USS Jallao SS-368
The moment Jerry Pilger learned he’d be serving on a submarine in World War II, he knew exactly where to go. Back home to Manitowoc.
It was here, only months earlier, that Pilger worked at Manitowoc Shipbuilding Co. as a shipfitter helper, assisting in the production of some of the 28 submarines launched in the Manitowoc River during the war years.
“With my background, being from Manitowoc and building these submarines, it was exciting to have the opportunity to come back and do that,” said Pilger, 83, who served on the USS Jallao. “I wouldn’t have wanted to serve on any submarine that wasn’t from Manitowoc.
“The submarines we built had a reputation for being the best in the sea. Everything we did in Manitowoc was precision. People took a hell of a lot of pride in their work here, and that’s why submariners would die to come here to be aboard one of our ships.”
Pilger, who still lives in Manitowoc and is active in keeping Manitowoc’s proud submarine-building history alive, is a rare breed – someone who both helped construct and serve on a Manitowoc-built submarine. Those vessels became an integral part of his life the moment he became an adult.
He graduated from Lincoln High School in 1942 on a Wednesday and five days later, at the age of 18, began working at Manitowoc Shipbuilding Co. At the peak of production, about 7,000 men and women worked round-the-clock, every day of the week, constructing submarines.
“Uncle Sam needed his boats,” Pilger said, “and I wanted to be one of the people to build them.”
Pilger worked as a shipfitter helper, with his starting pay at 39 cents per hour, “and for the people making a buck a day, that was pretty good money.”
He worked indoors during the daytime, where all the layout was done, saying, “It was hotter than hell in some places during the summer. There was a lot of sweat pouring off people. There were so many people doing so many things to get the job done, it was like ants crawling all over.
“There was just intense patriotism by everyone. Workers had great work ethic. Coming from a small town like this, people did whatever they could to help Uncle Sam win the war.”
Pilger joined the U.S. Navy in March 1943. After going through boot camp and quartermaster school in Illinois, Pilger found his way to New London, Conn.
There, he passed a bevy of physical and psychological tests required of submariners, and then requested to serve on a Manitowoc-built submarine.
“I almost jumped out of my pants when they told me I was heading home to pick up a submarine in Manitowoc,” Pilger said.
After a two-month training stint in Key West, Fla., he headed back to Connecticut and regrouped with the rest of his crew, and then boarded a train for Manitowoc.
The USS Jallao launched in the Manitowoc River on March 12, 1944, and not long thereafter Pilger and his crewmates found themselves aboard her, patrolling the Pacific Ocean.
The Jallao was credited with sinking a Japanese light cruiser on her first patrol, and a freighter on her last patrol.
“We all felt like we were doing our best to help our country and the world,” Pilger said. “I think the best part was knowing it was all being done on a submarine built here in Manitowoc. I took a lot of pride in that the whole time I was on the Jallao.”
Since none of the Manitowoc-built submarines exist today, Pilger said it’s important that people remember the history of the people here who helped build them.
“Shipbuilding is a big part of Manitowoc’s history, and the submarine builders were an important part of all of that,” Pilger said.
“Just look around. Our high school (Lincoln) is nicknamed the “Ships”, we’ve got streets named after our submarines (like Peto, Pompon, Kete, Rasher and Redfin).
What we did here means a lot, and we’d love it if everybody took part in celebrating that. There aren’t many of us left who build those submarines, so it’s important to us.”