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On 19 November 1941, the USS TRITON (SS-201) and the USS TAMBOR (SS-198) left Pearl Harbor together under orders from COMSUBPAC to conduct war patrols in the vicinity of Wake Island. The officers and men on board these two submarines left behind a peaceful world they would not experience again for many years. During the course of their activities near Wake, the United States formally entered World War II with the Japanese anack on Pearl Harbor and both vessels, along with the entire Pacific Fleet, found themselves caught up in the confusion of the opening days of the war.

For TRITON, and her commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander W. A. Lent, this first patrol of the war brought a wide variety of challenges. While coping with numerous mechanical difficulties plaguing his ship, Lent and his crew engaged in one of the first submarine-destroyer engagements of the war. He also successfully evaded a post attack search by a Japanese destroyer and took measure of the damage done to the facilities and defenses on Wake Island before returning to Pearl Harbor. This is what it was like on the front line as the war began for American submarines in the Pacific.


NARRATIVE: January 3, 1942

In accordance with COMT ASKFORCE 7 Operation Order 28-41, this vessel in company with USS TAMBOR departed Pearl Harbor November 19, 1941, to conduct War Patrol in the vicinity of Wake Island. Both vessels proceeded on the surface enroute except for a trim dive and one dive to escape detection by a ship. At 2335 {Ed. Note: All times are GMT] on November 21, 1941, sighted the mast of a ship bearing about 320’7. T AMBOR was notified and dived on the base course. TRITON dived on base course and T AMBOR proceeded to investigate ship. At 1000 November 26, 1941, passed reference point “LL”, 90 miles from Wake and proceeded independently to patrol station arriving in area about 1700 and diving to commence submerged patrol during daylight hours. After surfacing that evening TRITON exchanged calls with signal station of local defense battalion and informed the station that TAMBOR and TRITON had taken area from the NARWHAL and DOLPHIN. Message was also received that no planes were operating from the island.

The patrol during the period through 1200 December 6, 1941, was routine and uneventful. While submerged, TRITON closed the island to a distance of about two miles at least once daily and steered various courses keeping in sight of the island.

At the request of the Commanding Officer of the N .A.S. and the Commanding Officer of the Marine Defense Battalion, the Commanding Officer visited Wake on December 6, 1941, for a conference. The general situation was discussed, plans for patrol by fighter planes were covered. Plans for periscope detection drill by planes were made and the Commanding Officer was informed of plans for test firing of the defense battery at Peacock Point. It was also learned that no patrol planes were due to base from Wake for at least a week.

At 0145 December 8, 1941, noted two large columns of whitish smoke on Wake and proceeded to close the island for a better view. At 0900 noted an additional column of black smoke. At 0400 from a position about two miles off shore observed dredges working and assumed smoke was from fires on the island. No signal was heard from Wake on the periscope antenna during this time. Upon surfacing that night heard news broadcast of raid on Pearl Harbor, Midway and Manila. At 0800 Wake signaled by searchlight that war was on and for TRITON to keep clear of gun range. A message stating they bad also been bombed during the afternoon was given us. That night the shore batteries held practice firing and upon completion the island was blacked out about 1030. TRITON completed stripping ship insofar as practicable and made preparations for action.

At 0040 December 9, 1941, sighted columns of smoke and flame from bomb hits on Wake. Since Wake was not on the air when TRITON surfaced, sent report of bombing to CINCPAC. Wake came back on the air about 1200.

The night of December 10, 1941, while TRITON was patrolling on the surface on course 045°(1) speed 4 knots and charging batteries on the fmishing rate, about 10 miles from Wake the lookout at 1215 sighted two flashes and then the snape or a aesuoyer or crutser against the back ground of a heavy cloud, abaft the port beam. The ship was on a parallel course but changed toward the TRITON. The TRITON was silhouetted against the moon which had risen about a half hour previously. The officer-of-the-deck estimated the range at 6,000 yards and thought the ship looked large for a destroyer. He immediately cleared the bridge and dived the ship. The diving time was slow as the seas were heavy and on the starboard bow and course had to be changed toward the enemy to get under. Upon levelling off heard the enemy ship on the starboard side and assumed it had passed ahead. Enemy was endeavoring to track TRITON by sound as propeller beats were alternately fast and stopped. TRITON started evasive tactics.

At 1317 with the enemy ship evidently trailing at slow speed, on steady bearing and a considerable distance astern, planed up to 120 feet and fired a salvo of four torpedoes from the stem tubes:

Firing Times
No. 7 tube – – – 13-17-00
No. 8 tube— 13-17-08
No. 9 tube – — 13-17-20
No. 10 tube·– 13-17-38

At 13-17-58 heard a swishing noise in the sound gear and a dull explosion was heard and felt throughout the ship indicating a probable hit by one torpedo. At about the same time the enemy propeller speed became fast for about a minute and then stopped, not to be heard again. TRITON went to 175 feet and ran silent clearing the vicinity. Some time later, the time was not recorded, heard high speed propellers but vessel did not come close. At 1610 heard two probable depth charge explosions seemingly well astern. At 1905 heard two very loud explosions which seemed fairly close. During the interval between 1610 and 1905 several light explosions were heard. At 1947 came to periscope depth and nothing could be seen. At 2025 heard distant explosions, and at 2043 felt two violent explosions not far away and went to deep submergence for some time. Closed the island to a distance of about two miles but sighted no vessels in the vicinity. At 0520 December 11, 1941, heard possible propeller sounds on sound gear at 3500(T) and drawing across the bow. Planed up to periscope depth and swept the horizon but nothing was seen and noises were unidentified. At 0709 surfaced after 18-3/4 hours dive. Later report was heard on radio news program that the marines had sunk a light cruiser and destroyer South of Midway.

December 12 and 13 were uneventful except that at 1638 on the latter date, distinct flashes in the vicinity of Wake probably from gunfire were seen. Upon closing the island after dawn no ships were sighted.

December 14 and 15 were uneventful except that a plane which looked like a PBY was sighted over the island at 0120 on the 15th.

On the 16th about 0200 several explosions were heard and it was noted that Wake was being heavily bombed again and several large fires were set including the large fuel tanks at Contractors Camp #1.

At 1030 on the 16th received a plain language radio message from Wake to search South of Kupu Point. After running in to within 3 miles of Kupu Point changed course to 120°(T) to parallel the shore line and searched the area toward the island. Anything on the surface in the vicinity would have been silhouetted against the light of the large fires on the island. Nothing was sighted. During the night received orders from COMTASKFORCE 7 to patrol all of area 27 due to departure of TAMBOR for Pearl.

At 2343 on December 18, 1941, heard a series of violent explosions followed by loud water noises probably caused by a stick of bombs in water not far away.

At 0620 on December 19, 1941, passed through a considerable oil slick, heard strange noises in sound gear that may have been air bubbling to surface. Position at this time was about 10 miles bearing 155°(T) from Peacock Point.

On December 19, 1941, three times during the day suspected propeller noises were heard on the JK. On the third contact these sounds were heard over a period of twenty minutes. Nothing was sighted on the surface. Upon surfacing sent radio report to CINCPAC to the effect that an enemy submarine was believed to be in the area.

At 0043 December 21, 1941, picked up definite propeller noises on the JK. Nothing was in sight, so assumed it to be an enemy submarine. Maintained sound contact until 0119. During this interval the propeller speed changed several times, speed varying from 129 to 160 r.p.m. and also stopped for short intervals. At 0121 heard heavy prolonged explosion not far distant followed by considerable water noise. Propeller sounds increased in speed and shortly thereafter were lost. Later intercepted report from Wake that they had been bombed by 17 planes at 0121. Explosions heard were probably a stick of bombs dropped in the water. At 0930 received dispatch from COMTASKFORCE 7 directing return to Pearl. At 0958 proceeded on course 000°(1′) clearing the area enroute to Pearl via a point latitude 23° N and to the north of Wake. At 1809 dived and ran submerged during daylight hours due to close proximity to Wake and possible enemy units. On December 23, 1941, attempted to run on the surface during daylight but at 0527 sighted an unidentified plane crossing astern and heading into the stem. TRITON dived at once but bow planes stuck in a partially rigged out position and dive was continued controlling the ship by the stern planes and adjusting speed. The ship was levelled off at 110 feet. Bow planes were back in commission at 0537. At 0615 believed sighted plane circling in clouds to southward, went to deep submergence, changed course and speeded up to clear the vicinity in case of search by surface vessels. At 0723 shortly before time intended to surface, heard suspicious noises on JK, approximate position at this time latitude 25-36 N., longitude 167-41 E. As sounds became louder picked up the propellers of two vessels. Went ahead dead slow, stopped all unnecessary auxiliaries, prepared for depth charging and continued to clear the area. At 1830 lost sound contact. Previously heard what were probably supersonic pings several times but at no time were searching vessels close to TRITON. The propeller sounds were distinctly not those of friendly destroyers. At 0930 surfaced and proceeded toward Pearl. Enroute Pearl the ship was forced down several times by unidentified planes, all probably friendly as we had been informed of a task force containing one carrier operating in our vicinity.

At 1306 December 30, 1941, sighted a ship bearing 340° and proceeded to investigate. Closed to about 4,000 yards and tentatively identified vessel as USS WRIGHT with a destroyer ahead on approximate course 1200, speed about 6 knots. Made challenge twice to WRIGHT and twice to destroyer. Neither vessel answered. TRITON continued to trail these vessels and about 1345 repeated the challenge oy oumcer tuoe. J\gam neither vessel replied. Being quite sure of the identity of the WRIGHT and having been informed that she was operating in the vicinity, the Commanding Officer decided to withdraw without further challenging and the TRITON proceeded on the course for the rendezvous with the USS LITCHFIELD at daybreak. Because of the failure of the gyro compass that evening and the inability to get star sights in the morning, the TRITON’s position was considerably in error and difficulty was experienced locating the LITCHFIELD. At 2135 sighted the LITCHFIELD and set course for Pearl. Moored alongside USS PELIAS at Submarine Base at 0644 December 31, 1941.

SUMMARY HIGHLIGHTS: Only one enemy vessel was sighted. An accurate description cannot be given but from the report of the officer-of-the-deck and lookout, the Commanding Officer is of the opinion it was a single stack light cruiser. No aircraft were sighted at close enough quarters to permit identification except the PBY planes seen Dying over Wake early in the patrol period.

ONE ATI’ACK: Fired 4 torpedoes from tubes 7, 8, 9, and 10. Sound Shot, point of aim propellers. Estimated course 320°; estimated speed 3 knots; Estimated range 1500.

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The enemy vessel encountered on the night of December 10, 1941, did not appear to have supersonic equipment but appeared to be endeavoring to track the TRITON by listening as she stopped her screws frequently for short periods.

The vessels heard on December 23, 1941, while submerged, are believed to have had supersonic ranging equipment but contact was not maintained long enough to be positive about it.

The only major defect experienced was damage to the lower packing gland of No.2 periscope. This casualty was caused by building up excessive grease pressure in the bearing while greasing with a pneumatic gun. Evidently packing had been jammed between the gland and periscope so that excess grease could not escape. The gland was badly sprung and adjusting studs bent.

The gyro compass failed the night before arrival at Pearl Harbor and the trouble was not located until after ship was tied up at the Base.

Sparking of engine exhausts was a constant source of concern. Some type of wet exhaust should be installed before the next patrol. This is a very serious military deficiency.

No other serious defects were experienced.

The potable water situation was one of the chief causes of concern during the entire time on station. The tank capacity and type distillers installed in this class submarine are simply not adequate. It is sincerely hoped that the installation of the electric stills will correct this condition. Potable water consumption the last two weeks on station was cut to an average of about 275 gallons per day by closing off the washrooms entirely and using this water only for cooking, drinking, making battery water, and washing dishes.

The condensate from the airconditioning system was chlorinated and used for washing of person and clothing. In addition to the installation of stills it is believed that an additional wash water tank should be built into these vessels similar to those on both the older and newer classes of submarines. This vessel started on patrol with wash water stored in f01ward trim tank. Had it been necessary to reload the forward tubes this water would have been contaminated when the tubes were blown dry. While enroute to and from patrol stations the water making capacity of the distilling plant was more than ample to take care of any demands on the fresh water supply. No difficulty was experienced with battery water. Consumption was carefully watched and maintained at between 45-50 gallons per day by control of ventilation and charging. Potable water was distilled for battery water entirely.

Undoubtedly the experience gained on this patrol will be invaluable on future trips. Diving and running submerged is routine and many feel more relaxed submerged than when on the surface at night. Getting accustomed to the strange noises we were subjected to while submerged was quite difficult. Some of them were very disconcerting, to say the least, especially when the source was unknown.

It is considered that, with the fresh water situation improved, the limiting endurance factor on a war patrol will be personnel. The endurance of personnel will be affected by several factors including time on station, type of patrol, weather conditions encountered and general health at the start of the patrol.

LCDR W. A. Lent, USN
Commanding Olficer, USS TRITON


Willis Ashford Lent was born on January 5, 1904, in Dorchester, Massachusetts, the son of John A Lent and Mrs. Burdette Hebb Lent. He attended the Dedham (Massachusetts) High School prior to his appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, from the Eleventh District of his native state in 1921. Graduated and commissioned Ensign on June 4, 1925, he advanced progressively in grade to that of Captain to date from July 20, 1943. On June 30, 1955, he was advanced to Rear Admiral on the Retired List of the Navy on the basis of combat awards. Rear Admiral Lent died at the Naval Station Hospital, Submarine Base, New London, Connecticut, on August 28, 1959. He is buried in the Arlington National Cemetery.

In addition to the Navy Cross with Gold Star, and the Legion of Merit, Rear Admiral Lent received the Second Nicaraguan Campaign Medal; the American Defense Medal, Fleet Clasp; the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal; and the World War II Victory Medal.

He was married to the former Eleanor Gallivan of Dedham, Massachusetts, his children being Willis A Lent, Jr., born 10 August 1931 and John G. Lent, born 1 July 1939.

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