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A SUBMARINE COMMANDER TELLS WHY WE ALMOST LOST THE PACIFIC WAR
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
And so, late in 1943, all known defects in the torpedo exploders had at last been discovered and eliminated. Or so we thought; three problems had been solved, but there was no one around to complain that he actually had experienced the fourth and final problem. No attention was paid to those who voiced suspicions before the war’s end. So the fourth difficulty, which had been completely obscured by the others, remained hidden, a very real danger to our subs during the entire course of the war, very likely more dangerous at its end than at the beginning. For, after 1943, the torpedoes were lethal when they hit home.
(4.) Circular-running torpedoes. Torpedoes whose rudders jammed ran in a circle and returned, with warheads fully armed and ready to explode, to the spot from which fired. Nearly every submarine experienced one or more of these. Three times during my service aboard, one of Trigger ’s torpedoes ran back toward us, and two of them exploded magnetically while we were desperately going deep to avoid them. Destroyer torpedoes had an “anti-circular-run” device, but for some reason this had not been installed in submarine torpedoes. As Rear Admiral Dick O’Kane suggests in Clear the Bridge (his memorial to his lost submarine, the extraordinary Tang ), someone may have thought a submerged sub, under depth-charge attack, might try to sink the enemy overhead by firing a torpedo set to run in circles. No one tried this, for one went deep if under threat of depth charges, and our torpedoes would flood and sink if fired at such depths. But at least two of our subs, the Tang and the Tullibee , were lost because their own torpedoes, fired at the enemy while they were on the surface, turned back upon them.
We know about the Tang and Tullibee because both submarines had survivors who were picked up by the Japanese and came back from prison camps after the war. But what of the others? Of the fifty-two submarines we lost in the war, one was bombed while under overhaul at Cavite when the war began, and nine were lost to various operational accidents. Forty-two were sunk on patrol, and of these we know exactly what happened to seven because survivors came back. The remaining thirty-five were lost with all hands. Correlation of all known circumstances and action reports from both sides causes us to feel fairly sure of what happened to fifteen of these (we believe my poor old Trigger was depth-charged to extinction on March 27, 1945). Lost to unknown causes, with all hands, were twenty fine fleet submarines, and the only thing we know for sure is that no agency of Japan can be given the credit. It is possible that some of our boats struck moored mines, and some, I suppose, may have suffered improbable internal or operational casualties. But if the same percentages hold as for the seven from whom we do have survivors, as many as six of the twenty unexplained losses could have been from circular-running torpedoes they themselves had fired. Or figuring the statistics in another way, if the seven with survivors are added to the fifteen whose losses we can correlate, then, statistically, two of the uncorrelated twenty must have been lost because of circular runs. The known circumstances point this way, but of course it is something we shall never know for sure. It will always remain only a dark murmur in the shadows.
In Silent Victory , Clay Blair treats our torpedo fiasco at considerable length and with authority. In his summation he says, “The torpedo scandal of the U.S. submarine force in World War II was one of the worst in the history of any kind of warfare.” With this, all submariners in our navy will wholly agree, and many of them still passionately feel all those responsible should have been court-martialed. Nothing, in fact, was ever done (except that the torpedo factory at Newport, Rhode Island, is still a silent monument to its disgrace). Blair’s carefully researched tome fails in only one thing: it cannot reproduce the anguished uncertainties, the self-doubts, the lack of confidence, which were attendant upon the total reversal of all pre-war training results. Nothing can be more demoralizing to men who must risk their lives in combat than to be forced to use weapons which they know, from experience, are not dependable, and for which they have no substitute—unless it be stubborn, unrealistic opposition by “experts” who, in the face of the evidence, refuse even to investigate it.
Thus, in the same time it took for an approximately equal number of German subs to have England hanging on the ropes, ours had sunk only a couple of dozen Japanese ships. Our subs made not the slightest dent in the Japanese timetable for conquest of the Philippines. We succeeded only in evacuating some trapped personnel—and several million dollars in gold bullion—from Corregidor. These exploits were well publicized, for we had little else to be proud of.