Mr. Messner served in DIODON in the fifties. He stays in touch as a Life Member of both the Naval Submarine League and US Sub Vets, Inc. He is an associate member of WWII Sub Vets.
Several years ago my interest was kindled about the history of submarine operations in WWII. After many years of gathering dust on my bookshelf, I reread Theodore Roscoe’s Submarine Operations in WWII and Clay Blair’s Silent Victory, together considered the two best reference books documenting submarine operations in WWII. This was just the tip of the iceberg, and since then I have devoured every credible book I could find about the subject, but the subject expanded to include not just submarine operations but also surface operations, major battles and even the intelligence aspect-over 100 to date.
Becoming familiar with all the names of the atolls, islands, archipelagos, bays and seas found in the Pacific and then locating them on a map was indeed a challenge. For me, this was a necessity as a map is worth a thousand words and their location would give me a better understanding of the strategic significance of the naval operations and engagements. Modem atlases are of limited help because of many name changes created by newly found independence of many of the islands. So, with the help of a couple of 1945 edition atlases purchased thru the internet, and using a couple of internet search engines, I located most everything. Everything, that is, except those elusive islands referred to as the Mandates.
I knew the Mandates must have some strategic importance because too many authors alluded to them in that manner yet none defined what constituted the Mandates. I found the Gilberts, Marshalls, Solomons, Philippines, Marianas, Timor, Morotai, New Caledonia, Espiritu Santo (New Hebrides), Bismarck Archipelago, Carolines, Bonins and even French Frigate Shoal, but the Mandates were elusive. They were not in any atlas’ index and not to be found anywhere in the Central or South Pacific.
Back to the internet and more research. With patience and perseverance, I discovered that the Mandates were not an independent group of islands or atolls but actually consisted of three separate groups of islands; the Marshalls, Carolines and Marianas (less Guam). Further, they were under Japanese control prior to WWII – since 1920 to be exact.
The major atolls of the Marshalls consisted of Majuro (future US advanced sub base), Eniwetok, Bikini, Jaluit, Wotje and Kwajalein. The Carolines included Truk(a major Japanese naval base), Ponape, Woleai, Ulithi and Yap. The Marianas included Tinian (future US B-29 base), Saipan and Rota.
Now, the significance of the Mandates starts to become apparent. But one question still remains-how did Japan get control over these island in 1920? To get that answer, one has to go back in history prior to the Spanish-American War of 1898.
In 1885, Germany tried with little success to establish a colony in the Marshalls but in the process laid claim to them. During WWI, as Japan had declared war on Germany, Japan seized the islands and began to occupy them.
After the Spanish defeat in the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded their interest in the Philippines to the US and sold their interest in the Carolines to Germany. Again Japan took the opportunity during WWI to seize the Carolines and began to occupy them.
Similarly, after the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded the southern part of the Marianas to the US (basically Guam) and sold the northern half to Germany. Immediately upon declaration of war with Germany in August of 1914, Japan proceeded to land troops and occupy the island of Saipan.
Now enter the League of Nations to divy up the spoils of war after the WWI truce. Because of Japan’s actions against Germany, the League essentially acknowledged these actions and mandated administrative control of the Marshalls, Caro lines and the northern Marianas to Japan- hence the name Mandates. This happened in 1920.
At this time Guam and Wake Island were US territories and the Gilberts were British colonys. The Gilberts lay southeast of the Marshalls and included the atolls of Tarawa and Makin (a Japanese seaplane base in WWII) but were not part of the Mandates. All of these island groups collectively were known as the Greater Micronesia Islands and were part of Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere (the Japanese did invade and occupy the Gilberts 3 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor).
One can now begin to appreciate the significance of the Mandates in WWII. First, with Japan in control of all this territory in the mid Pacific, it’s understandable why the US’s political and military leaders anticipated any attack on Pearl Harbor, if any, would come from the southwest, i.e., the Mandates, specifically the Marshalls, not from the northwest as happened. This made logical sense as the Japanese would use their presence in this area to strategically isolate the Pearl Harbor fleet from coming to the aid of the Philippines where the threat of attack was considered most imminent.
Secondly, one can understand the importance and appreciate the dangers of the ComSubPac war patrols originating in Pearl Harbor and terminating in Australia, ComSubSoWesPac territory, and vice versa as they traversed right thru the middle of these enemy held waters.
The drive to reclaim the Central Pacific and the Mandates started with operation Galvanic in November ’43, the invasion of Tarawa and Makin in the Gilberts. This was over a year after the abortive Argonaut (SS-166) – Nautilus (SS-168) I Carson’s Raiders Marine commando raid in August ’42. The fifteen month delay was largely a function of lack of air support from the US fleet. After the loss of Wasp (CV-7) and Hornet (CV-8) in September and October of ’42 in battles of the Solomons, the US had only two operational carriers in the Pacific, SARATOGA (CV-3) and ENTERPRISE (CV-6). Because of enemy inflicted damage, only one carrier was able to be on station in the South Pacific at a time as the other was in Pearl Harbor or Puget Sound shipyard for repairs and upkeep. It wasn’t until November ’43 that the US fleet could muster up the required air superiority support with SARA TOGA, and the newly commissioned carriers ESSEX (CV-9), YORKTOWN (CV-10), LEXINGTON (CV-16), BUNKER HILL (CV-17) and PRINCETON (CVL-23) to commence the march on Tokyo via the Mandates.
According to Clay Blair in Silent Victory twelve submarines participated in operation Galvanic with NAUTILUS playing the most direct role. NAUTILUS did triple duty in that she performed lifeguard duty, reconnaissance duty and landed 78 Marines on Abemama, an atoll just south of Tarawa.
Five additional boats were patrolling to the west of the Gilberts waiting to intercept any Japanese reinforcements sent out from Truk. These included SubPac boats THRESHER (SS-200), APOGON (SS-308) and CORVJNA (SS-226) supplemented with SubSoWesPac boats DRUM (SS-228) and BLACK.FISH (SS-221).
Three Pearl boats, SEAL (SS-183), PLUNGER (SS-179) and SPEARFISH (SS-190), were patrolling in the Marshals to cut off any reinforcements sailing from Kwajalein, and two other Pearl boats, SEARAVEN (SS-196) and SCULPIN (SS-191 ), were positioned east of Truk by the islands of Oroluk and Ponape ready to intercept any traffic bound for the Gilberts via Kwajalein. Finally, the twelfth boat, PADDLE (SS-263), was assigned to weather watch and was positioned due west of the Gilberts.
The importance of taking the Gilberts as a first stepping stone to occupying and controlling the Mandates is seen in the number of submarines Admiral Lockwood assigned and the number of carriers Admiral Nimitz assigned to Operation Galvanic. The US was successful in its quest for the Gilberts, but the price was high- too high in some military leaders opinions.
Tarawa was by far the most costly. Nearly 1000 2nd Division Marines were killed at Tarawa and over 2000 were wounded. Conversely, almost the total garrison of 4800 Japanese soldiers was killed in the battle with only 17 taken as PoWs. Makin must have been a cake walk in comparison as less than 70 Army personnel from the 27’h Infantry Division were lost with an additional 150 wounded. The Marines on Abemama were unopposed.
In addition, the US 5’b Fleet assault/amphibious force lost the carrier LISCOMBE BAY (CVE-56) with over 700 lives. Two ComSubPac submarines were also lost. According to Silent Victory, CORVINA, BLACKFISH and DRUM had been alerted by an Ultra message that a Japanese submarine was in the area. Details are not known, but 1-176 caught CORVJNA on the surface and fired a spread of torpedoes inflicting mortal damage on her. This was CORVINA’s maiden patrol and was the only US sub positively lost to a Japanese sub. (The fate of 1-176 was sealed on 16 May 44 when in an ASW action US destroyers HAGGARD (DD-555) and FRANKS (DD-554) destroyed her north of Bougainville in the Solomons).
On 18 November, two days after CORVINA’s loss, SCULPIN, after suffering severe damage from a depth charge attack east of Truk, surfaced to fight it out with her deck gun. As Clay Blair puts it,” It was a one sided engagement with SCULPIN the loser”. With the CO and XO and Gunnery Officer killed on the bridge by mortar fire, the succeeding officer ordered abandon ship. It was here that Captain John Cromwell, riding the boat as wolf-pack commander decided to ride the boat down. He knew too much about the pending Gilbert Island invasion as well as the Ultra code and decided against capture. For this action, he was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.
Half the crew of SCULPIN perished. The rest (41 men) were picked up by the Japanese and sent to Truk for interrogation. They were soon put on two carriers for transport to Japan. One of the carriers, CHUYO, was sunk by SAILFISH, SS-192 (ex SQUALUS) on 4 Dec. The irony is that it was SCULPIN which had stood by and assisted in rescuing the crew of the SQUALUS in 1939. (The other carrier, UNYO, was later sunk by BARB, SS-220- sans prisoners.)
Operation Galvanic was the initial thrust in reclaiming the Gilberts and gaining control of the Mandates. Operation Flintlock (invasion of Kwajalein and Majuro), Operation Hailstone (bombing of Truk) and Operation Catchpole (invasion of Eniwetok) were all launched in February 1944 to further the Mandates campaign.