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A SUBMARINE COMMANDER TELLS WHY WE ALMOST LOST THE PACIFIC WAR
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
It is today my conviction, bolstered by similar reports from other submarines and innumerable stories of unreported incidents told by friends serving in other subs—and at least one more such experience myself a few months later—that this was the case. That torpedo should have sunk us, as I thought it had for an instant, given that it did run in a circle and did run deep. But it should not have run in a circle, and it should not have run deep, any more than it should have gone off on sensing the existence of our magnetism instead of waiting to detect its strongest point. I nearly died, with my shipmates, because our criminally defective torpedoes sometimes ran in circles and always ran too deep; and we survived because, in an entirely unrelated deficiency, they nearly always exploded just before reaching their targets!
On this concatenation of circumstances, so improbable that no novelist would have based a plot on them, hung my life and those of the seventy-five other men aboard.
On that same patrol I saw my first ship actually sink. It was a small, unescorted freighter which we had attacked on the surface at night, setting our torpedo data computer by “seaman’s eye” and aiming through the target bearing transmitter on the bridge. As officer of the deck I was given the privilege of conning us into position and aiming the torpedoes. Two were fired and both hit, flinging highly satisfying columns of water, spume, and debris into the air. The freighter stopped, sank down by the bow, lowered boats into which the crew piled, and then stopped sinking. We decided on another torpedo to make sure of the now abandoned ship, lined up carefully. Our third topedo took a sharp jog to the left, ran a quarter circle, then straightened out on the proper course. As a result, it missed aft. We fired again, and our fourth fish was a bull’s-eye, like the first two. Its streak of white bubbles went unerringly to the center of the motionless target, passed under it, and kept on going, visible in the distance for two miles beyond the stricken ship.
After a few more minutes it was evident the old freighter was going to sink. But in the post-mortems which began immediately we were back to the same question. What in .the world was wrong with our torpedoes?
Our submarine force was one of the most professional branches of our navy, rivaled, in our estimate, only by the comparable professionalism required of those who flew aircraft off the pitching decks of our carriers. The law of nature, death to those unable to meet the challenge of constant alertness, operated in both. And yet, with excellent ships, well-trained crews, the highest possible motivation, our early submarine effort was an unmitigated failure, a debacle.
We could operate our submarines with safety and sureness and we could survive in waters controlled by the enemy. But we could hardly hurt the enemy at all. Try as we might, we could not interfere with Japan’s advance into the Philippines and Southeast Asia. Our subs were present at the Battle of Midway but in total impotence.
Most inexcusable, those in ultimate authority refused to accept the continually renewed evidence that there was something wrong. All unsuccessful attacks, without exception, were blamed on the skippers, their fire-control parties, and their torpedo-overhaul personnel. We knew both British and German submarine torpedoes had had similar problems, which were solved by a few weeks of driven work (Admiral Doenitz is said to have refused to send any more U-boats on patrol until their torpedoes were fixed). Yet impassioned demands for similar investigation of ours were put aside. Our technical experts had produced a perfect weapon which, by the mechanical marvel of its design, could only function correctly and could never fail to function correctly. If our torpedoes did not function as designed, the fault could only be that they were not being used correctly, for there was no way that a perfectly designed torpedo like ours could fail to work. Any other explanations were merely self-serving excuses.
In 1941, when war broke out in the Pacific, the United States had three completely autonomous submarine forces: the Atlantic and Pacific Fleet forces, and the Asiatic Fleet submarine force. The largest and most war-ready, based on Cavité Navy Yard in Manila Bay (the same from which an outclassed Spanish squadron fought George Dewey’s some forty-three years before), consisted of twenty-nine submarines, twenty-three of them new, long-ranging “fleet” types. This Asiatic Fleet submarine force was under the direct command of Admiral Thomas C. Hart, himself an old submariner who clearly understood what his boats could accomplish. For the record, of all the top commanders in the Pacific on December 7,1941 (west longitude time), Hart was the only one whose forces were not caught by surprise.