In early February 1945, a convoy that included the Japanese tanker Engen was hurrying back to Japan loaded with scarce war materials that Tokyo hoped would help turn World War II in its favor.

As the Japanese convoy steamed under a nighttime sky, an American submarine -- the USS Pampanito -- stalked it from beneath the Gulf of Siam's inky surface.

Among the Pampanito's roughly 70-member crew, a scrappy sailor from Ridgewood, Queens, held his breath in nervous anticipation.

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"It's hot, and everyone is in their underwear with a towel around their neck because they're sweating so much," the sailor, Clarence "Mike" Carmody, recalled of the chase. "The tension is really high."

At 9:57 p.m., a torpedo fired by the Pampanito struck the Engen in its stern, sinking it within minutes. Two days later, the Pampanito struck again, this time sending the cargo ship Eifuku to the bottom about 250 miles south of Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City.

Carmody, 90, a retired New York City fireman, lives in Lindenhurst. But as American forces struggled to turn the Pacific war against Japan in 1945, home for Carmody and about 80 other men was a submerged steel tube that stalked the Pacific's depths. It was one that each man hoped would not become an iron coffin.

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"It was like being inside a 50-gallon oil drum and someone is on the outside beating it with a sledgehammer," Carmody recalled of surviving a depth charge attack against the Pampanito, as undersea explosions hammered its hull, causing terrifying leaks.

"Every time that happens, you think you're going to die, that it's the end."

Indeed, submarine crews suffered the U.S. military's highest WWII death rate, according to naval historian Clay Blair, author of "Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan." Of the roughly 16,000 Americans who served aboard submarines, about one in five perished at sea.

But with the torpedo sinkings in early 1945, Carmody and his fellow crew members advanced a key American strategy toward defeating Japan.

Pentagon planners knew the resource-poor island nation was almost entirely dependent on cargo ships for the raw materials needed to keep its factories operating and its war machine running.

Since the beginning of the war, U.S. Navy leaders had leaned on a relatively tiny band of Navy sailors -- submariners -- to hunt the Pacific's waters for Japanese ships and choke off the island nation's imports.

U.S. submariners, who made up only 1.6 percent of the U.S. Navy, sank more than half of all Japanese ships lost during the war, according to the San Francisco Maritime Park Association, which maintains the Pampanito as a floating museum.

By 1945, Japan's imports of iron ore, bauxite, lumber, cement and food had dropped by more than 90 percent from the year before. Japan's aircraft factories were starved for imported aluminum ore to craft airplane wings.

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Its cities, savaged repeatedly by American warplanes, needed lumber to rebuild. Its thirst for petroleum, once slaked mostly by Texas crude, made Japan increasingly dependent on supplies plundered from the Dutch East Indies.

With every sinking, Japan was pushed further to its knees.

". . . the first torpedo hit and simultaneously the ship disintegrated with the bow going one way, the stern in the opposite direction and most of the ship going straight up," an eyewitness to the Pampanito's Feb. 8 attack on the Engen recalled in an account published by the San Francisco Maritime National Park Association. ". . . The whole area looked like a Fourth of July celebration and we felt slightly naked in all this gaslight."

More than three years earlier, it was Carmody's rage over Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor that had persuaded him to enlist in the Navy. He was a 17-year-old student at Grover Cleveland High School in Queens when President Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan because of it's "unprovoked and dastardly attack."

Now slowed by age and hard of hearing, Carmody, whose son followed him into the submarine service, says he has never regretted enlisting. He spent 22 years in the Navy, before retiring in 1963 with the rank of chief petty officer.

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"Our country was attacked," Carmody said. "Fighting back was the right thing to do."