Midway: What about the Boats?

In all the stories you see and read about Midway, the focus is on the surface and air activity.

Yet one of the assets the Pacific fleet had plenty of were the submarines. Submarine activity up until June 4th of 1942 had demonstrated capabilities beyond what the original concept was thought of. Certainly intercepting warships and merchant shipping would remain the most critical task of the submarine fleet. But many missions would keep the boats busy as the Navy decided the best course to pursue the enemy.

Recently, I discovered a section of the Naval Heritage and History Center called:

Midway Plan of the Day Notes

FOR THE FLEET May 29 – June 4

(What follows are the actual notes about submarine activities before, during, and after the Battle of Midway.)

USS Nautilus


Nautilus Patch

  • “Although LCDR William H. Brockman, Jr., CO of submarine Nautilus (SS-168), had been given command of the boat without the usual PCO training, he foresightedly ordered his radiomen to monitor the aircraft search frequency in advance of the time in the operations orders. Thus prepared ahead of time, Nautilus intercepted the contact report that told of the enemy’s proximity. Nautilus would find herself in the middle of the Japanese carrier force, and cause such consternation that the destroyer Arashi was detached to drive her off or sink her. Arashi’s haste to rejoin the main Japanese force attracted the attention of LCDR C. Wade McClusky, Commander, Enterprise Air Group, the former CO of VF-6, who decided to follow the enemy ship when he had not found the Japanese where expected. McClusky’s dive bombers and the Yorktown Air Group strike arrived almost simultaneously over the Kido Butai, and changed the course of the Pacific War soon thereafter.”

From the war reports:

At 07:55, 4 June, while approaching the northern boundary of her patrol area near Midway Island, she sighted masts on the horizon. Japanese planes sighted the submarine at the same time and began strafing. After diving to 100 feet (30 m), she continued observation. At 08:00, a formation of four enemy ships was sighted: the battleship Kirishima, the cruiser Nagara, and two destroyers (misidentified, as they often were early in the war, as cruisers) in company. Within minutes the submarine was again sighted from the air and was bombed. Two of the “cruisers” closed for a kill and nine depth charges were dropped at a distance of about 1,000 yards (910 m).

When the attack ceased, Nautilus rose to periscope depth. Ships surrounded her. Sighting on Kirishima, she fired two bow tubes; one misfired, one missed. At 08:30, a destroyer immediately headed for the boat, which dove to 150 feet (46 m) to wait out the depth charge attack. At 08:46, periscope depth was again ordered. The cruiser and two of the destroyers were now out of range; echo ranging by the third appeared too accurate for comfort. At 09:00, the periscope was raised again and an aircraft carrier was sighted. Nautilus changed course to close for an attack. The enemy destroyer followed suit and at 09:18 attacked with six depth charges.

USS Trout

Trout  Trout 2

  • “As part of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz’s plans to meet the expected Japanese attack on Midway, Rear Admiral Robert H. English gave a dozen submarines the basic task of defending the atoll. One of those boats, Trout, had made three war patrols since the war began, and had an experienced commander, Lt. Comdr. Frank W. “Mike” Fenno, the oldest of all the submarine C.O.’s involved in the Battle of Midway. Fenno’s boat had already earned fame for bringing out the gold from the Philippine treasury. While detection by Japanese planes forced Trout down several times, limiting her effectiveness, the boat rescued two Japanese sailors on 9 June 1942, survivors of the sunken heavy cruiser Mikuma, who provided much useful intelligence material. Her retrieval of the enemy bluejackets proved the precursor of more involved submarine rescue efforts as the war progressed.”

The Trout completed 10 war patrols. On her 11th, she refueled at Midway Island before sailing off into history in February 1944. Japanese records indicate she was probably sunk in an attack on the 29th of February. She was carrying the Mk. XVIII electric torpedoes, and it was also possible that one of those had made a circular run and sunk the boat, as happened with Tang.

On 17 April 1944, Trout was declared presumed lost with all 81 hands, including Commander Clark and his executive officer, Lt. Harry Eades Woodworth, both of whom had made all 11 war patrols.

USS Tambor


  • “Lt. Comdr. John W. “Spuds” Murphy, commanding the submarine Tambor, had been in command of that boat since the start of the war; Tambor had made two war patrols. During the mid watch on 5 June 1942, ignorant of the location of friendly forces, Murphy spotted four ships on the horizon that proved to be four Japanese heavy cruisers. When carrying out emergency evasive maneuvers, two of the enemy ships, Mikuma and Mogami, collided. Without firing a torpedo, Tambor had caused damage to two ships, one of which, Mikuma, was sunk by U.S. carrier-based planes on 6 June.”

The main contribution the Tambor and her sister boats ended up being that the Japanese were forced to take her presence into account as they prepared for each part of the attack. Sadly, her commanding officer failed to pursue the enemy and was relived of command upon return to Pearl Harbor. The boat itself went on to a great career in the Pacific and earned 11 Battle Stars.

USS Grouper


  • “The new Gato-class boat Grouper, under Lt. Comdr. Claren E. “Duke” Duke, had yet to make a war patrol, and when attempting to get close enough to carry out an attack on the Japanese ships, found herself frequently under attack from aircraft. Diving to avoid one such attack on the afternoon of 5 June, Grouper plunged to an estimated 600 foot depth. The investigation for damage showed several electrical cables “pushed in a couple inches,” while cast iron plugs in the water manifolds for the generator coolers flew around the engine room “like machine gun bullets,” while water poured in through the stern tubes. The Mare Island Navy Yard product, however, proved tough, and survived the mishap, while “everyone had a few more gray hairs.”

Grouper was assigned to the submarine screen which ringed the area as the American and Japanese fleets clashed in the decisive battle. Patrolling the fringe of the fighting 4 June, Grouper sighted two burning enemy aircraft carriers, but could not close for attack because of heavy air cover. On that day she was strafed by fighter planes and driven deep in a series of aircraft and destroyer attacks which saw over 170 depth charges and bombs dropped on the novice submarine.

The next day, as the battle still raged, Grouper crash-dived to avoid heavy bombers. When you think about it, this was quite a baptism of fire for the boat. In addition to receiving ten battle stars, the Grouper went on to help the submarine force grow by serving as a great platform for development. Incredibly, she  served until 1968 as an experimental platform.

In the traditional sense, the twelve submarines present at Midway did not accomplish as much as they would later in the war. Many fault their positioning (close in rather than on extended patrol where they could have caught the enemy on their way in). The experience proved that a defensive posture for these boats would not gain as much as an offensive role.

Problems with the torpedoes were still being identified and even if they had been in the proper position, there is no proof that they would have been any more successful. It would take dedicated work by Admiral Lockwood’s team to finally solve the mysterious issues that plagued the weapons. What is decidedly important though is that fleet submarine tactics were improved from that day and the Submarine Force continued to learn lessons that would make them the killing force that helped to turn the tide of the war.

Submarines continue to play a vital role in the defense of this nation. As new enemies emerge, the lessons learned by these brave denizens of the deep will prepare new generations of hunter killers.

Mister Mac

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8 thoughts on “Midway: What about the Boats?

  1. BZ. If you haven’t already, post on messdeck. Mention subs in title; start out with something like…Three diesel boats….BTW– you a USVI member? I forget. NancySubsister

    1. Thanks Nancy. I have put it up on mesdecks, and yes I am part of USSVI. Not very active in years past because of work but trying to get better.

  2. Might I suggest my book “Midway Submerged” which deals with both U.S. and Japanese submarines during the Battle of Midway. It’s available at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble (bn.com). Thanks!

    Mark Allen

  3. Your blog highlights well the problem plaguing the submariners at the onset of war. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Japanese had nearly perfected their “Long Lance”.

    1. The American Navy was a very proud and stoic organization between the wars. The problems with the torpedoes were probably more widely known than is currently accepted but the use of torpedoes was not as well supported. Most of the cruisers we went to war with had actually lost their torpdo launchers in the late 30’s since fleet doctrine did not envision their use as a “tactical” weapon”. You are dead on about the long lance though. It was a powerful weapon that gave them great advantage in the battles near Savo. In the next few months, I will be writing about some of the great naval battles of 42. Our cruiser fleet, which naturally carried the brunt of the battles after Pearl, paid a dear price for this mistake. I served on five submarines. The third was the USS San Francisco and we got a chance to spend time with the men who sailed the WW2 cruiser. Those guys were real sailors in my book.

      1. Thank you for serving our country, sir. The facts of WWII are coming to be seen in a new light. One possibly good example are the PT boats made famous by JFK. I have read these PT boats actually had minimal impact on Japanese naval vessels.

        You are blessed having known those men. While I have written a bit on “Old Man Jack”, his neighbor was a decorated Marine serving on board the Big E during the Solomon Islands Campaign and the Battle of Midway of which your blot is about.

      2. Thank you for serving our country, sir. The facts of WWII are coming to be seen in a new light. One possibly good example are the PT boats made famous by JFK. I have read these PT boats actually had minimal impact on Japanese naval vessels.

        You are blessed having known those men. While I have written a bit on “Old Man Jack”, his neighbor was a decorated Marine serving on board the Big E during the Solomon Islands Campaign and the Battle of Midway of which your blog is about.

  4. I served on Grouper from October 1967 to dec 1968 and was part of the decommissioning crew. Igroiper was scrapped at the Charlestown, MA Navy yard after she was decommissioned and through mutual friends like the late Captain Joe Beard who was also a reserve co oh the boat I obtained several artifacts from the boat. I have the conning tower to control room ladder and after battery topside hatch along with several other pieces. While on board Grouper I qualified in submarines and frequently marveled at the plaque in the forward battery that recorded the Grouper going to 715 feet during a depth charge attack to avoid being sunk. During my time on Grouper she was the oldest commissioned sub in the fleet at 26 yrs old and we won the Navy E award in 1968 in spite of her age. My time inboard was exciting and memorable
    And gave me fond memories and many great shipmates. I was an Elwctricians Mate 2nd class and retired in 1991 from the isn’t as a Chief Electrician

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