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A SUBMARINE COMMANDER TELLS WHY WE ALMOST LOST THE PACIFIC WAR
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
Had the Germans been in our place in Lingayen Gulf, it is my opinion that the Japanese landing would have been frustrated. Of course this cannot be proved, but I will always believe the loss of the Philippines could have been prevented. As it was, the entire battle for the Philippines was not only a failure, it was a shameful failure. We lost control of the air on the first day, and our effort to control the sea with our submarines, or at least contest it, was pathetically inadequate. The root cause of the debacle at sea was almost complete failure of the submarine weapon, the torpedo.
The torpedoes, unfortunately, did not fail utterly. Sometimes they worked, though more often they did not; and sometimes they appeared to work when in fact they had not hurt anyone. This, of course, not only made the problems harder to isolate, it also made it much harder to convince Washington that there really was something wrong. In the denouement there were not one but four things wrong with the torpedoes, any one of which should have led to thorough investigation, fixing of blame, instant and urgently prosecuted correction, and disciplinary action against those who had failed in their duty. They were:
(1.) Running deeper than set. Report after report told of torpedoes running harmlessly under targets whose draft clearly was greater than the depth settings of the fish. Such reports were largely ignored as being self-serving excuses, since the ingenious magnetic, or “influence,” exploder should have functioned even if the torpedo underran the target. Therefore, they had not passed under, they had missed entirely. Proposals to fire torpedoes through nets with their heavy warheads (believed to be at least partial cause of deep running, since they were much heavier than exercise heads) were dismissed as wasteful of precious torpedoes, a huge stack of which had been lost at Manila Bay. When such tests were finally made, the fish were found not only to travel much deeper than set but also to move up and down in a sine wave, sometimes at depths so great that the influence exploder would not have worked. The more successful skippers, by this time, had long been setting their torpedoes to artificially shallow depths, three feet against a big ship, zero feet against small ones. Or as in Trigger , they strove always to attain the same firing situation in each attack, since it produced good results. In our case, this was fifteen hundred yards with a sixfoot depth setting (I think, now, that the combination caused the torpedoes to be on the “up” curve when they reached the target; naturally, we had no idea of all this at the time).
These became the secrets of our trade, exchanged over booze between patrols and in confidential conversations with fellow torpedo officers and skippers. They were not officially reported in our patrol reports because such flagrant disobedience of specific orders would have brought censure, particularly since most torpedoes missed anyway.
(2.) Premature explosions. Often the influence exploder functioned too soon, immediately upon entering the target’s magnetic field—which, we finally discovered, was stronger in the Pacific than in the Atlantic, and therefore actually protected our targets. From the submarine these would look like sure hits, and we could not understand how some targets kept on steaming unscathed—although, indeed, they usually began violent evasive maneuvers. This was a particularly invidious problem, since the natural tendency was to claim a hit. Many times it was not possible for the submarine to play the spectator, and sounds in the water, from whatever cause, could be interpreted as “breaking up noises” confirming a sinking; or in case of an attack at night, an excited lookout’s report that he saw a ship sink after such an explosion might receive more credence than it deserved. Circumstances such as these caused inflated reports of success during the early years of the war and made enemy ships seem even better able to sustain damage than they were in truth. And later on, when intelligence or subsequent observations of the same ship showed that it had not been sunk, the sub skipper’s veracity was thereby put in question.
(3.) Impotent contact exploder. When cumulative evidence against the magnetic exploder finally became too much to be ignored, some force commanders ordered it deactivated. The startling result was that the backup contact exploder, designed to set off the torpedo warhead if it hit even the slightest glancing blow against an enemy hull, would function only if the contact were indeed slight and glancing. A direct, solid hit, ninety degrees to the target’s course, a perfect shot, in other words, would cause the exploding mechanism to deform before it could fire. Many submarine skippers reported noises that sounded to the sonar like a hit, without accompanying explosion but coincident with abrupt cessation of the torpedo’s own machinery noise. Finally, Dan Daspit, the scientifically inclined skipper of the Tinosa , having damaged and immobilized a large tanker in mid-ocean, fired one perfectly aimed torpedo after another with carefully recorded data. All torpedoes hit. All were duds. Some he saw bounce out of the water, damaged, after striking the tanker’s side. He returned to Pearl Harbor in a towering rage, with one torpedo which he brought back for a full-scale examination. This at last broke the back of the torpedo bureaucracy, which was now willing to concede that expending a few torpedoes in laboratory tests was better than expending them impotently in combat.