The nature of submarine warfare has always been filled with an equal mix of adventure, bravery and precision. The adventure starts the minute the boat becomes free from the pier. Gliding along on the surface of any of the rivers and bodies of waters they sail from is only the first part of the journey. In the early days, the noise of the gasoline or diesel engines coupled with the ever present smoke seemed to push the little craft towards her destiny. Later nuclear submarines were quieter but the wake of a passing sub was still enough of an indication that an adventure was about to begin.
As the submarine cleared the channel and reached the dive point, all hands felt the tension as the boat was rigged for its dive. Preliminary preparations were in place and the final actions just needed to be completed as the submarine transformed from a clumsy surface dweller to a steely eyed killer of the deep. One thing that was the constant throughout the entire evolution though… failure is not an option. The equipment, the men, the boat itself must perform as flawlessly as possible in order for the mission to be complete. Failure in any one of these could be catastrophic for the crew.
The level of detail in planning and preparation before the boat even hits the water starts a life long journey of excellence that is the hallmark for a modern submarine. After all, this boat will be operating independently for most of its life with only the skills of the builders and the operators separating the crew from certain death. The qualification program is hard and the ongoing training is comprehensive. But it is the steel inside each and every qualified submariner that defines the toughness of the submarine service. They must train their minds to live in a confined space with others and think at least two steps ahead at all times. They anticipate the problems they hope will never come and even in their sleep they remain vigilant for the sounds that indicate a change… ventilation shifts, motors changing ion intensity, even the 400 cycle hum. All of these could indicate a problem that will need answering as quickly as possible.
Submariners of all generations share one thing in common whether they served on an old S boat, Fleet Boat, Guppy, Fast Attack or Boomer. They all understand that at any given moment, the only thing that stands between failure and success is a qualified submariner who has made the ultimate promise to themselves and their shipmates; Failure is not an option. Not on my watch.
I have been chronicling the actions of the US Forces in the Pacific fleet for a number of months and in doing so have found some really great stories with a lot of detail about how the war was progressing in mid 1945. One of those stories started with a small footnote about a wolf pack operation in the Java Sea conducted by the submarines USS Blueback (SS-326) (Balao-class submarine – commissioned 1944) and USS Lamprey (SS-372) (Balao-class submarine – commissioned 1944) as they battled the Japanese submarine chaser Ch.1 in a surface gunnery action off Japara, N.E.I., 06°28’S, 110°37’E.
What I like most about these stories is the human face they put on the war’s prosecution. The Blueback’s war patrol records and deck logs have been preserved and I was able to trace the action in the words and sometimes very interesting thoughts of her skipper M.K. Clementson Cdr. USN. one small example came in his final report where he spoke about crewmembers who were departing before the mission began. While reading the original report, I was a bit confused for a few moments about the upcoming re-assignment of Lt. James Mercer who had completed 13 war patrols.
By this time in the war, many of the submarine skippers were modifying their deck guns to suit the missions they would be conducting. During his refit in Perth AU prior to commencing the third war patrol, Clementson and his crew rearranged the location and firing support devices for much of his topside weaponry. The hope was that with an increased capacity to conduct surface operations, they would be able to have more flexibility in attacking the dwindling enemy surface fleet and merchant fleet. During the third war patrol, Blueback would get credit for sinking one patrol boat using surface tactics.
This story occurs on May 28th in the Java Sea. While the world and most of the military was still focused on the continuing battle of Okinawa, patrols by the US Submarine force continued all across the pacific. The boats that had been rushed into service during the previous few years had finally started overcoming the torpedo problems of the early years. Success after success had started piling up and even though submarine losses also took their toll, new fleet boats were adding to the overall efforts in ways never before imagined. At 0355 on the morning of the 28th, Blueback had just completed a secret mission and was beginning her patrol. She sighted what she thought was a Jap destroyer at 0510 and sent a report to the Wolf Pack she was operating with.
The Balao submarine classs was made up of 120 boats and those were typically armed with the following weapons:
10 × 21-inch (533 mm) torpedo tubes
(six forward, four aft)
1 × 5-inch (127 mm) / 25 caliber deck gun (which replaced the 4-inch 102mm gun installed at the beginning of their service)
Bofors 40 mm and Oerlikon 20 mm cannon
During her overhaul prior to WP 3, the guns on the Blueback were modified as follows: the twin 20 MM was moved from the cigarette deck to the main deck forward and a second 40mm was installed on the cigarette deck. They also installed specially braced mountings for twin 50 caliber machine guns and twin 30 caliber machine guns on the bridge. In short, the Blueback was loaded for bear and was ready to take on any targets she would encounter on the surface.
German submarines are well known for Wolf Pack tactics that resulted in horrific losses. Not as well known are the Wolf Packs that the US Forces operated in during the Pacific campaign. Starting with the coordinated attacks of the USS Cero, many combined operations were mounted. At first, there was a reluctance among the individual skippers to advocate for this type of operation. But some, including Captain Swede Momsen saw the need for new tactics in this war . USS Cero cleared New London 17 August 1943 for Pacific waters, and on 26 September sailed from Pearl Harbor, bound for the East China and Yellow Seas on her first war patrol. This patrol was also the first American wolfpack, comprising Cero, Shad (SS-235), and Grayback (SS-208), commanded from Cero by Captain “Swede” Momsen.
At 0843, the Blueback submerged and began a day long track and search pattern looking for the contact the had sighted at 0520 and at 1910 sighted a submarine that was identified as the USS Lamprey. At 1954, she surfaced and communicated with Lamprey using blinker lights. At that time Blueback was informed about the three targets in the Japara anchorage. Plans were then exchanged for the hunt. At 2010, there was a radar contact which the skipper verified was not a submarine. The contact was at approximately 12,000 yards and zig zagging.
From the action report:
“Can just barely get in a night tracking surface approach before the just rising full moon gets too high. Tracking 10 knots, base course 090 true. Am convinced this is our OOD. Will have enough moon before shooting to make certain it is not a submarine.”
One of the greatest fears of submarine commanders concerning the Wolf Pack approach was in not shooting a fellow American submariner in the heat of the battle. Our technology in weapons firing and ship identification was pretty basic during that war so this was a real concern.
At 2102, Blueback slowed to 2/3 speed. He received a message from the HMS THOROUGH giving his position and stating that a patrol craft has been patrolling in the area all day. Target was not THOROUGH. Target definitely not submarine. (Note: HMS Thorough was a British T class submarine that served in the Far East for much of her wartime career, where she sank twenty seven Japanese sailing vessels, seven coasters, a small Japanese vessel, a Japanese barge, a small Japanese gunboat, a Japanese trawler, and the Malaysian sailing vessel Palange)
At 2107, with confidence that the vessel was not a submarine, Blueback fired five MK 18-2 torpedoes forward. Torpedo run was 3000 yards. At 2109, the skipper turned the boat and fired 2 MK-14-3A torpedoes aft, torpedo run 2200 yards. All missed and as a good close broadside view of the target was obtained, it was discovered that this was not a destroyer but a patrol boat. Blueback headed away at 19 knots. The patrol boat headed away from a torpedo that broached just ahead of him.
“Made mental note to always use binocular formula hereafter in an attempt to avoid such costly errors in the future. Even with grim visions of my income tax soaring to the stratosphere. Won’t be able to look a taxpayer in the eye.”
At this point he slows the ship and manned the 5″ and two 40mm gins and informed Lamprey who was 9-10,000 yards to the northwest.
At 2135, Blueback opened fire and immediately got some hits. These hits resulted in a small fire being started on the patrol ship’s forward action station. He commenced returning fire , too accurately according to reports with 25mm explosive shells.
at 2140, Blueback laid a smoke screen and opened range. The moon was brilliant by that time and very low. Blueback was heading into the moon and was weaving to each side trying to distribute the smoke in any direction but true west. The target’s gunfire was on them every time they emerges from either side of the narrow screen.
At 2143, Lamprey opened fire with her 5′ gun but in the words of the Blueback CO “The silly target didn’t know enough to shoot at him.” Then Blueback opened range to 6500 yards and headed to join the Lamprey. The target was making radical maneuvers and returning fire on both Lamprey and Blueback by this time with four guns. The Lamprey skipper reported that “his aim was not very good”. Lamprey expended 40 rounds of 5″ ammunition and recorded two sure hits.
At 2200, Blueback fired a few more rounds of 5″ at his gun flashes but when he ceased firing, there was no more point of aim. Blueback decided to call it a draw (except that Blueback was not hit thanks to the smoke screen.) Lamprey made the same decision at 2209 and the engagement was completed. Blueback’s skipper records in his log that better night sights and star shells would have helped considerable to eliminate “this boil on the heel”.
1. Get and keep the TARGET up moon,
2. Concentrate forces on initial attack.
At 2207, Blueback set course for new area, 3 engines… At 2339, Lamprey departed for her new patrol area in the Karimata Strait.
The CH-1 would survive the rest of the war but had one more brush with the American submarine fleet. On the 16th of July 1945: West of Surabaya, Java, she was escorting gunboat NANKAI (ex-Dutch minelayer REGULUS) when they were attacked by LCDR William H. Hazzard’s USS BLENNY (SS-324). Hazzard fires a total of 12 torpedoes in a night surface radar attack and claims four hits that sink NANKAI at 05-26S, 110-33E. At about 0700, Hazzard finds and shells CH-1 with his 5-inch deck gun. BLENNY gets two hits that set CH-1 on fire at 05-16S, 110-17E.
Both Blueback and Lamprey also survive the war. Guns would be removed from the decks of post war submarines for a host of reasons. Submarines evolved through technology to be more effective under the water during all modes of warfare and a deck gun was no longer needed or practical. One of the many enemies a submarine fought was the airplane and post war development of antisubmarine air forces increased the danger of being on the surface for any period of time. But having those guns on board WW2 boats was a critical factor during the early months and years where the unreliable torpedo corrupted the ultimate mission of a submarine. The other factor of not wasting a torpedo on smaller craft played a key role as well
By the way, come to Pittsburgh this September 7-13 and celebrate the heroes of the US Navy submarine forces.
USSVU National Convention web site: http://www.ussviconventionsteelcity2015.org/
As Memorial Day 2015 approaches, I am once again reminded that submarine sailors paid a heavy price during the second World War in a way that is vastly more expensive that nearly any other type of war fighting based on a per capita measurement.
This video certainly captures many of the issues they faced.
Just a reminder: The USSVI Convention for 2015 is in Pittsburgh PA this year from September 7-12.
Visit their web site at http://www.ussviconventionsteelcity2015.org/
With shrinking budgets and caps on military spending, its important to remember that submarines represent one of the most survivable elements in modern sea warfare. The increasing flexibility to meet emerging threats as well as long established threats adds value to this resource.
Make no mistake: the threats from external forces will not go away anytime soon. In many cases, it is increasing. Desiring peace without the will to preserve it ensures that there will be no peace at all. These platforms provide us with the way to preserve that peace and ensure our freedoms for a long time to come.
If you ever lived on one, this will make you homesick. If you never lived on one, it might make you jealous. In the beginning scenes one of my colleagues Mark Keef is featured in a submarine missile launch. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qj6VaV6-d6Y Enjoy
What worked best in the past three and a half years? Not surprisingly, submarine sea stories were the most popular.
I am grateful to the folks who have contributed as much as I am to those that have visited. So here they are as of today (January 31, 2015)
One that did not make the top five was one of my very favorite posts and truly shows the bravery of a generation that is fast leaving us: https://theleansubmariner.com/2011/10/25/taffy-3-courage-beyond-measure/
As always, thanks for your visits.
Did your favorite make the list? Let me know what it was and why it was something you liked…