As it had during the first part of World War I, the United States at first tried to stay out of World War II, though the sentiments of most Americans lay with the Allies.
However, as the tempo of submarine warfare quickened and harried British antisubmarine forces were stretched thin, an agreement was reached under which fifty overage U.S. Navy destroyers, built for the First World War, were given to Britain. In return the United States was given the right to build military bases in British possessions in the Western Hemisphere. The four-piper destroyers-which the British found to be useful, if old and cranky-were turned over by the United States in September, 1940, a move not at all appreciated by German submariners. Gradually the attitude of the United States hardened into what was called "belligerent neutrality," and U.S. Navy ships cooperated with the Royal Navy in protecting convoys near the United States. Thus it happened that on September 4, 1941, the American destroyer Greer attacked a submerged submarine with depth charges. Beneath the surface was the U-652, which managed to escape, but not without noting that its attacker was a U.S. Navy ship.
On October 17, 1941, a U-boat drew the first American blood, torpedoing the destroyer USS Kearny. Eleven American sailors were killed and twenty-four were wounded.
Exactly two weeks later, on Hallowe'en, a second U.S. Navy destroyer was the victim of a U-boat attack. It was the USS Reuben James — a namesake of the American destroyer sunk in World War I by the U-53 under the audacious Hans Rose. The James sank in a raging sea ablaze with burning oil, and 115 men were lost, including all of the ship's officers and all but one of its petty officers.
Once again as in World War I, feeling in the United States against Germany and German U-boat warfare ran high.
Meanwhile Japan was secretly preparing to attack the United States in the Pacific. In the first week of December, 1941, a squadron of Japanese I-class submarines with five midget boats lashed to their decks approached the American bastion at Pearl Harbor. On the night of December 6-7 the midget submarines were detached and sent on their way to slip into the waters of the Pearl Harbor base if they could. There they were to attack U.S. Navy shipping in concert with the Japanese air attack scheduled to begin in the early hours of daylight on that fateful Sunday morning.
The first sighting of a Japanese midget submarine approaching Pearl Harbor was made by the minesweeper USS Condor in the darkness at 3:42 A.M. on December 7. Unintentionally the Condor almost ran the two-man boat down. Recognizing that it was not an American submarine, the minesweeper's skipper sent a message alerting the destroyer USS Ward nearby.
At 6:40 A.M., as Japanese carrier aircraft were winging over the Pacific toward Hawaii, the Ward sighted the same or another midget submarine apparently intent on sneaking through the Pearl Harbor antisubmarine net while it was open to admit a barge towed by the USS Antares.
The young Japanese submarine skipper did not notice the Ward slipping up behind him. The destroyer opened fire at point-blank range of one hundred yards, and the submarine quickly went down. The Ward followed its gunfire with a depth charge attack, and an oil slick was sighted. It marked the first kill of the Pacific war.
Meanwhile another of the midgets had made an error in navigation that had run it aground near Kaneohe Bay some distance from Pearl Harbor. Its captain, Sub-lieutenant Sakamaki, decided that discretion was the better part of valor and abandoned ship. He swam ashore and surrendered. His submarine was captured intact, but his crewman was never found.
Of the five midget submarines which originally set out on December 6, 1941, only one actually made it safely into Pearl Harbor on December 7, and its two torpedoes missed.
War found the United States with 111 submarines in commission. Fifty-one were in the Pacific fleet — twenty-nine of them based at Manila and twenty-two at Pearl Harbor. Five of the Manila-based boats attacked the Japanese invasion fleet that landed troops at Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines, but for various reasons (one of which was faulty torpedoes) their success was negligible.
In the early months of the war in the Pacific, American submarines performed several special missions. In one of them the submarine USS Trout carried what was almost certainly the most valuable cargo ever carried by a submarine. After bringing much-needed ammunition to the defenders of the embattled island of Corregidor, the Trout needed ballast — preferably in the form of sandbags — to replace the ammunition's weight.
Admiral Francis W. Rockwell, the senior naval officer on Corregidor, informed the Trout's, captain, Lt. Comdr. F. W. Fenno, that there were no sandbags to be had on the island, nor was there anything vaguely resembling them. But there was gold bullion from the Bank of the Philippines — two tons of it. Could Fenno use this?
Fenno could and did. When the Trout sailed from Corregidor it carried a dazzling fortune. With its cargo of gold worthy of a Spanish galleon, it made a successful war patrol in the East China Sea, sinking two Japanese ships. Arriving safely in Pearl Harbor, its treasure was unloaded before what must have been the slightly covetous eyes of its crew.
Another submarine, the USS Spearfish under Lt. Comdr. J. C. Dempsey, participated in an unusual mission in the early months of the war, one which was much later to be the basis of the motion picture comedy "Operation Petticoat."
Dempsey's was the last submarine to bring supplies to beleaguered Corregidor Island before it fell to the Japanese. On May 3, three days before the Philippine island fell, the Spearfish departed from it with a group of refugees that included thirteen women — twelve Army and Navy nurses and a civilian. The submarine's voyage with women passengers was made without untoward incident — except that the women were soundly defeated in their efforts to operate the submarine's "head."
The functioning of the head — naval terminology for "toilet" — on a submarine is necessarily a complicated process, because the flushing mechanism must function not only on the surface where the outside water pressure is moderate, but also in the depths of the sea where the outside pressure is heavy.
To accomplish flushing it is necessary to work a series of levers in a rather complicated sequence. If a lever is worked out of sequence, an unnerving backfire will occur. After more than one such backfire the women gave up and left the chore of operating the head to the Spearfish's disgruntled Filipino steward.
The female passengers' losing battle with a submarine's head was not the only dryly humorous problem that beset American submariners at the time. With the start of the war the problem of supply became acute in many forward areas. One minor supply problem occasioned a letter to the supply officer at the Mare Island Navy Yard, California. The letter was written in official format (with tongue in cheek) by Lt. Comdr. James W. Coe, commander of the USS Skipjack. Dated June 11, 1942, his letter read as follows:
1. This vessel submitted a requisition for 150 rolls of toilet paper on July 30, 1941, to the submarine tender USS Holland. The material was ordered by the Holland from the supply officer, Navy Yard, Mare Island, for delivery to this submarine, USS Skipjack.
2. The supply officer, Mare Island, on November 26, 1941,,stamped the order with the notation "Cancelled. Cannot identify." This canceled invoice was received by Skipjack June 10,1942.
3. During the eleven and a half months that have elapsed since the toilet paper was ordered, USS Skipjack personnel, despite their best efforts to do so, have been unable to await delivery of subject material on several occasions, and the situation is now acute.
4. Enclosure (1) is a sample of the desired material, provided for the information of the supply officer, Navy Yard, Mare Island. The commanding officer of USS Skipjack cannot help but wonder what is being used at Mare Island as a substitute for this unidentifiable material once well known to this command.
5. It is believed that the stamped notation "Cannot identify" was possibly an error, and that this is simply a case of a shortage of strategic war material, USS Skipjack probably being low on the priority list. 6. In order to cooperate in the war effort at small local sacrifice, USS Skipjack desires no further action to be taken until the end of the current war, which has created a situation so aptly described in the phrase "War is hell." — (Signed) J. W. COE
Infinitely more serious was the problem of torpedo failures that now troubled American submariners just as it had troubled the Germans. The standard U.S. Navy torpedo weighed a ton and a half, of which 500 pounds in the warhead was explosive. The propeller in its stern was powered by steam generated when a spray of water was forced through a torch of burning alcohol inside the torpedo's body. Its maximum speed was 45 knots, and its maximum range was almost 5 miles. Each cost $10,000, but some bitter submariners, after sad experiences with them, felt that they weren't worth a cent.
Torpedo efficiency had been under suspicion since the first month of American participation in the war, when the USS Sargo fired thirteen in eight separate attacks and achieved no explosive hits. Captain Coe of the Skipjack, turning his attention from toilet paper to torpedoes, reported his belief that the depth-control mechanism was faulty. Tests confirmed this, and in due course the depth controller was corrected; but still the torpedoes gave trouble, as was made abundantly clear in the frustrating experience of the submarine USS Tinosa.
On July 24, 1943, the Tinosa encountered one of the real prizes of the war, the oil tanker Tonan Maru No. 3 which at 20,000 tons was twice the size of the standard Japanese tanker. The Tinosa's captain, Lt. Comdr. L. R. Daspit, fired a spread of four torpedoes, of which two hit and exploded. The Maru stopped dead in the water and Daspit fired two more, both of which hit and exploded. The huge tanker began to settle.
The Maru had been steaming alone, so the Tinosa had no worries about interference from Japanese destroyers. Very deliberately Daspit maneuvered his submarine into position 875 yards off the tanker's beam and fired a torpedo. It made a normal run. Daspit, watching through the Tinosa's periscope, saw a splash when it struck the Maru's side — but there was no explosion.
Daspit fired another torpedo. Again a hit, but no explosion.
He fired two more. Two more hits and no explosions.
From a submarine captain's dream, the Tinosa's encounter with the Tonan Maru No. 3 was quickly turning into a nightmare. With meticulous care over a period of eight hours, Daspit fired eight torpedoes from his position dead on the Japanese ship's beam, and every single one failed to explode. In the end a highly disgusted Daspit returned to Pearl Harbor, bringing with him the last of his torpedoes so it could be tested for defects. The tanker was towed safely to port by other Japanese ships.
At Pearl Harbor the commander of the submarine force, Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, decided to get to the heart of the vexing torpedo problem by using his own personnel instead of referring the matter to the Bureau of Ordnance in Washington. Lockwood's own ordnance men fired torpedoes against a submerged cliff off the island of Oahu, and one of them failed to explode. The dud was recovered and its detonator dismantled.
The trouble was found to be in the firing pin. Ironically, the pin would function properly if the torpedo struck its target a glancing blow, but the pin would jam if the torpedo struck head-on against a flat target — as had the Tinosa's duds, which were fired from a position exactly on the beam of the Tonan Maru No. 3 and hit head-on against its flat side.
The ordnance men designed an exploder that would work under all circumstances, and on September 30, 1943, the USS Barb left Pearl Harbor on a war patrol with the first fully reliable American torpedoes of the war — a war which the country had been fighting for fully twenty months. With good torpedoes at last, American submariners were on the way to establishing their enviable record of daring and success.
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