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I'll get to USS Escolar in a moment, but first...Happy New Year! I hope everyone had a great holiday season, and that 2012 brings you health and happiness. I've always heard the older you get, the faster the years seem to fly by; that certainly seems to be true.
While this blog really is a mix of all things paranormal, the emphasis (as with my website) is to supply information to help you with your paranormal problems and issues. The Internet is vast and seemingly infinite, with endless possibilities. Yet, I believe most New England paranormal investigators and weekend ghost hunting groups have wasted opportunities and failed to supply anything but the same tired (yawn) information on their sites, information that has been repeated and recirculated throughout the Internet for years. Rarely will you find differing opinion, original thought or unique ways of approaching subjects in the paranormal realm. For that reason, and because of the swelling tide of nonsense out there, I decided to come forward. With all that being said, I've decided to deviate a bit off my usual path with this edition of The Booo! Blog and tell you a very personal ghost story, one that has contributed to my opinion of what this whole 'ghost thing' is all about: the story of the Escolar...
USS Escolar (SS-294)
USS Escolar (SS-294) was a Balao-class submarine built by the Cramp Shipbuilding Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and launched on April 18, 1943. She was transferred to the Boston Navy Yard after launch, then on to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (named for Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but the facility is actually across the Piscataqua River from Portsmouth in Kittery, Maine) prior to her commissioning on June 2, 1944, Commander W.J. Millican in command.
Escolar had final combat training at Pearl Harbor, and was put out on her first war patrol on September 18, 1944. After topping off fuel at Midway Island, she joined USS Croaker and USS Perch for a coordinated patrol of the Yellow Sea.
On September 30th, when Escolar was estimated to be about north of the Bonin Islands, a listening post received a partial message from her:
THIS FROM ESCOLAR X ATTACKED WITH DECK GUN BOAT SIMILAR TO EX-ITALIAN PETER GEORGE FIVE OTYI
Escolar was then forced to break off the transmission and the engagement with the gunboat.No further transmissions were received by bases from Escolar, but Croaker and Perch recorded intra-ship communications with her until October 17th, when Perch received a routine message from Escolar giving her position and course. She was never heard from again. Had Escolar ended her patrol on the scheduled date, she would have arrived at Midway on or around November 13, 1944. All attempts to contact Escolar failed, and she was reported on November 27, 1944 as presumed lost.
Information supplied by the Japanese on anti-submarine attacks gives no clue as to the cause of her loss, but the Yellow Sea area is thought to have been mined. Her course as transmitted to Perch does not cross any known Japanese mine fields, but positions of mines laid before April 1945 are not precisely known. However, the most likely explanation for her end remains that she detonated a mine. (Written with assistance of Wikipedia.com)
As Paul Harvey used to say, "And now, the rest of the story..."
The above account is taken from the official report issued by the United States Navy, and may very well be the telling of events as they actually occurred. However, rumors of a cover-up have circulated for decades among family members of those lost on the Escolar, as well as crew members of Croaker and Perch, some of which can be found on the Internet. Cramp Shipbuilding Company had little experience in building submarines, and closed its doors in 1947. Construction done at the yard was said to be shoddy at best, and some believed the Escolar unseaworthy, but she was pushed through the process because of need on the part of the Navy. There have also been reports that error or friendly fire on the part of Croaker or Perch caused the sinking of Escolar, but these are unconfirmed and will forever remain rumors. What was the actual fate of Escolar and her entire crew? It will likely never be known.
Joseph James Bender
Among the 82 crew members of Escolar was "Bender, J.J. PHM1", my uncle. His duties per designation (Pharmacist's Mate 1st Class Petty Officer) would have been to dispense medications, administer first aid and keep medical records, among others. While I never knew him (the disappearance of Escolar happened 14 years before I was born), my understanding is that he was relatively short in stature, small build with a sarcastic sense of humor. He was 22 and married at the time. The only photograph of him I had ever seen was his official Navy portrait that my mom kept displayed in the house when I was a kid.
Time on my hands from being temporarily unemployed, somewhat curious and knowing very little about the story, I decided to do some research in the 1980s at the local library. As there have been many submarines lost and Escolar had such a brief service history, little information was available back in the days before the public had access to the Internet. Most books, even those dedicated to the subject, had practically no mention of the sub; basically just an entry in lists of lost vessels. As my quest was halfhearted at best, I quickly moved on to other things, and what little I did learn was quickly forgotten. End of story, or at least that's what I thought...
Salem County, New Jersey: February 2000
It was a bitterly cold and crystal clear Tuesday afternoon in Southern New Jersey, the kind of cold that would make your tongue stick to a pole like in A Christmas Story. I was visiting my family home located very near Parvin State Park in rural Salem County, and decided to walk my dog. Walking down the street and on to a short wooded path, I entered the Thundergust Picnic Grove portion of the park, which I had visited probably hundreds of times over many years growing up at the house. The path ends at the red gravel parking lot of the picnic area, across from a large, open, grassy area with two softball fields. The nearest field has a small set of aluminum bleachers for watching the games. I looked around. As expected, no cars were parked in the lot and not a soul was there, with the quiet stillness that only frigid cold can bring. It was midweek and, familiar with the location, I would have been very surprised if someone had been there. It seems to get relatively little visitation even in the best of weather.
Being clumsy and always tripping or falling over something, I tend to look down when I walk. Upon again looking up and across the parking lot, I noticed someone sitting on the cold, metal bleachers that were approximately 30-35 yards away, staring out in the opposite direction over the field. Now, I know what you're probably thinking, and the Field of Dreams analogy has not been lost on me, although it didn't occur to me at the time. It was a man in dark blue Dickies-type work clothes much like a mechanic would wear, but wearing absolutely no coat or jacket of any kind. Almost as soon as I looked up, I saw him, still sitting, turn towards me and smile broadly. I remember thinking, "What idiot would be sitting there with no coat in this weather?" as he continued to stare intensely at me with a wide grin on his face. Not wanting to engage him, I turned in the opposite direction and started to walk my dog through the picnic area and around the pond in the grove, which was frozen solid from days of sub-zero temperatures. The complete circle takes about 20 minutes, finally ending where it started, in the Thundergust parking lot. As I again glanced towards the ball field, I saw the man still sitting, motionless, in the bleachers. He again turned and smiled, but this time stood up and started walking towards me at a 45 degree angle as I walked through the lot to get to the short trail to exit the area, the same way I had entered. For some reason I did not feel threatened, even though I knew he was walking to intersect my path. My dog was wagging his tail and pulling on the leash towards him as he approached, but I kept my course, pulled him back and headed towards the exit. During this time, I got a more detailed look at him. He was about 5'8", early 20s, average build with brown hair that struck me as cut in a style that would have been popular in the 1930s or 40s. Something about him made me feel that he just didn't belong there. I remember my overwhelming thought at the time was, "He looks like a young Matthew Broderick", as ridiculous as that sounds. He adjusted his course to my continuing pace, to the point to where he was walking only a few feet in back of me by the time I reached the exit trail. Pulling my dog along, I quickly turned to see him walking at arm's length behind, still silent, still grinning. I walked another step, again turned, but he was nowhere to be seen. Within a time frame of no more than two or three seconds, he had completely vanished! I visually scanned my immediate area, but was alone. The trail is only about 25 feet in length and sparsely wooded; there was absolutely no way for someone to hide or leave that quickly other than literally dissolving into thin air. It was at that time that I realized I had just witnessed something truly special...I had come face-to-face with a ghost.
While a bit stunned, I took it in stride. In the following days, I wondered who 'he' was and why neither of us spoke. To this day, I don't understand why I didn't say something; maybe I was a bit more wary of him than I thought and more interested in getting away from there than having a conversation. In any event, the thing that kept going through my mind was, "Why there?" Knowing the park's history, nothing in recent memory made sense. His manner of dress suggested his lifetime could be measured in decades from the present day, not centuries. I knew of no tragedy or deaths at the location. Quite the opposite; it was all rather uneventful and benign. While not forgetting the incident, I filed it away and moved on to everyday matters and responsibilities. It soon became only a curious memory.
Portsmouth, New Hampshire: July 2004
It was a slow day at the office, and almost time to leave. Sitting at my desk, I was doing some web surfing and stumbled upon a story about USS Thresher (SSN-593), that went down with all hands off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts in April 1963. That again got me thinking about Escolar, which hadn't entered my mind in several years. A click of a mouse and, much to my surprise and in stark contrast to what my library search uncovered two decades before, there was a wealth of information about Escolar, including several sites with photographs. You've got to love the Internet! Zooming in on one of the group shots, I got one of the biggest shocks of my life. Standing there was Joseph James Bender, my uncle and the man I had encountered in the park four years before. Suddenly, everything came full circle, although still unexplained. There was no doubt of his identity; this more casual photo looking much different than his posed and likely airbrushed official Navy portrait that I had seen as a kid.
I contacted my aunt, his only living sibling. Extremely curious, but not wanting to upset her, I asked for any information she had about him without telling her the events leading to my renewed interest. She was gracious enough to send everything she had, including photographs and a letter he wrote just before leaving on the journey that would end his life and those of 81 other men only a few months later. Mimeographed and heavily redacted as was procedure at the time for secrecy and matters of national security, the letter added color-a faint echo of a voice-to those smiling black and white faces about to sail away, completely unaware of what awaited them.
Some final thoughts...
No, I still don't know why he decided to visit on that icy-cold February day, and have come to terms with the fact that I'll probably never have the answer. I regret that I didn't say something-anything-to him, and am equally clueless as to why. Missed opportunities are common in the paranormal; the very nature and unexpected spontaneity almost guarantee it. We can beat ourselves up and ruminate over why we did or didn't do something, or we can simply be thankful for an encounter that few get an opportunity to experience. I'm through with the former, and am now comfortable with the latter.
This experience and others during the course of my investigations have shaped my opinion of what is really going on in some 'hauntings'. Yes, there are definitely haunted locations, but sometimes it's not the location that's haunted, it's the person(s) at the location. I don't think location had any relevance in my encounter, other than it being a moment when I was totally alone. In that sense, it was merely an opportunity.
As for the true fate of Escolar and her crew, we can only speculate. The only certainty is that her 82 men will forever remain On Eternal Patrol.
Joseph James Bender, PhM1
United States Navy
I would like to thank Mrs. Anne Harris and Mr. Ronald Norford. Without them, this blog would not have been possible.
Legal Disclaimer: All information, opinion and theories on this website and blog are published in good faith and for general information purposes only. I do not make any warranties about the completeness, reliability and accuracy of this information. Any action you take upon the information on my website and blog is strictly at your own risk, and I will not be liable for any losses and/or damages in connection with its use. All opinion and theories are strictly my own, and should not be construed as fact.