Norman H. Palter
U.S. Navy, Radar Officer, USS Icefish
Lieutenant (Senior Grade)
World War II (1942-1945)
Norman H. Palter was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. His father owned a shoe store while his mother stayed at home. He had two younger brothers who also served in the Navy. On December 7th, 1941, Palter was listening to the radio when he heard that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. He was attending college at this time and went down the next day, to the Navy headquarters in Manhattan, to join. There was a long line that stretched three blocks of people wanting to enlist. After hearing that Palter was a short time away from receiving a degree in electrical engineering, he was asked to complete his education and enlist after graduation. Palter was promised that the Navy would commission him as an ensign. Norman Palter graduated in June of 1942 and received his US Naval commission. That same month, he began his service in the Navy.
Upon entering the Navy, Palter attended Naval Officer Indoctrination School for two months. And then, instead of being sent to radar school, Palter was assigned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a degaussing officer. Degaussing is a means of reducing the magnetic field of a ship, so that it does not trigger a German magnetic mine. The sea mines had been floating explosive balls that lay anchored below the water line. The contact mines were mechanisms anchored just below the surface in entrances to harbors. According to Palter, “these mines were not very effective because they could only contain small charge explosives and required contact with the ship.”
Palter explained, “the Germans had just created a torpedo shaped magnetic mine that could sit on the floor of the sea and contained hundreds of pounds of explosives. Its trigger mechanism was activated by an increase of the magnetic field.” He further explained, “All Merchant and Navy ships were made of steel, and the ships had large magnetic fields below them, so a ship could trigger the mines and sink the ship from as far as 200 feet away.” Despite the potential impact of these mines, a counter measure was discovered by British scientists. The counter measure was to wrap every ship with many turns of wire, and put an electric current in to create a magnetic field opposite in polarity to the magnetic field under the ship so that a ship could pass over a mine without triggering it.
Every harbor had a set of magnetometers at its entrance to ensure that the magnetic fields were correct. Each ship’s magnetic field was measured when a ship entered the harbor and exited. If it surpassed a certain value, civil service engineers would go on board, find out why it wasn’t operating properly, and to fix it. Every captain was given a chart that showed what amount of current to have in the coils depending on where the ship was located.
Palter’s first assignment in the Brooklyn Navy Yard was to be in charge of seeing that every ship in the New York Harbor had its degaussing working properly. He was 21 years old. Every morning, he received a topsecret list of where every ship was docked in piers in New York Harbor, and when they were due to leave. Palter had a crew of thirty civil service employees that he assigned to see that the degaussing was working properly. This position lasted about six months.
Palter’s next assignment came at his own request. According to Palter, he asked to take the place of a newlywed friend that received orders to go to the South Pacific shortly after his wedding. Two months later, however, Palter received orders not to the Pacific, but to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Guantanamo Bay was a stopping point for convoys of a hundred ships.
Palter explained, “Basically there are two different convoys. Initially, the convoy of ships from the East coast head to Guantanamo. They were convoyed by patrol craft and destroyers. The ships all anchored in the bay. Then the convoy divided into two groups. One would go to Gibraltar, and one would go to Panama Canal to go to the Pacific. Some convoys would come from Gibraltar and Panama and go to the East Coast from Guantanamo Bay.” The degaussing in Cuba was similar as that of New York Harbor. However, navy officers would examine the ships instead of civil service employees. Palter was one of the assigned officers and did this work for about eight months when he realized, he could spend the entire duration of the war on shore doing degaussing work, no matter where in the world. He thought that if he was going to be in the Navy that he should be on a ship. Palter sent a letter asking for sea duty to Navy Headquarters.
Despite his request, Palter’s Commanding Officer recommended that he stay in his current position for at least 18 months. Palter decided to find another way around this assignment. While on leave, he went to Washington D.C. to an office that he heard assigned officers to Navy ships. There, Palter found the office with a number of desks. Each desk in the office represented different naval ships starting with destroyers, cruisers, battleships, carriers, and finally, at the end, was a desk that said submarines. As Palter walked up and down the desks, he decided that submarines were it for him. Palter was told, it was a very rigorous procedure to be accepted into the Submarine Service. He asked the officer at the submarine desk how he could volunteer for submarine duty. He was told the minimum requirement was a year of sea duty, but because of the shortage of radar officers on submarines they waived the requirement for sea duty. Palter asked how he could be assigned to radar school.
He was told that next office were officers who assigned officers to various Navy schools. He went next door and found the radar school desk. Palter told the officer behind the desk about his background: that he graduated as an electrical engineer. Palter was promised that when he got back to Guantanamo he would receive a set of orders sending him to radar school. The first radar school was three months of learning the theory of radar to be completed at Bowdoin College in Maine. Next was four months of learning specifics about radars: how to operate, maintain, and troubleshoot at MIT in Boston. In the winter of 1943, he took a train from New York to Brunswick, Maine for Bowdoin College. There, he saw the most beautiful girl he had ever seen and married her six months later in Boston in June, 1944. They were married for sixty years before she died in 2004. During radar school, fifteen of Palter’s classmates volunteered for submarine duty along with him. They were subject to not only physical navy tests, but psychological tests, as well. Only ten of the fifteen volunteers passed the test. Then, they were brought before the review board of ten officers. At the end of the interview, five of the ten were selected to go to Submarine School. Out of the five of the radar class, only three graduated, and one was sunk.
Upon completion of submarine school, Palter was given orders to go to Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to a submarine squadron with another officer who’d also been assigned to Bowdoin and MIT. They had to wait to hear which of them would get to be the radar officer on a submarine. They waited for a while, but nothing happened. Palter and the other officer would talk to every submarine captain that came in from patrol to see if the captain needed a radar officer. They did this for about 10 days. Fortunately for Palter, the other officer received the first assignment. Later, Palter would learn that his fellow officer had been sunk on his second patrol.
When Palter completed radar school he had two months to wait until his submarine school started. While waiting he was assigned to a submarine in New London, Connecticut. The submarine was used to train students of the submarine school.
When the school started, the captain of the training submarine received orders to take command of a submarine in the Pacific. When he left he told Palter to look him up when he finished submarine school. He would be glad to take him on as radar officer.
While Palter was waiting to be assigned to a submarine, he met the captain at the submarine officer’s club in Pearl Harbor. The captain told him that he had just taken on a radar officer otherwise he would have been glad to have taken Palter on. He was sunk in his next patrol.
Palter’s first assignment was aboard the submarine, Icefish. The submarine was to patrol along the coast of Formosa. According to Palter, “our patrol lasted for two months, was relieved by the submarine Snook, and then went on to Guam for two weeks of rest and recuperation before they started the next patrol.”
Luck continued to be on Palter’s side. The submarine that relieved the Icefish was sunk 3 weeks later. His second patrol was off the coast of Hainan Island, south of China. While they were there, the submarine was sent to rescue six Air Force fliers that had been shot down south of Formosa. One died after they picked them up. Two others were seriously injured and were taken to Subic Bay in the Phillippines.
Palter’s submarine was then sent to the Gulf of Siam. He later found out that they were replacing the lost submarine of his fellow officer that had beat him to the first assignment. From the Gulf of Siam they then patrolled into the Java Sea. At the end of the patrol they proceeded to Freemantle, Australia for rest and recuperation. They were assigned to a hotel in Perth where officers from four other submarines were staying.
The captain of the Icefish was a very nasty martinet and everyone hated him. The officers of a submarine, the Bullhead, who were also staying at the hotel, told Palter that their captain was great and that they needed a radar officer. They recommended that Palter see the captain of the Bullhead to see if he would take him on.
The captain of the Bullhead told Palter that he would be glad to take him on but he had to get permission from the Icefish’s captain.
The Icefish’s captain told Palter that he would not agree to a transfer. The Icefish and the Bullhead left Freemantle the same day with orders to patrol in the Java Sea. After about a week the Icefish received orders to patrol off Hong Kong.
The Bullhead was sunk on August 6, 1945, the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, just a few days before the war officially ended.
Interview by Deanna Smith and Dana Leavitt on July 15, 2011.