Following th~ Marianas campaign, 3rd Amphibious Force Commander, Vice Admiral Theodore s. Wilkinson, requested that COMSUBPAC, Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, task one of his submarines to conduct a covert reconnaissance of Palau Islands prior to the planned amphiMous landing there.
Based on her avail a b) J :i t.y f<t tbe time, Vice Admiral Lockwood assigned USS BURRFISH (SS 312), LCDR William B. Perkins commanding, the mission -one that would involve the only submarine-launched recon of World War II conducted by Navy Underwater Demolition Team personnel.
Of the nine reconnaissance group volunteers, five, — Bob Black, John MacMahon, William E. Moore, Leonard Barnhill and Warren Christensen came from UDT 10. Two, — LT M. R. Massey and Chief Howard L. Roeder, came from the UDT1s Maui, Hawaii Training Staff. And two others, Chief Ball and Emmet L. Carpenter, were from the Sub Base, Pearl Harbor.
The five from UDT 10 were specially selected because of the advanced swimming, diving, rubber boat snd recon training they’d previously undergone as members of the clandestine OSS Maritime Unit.
With little time available, mission preparations commenced immediately. The nine-man recon group practiced rubber-boat work, launchings, etc .• from a destroyer in waters orr Maui — the UDTs brushing up on their hydrographic survey techniques.
After having informed LCDR Perkins of the mission, VADM Lockwood discussed it with him; its various aspects in general and detail.
The BURRFISH, meanwhile, was getting special attention. For underway stowage of the recon group’s deflated 7-man rubber boats, freeflooding, holed, 8 foot-long cylindrical tanks — which housed the boats — were ritted to the BURRFISH deck abaft the conning tower. The rubber boats were inflated and defleted by a special device originally designed for Army rubber pontoons. This was necessary to eave precious operational time. As RADM Perkins, USN(Ret.) recalls, however, “Once aboard BURRFISH the recon group became integral \1:lth mu• crew. The problem was to give them something to do, so we arranged a high periscope watch in daytime which helped a little.”
On 10 July, 1944, the recon group embarked on BURRFISH. She then slipped out of Pearl and headed west-south-west to her objective. Enroute, LCDR Perkins received word that carrier air strikes and bombing raids had been planned for the Palaus and that he wasn’t to enter the area until 30 July.
He then received further word from COMSUBPAC that he was to collect data on the ocean currents in and around Peleliu — his number one priority. This was in addition to the initial request of VADM Wilkinson for intelligence on reefs and water-depths plus more detailed information on underwater obstacles that air and previous periscope recon photos had showed the Japanese to be emplacing.
Conditions could hardly be described as optimum when BURRFISH finally entered the mission objective area for her night recon work. Along with bright moonlight, there was considerable enemy radar activity. Undeterred, LCDR Perkins conducted daylight submerged patrols in and around the passage between Peleliu and Anguar, making periscope observations. The two photographers aboard took periscope photos. Thus, ocean current data and intelligence on possible landing beaches was gathered by BURRFISH.
On the night of 9 August, 1944, BURRFISH rendezvoused with the USS BALAO at a point east of Anguar Island. There, LCDR Perkins delivered current data charts and periscope photos to the EALAO•s skipper — who speedily delivered them to VADM. Lockwood and Wilkinson — before BURRFISH was conned back to the vicinity of Peleliu.
On the night of 11 August, BURRFISH surfaced in a decks awash status, off the southeast tip of Peleliu Island. The First Lieutenant and two submariners then moved out onto the after deck followed by five of the reconnaissance group. While the submariners, supervised by their offioer, removed a rubber boat from its container and inflated it, the camouflaged, grease-smeared recon team personnel made a final check of their gear — swim fins, face mask, UDT knives. After the boat was fully inflated, the crew of the BURRFISH placed the boat in the water alongside BURRFISH. Recon-team members then made short, shallow dives into the water, clambered aboard the rubber boat and paddled it shoreward for their first reef-reconnaissance. Following a long paddle they anchored the boat about 1,000 yards offshore and swam on in. Under the noses of Japanese patrolling the beach, they went about their hydrographic survey work, then returned to their boat.
There, according to a pre-arranged plan, a UDT 10 member dove underwater and with his knife, tapped a coded message on a piece of coral. Offshore, BURRFISH’s sonar operator alerted his skipper that the rendezvous signal had been received. So LCDR Perkins gave the order to proceed to the point where the tapped signal had come from.
The recon team brought back valuable information, reporting that what reoon photo analysts had interpreted as sea grass were actually cement railroad-tie obstacles. They would have to be demolished by other UDTs prior to any landings.
While further recon work was necessary, LCDR Perkins advised COMSUBPAC that persistent, heavy enemy radar activity, bright moonlight and the frequent sorties of Japanese patrol planes based on Peleliu forced ~iw to temporarily abandon what appeared to be too risky an effort. He then pointed BURRFISH’s nose northeast towards Yap.
Five nights later, on 16 August, BURRFISH submariners successfully launched another recon team. The team headed for the beach off the southern tip of YAP Island — the site of the Japanese Paciric-Central communications headquarters. Led by LT Massey, the recon team conducted another valuable reef reconnaissance before returning to BURRFISH. But this intelligence was never needed since Yap was bypassed in the u.s. island-hopping campaign.
Again on 18 August, BURRFISH inserted a recon team for the reconnaissance of a beach on the northeast coast or Gagil Tomil, an islet in the Yap group. After departing BURRFISH at 2000, the team paddled to within a quarter mile of their objective where they discovered a barrier reef just below the surface. Fearing that breakers would carry the boat ashore, Chief Roeder ordered the boat’s anchor dropped. Then leaving Ball -his best navigator — behind, he led the rest of his team on in. Fifteen minutes later Bob Black, one of the original UDT volunteers in 1943, returned to the boat with Carpenter, who couldn’t handle the strong currents. They reported to Ball that they’d found barricades of palm-log cribs full of wire-linked rocks. Then, Black swam back to rejoin the recon team.
Several hours later, well past the return time, a worried Ball and Carpenter pulled up the anchor and commenced paddling for a sweep along the reef, trying to locate their overdue mates But no one was found.
At midnight, BURRFISH surfaced at the prearranged spot to retrieve the recon team. No one was there. The submariners waited and watched -hoping for the best. At about 0300 hours, a light frout tl1e rubber· boat. ~ras sighted. BURRFISH then r·ecc·vorec the boat with only Ball and Carpenter in Almost immediately thereafter, LCDR Perkins had to dive his boat to avoid some incoming radarequipped Jap planes.
Despite the dangers of the continuous patrol plane activity and the area searches by powerful radars on Yap, LCDR Perkins patrolled off the Gagil Tomil beach until daylight of the 19th. This was the agreed-upon escape beach for a daylight pickup. Search efforts around the island were continued throughout the 19th and into the 20th of August. In the interim the skipper had to put a damper on the urgings of UDT 10 members, Barnhill and Moore, who were powerful, experienced swimmers. They figured they could out-muscle the rough, stormy seas for a close-in search effort. LCDR Perkins however had to regretfully inform them that it would be a suicidal effort. As he recalls: nAt dark on 20 August, it became apparent that rescue of our tht·ee men was not to be. Accordingly, we departed the area for refit on Majuro Island.”
Later, an intercepted radio message confirmed the worst fears of the UDT people on board BURRFISH. Bob Black, Howard L. Roeder and John MacMahon had been captured by the Japanese. Before they were killed, they’d been ruthlessly interrogated, but gave the enemy — as per instructions — false infonnation about UDT capabilities. All three were posthumously awarded the Silver Star.
Warren Christensen, Leonard Barnhill and William E. Moore were also awarded Silver Stars at a ceremony at their Maui base while LT Hassey received the Navy Cross for his participation in the only UDT sub-launched recon of World War II. All the surviving UDT team members were then given the further honor of being entitled to wear the Submarine Co~bat Insignia.
During debriefs, LCDR Perkins suggested that if a similar-type operation was planned in the future, it should not be conducted during bombing raids, nor against well-defended objectives. Also, operational U.S. planners decided that Submarine UDT operations were too risky. Hence, when one was requested later, permission to conduct it was not granted.
John B. Dwyer[This is an excerpt from Dwyer’s to-be-completed book, USN SUBMARINE AMPHIBIOUS SPECIAL-WARFARE OPERATIONS — WW II to the present]