The USS Albacore SS 218 and her Sponsor – February 1942

The story of World War 2 is always a combination of the stories of the ships that served and the men who were involved in their lives. This story is about the USS Albacore, but it is also a story about some of the men who were around when she was launched.

The ship’s sponsor was married to one of the key commanders in Pre-war New London and their part in this story is interesting because of the dynamics of a peacetime Navy.

First, the launching of the boat

USS Albacore (SS-218) was a Gato-class submarine which served in the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II, winning the Presidential Unit Citation and nine battle stars for her service. During the war, she was credited with sinking 13 Japanese ships (including two destroyers, the light cruiser Tenryū and the aircraft carrier Taihō) and damaging another five; not all of these credits were confirmed by postwar JANAC accounting.

Newspaper clipping from February 20, 1942

 

Albacore was the second vessel of the United States Navy to be named for the albacore. Her keel was laid on 21 April 1941 by the Electric Boat Company in Groton, Connecticut. She was launched on 17 February 1942 sponsored by Mrs. Elise Riles Cutts and commissioned on 1 June 1942. Being the sponsor for a ship or boats launching is a very high honor. Having been on a new commissioning submarine, I remember the relationship we had with sponsor for the life of the boat. One of my dearest friends was the sponsor for the USS Pittsburgh and she and I have exchanged emails for a long time. It was a proud moment.

Mrs. Elise Riles Cutts was the wife of Captain Elwin Fisher Cutts.

A brief history history about Captain Cutts. At the time of the launching, he was serving as both SUBMARINE SQUADRON ONE and SUBMARINE BASE, NEW LONDON. Captain Elwin Fisher Cutts (USNA Class of 1908) was a submariner early in his career and served aboard the USS Pigeon in the Far East in the 1920’s. His command before reporting to New London was Captain of the battleship USS Pennsylvania (BB 38) from 19 Jun 1939- 27 Feb 1941. He became the Commander of Submarine Base New London on 1 Apr 1941 through 21 Jan 1944. He was also Acting Commander Submarines Atlantic Fleet from 3 Jan 1942 – 30 Mar 1942 and according to the 1944 book titled United States Submarines, written by Robert Hatfield Barnes, he oversaw the launching of many submarines during his tour.

USS Pennsylvania

Commanding a first line battleship was certainly a noteworthy achievement. When you look over the rolls of men who graduated from the US Naval Academy, it is easy to see that not everyone reached that level. Captain Cutts had survived the peacetime Navy where congress cut money and men like so many chaffs of wheat. Gaining command of the Pennsylvania was something to be proud of. A follow-on tour at one of the bigger bases on the east coast must have also been a very large plum. There is even a famous picture of Cutts riding in the open limousine with President Roosevelt.

Navy wives at that time lived a unique life. Their society was very closed and the higher the rank and assignment of your husband, the more the wife would feel elevated. There are legends told of captains and admirals wives creating all sorts of disturbances when they were crossed by some underling. The rest of this story comes from unsubstantiated reports close to the story and should be taken on face value.

Commander Cassin Young (USNA Class of 16) was also a submariner in his earlier career and served as the Executive Officer of the submarine base from July of 1939 – November of 1941. His role as Executive was important since he oversaw the expenditure of millions of dollars in base improvements in the key months before the war began. He was a faithful steward of those funds and that cost him when Captain Cutts wife became insistent about upgrading her quarters. Since all of the housing units had been refurbished shortly before Cutts took over as CO, Young pushed back.

While there is no proof that he was going to be on the receiving end of a retribution, several facts are known. Instead of getting a shot at commanding one of the new warships that were joining the fleet every day, Young found himself being sent to serve on board one of the oldest ships in the Navy, the USS Vestal.

Secondly, the Vestal was a repair ship stationed in Hawaii which meant that not only would Young be commanding an old ship, but he also had to move halfway around the world. He was a 47-year-old in his 25th year of service and the way the Navy operated; this was basically the end of his career. The move must have been hard on the family. The wife and children moved back to California and Cassin Young sailed on the steamship Lurline by himself to take charge of the Vestal on November 19, 1941.

On the morning of December 7th, Young was living on board the Vestal and was preparing to go golfing with some friends when the arrival of the Japanese planes changed the world forever

By the time the Albacore arrived in theater, American submarines had been striking hard at the Japanese fleet.

Following shakedown, the submarine proceeded via the Panama Canal to Pearl Harbor and, from that base on 28 August 1942, began her first war patrol, to waters of the north and northeast pass through the coral reef which surrounds Truk. On 13 September, Albacore sighted two cargo vessels in column and prepared for her first combat action. She made a submerged approach and fired three torpedoes at the leading ship and two at the second. One or two torpedoes hit on the first ship; none struck the second. Albacore claimed to have damaged the leading vessel.

Her next enemy contact came on 1 October when she made a night surface attack on a Japanese tanker. She expended seven torpedoes and scored two hits. Although the tanker appeared to be low in the water, she was still able to leave the scene under her own power. On 9 October, Albacore spotted a Shōkaku-class aircraft carrier escorted by a heavy cruiser and a destroyer, but the submarine was depth charged by the escorts and forced to break off her pursuit. The next day, she attacked a freighter. One torpedo hit the mark, and 12 minutes after firing, the sound of two heavy explosions caused the submarine’s crew to presume they had downed the vessel.

Beginning on the mid-morning of 11 October, Albacore was depth charged numerous times. At 1548, the conning officer finally spotted the Japanese attackers, two submarine chasers and an airplane. A third ship equipped with sound gear joined the group and continued the hunt. The ships crisscrossed over Albacore, close enough for propeller noise to reverberate throughout her hull and compelled her to proceed at silent running, with her ventilator fans shut down. After a chase of nearly seven hours, the Japanese ships disappeared astern, and Albacore then surfaced to clear the immediate area. The next day, Albacore headed for Midway Island. Although she had had several opportunities to score during the patrol, Albacore was not credited with any damage to Japanese shipping. The submarine arrived at Midway Island on 20 October and commenced a refit.

With her refurbishing completed and a new Oerlikon 20 mm cannon installed, Albacore sailed on 11 November for her second patrol. Her assigned areas were the St. George’s Channel, New Britain, along the east coast of New Guinea to Vitiaz Strait, and the Dallman Pass off Madang harbor. On 24 November, the submarine spotted a convoy of two cargo vessels. Albacore maneuvered into position and fired two stern tubes, but neither torpedo found its target. Two days later, on 26 November, Albacore herself became the quarry. Two Japanese destroyers depth charged her and the explosions caused numerous small leaks around the cable packing glands in the pressure hull. After a two-hour chase, the Japanese retired, and Albacore shifted her patrol area to Vitiaz Strait. Another golden opportunity arose on 13 December, when Albacore found three Japanese destroyers. She released a three-torpedo spread but again was unsuccessful. On 18 December, Albacore was stationed off Madang. The submarine discovered what seemed to be a transport and a destroyer.

Albacore torpedoed the “transport,” and it exploded in a mass of flames and sank. Albacore had in fact downed the light cruiser Tenryū, the second Japanese cruiser sunk by an American submarine in World War II. Albacore put into port at Brisbane, Australia, on 30 December.

Continuing to make patrols throughout 1943, she racked up more kills.

Albacore’s seventh patrol began on 12 October 1943. She fired six torpedoes at a large merchant ship on 25 October but recorded no hits. On 6 November, she received a report of a convoy which had been spotted by Steelhead, and began to search for it. On 8 November, the submarine found the convoy and started to track it. However, a plane from the Fifth Army Air Force bombed her and caused her to lose contact with the Japanese ships. The submarine sustained no damage.

Albacore was again bombed by American aircraft on 10 November. This time, the submarine suffered considerable damage. All auxiliary power was knocked out, and the submarine was plunged into total darkness. The main induction valve went under water before it was shut, and it began filling up with water. Albacore plunged to a depth of 450 feet (140 m) before her dive was checked. For the next two and one-half hours, she bounced between 30 feet (10 m) and 400 feet (120 m) while at various attitudes. She finally managed to return to the surface with her trim almost restored. The submarine re-submerged, and it was decided to continue the patrol while simultaneously making necessary repairs.

Ultimately, she would finish her patrols and head back to Pearl. Once there, she was directed to Mare Island for additional repairs. Albacore left Mare Island on 5 May 1944 and held training exercises with USS Shad en route to Hawaii. Albacore reached Pearl Harbor on 13 May and spent the next two weeks on final repairs and training. Albacore began her ninth patrol on 29 May and was assigned waters west of the Mariana Islands and around the Palau Islands. In the next few days, she made only one contact, a Japanese convoy which she encountered on 11 June. But before the submarine could maneuver into attack position, a Japanese aircraft forced her to dive and lose contact.

Albacore (SS-218) Crew Party during Mare Island overhaul, May 1944. In less than six months most of the men pictured here would be K.I.A.

 

Sinking the Taiho

On the morning of June 18th, 1944, two days after American forces began landing on Saipan, Albacore shifted from her position west of the Marianas to a new location 100 miles further south. Admiral Nimitz had ordered this move in the hope of enabling the submarine to intercept a Japanese task force under Admiral Ozawa reportedly steaming from Tawi Tawi toward Saipan. At about 0800 the next morning, 19 June, Albacore raised her periscope and found herself in the midst of Ozawa’s main carrier group. Blanchard allowed one Japanese carrier to pass unharmed and selected a second one for his target. He fired six bow tubes. Three Japanese destroyers immediately charged Albacore. While the submarine was diving to escape, her crew heard one solid torpedo explosion. About that same time, 25 depth charges began raining down on the submarine. Then Blanchard heard “a distant and persistent explosion of great force” followed by another.

One of the torpedoes had hit Ozawa’s flagship, the 31,000-ton carrier Taiho, the newest and largest floating air base in the Japanese fleet. The explosion jammed the enemy ship’s forward aircraft elevator, and filled its pit with gasoline, water, and aviation fuel. However, no fire erupted, and the flight deck was unharmed. Ozawa was unconcerned by the hit and launched two more waves of aircraft. Meanwhile, a novice took over the damage control responsibilities. He believed that the best way to handle gasoline fumes was to open up the ship’s ventilation system and let them disperse throughout the ship. This action turned the ship into a floating time bomb. At 1330, a tremendous explosion jolted Taiho and blew out the sides of the carrier. Taiho began to settle in the water and was clearly doomed. Although Admiral Ozawa wanted to go down with the ship, his staff persuaded him to transfer to the cruiser Haguro. After Ozawa left, Taiho was torn by a second explosion and sank stern first, carrying down 1,650 officers and men.

No one on Albacore thought Taiho had sunk. Blanchard was angry for “missing a golden opportunity.” After this action, Albacore was assigned lifeguard duty for planes striking Yap and Ulithi. On 2 July, Albacore shifted over to intercept traffic between Yap and the Palaus. The submarine spotted a wooden, inter-island steamer loaded with Japanese civilians. Blanchard decided to stage a surface gun attack. After insuring the ship was afire, Albacore dived to avoid an airplane. The submarine surfaced soon thereafter and picked up five survivors.

Albacore put in to Majuro on 15 July. She was praised for an aggressive patrol and received credit for damaging a Shokaku-class carrier. American codebreakers lost track of Taiho after the Battle of the Philippine Sea and, while puzzled, did not realize that she had gone down. “Months and months went by,” Blanchard recalled. “Then they picked up a POW someplace who said Taiho went down in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Even then,intelligence was doubtful. So I said, ‘Keep him alive until he convinces them.'” After confirmation finally had been obtained, Blanchard was awarded a Navy Cross.

After a refit alongside Bushnell (AS-15), the submarine began her 10th patrol on 8 August. Her assignment was the Bungo Suido-Kii Suidp area; and, during this period, Albacore was credited with sinking two Japanese vessels, a cargo ship and a submarine chaser. The patrol ended at Pearl Harbor on 25 September.

Albacore (SS-218) at Seedler Harbor in July 1944 after a refit alongside Euryale(AS-22), the submarine began her 10th patrol on 8 August. Her assignment was the Bungo Suido-Kii Suido area, and, during this period, Albacore was credited with sinking two Japanese vessels, a cargo ship and a submarine chaser. The patrol ended at Pearl Harbor on 25 September.

Loss of the Albacore

Albacore left Pearl Harbor on 24 October 1944, topped up her fuel tanks at Midway Island on 28 October, and was never heard from again. According to Japanese records captured after the war, a submarine (presumed to be Albacore) struck a naval mine very close to the shore off northeastern Hokkaidō on 7 November 1944. A Japanese patrol boat witnessed the explosion of a submerged submarine and saw a great deal of heavy oil, cork, bedding, and food supplies rise to the surface. On 21 December, Albacore was presumed lost with all hands. Her name was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on 30 March 1945.

Albacore won the Presidential Unit Citation for her second, third, eighth, and ninth patrols and nine battle stars for her service during World War II.

She also holds the distinction of sinking the highest warship tonnage of any U.S. submarine.

The nation remains grateful to the men who sailed these iron coffins.

Postscript

Captain Cutts finished the war in New London. He retired and is buried in Arlington Cemetery. Commander Young would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions at Pearl Harbor on December 7th and the old repair ship he saved would sail on to see the Japanese defeated. Young became a Captain and finally got his warship four days before the most significant battle of the war – The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. His story will be told more fully in my upcoming book “Every Moment Mattered – the life of Captain Cassin Young”.

Mister Mac

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