The start of WWII was a step into uncertainty for submarine commanding officers. For some, war was an environment to which they failed to adapt and consequently they proved a disappointment to the submarine service. Can lessons be learned from this past experience for those who will command our more modern boats at the start of a next conflict?

I was in carriers until after the Battle of Midway and hence had no first-hand experience regarding the transition to war of submarine COs. But I have subsequently examined this problem through questioning of submariners and through an extensive reading of submarine patrol reports. My own later commands in submarines brought this problem into focus and has caused me to attempt to examine it more seriously.

Prior to WWII, submarine COs were a very carefully selected elite. Most in the initial part of WWII performed heroically with imagination, daring and dogged persistence in spite of poor intelligence and poor torpedo performance. Yet there were some who didn’t, and proved expensive to the war effort. Why COs failed or succeeded needs to be illuminated. The observations made in this article are not only mine but those of many other submariners who have proved equally interested in this problem. Hopefully, the judgments derived on the basis of the past history of COs transitioning to war may serve to alert present submarine commands to ways and means for minimizing this problem for a next big naval war.

Looking at several types of peacetime COs who proved inadequate in war, there is first the officer who appeared to be, in virtually every sense, first rate—hyperactive, charming, articulate and an outstanding administrative officer, he was nevertheless too “high strung” to stand the stresses of war. In the low budget years prior to WWII, submarine operations were insufficiently extensive to test this characteristic in this type of man. Today’s intensive nuclear submarine operations, however, should more readily disclose this type of weakness.

A second type of CO who proved inadequate was a product of the slow rates of promotion which prevailed prior to WWII. This resulted in many COs being over 40 years of age at the start of the war. Thus, some were likely to need early relief due to physical exhaustion, lack of sleep, discomfort due to poor submarine habitability, lack of exercise, etc. Today, the ages of nuclear submarine COs are climbing and war would pose this problem for some of them. However, their greater operating experience and better shipboard living environment should make age a less important factor in adapting to wartime conditions.

A third type of inadequate CO was again the result of low budgets. The variety of operations and functions carried out by peacetime pre-war skippers was low. Competition between COs was based largely on appearance of self, crew and boat. Hence a tendency was fostered to have a submarine present a best appearance in any of the rare operations conducted—meaning that the CO tended to always put the most experienced officer, himself, in charge of every function.

The result was that when war came, such officers proved readily overworked and exhausted from war action. Today’s far more extensive operations, improved submarines and greatly improved methods of training and delegation of jobs should make patrol exhaustion less of a factor in a war. Additionally, the rapid force expansion experienced in WWII submarines, with Reserves, and the greatly increased training load they inflicted on submarine COs is not so likely in a nuclear powered force which is far less susceptible to rapid expansion.

Perhaps the CO most susceptible to failure was the one who worried too much about the unknown. The scarcity of information on the enemy at the start of WWII is hard to imagine in today’s environment of a seemingly overwhelming amount of information about everything. The profile of the Japanese naval man was ill-defined and most derogatory. The characteristics were only too frequently badly exaggerated. Aircraft, for example, were felt to be far more of a threat than they actually proved. And the enemy waters where U.S. submarines fought were poorly described. Obsolete Dutch charts for the Borneo area, for example, were the only navigational charts available. Sonar was primitive and of little help to the CO in the assessment of a situation. Radar was very erratic or didn’t exist. The bathythermograph arrived later in the war. Effective evasion tactics could only be guessed at. In fact, early detection of enemy threats was unlikely and hence a skipper’s imagination could easily run riot if he concentrated too much on the possible dangers close around his submarine. At the same time, the WWII CO in transition was stressed by an uncertainty about the performance of his submarine’s power plant, the diesel engine, and a great uncertainty about his weapons, mainly the torpedo. The HOR engines were an example of the former material problem. Known as “the Kaisers revenge” these diesel engines with a high horsepower per pound ratio, rarely ran for five hours without failure of the myriad of oil lines needed for their functioning. Why such an abortion could be accepted by the Navy was evident when I checked the peacetime correspondence and logs on the engines of the submarines I served on.

Although there was much evidence of trouble with the engines, the correspondence extolled the theoretical advantages of the compact design of the engines and made little attempt to condemn them. It seemed evident from the correspondence that most submariners didn’t want to risk disfavor and promotion by criticizing their material. The torpedoes proved to be the same sort of political problem. Even when their faulty performance was observed and reported, correspondence indicated that the higher commands tended to credit poor performance to the operator’s fire control failures, personnel errors or failures to properly maintain the torpedoes. The let-down suffered by a CO when the torpedoes he used in a highly dangerous approach on an enemy target failed to run true or explode on impact, may have been a major cause for the worries which incapacitated some of the COs at the start of the war.

What has been said so far can be brought into better focus by the observations of one of those COs who transitioned to WWII war operations—Vice Admiral Robert Rice, USN (Ret). Although he was a highly effective wartime CO and not one who failed to adapt, he passed along a few thoughts to me which clarify some of the points just made:

I’m sure now as I look back, that my age, over 40, was too old for a good submarine skipper. There were some skippers in those days who overly centralized their boats to “look good”—we all know of several, one of whom turned his submarine over to his exec and incarcerated himself. By and large, there’s no doubt in my mind that the comparative lack of success of the early skippers stemmed from horrible torpedo performance (depth, magnetic exploders, etc.). Remember we had no radar, except the very first model SD which turned out to be a most effective beacon to attract Jap planes while we charged batteries at night. My second ship, Paddle, was cursed, along with her class of boats, with the HOR engine which was uniformly a flop.

To these thoughts of Sellars, [Capt. Mike Sellers, below] I would add that the good wartime skipper, in my experience, didn’t necessarily adhere to doctrine if innovative actions appeared to have greater payoff. For example, remaining at periscope depth during an entire day’s submerged patrol was an innovation which created more target opportunities while taking a (greatly exaggerated) risk of being sighted by aircraft.

The good CO knew that war was dangerous and couldn’t be satisfactorily pursued if an attempt was made to reduce all risk in a situation. Moreover, the good CO acted promptly, even if there was a possibility of error from his actions. (Long study of the problem and excessive checking of alternatives invariably seemed to lead to missed opportunities.) What seems to need consideration for those COs who might enter a World War III is that:

  • In this age of specialization, great care must be taken to insure (sic: ensure) that COs will acquire the necessary command qualities and skills in addition to their technical specialties;
  • Risk taking by COs should receive special mention and credit whereas the tendency towards non-risk taking should be discouraged;
  • An appreciation of history, and particularly of the shortcomings of COs in their transition to war in WWII, seems necessary. This would also lead to a recognition of the probability of the unexpected and a developed mind-set to accept this factor as part of war; the age factor must be taken seriously and younger men trained, to throw into CO positions at the start of a big war;
  • The torpedo fiasco of WWII may be replayed, or another part of a weapon system, the computer for example, may prove the Achilles heel, if an unexpected enemy technology or tactic is introduced which has not been programmed for or a computer outage exists without recognition;
  • The demands on a CO’s intelligence are far greater today than in WWII and will increase with time. The use of that intelligence for innovating should be encouraged and rewarded. Today, recognition of this factor on a man’s fitness report can be a great stimulus to a CO’s warfighting effectiveness;
  • The CO must know his own weapons well, and their use, as well as the character of his potential enemies and how they are likely to fight. These are the first requirements of a warrior and their development needs encouragement. (The Air Force’s Project Warrior recognizes this need in today’s peacetime environment.)

Such generalizations are easily, if not casually, developed by a retired submariner with World War II experience and some awareness of the CO problems in modern submarines. Perhaps their only value is in creating an awareness of some factors which were eventually recognized at great cost in WWII and need not be repeated for WWIII.

Another submariner who saw the transition to WWII, Captain Mike Sellers, summarized the characteristics of many pre-WWII peacetime COs. He describes them:

  • “He was so cautious that everything had to be first double checked, and he took the time to do it. He wasn’t about to take a chance of making an error;
  • “He blindly followed stereotyped training procedures year after year with few suggestions for improvement;
  • “He had to go by the book and do well in competition at all costs;
  • “He was either hesitant to, or was incompetent to, speak out on new ideas for improvements. “He didn’t rock the boat;
  • “He would rarely if ever take a chance. One didn’t take chances in submarines because it was not worth the price of failure, promotion or command;
  • “And he wasn’t allowed to have the experience of seeing and hearing his warshot torpedoes hit and explode in a target, if only a dummy target.”
    If today’s COs of submarines are like this, then expect the same sort of problems in transitioning to war. Mike Sellers also gives his ideas of the characteristics for a good wartime CO:
  • “The vigours (sic: rigors) of submarine war patrols demand a youthful man;
  • “The CO had to develop a certain ‘devil may care’ attitude;
  • The CO had to have confidence in himself and his crew and rely on his younger officers, both to train them fast for more senior jobs as well as to spread the load. This was a recognized risk that had to be taken;
  • The WWII CO was accustomed to taking the 60:40 chance of success in most of his actions. (He knew that high risks led to big payoffs.) This sort of risk-taking was unheard of in peacetime;
  • “He generally emphasized training on a daily basis, i.e., underway to and from patrols, daily battle problems generated by dummy runs on the TDC, emergency drills, etc. as opposed to the once a week drills conducted prior to WWII;
  • “He normally encouraged questions and suggestions, including ones related to his actions and decisions—no matter how frivolous. He in turn said what he thought and used facts to help train his officers in decision making;
  • “And he didn’t let red tape or bureau rules inhibit him. (When Bu C and R rules did not apply to wartime procedures, we disregarded them although that would have been a heinous crime in peacetime days.)”