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Submarine Contribution and Losses in World War II

Last year, Major General Bill Augerson, USA, MC(Ret.) honored by name every citizen of our community who had given their lives for our country as members of the armed services, both in war and in peace. Today, we again honor those men and women who made the supreme sacrifice.

Last month marked the 25th anniversary of the end of the war in Viet Nam. Today, we honor the men and women who served their country in Viet Nam and those who made the supreme sacrifice.

Next month will mark the som anniversary of the beginning of the war in Korea. Today, we honor the men and women who served their country in Korea and those who made the supreme sacrifice.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of our nation’s Submarine Force, as it was in April 1900 that the U.S. Navy took delivery of USS HOLLAND, with its crew of nine, to become our nation’s first commissioned submarine of the modem era. Recognizing this anniversary, we will, today, honor the men who served our country in submarines in World War II, and who made the supreme sacrifice.

SEA LION, S-36, S-26, SHARK(I) …

In December 1941, with our Pacific Navy lying in broken steel at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, our country was in serious trouble. In the Japanese, we faced a determined enemy and an enemy who was winning. However, the Japanese attack of December 71t1 missed four important targets: (1) our aircraft carriers (which were at sea), (2) our reserve fuel tanks, (3) the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, and (4) our submarines … a miss the Japanese would come to regret.


No nation on the globe was more dependent on ocean shipping than Japan. Neither foodstuff for civilian consumption, nor raw materials for industry in the home islands were sufficient. Japan’s lifeline was its 6 million ton merchant and naval auxiliary fleets, which brought raw materials and oil from islands such as the Dutch East Indies to the homeland, and transported troops and supplies to the Army, as it expanded the bounds of the Japanese Empire by force.


At the time of the attack, the Pearl Harbor-based Pacific Fleet had 22 submarines, and the Asiatic Fleet, based in the Philippines, had 29. Most of these submarines were in a category I’ll call early fleet boats.

During the 1920s and early •30s, submarine design supported only the missions for using submarines as fleet auxiliaries: coastal defense raiders, picket ships, elements of a battleship screen, scouts, and search and rescue. It is a credit to the visionaries of the Navy, supported by Congress and the President, who identified the larger need for larger boats, capable of conducting independent strike operations, thousands of miles from home base for periods of 30 to 60 days.

Therefore, at the beginning of the war, not only had early classes of fleet boats already been procured by the Navy but also that which would eventually be the principal platform for sinking the enemy, the Gato class, was being built.


On December 7111, four submarines were already in a patrol status: two near Midway Island, and two near Wake Island, both islands eventual Japanese targets. On December 11th, USS GUDGEON got underway from Pearl Harbor fully loaded with weapons, fuel, and food to transit to the Straits between the main Japanese Islands of Shikoku and Honshu to conduct an offensive strike war patrol in the heart of Empire waters. Her patrol would last 51 days.

During succeeding days the remaining Pearl Harbor-based submarines were underway for both Empire Waters and the Marshall Islands … all on extended, offensive strike patrols.


In the Asiatic Fleet on December 8th and 9th, 18 submarines were put to sea for war patrols in the waters surrounding the Philippines. The first submarine lost was USS SEA LION which was in overhaul at the Cavite repair facilities near Manila. Japanese bombs got it on December 10th before she could get herself put together enough to be towed to a secure harbor. Four crew members along with an officer on SEADRAGON, a nearby sister ship, died during the attack … the first submariners lost in the war.

Several boats pressed home attacks on the Japanese fleet as it carried the invasion force to the Philippines, letting the enemy know early he would not be unopposed. The first confined sinking of a Japanese ship was delivered by USS SWORDFISH on December 15th against ATSUTUSAU MARU, an 8663-ton freighter.


As America went to war, so it was that the production of submarines increased dramatically to meet the requirements of the war in the Pacific. Submarines rolled off the ways, primarily at Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, and Manitowoc Shipyard in Wisconsin.

To man the boats, volunteers were sought. Of the 250,000 young men who volunteered, 24,000 (less than 10 percent) were selected and made it through the training pipeline. Typically, after the environment, a young man would spend about four months in training: at Navy Basic School; at Submarine School in Groton; perhaps four weeks in a technical school (such as a school for machinist mate, engineman, electricians mate or torpedoman); and then on to the boats, joining either a crew about to embark on a war patrol or a boat in new construction.

The training was rigorous and a certain type of individual was wanted. In a Gato class submarine, a crew of 72 men and 8 officers had to live in a pipe about 300 feet long and 20 feet in diameter for periods of up to 60 days. Even though most men had bad specialized ratings, for the ship’s safety and combat flexibility each crew member had to know the other man’s job. A yeoman might be called during battle to operate the trim pump to trim the boat; the ship’s cook might be assigned to operate the air manifold to surface the boat.

The average age of the skippers was about 30; the chiefs, the mid to late 20s; the enlisted crew, early 20s, with some as young as 17 and 18 years old. The younger men were about the ages that the graduating seniors are now from Ben Boice’s cross-country team, or the graduates from the 1999 Blazer championship basketball team; and the average crewman, about the age of many of the guys I see most mornings having coffee in front of the Millbrook Deli. Those are the people who manned these boats.


Pacific submarines were directed by Vice Admiral Charles Lockwood. His Operations officer, who expertly planned the war patrols of 288 submarines, was Captain Richard Voge. Captain Voge had been skipper of two submarines, including SEA LION, which had been bombed pier side in the Philippines.

More than 1600 war patrols were conducted in the Pacific. After the first few months of the war, almost all were initiated from Pearl Harbor (often with refueling stops in Midway or Guam), or Freemantle and Brisbane, Australia, and Alaska.

The boats would usually transit to their patrol areas on the surface. When in the area they would remain submerged during the day and surface at night to charge batteries. Attack tactics varied with the situation: (1) submerged attacks using torpedoes; (2) surface attacks using the 3-, 4-, or 5-inch deck gun; and (3) night surface attacks against protected targets and their escorts using both torpedoes and the deck gun. Submarines also operated together in wolf packs. laid mines. delivered supplies to guerrilla forces ashore, rescued personnel from ashore, and rescued over 500 downed aviators.

The danger to the submarine and her crew were mines. enemy aircraft (attacking out of the clouds before the surfaced submarine could dive). and depth charges by hostile enemy destroyers charged with protecting the high-value ships the sub was attacking. Crewmembers lived in constant anxiety of a surprise attack on their boat. In a 1943 human interest article about submarine life published in the national newspapers, an interview of one submariner. MM2 Henry Burch of Oklahoma City. went like this:

“Funny thing about depth bombs” drawled Burch, “sometimes you feel them. sometimes you don’t. You’ll find yourself brought to your knees, and a wave of weakness will flash over you, and you’ll know a depth bomb has hit somewhere. There’s dead silence when you’re waiting for the bombs to hit around you. Everyone speaks in whispers as if they’re afraid the [Japanese] would hear us. Yet the morale is always good.”


And indeed, their morale was good. Why? Because each man, each crew. each commanding officer knew the value of what they were doing to aid the war cause. What did they accomplish? Here’s what:

Pacific submarines sank a total of 1,314 ships. Over 1,100 of these were merchant ships (severing Japan’s resource lifeline). Also, of note, are the warships sent to the bottom: 8 aircraft carriers, 1 battleship, 11 cruisers. 23 submarines and 43 destroyers (the archenemy of the submarine in World War II). In all. submarines sank 5.3 million tons of enemy shipping. Compare this to the 6 million merchant tons that I said Japan had at the beginning of the war. Ninety-five percent of Japan’s merchant marine personnel became casualties. Two hundred and seventy-six thousand Japanese (sailors and army troops) drowned because of submarine attacks on their vessels.

In all, submarines accounted for 55 percent of the enemy’s maritime losses. Amazingly, this was caused by a Submarine Force that comprised 1.6 percent of the Navy!

And even more noteworthy is that that small cadre of submariners produced seven who were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor (O’Kane, Fluckey, Cromwell, Gillmore, Ramage, Dealey, and Street), accumulated over 200 Navy Crosses and Silver Stars, and ran missions whose crews were awarded 49 Presidential Unit Citations, and 53 Navy Unit Citations.


But the Submarine Force paid a heavy price for its success. Fifty-two of our 288 submarines were lost. Because of the nature of operations, these losses often included loss of the entire ship’s company, in a remote area, far distant from friendly forces. That’s 80 men, 80 who made the supreme sacrifice. Not all men were lost with their boat. Some escaped their stricken vessel only to be captured and succumbed while prisoners of war.

In all, of the 16,000 men who made patrols, 3,505 died. That was an astounding casualty rate of 22 percent, the highest for any branch in the U.S. military during the war.

So it is the names of the 52 lost submarines with which I have been punctuating each section of my address today. It is a way of honoring them and those of their crew members who died while carrying the battle to the enemy. What sort of people were these heroes who gave their lives for their country? I say they’re not unlike the boys who graduated from Ben Boice’s cross country team; not unlike the graduating seniors from the 1999 Blazer basketball team, not unlike the guys I often see drinking their morning coffee in front of the Millbrook Deli.


Historian Thomas Roscoe summarized well the efforts of submariners in World War II when he wrote:

“The valiant efforts and incomparable achievements of United States Navy submarines cannot be summarized in statistics. Neither graphs nor percentages could measure the leadership of an Admiral Lockwood, the genius of a Captain Voge, the skill of such commanders as [Mush] Monon or [Dick] O’Kane, the courage of every submarine crew. But the American submarines of World War II need no encomiums. From mess attendants to admirals all were captains courageous. Their war record speaks for them and liquidation of the Japanese Empire stands in evidence .”


That’s 52. Fifty-two submarines lost; 52 submarines that were the duty stations and homes to 3,505 men who remain on eternal patrol.

The last submarine to be lost, BULLHEAD, went down with her entire crew when she was surprised by an enemy aircraft on August 6th, 1945, the day the first atomic bomb was dropped, eight days before the Japanese government agreed to surrender terms and 3-1/2 weeks before the formal surrender onboard USS MISSOURI in Tokyo Bay.

On the subject of the atomic bomb drops, I offer another quote by historian Roscoe. Referencing Japan, he wrote: “He who lived by the Samurai sword, died by the submarine torpedo … the atomic bombs [at Hiroshima and Nagasaki] were the funeral pyres of an enemy who had [already] drowned.”

And finally, back to Pearl Harbor in December 1941, here is what Admiral Chester Nimitz, who was commander of all naval forces in the Pacific, recounted after the war about that critical period:

“When I assumed command of the Pacific Fleet on 31 December 1941, our submarines were already operating against the enemy, the only units of the fleet that could come to grips with the Japanese for months to come. It was the Submarine Force that I looked to carry the load until our great industrial activity could produce the weapons we sorely needed to carry the war to the enemy. It is to the everlasting honor and glory of our submarine personnel that they never failed us in our days of great peril. ”

And indeed they did not fail us. Today we honor the 3,505 submariners who made the supreme sacrifice to preserve our way of life and who remain on eternal patrol.


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