Colonel Haas is the author of Apollo’s Warriors: US Air Force Special Operations During the Cold War. This article is excerpted from his book In the Devil’s Shadow: UN Special Operations During the Korean War. published by the Naval Institute Press.
When the war started there were only two such submarines in the entire U.S. Navy. One conducted training exercises in the Atlantic Ocean, after which its crew sailed in broad daylight to the friendly ports found throughout the Americas and Europe. The other prowled the Sea of Japan by night, surfacing from its depths only long enough to unleash black-faced British commandos against the North Korean coastline. Well skilled and still better rewarded would be the North Korean coastal defense gunners who could send these raiders to a watery grave in the freezing black waters offshore. Moreover, in October 1950, the crew of this submarine began giving these gunners just the opportunity they needed to collect such a rich reward.
USS PERCH (SS 313) was one of two World War II era fleet type submarines to undergo extensive modifications in 1948 for adaptation to the amphibious raiding role. While at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California, its two forward-most engines and generators (of four total) were removed to provide cargo and troop space amidships. Still additional room was created in the forward and aft compartments with the removal of all ten of the boat’s torpedo tubes. Altogether these modifications created sufficient space for 110 raiders and their equipment, plus 35-50 crewmen. And with the adaptation of the wardroom into a standby surgical ward, space was also created for the emergency surgery that would likely be needed by wounded raiders. But these changes were only the beginning of the boat’s makeover for its specialized role.
A special snorkel system was added to the superstructure to induct fresh air from the surface, thus allowing PERCH to run submerged on its diesel engines instead of its batteries, as required by other submerged submarines. Engine exhaust gases were expelled underwater, dispersed by a special plate designed to avoid leaving a telltale trail of bubbles that could be seen from the surface. This unique snorkel system allowed the submarine to approach the intended landing area submerged, in order to conduct a much-longer-than-usual periscope reconnaissance of the target.
Behind the snorkel, a sixteen-foot wide and thirty-six-foot long cylindrical hangar was mounted to the boat’s after deck. This airtight hangar carried a Landing Vehicle-Tracked (LVT), an amphibious vehicle large enough to carry a jeep as well as a pack howitzer and its crew. Thus modified, PERCH was recommission-ed on 20 May 1948. Nearly eighteen months of sea trials and evaluations of the submarine-raider concept followed, the latter with B Company, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division. With the Navy largely satisfied with the results of these evaluations, PERCH was redesignated yet again on 31 January 1950, as ASSP-313 (Submarine Transport-313).
During its months of arduous amphibious training with the marine infantrymen, PERCH conducted intensive training drills along the California coastline adjacent to the large naval port at San Diego. These early drills went well, as both submariners and marines became proficient in the surface launching and retrieving of the inflatable rubber rafts used for the exercises. During this same period, PERCH also conducted joint training with frogmen assigned to UDT-3; the latter were anxious to test a submerged submarine’s capability to launch them through its escape trunk for beach reconnaissance operations. In this aspect of training they were disappointed, however, for PERCH’s intensive training program was dedicated exclusively to its surface-raiding role.
The wisdom of committing to this emphasis on surface warfare training would be revealed far sooner than any could know in the late spring months of 1950, for this was precisely the wartime role immediately assigned to PERCH when war in Korea broke out. Three weeks after the war started, the boat was enroute to Japan; the marines from B Company sent ahead of them on surface transport. The submarine arrived at Yokosuka Naval Base on 8 August 1950, and as a subsequent ship’s report notes, morale aboard the ship was high:
The numerous drills and dives had convinced the crew that PERCH was not the left-handed, dangerous freak that she was once thought to be. Experience showed that the ship dives faster than a normal submarine (40 seconds), and can take and recover from large angles easily. All the training and experimenting instilled a tremendous .. can do” attitude.
The submariners were, however, dismayed to learn soon after their arrival in Japan that the B Company marines with whom they had trained so hard and developed such proficiency, would not be available for combat operations with them. Desperate for every rifleman that could be mustered in Korea, marine commanders committed to the last-ditch defense of the Pusan Perimeter had wasted no time in pulling B Company’s submarine-raiders into the meat grinder of combat on the peninsula.
As former PERCH crewman M.E. Kebodeaux recalls, “We later learned that B Company had been shot up so bad at Pusan that even the few survivors were in various hospitals. The unit existed on paper, but not the marines we had trained with for so long.” Despite their disappointment, however, the enthusiastic crewmen produced some innovative improvements to their equipment during their first week in Japan.
The basic four-step attack maneuver developed by the PERCH-marine team off the California coastline had the merit of simplicity. It required that the submarine approach the target beach while submerged, surface at night to launch the raiders in their inflatable boats, submerge again to minimize the likelihood of detection by coastal defense forces, then surface a final time to retrieve the returning raiders. Though fundamentally sound, the maneuver did not allow the submerged PERCH to communicate with the raiding force ashore.
This lack of ship-to-shore communications represented a potentially serious flaw should the raiders encounter unexpected problems or enemy opposition. From four miles offshore-the range from which it normally launched the inflatable boats-the PERCH’s periscope would be virtually useless for viewing the action ashore, especially on the dark nights preferred by the raiders. This problem was corrected in Japan, however, after the crew installed a short whip antenna on the snorkel-head valve, which would remain just above the surface while the submerged PERCH awaited return of its raiders. Another problem overcome during this period involved the four-mile open-ocean distance the raiders would have to cover twice during a raid.
While the large L VT carried in the after-deck hangar was capable of towing a number of inflatable boats to the beach, its noisy engine precluded any chance of the raiders maintaining the surprise on which a successful mission-indeed their survival-was dependent. Searching for a less-noisy alternative during their stay in Yokosuka, the crew obtained a twenty-four-foot, plywood boat powered by a six-cylinder Chrysler-Crown engine that could push the boat along at fifteen knots with no rafts in tow. Christened SUZUKI (the Japanese name for the perch fish), the boat-or skimmer as it was called-proved its worth in combat later that year, carrying the mission-necessary explosives while towing the raiders in seven inflatable rubber boats to within five hundred yards of the beach.
To launch and retrieve the skimmer, PERCH flooded its aft ballast tanks, in the process partially submerging only the stern of the submarine to the minimum extent necessary to guide the skimmer on or off the special carriage on which it rode in the hangar. The crew soon became proficient in accomplishing this seemingly awkward maneuver in two-to-three minutes. Satisfied with its new arrangement, PERCH never carried the L VT into combat.
Far less satisfying to the crew, however, was the emotional yo-yo it was undergoing as it trained in Japan with first one, then another, group of potential raiders, none of which stuck around long enough to put their training to the test with a combat patrol aboard the submarine. A report of their training activities in Japan that August describes the problem:
We embarked Underwater Demolition Team One [for] … the roughest week of training they or PERCH had seen. The morale of the crew and UDT were terrific. It was a blow to have to deliver the UDTs to an airplane for some other mission.
We proceeded to Camp McGill on 22 August to pick up Major J.H. Ware, U.S. Army, and sixty-seven men from a Special Activities Company. On 29 August we embarked Captain D.H. Olson and the remaining fifty-six men from Maj Ware’s company. By 30 August we had trained 125 army men. We found at this time that we were not to land these troops either. Despite the obvious heart-and-soul effort put into the training by both submariners and would-be raiders, it appears that the real problem-the obviously higher priority of simply maintaining a UN foothold in Korea-led to the repeated, frustrating events experienced by PERCH crew.
Though badly disappointed by this seemingly endless cycle of training-then-losing a potential raiding force, crew morale shot up again in mid-September with the arrival aboard their boat of yet another set of exuberant visitors, these from England’s 41 Independent Commando, Royal Marines. Training with these newcomers began immediately, and the youthful enthusiasm of each group, fueled by the prospect of immediate action, quickly created a strong camaraderie between crew and raiders. The inevitable humorous side of their meeting came together in the ship’s galley as the submariners introduced the Brits to submarine food, reputedly the best to be found in the entire U.S. Navy.
The young stalwarts who manned the 41 Independent Commando carried vivid memories of the World War II-era food rationing system-meat and eggs in particular had been in short supply-that had so severely tested British morale. In the process of familiarizing themselves with the submarine and American procedures the marines attacked the PERCH’s food budget with the same enthusiasm they would soon show for raiding the North Korean railroad system. As PERCH’s skipper noted: “One of our steaks is a week’s meat ration in England, and they had been in U.S. territory only two weeks. One morning they averaged six eggs per marine for breakfast.” To the Navy’s credit, it somehow found the funds to feed its enthusiastic guests.
Few combatants moved out to war in the summer of 1950 with more speed and elan than had Britain’s Royal Marine Commandos. Following the government’s short-notice decision that August to activate a special raider unit for duty in Korea, the Royal Marines quickly selected Lieutenant Colonel Douglas B. Drysdale to raise and command the 41 Independent Commando, Royal Marines. Blessed with a surplus of highly trained and eager volunteers looking for some action, the Commando leader soon gathered an elite group of combat swimmers, demolition experts, and heavy weapons specialists.
With officers and men thus assembled, the group was promptly sent to Camp McGill, Japan, for amphibious training with the U.S. Navy. At McGill they were completely re-supplied with American equipment, weapons, and clothing, keeping only their distinctive green berets to denote their proud Commando lineage.
Immediately beginning an intensive, around-the-clock training program aboard the recently arrived PERCH, the commandos quickly impressed the Americans with their enthusiasm and skill. As a report from PERCH observed.
These [commandosJ were experienced raiders with a “can do” attitude comparable to that of PERCH’s. They seemed to enjoy having more thrown at them than they could possibly assimilate in the short time available, and rose to the occasion by becoming a well-trained and coordinated submarine raiding team in a remarkably short time.
It was indeed a remarkably short time-little more than two weeks-for the American sailors and British Marines to develop the team cohesiveness necessary for survival in combat. Royal Marine Fred Heyhurst describes this period in the same excited tone felt by all at the time:
“There was a tremendous s spirit, to learn all we needed to know and get on with the job. We would get the hang of one [U.S.] weapon and go straight on to another, whatever the time was … it [41 Commando] was the best unit anyone could have joined.”
The mutual respect that developed overnight between the Brits and Yanks was an intangible, yet critical, element of the strike force. The raiders had found precious little time to train to-getherless than a month-to develop the skills that would help ensure their mutual survival in the face of a disciplined, well-armed, and unforgiving enemy. But just as the commando training at McGill drew to a close with the men preparing for their first combat mission, the Navy learned that its raiding plans had obviously raised some pointed questions in the mind of the Commander-in-Chief, Far East Command, General of the Army Arthur MacArthur himself.
In a series of messages to Admiral Turner Joy, Commander, Naval Forces Far East [COMNAVFE], General MacArthur openly questioned whether the results that could be expected from the proposed raids justified the risks inherent with such operations. When Admiral Joy voiced his confidence in the minimal risks to be taken and the destructive potential of the raids, MacArthur again pressed his doubts on the admiral with terse questions, “Can you prove?” and “Why is the navy so keen to use Brits, but not UDTs?” Sticking to his guns, Joy replied:
“Request reconsideration. The 41 Royal Marine Commando was formed and trained especially to conduct commando raids. Plans are ready for destruction of several key points between latitudes 40 and 41 on east coast. Believe they can be executed without serious risk. Submarine crew and commandos are keen to fight and gain experience for evaluation of this type of operation.”
MacArthur did reconsider, finally relenting in a 20 September message to COMNAVFE authorizing raids by PERCH and “a detachment not to exceed seventy individuals of the 41 Royal Marine Commando.” Less than a week later, PERCH quietly crept out of Japan in the dead of night, its adrenaline-filled crew and sixty-seven commandos eager for their first taste of combat in Korea.
On the night of 30 September 1950, PERCH rose silently out of the cold, dark depths of the Sea of Japan, its steel-gray conning tower cutting ominously through the water like a dorsal fin. Some 150 miles behind enemy lines, the submarine broke the surface into the three-quarters moonlight that covered the sea. Scarcely a month had passed since MacArthur’s dramatic invasion at Inchon, and only five days since PERCH’s stealthy night departure from Japan.
As the submarine surfaced four miles off North Korea’s eastern coastline this night, its crew and commandos gratefully took in the fresh air pumped below deck. For the last 14 hours the boat’s atmosphere had become increasingly foul with the exhalations of crew and raiders-despite use of the snorkel-while the boat’s skipper, Lieutenant Commander Robert D. Quinn, conducted a thorough periscope reconnaissance of the target area. In a scene that would be repeated many times in the future, this raid targeted a section of the north-south railroad track that came within a short distance of the shore.
As the commandos spilled out onto the forward deck to inflate their black rubber rafts and PERCH crewmen dragged the skimmer from the partially flooded after-deck hangar, lookouts stared intently through binoculars for signs of enemy activity ashore. Working rapidly in blacked-out conditions, seven rafts were quickly inflated and launched within the next thirty-two minutes. But to the submariners’ dismay, the skimmer’s engine refused to start, its ignition system grounded out by the excessive humidity built up in the hangar during the prolonged dive.
Without the skimmer to tow the commando-laden rafts the mission was finished before it started, the distance to the beach precluding any chance of paddling to and from the shoreline. But even as the submariners worked frantically on the engine, sick with the thought that failure on their part could force the cancellation of the eagerly-awaited first raid, the submarine’s radar detected a patrol boat maneuvering in the target area. The already tense situation worsened shortly thereafter when lookouts spotted two sets of vehicle lights moving into the target area before being extinguished; an ominous sign.
With little choice, Quinn prudently concluded that the enemy had most likely been alerted to the submarine’s presence and was attempting to set a trap for the commandos. Quickly ordering the return of the rafts and skimmer to their storage areas, Quinn turned the big submarine out to sea. Staying on the surface for the next several hours to recharge the submarine’s batteries, PERCH returned to the safety of the depths with the arrival of dawn.
Surfacing later that same day, PERCH completed a rendezvous with the destroyers H.J. THOMAS and MADDOX, the latter carrying Commander, Destroyer Division 92. In a hasty conference aboard MADDOX, Quinn, along with PERCH’s embarkation officer (responsible for towing the rafts to/from the beach), and the commando leader worked quickly to plan a raid that night against a secondary target in the area. As the enemy was obviously alerted to their presence, the plan entailed a diversionary attack by THOMAS on the previous night’s target, while PERCH surfaced farther south to launch the commandos against the secondary target. For its part, MADDOX would close protectively to within 4,000 yards of PERCH after it surfaced, should the destroyer’s firepower be needed.
At 1945 hours PERCH again broke the surface four miles off the coastline, having completed another submerged reconnaissance of the beach earlier in the day. This time the skimmer started without hesitation, towing seven rafts-six filled with commandos and a seventh with ellplosives-to within five hundred yards of the shoreline. Releasing the towropes, the skimmer waited at the five hundred-yard mark while the commandos paddled the remaining distance to the beach and immediately fanned out to establish a defensive perimeter for the demolition teams.
But even as the covering force raced into position, the first of several firefights broke out when its lead elements encountered small groups of enemy soldiers. With the element of surprise obviously gone, the commandos forming the defensive perimeter fought off the growing pressure on their position while the explosives were quickly planted in a culvert and railroad tunnel. Back on PERCH’s bridge, Quinn watched the fireworks through binoculars with increasing anxiety:
“It wasn’t exactly conducive to our peace of mind. We could see the gun flashes and moving lights. We could hear the crack of rifles and the stutter of machine guns and yet we were just sitting there, powerless to help. Finally we saw a blinding explosion followed by instant shock waves that reached far out to sea. We knew the mission was completed, but we didn’t know at what cost.”
The charges exploded at 0115 hrs on the morning of 2 October, much to the satisfaction of the commandos. With the culvert and tunnel destroyed, they withdrew quickly to the landing beach to board their rafts for the tow back to PERCH.
The commandos had not returned unblooded from their first successful combat mission of the war, however, as Royal Marine P.R. Jones had been killed during the fighting ashore. He was buried at sea with full honors aboard the PERCH later that day, as THOMAS and MADDOX trailed in formation behind the submarine with UN flags flown at half-mast. The two destroyers made a high-speed departure following the firing of a 21-gun salute by MADDOX, leaving PERCH to return alone to Japan three days later.
Following the return of the PERCH to Yokosuka, Quinn completed a short lessons-learned report that clearly reflected both the anticipation and apprehension he felt regarding additional raiding missions for his boat. Some of his comments suggested mechanical improvements to PERCH, such as an access door between the submarine hull and the after-deck hangar that would allow crewmen to enter the airtight hangar while the submarine was submerged. Such access might have, for example, allowed the crew to detect and repair the skimmer’s faulty engine before the submarine surfaced on the night of the aborted 30 September m1ss1on. Other suggestions involved tactical improvements, particularly those regarding the submarine’s vulnerability on the surface in the target area.
PERCH had remained on the surface under a bright moon for nearly two hours on the night of 30 September, as the commandos were first launched, then retrieved after the faulty skimmer engine could not be made to start. Moreover, PERCH remained on the surface in the target area for nearly seven hours the following night while the commandos fought off the North Koreans attempting to thwart their demolition mission against the railway. It was on the second night that Quinn discovered that the submarine crew needed a bright moon both to guide the conunandos to the exact landing site and effect assistance should the raiders ashore need help.
But to remain essentially motionless on the surface for so long, within range of the enemy’s coastal artillery. obviously put the submarine and crew at considerable risk. Further complicating attempts to judge the risk factors was that the skipper could not discount seaborne threats as well. A surprise attack by one of North Korea’s fast patrol boats, for example, would have left the skipper of the lightly armed PERCH with the cruel choice of either risking his entire boat and crew, or abandoning the commandos to a bloody fate ashore.
In fact, it was precisely this potential seaborne threat that drove the decision to bring MADDOX to within easy rescue distance of the surfaced submarine on the second night’s raid. Unforrunately, the unusual presence of a warship so close to shore also tipped off alert coastal defenses that something, probably an amphibious operation, was likely in progress. A final obstacle was the winter weather itself, which often turned the Sea of Japan into a subma-riner’s nightmare:
… the water became so cold and the sea so unpredictable in December 1950 that submarine patrols were abandoned because the snorkels froze up and endangered those vessels. The patrols were not resumed until April 1951.
For all of these man-made and weather-related reasons, NAVFE terminated submarine-raider operations following PERCH’s safe return to Yokosuka on 5 October 1950.
The PERCH-Conunando team had come and gone in less than a month. So much had happened in so little time that for some it was hard to remember that the war was scarcely ninety days old. Clearly the technology of the era was not sufficiently advanced to support the intent of PERCH and her raiders. But if their intent was thwarted, their spirit can truly be described as having set a timeless standard in the proud tradition of The Silent Service.