CDR John Alden, a submarine veteran of World War JI, is a prolific writer, most notable for his The Fleet Submarine in the U.S. Navy. He is a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW and is very respected for his thorough, and thoughtful, commentaries on WW II submarine actions.
It is rather unusual to come up with new credit for a U.S. submarine during World War II this many years after the fact, but I am pleased to report that Captain Hugh H. Lewis and his boat, STERLET (SS 392), deserve credit for downing a 6,919-ton Japanese cargo ship that has not previously been recognized.
STERLET had a rather modest war record. Its first two patrols under Skipper Orme C. Robbins were initially believed to have sunk 10 ships for 36, 100 tons, but later analysis reduced the official count to only one and one-third: the I 0,241-ton tanker JINEI MARU and partial credit for another tanker, T AKANE MARU of 10,021 tons, shared with two other subs. 1 Four armed former fishing boats under 300 tons each, although confirmed sunk by Japanese records, were too small to be counted in the official tally. These two patrols were unfortunately marked by dissension between the Captain and his Executive Officer, Paul Schratz, to the extent that both were transferred off the boat at the end of the second patrol.
STERLET’s new Commander was Hugh H. Lewis, who had the distinction of being the first of only seven reserve officers to be promoted to Command and make war patrols during WWII. (Lewis was an Annapolis graduate who had resigned his regular commission but stayed in the Naval Reserve). On completion of a regular shipyard upkeep, Lewis took STERLET on its third patrol into Empire waters off the coast of Honshu, where he operated for 66 days between January and March, 1945. During this period many U.S. submarines were called upon to provide lifeguard services for air crews engaged in the shuttle bombing of Japanese cities-essential but often tedious and unrewarding work under constant threat of attack from the air. Too, most of the larger Japanese merchant ships were already on the bottom, so there were few opportunities for submarines to make any real killings while on lifeguard duty.
Such an opportunity appeared suddenly on the night of 5 March 1945. According to STERLET’ s patrol report, the trace of a large ship heading northeastward showed up on the radar screen. Approached on the surface, it could be seen only in outline against the sky and was identified as a loaded 10,000-ton tanker with masts on goalposts. Lewis fired a salvo of six torpedoes of which five were believed to have hit, causing the target to break in two and disappear, but nothing further could be confined by the assessment team and the sinking was never credited to STERLET.
Long after the war it was revealed that the intelligence center at Pearl Harbor had intercepted an Ultra message reporting that a ship identified as the TAMON MARU #4 of unspecified type and tonnage had been sunk at the time of STERLET’s attack. However, no ship of that name could be found in Japanese records. A compilation of Japanese ship losses made under the direction of General MacArthur’s staff did list a commercial cargo ship named DAIAI MARU as missing on 4 March somewhere between Tokyo and Muroran, a port on the northern island of Hokkaido, and presumed sunk by a submarine, but there were no other details. 3 Errors in the compilation were not uncommon, including numerous other ships listed incorrectly as sunk by submarines, so the loss of DAIAI MARV appeared to be most likely just another erroneous listing.
In 1991 a Japanese researcher named Shinshichiro Komamiya had privately published a book called Senii Sempaku Shi or Wartime Ships History, in which are compiled the records of thousands of Japanese merchant ships lost during the war. Unfortunately for most U.S. students of the submarine war, this volume has never been published in English translation. However, a few English-speaking buffs have learned enough Japanese on their own to make use of this and other Japanese-language sources. I am indebted to Mr. William G. Somerville of Lincolnshire, England for his translation of portions of the Japanese history dealing with Submarine attacks. His account of DAIAI MARV reads as follows:
DAIAI MARU (6,919 tons), Osaka Shosen Co. Completed 22nd January, 1945. At 1600 on the 4th of March, 1945 this ship left Tokyo Harbour bound for Muroran on an independent voyage. On the 10th while off the southern part of Hokkaido during a dark night she was torpedoed and sunk. All on board, 70 crewmen and passengers lost their lives.
Somerville went on to say:
The book Japanese Merchant Ships at War, the story of the MITSUI and the OSAKA shipping lines, states: Japanese records indicate that the ship, while proceeding from Tokyo to Muroran, was torpedoed and sunk on the J0 1 h of March, 1945 off Kamaishi with the loss of all hands; US records carry no mention of the attack.”
There are obvious contradictions between the U.S. and Japanese records, but they are of a type common in wartime records and easily explained. The ship that STERLET attacked was brand new and unlisted in any recognition manual, and was seen only as a silhouette in the gloom. That it was misidentified as a tanker rather than a cargo ship was not unusual. The Ultra translators had the name wrong, a common occurrence in reading intercepts that were often incomplete and trying to interpret the ambiguous Japanese Kanji characters. The DAIAI MARU was not sunk on either the 4th or 1Oth of March; rather, those were the dates when she left Tokyo and was expected to have arrived at Muroran. The port of Kamaishi, on the northern stretch of Honshu’s east coast, is near where she could have been on the 9th or early on the 10th. However, the fact that the ship was unescorted and that all hands were lost obviously made it impossible for the Japanese to know positively where and when the sinking actually occurred.
The geographic position where STERLET’ s attack occurred, 34- 56N 140-lSE, is indeed where a ship would likely have been a day after leaving Tokyo, rounding the point of Nojima Zaki, and heading northeast. In my opinion, skipper Hugh Lewis and STERLET deserve belated credit for sinking the 6,919-ton DAIAI MARU on the night of 5 March 1945.