World War II submarine bases were established in both Brisbane and Fremantle in 1942. The U.S. submarines, which fell back on Australia in early 1942, were the remnants of the Asiatic Fleet Submarine Force. They were literally on the front line of the Pacific War with the Japanese occupying the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).
The Brisbane Division was formed by the re-location of five S class boats from Fremantle in late March 1942 which were joined by six more S boats, and the tender GRIFFIN which had been transferred from Panama via Bora Bora. The division came under the command of Captain Ralph Christie in April 1942. He remained in command until February 1943 when he was promoted to Rear Admiral and transferred to Fremantle to relieve Rear Admiral Charles Lockwood in command of the West Australian Submarine Force. Submarines based in Brisbane came under the command of Fremantle in 1944.
Although Allied submarines took no part in the Battle of the Coral Sea (which started on May 3111 1942), the Japanese submarine I 28 was sunk by USS TAUTOG on or about May 11111 south of Truk. In August, September and October 1942, 11 Fleet submarines were transferred to Brisbane from Fremantle, joined by a twelfth (SPEARFISH) after her September patrol. For a short time towards the end of 1942 the major Submarine Force was based in Brisbane. Over the period 1942-45 both Royal Navy and U.S. Navy were active from Brisbane into the Pacific Ocean and beyond. U.S. submarines undertook 60 war patrols in 1942, another 60 in 1943, 39 in 1944, reducing to 2 in 1945. The most successful year was 1944 with over 17,600 tons of enemy tankers being sunk. Eight Japanese warships were sunk by Brisbane based boats and seven submarines were lost between 1942 and 1944.
A personal recollection was that of Kimball Young, a WWII submarine veteran living in Hawaii. He served on (amongst others) USS GUARD FISH which, while undergoing repairs in Brisbane in December 1943, had a kangaroo motif welded onto the ship’s fin by a dockyard welder. The U.S. submarine completed three war patrols with that Australian emblem in place.
Fremantle and Albany
Submarine operations from Fremantle began on March 3rd 1942 with the arrival of the submarine depot ship USS HOLLAND shortly followed by the USS OTUS.
Fear of attack by Japanese forces led to HOLLAND and five submarines being relocated to Albany where they arrived on March 17Lh 1942 (some consternation was caused when these vessels entered harbour unannounced to the Australian Army gunners manning the Albany forts-however, relief prevailed once the Stars and Stripes was identified). On July 23rd 1942 the tender USS PELIAS arrived at Albany and HOLLAND departed for return to Fremantle the same day. OTUS, which had only been panially converted for use as a submarine tender, depaned Fremantle on 27Lh July 1942 for return to the U.S. for completion of her conversion, after HOLLAND returned to Fremantle to take over the depot ship duties. By the first weeks in July 1942, 20 fleet submarines were operating from Western Australia; 15 from Fremantle and 5 from Albany. PELIAS remained in Albany until the end of October 1942 during which time 31 submarines were maintained and refitted. These submarines came alongside at either the Albany jetty or the jetty at the Quarantine station (the station was used as a barracks and for rest and recreation facilities). A number of buildings in the town were occupied by US forces. Westfarmers Building, at the bottom of York Street, housed the periscope workshop, which were brought there by rail from the main jetty. Trains from Perth and Fremantle brought torpedoes and other supplies and provided transport to/from Perth for personnel on leave. Many local friendships were made and a number of local girls married U.S. servicemen. The two submarine tenders, PELIAS and OTUS (which had returned to Fremantle after completing her conversion) were sent to Albany again in March 1944 when a Japanese attack on Fremantle was feared. This proved to be a false alarm and they returned after only a week.
The first commander of the Fremantle submarine division was Captain John Wilkes who had moved his command from Manila to Surabaya and then to Fremantle. He was relieved in command in May of that year by the newly promoted and dynamic Rear Admiral Charles Lockwood. Evidence from submarine engagements at sea convinced Lockwood that the Mark XIV torpedo was running too deep and passing underneath targets. To gather some data on his suspicions, he commissioned some trials at Frenchman’s Bay, Albany on June 20th 1942. A fishing net, borrowed from a local fisherman, was lowered into the water and three torpedoes were fired by USS SKIPJACK: these torpedoes were found to have holed the net at an average of about 10.5 feet lower than the depth at which they had been set to run. A further subsequent test by USS SAURY followed by some strongly worded correspondence between Lockwood (supported by the then CNO Admiral King and the Bureau of Ordnance, finally resulted in confirmatory tests being conducted by the bureau and the problem being rectified.
The Royal Australian Naval Officer in Charge (NOIC) in Western Australia at this time was Commodore (later Admiral Sir .. ) John Collins, for whom the new RAN Collins class submarines are named. He and Rear Admiral Lockwood had a high opinion of each other: Collins described Lockwood as that grand man while Collins was to Lockwood a tower of strength and possessed of a fine sense of humour.
From August to November 1942 the number of submarines in Western Australia was drastically reduced to replace the Brisbane Division’s old S boats with Fleet class boats. By the end of November only 6 of the original 20 submarines remained at Western Australia bases. The tender PELIAS returned to Fremantle from Albany at he end of October 1942 and HOLLAND sailed for the U.S. The numbers of US submarines increased to 8 in December 1942. In February 1943 Lockwood was promoted to be the youngest Vice Admiral in the U.S. Navy and transferred to replace Rear Admiral English (who had been killed in an air accident) as Commander Pacific Fleet Submarines. Rear Admiral Christie from Brisbane replaced Lockwood. The number of Allied submarines based in Fremantle increased significantly from 1943 through 1944. British submarines began arriving in September including the depot ship HMS MAIDSTONE and her 10 boat flotilla (with 3 older training boats). HMS ADAMANT arrived with her flotilla in April 1944, followed in September by the 81h Flotilla and the 4lh Flotilla in April 1945. At one stage 32 Royal Navy submarines were based in Fremantle. A number of Dutch submarines (in varying states of repair-some escaped from the Battle of the Java Sea) were also based in Fremantle under the command of Rear Admiral Christie.
From 1943 to 1945 Fremantle based boats sank over 273,000 tons of enemy tankers as well as 19 destroyers, 16 frigates, 4 minesweepers, 9 submarine chasers and 6 patrol craft. From 1942-45 354 patrols were undertaken and 11 boats were lose. Western Australia based submarines completed only 22 percent of the total Pacific submarine war patrols but they accounted for 38 percent of the Japanese oil tanker tonnage sunk. That the Fremantle boats could maintain such an offensive against Japanese oil supplies attests not only to the strategic situation of Fremantle but also to the technical efficiency of the base. The high morale of the crews who lived and relaxed among the people of Albany, Fremantle and Perth between patrols was a significant factor, borne out by the many enduring friendships and marriages which ensued.