Partner With Us!
Writer: Bob Rhein
"Buck" Catlin has experienced more history than most. Besides serving as a Fullerton Planning Commissioner, City Councilman and Mayor, Catlin is credited with sinking the last five submarines in the Japanese Imperial Navy. He was also on the scene when legendary Fullerton College Football Coach Hal Sherbeck "kicked the bucket" following a shocking loss in 1973.
At the age of 93, Catlin may be slow in the step, but his mind still races with stories and anecdotes that seem too amazing to be true – except for the fact that he has chronicled his life in dozens of meticulously labeled three-ring binders in his office. "My father was a professional photographer," Catlin said. "He taught me how to take pictures."
Born on July 23, 1918 in New Britain, Connecticut, Buck and his family moved to Miami, where Buck became an Eagle Scout and graduated from Miami Senior High School with Honors in 1936. Catlin longed for adventure and applied to the U.S. Naval Academy. Unable to secure an appointment, he joined the Navy and served for a year on the battleship USS Nevada (BB-36) in Long Beach. Not deterred in his quest for a commission, Catlin was able to land one of the 100 Fleet appointments to Annapolis in 1938.
The attack at Pearl Harbor necessitated that his class graduate early. Young Ensign Catlin had been assigned to the USS Oklahoma (BB-37) that capsized during the attack -- a total loss. Catlin was transferred to Electronics School at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and volunteered for submarine duty upon graduation. He spent WWII and a total of 19 years in the Submarine Force on 11 subs, in command of three of them. However, it was after the end of the war that put Lieutenant Commander Catlin into the history books as Commander Ex-Japanese Submarine Division 101.
"I was sent to Sasebo, Japan to inspect the remains of the Japanese submarine fleet," Catlin said. "We blew up all the inoperative subs. But, there were five high-speed subs that were of interest." He said that three of the roughly 400-foot, Sen Toku class Japanese submarines could carry at least two fighter-bombers each. Even submerged, they could sail one-and-a-half times around the planet without refueling. The two other subs were among the fastest attack submarines in the water at the time.
Catlin knew full well that the Russians wanted to get their hands on this new underwater technology. "They were on their way, so we had to sneak the boats out." A good plan, but Catlin and his team couldn't read Japanese. "We enlisted the aid of Skipper Tenoru Mochuzuki who had commanded one of the subs. He spoke English and was able to teach us Japanese nomenclature so we could read the instruments and sail the subs back to Pearl Harbor."
Once at Pearl Harbor, American engineers pored over the Japanese technology and adopted the fighter-bomber hangar and launch idea into a Cold War submarine platform based on the same concept, which launched cruise missiles instead of airplanes. Navel Intelligence knew that the Russians were still after the sub. Catlin's orders were to scuttle them off the coast of Oahu. Catlin complied, but there was one final use for the subs.
"We had problems with our submarine torpedoes during the war. Some worked, but many others were defective," Catlin recalled. "They would hit an enemy ship, and just bounce off. These five captured Japanese subs gave the Navy the opportunity to test out our torpedoes."
For the next several weeks Catlin would position one of the subs five miles off the coast from Pearl Harbor. "I was the last man off of the last of the Japanese Imperial Navy submarines," he said. "I kept thinking that we needed proof of these submarines existence and history. Before I left, I unscrewed each sub's nameplate off of the periscope and took it with me."
He had the five nameplates mounted on a wooden plaque that can be found today mounted at the Submarine Base in New London, Connecticut. "I can say that I was responsible for sinking more Japanese subs than anyone else," he says with a smile.
Another momentous occasion for Catlin happened in Pearl Harbor. He met his wife Bobbie Jerome, a teacher at Punahou School. They were married in 1947.
Catlin retired in 1961, and worked with Hughes Aircraft Undersea Department to lend his expertise in developing anti-submarine warfare tactical equipment. He was also hired to start the Automated Building Construction plant in Dairy Valley (now Cerritos), California. For two years, Catlin managed the roof truss plant and learned about the burgeoning building industry – knowledge that would come in handy as a future municipal Planning Commissioner and elected City Councilman.
In 1964, a position as an electronics instructor with the Fullerton College Tech Ed department opened up. Walter Pray, a North Orange County Community College District (NOCCCD) Administrator, and a friend of Catlin, suggested that Buck take the job. At the time, the College President was H. Lynn Sheller, Ph.D., who later went on to become the District Superintendent and founder of the Fullerton College Foundation. According to Catlin, Sheller would not rely on a candidate's resume but wanted to talk to every potential employee personally.
"I had a Masters Degree in electronics from the Navy and was really interested in the job," Catlin recalled. "But for some reason, Dr. Sheller didn't like military people." "I wasn't certain I would get the job, until I mentioned my 'secret weapon' my wife Bobbie."
The former Bobbie Jerome attended Fullerton College in the late 1930s when Sheller was a Shakespearean English instructor. Jerome played the Wurlitzer organ in Plummer Auditorium for various school functions (even accompanying FC alum and Broadway star John Raitt). "Dr. Sheller said that he didn't need to ask me any more questions. Having Bobbie as my wife was a good enough endorsement as far as he was concerned," Catlin said. "I like to say that it was Bobbie who got me the job."
Catlin is a football fan. "I was the timekeeper for the team up in the press box for as long as I was there. Hal Sherbeck and I became friends and I would go down into the locker room between halves." At the time, Fullerton Junior College was on a historic streak of 43 undefeated games. "We were playing San Diego City College when my future son-in-law, Dick Clyde, an All-American quarterback for Fullerton, threw a decisive interception. It was a tight game and we lost momentum and eventually lost the game," he said. "At half time, the locker room was like a tomb. Coach Sherbeck walked into the room. There was a bucket of water on the floor and he kicked it. Hal was a winner. He didn't criticize Dick or the rest of the team. He just kicked the bucket!"
Catlin's leadership experience at Fullerton College found him elected to the Fullerton Junior College Academic Senate of which he served two terms as President and two years on the President's Advisory Council.
As Mayor of Fullerton, 1959-1962, Catlin made sure that there was enough City funding to refurbish Plummer Auditorium. As a member of the Fullerton Planning Commission, he placed the College in nomination for the National Registry. The commemorative plaque can be found today on campus by the flagpole near Chapman Avenue.
Catlin looks back at his 21 years as an instructor of Technical Electronics, teaching subjects in electronics, computer technology, television repair and electrical circuitry. "My students found employment in many of the electronics-manufacturing firms in Orange County, many continued their college education by transferring to Cal State Fullerton," he said.
Bobbie and Buck Catlin have three children James David who is a Fullerton Police Officer; Jo Dee Catlin, Captain, US Navy (retired), now CEO, Girl Scouts of America, San Diego/Imperial County Councils; and Janny Catlin Meyer, a retired Fullerton Elementary School District Teacher, and now a FESD Board Member.
“I wasn't certain I would get the job, until I mentioned my 'secret weapon' my wife Bobbie.”