December 10 – The Loss of the First Sealion


The attack at Pearl Harbor was barely finished when the predicted attacks in the Philippines began. In order for the Japanese empire to complete their planned establishment of a Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere, the Philippines would have to be “liberated” from the American’s influence. A casual study of that part of the world shows that the oil and food that would be needed to satisfy the growing Japanese empire could easily be obtained form the vast resources in the southern Pacific. The small Japanese islands were hardly capable of supplying the basic needs of her own people at home no less the far flung forces of its marauding armies. Like a giant hungry tiger, she was consuming as much as her army and navy could take in a furious march across the hemisphere.


The Philippines were the key to her ability to anchor her gains. These beautiful islands lay across the jugular of the Japanese lifeline and could provide food, slave labor and a launching point to repel the return of the Americans when they came to life. For now, in December 1941, the islands lay like glistening diamonds on a beach, only slightly out of reach by the American presence. The Japanese air forces would soon make short shrift of those forces. Despite warnings form the War Department, much of her air forces had been caught on the ground. This loss laid the ground and naval forces open and vulnerable to the fierce attacks to follow.

American submarines had operated in and around the Philippines for decades prior to the war, The smaller “S” boats (Sugar Boats) had deployed to the Asiatic fleet in 1924 for a two year rotation and never left. These boats had many limitations for a broader role in a full scale war but had proven their ability to operate successfully in the Asiatic theater. Year after year until 1940, squadrons of them cycled between Subic Bay through the Indonesian islands and into China. Boats of Sub Ron Five were the schools for a generation of American submariners and produced many of the men who would ultimately help to win the war.

But on December 10th, the USS Sea Lion, a Sargo class  became the first American Submarine to be lost in combat. Her story is told by Paul W. Wittmer and Charles R. Hinman, originally from:U.S. Submarine Losses World War II, NAVPERS 15,784, 1949 ISSUE

An in depth reading of the loss can also be found here:

The original Sealion would be replaced in 1943 by a submarine of the same name.

USS Sealion (SS/SSP/ASSP/APSS/LPSS-315), a Balao-class submarine, was the second ship of the United States Navy to be named for the sea lion, any of several large, eared seals native to the Pacific. She is sometimes referred to as Sealion II, because her first skipper, Lieutenant Commander Eli Thomas Reich, was a veteran of the first Sealion, serving on her when she was lost at the beginning of World War II.

The second Sealion more than lived up to her name participating in many of the major events of the rest of the Pacific campaign.

Earlier this year I got a chance to visit another Balao class boat that came after her: USS Lionfish in Battleship Cove near Boston Massachusetts. It is a fitting tribute to all the men who sailed on those submersible ships in a time of great concern for freedom in the world.  From the dark days of December 1941, submarines would play a pivotal role in the liberation of entire nations as well as the protection of the United States.


The lesson for the ages is the need for any nation that wishes to remain a significant force in the world to have a submarine force that is capable of projecting a world wide influence when it is needed. That force must be maintained in times of peace as well as war.

Mister Mac

By the way, some really great pictures and stories of the first Sealion SS 195 can be found over at our favorite submarine web site

17 thoughts on “December 10 – The Loss of the First Sealion

  1. A lot of people know of Pearl Harbor but at the same time all hell broke out at many other locations. This was not a spur of the moment decision by the Japanese but well planned and carried out with prejudice.

    1. 52 US Navy Submarines were lost in World War 2. As a submariner, I have never forgotten the men nor the boats that served so wonderfully in a time the world needed them most. Your point about each person making a very individual sacrifice is very important to remember.

  2. I notice that you refer to the submarines a “ships” I’ve always understood them to be boats not ships, but that maybe because I’m not American and erhaps you class them as ships. t. All he BritishNavies class them as boats as do the Germans think U-boats.

    The RN’s used a simple explanation to class a ship and a boat which goes something like this ‘ A ship carries a boat! A boat doesn’t carry a ship”

    1. Having sailed on five boats, I appreciate your comments. We do call them boats as well but the formal classification in the US Navy Register for Submarine Boats is “Ship”.

  3. Maybe ,Cindy, Maybe not. But Australia would have been invaded if the US had not won the Battle of the Coral Sea I know that is for sure.

  4. Excellent look back into that piece of history on the Sealion.
    Was interesting to note that American submarines operated around the Phillipines long before the outbreak of the war.
    Thanks for sharing, a great read.

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