A Day at the Races – Submarine Skulduggery in the Home Islands 1942-1943

Skulduggery has been described as underhanded or unscrupulous behavior.

Using technology to sneak up on an enemy was once viewed by proper gentlemen as nothing more than skullduggery. In the nicest sort of way, that is what submarines are best at. I mean, how unfair is it that someone can sneak up on your homeland with their dreaded weapons of war and interupt your day at the races???

There is nothing more exciting to me than an adventure about a daring American Submarine Commander serving in the Pacific War that is the epitome of the word skulduggery. I often find these stories from snippets from old newspaper articles or while I am searching for other information. So today’s story is no exception.

I used two major sources for the story about a daring skipper and his incredibly brave crew.

Lt. Comdr. Thomas B. Klakring and the USS Guardfish SS 217

The first source comes from Time Life about a recent successful submarine raid on the coast of Japan (December 1942). This was an incredibly dangerous mission in those days. While Japan had suffered tremendous losses in the South Pacific in many major battles, she still had some of the better anti-submarine destroyers available to guard shipping in the home waters. They were supplemented by motivated airmen who wanted no more US incursions into the land of the Rising Sun. They were still stinging from the attack from Doolittle’s Raiders which exposed their real vulnerabilities. By December 1943, the tenacious assaults on the extended empire were being felt as well. So any attacks on their supply lines would be even more concerning.

The second source was a follow on story from the Associated Press.

How close were they?

Having an American submarine get this close to the home islands would have a material and symbolic impact. This particular attack by a submarine called the USS Guardfish would have a far reaching effect. It was only a little more than a year since the Pearl Harbor attack and the American people were desperate to see victories in the newspapers.

Klakring to the rescue

B. Klakring, the only child of Colonel and Mrs. Leslie Klakring, was born in Annapolis, Maryland graduated from the United States Naval Academy with the Class of 1927. Lieutenant Commander Klakring commanded USS Guardfish (SS-217), from her commissioning in May 1942 through her fourth war patrol in March–April 1943.

U.S. Naval Submarine Base, New London, Groton, Connecticut: Members of the 4th Command Class at the Submarine Base, February 1942. Those present are, bottom row left to right: Lieutenant Commander Mannert L. Abele; first command would be the Grunion (SS-216). He would be K.I.A. while commanding the Grunion, 30 July 1942. Lieutenant Commander Thomas B. Klakring; first command would be the Guardfish (SS-217), Commander Karl G. Hensel, Officer in Charge; Lieutenant Commander George W. Patterson, Jr., Senior Assistant; and Lieutenant Commander Jesse L. Hull; first command would be the Finback (SS-230). Top row, left to right: Lieutenant Commander Howard W. Gilmore; first command would be the Growler (SS-215). He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor after he was K.I.A. on the bridge of the Growler, 7 February 1943. Lieutenant Commander Philip H. Ross; first command would be the Halibut (SS-232), Lieutenant Commander Arthur H. Taylor; first command would be the Haddock (SS-231), Lieutenant Commander Albert C. Burrows; first command would be the Swordfish (SS-193) and Lieutenant Commander Leonard S. Mewhinney; first command would be the Saury (SS-189).

USS Guardfish’s first war patrol was in the previously  unpatrolled waters off northeast Honshū and southern Hokkaidō. Klakring worked out a tactic of getting inside of the sea lanes at night — just off the shore — to put his ship in position to attack the many ships moving along the coast. On 4 September, Klakring attacked a convoy off Kuji, sinking two ships; a third which had retreated into the harbor was then hit and sunk from a range of over 7,500 yards.

Without the benefit of sophisticated SONAR, Guardfish sighted, or torpedoed, 77 enemy vessels in about 35 days, during one of her war patrols.

In all, Guardfish sank five major cargo ships with a total tonnage of almost 17,000 tons, and damaged others. It was one of the most successful patrols of the war, and on Guardfish’s return, Klakring was decorated with the Navy Cross. In a rare press conference called to publicize the accomplishments of the ordinarily “Silent Service”, he embellished his success, spinning a yarn about being close enough to a town to see a horse race being run, “but we were just a little too far away to be sure which horse won.

From the Time Magazine Article:

“Not since Doolittle led the raid on Tokyo has the U.S. had a glimpse inside Japan. On that occasion the enemy was seen running helter-skelter from a rain of bombs. Last week the U.S. Navy got a report of a peep through a periscope. The enemy was at a horse race.

It was a Sunday afternoon. Lieut. Commander Thomas Burton Klakring had run his submarine smack up to Japan’s shore. Klakring raised his periscope. There was a big seaside town, a race track and a race, which “the whole town” had turned out to see. Klakring & crew placed some bets, “but we were just a little too far away to be sure which horse won.” Anyhow, they were there to provide more exciting diversion for the people of Japan.

One day at dusk they maneuvered into the middle of a coastwise convoy of six cargo ships and three small naval vessels. Away went the sub’s torpedoes and down went two Jap merchantmen. Klakring let his crew take a look through the periscope at “this very pretty sight.” When the other Jap ships, panic-stricken, turned and raced for the shore, Klakring surfaced and gave chase. He dogged one ship into a cove and plumped a torpedo into her middle. It was a lucky hit at long range. But, said Klakring, a soft-spoken Marylander, “If I had missed her I would have hit a large power plant on the water’s edge, where there was a tremendous tank of illuminating gas. I didn’t have time to shoot at this, although it would have made a gaudy fire. Besides, I had another target.”

His other target was one of the three remaining merchantmen, still outside the harbor. Coastal batteries lobbed shells at him, naval craft chased him as he ploughed off in pursuit of her. He submerged and let her have two torpedoes. “She sort of fell apart.”

No Cheers. Life after that continued to be eventful. Klakring & crew spotted an 8,000-ton transport in a harbor entrance, navigated the dangerous waters inshore and sank their fifth victim. Next “we got in a tussle with seven ships, a convoy of armed merchantmen and naval auxiliaries, all firing at us. The battle . . . lasted an hour and a half, us in the middle of them all the time.” Airplanes dropped depth bombs, which made a lot of noise but did no damage. This fight was also within sight of a staring audience on the shore, which inspired the mild Klakring and his crew. They sank a tanker and an armed freighter.

Guardfish (SS-217) gets a “going over”. Underwater explosion forms huge bubble and sends out percussion waves. Blast close aboard could crush pressure hull. Here the sub sustains a near miss. On same patrol, Guardfish watched a Honshu horse-race, sank 4 ships in a day, scored one of the wars longest torpedo shots. Drawing by Lt. Cmdr. Fred Freemen, courtesy of Theodore Roscoe, from his book “U.S. Submarine Operations of WW II”, published by USNI.

Before Klakring returned to Pearl Harbor he fell upon a cargo vessel plodding all alone up the coast. He torpedoed her and took her picture going down. The results of Klakring’s single cruise: sunk, eight ships totaling 70,000 tons; damaged and possibly sunk, four totaling 20,000 tons.

Last week Washington announced the toll of Japanese ships in the Navy’s merciless, little-publicized submarine campaign: sunk, 98; probably sunk, 22; damaged, 28. Like the beaches of the U.S. Atlantic coast, the neat white beaches of Japan were getting sprinkled with wreckage and soiled with oil.”

PEARL HARBOR—WATCHED JAP RACES FROM SUB Lt. Comdr. Thomas B. Klakring of Annapolis, Md„ commander of a United States submarine, was to receive the Navy Cross from Admiral Chester W. Nimitz here for the sinking of eight Jap cargo ships and damaging four others. His sub was so close to Japan that its crew could “watch the pony races at a big city track.”

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,774082,00.html#ixzz2B6gR67Vo

Another take on the original story came from the Associated Press:

Daring Sub Commander is Lauded

SEATTLE, Jan. 14 1943 (AP)

An American submarine, with the amazing record of having twice sunk two ships within 60 seconds of each other, was on the surface during an attack on a Japanese convoy.

“Captain. Captain.” the lookout shouted, “there’s an auxiliary cruiser out there shooting at us.” “Are they hitting us?’’ inquired the skipper. “No,” the lookout replied “Well, all right,” calmly rejoined Lieut. Commander Thomas B Klakring, who has dared move his submarine so close to the shores of Japan the crew could see a horse race in progress.

In a Navy – approved interview, Ensign Gilson Rohrback told about the convoy incident.


“The skipper liked to get up on the surface and travel,” Rohrback explained- “As a matter of fact, the merchantmen were shooting at us, too, with five-inch deck guns but it didn’t seem to bother the skipper. He stayed on the surface for an hour and a half trying to get another shot. (Rohrback had told earlier of the sub sinking two ships in the convoy, damaging a third, then deciding to surface). Then Jap planes came out and we pulled the cork and went down.” The ensign, who refers to Commander Klakring as “the sort of fellow who’s going to win this war,” said: “I feel as though I’ve learned quite a bit about Japan. We saw big Japanese cities and Jap trains, bases and ships.”

FOUR AT ONCE Among the eight ships credited to the sub, meaning a Japanese tonnage loss of 70,000, the ensign listed as the most remarkable the four blasted to the bottom within minutes of each other.

He emphasized that meant remarkable coordination because of the complex calculations involved. But how could they miss? Commander Klakring, the ensign said, “used to go in so close for torpedo shots that the concussion would be worse in the submarine than a lot of depth charges seem.”

Admiral Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, US Pacific Fleet, presents the Navy Cross to LCdr Thomas B. Klakring, Commanding Officer of Guardfish (SS-217).

On his second patrol, Klakring took Guardfish to the East China Sea, where he attacked a seven-ship convoy on 21 October, sinking two ships. For her outstanding success on these first two war patrols, Guardfish received a Presidential Unit Citation. Guardfish was sent to the Bismarck Sea for her third patrol. There Klakring sank another cargo ship and two Japanese naval vessels — Patrol Boat No. 1 and the destroyer Hakaze — near Kavieng, New Ireland.

What followed was nothing less than a brilliant accounting for the submarine service.

In November 1944, Klakring led a seven-sub wolfpack — “Burt’s Brooms” — from the Marianas to the Japanese home islands. Klakring chose John S. Coye’s Silversides as his flagship; the others were Saury, Tambor, Trigger, Burrfish, Sterlet, and Ronquil. Their mission was to ‘sweep’ Japanese patrol craft out of the way of a planned raid by Admiral William Halsey’s Fast Carrier Task Force. However, according to Jasper Holmes, one of the cryptographers at Station HYPO, “The Japanese responded to the raid by rushing additional patrol craft and air search planes into the area, and there were probably more pickets in the area after the sweep than there were when it started.”

Upon retirement in 1949, Captain Klakring received a tombstone promotion to the rank of rear admiral. He later served as vice president of the General Dynamics Corporation’s Electric Boat Division.

Klakring died on 24 July 1975 at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, California.

And what about Ensign Rohrback?

Dr. Gilson H. ROHRBACK Gilson was born on the 4th of July 1920 in Seattle and passed away on the 25th of August 2007, his 60th wedding anniversary, after a brief illness. He led a life of purpose and dedication. He is survived by his wife, Glenna; his sister, Frances Shearin of Minnesota; his brother, Stebbins Rohrback of Seattle; children, Gail Lauren, Brian Rohrback, and Joan Rohrback; and six grandchildren.

Gilson graduated from Ballard High School and from the University of Washington with a BS in chemistry prior to his involvement in World War II. During the war, he served in the Navy as an officer in the Submarine Service. He spent most of that time on the USS Narwhal in the Philippines and off the coast of Japan. His last assignment was at the Naval Submarine Research Labs in Washington, DC. By war’s end, he had achieved the grade of Lieutenant Commander.

Gilson returned to the UW and received a PhD in Chemistry in 1949. He moved to Southern California to work in the oil industry as a scientist for Chevron Research. A restless man, Gilson followed a dream and started a specialty chemical company (Magna Corporation, 1951), which he built over 25 years to be a world-wide manufacturer. Magna became a significant force in water treating and oil field additives; the company was purchased by Baker Hughes in 1977. Gilson then started Rohrback Instrument Company, which was sold in 1984 and is now Rohrback Cosasco Systems. A man of many talents, Gilson loved to write. He has written a poetry book with pictures by Nancy Taylor Stonington, a book concerning the gas shortage and energy crisis and was working on one about his experiences in World War II. He balanced business with science, functioning as the CEO of his varied enterprises, but still finding time to develop new technologies. He is the holder of many patents, some of which were responsible for starting entirely new ways of solving problems in oil field and water treatment.

more about him in a future article…

What about the USS Guardfish?

Guardfish earned 11 battle stars for her World War II service. Her first, second, third, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and eleventh war patrols (all except for the fourth and tenth) were designated successful. Guardfish also earned one Presidential Unit Citation for her first and second war patrols, and a second for her eighth patrol.

Of about 250 American submarines which conducted combat patrols in World War II, Guardfish ranked 13th in total tonnage sunk (72,424 tons) and tied for 8th in number of ships sunk with 19.

Guardfish was the subject of an article in the 14 December 1942 edition of TIME magazine. The article, titled Battle of the Pacific: A Day at the Races and written by an embedded Times staff writer (Clay Blair?), describes the Guardfish, either the 1st or 2nd war patrol and Commander Klakring’s famed sneak into Tokyo Bay; Close enough to watch the horse races through the periscope.

Guardfish life on patrol was predominately displayed in the much longer article, featured in the 15 March 1943 publication of LIFE magazine.

The article is titled “West to Japan”. US sub patrols the Japanese Coast, watches Horse-races and sinks 70,000 tons of Japanese shipping. By John Field.

The article is over 4,000 words and depicts life aboard a submarine, both exciting and mundane. Byline: “This story has 50 heroes and one heroine. The heroes are the officers and men of an American submarine. The heroine is the ship herself. More than 300 ft. long, with ten torpedo tubes and a surface speed of better than 20 knots, she was commissioned about a year ago. Since that day, she has led an exciting and secret life. On one cruise, to the shores of Japan itself, she sank 70,000 tons of (enemy) shipping. This is the story of that cruise.”

Guardfish was the subject of one episode of the syndicated television series The Silent Service

Victory at Sea Episode  Ep-21 (1) – Victory At Sea ~ Full Fathom Five – HQ

1943 would provide many victories and many tragedies for the men of the submarine service. But the tide had turned and now the Navy was on the offensive. The men who risked their lives to defeat this enemy remain some of the greatest of the Greatest Generation.

Mister Mac


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s