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A SUBMARINE COMMANDER TELLS WHY WE ALMOST LOST THE PACIFIC WAR
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
But by the end of 1943, when our torpedoes became dependable, the damage to Japan mounted rapidly. What could have been accomplished in December, 1941, and in the early days of 1942, with the right weapons and the resulting skill and self-confidence, became a reality our enemy could not cope with. Not only were weapons reliable in 1944, but also new equipment of other kinds began to come our way: new, tougher-hulled, deeper-diving boats; more powerful surface-search radar; a new periscope, with a radar inside; better sonar; a radar detector to warn against enemy radar; electric torpedoes which had no wake to betray their approach. We no longer felt like orphans fighting a war no one was interested in. And finally, many of the older skippers, conditioned by two years of futility, were being relieved by younger ones with many war patrols in junior billets and much frustration over missed opportunities.
The Germans had done their worst execution among Allied convoys by attacking at night on the surface, until radar and aircraft made this tactic too hazardous. Since we held the radar advantage, we felt we could do at least as well. Some of the new skippers spent virtually entire patrols on the surface; but this should not be misunderstood, for it was the ability to submerge that enabled us to remain, alone and unsupported, in enemy-controlled seas. In the old days, when a warship had to contend only with others of her own kind, superior skill or speed, usually a combination of the two, could allow her to survive in unfriendly waters and even carry out hostile military missions. Times had changed by World War II. The Prince of Wales and Repulse could not survive, but our submarines did, even though they could not accomplish much.
The airplane is a strike weapon; it can bring overwhelming destruction to anything it can see to aim at but it does not stay. It seeks, strikes, and goes. Most of the time it is on land, or on the decks of an aircraft carrier, but it can control the air nevertheless, and with that goes control of the surface of the land or sea under that air. Unless it takes to the air itself, with its own missiles and aircraft, the surface ship—or the installation on land—cannot continue to exist under enemy air dominance. Only the submarine, which can depart the surface at will, can function in such an environment without diversion of most of its capabilities to its own defense. This was true in 1944, and it is true today. In the wild sea, only the submarine is free.
In 1944 Japan began to discover that her own home waters were no longer friendly. She had entered on the World War II adventure to secure unto herself the resources of the Asian mainland, but military conquest proved to be not enough. The sea lay between; and despite strenuous efforts at air cover, entire convoys would be wiped out in only a few hours.
At night, radar coverage was at its best and enemy air surveillance at its poorest. We, in the submarine, could cover a swath of sea forty miles wide, and all ships picked up by our radar, with the exception of other U.S. submarines (whose locations we kept track of), were enemy. Usually they traveled in convoys under escort of destroyers or antisubmarine ships of some kind. When an enemy contact was made, the radar tracking party would be called and quick initial observations plotted to determine the direction of movement and some idea of the speed. Then the boat would be swung to the intercepting course, using if necessary the full power of her four diesels, twenty knots. From the bridge we could see only the dark gray of night, the dark sea and the dark sky. With the wind whipping against our faces, spray thrown from our rushing bows spattering on deck and over us, larger seas sometimes coming entirely aboard and drenching us, we could tell, from the manner of its rotation, what the radar antenna was doing: taking a fix on the convoy for plotting, searching the area to guard against surprise from some other quarter, or taking a navigational fix on the nearest land. Down below, the two plotting parties, one in the dimly lighted control room and the other in the brightly lighted wardroom, would be working out the many-times-practiced solutions, vying with each other for speed and accuracy: enemy base course and speed; the zigzag plan; the interval between successive zigs; formation of the convoy; location of the biggest ship or ships; locations of escorts; and their manner of patrolling station. In the conning tower, the radar operators with their circular, red-lighted dials, could see the pips representing vessels. From their size and configuration, they determined which were the most valuable and most accessible targets, and they also became intimately familiar with the appearance of the escorts as reproduced on the scope.
Depending on the various considerations—time to first light, the phase of the moon, time of moon-rise or -set, visibility, the proximity of land, probable enemy course changes, the zigzag plan, number of escorts, where and how they were patrolling, what types they were (if we could deduce this), the number of torpedoes we had remaining and their locations, forward or aft, whether steam or electric—we would select the position from which to begin the attack. It was, of course, necessary to remain out of enemy sight or radar range, but within our own, during the entire tracking period. Often this was difficult, for an alert escort on the convoy’s near bow would force us to stay farther out than desired. And the way this escort patrolled his post had a great deal to do with our choice of attack position. Ideally we would want to come in at high speed fairly sharp on the convoy’s bow, preferably beginning the run-in immediately after completion of a zig. This would give the fastest closing speed and the longest interval before another zig would be due.