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A SUBMARINE COMMANDER TELLS WHY WE ALMOST LOST THE PACIFIC WAR
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
War was very much in the air. Hart was well aware of Japan’s propensity for surprise attack. Formosa was the obvious base for an invasion by Japan, and the first thing to anticipate was an air raid to establish air supremacy. So ran Hart’s analysis, and the event proved him right. His further evaluation, instantly and devastatingly substantiated by loss of H. M. S. Prince of Wales and Repulse , was that the surface units of the Asiatic Fleet were no match for the aircraft likely to be sent against them. He had, accordingly, sent his surface combatant ships to the south, beyond the range of Formosabased bombers. His submarines he kept concentrated on Cavite, ready for instant deployment except for two under rapid overhaul. In the event of air attack, all subs able to submerge were to do so in Manila Bay until it was over. When they surfaced, after nightfall as instructed, Hart planned to send them to designated positions to oppose the invasion fleet he believed would be Japan’s next move.
The anticipated air raid came on Monday, the eighth, at about noon east longitude time, roughly ten hours after the treacherous Sunday-morning surprise at Pearl Harbor, and well after receipt of definite information about it. Incredibly, despite full awareness of the disaster at our most important Pacific base, the new attack caught Clark Field also by complete surprise. Clark Field was Douglas MacArthur’s principal air base, the source of virtually all U.S. air power in the Far Eastern theater. When the enemy arrived overhead, our bombers and fighters were lined up almost as if on inspection parade. The Japanese attackers fully availed themselves of the opportunity, and most of MacArthur’s air force, nearly all of it new planes, was wiped out.
Although one can legitimately fault Admiral Hart, as Clay Blair does in his monumental Silent Victory , for not having had submarines on patrol along probable invasion routes, in the main he had shown himself far more closely attuned to the problems that actually developed than had MacArthur. He rightly appreciated that his subs would be the only weapons he would have available to check Japan’s invasion of the Philippines once the enemy had established air superiority. He was confident that the situation would produce a conclusive demonstration of the strategic and tactical importance of his twenty-nine submarines.
That twenty-nine submarines could, and indeed should, have made a significant impact on the invading Japanese forces which immediately began landing in Lingayen Gulf is fully substantiated by history. In 1914 Germany achieved impressive results against England with an initial force of only twenty-five U-boats, some of them very primitive. In 1939 the story was the same. With not many more U-boats than in 1914, Germany’s underseas campaign very shortly began once more to appear potentially catastrophic to England.
And yet, two full years later, despite all the opportunity they had had to observe the Atlantic war, two years to prepare to render an equally good account of themselves if necessary, our submariners were found wanting.
The causes of this failure are well known today, though perhaps even yet not sufficiently studied. In brief, while German, British, Italian, and Japanese torpedoes functioned well, ours performed so poorly that had they been the subject of deliberate sabotage they hardly could have been worse. There were, of course, other problems, among them excessive bureaucracy. Our navy’s concentration on paperwork and paper results overwhelmed reality. Torpedo firing tests, for example, had to be successful. All submarines regularly fired practice torpedoes (fitted with light exercise heads instead of TNT-loaded warheads), in which “hits” were assigned on the basis of passing under the target vessel. Occasional “warshot” firing tests were assigned, but these were very few in number because of the cost of the torpedoes. Each submarine taking part in these more realistic firings was expected to go to extraordinary lengths, far beyond what could possibly be done in war, to make the torpedo perform according to specifications. The exercises were considered not only tests of the torpedo but also of the submarine and her crew, and failure in so conspicuous an exercise was career-damaging.
In the barrage of required reports, there was neither time nor desire to study the firings objectively. In addition, a new top-secret exploder, which detonated the warhead by the target’s own magnetism, was installed in all Mark XIV warheads (the latest and most numerous), but because of its secrecy its performance was required to be accepted on faith.
Our submarines were commanded by men who were products of a system that penalized those who questioned too hard the established order of things. None were fighters against illogical bureaucratic decisions. None were rebels, and none were warriors, although some of them clearly possessed the requisite potential. All were strong, sober, cautious, and jealous bureaucrats, although, again, some were less so than others. They were, in short, what they had been trained to be. When war came, the success many actually deserved would have brought out their latent potential for combat (and in a few celebrated cases such potential came out anyway). But when success was lacking, men schooled in bureaucratic caution became confirmed in their caution. Lack of success made them wanting in confidence; lack of confidence made them cautious; and fear of failure made them timid.
While there were a few fine, aggressive, combat-oriented skippers in our submarines during those early wartime months, most were wretched failures. It was not their fault but that of the mold in which they had been formed, and the fact that they had a criminally defective weapon.