by Daniel T. Rean

The numbers tell a story. According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately 900 World War II veterans die every day. But that number is not the whole story. What we are really losing is a unique brand of warriors who let nothing stand in the way of the march toward victory, and no World War II veterans typified that never-say-die attitude more than the veterans of America’s submarine service.

Submariners could not afford to wait for the experts to solve their problems for them. Theirs was a war fought against the empire of Japan and the conventional wisdom of military planners and ship designers. From bridge to galley, all hands took the view that repairs could be made with anything available, and every submarine Sailor knew that an unprecedented ordeal lay ahead. And as if submarine warfare were not dangerous enough, in addition to their assigned duties they were called upon to fill in as engineers, structural mechanics, medics, skin divers, demolition and weapon experts, interrogators, and armed commandos. The submariners of World War II overcame the adversity created by material shortages, faulty weapons, poor training, faulty tactics, and the limited vision of military planners. Through trial by fire they became the embodiment of the order to “conduct unrestricted submarine warfare against the enemy.”

Although the attack on Pearl Harbor was researched, planned, and executed masterfully, the Japanese pilots who carried it out neglected one vital detail. Their bombs and torpedoes were specifically marked for expenditure on the battleships at anchor and the aircraft carriers thought to be moored off Ford Island. The submarines, submarine tenders, and submarine repair facilities were considered minor targets. Even the munitions dumps on nearby islands and the torpedo shop at Pearl were bypassed during the attack. It was a decision that carried disastrous consequences for the Japanese high command.

Pearl Harbor set into motion a succession of rapid and extensive Japanese conquests that carried their armed forces to Malaya, Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the Western Pacific until they threatened India in the west, Australia in the south, and Midway and Hawaii in the east. Against the rush of those Japanese conquests, Allied strategic planners theorized that no action could be brought against the enemy until the lines of communication were secured against the loss of America’s battleships and the shifting of naval assets to support the priority assigned to the defense of the Panama Canal and Caribbean seaports. Naval strategy was still largely based on the structural model established by Alfred Thayer Mahan, which emphasized large, consolidated sea forces capable of controlling seaborne commerce. Although the Navy was better prepared for World War II than it was for World War I, naval planners and politicians made the mistake of building their fleets around battleships, aircraft carriers, and cruisers, paying too little attention to the utility of submarines.

In the early stages of the war, the transition from peacetime to wartime operations was slow in coming. During peacetime training evolutions practiced on high speed targets, any commanding officer (CO) whose submarine was detected during an attack was reprimanded. In Pacific submarine squadrons, COs were threatened with instant dismissal from command if their periscopes were detected during their approach to a target. Most submarine skippers were therefore cautious and relied heavily on tactics that emphasized attacks conducted well below periscope depth.

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In the control room of USS
Cerro(SS-225) during battle stations. U.S. Navy photo

The problems with non-aggressive COs at the beginning of the war were to be expected, since those submarine commanders were products of a peacetime Navy that emphasized discipline and drill. The over-cautious attitudes of many submarine COs were also a reflection of the procedural and tactical shortcomings of the squadron commanders. Despite the lessons taught by the First World War, allied military planners only considered how to stop the menace of enemy submarines, not how to use their own submarines as the deadly weapons that they were. So it was not surprising when the USS Seawolf (SS-193), under the command of Lt. “Fearless” Freddy Warder, received orders for her first war patrol that simply instructed her to deliver 40 tons of .50 caliber anti-aircraft ammunition to the Philippines and return to port with personnel or equipment as directed by those in command at Corregidor. Mystified by the brevity of those orders, Warder visited squadron headquarters prior to his ship’s departure to ask if Seawolf could “seek attack on the enemy.” The division commander commended Warder for seeking the advice of his superiors and ordered him to “do nothing to jeopardize the success of the mission or unduly delay it.” In short, Seawolf was used as a transport vessel — with specific orders not to engage the enemy. Poor organization, a lack of aggressive leadership and material defects resulted in the majority of submarine patrols ending with no ships sunk.

When submarine skippers were finally ordered to conduct offensive patrols, their troubles with the enemy took a back seat to their troubles with their torpedoes. No one quite understood what the problem with the torpedoes was, but each captain returning from patrol had the same story: they fired torpedoes, heard explosions, and watched their targets sail away out of range. Most COs believed that their torpedoes were running deeper than their preset depths, but their seniors placed their failures on poor marksmanship. Adm. Charles Lockwood, Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, who had a long history as an undersea warrior, listened to the complaints of his submarine skippers concerning the faulty torpedoes and tried to get the Bureau of Ordnance to conduct performance tests in order to ascertain the problem. Lockwood was in the unenviable position of having to praise some of his best submarine skippers for their success in sinking Japanese shipping while at the same time trying to condemn the erratic performance of the torpedoes. The experts at headquarters, including Adm. Ernest King, who was instrumental in developing the Mark 14 torpedo when assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance, defended the mechanics of the torpedoes and blamed the marksmen. Left with little recourse in the matter, Lockwood ordered his own tests.

The USS Skipjack (SS-188) had just returned from patrol, and under the supervision of the squadron commander a target net was anchored in a deep water harbor where Skipjack got into position and fired three torpedoes. The first two torpedoes were set to run at ten feet. They tore holes in the net at twenty-five and eighteen feet. The third torpedo was set to run on the surface. It bounced off the bottom at sixty-five feet and went through the net at eleven feet. Adm. Lockwood then ordered the USS Saury (SS-189) to fire five torpedoes at the net. Those five fish produced similar results. The Bureau of Ordnance rejected the test results based on patrol records of returning submarines that clearly indicated that not all torpedoes failed to detonate and not all ran deep. In the face of the evidence, however, Adm. King relented, and Lockwood’s test results were finally accepted. Eight months after the war started, the Bureau of Ordnance finally admitted the Mark 14 ran deeper than it should have. However, bigger problems were soon found with the torpedoes.

In July 1943, on her second war patrol, USS Tinosa (SS-283) singled out an enemy tanker in a convoy and made her first attack from approximately 5,000 yards. A spread of four torpedoes was fired and all four exploded prematurely. Tinosa’s skipper, Lt. Cmdr. L.R. Daspit, made a second approach on the same target a few hours later and closed to within 2,000 yards. Another spread of four torpedoes yielded the same result as the first attack. Closing to within less than 1,000 yards on the tanker, which was now dead in the water, Daspit fired torpedo after torpedo, watched the wake of each one track right to the target, heard the “thud” that indicated that the torpedo had hit its mark, and yet the target was unaffected by the onslaught. All in all, Daspit fired fifteen torpedoes at the Japanese tanker, and only one exploded, causing minimal damage. The baffled CO decided to keep his remaining torpedo and bring it back to the Pearl Harbor weaponfacility for testing.

On her third war patrol, Tinosa tracked another Japanese tanker that was reported damaged after it had taken three hits from USS Steelhead (SS-280). It took thirteen more torpedoes from Tinosa before the “Obstinate Maru” was finally sunk.

Tinosa’s fourth war patrol was notable for a different kind of torpedo problem, one that required both innovation and individual courage to resolve. Following a depth charge attack by a Japanese destroyer, Tinosa was unable to close the outer door on one of its torpedo tubes. When it was safe for the boat to surface, two officers, Lt. C.E. Bell, Jr. and Ens. K.R. Van Gorder, dove over the side and discovered that a torpedo was only partially ejected from the tube. Working without benefit of SCUBA equipment, and in enemy waters, they disabled the arming mechanism to prevent accidental detonation, allowing Tinosa to eject the torpedo safely.

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The torpedo room of a World War II submarine. U.S. Navy photo

When similar problems with torpedoes were reported by other submarines returning from patrol, the Bureau of Ordnance once again refused to admit that there were any faults with the weapons and blamed the skippers and their crews for not preparing and firing the torpedoes in the proper manner. Independent testing on the lone torpedo that Tinosa saved from her frustrating second patrol proved otherwise. That torpedo was fired at a cliff face in Oahu to determine any possible problem, and after being recovered by a diver and disassembled at the repair facility, it was discovered that the firing pin failed to hit the primer hard enough and actually crushed on impact when the torpedo hit the target at a zero angle. More tests on other torpedoes confirmed the problem as a faulty exploder mechanism.

Overcoming torpedo and other challenges, submarine skippers gradually abandoned pre-war, theory-based tactics and adapted to the real combat scenarios presented by the enemy. Long-standing doctrine required that an attacking submarine was to stay submerged and not be seen. The first pair of warriors to use a new combat technique was the team of Dudley “Mush” Morton and his executive officer, Dick O’Kane, who made the USS Wahoo (SS-238) a symbol of American might at a time when those on the home front badly needed heroes. Morton, like many submarine skippers who followed him, rejected the doctrine of “up by night and down by day” because in his view the enemy was never looking for a submarine on the surface. He defied the conventional wisdom of prosecuting torpedo attacks while submerged and allowed his XO to track the target and compute the firing solution while he maneuvered the ship on the surface. He was aggressive almost to the point of recklessness, but he was effective. During Wahoo’s greatest patrol, in the Spring of 1943 she attacked and sank nine Japanese ships in just ten days. The skipper of USS Tang (SS-306) who later bettered that mark was Morton’s own former executive officer, Dick O’Kane.

Not all submarine patrols resulted in record enemy tonnage sunk or noteworthy tactical innovation. Adversity during the aftermath of submarine attacks created plenty of opportunities for ingenuity when faced with a ship’s survival. The maiden war patrol of the USS Plunger (SS-179) resulted in the first depth-charging sustained by a Pacific Fleet submarine. While evading an enemy destroyer, Plunger was subjected to a pounding from 24 depth charges. The attack taught submariners that Japanese underwater listening equipment, at least at the beginning of the war, was equal to contemporary American technology.

The depth charge was the favored anti-submarine weapon of the Japanese navy throughout the war, but most American submarines were able to avoid catastrophic damage. The Japanese navy used small, 75-pound charges set to detonate between 100 and 150 feet. Plunger’s CO reported that his ship was able to escape the counterattack by diving to 300 feet and operating mechanical equipment at reduced noise levels. Eventually, the Japanese increased the amount of TNT used in their depth charges to 300 pounds and learned to set them to explode deeper during their attacks on enemy submarines. The latter tactics improvement for Japan came courtesy of U.S. Congressman Andrew Jackson May, a member of the House Military Affairs Committee, who during a press conference told reporters that the Japanese claims of the number of U.S. submarines sunk were greatly exaggerated because they set their depth charges to explode at too shallow a depth. The breach of security outraged Adm. Lockwood, who later stated, “I consider that indiscretion cost us ten submarines and 800 officers and men.” Shortly after that press conference, USS Puffer (SS-268) was subjected to a 38-hour depth charge pounding at depths up to 500 feet by a Japanese sub-chaser.

Submarines were the best “secret weapon” in the Allied arsenal, often inflicting damage on the enemy that was thought to be accomplished by noiseless aircraft, rockets or commando raids. They supplied guerrillas with arms, ammunition, money, food, medicine, and radio equipment and rendezvoused with commandos and coast watchers who gathered critical information for the inevitable invasion and reoccupation of the Philippines. The Japanese had some idea that American submarines were working in the general area of the islands, but they were unaware of the vast amount of aid those boats provided to the guerrillas.

As the war progressed in the Pacific, American submarines sank so many Japanese merchant ships — reducing the number of shipping targets — that they were forced to shift their attention to boarding and investigating smaller local watercraft, destroying mines, and harassing the enemy with shore bombardments. Some submarines, like USS Bluegill (SS-242) and USS Barb (SS-220), went the extra distance and took the initiative to attack the Japanese on land.

The Bluegill used its idle time while assigned to lifeguard duty to attack and invade Pratas Island, located 150 miles off the Chinese coast. The island served as a radio and meteorological station for the Japanese after the Allies recaptured the Philippines in 1944. Several members of Bluegill’s crew armed with machine guns and cutlasses, along with two commandos from the Australian Z-Force who were embarked on the submarine, stormed ashore. The Bluegill commandoes found a makeshift village with a pump-house, a radio shack, and a meteorological laboratory as its principal buildings. The buildings were all constructed of concrete and evidently fairly sturdy. Two wooden guns and two stuffed soldiers were guarding the clearing. Fresh fruit and vegetables indicated that the island had been evacuated a few days earlier, so the “Pirates of Pratas” met no enemy resistance during their invasion. The radio towers were destroyed, and the meteorological facility was set ablaze. The buildings were then blown up, and the fuel depot set on fire. Before leaving, the crew of the submarine hoisted the American flag over the island in an appropriate ceremony and renamed it “Bluegill Island.”

Arguably, the best of the wartime innovators was the CO of USS Barb (SS-220), Lt. Eugene Fluckey. Barb was no different than any other submarine that fought in the Pacific theater, but the ship’s commanding officer certainly was. Fluckey was the first skipper to utilize his submarine like a motor torpedo boat, taking the fight to the enemy rather than waiting for the enemy to come to him. Under his command, Barb sank 34 Japanese merchant ships and several warships.

After completing a refit in Pearl Harbor in late 1944, Barb returned to the Western Pacific to continue terrorizing the Japanese merchant fleet. While in Hawaii, the innovative Fluckey had the shipyard equip his submarine with a portable rocket launcher. Waiting for merchant targets to wander into the Barb’s patrol area was not going to be a problem anymore. Fluckey intended to attack ships at anchor in Japanese harbors. The installation of the rocket launcher enabled the submarine to circumvent Japanese coastal defenses and made it a perfect platform to attack the enemy where they least expected.

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(Left) USS
Barb(SS-220) in May 1945 off of San Francisco just before she departed for Pearl Harbor and from there on her legendary last war patrol. U.S. Navy photo (Right) Sailors fromBarbpose with their battle flag. U.S. Navy photo

When the Barb arrived at its assigned patrol area in La Perouse Strait, near the Japanese island of Hokkaido, it found a severe shortage of shipping targets. The submarine patrolled the shore line of Karafuto Island, where the crew noticed a much-traveled railway system was transporting Japanese troops and equipment on a regular schedule. Fluckey and his crew went to work on a plan to blow up the train. Eight volunteers were chosen for the mission in a ship-wide lottery. Those who won were offered as much as $200 to sell their billets. Saboteurs armed with hundreds of pounds of high-explosives and several makeshift contact exploders were loaded into two rubber boats for the assault. The landing party traveled almost a mile into Japanese territory, where they planted the explosives on the tracks. Several trains passed them before their work was completed, forcing them to hide in the bushes until it was safe to proceed again. After the charges were placed and the circuits were connected, the team headed back to Barb, where they witnessed a tremendous explosion and the destruction of the sixteen-car train.

Not content with “sinking” a train, Fluckey took Barb to a small island in the Sea of Okhotsk where the Japanese Government maintained a seal rookery. Fluckey planned to capture and occupy the island, but his preliminary periscope survey determined that it was well garrisoned and protected by numerous machinegun emplacements, one 3-inch field piece and several concrete pillboxes. With his eight-man commando team unable to overcome the Japanese defenses, Fluckey ordered a rocket attack. For the first time in U.S. submarine history, the order, “MAN BATTLESTATIONS ROCKETS,” was made prior to Barb’s attack. Three salvos — of 12 rockets each — were fired at the island. The damage report verified the destruction of the rookery and the destruction of a nearby fish-processing factory. Barb’s crew received more medals for its wartime accomplishments than that of any other U.S. submarine, culminating with the Medal of Honor for Cmdr. Fluckey.

One of the most important strategic values of America’s Submarine Force had nothing to do with commerce raiding, underwater warfare, or special operations. Because the Japanese could never be sure that a submarine was not operating off their coasts, they had to maintain antisubmarine measures at all times. Early in the war, Life magazine published an article about USS Guardfish (SS-217) that claimed the submarine had penetrated so far into the Sea of Japan that the crew was able to watch a horserace that took place on the island of Honshu. The story was blown out of context and became more embellished at every retelling, but since an American magazine had reported it, it was obvious to the Japanese that no city was safe from a possible submarine attack, and anti-submarine measures were strengthened throughout the empire. Any troops or enemy resources that were diverted in defense of the Japanese homeland against phantom submarines were unavailable for use against the Allies in other areas.

Submarines were the best “secret weapon” in the Allied arsenal, often inflicting damage on the enemy that was thought to be accomplished by noiseless aircraft, rockets, or commando raids. They supplied guerrillas with arms, ammunition, money, food, medicine, and radio equipment. They rendezvoused with commandos and coast watchers who gathered critical information for the inevitable invasion and reoccupation of the Philippines. The Japanese had some idea that American submarines were working in the general area of the islands, but they were unaware of the vast amount of aid those boats provided to the guerrillas.

As most of the Japanese merchant fleet was being sent to the bottom of the ocean, Japanese troops in the Philippines were forced to get more and more of their food from local farmers. Making matters worse for garrison commanders was a history of Japanese abuse, brutalization, and oppression directed toward the local population, which made it impossible for the Japanese to meet their unexpectedly increased food needs by appealing to the sympathies of Filipino farmers. Faced with possible starvation, the Japanese high command on the Philippines desperately turned to Jose Laurel, the president of the puppet regime known as the “Philippine Republic,” to encourage locals to cooperate with the Japanese. Laurel also urged the Philippine guerrillas to surrender by telling them that the Japanese fleet was so powerful that it would prevent the Americans from landing any kind of supplies or troops on Philippine soil. In response to Laurel’s plea, one of the guerrilla leaders sent the Philippine president four Delicious apples, a variety that did not grow in Japan or the Philippines. The obvious intent was to let Laurel know that American submarines were already regular visitors to the Philippine Islands.

Indeed, the ships and men of the Silent Service were the first American naval assets to take the fight to the enemy, the force most responsible for the destruction of the Japanese merchant fleet and economy — crippling its ability to resupply Japan’s armies — and the most versatile weapon in the Arsenal of Democracy. Through initiative, teamwork, leadership, and ingenuity the submariners of World War II built the foundation for future special warfare roles and established many of the traditions of our modern Submarine Force.

While today’s submarine skippers face different challenges than the World War II fraternity, they are just as capable of carrying out their missions and just as proud of their service. What has to be remembered is that today’s specialized undersea warfare capabilities were made possible by the efforts of our World War II veterans. They were sailors who seized the initiative and applied ingenious solutions to overcome technological or physical shortcomings. World War II saw the last of the old species of land and naval warfare, in which the fate of nations hung upon the ability of a few fearless warriors to rise above the disruption of mind and terror of painful annihilation by drowning, suffocation, burning, or scalding and do their duty in spite of it all. But their stories have become legend on a par with the Knights of the Round Table, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and the Battle of Trafalgar. As long as ships put out to sea, and new sailors pick up the torches of the old, the American submariners of World War II will be remembered, and their legacy will help a new generation of submariners to reach new heights by standing on the shoulders of giants.

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