Bullhead Park's significance tied to the atomic age

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Sep. 3—A park in southeast Albuquerque honors the last

U.S. navy ship lost in action

during World War II, whose destruction was overshadowed by the world's first nuclear attack.

Sometimes when one grows up in a place or lives there for a long time, the extraordinary becomes ordinary, and every day sights fade into the background.

USS Bullhead Memorial Park was one of those places for me. The park today contains two playgrounds, seven soccer fields, four lit softball fields, grills and picnic tables.

Its name is catchy, but as someone born long after the end of World War II, USS Bullhead had little significance to me and growing up I never questioned what exactly a bullhead was and why it was the name of a park.

But it is significant and its name is a memorial to the dozens of men who died while serving their country, even though its loss is often eclipsed by the big story of that day.

Last month marked 78 years since the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. It's also the day Japanese bombers sank the USS Bullhead submarine, killing 84 officers and crewmen on board.

The Metropolitan Parks and Recreation Advisory Board voted in April of 1974 to name 44 acres of "park land east of Veterans Hospital" the USS Bullhead Memorial Park. Harry Kinney was in his first year as mayor at the time, after serving as chairman of what was then called the City Commission.

That was followed months later in January 1975 by a U.S. Bureau of Outdoor Recreation grant for $168,000, matched locally to construct the park, according to a short newspaper story in the Albuquerque Journal. That Jan. 21, 1975, article also mentioned that the park was named for the Navy submarine sunk during the latter part of World War II.

The blurb appeared on page 19 and also happened to share a page with advertisements featuring the latest adult and mainstream films appearing on the city's movie screens. Among the screenings that day were the "Godfather Part 2" and "The Sting." The day USS Bullhead was struck, "I'll Be Seeing You" was playing at the Lobo Theater, and Gary Cooper and Loretta Young were gracing the screen in "Along Came Jones" at the KiMo Theatre.

However, the public was not immediately aware that the submarine was destroyed.

The ship was built at the Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, Connecticut, and launched for the first time on July 16, 1944. It was commissioned later that year on Dec. 4. It left Fremantle, Australia, on July 31, 1945, for operation in the Java Sea. The Navy sent out a call on Aug. 13, 1945, for all submarines to report in because the end of the war was imminent and that's when concerns about the submarine were raised.

On Aug. 24, the Associated Press reported an announcement from the Navy that the submarine was overdue from war patrol.

"Efforts to contact the Bullhead by radio began Aug. 13 and have been unsuccessful," the Navy said at the time. "It is assumed that the Bullhead has been lost due to enemy action."

It brought the number of submarines lost to 52, according to the article.

The submarine had escaped a close call just a few months before that, according to a June 26, 1945, report by journalist Martin Sheridan, a Boston Globe war correspondent who managed to secure a spot on the vessel. It was 2 a.m. on a Tuesday, and the USS Bullhead was on the surface charging its batteries when a twin-engine Japanese bomber came into sight. It had spotted the submarine's wake in the bright moonlight, according to Sheridan.

A lookout began ordering the men to clear the bridge and sounded the diving signal so they could escape the approaching aircraft.

"The first lookout down was in such a hurry that he struck his head against the overhang above the hatch and knocked himself out," Sheridan wrote. "It's uncomfortable to lie in your sack during a dive, if you sleep with your head toward the bow. As the boat noses down rapidly ... your head is lower than your feet and you have a sensation of falling. You wonder 'When in the devil are they going to level off?' "

The few moments of chaos on board a submarine were mostly followed by times of idleness, he said. The crew on the USS Bullhead broke-up the monotony by smoking. A lot. Sheridan claimed the submarine had great air conditioning, making the smoke tolerable. But he did muse about where smoking was allowed.

"What at first makes you break out in a cold sweat and feel weak in the knees is seeing a man light a cigarette and lean casually against a longer torpedo complete with warhead," Sheridan wrote. "It's perfectly safe, however. So they tell me, anyway."

Sheridan traveled on the USS Bullhead for 38 days in the South China Sea, but was not on that fateful last patrol. He recalled his time on the submarine in an Aug. 5, 1987, Associated Press story, saying he boarded USS Bullhead accepting he might not make it back. He did make it back and lived until the age of 89, passing away in 2004.

It's not clear how the city chose this particular submarine for the name of the park, since no New Mexicans were on board, but Sheridan sheds some light on how the vessel got its name and tells us exactly what a bullhead is.

Its namesake, he said, is from the catfish family similar to the New England's horned pout.

"According to those who know its habits, the bullhead prefers warm and weedy waters, eats during the day and prowls along the bottom at the night, feeding on snails, crustaceans and bivalve mollusks," he said. "As for the Bullhead, it too prefers warm waters and prowls along the bottom."

Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email columnist Elaine Briseño at ebriseno@abqjournal.com as she continues the monthly journey in "What's in a Name?"