Fought in October of 1944, the Battle off Leyte Gulf was the greatest naval battle of all times. It gets top marks for complexity and for the number of combatant units committed to the struggle. While most of the action took place off Leyte in the Philippine Sea, peripheral skirmishes occurred from Japan to Borneo.
The opening salvo of this mega-melee was fired by two 71t1 Fleet submarines operating as a wolfpack in Palawan Passage near the entrance to Balabac Strait. Their orders were to patrol this focal point, and to report to the Commander, 7lh Fleet the presence of any naval task forces or major units of the Japanese Navy. Once reported, they could be attacked.
Shortly after midnight on 24 October DARTER (Commander D.H . McClintock, USN) and DACE (Commander B.D. Claggett III, USN) were lying to about 50 feet apart while the two commanding officers chatted by megaphone. Suddenly DARTER’s radar operator broke in to report a ship contact at 15 miles. Both submarines cranked up flank speed and took course to intercept the contact, which developed into a formation of ships making 15 knots up the Palawan Passage from the south. The high speed indicated a naval task force.
By dawn the Japanese task force was still churning northeast on a steady course at 15 knots. During the mid-watch DACE and DARTER had taken station ahead of the Japanese ships, using radar to map their formation and count targets. The Japanese task force appeared to be aligned in two parallel columns about two miles apart. Based on the size of the radar pips, each column contained several major ships and a large but undetermined number of escorts. Both submarines had reported their observations to headquarters and were cleared for attack.
As the sky lightened in the east, DARTER turned back toward the left hand column and dove. DACE continued on for 20 minutes-then she too submerged into the quiet deep to await developments.
They were not long in coming. At 0632 DARTER closed the lead ship of the left column to less that 1000 yards, and pumped five torpedoes into the heavy cruiser ATAGO. Turning sharply away to expose her after torpedo tubes, DARTER then scored four hits out of four shots from the after nest into the next ship in column, the heavy cruiser TAKAO. Damage done, DARTER stole away listening to the racket of exploding ships and retributive depth charges.
DARTER’s attack was unquestionably the most damaging individual submarine attack of the war. This came as the result of DARTER’s near perfect attack on the two lead ships of the left column. plus an incredible double dose of good luck. The first piece of luck was that the cruiser AT AGO happened to be the flagship for Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, the task force commander. ATAGO sank fast enough to put the Admiral in the water whence he was picked up by a destroyer and taken to the battleship YAMATO, which became his new flagship. ATAGO sank with considerable loss of life, including about half of the flag communications division. Poor communications would hamper the task force for the remainder of the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
The other piece of good luck was that T AKAO stubbornly did not sink. DARTER’s four torpedo hits wrecked TAKAO’s main propulsion plant (she never sailed under her own power again) and tore off her rudder, but apparently missed the ship’s magazines, so damage control prevailed. Had the extent of the damage been recognized by the I apanese at the time she might well have been scuttled. But she was saved, and two of Kurita’s destroyers had to be left behind to protect her while the rest of the task force pushed on toward Leyte Gulf. There to meet them a few miles up the Palawan Passage was DACE. She had earlier expended all her torpedoes aft, but had six loaded in the forward torpedo tubes. As the Japanese task force closed, DACE scored three hits in IGN MA YA, another cruiser of the same class as ATAGO and TAKAO. MAY A sank almost immediately, and the task force fled north after delivering 36 depth charges-some close.
It is said that in war, fortune favors the bold. DARTER, in one slashing attack, effectively removed four Japanese warships from the task force sent to destroy our amphibious forces bringing General MacArthur and his troops back to re-conquer the Philippines. Professional competence and good luck went hand in hand.
But the day was not over. With the departure of the Japanese task force, DARTER came to periscope depth and found the injured cruiser lying to, guarded by two destroyers and the cruiser’s scout plane. DARTER had six torpedoes remaining, all in the forward torpedo tubes. It seemed to Commander D.H. McClintock, DARTER’s skipper, that the sea surface would be tidier ithe could sink the cripple. DARTER bored in, but was foiled by the alert Japanese escorts. DACE also made a pass, but was chased away. Both submarines drew off and rested their crews.
After dark on the 24th, DARTER and DACE surfaced, located the cruiser and its escorts, then conferred on a plan of action. The three Japanese ships were headed southwest back down the Palawan Passage toward Singapore. One destroyer had taken TAKAO in tow while the other provided protection and led the way. Formation speed was about five knots.
DACE and DARTER took stations on either bow of the Japanese formation. The initial plan was for DARTER to attack first on the surface. If she missed, DACE with her four remaining torpedoes was to finish off the cruiser.
With the target’s course and speed well established, DARTER built up speed to 17 knots for her run at the target. As the submarine started to tum and head for TAKAO, five miles astern, she ran up on Bombay Shoal, a half mile wide reef near the middle of Palawan Passage.
DACE, waiting for a message from DARTER announcing that she had commenced her attack, instead received one which said, “Aground”. Breaking away at once, DACE ran back around the rear of the Japanese formation, up the starboard side, and closed DARTER.
DARTER had run up on the reef at close to full speed. When she slid to a stop the bow was elevated about six feet and the stem lay over deep water. The deceleration was so smooth that none of the crew was knocked off his feet when DARTER took ground. It was quickly evident to Commander McClintock that DARTER was too far up on the reef for any efforts by ship’s company to extricate her, so the crew was set to destroying code books and breaking up equipment such as the radio transmitter and the torpedo data computer. The three scuttling charges, 55 pound blocks of TNT, were removed from the magazine, wired up and distributed through the boat. In the forward torpedo room a torpedo was pulled from a tube and one of the demolition charges was placed just under the warhead. Husky crew members attacked electronics equipment with sledge hammers and crowbars in a dedicated effort to leave nothing useful for the Japanese. The rubber boat was taken topside, inflated and made ready for use. All this was done as quietly as possible since the three Japanese ships were coming slowly by on their way south, and were predicted to pass within three or four miles.
When DACE arrived at the scene, it was time to take off DARTER’s crew. DACE maneuvered near DARTER’s stern with a mooring line over to DARTER’s after capstan to help keep the boats close together without having DACE wash up on the reef. Each submarine deployed its rubber boat and started ferrying DARTER crew members over to DACE. When they arrived in groups of four or five they were sent down the conning tower hatch to the crew’s mess for a large bowl of soup, then off to find a place to sleep. Such places became increasingly hard to find.
After the timer for the demolition charges was set, the last boatload of DARTER crew paddled over to DACE. The rubber boat and the line to DARTER’s stern were discarded and DACE backed away from the reef. DACE took a position about 1000 yards off DARTER’s beam to await the explosion. At five minutes to six with the sky getting light in the east, a light explosion was detected by sonar, but the charge planted under the torpedo was apparently a dud. DACE then lined up and fired her last four torpedoes at DARTER’s abandoned hulk. Although torpedo depth was set at zero, all four exploded harmlessly on the reef before reaching the stranded submarine. DACE’s gun crew was called and quickly began to pump four inch shells into DARTER, starting at the conning tower, then moving up to the bow in an effort to set off DARTER’s torpedoes. No major damage was observed, except for
igniting the forward fuel group. This produced a large puff of black smoke which may have caught the attention of a Japanese aircraft which soon joined the party. While the gun crew and the bridge watch scrambled below, the Japanese plane dropped his bomb near DARTER.
DACE submerged and drew off to let all hands catch their breath. The Japanese cruiser and its escorts were far past by now. The problem to be solved was how best to accommodate 81 unexpected house guests-DARTER’s crew.
Since everyone was physically and emotionally exhausted, the most important logistic requirement was a place to sleep. Every flat space was soon staked out, with DARTER sailors asleep in the torpedo stowage racks, on the narrow walkways outboard the main engines and anywhere else they could find. The existing bunks were never empty for more than a few minutes at a time.
The wardroom now had a population of 19 officers. Eight bunks were available, with room for three more sleepyheads on the deck in the three staterooms. Two DACE officers were on the bridge at all times, and the remainder played non-stop poker in the wardroom (except when a meal was served) for 11 days.
In addition to having a superior enlisted crew, DARTER had a lot of talent in the wardroom. Ten years later two DARTER officers emerged as pioneers in the nuclear power program. Lieutenant E.P. Wilkinson, Jr., USNR, a mathematics major in college, joined the regular Navy after the war and, following an active career in diesel electric submarines, was picked by Admiral Rickover to be the first commanding officer of USS NAUTILUS (SSN 571). He was a Commander at that time, later he retired as a Vice Admiral. Ensign D.M. Miller, USN, was a very junior officer, who later as a Commander in 1961 helped place in commission USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN (SSBN 602) as Commanding Officer of the Gold Crew. ABRAHAM LINCOLN was one of the five initial Polaris submarines.
Food was a matter of concern. DACE had loaded stores for 90 days expecting to be at sea for 60. She actually was out for 67 days and served double rations for the last 11 . The food was wholesome and well prepared, but lacked variety as the days wound down. Remarks were made about a steady diet of mushroom soup and peanut butter sandwiches, but no one went hungry and DACE never ran out of coffee. Two meals a day were served to the 166 people on board, requiring seven sittings each in the crew’s mess and three sittings in the wardroom.
Once clear of Bombay Shoal, DACE headed for Fremantle, Australia, some 2,200 miles away. Her track took her through Karimata Strait into the Java Sea, through Lombok Strait into the Indian Ocean, then down the west coast of Australia to Fremantle.
Bombay Shoal was a lonely piece of foul ground rising barely to the surface, well out in Palawan Passage. It had snared victims before, but all traces of them had vanished. No lighthouse or buoy marked its location to warn away ill-starred mariners, but DARTER changed that. Immovable, she stood as a sentinel on the shallow coral reefs, and ships that came her way knew not to follow in her track.
The Naval Submarine League has prepared video tapes of the three panels that comprised the Rickover, Submarines, and the Cold War seminar conducted by the Smithsonian Associates and the League at the Naval Memorial auditorium on April 29, 2000.
The three video set covers Nuclear Power Comes of Age with panelists Elenore RJckover, Carl Schmitt, Bill Wegner, and Ted Rockwell; Designing and Building the New Subs and Their Payloads with panelists ADM Ken McKee, RADM Bob Wertheim, and CAPT Harry Jackson; and SilenJ and Stealthy Sen1inels-Their Contribution to the Cold War Victory with panelists ADM James Watkins, RADM Sumner Shapiro, RJcb Haver, and Dr. David Rosenberg.
The pre-production limited time offer (August 31, 2001) cost is $39.95 and includes S&H. Place your order (personal check or MC, VISA) with NSL at (703) 256-0891; fax (703) 642-5815; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.