, I’ll never worry about another thing in my life, I promise,’” he said. “Then I used to put a little P.S. on it; I’d say, ‘Lord, if we don’t come back, please make this patrol run worthwhile.’

“And I’ll tell you seriously, the Lord brought me back, and many, many times, whether it was in school or in my business career, when things got a little bit rough, I certainly remembered my promise. I mean, ‘Lord, thank you for bringing me back.’ Every day is a gift. That’s the way I look at it. When I wake up in the morning and when I go to bed at night, I thank the Lord.”

After graduating from college, Levy owned a successful construction and development company. He and his wife Shirley raised two children, Mark and Elizabeth. He’s grateful for the life he’s led.

“For three years in the Navy, this great country put me through four years at Catholic University, paid for 99 percent of it and gave me a great education,” he said. “It was just a great privilege and honor to fight for this country, and a great feeling every day to know that I contributed.” 

Chris McManes is a Catholic University sports historian.