“God help any nation which neglects to study its past”
Admiral Arleigh Burke
The one major area of naval conflict in World War ll that was the preserve of United States submarines was the sea area most prized by the Japanese — the South China Sea. It was this area which was the highway for the wealth of oil and raw materials from the Dutch East Indies and Indo China, which also made possible the seizure and exploitation of these two land areas. In fact, the need for these land areas led the Japanese into war. And, it was to protect and develop this area that three defense perimeters were structured. Worthless coral atolls and tropical jungles were occupied and defended to the death by patriotic Japanese on land and sea- in order to keep control of the Empire’s bread basket and oil barrel of Southeast Asia and the Dutch East Indies.
Nevertheless, in 1945, the Japanese Fleet abandoned the entire area without ever having fought a carrier battle! This withdrawal was forced upon the Japanese by virtue of the entire area becoming untenable. For the first time in naval history, a submarine fleet, acting entirely without surface ship or air support, established and maintained control of the sea over a vast area – by making it too dangerous for the enemyto operate there.
Since loss of Southeast Asia and control of the China Sea meant loss of the war and defeat of the Empire, the achievement in that area can be considered the crowning victory of the U.S. submarine war. It is worthy of note that the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1944 predicted victory over Japan no earlier than the spring of 1946. It can therefore be fairly said that U.S. submarine mastery of the South China Sea shortened the war in a material way. But there are other major facets of the submarine Pacific war in other areas which contributed to this victory at sea.
In any event, victory in the South China Sea was not achieved by submarine sinkings of Japanese supply shipping. It was achieved by the sinkine of Japanese warships. Helpful though merchant-maru sinkings were, no nation can be defeated by such an interdiction campaign alone. Mahan has told us that. Historians, moreover, seem unable to understand that a sunk MARU loaded with merchandise, was not the same as a sunk navy-maru transport loaded with troops and their equipment. It should be recognized that transports loaded with troops are part of a strictly military operation; likewise tankers loaded with aviation gasoline are equally a part of a military operation. They are “war-ships” and not part of a merchant-train for support of a warring country’s economy. Classification of them as merchant-marus hides the fact that their sinking had caused an immediate tactical effect on an enemy’s fleet. In fact, the sudden loss of the ability of the Japanese fleet to act offensively after the Battle of Guadalcanal on November 15, 1942, must be largely attributed to the shortage of fleet and air fuel in the Truk-Kavieng area, caused by submarine sinkings. This was a military sting applied mainly by submarines which crippled enemy fleet operations.
Thus, submarine anti-MARU ship operations, wherever carried out, from the home waters of the Empire, to the South China Sea, to the areas of Truk, the Marshalls and the Carolines, were always on two levels against: (1) the merchanteconomy marus and (2) the fleet-train marus. Consequently, the U.S. submarine war in the South Pacific was always on two levels: a pervasive and unremitting blockade of merchant shipping and an equally pervasive and unremitting series of attacks on military units of the Imperial Japanese Navy, wherever found.
The War of the South China Sea was on so vast a stage and over such a protracted period — December 7, 1941 through the spring of 1945 when the Japanese Battleships ISE and KYUGA retreated from Singapore — that it is often difficult to point out the strategic impact of specific submarine victories, even in recognition of the cumulative depletion of the Japanese fleet in the area. In areas of less vast extent, such as the operations connected with Guadalcanal, we may often pinpoint cause and effect. However, it is evident that submarine operations in the Sulu Sea, in opposition to the rendezvous of the First Mobile Force in Tawi Tawi, had very evident and telling effect on driving out the forces of Admiral Ozawa. In the process, U.S. submarines totally disrupted planned tactical training of ships and green carrier pilots. Let Paul Dull tell the story from the Japanese viewpoint:
“Ozawa’s forces were already being depleted, even before he sailed from Tawi Tawi for the Battle of the Philippine Sea. On 14 May, Tom Hogan in BONEFISH sank the destroyer INAZUMA. Then on 5 June, Sam Dealy in HARDER sank the DDs MINAZUKI and HA WANAML On 8 June, Dealey sank the TANIKUZE. And then on 14 June, the DD SHIRATSUYO while dodging a submarine’s t01pedo, collided with the tanker SEIYO MARU and sank when her depth charges detonated. Additionally there were other sinldngs mainly of tankers loaded with bunker fuel and avgas.”
In other instances, later on in the war, as when Claggett’s DACE and McClintock’s DARTER sank or damaged three heavy cruisers in one day, there was memorable direct damage done to the Combined Aeet, sailing out to fight in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. But mainly it was the increasing erosion of fleet strength that finally caused the Japanese to abandon the South China Sea to U.S. submarines, and thereby lose the war.
As an overall measure of submarine strategic effects, by virtue of seeking out and sinking or damaging units of the Imperial Japanese Navy, the period from December 1941 to March 1943 is chosen as being the most distinctive and illustrative. By that time the “worm was in the apple” and by then the Japanese were no longer capable of mounting offensive attacks. During this period — despite poor technical torpedo performance – a total of some fifty-three Jap combatant ships were sunk by U.S. submarines and an equal number damaged.
Examples of U.S. sinkings of Japanese navy-marus and warships during this period, which played a major role in the U.S. South China Sea victory were:
• the sinking of the large minelayer OKINOSHIMA on May 10, 1942, by Ollie Kirk’s S-42- while it was enroute to Ocean and Nauru Islands. It was loaded to accomplish an occupation and fortification of these islands to solidify the Outer Defense Perimeter, stretching from Guadalcanal up through the Gilberts and then the Marshall Islands. The loss of the OKINOSHIMA, and next day that of the navy salvage vessel SHOE! MARU to Dinty Moore’s S-44 when it was sent to assist, left a gap in the outer chain of islands which was never filled.
• On August 8th, Hank Munson’s S-38 sank one of six troop-laden J ap transports headed for the relief of Guadalcanal. This caused the other five to return to Rabaul — which helped ensure the Joss of the key island in the Japanese perimeter defense.
• On August 10, with a Japanese Cruiser Force closing its home base of Kavieng, Moore’s S-44 sank the heavy cruiser KAKO and as a result kept the Japanese fleet in harbor for a critical two-week period — with no follow-up of their Savo Island victory, and a respite for Guadalcanal.
• On January 24, 1943, Mush Morton’s WAHOO badly damaged a Japanese destroyer which was to escort a 4-ship resupply convoy to New Guinea. Consequently, Morton sank all four of the unescorted ships a day later — a troop transport, 2 naval supply ships, and a naval tanker – which were enroute to solidify New Guinea as the anchor of the Inner Defense Perimeter stretching from New Guinea up through the Carolines and further up through the Marianas and Bonins. With New Guinea in jeopardy, the defense of the China Sea area began to unravel.
The fleet attrition became increasingly serious as the war progressed. This should have caused the Japanese to bend every effort to correct the situation, because warships of whatever class are not readily replaced. This failure was fatal.
Fortunately for the United States, Japanese naval policy was so engrossed with the concept of the “great fleet battle” that was to win their war by defeating the U.S. surface fleet, that it neglected to replace and train their lesser ships — their ASW ships and submarines – which might have given them their only chance for victory. The Japanese shipyards continued to concentrate their major effort on building battleships, aircraft carriers and cruisers, right up to late 1944.
In particular, the Japanese did not wish to cancel their big ship programs in favor of building submarines to fight the U.S. Fleet Had they done so, and had the Japanese sent out the numbers of submarines which the U.S. had — to seek-anddestroy U.S. combatant ships – the war would have proved much more difficult.
In 1944, American submarines sank a total of 603 ships plus many more damaged and succeeded in strangling the Japanese economy. Concurrently their double-barreled campaign, sank one battleship, seven aircraft carriers, two heavy cruisers, seven light cruisers, and no less than 35 fleet destroyers — plus a substantial number of troop transports and navy tankers. Tens of thousands of troops were drowned at sea, along with all their equipment sent to the bottom of the ocean.
No historian appears to comprehend the extent of the benefits conferred on other and much larger operations by widely scattered submarine operations. They fail to note how the mere presence of a submarine tended to be magnified into a general “submarine menace” which stultified thought, as well as action. This effect is pure strategy in action. One submarine becomes magnified into several lurking submarines and the result is only too frequently one of retreat by the enemy. The imminent threat of being torpedoed by an unseen foe is impossible to ignore. Rare indeed is the task group commander who orders “Damn the torpedoes — full speed ahead.” This ripple effect, based largely on fear and personal concerns of the Tactical Commander who may see himself being blown up, is impossible to reconstruct in war games where every decision is cerebral — untinged with emotions and concern for the safety of self and task group. This is an example of why ASW is readily played out on the game board and still fails so utterly in actual combat.
As the War drew to its close and the Japanese Navy was defeated, was there a realization by the U.S. high command of the importance of the submarine’s strategic role in victory? A major lesson is that the U.S. submarine war in the Pacific achieved strategic results rarely recognized in full. It is an obvious fact that submarines alone and largely unassisted, established control-of-the-sea over the vast areas of the China Sea and Java Sea, and in the absence of effective ASW efforts, could do so again in other large sea areas.
The fighting submarine skippers of the last war were pointing the way to the next war. We had better stop, look and listen. That is perhaps the prime part of Admiral Arleigh Burke’s advice to which we should harken.
Defeat the enemy submarine campaign, or lose the war. This is the message from the past two wars.