Meanwhile in the Pacific the turning-point battle was fast developing. The U.S. Navy, with information gained through having cracked the Japanese "purple" code, knew that a mighty enemy fleet of four aircraft carriers and eleven battleships, screened by cruisers and destroyers, was steaming for Midway Island. Accompanying the fleet in transport ships was an invasion force of three thousand Japanese soldiers whose mission was to capture the American island base.
United States naval forces prepared to meet the onslaught. Fanned out in a semicircle between Midway and the approaching Japanese force was a scouting line composed of the submarines Tambor, Dolphin, Trout, Gato, Grayling, Grenadier, Nautilus, Grouper, and Gudgeon. Backing them up closer to the island were the Cachalot, and the Flying Fish.
The first sighting of a Japanese ship was made by a solitary submarine, the Cuttlefish, some 450 miles in advance of the main submarine scouting line. Although it distinguished itself in no other way during the war, the Cuttlefish's sighting of a Japanese tanker at 7 o'clock on the morning of June 4, 1942, was vital. Acting on the Cuttlefish's contact report, planes from Midway sought and found the rest of the oncoming Japanese fleet.
The nine submarines fanned out in front of Midway were ordered to attack the approaching carriers. At the same time heavy American air attacks were made on the Japanese force, and it was these attacks which made the battle a resounding victory for the United States. The bravery of the aviators was unsurpassed. Torpedo Squadron Eight from the carrier USS Hornet lost every flier and plane in a key attack. The squadron's commanding officer, who was himself killed in the action, ordered the attack to be made "without regard for losses." The only survivor of the squadron was Ens. George H. Gay. Gay's plane was shot down while making its attack, but Gay survived and witnessed much of the battle from a ringside seat in the water in the middle of the Japanese force.
The submarine Nautilus, under the command of Lt. Comdr. William H. Brockman, sped to the action on the morning of June 4. Brockman could see through his periscope that a force of American bombers was attacking Japanese ships just over the horizon, and he ordered the Nautilus toward the scene at top speed.
At five minutes to eight in the morning he sighted a Japanese force that included four battleships and many supporting ships. Just as he did, though, a Japanese plane sighted the shadow of his submarine beneath the surface of the water and attacked. Brockman took the Nautilus down to 100 feet.
Knowing that he would have to move fast if he were to have any chance of attacking the Japanese force, Brockman brought his submarine up to periscope depth again after only five minutes. Again the submarine was sighted by a Japanese plane, and this time there were Japanese ships on hand to drive home the attack with depth charges. Brockman took the Nautilus down again, and stayed down for fourteen minutes before returning to periscope depth.
"The picture presented on raising the periscope," he reported, "was one never experienced in peacetime practice. Ships were on all sides, moving across the field at high speed and circling to avoid the submarine's position. A cruiser had passed over us and was now astern. Flag hoists were going up, blinker lights were flashing, and the battleship on our port bow was firing her whole starboard broadside at Nautilus's periscope."
Brockman fired two torpedoes back at the battleship, but one stuck in the Nautilus's torpedo tube, and the Japanese warship maneuvered to avoid the other. Again the submarine had to dive to avoid attack, and again Brockman brought it up as quickly as he could.
When the Nautilus's periscope broke water this time it was 8:46 A.M. by the submarine's chronometer. Less than an hour had passed since Brockman had first headed toward the action. Walking his periscope around through a full circle, the submarine captain sighted another group of Japanese warships 8 miles away. In the center of the group was a Japanese carrier. With its screening ships it was under attack from American aircraft. Again the Nautilus headed for the action. This time it was attacked on the way by a Japanese destroyer and again it dove.
When Brockman brought his submarine up again it was 9:55 and there was no sign of any Japanese ships. Nevertheless he continued in the direction of the spot where he had seen the Japanese carrier under attack. At 10:29 he sighted masts and smoke. The carrier had been hit and was burning. The Nautilus, taxing its electric batteries to the utmost, pushed to close the distance. Two and a half hours later Brockman was close enough to see that the carrier was one of the Soryu class (it was the Soryu itself). Badly hit, the carrier was making headway, but even as Brockman watched, it stopped dead in the water. Two cruisers maneuvered to take it in tow.
Disregarding a comment from one of his officers that the Nautilus had already taken quite a beating from the Japanese that morning, Brockman planned an attack on the wallowing carrier. It was 1:59 P.M. before the Nautilus was in position, 2,700 yards from its target. By now its batteries were almost spent, and its crew was decidedly on edge.
Brockman, marking the bearing to the carrier through his periscope, gave the order to fire, and a spread of three torpedoes surged from the Nautilus's forward tubes. They struck the carrier with a roar, and Japanese escort ships swarmed to attack in retaliation. Once more the American submarine dropped into the depths for safety.
At 6 P.M. that evening Brockman brought the Nautilus up to periscope depth. The carrier was still there, obviously in a sinking condition. No escorting ships could be seen. Brockman pulled the periscope down and was considering whether to make another attack, when through the water came the thunderous sound of an explosion. Quickly Brockman raised the periscope again, but the sea was empty. The 17,500-ton Soryu had exploded and sunk, taking with it 718 of its crew, including the captain.
Confirmation of the Nautilus's kill was provided by Ensign Gay, the sole survivor of Torpedo Squadron Eight, who had watched the action from his liferaft and was later rescued by a Navy seaplane.
American submarines did not carry doctors in their limited complement of officers. Such medical matters as came up during patrols were handled by Navy pharmacist's mates. These were selected enlisted men whose training and skill equipped them to perform many medical duties without the presence of a doctor.
No one knew, though, what would happen if a submariner developed appendicitis on a war patrol when the submarine could not return to port. It seemed almost certain that sooner or later a case would occur. Though pharmacist's mates assigned to submarines had witnessed appendectomies as part of their training, none had ever performed the operation himself.
The pharmacist's mate on the submarine Seadragon was Wheeler B. Lipes. On September 11, 1942, the Seadragon was on a war patrol when a seaman named Darrell Dean Rector passed out while on duty. Lipes checked Rector over. His symptoms indicated the dreaded problem, acute appendicitis. There was little hope of nursing Rector along until the Seadragon returned from patrol — his appendix would in all likelihood rupture, causing peritonitis and death. The only hope for Rector's life was to operate.
The Seadragon's captain, Lieutenant Commander W. E. Ferrall, took the submarine down into the still waters of the deep. There Lipes, with three officers acting as his surgical assistants, anesthetized Rector and cut into his abdomen. Finding the infected appendix Lipes removed it, then stitched up the intestine wall from which he had taken it, and sewed Rector's abdomen closed. By the time the Seadragon completed its patrol, Rector had recovered and was back at his duties.
Lipes' experience was not the only instance of surgery by a pharmacist's mate in the submarine force. On December 13, 1942, on the Grayback, Pharmacist's Mate Harry B. Roby removed the appendix of Torpedoman's Mate W. R. Jones. Nine days later Pharmacist's Mate Thomas Moore completed a successful appendectomy on Fireman George Platter aboard the Silversides.
In all, there were eleven cases of acute appendicitis on American submarines during the war, all diagnosed and treated by pharmacist's mates, and without a single fatality. By the end of the war the advent of antibiotics such as penicillin made it possible for a submarine's pharmacist's mate to treat a case of appendicitis without having to assume the un-asked-for role of abdominal surgeon.
By the end of 1942 the Pacific submarine force could look back on slightly more than a year of combat action with growing pride. In addition to the aircraft carrier Soryu sunk by the Nautilus, American submarines had sunk two Japanese cruisers, four destroyers, and six submarines. More than a hundred Japanese merchant ships had fallen to American torpedoes.
However, the submarine force had suffered its losses, too. The Grunion, Shark, Perch, and the S-26, S-27, S-36, and S-39 had been lost since the start of the war. New submarines were pouring into the Pacific Fleet, though, and the total of fifty-one submarines with which the fleet had started the war had risen to eighty by the end of 1942.
In the early hours of the midwatch on February 7, 1943, an action took place which was to result in the posthumous awarding of the first Congressional Medal of Honor to a submariner.
The submarine was the USS Growler, commanded by Comdr. Howard W. Gilmore. It was completing a war patrol near the Solomon Islands in which it had sunk two Japanese transports and damaged a freighter. It in turn had been heavily damaged by the Japanese.
Take Her Down
At 1:10 in the morning of February 7 the Growler surfaced to make a torpedo attack on a target which Gilmore found to be a destroyer-size escort vessel. The visibility was low, and Gilmore did not see that the Japanese ship had turned to ram the submarine until it was too late to avoid its knifing prow. The two vessels collided almost head-on. The impact was tremendous. All hands on the Growler were thrown sprawling, and the submarine rolled dangerously before righting itself.
Machine-gun fire from the Japanese ship immediately swept the submarine. Ens. W. W. William and Lookout W. F. Kelley were killed at their posts. Commander Gilmore was badly wounded, but managed to give the order, "Clear the bridge!" The officer of the deck and two wounded lookouts darted down the conning tower hatch as machine gun bullets rattled on the submarine's steel skin.
Gilmore, realizing that he was too badly wounded to reach the hatch, gave the order that was to save his submarine and cost him his life. Through the darkness came the command, "Take her down!" Reluctantly the hatch was closed and the submarine submerged to safety.
Lt. Comdr. A. F. Schade, the submarine's executive officer, assumed command and ordered the heavily damaged submarine back to the surface for battle action. On the surface, though, he found no sign of the Japanese ship or of Captain Gilmore.
Today a submarine tender bears the name USS Howard W. Gilmore, and his selfless order "Take her down!" is revered by the United States Navy's submarine force.
The depth charge was the Japanese navy's primary antisubmarine weapon, and few indeed were the American submariners in the Pacific who did not learn of its potency at first hand.
The submarine Puffer was subjected to one of the worst depth charge attacks endured by any American submarine in the war. For a period of thirty-one hours it was depth-charged with relentless regularity by first one and later two Japanese escort vessels. Adding to the misery of the Puffer's men, it was necessary to turn the submarine's air conditioning off in order to reduce noise and conserve electrical energy. The temperature in the boat rose to a brutal 125° and the air grew foul.
As the hours of continuous attack crept by, every officer and man despaired of ever escaping from the Puffer's predicament alive. One man's morale crumbled completely and he wildly suggested mass suicide. Sleep was impossible as explosion after explosion shook the submarine. Suspense and fear, the gnawing foes of any submariner under attack, frayed the sanity of evervone. Compounding the Puffer's problems, the rising level of carbon dioxide in the air caused splitting headaches, sluggishness, and nausea.
When at last the Japanese attackers went away and the Puffer was able to rise to the surface safely, its crew had been welded together by a bond which no outsider was ever able to penetrate. Men who came aboard the submarine later were never admitted to the inside group of those who had been through "the" attack. This example of the Puffer caused the Pacific submarine command to break up crews after they had undergone particularly trying patrols.
The second Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to a submariner was won aboard the USS Sculpin, which in 1939 had found the buoy marking the place where the submarine Squalus had sunk.
The Sculpin set out in November, 1943, with Captain John P. Cromwell aboard. Cromwell was to take command of a wolfpack of submarines slated to support the invasion of the Gilbert Islands. He was fully familiar with all phases of the invasion plan.
On November 18 the Sculpin encountered a Japanese force, which it attacked. It was attacked in return, and in the explosion of a depth charge its diving gauge became stuck at a position in which it falsely indicated that the submarine was at a depth of 125 feet. As a result, when the Sculpin attempted to come up to periscope depth, it overshot and rose too far, momentarily breaking the surface of the water. Japanese ships, seeing the location of the submarine, renewed their attack, and this time they inflicted grave damage.
The Sculpin's captain, Comdr. Fred Connaway, ordered his submarine up to the surface again, where it undertook unequal battle with a Japanese destroyer. In the action Connaway was killed with two other officers and several men. The diving officer succeeded to command and gave the order to abandon ship.
Forty-three officers and men got over the side before the Sculpin went to the bottom with its seacocks open. All were picked up by the Japanese who, with callous barbarity, threw one of the Americans back into the water as too badly wounded to save, and they would have thrown another wounded man over too, but he wrested free and rejoined his shipmates.
Twelve men went down with the submarine, including Captain Cromwell, who elected not to risk being captured — and perhaps having the secrets of the Gilbert Islands invasion plan pried from his lips by torture. For sacrificing his life to prevent the compromise of vital information, Cromwell was awarded the nation's highest award for gallantry.
The year 1943 ended as one in which the Navy's submarine force in the Pacific had scored great success. More than 1,250,000 tons of Japanese merchant shipping had been sunk since the year began, a sizable share of the almost 2 million tons sunk by American submarines since the start of the war. The hard-pressed Japanese shipbuilding industry was able to replace less than half of the losses, and the Japanese merchant fleet was fast declining to a point where it would be inadequate to sustain even Japan's civilian population, much less the needs of its war effort. Defeat, though it was still to be a hard-fought year and nine months away, loomed as a certainty for Japan.
The price the submarine force was paying for its sizable share in forging the coming victory was far from negligible. Seventeen American submarines had gone to the bottom, and many more were to go.
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