The submarine’s ability to penetrate a hostile area independently, covertly and for long durations, provided a unique tactical advantage during World War II. Submarines operating undetected near the enemy’s coastline provided a complete picture of the undersea, surface, and near shore military conditions, including enemy force dispositions and preparations. The submarine, with its extremely capable communications ability, operating well inside the enemy’s defensive barriers, provided valuable tactical information to assist Army and Marine Corps field commanders in making timely, informed decisions. In that role, submarines paved the way for the effective employment of special covert forces and insulated those same forces from unnecessary risks during the initial phases of guerrilla warfare operations.1

by Daniel T. Rean

Between January 1942 and August 1945, dozens of American submarines participated in special operations ranging from destroying enemy mines to serving as lighthouse beacons to guide Allied ships through uncharted hostile waters. Oftentimes, those special operations were documented by single-line entries in ships’ logs, or mentioned in passing in the official reports of the supported units. Those special operations could not have been performed by any other naval assets, military organizations, or land-based forces at the time, yet their documentation is incomplete and relatively unknown outside military fraternities. The historiography of the special operations of World War II submarines is documented in countless publications scattered throughout museums, military archives, and libraries, but no single comprehensive record exists to adequately provide authoritative information on the numerous support missions in which members of America’s “Silent Service” participated on a routine basis.

In World War II, the submarine’s ability to circumvent traditional defenses was exploited to the fullest to deliver supplies to American-led guerrilla forces, to rescue pilots (both Allied and enemy) who had been shot down over the ocean, to land and extract coast watchers on remote Pacific islands, to evacuate escaped prisoners of war, to lay mines, and to conduct reconnaissance of potential invasion sites for future Allied actions. They were uniquely designed for the role of hunter in hit-and-run attacks in attrition warfare, and were least capable in missions that require prolonged exposure in a sustained defensive posture. The tactics that gave them their greatest fighting potential do not conform to the classical Mahanian2 naval strategy of defeating the enemy in a battle of annihilation. Although the U.S. Submarine Force made up but two percent of the United States Navy, it accounted for 55 percent of Japanese maritime losses. But, this service paid a high price: out of a total of 16,000 submariners, 375 officers, and 3,131 sailors died at sea, a 22 percent casualty rating, the highest percentage of all U.S. Armed Forces.3


Pacific Theater Commander, U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur
U.S. Navy photo
The Japanese commander of the carrier task force that wrought so much damage at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, missed a golden opportunity to knock out the U.S. Navy’s most effective warships by limiting his target selection to aircraft carriers and battleships... Fortunately for the United States, the Japanese failed to destroy the submarine base in Hawaii... It was the submarine force that carried the load until the great industrial activity of America produced the weapons needed to prosecute the war against the Japanese.

The east side of Pearl Harbor with the submarine base at center.
U.S. Navy photo

Vice Adm. Charles A. Lockwood aboard a U.S. submarine, May 1945.
U.S. Navy photo

Modern historians who study the great sea battles of World War II most often focus on the obvious aspects of modern naval warfare by examining the contributions made by aircraft carriers and carrier task forces at battles like Midway, Coral Sea, and the Marianas “Turkey Shoot.” To be sure, great sea battles severely crippled the enemy’s ability to wage war and provided an incalculable boost to Allied morale. But despite the Mahanian strategic importance of decisive sea battles fought between battleships, heavy cruisers, and their supporting units, the outcomes of these battles had little tactical value to the troops fighting on land. The continued erosion of a nation’s ability to support land-based troops through its merchant fleet showed how lethal commerce raiding could be when wedded to submarine technology.4 The Japanese commander of the carrier task force that wrought so much damage at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, missed a golden opportunity to knock out the U.S. Navy’s most effective warships by limiting his target selection to aircraft carriers and battleships. The ships that were sunk or severely damaged in the attack at Pearl Harbor could not have operated effectively in the far western Pacific theater for many months even under the best of circumstances, and their loss to the Navy proved only temporary when they were eventually refloated and repaired. The Japanese Naval High Command knew the strategic importance of devastating the dockyards, the above-ground fuel supplies and the airfields, but they underestimated the value of other ships, which were left untouched in the attack.5

Fortunately for the United States, the Japanese failed to destroy the submarine base in Hawaii, preserving the supplies, facilities, and fuel that were needed and leaving it the only service branch capable of bringing the war to the enemy through immediate offensive actions. It was the submarine force that carried the load until the great industrial activity of America produced the weapons needed to prosecute the war against Japan.6

The historiography of World War II submarine warfare is treated almost as a separate conflict that pitted the U.S. Submarine Pacific Fleet against the merchant shipping and naval forces of Japan — a sort of war within a war. American submarines in the Pacific, with but limited help of a few British and Dutch boats, played a major role in the defeat of Japan. They decimated that country’s merchant fleet, choked off essential supplies and prevented material support for the Japanese war effort. Most historiographies of submarine warfare have focused on the destruction of enemy shipping by describing every aspect in locating, stalking, determining a firing solution, attacking, and sinking a target. There is also an emphasis on trying to recreate the atmosphere that pervaded all submarine combat action – the talking in whispers and movement in stocking feet to reduce unnecessary noise that might be emitted through the hull, and the everyday life in cramped quarters that became even more suffocating when submariners faced the terror and uncertainty of survival while enemy depth charges relentlessly rattled their boat. What is lacking in the history of submarine combat actions during World War II is a summary of all the special operations that were conducted in between the “find ‘em, shoot ‘em, sink ‘em” aspects of submarine warfare. Although the commerce raiding conducted by submarines was their most obvious contribution to the war effort, the secondary role of the submarine as a “shadow warrior” used in covert operations was equally important, and had far greater influences on the peripheral elements of warfare that contributed to the defeat of the Japanese military.

Despite the historical significance and importance of the specialized warfare roles of the submarine forces during World War II, those missions were viewed by the sailors who carried them out as time taken away from their primary function of conducting unrestricted warfare against the enemy. Fleet-type submarines were designed for one mission—to sink ships— and there was little patience for anything else.7 Doctrine and tactics combined to limit the effectiveness of American submarine attacks in the early days of World War II.

Following the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor, the Chief of Naval Operations issued the first U.S. fighting directive with the one-line message, “EXECUTE UNRESTRICTED AIR AND SUBMARINE WARFARE AGAINST JAPAN.”8 Neither by training nor by indoctrination was the U.S. Submarine Force ready to carry out the order to fight an unrestricted war against Japan. Submariners were trained to fight a different kind of war – one that stressed action against enemy warships in between routine scouting missions. Submarine commanders were imbued with the idea that they were to observe ethical tactics based on the rules for sea conflict. Those rules were established by international treaty and imposed many legal limitations on submarines. Chief among the restrictions impressed on the memory of every submarine skipper was the provision that any naval vessel found guilty of any violation of the rules in the treaty could be hunted down and captured or sunk as pirates.9


USS Tambor (SS-198)
U.S. Navy photo

Early in the war, submarine organizational and tactical problems were further exacerbated by the fact that all naval operations fell under the authority of the theater commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who believed submarines were best used in support of guerrilla operations as they had proved during their support missions to Corregidor. Since there were only a handful of poorly led and organized guerrilla operations in the Philippines at that time, submarines spent weeks in port waiting for orders from MacArthur rather than operating in enemy waters and destroying Japanese merchant traffic.

In April 1942, Vice Adm. Charles Lockwood was placed in charge of the Asiatic submarine force and immediately began overhauling the command structure. Lockwood reorganized his submarines into squadrons and put them under his direct command. He determined that poor logistical command decisions in combination with submarine commanders who were too cautious and failed to close with the enemy at a range that would increase the chances for a successful sinking were major problems that needed to be overcome. They also displayed little initiative or killer instinct and insisted on the reliance of by-the-book firing solutions, and when they did attack an enemy ship the torpedoes in use at the time ran ten feet below their selected settings and were plagued with faulty magnetic and contact exploders. As a result, one-third of the submarine skippers were relieved of their commands in the first year of the war.10

Of all the changes this new admiral made to improve the combat effectiveness of America’s submarines, perhaps the most significant change was putting into place a fixed submarine operational schedule with the specific task of supporting special operations.11 The principles for special operations were simple: A submarine operating in enemy territory could not be seen, but must still accomplish its mission. If a submarine was going to make contact with the enemy, it had to attack on its own favorable terms. And after the attack, the submarine had to disappear, continuing the illusion that an unknown force had engaged the enemy.12

The first mission executed by Pacific Fleet submarines involved carrying supplies to the defenders of Corregidor. Transportation of intelligence agents to and from enemy-held territory soon followed, but what proved to be the most valuable of those early special operations was the submarine’s ability to relay information of enemy ship movements by coast watchers. As part of their everyday duties, and when not under orders to maintain radio silence, submarines reported the weather, tides, available navigation aids, and enemy force structure in their operating area. Special Operations missions were never undertaken without a large degree of risk, but the dangers of those first missions into the unknown were magnified by lack of experience and precedent.
USS Growler (SS-215)
U.S. Navy photo

Following the invasion of Manila, USS Trout (SS-202) transported the entire Philippine treasury (2 tons of gold bars and 18 tons of silver) from Corregidor to Hawaii in order to prevent it from falling into Japanese hands.
U.S. Navy photo

The special missions were never easy as they usually demanded multiple penetrations of enemy territory — which were far more hazardous than normal war patrols. As the war raged on, submarines were called upon to undertake all kinds of special missions that were divided into several general types: reconnaissance, supply, evacuation or rescue, transportation of coast watchers and intelligence agents, lifeguarding, mining, weather reporting, support of commando raids, and serving as lighthouse beacons for surface ships.13 Any submarine assigned to special missions might perform more than one of those tasks.

The first missions executed by Pacific Fleet submarines involved carrying supplies to the defenders of Corregidor. Transportation of intelligence agents to and from enemy-held territory soon followed, but what proved to be the most valuable of those early special operations was the submarine’s ability to relay information of enemy ship movements by coast watchers. As part of their everyday duties, and when not under orders to maintain radio silence, submarines reported the weather, tides, available navigation aids, and enemy force structure in their operating areas. Special Operations missions were never undertaken without a large degree of risk, but the dangers of those first missions into the unknown were magnified by lack of experience and precedent.14

As the American situation on the island of Corregidor began to look hopeless, more and more high-ranking Filipino government officials had to be evacuated. The Japanese knew that the Americans were getting supplies to the island, and increased their own naval presence around the Philippines in an attempt to form a blockade. U.S. submarines were still able to slip through gaps in the Japanese defenses. In February 1942, USS Swordfish (SS-193) snuck into a harbor at Corregidor and brought out the president of the Philippine Commonwealth, Manuel Quezon, and several other members of his government. By the end of the month, the American battle for the Philippines and the Dutch battle for Java were virtually over and the Allies had lost.15 For all practical purposes, the U.S. Submarine Force was the only element of the Asiatic Fleet that remained to fight the Japanese, but the experience the submarine crews learned while performing special missions paid huge dividends in the guerrilla and resistance operations throughout the South Pacific.

In every radio broadcast he made from Australia to the Japanese-occupied Philippines, Gen. MacArthur had famously insisted, “I shall return,” a moraleboosting promise heard by many Filipinos on radio equipment brought to the islands on “guerrilla” submarines. When the tide of the war fully turned in favor of the Americans, and MacArthur was finally able to liberate the Philippines from the Japanese, it was the American Submarine Force that played the key role in making MacArthur’s promised return a reality.

Shortly after departing the Philippines in early 1942, Gen. MacArthur began looking for a means of harassing the Japanese in preparation for his promised return. Early attempts to contact and organize the bands of guerrillas operating throughout the Philippine Islands were complicated by the fact that the majority of guerrilla forces were little more than roving bandits with no allegiances to any central authority, and whose raids were uncoordinated and accomplished for personal gain. Within a few months of trying to organize the guerrilla effort, it was clear that providing the needed outside support would prove an extremely difficult task, and there was a woeful lack of leadership among the natives despite their apparent loyalties to America.16

The performance of America’s submarine force in providing military aid to the troops on Corregidor convinced MacArthur that those same submarines might be able to provide the supplies and equipment necessary to carry out a sustained guerrilla movement. However, two seemingly insurmountable problems had to be resolved before any covert operation began. Contact had to be made with the guerrillas in the Philippines in order to organize and coordinate their actions and MacArthur needed to find a reliable and well-respected leader who could rendezvous with the guerrilla leaders.

The answer to that problem came in the form of Charles “Chick” Parsons, who had escaped from the Japanese in the Philippines a few months earlier.17 He was also a Lt. Cmdr. in an intelligence unit of the U.S. Naval Reserve who had remained behind in the city to collect intelligence on the Japanese occupiers. Fluent in several of the over 70 native dialects, intimately familiar with the islands, and a good friend of MacArthur from their days together in Manila, Parsons was just the man the general was looking for to act as a liaison with the Filipino guerrillas.

In late February 1943, Parsons was transported to Labangan aboard the submarine USS Tambor (SS-198). His first mission was to deliver $10,000 in cash and two tons of ammunition to one of the guerrilla leaders in the region.18 Parsons also delivered radio equipment for use in setting up his spy network. Weapons, food, clothing, and communications that Parsons delivered on a regular basis were sorely needed by the Filipino guerrillas. This initial clandestine visit to the Philippines lasted until July 1943.


USS Gudgeon (SS-211) was a Tambor/Gar-class submarine.
U.S. Navy photo

As Allied war planners began to formulate a strategy for the Gilbert Islands campaign, the admiral in charge of air operations contacted Vice Adm. Lockwood and asked him if he could spare any of his submarines to serve lifeguarding duty. Lockwood set up a routine submarine schedule to support the air operations. Submarines were assigned specific stations in the area of air operations and were provided a unique call sign that linked them to that area. Pilots who had to ditch their planes in the ocean were instructed to send an un-coded radio message with the call sign that corresponded to their assigned area. That call sign alerted the submarine in the area that a pilot was in trouble and sent it on its way to make the recovery. In the event that the identification system was ever compromised, to prevent the Japanese from sending false rescue messages the call signs all featured the liberal use of words that started with the letter “L” — such as “Lonesome Luke,” “Little Lulu” and “Lollipop” — all linguistic phrases that tongue-tied the Japanese.19

The submarine USS Finback (SS-230) rescued future U.S. President George H. W. Bush. Lt. Bush was returning from an attack at Chichi Jima when his plane was shot down by Japanese fire over the Bonin Islands. He and his crew waited in a rubber raft for four hours until the submarine surfaced nearby and rescued them. All totaled, 86 American submarines participated in lifeguard missions and rescued 504 Allied airmen.20 Although it took them away from their primary mission of sinking Japanese ships, lifeguard duty was the one special operation submariners truly enjoyed. It gave them an immediate sense of accomplishment, allowed them plenty of time for routine training and evolutions, and crews were free to pursue any target of opportunity while on station.

By the summer of 1945, the Submarine Force had run out of targets, and the boats could go almost anywhere they wished to accomplish special missions. In the closing months of the war, submarines equipped with rocket launchers bombarded military and industrial targets in northern Japan.21 Photographs of enemy positions taken from the periscopes of submarines were unheard of at the start of the war. However, by war’s end, that type of information became so valuable that Allied war planners were unwilling to devise definitive operational plans without it.22 The overall effects of submarine warfare were so obvious that some American planners believed that the economic collapse of Japan made an invasion of the home islands unnecessary.23

As the war continued and the submarine’s versatility was more widely recognized by all branches of the service, the undersea warriors were called upon to undertake all manner of special missions. The joint operations culminated in a mutual respect between the men in the field and the men on the boats, as well as an increased likelihood of success in every special mission. Because special missions seldom afforded an opportunity to sink enemy shipping, many of those missions were disliked by the men who accomplished them. Although difficult to measure in terms of cold facts or statistical parameters, their value in promoting the ultimate defeat of the enemy was immense.24

The 20 submarines that supported the guerrilla operations in the Philippines as part of “MacArthur’s Navy,” successfully completed 41 missions in which 472 persons were evacuated, 331 persons were delivered, and 1,325 tons of supplies were unloaded.25 All of the special missions were accomplished in the enemy’s backyard at great risk to the safety of the submarine and her crew. Given the strategic circumstances of some of the tasks, the variety of operations that were performed and the hazards involved, it is more appropriate to designate those operations as “extraordinary missions.” Most people will never know what the submarine force accomplished in World War II. In the other services, the territory that was captured was represented on maps. No flag was raised over the spot where an enemy ship was sunk indicating the submarine responsible for that sinking.26 Submarines had to disappear as quickly as they had struck. Stealth and surprise were never more needed than during the accomplishment of special missions. Yet for all of the special missions they accomplished, submarine service in the Pacific was a highly personal experience marked by combat operations against enemy ships. That action was filled with memories of the smells of sweat and oil, the bone-shattering concussion of exploding depth charges, the controlled chaos of an emergency dive, the tension of a submerged attack and the quick peek through the periscope at a flaming tanker, but most of all, there was a deep sense of accomplishment.27

The pre-war strategists who saw submarines as secondary naval units limited to torpedo attacks were surprised by what the boats left untouched in the attack on Pearl Harbor were able to accomplish with only four years of combat experience. The employment of submarines in extraordinary special missions, combined with the ingenuity of submarine commanders and their crews, made impossible tasks realities, and proved that through initiative, teamwork, leadership, and ingenuity, America’s submarines were the most valuable assets of World War II.

Endnotes and bibliography for this article are available in the online version, available at http://www.navy.mil/navydata/cno/n87/usw/issue_37/index.html

Mr. Rean is a retired Chief Warrant Officer 3. He is currently a professor of History at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N. H.

Top

image of the cover