How They Became Legends (Part 6 of 8)

Continued from Part 5

USS Sealion (SS-195) following the Japanese attack on Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines on 10Dec1941. (Source: http://www.navsource.org/archives/08/08195.htm)

Wartime Evaluation of Doctrine

The devastation of the American surface fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 resulted in the submarine being the sole offensive weapon of the Navy at the beginning of the war. Recent analysis of naval strategy and tactics has resulted in the simple axiom of warfare that maintains that “the contribution of principles to warfare boils down to out-thinking the enemy.”[1] As current literature covering the exploits of individual boats and their skippers is comprehensive, they would render a detailed study of their contributions to the war redundant in the context of the legacy and influence of the Naval Academy and Submarine School in the Pacific theater of operations in the Second World War. However, and understanding of several of the major issues faced and overcome by the skippers is critical in correlation between the academic foundations and the operational realities. The flaws in the interwar doctrine, equipment selection, and the Mark 14 torpedo necessitated the importance of outthinking the enemy for the simple reason that the effective application of the pre-war plans and vaunted weapons proved to be problematic and ultimately ineffective. The concept of offensive operations from the Philippines, though ideal on paper, proved to be a liability due to the Asiatic fleet’s reliance on the older and smaller S-boats for interdiction of the Japanese transports carrying the invasion forces to the northern shores of Luzon while the larger and more modern fleet boats were designated for patrols in the adjacent and stormy waters around the Philippines.[2] The trials and tribulations of the Asiatic fleet proved to be indicative of the problems experienced by the entire submarine force in the Pacific during the war. The practice of firing upon a target from a depth of 100 feet on sound bearings alone on December 10, 1941 by the USS Sailfish (SS-192) proved the interwar development of this engagement technique ineffective, eliciting a response from the escorting destroyers. The subsequent depth charge attack was sufficiently violent enough to cause the skipper to succumb to anxiety and pass command to his executive officer, marking the beginning of the slow professional realization within the submarine service that reluctance to press forth an aggressive and persistent attack would continue as a lingering and potent reminder of the misguided prewar doctrine.[3] In addition, unreliable engines and the deferment of shipboard maintenance issues deemed “minor” in peacetime, which turned out to be critical at the start of the war challenged the command ability of the older skippers in their ability to circumvent procedure for “practical.” The loss of the logistics facilities at Cavite Naval Base at the end of 1941 reflected a lack of consideration for the threat posed by maintaining a vital facility in close proximity to an obvious threat, and the lack of a contingency plan for such a possibility denoted an overall failure of the Navy in the adherence to the war planning conducted before the war.[4] Finally, and most importantly, the bureaucratic inaction upon discovering reliability issues with the Mark 14 torpedo, despite the initial patrol reports which indicated suspect defects was the final precursor to the challenges which would plague submarine skippers until a resolution was found and agreed upon by the operational fleet and the Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance.[5]

NH 88457
Magnetic Torpedo Exploder Test, 26May1926. (Source: https://www.history.navy.mil/our-collections/photography/numerical-list-of-images/nhhc-series/nh-series/NH-88000/NH-88457.html#)

The opening complications for the American submarine campaign in the Pacific effectively established the rhythm for the duration of the war, and though many of the issues faced by the American skippers were often repetitious, their responses and adaptation limited the effects and duration of these problems. The execution of unrestricted submarine warfare, as with all battles waged by man, centered on the human aspect of the fundamental skills of instilling inspiration, motivation, and execution necessary in the art of leadership; the shifting priorities of daily operations constituted a major part of the shifting change in how the skippers led, and were permitted to lead, their crews into combat. Morale of the skippers as well as the men under them was a continuing challenge for the commanders of the submarine forces based throughout the Pacific. The sudden and violent detonations from depth charges, aerial bombs, shore- and ship-based batteries compounded the excruciatingly protracted sonar searches from anti-submarine vessels and the sound of moored mines and overhead cable drags along the hull of the submarines attempting to remain as quiet as possible.[6] Though the USS Greenling (SS-213) sustained damage severe enough from 95 depth charges over a 2 ½ hour period requiring an early termination of its 12th patrol early in the beginning of 1945, the actions of the crew and skipper of the USS Puffer (SS-268) on its first patrol in 1942 prompted subsequent study and debate concerning the extremes of peril faced by submariners.[7] [8] Submerged for nearly 38 hours in an attempt to evade the persistent enemy warships above, the crew of the Puffer were subjected to physiological and psychological extremes never experienced before or after the attack, yet later medical studies cited the mental conditioning “by drill, training, and education” were responsible for the reluctance of the crew to gross panic.[9] Resourcefulness and initiative played a key role in the care of the wounded men under the skippers command as well. Faced with a case of appendicitis on the USS Seadragon (SS-194) on September 11, 1942, Lieutenant Commander Ferrall firmly buoyed the confidence of his pharmacists’ mate Wheeler Lipes, to perform the first emergency appendectomy while submerged in hostile waters. The surgery, performed using instruments, anesthesia, and antiseptic compounds all improvised from what was on board, proved successful and the first of three such procedures conducted underway.[10] It was this level of practical determination which formed a template for success as the skipper and which fostered bi-directional loyalty between the crew and the commander.

The mechanisms associated with the American submarine campaign underwent gradual refinement as a component of the influence of the effective leadership during the war. Skippers were entrusted to wage war in a manner which few outside of the international scope of naval officers understood or fully realized. The selection of the crews to serve on American submarines during the war occasionally followed the rationale which compelled submarine skippers to shirk conventionality for effectiveness. Instances of men being recruited into a boat’s crew due to disciplinary infractions were considered to indicate “courage of his convictions,” while alcoholism and temerity were countered by the difficulty in obtaining conventional liquor and an understanding of the command climate of other ships.[11] In comparison to the ideals of military discipline and hierarchy, the American submarine force frequently challenged these concepts; the bureaucratic rivalry between the operational forces using the Mark 14 torpedo at the beginning of the war and the Bureau of Ordnance responsible for the development and testing of this and subsequent offensive weapons of the submarines. Tested only twice during the initial development in the mid-1920s, the Mark 14 torpedo represented contemporary state-of-the-art technology and was put into production under extreme secrecy to prevent the vaunted magnetic detonator’s capabilities to become known to allies and potential threats alike.[12] However, as the pride accomplishment of the Bureau of Ordnance, the Mark 14 became a major culprit for the ineffectiveness of the submarine campaign during the first half of the Second World War. Beset by two additional and overlapping defects aside from the magnetic detonators – faulty depth-setting mechanisms which caused the weapon to run up to 11 feet deeper than the desired running depth, and the mechanical exploder’s firing pin which would distort upon impact – the primary weapon of the submarine proved to be a test of the tenacity and creativity of the submarine force leadership.[13] Criticisms of the weapon by operational skippers citing mechanical flaws as a major factor in the poor engagement records in the Pacific was met with petulant resistance by the Bureau which assigned poor maintenance and aiming techniques upon the skippers as the reasons for the weapons poor performance.[14] The frustration, relief of skippers deemed ineffective, and force-wide morale issues which were ultimately associated with the defective torpedoes were eventually resolved by leaders within the Pacific submarine force through the consolidation of initiative, mechanical knowledge, problem-solving techniques, and teamwork nurtured and reinforced from their professional education at the Naval Academy, Submarine School, and experience-based learning.

The evolution of the doctrine guiding submarine warfare was the most important benchmark of the increasing competence of the graduates of the Naval Academy and Submarine School. Despite the inauspicious start of their naval careers, men like Dealey, Ramage, Fluckey, O’Kane, and Street persisted in the face of adversity which claimed the professional careers of a third of their peers as a result of relief through “lack of aggressiveness,” among other reasons.[15] As the older naval officers were progressively replaced by younger and more spirited men unencumbered by the formal rigidities of the ineffective doctrine, the support offered by one of their earlier peers who maintained complimentary traits of intellect, initiative, and charisma – Charles Lockwood. Open to new ideas for technology which would increase the effectiveness and survivability of the crews under his command, Lockwood’s legacy was to foster leadership through obligation. Providing superior facilities at home ports as well as forward logistics support bases, Lockwood also directly challenged the Navy institution concerning the sacrifice of operational officers and personally conducted tests to verify the complaints submitted by his subordinates about the Mark 14’s performance.[16] This bi-directional commitment reflected on the performance of many of the submarine skippers during the war and reflected in several of their individual exploits. In 1944, Dealey’s Harder conducted the rescue of a downed American pilot by bringing the surfaced submarine in such close proximity to the beach of Woleai Island during the ongoing air attack that the hull was scraping the reef fringing the island.[17] Known as “the destroyer killer,” Dealey’s aggressiveness towards these potent anti-submarine warships often departed from the traditional tactics of avoidance and retreat; on the contrary, Dealey’s tactic of inviting the destroyers to attack, then firing torpedoes at the last moment left the advancing ship with few effective options for evasion.[18] Ramage, in the Parche, further distanced himself from the interwar doctrine in a 34-minute surface action on the night of July 31, 1944, with 15 hits of the 19 torpedoes fired during the attack and resulting in Ramage becoming the first non-posthumous submariner to be awarded the Medal of Honor.[19] Fluckey’s exploits in the attacks he led on the Barb against Japanese shipping in the Chinese harbor of Nam Kwan in 1945 made him a reluctant recipient of the Medal of Honor, but the Barb’s employment of rocket barrages and his idea and execution of disembarking volunteers from his crew to sabotage coastal railways on Japanese soil later that year lends supporting evidence at the progress and creativity in which both leadership and doctrine had shifted in the progress of the war.[20] Finally, as a measure of the success in the evolution of submarine warfare and the product of the professional education provided by the United States Navy, O’Kane incorporated the successful practices of his previous commander, Dudley Morton, in the administration of his command of the USS Tang (SS-306) to become one of the most successful combinations of talent and machinery during the war. Among the top five in best patrols by both number and tonnage of ships sunk, O’Kane represented both the Naval Academy and Submarine School as an ideal example of their contributions to the Second World War. These successes were curtailed by a malfunction and circular run of the Tang’s final torpedo which resulted in the loss of the boat and most of the crew on October 24, 1944; again, the professional education of the crew and O’Kane contributed to the only known underwater egress of a stricken submarine and the subsequent honorable conduct of the survivors as prisoners of war for the rest of the conflict.[21]

USS Tang (SS-306) 2Dec1943. (Source: http://www.navsource.org/archives/08/08306.htm)

The American submarine campaign in the Pacific was not without controversy, however. Included in the ongoing debate over ethics of American skippers during the Second World War are several examples of lapses in judgement, situational awareness, or personal ethics of a few skippers. Dudley Morton’s decision to fire upon the survivors of the Japanese troopship Buyo Maru on January 26, 1943, while unpunished, represented one of a very few instances where the contemporary hatred for the enemy usurped compassion and professionalism.[22] The engagement and subsequent sinking of the Awa Maru by the USS Queenfish (SS-393) on April 1, 1945, constituted an odd example of the suspicions of American leadership using hospital ships and other vessels provided safe passage in accordance of international laws and treaties for the purpose of resupplying military forces. Though the skipper of the Queenfish immediately broke radio silence to transmit the discovery his mistake upon questioning survivors, his later court-marshal was an example of the responsibility, loyalty, and integrity instilled by the Naval Academy.[23] Far from perfect, the process of the attrition of Japan’s naval and merchant fleet was the result of the combination of the men, machines, and application of the accelerated learning process integral to conflict.


[1] Wayne P. Hughes, Fleet Tactics – Theory and Practice (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1986), 144-145.

[2] Blair, 112.

[3] Blair, 121.

[4] Blair 133-134.

[5] Blair 137.

[6] Navy Department, Bureau of Ships, Submarine Report Depth Charge, Bomb, Mine, Torpedo, and Gunfire Damage Including Losses in Action 7 December, 1941 to 15 August, 1945 Volume I and Volume II, (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1949), accessed June 25, 2017, http://ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/WarDamageReports/SummWarDamageSub7DEC41-12AUG45/SummWarDamageSub7DEC41-12AUG45.html#SECTION VII, 12-13.

[7] Ibid., 288.

[8] Craig McDonald, The Distorted History of the USS Puffer (SS 268), The Klaxon, 2006, accessed June 25, 2017, https://www.ussnautilus.org/association/klaxons/2006SummerKlaxon.pdf, 2.

[9] Duff, 78.

[10] Duff, 36.

[11] Schratz, 112-113.

[12] Blair, 35.

[13] Blair, 258, 261.

[14] Schratz, 43.

[15] James DeDrose, Unrestricted Warfare: How a New Breed of Officers Led the Submarine Force to Victory in World War II, (New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, 2000), 4.

[16] Blair, 566, 410-411.

[17] Michael Sturma, Death at A Distance, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006), 44.

[18] Ibid., 120.

[19] Moore, 129, 171.

[20] LaVO, 112-113, 124-125.

[21] Blair, 743-744.

[22] Blair 358.

[23] Blair, 813-814.

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