|Shadow Warriors -
Submarine Special Operations in World War Two
by Daniel T. Rean, CWO3 USN Ret. Professor of History Franklin Pierce
I'm the Galloping Ghost of the Japanese Coast,
You don't hear of me or my crew—
But just ask any man off the coast of Japan
If he knows of the Trigger Maru
Constantine Guiness, US Navy, 1943
The submarine's ability to penetrate a hostile area independently, covertly and
for a long duration, provides a unique tactical advantage. Submarines operating
undetected near the enemy's coastline provide a complete picture of the
undersea, surface and near shore military conditions, including enemy force
dispositions and preparations. The submarine, with its extremely capable
communications ability, operating well inside the enemy's defensive barriers,
provides valuable tactical information to assist Army and Marine Corps field
commanders in making timely, informed decisions. In that role, submarines pave
the way for the effective employment of special covert forces and insulate
those same forces from unnecessary risks during the initial phases of guerrilla
Between January 1942 and August 1945, dozens of American submarines
participated in special operations ranging from destroying enemy mines to
serving as lighthouse beacons in order to guide Allied ships through uncharted
hostile waters. Oftentimes, those special operations were documented by
single-line entries in ships' logs, or mentioned in passing in the official
reports of the supported units. Those special operations could not have been
performed by any other naval assets, military organizations, or land-based
forces at the time, yet their documentation is incomplete and relatively
unknown outside military fraternities. The historiography of the special
operations of World War II submarines is documented in countless publications
scattered throughout museums, military archives and libraries, but no single
comprehensive record exists to adequately provide authoritative information on
the numerous support missions participated in on a routine basis by members of
America's "Silent Service."
In World War II, the submarine's ability to circumvent traditional defenses was
exploited to the fullest to deliver supplies to American-led guerrilla forces,
to rescue pilots (both Allied and enemy) who had been shot down over the ocean,
to land and extract coast watchers on remote Pacific islands, to evacuate
escaped prisoners of war, to lay mines and to conduct reconnaissance of
potential invasion sites for future Allied actions. Submarines differ from
other warships because they operate in the underwater medium, and unlike
surface ships and most aircraft, they operate best in isolation relying on the
elements of stealth and surprise. They are designed for the role of hunter in
hit-and-run attacks, in attrition warfare and for single salvo strikes on shore
targets. They are least capable in missions that require prolonged exposure in
a sustained defensive posture. Submarines are different: the tactics that give
them their greatest fighting potential do not conform to the classical
Mahanian naval strategy of defeating the enemy in a battle of annihilation.
Therefore, they are the most effective means for a Navy to circumvent
traditional defenses and engage in specialized warfare.
Volunteers manned submarines in recognition of the fact that shipboard life was
difficult and conditions of habitability less than ideal. Most were attracted
by the force's elite standards, casual discipline, technical challenges and
extra pay. The Navy realized that undersea warfare created stresses that weaker
personalities could not handle, so all submariners had to pass rigorous
physical, mental and psychological tests to qualify for the demanding submarine
training program. Crewmembers were chosen for their attributes as
hard-working, thorough and idealistic sailors.
The submariner was always aware that an error during underwater operations
jeopardized everyone's life. They were dependent upon one another for survival,
and any mistake was considered unworthy of the individual sense of trust that
formed their common bond. If they lacked judgment and initiative, so did their
ship. Every submariner was therefore a reflection of his ship's abilities
and character – and no one wanted to disappoint his shipmates or bring dishonor
to his ship. Although the US Submarine Service made up but 2% of the United
States Navy, it accounted for 55% of Japanese maritime losses. But, this
service paid a high price: out of a total of 16,000 Submariners, 375 Officers,
and 3,131 enlisted men died at sea. That was a 22% casualty rating, the highest
percentage of all US Armed Forces.
Modern historians who study the great sea battles of World War II most often
focus on the obvious aspects of modern naval warfare by examining the
contributions made by aircraft carriers and carrier task forces at battles like
Midway, the Coral Sea and the Marianas "Turkey Shoot." To be sure, great sea
battles severely crippled the enemy's ability to wage war and provided an
incalculable boost to Allied morale, but despite the Mahanian strategic
importance of decisive sea battles fought between battleships, heavy cruisers
and their supporting units, their outcomes had little tactical value to the
troops fighting on land. The old eighteenth century European tradition of guerre
de course reasserted itself in the twentieth century. The continued
erosion of a nation's ability to support land-based troops through its Merchant
Fleet showed how lethal commerce raiding could be when wedded to submarine
technology. The gradual shift in Naval wartime policy from a strategy
relying on sea battles of annihilation to one stressing protracted commerce
raiding transformed America's submarine force from a military curiosity to an
invaluable wartime asset in less than fifty years.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, and in the wake of the 1905
Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese showed the world that an oriental nation,
armed with the same weaponry, comprising the same organization, and using the
same techniques and methods as Europeans, could defeat them in a head-to-head
war. The Russo-Japanese War also demonstrated the importance of Army and Navy
cooperation in the combat theater. In other words, the advantage fell to the
nation best capable of cultivating an effective strategy of joint Army-Navy
operations. Japan was the nation that proved capable of defeating an enemy
by maximizing its military effectiveness through joint-service operations under
a single command authority.
In response to the possible Japanese military threat, the US Navy created "Plan
Orange." Based on the theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan the plan assumed that a
Japanese attack on the United States would begin in the Philippines. The
response to that action would have the Army garrison in the Philippines slow
the initial attack, fall back to the island of Corregidor at the mouth of
Manila Bay, and await reinforcements and naval support. The main drawback to
Plan Orange came from the long transit that the Navy faced in having to go
"around the horn" to reach the Pacific Ocean. The plan was a major influence on
President Theodore Roosevelt's decision to complete the Panama Canal. The plan
became doctrine after the completion of the canal and the establishment of a
new American Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and its provisions dictated
the characteristics for all fleet vessels with regard to speed, range,
armament, and at-sea endurance right up until World War I.
At the outbreak of World War I, the British imposed a naval blockade against
Germany and the Central Powers. British warships captured or sank any enemy
merchant ship attempting to run the blockade. The German Navy was strong, but
not strong enough to defeat Britain in an all-out sea battle. Unable to apply
naval force to stop the blockade, Germany appealed to the neutral nations,
including the United States, to help persuade the British to lift the blockade
for humanitarian reasons. Those appeals failed, and Germany was forced to find
another means to circumvent the British blockade. On February 4, 1915 Germany
announced that a war zone would be established around all of the British Isles
and that all hostile ships found within that area would be destroyed by
By World War I, the idea of submarine warfare was not new. Militarists had long
attempted to develop effective underwater warships. A submarine's underwater
invisibility gives it two distinct military advantages: surprise and the means
to retreat relatively undetected and safe from counterattacks. Despite the
fact that British Intelligence had a tremendous amount of information
concerning the movements of the German U-boats, their naval surface forces were
unable to destroy the German submarine force. In discussing how much
information the British Navy had in regard to German U-boat activity, naval
historian Carroll Storrs Alden noted:
They knew almost every time a boat left a German base and often who
was the commanding officer … [They could] determine what course the Germans
were following in going to and from their billets, the number of days each
stayed out, and the characteristic activities of each, e.g., certain ones used
only torpedoes, others preferred to sink ships by gunfire and bombs, others
laid mines. 
Knowing where submarines might be was only half the battle; destroying them was
another matter altogether different and difficult.
Before 1917, German U-boats operating in the Atlantic and practicing commerce
raiding were extremely effective in reducing the amounts of war materials and
goods that reached England and France. A continuation of that type of warfare
would have caused the economic strangulation of Great Britain by November. The
Mahanian preoccupation with decisive battleship engagements continued to
dominate British military thinkers who concluded that there was "no strategic
solution whatsoever to the U-boat menace."
In World War I, German U-boats sank ten battleships, eighteen cruisers,
twenty-one destroyers, nine submarines and an astounding 5,708 Allied vessels
totaling 11 million tons. About half the merchant ships destroyed by U-boats
were British. American naval strategists were able to convince the British
Admiralty to abandon their reliance on the dreadnaughts to wipe out the German
U-boats and employ a new strategy. American naval leadership theorized that in
order to eliminate the threat imposed by the U-boats, they had to be
neutralized, not destroyed. To counter the German Navy's unrestricted submarine
warfare strategy, the Allies adopted a convoy system that used a screen of
warships to protect the merchant vessels crossing the Atlantic. By November of
1917, less than one percent of the ships traveling in convoys were lost.
Following World War I, the United States learned new lessons about the changing
nature of naval combat. The sea war in Europe profoundly influenced America's
naval policy. President Woodrow Wilson issued a directive designed to make the
Navy equal to the most powerful force maintained by any nation of the world.
Unlike World War I, the new Navy was to be comprised of all types of ships to
reduce the emphasis on building large ships of the line. The policy was
accompanied by specific recommendations and plans for an unprecedented build-up
of battleships, cruisers, destroyers—and submarines. However, naval
strategy was still largely based on the Mahanian model of structure, and
although the Navy was better prepared for World War II than it was for World
War I, naval planners and politicians controlling the purse strings made the
mistake of paying little concern to the utility of submarines when assembling
the fleet components. The political influence went beyond local funding
issues. International treaties limiting the sizes and types of ships – creating
parity among the world powers – kept most aggressive naval building programs in
The advent of another war in Europe in 1939 accelerated the pace of American
shipbuilding. In June 1940, Congress authorized additional submarines to be
built, and after the fall of France Congress passed the "Two Navy Act"
authorizing another increase in the number of submarines to be built. Even
as President Franklin D. Roosevelt emphasized antisubmarine warfare when he
established the neutrality patrols in 1940 and 41, American war planners
continued to disdain the strategy of commerce raiding. At the time of the
Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Navy had only 51 submarines stationed
at forward bases in the Pacific.
The Japanese commander of the carrier task force that wrought so much damage at
Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 missed a golden opportunity to knock out the US
Navy's most effective warships by limiting his target selection to aircraft
carriers and battleships. The ships that were sunk or severely damaged in the
attack at Pearl Harbor could not have operated effectively in the far western
Pacific theater for many months even under the best of circumstances, and their
loss to the Navy proved only temporary when they were eventually refloated and
repaired. The Japanese Naval High Command knew the strategic importance of
knocking out the dockyards, the above-ground fuel supplies and the airfields,
but they underestimated the value of other ships, which were left untouched in
Fortunately for the United States, the Japanese failed to destroy the submarine
base in Hawaii, preserving intact the supplies, facilities and fuel that were
needed so that the only branch of the service capable of bringing the war to
the enemy through immediate offensive actions could begin its combat
operations. It was the submarine force that carried the load until the great
industrial activity of America produced the weapons needed to prosecute the war
against Japan. From 1941 to 1945, 249 US submarines conducted sorties
against Japanese shipping. Because over three-quarters of Japan's requirements
for basic raw materials and foodstuffs needed to support the war came from
overseas sources, through their unique brand of warfare the submarine force was
able to wage a devastating campaign against the Japanese Merchant Fleet.
American submarines sank almost half of the merchant tonnage available to
Japan. Even so, the hunter-killer aspects of submarine warfare demonstrated
only a part of their strategic importance to the overall Allied war effort.
American submarine warfare operations, both conventional and unconventional, in
the Atlantic were severely hampered by the successes of the Allied convoy
system. In the first six months of 1943, the war in the Atlantic turned
decisively in favor of the Allies after they had sunk 150 German U-boats. The
American submarines that had previously patrolled a wide area of ocean were
shifted to patrol positions off Norway and North Iceland. After several months
it became apparent that those submarines were not being used to the best
advantage – not for any operational deficiencies, but because there was a
serious lack of targets. Accordingly, the American submarine squadron in the
Atlantic theater was returned to the United States for refit and reassignment
to the Pacific Fleet.
There are hundreds of books written that document submarine combat operations
during World War II, but most of those are narrowly focused on the individual
accomplishments of a handful of officers or concentrate on the "find ‘em, shoot
‘em, sink ‘em" aspects of submarine warfare. This may be due to the fact that
submarine service was a highly personal experience, filled with the memories of
the smell of sweat and oil, the pounding concussion of exploding depth charges,
the controlled chaos of emergency deep operations, the quick peeks through the
periscope made to verify the sinking of another target and the tension of
submerged attacks in enemy waters. The destruction of the Japanese Merchant
Fleet was the submarines' primary mission, but they also had significant
influence in conducting secondary missions like transporting guerrillas and
raiders, carrying supplies to guerrillas behind enemy lines, and performing
reconnaissance duties. The historiography of World War II submarine warfare
is treated almost as a separate conflict that pitted the US Submarine Pacific
Fleet against the merchant shipping and naval forces of Japan – a sort of war
within a war.
Submarines performed numerous special operations in the Atlantic theater, but
most of those were conducted by British naval assets. The most well known of
those submarines, was the HMS Seraph. In between the numerous
encounters with German shipping, the Seraph, under the command of
Lieutenant N.L.A. Jewell, conducted topographical and military reconnaissance
of the Algerian and Sicilian coasts prior to the invasions of Africa and Italy,
and rescued French General Henri Honoré Giraud right from under the noses of
the Gestapo. Even those special operations performed by the HMS Seraph
that proved to be so important to the Allied war effort, were treated by her
captain and crew as mundane and counter-productive to their primary mission as
hunter-killers. The diary entry of Lieutenant Jewell emphasized his
indifference toward secret missions where he wrote:
For us aboard the Seraph, there ensued the hardest part of any
operation, land or sea—the thumb-twiddling business of waiting in fretful
idleness while the other fellows are off having the fun [of sinking ships]. If
a fat Italian freighter had happened along just then—oh, I suppose I'd have let
her pass rather than jeopardize our mission, but it would have been a close
squeak for the freighter.
That indifference toward the special operations aspects of submarine warfare
was also present in the attitudes of American submarine captains. The numerous
personal diaries that were published after 1945 by those who served onboard
submarines during World War II have under-reported the special missions that
were accomplished by the crews of those ships.
The only special mission that is covered in any detail was the Spyron
Operation, which supported the resistance efforts of American-Filipino guerilla
warriors throughout the Philippine Islands after the fall of Corregidor in
1942. Two books were written about Spyron – an operation that was supported
solely by American submarines specifically assigned to the mission – but
neither of those books gives credit to any submarine by name. They are only
mentioned in vague descriptions or to clarify the organizational and
operational actions of Commander Charles "Chick" Parsons, the leader of the
Spyron mission. The following excerpt is typical of how past historians have
interpreted and documented the Spyron mission:
By 1943 the government in Tokyo, Japan realized that a mysterious
"Mr. X" was operating in the Philippines. Arriving by submarine, he was
supplying the American-Filipino guerrilla forces with medicine, ammunition and
arms. By early 1944 Tokyo had established his identity, and from then on, there
was a reward of $50,000 for the capture of Commander Charles Parsons – dead or
alive. Through a secret organization called "Spyron," "Chick" Parsons helped to
organize and supply one of the most successful undergrounds the world had ever
seen – the American-Filipino guerrilla movement of World War II. Parsons,
however, was an unconventional military leader, fighting an unconventional war.
During the many months that he lived behind enemy lines, he never carried a
weapon or fired a shot. Rather, he was a collector of psychological and
political warfare – a shadowy will-of-the-wisp figure, who sought to remain
invisible. By the end of the war, however, he had become one of America's most
decorated heroes. It was at that time that Chick Parsons received his highest
award – the Medal of Valor, bestowed with gratitude and affection by the
Philippine Government and the Philippine people.
The Filipino-American guerrilla movement would have been impossible to arm or
supply, and their combat effectiveness rendered impotent, without the support
of America's Pacific Submarine Fleet.
USS Narwhal (SS-167)
Workhorse of the Spyron Operation
It must be said that American submarines in the Pacific, with but limited help
of a few British and Dutch boats, played a major role in the defeat of Japan.
They decimated that country's Merchant Fleet, choked off essential supplies and
prevented material support for the Japanese war effort. Most historiographies
of submarine warfare have focused on the destruction of enemy shipping by
describing every aspect in locating, stalking, determining a firing solution,
attacking and sinking a target. There is also an emphasis on trying to recreate
the atmosphere that pervaded all submarine combat action – the talking in
whispers and movement in stocking feet to reduce unnecessary noise that might
be emitted through the hull, and the everyday life in cramped quarters that
became even more suffocating when submariners faced the terror and uncertainty
of survival while enemy depth charges relentlessly rattled their boat. What is
lacking in the history of submarine combat actions during World War II is a
summary of all the special operations that were conducted in between the "find
‘em, shoot ‘em, sink ‘em" aspects of submarine warfare. Although the commerce
raiding conducted by submarines was their most obvious contribution to the war
effort, the secondary role of the submarine as a "shadow warrior" used in
covert operations was equally important, and had far greater influences on the
peripheral elements of warfare that contributed to the defeat of the Japanese
Pearl Harbor set into motion a succession of rapid and extensive Japanese
conquests that carried their armed forces to Malay, Burma, Indonesia, the
Philippines and the western Pacific until they threatened India in the west,
Australia in the north, and Midway and Hawaii in the east. Against the rush of
those Japanese conquests, Allied strategic planners theorized that no action
could be brought against the enemy until the lines of communication were
secured against the loss of America's battleships and the shifting of naval
assets to support the priority assigned to the defense of the Panama Canal and
The fall of France at the hands of the Nazis in 1940 had an immediate
significance for the United States. The Germans had already established active
and influential communities from Brazil to Argentina. If the Nazis occupied the
French colonies and seaports in the Caribbean, the Axis Powers would be a
stone's throw away from the Panama Canal, Puerto Rico, Guantánamo, Cuba and the
Gulf of Mexico. The fear of a German presence in the Caribbean was a definite
threat to international commerce as the fuel-hungry German Navy would surely
covet the unprotected Dutch oil refineries in Aruba and Curacao. Through
diplomatic measures, Roosevelt convinced the governments of the Latin American
Republics to adopt a policy of neutrality that stressed a doctrine of
noninterference by Europe in the territories of North and South America. The
intention was to deny the German military machine any access to, or domination
of, "American" skies and water. With the US Navy's largest warships
reassigned to protect the Panama Canal and guard against enemy mines and
submarines, American military planners were forced to rely on the submarine
force to carry the fighting load in the Pacific until the nation's industrial
power could be fully mobilized.
The USS SEAOWL (SS-405)
Destroyed 32 submerged mines
The USS Icefish (SS-367) was one of 134 Balao Class fleet submarines
ordered during WWII. Icefish was built and launched at Manitowoc,
Similar strategic problems affected the Dutch government in her East Indian
colonies. After Pearl Harbor and the quick defeat of Dutch troops in the Indies
in March 1942, the Dutch government quickly realized that an intelligence
network had to be established to prevent the Japanese from cutting off the East
Indian colonies from the rest of the world. Immediately following capitulation,
some preparations for guerrilla warfare were made, but the number of troops
involved was reduced from several hundred to a few small units whose sole
mission became establishing communications between the East Indies and the
Netherlands. The initial guerrilla campaigns on Java failed as did the
establishment of a network of communications units. Part of the continuing
problems that plagued the Dutch resistance efforts was the general hostile
reception from the local population. Most of the Dutch guerrillas were betrayed
by the local population soon after their infiltration.
A larger part of the problems that the Dutch encountered in trying to establish
a sustained guerrilla campaign against the Japanese was due to the shortage of
available special mission submarines. Most special missions had to be postponed
or cancelled due to the lack of reliable transportation. As the head of the
Dutch intelligence organization, Charles Olke van der Plas, stated in 1943, the
problem with the intelligence/guerrilla movement in the East Indies was first
of all one of "submarines, submarines and once again submarines." In
general, the military value of the Dutch intelligence gatherers proved to be of
no use to the Allied war effort in the Pacific theater. The only
Dutch-sponsored special mission that achieved any positive results – codenamed
"Flounder" – was supported by the US submarine Searaven, which delivered a
landing party off the coast of Java in late 1942.
Despite the historical significance and importance of the specialized warfare
roles of the submarine forces during World War II, those missions were viewed
by the sailors who carried them out as time taken away from their primary
function of conducting unrestricted warfare against the enemy. Fleet-type
submarines were designed for one mission – to sink ships – and there was little
patience for anything else. Doctrine and tactics combined to limit the
effectiveness of American submarine attacks in the early days of World War II.
Following the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor, the Chief of Naval Operations
issued the first US fighting directive with the one-line message, "EXECUTE
UNRESTRICTED AIR AND SUBMARINE WARFARE AGAINST JAPAN." Neither by training
nor by indoctrination was the US Submarine Force ready to carry out the order
to fight an unrestricted war against Japan. Submarines had been trained to
fight a different kind of war – one that stressed action against enemy warships
in between routine scouting missions. Submarine commanders were imbued with the
idea that they were to observe ethical tactics based on the rules for sea
conflict. Those rules were established by international treaty and imposed many
legal limitations on submarines. Chief among the restrictions impressed on the
memory of every submarine skipper was the provision that any naval vessel found
guilty of any violation of the rules in the treaty could be hunted down and
captured or sunk as pirates.
Final World War II battle flag of USS Flasher (SS-249)
The most successful submarine in terms of enemy tonnage sunk.
Several other factors limited the effectiveness of submarine warfare in the
opening months of the war. With limited prewar training experience in
shallow-approach attacks, submarine commanders concentrated on attacking
warships from deep beneath the sea. Surface attacks, even at night, were
officially discouraged. Poor organization, a lack of aggressive leadership and
material defects resulted in the majority of submarine patrols ending with no
Leadership problems were not only limited to individual submarine commands. At
the start of the war, there were considerable problems of leadership at the
flag level with regard to submarine deployment and tactics. The submarine force
was not formed into separate squadrons from the rest of the fleet. Submarines
were under the authority of the Commander of the Pacific Fleet and assigned to
individual battlegroups. Commanders of the individual groups deployed the
submarines as they saw fit. While some squadron commanders deployed their
submarines as advanced scouts or allowed them to act as commerce raiders, far
too many boats were under-utilized because some squadron commanders simply did
not understand the principles of submarine warfare.
The submarine organizational and tactical problems were further exacerbated by
the fact that all naval operations fell under the authority of the theater
commander, General Douglas MacArthur, who believed submarines were best used in
support of guerrilla operations as they had proved during their support
missions to Corregidor. Since there were only a handful of poorly led and
organized guerrilla operations in the Philippines at that time, submarines
spent weeks in port waiting for orders from MacArthur rather than operating in
enemy waters and destroying Japanese merchant traffic.
In April 1942, Admiral Charles Lockwood was placed in charge of the Asiatic
submarine force in Fremantle Australia and immediately began overhauling the
command structure. Lockwood reorganized his submarines into squadrons and put
them under his direct command. He established rest camps for submarine crews
returning from patrol, standardized communications procedures between
submarines and their bases and formulated training exercises that stressed
aggressive attack plans. He met with each submarine commander and crew and
gave pep talks while noting their comments in order to determine why the
submarines had not done a better job of stopping the Japanese in the
Philippines and Java. Lockwood determined that part of the problem was bad
command decisions – the boats were never in the right place at the right times
– but that more of the trouble was found inside the submarines. Submarine
commanders were too cautious and failed to close with the enemy at a range that
would increase the chances for a successful sinking. They also displayed little
initiative or killer instinct and insisted on the reliance of by-the-book
firing solutions, and when they did attack an enemy ship the torpedoes in use
at the time ran ten feet below their selected settings and were plagued with
faulty magnetic and contact exploders. As a result, one-third of the submarine
skippers were relieved of their commands in the first year of the war.
Without leaders in place who were willing to take risks and to formulate
unorthodox methods to accomplish what seemed to be the impossible, special
mission operations and commerce raiding patrols would have developed into
disasters. The "mustangs" Lockwood chose to replace the old operational
conservative submarine commanders proved to be more willing to take chances,
and more accurately reflected the warrior spirit of their crews. The first
mustang assigned to command a submarine was Slade Cutter, who was described by
Lockwood as being able "to find Japanese ships in Pearl Harbor." Under Cutter's
command, the USS Seahorse sank nineteen enemy ships in its first four
war patrols. Of all the changes this new admiral made to improve the combat
effectiveness of America's submarines, the most significant change was made out
of fear. In order to remain on friendly terms with MacArthur, he put into place
a fixed submarine operational schedule with the specific task of supporting
The Nittsu Maru as seen through the periscope of the
USS Wahoo (SS-238)
The principles for special operations are simple: A submarine operating in
enemy territory must not be seen, but must still accomplish its mission. It
succeeds at this by doing the unexpected thing. Whether a submarine was to
land, extract or supply a guerrilla force with needed provisions, or
reconnoiter an enemy stronghold, stealth and surprise were the keys to its
success. At best the distribution of submarine patrol objectives had to be a
compromise measured by long-range strategies concerning effective damage to the
enemy. Frequently the consideration of direct and immediate damage had to be
by-passed in favor of rescuing endangered personnel or rushing relief to a
beleaguered intelligence or resistance outpost. If a submarine was going to
make contact with the enemy, it had to attack on its own favorable terms. And
after the attack, the submarine had to disappear, continuing the illusion that
an unknown force had engaged the enemy.
The special missions were never easy. They usually demanded multiple
penetrations of enemy territory – which were far more hazardous than normal war
patrols. A submerged attack was an evolution that could be practiced. Failure
was frustrating but seldom fatal and success was generally a matter of hit and
run tactics. The landing of a shore party on an enemy-held beach, or the
extraction of personnel from a port under fire called for a great deal of
resourcefulness and courage.
As the war raged on, submarines were called upon to undertake all kinds of
special missions that were divided into several general types: reconnaissance,
supply, evacuation or rescue, transportation of coast watchers and intelligence
agents, lifeguarding, mining, weather reporting, support of commando raids and
serving as lighthouse beacons for surface ships. Any submarine assigned to
special missions might perform more than one of those tasks.
The first missions executed by Pacific Fleet submarines involved carrying
supplies to the defenders of Corregidor. Transportation of intelligence agents
to and from enemy-held territory soon followed, but what proved to be the most
valuable of those early special operations was the submarine's ability to relay
information of enemy ship movements by coast watchers. From the Battle at
Midway to the Battle of the Philippine Sea, submarines provided tactical
information to other sea and air services in preparation for coordinated
attacks. As part of their everyday duties, and when not under orders to
maintain radio silence, submarines reported the weather, tides, available
navigation aids and enemy force structure in their operating areas. Special
Operations missions were never undertaken without a large degree of risk, but
the dangers of those first missions into the unknown were magnified by lack of
experience and precedent.
The most unusual of the early special operations was performed by the submarine
USS Trout in January 1942. The boat delivered 3,500 rounds of
desperately needed anti-aircraft ammunition and medical supplies to the US
Forces on Corregidor. After unloading tons of supplies, the overall weight of
the submarine was too light to dive without additional ballast. The commanding
officer of the Trout, Lieutenant Commander Mike Fenno, requested
twenty tons of sandbags or cement to provide the needed ballast, but sandbags
were too valuable to the defense efforts of the Army and cement could not be
spared either, so his request was denied. Fenno reported in person to Admiral
Rockwell's headquarters in Corregidor and asked for assistance in finding the
needed temporary ballast that would allow the submarine to dive and return to
her base in Australia. The unusual solution to the problem came courtesy of the
Philippine government. The bank vaults at Manila had been emptied, and their
contents moved for safekeeping so as not to fall into the hands of the Japanese
forces. All of that gold, silver and currency was in Corregidor. Trout
was ordered to take two tons of gold bars and eighteen tons of silver, paper
currency and other securities back to Pearl Harbor. Loaded with the contents of
the entire Philippine treasury, Trout left Corregidor and headed to
Hawaii. Along the way on her 57 day voyage, the submarine sank two Japanese
freighters. Commander Fenno was hailed as a hero upon the ship's arrival in
port at Pearl Harbor, but when the cargo was unloaded he wasn't sure whether he
would receive a medal or a court-martial. He had signed for five hundred
eighty-three bars of gold, each worth $14,500, but only five hundred eighty-two
were accounted for during their removal. After a frantic search of the
submarine's spaces, the missing bar was found in the galley where one of the
cooks had been using it as paperweight.
The USS Trout (SS-202) transported the entire Philippine treasury (2
tons of gold bars and 18 tons of silver) from Corregidor to Hawaii in order to
prevent it from falling into Japanese hands.
The crew of the USS Trout in Hawaii unloading the gold bars removed
from the Philippine treasury
About the same time the Trout was loading gold bars, another
submarine, USS Seadragon, was in Corregidor where she picked up,
transported and delivered 19 members of a naval radio intelligence unit, an
Army major, 23 torpedoes, 3,000 pounds of radio equipment and two tons of
submarine spare parts to Soerabaja in the Dutch East Indies. This mission was
in support of the first of many attempts by the Dutch government to establish
an intelligence network in the East Indies in preparation for the anticipated
Japanese occupation. A few months later, the submarine USS Sargo returned
to Soerabaja where she evacuated what was left of that same intelligence unit
and picked up over one-million rounds of .30 caliber ammunition that was
delivered to the Philippine forces fighting on Mindanao.
As the American situation on the island of Corregidor began to look hopeless,
more and more high-ranking Filipino government officials had to be evacuated.
The Japanese knew that the Americans were getting supplies to the island, and
increased their own naval presence around the Philippines in an attempt to form
a blockade. US Submarines were still able to slip through gaps in the Japanese
defenses. In February 1942, the USS Swordfish snuck into a harbor at
Corregidor and brought out the president of the Philippine Commonwealth, Manuel
Quezon, and several other members of his government. By the end of the month,
the American battle for the Philippines and the Dutch battle for Java were
virtually over and the Allies had lost. For all practical purposes, the US
submarine force was the only element of the Asiatic Fleet that remained to
fight the Japanese, but the experience the submarine crews had learned while
performing special missions paid huge dividends in the guerrilla and resistance
operations throughout the South Pacific.
Shortly after departing the Philippines in early 1942, General MacArthur began
looking for a means of harassing the Japanese in preparation for his promised
return. Early attempts to contact and organize the bands of guerrillas
operating throughout the Philippine Islands were complicated by the fact that
the majority of guerrilla forces were little more than roving bandits with no
allegiances to any central authority, and whose raids were uncoordinated and
accomplished for personal gain. Within a few months of trying to organize the
guerrilla effort, it was clear that there was no way to provide the needed
outside support, and there was a woeful lack of leadership among the natives
despite their apparent loyalties to America.
The performance of America's submarine force in providing military aid to the
troops on Corregidor convinced MacArthur that those same submarines might be
able to provide the supplies and equipment necessary to carry out a sustained
guerrilla movement. However, two seemingly insurmountable problems had to be
resolved before any covert operation began. Contact had to be made with the
guerrillas in the Philippines in order to organize and coordinate their
actions, and the Navy had to be convinced to provide the submarines necessary
to support the operation. For several months, a powerful radio tracking and
monitoring station in San Francisco had been receiving shortwave transmissions
for Panay, the sixth largest of the Philippine Islands. The sender of the
messages identified himself as Macario Peralta, a major in the Philippine Army
who had assembled a large guerrilla force in the hills. According to Peralta,
his forces were well-armed, well-organized, fighting to restore their country's
freedom – and he was requesting American aid in that effort. Washington
notified MacArthur, who needed to find a reliable and well-respected leader who
could rendezvous with the guerrilla leader.
The answer to that problem came in the form of Charles "Chick" Parsons, who had
escaped from the Japanese in the Philippines a few months earlier. He was
also a Lieutenant Commander in an intelligence unit of the US Naval Reserve who
had remained behind in the city to collect intelligence on the Japanese
occupiers. Fluent in several of the over 70 native dialects, intimately
familiar with the islands, and a good friend of MacArthur from their days
together in Manila, Parsons was just the man the general was looking for to act
as a go-between with the Filipino guerrillas.
In late February 1943, Parsons was transported to Labangan aboard the submarine
USS Tambor. His mission was to deliver $10,000 in cash and two tons of
ammunition to one of the guerrilla leaders in the region. Parsons also
delivered radio equipment for use in setting up his spy network. Parsons' first
clandestine visit back to the Philippines lasted until July 1943. During that
time, he crisscrossed several islands on foot, horseback, and canoe, always at
great personal risk of capture or death by the Japanese, meeting and
coordinating with guerrilla leaders, setting up coast watchers, taking part in
ambushes, or rendezvousing with other submarines to pick up supplies and
The weapons, food, clothing and communications that Parsons delivered on a
regular basis was sorely needed by the Filipino guerrillas, but one of their
more unusual requests for supplies came from the Catholic priests on Mindanao.
The lack of available flour on the island meant that there was a dire shortage
of religious wafers. The priests were also forced to ration their ceremonial
wine supplies. Parsons contacted the Catholic Church in Australia and had
hundreds of "Padre's Kits" packaged in burlap and delivered to the island. In
addition to the required wine and Communion wafers, the packages contained
religious medals and other items considered useful to the priests.
The Spyron Operation was so valuable to the Allied war effort that two
transport submarines, USS Narwhal and USS Nautilus, were
dedicated to the mission on a permanent basis. In late July, Nautilus was
ordered to deliver one Navy officer, 22 enlisted men, and 10 tons of supplies
to Mindoro; two Filipino Army enlisted men and 30 tons of supplies to Bohol;
and two US Army enlisted men and 30 tons of supplies to Leyte. At dawn on the
very first morning of her mission, radar detected an airplane at five miles and
closing. The plane was immediately recognized as friendly, but the pilot was
less observant. He dove towards the submarine and dropped a bomb, which luckily
landed harmlessly in front of the ship. His ensuing strafing attempt was also
unsuccessful, missing his target by 100 yards. With that, the pilot
inexplicably broke away, and was never seen or heard from again.
At first, most submarines on secret missions to the Philippines delivered
supplies and military personnel before heading off to perform more traditional
wartime patrols in search of Japanese ships to sink. In the spring of 1944,
this changed as pressure from the United States pushed the Japanese back into
the western Pacific. The push to secure the Pacific islands kept many other
submarines too busy to supply the guerrilla movement in the Philippines.
In one of the more humorous submarine special operations, the USS Crevalle
was ordered to pick up 25 evacuees on Negros on the return leg of a deployment.
Upon arriving at the designated location, the submarine made contact with the
expected 25 evacuees in one boat, plus 16 others with baggage in another. Many
children were among those escaping the island, and the crew accepted both
boatloads. During the return trip to Australia, the refugees were fed in the
galley, requiring them to pass through the control room for each meal. The
children were fascinated by the lights and switches there and couldn't resist
trying to play with them. In the words of the ship's commanding officer:
The Chief of the Watch solved this by putting a sign on the
switchboard reading, ‘Any children found in the control room without their
parents will be shot.' The mothers read this gravely to their kids, who seemed
to take it as a matter of course. Considering that some of them could not
remember when they were not fugitives, perhaps this is understandable.
In addition to the new underage menace within the ship, Crevalle and
her passengers still had external threats to worry about before reaching the
safety of Australia. After being forced to dive twice by aircraft, the
submarine detected a large Japanese convoy. The set a course to cut off the
last ship in the group, but the convoy suddenly changed course and bore
directly down on Crevalle. As the convoy passed 90 feet above the
submarine without incident, the Officer of the Deck ordered the boat to level
off and maintain depth. Moments later, two groups of two depth charges exploded
close aboard, knocking out the sonar in what Walker described as the worst
depth charging he had experienced. When the sonar was fixed, the crew found the
attackers still searching directly above them, and the submarine crept away as
quickly and as quietly as possible. Although heavily damaged by the depth
charge attack, Crevalle reached Australia with all hands.
Parsons' network of spies and coast watchers proved invaluable not only to the
liberation of the Philippines, but also to the Pacific war effort as a whole.
The coast watchers were the first to alert Southwest Pacific Headquarters in
Brisbane, Australia, to a massing of Japanese naval power in the islands. This
information led to a submarine net being thrown around the Japanese, tracking
their every move, and eventually resulted in the US Navy gaining a major
victory in the Battle of the Philippine Sea – also called Marianas Turkey
Submarines involved in these special missions to aid the Filipino guerrilla
effort waited offshore until a pre-arranged signal was made at the landing
site. Often this signal was nothing more than a series of fires, or a set of
disks mounted on a bamboo pole. Sometimes a Morse code indicator was
transmitted by occulting a fire with a blanket or sheet – nothing more complex
than a few dashes or dots was used. Typically, the guerrillas appeared at
the submarine's sides in banca boats or bamboo rafts in order to offload the
cargo. The lucky few who got to board the craft were often treated to a cup of
real coffee, a Coke, or a sandwich. At least once or twice a guerrilla or two
"stowed-away" aboard the submarine because the sudden appearance of a Japanese
destroyer necessitated an unexpectedly rapid departure. The vast majority of
these clandestine operations were handled with professionalism and mutual
respect between the submarine crews and Filipino boatmen, but not all of the
missions went smoothly.
One particular incident caused grave concerns for the officials at MacArthur's
headquarters with lasting implications to the other special mission's
submarines. It was an unloading operation that was carried out so poorly that
some Filipinos were bodily thrown overboard and a significant portion of the
cargo was lost. It resulted in a most sarcastic response written to MacArthur
from the guerrilla leader in the Philippines.
On June 10, 1944 the USS Narwhal left Port Darwin and started her 11th
War Patrol. At Lipata Point, Panay, in the Philippines, several representatives
of Colonel Peralta's guerrilla army came aboard the submarine after the proper
security signal was given and arranged for the transfer of Narwhal's cargo
to the Filipino bancas. Two guerrilla officers were left to help supervisor the
The Narwhal's deck log noted the ideal conditions for the unloading of
supplies – water calm, no wind and a short run for the boats that would carry
the cargo to shore. In the ship's patrol report, it was noted that the boatmen
refused to load [their boats] to capacity, and when the boats were only about
15% loaded, the boatmen complained about the weight of their loads and shoved
off for the shore. Arguing with the boatmen did not provide satisfactory
loading results and eventually one sailor was placed in each boat to make sure
they were loaded to capacity. Supplies were even unboxed and loaded loose in
order to save space. The two guerrillas in charge of the procedure had no
control over the boatmen, who seemed not to care about the cargo. According to
one sailor, the guerrilla officers were so busy trying to get to the cigarettes
and clothes in the boxes that they did not have time to supervise the job. When
the small boats returned to the submarine for additional loads, they were
filled with sightseers who were left on deck while the boats that brought them
returned to shore.
Sometime early in the morning before 0330 hours, the American officer in charge
of the operation assigned two Filipino men to each drum of gasoline that was to
be unloaded and indicated that they had to swim the drums ashore. Hearing this,
the two guerrilla officers left on the first available banca. At this point,
almost half of the cargo remained on deck plus the gasoline drums. The patrol
report stated, "By 0335 the last boat had been loaded to capacity, about 15
tons, over the strenuous objection of the ‘Patron.' Most of the shore party was
put in the boat but about 20 men would not go willingly. After pushing a dozen
or so overboard, the rest got the news and jumped, leaving all equipment
behind." Shortly before 0400, the ship's commanding officer ordered the
remaining gasoline drums and boxes of carbines jettisoned as the Narwhal
started moving out of the bay. About 30 tons of cargo were lost; the war report
writer said it was 15 tons lost. On July 11, 1944, General MacArthur received
the following radio, from Col. Peralta:
Please inform your sub captain I thank him for the kindness,
courtesy displayed to my half-starved rather forward officers. Value of such
cannot be estimated as they help allay possible hard feelings on their part and
is excellent proof of American generosity and sympathy. What those men will say
around counts more than one ton of printed promises.
General Charles A. Willoughby, a close personal advisor to MacArthur,
summarized the event and provided the background information to other submarine
commanders who were assigned to special missions in the area as a precautionary
Peralta's attitude, from his message and other evacuee reports,
appears to be generally obstreperous. He is young, resourceful, competent and
able. His organization on Panay has seemed to be good. His intelligence
coverage of his own and other areas is of greater value than that of other MD
commanders and in the past his attitude has been tolerated for this reason. His
hostility towards Americans has been confirmed by numerous reliable evacuees
from Panay. Since Peralta's sources are valuable no action is recommended at
this time, though future deliveries of supplies by Navy might be affected by
these adverse reports. However, commanders of forces reentering the Philippines
should be advised of Peralta's attitude, for appropriate action.
The Panay incident between Peralta's guerrillas and the captain and crew of the
Narwhal proved to be the exception to the overall successful special missions
performed by other submarines involved in the Spyron Operation.
In every radio broadcast he made from Australia to the Japanese-occupied
Philippines, General MacArthur had famously insisted, "I shall return," a
morale-boosting promise heard by many Filipinos on radio equipment brought to
the islands on "guerrilla" submarines. When the tide of the war fully turned in
favor of the Americans, and MacArthur was finally able to liberate the
Philippines from the Japanese, it was the American submarine force that played
the key role in making MacArthur's promised return a reality.
There is little doubt that the commerce raiding abilities of American
submarines altered Japan's maritime strategy. The most obvious effect of the
submarines' presence was the rate at which the tankers and freighters of
Japan's Merchant Fleet were sent to the bottom. By 1944, American submarine
warfare aimed at Japan's Merchant Fleet resulted in the cessation of all
north-south ship movement. The intense American submarine activity in Japanese
waters also had a secondary effect on the Japanese military. Submarine warfare
forced the curtailment of essential aircraft at-sea training operations, which
exacerbated Japan's difficulty in providing experienced pilots as the war
One of the most important strategic values of America's submarine force had
nothing to do with commerce raiding, underwater warfare, or special operations.
The Japanese could never be sure that a submarine was not operating off their
coasts, and antisubmarine measures had to be maintained at all times. Early in
the war, Life Magazine published an article about the USS Guardfish
that claimed the submarine had penetrated so far into the Sea of Japan that the
crew was able to watch a horserace that took place on the island of Honshu. In
actuality, the submarine's skipper had commented on being able to see a set of
railroad tracks that may have been taking passengers to a racetrack that had
been identified on their navigational chart. The story was blown out of context
and became more embellished at every retelling. The New York State Racing
Commission sent the submarine's commanding officer an honorary membership as a
result of the story. What the story did not report was that the submarine had
considered firing a torpedo at the trestle that supported the train, but after
waiting offshore for most of the day without seeing the train the submarine
left the area. Since an American magazine had reported the story, it was
obvious to the Japanese that no city was safe from a possible submarine attack
and anti-submarine measures were strengthened throughout the empire. Any
troops or enemy resources that were diverted in defense of the Japanese
homeland against phantom submarines were unavailable for use against the Allies
in other hostile areas. American propaganda played a big part in advancing the
stealth characteristics and unique warfare abilities of the submarine force.
Just the possibility of using submarines to attack Japanese coastal facilities
provided the Allies with a powerful psychological weapon.
WWII Ship's patch of USS GUARDFISH (SS-217)
Submarines had to be prepared to carry out special missions at any time during
a war patrol. Most missions were identified to the submarines' commanding
officers prior to deployment, but many of the original missions were cancelled
or altered as wartime priorities and strategic circumstances changed. Such was
the case for the submarines USS Searaven and USS Amberjack. Preparing
for her third patrol, Searaven drew a highly explosive mission. She
was to transport over 50 tons of dual purpose, high explosive anti-aircraft
shells to Corregidor. Prior to arrival at the final destination, Searaven
was informed that Corregidor had fallen to the enemy. The submarine
received new orders to proceed to the island of Timor and rescue some Royal
Australian Air Force personnel who had destroyed the communication towers, the
landing strip, ammunition and fuel oil storage prior to the Japanese
overrunning the island. The Aussies then took off to the jungle seeking a means
of escape. Their headquarters in Australia had informed them that a rescue was
impossible because all of flying boats had been destroyed by Japanese bombings.
They were on their own in a wild jungle, pursued by the Japanese Army.
Arriving off the shores of Timor, Searaven reconnoitered the beach and
surrounding jungles by periscope during the day, hoping to find evidence of the
survivors or a visual signal from them. Surfacing later in darkness, they
approached the vicinity of the rescue position as close to the beach as
possible where a signal fire was seen. Three sailors volunteered to paddle a
raft to the beach and bring the Australians back to the submarine. Landing
on shore, the rescue party located the Aussies. The Americans were horrified by
the sight of 33 Australians in various stages of near-death. Most of them
suffered from malaria and malnutrition, and many had tropical ulcers under
their armpits or between their legs. Three of the survivors were stretcher
cases so it was decided the healthy men would go out to the submarine first,
and the wounded and sickly would wait until the second trip. When the small
boat reached the submarine, dawn was not too far away. The passengers were
lowered below decks, given first aid, bowls of hot tomato soup, sandwiches and
cigarettes. The remainder of the party was still on the beach, and the
submarine was forced to wait until the next night to rescue them.
Conning Tower of the USS SEARAVEN (SS-196)
While on a routine patrol to lay mines and perform photo reconnaissance near
the Japanese stronghold at Truk, Amberjack was recalled for a special
mission. The submarine was ordered to transport 9,000 gallons of aviation
gasoline, 15 Army fighter pilots and two hundred 100-pound bombs to Guadalcanal
in order to assist the Marines who were hard-pressed for air support. Enroute
to Guadalcanal, the submarine was redirected and ordered to deliver its cargo
to Tulagi, where the Japanese were attempting to recapture an Allied
airstrip. US submarines transported hundreds of members of "Carlson's
Marine Raiders" to both Guadalcanal and Tulagi, and those same submarines made
regular deliveries of ammunition and food that helped make the Island
Reoccupation Campaigns of the Marines such a success.
As Allied war planners began to formulate a strategy for the upcoming Gilbert
Islands campaign, the admiral in charge of air operations contacted Admiral
Lockwood and asked him if he could spare any of his submarines to serve
Lifeguarding duty. Lockwood wasted little time in responding affirmatively to
that request and set up a routine submarine schedule to support the air
operations. Submarines were assigned specific stations in the area of air
operations and were provided a unique call sign that linked them to that area.
Pilots who had to ditch their planes in the ocean were instructed to send an
un-coded radio message with the call sign that corresponded to their assigned
area. That call sign alerted the submarine in the area that a pilot was in
trouble and sent it on its way to make the recovery. In the event that the
identification system was ever compromised, to prevent the Japanese from
sending false rescue messages the call signs all featured the liberal use of
words that started with the letter "L" – such as "Lonesome Luke," "Little Lulu"
and "Lollipop" – all linguistic phrases that tongue-tied the Japanese.
The Battle Flag of the USS RAY (SS-271) depicts 23 pilot rescues
The submarine USS Finback rescued future US president George Bush.
Lieutenant Bush was returning from an attack at Chichi Jima when his plane was
shot down by Japanese fire over the Bonin Islands. He and his crew waited in a
rubber raft for four hours until the submarine surfaced nearby and rescued
them. All totaled, 86 American submarines participated in lifeguard missions
and rescued 504 Allied airmen. Of all the at-sea rescues accomplished by US
submarines, none was more difficult or satisfying than the rescue of British
and Australian prisoners who survived the sinking of the Japanese ship that was
transferring them from Singapore to Formosa in 1944.
The Japanese POW transport ship, Rakuyo Maru, was sunk by the
submarine USS Sealion in the South China Sea. Four days after the
sinking, another submarine, USS Pampanito, was on lifeguard duty when
a bridge lookout sighted some men on a raft. The men were covered with oil and
filth, and the crew was unable to determine if they were friend or foe. A
rescue party determined that there were 15 men in the raft, all in bad shape.
The War Patrol Report of the Pampanito stated:
As the men were received on board, we stripped them and removed
most of the heavy coating of oil and muck. We cleared the after torpedo room
and passed them below as quickly as possible. Gave all men a piece of cloth
moistened with water to suck on. All of them were exhausted after four days on
the raft and three years imprisonment. Many had lashed themselves to their
makeshift rafts, which were slick with grease; and had nothing but lifebelts
with them. All showed signs of pellagra, beri-beri, malaria, immersion, salt
water sores, ringworm, etc. All were very thin and showed the results of
undernourishment. Some were in very bad shape … A pitiful sight none of us will
The crew of the Pampanito spent four hours rescuing as many survivors
as could be found. The final tally of survivors added an additional 73 men to
the submarine's already cramped complement of 79 enlisted men and 10 officers.
Some of the men who were rescued were critically ill, so Pampanito cut
short her patrol and transferred the survivors to the hospital on Saipan.
Although it took them away from their primary mission of sinking Japanese
ships, lifeguard duty was the one special operation submariners truly enjoyed.
It gave them an immediate sense of accomplishment, allowed them plenty of time
for routine training and evolutions, and crews were free to pursue any target
of opportunity that happened their way while on station. Several submarines
demonstrated their creativity in defining "targets of opportunity," but none
more so than the submarines, USS Barb, USS Bluegill, USS Spot and USS
The Barb was no different than any other submarine that fought in the
Pacific theater, but the ship's commanding officer certainly was. Lieutenant
Gene Fluckey, nicknamed "Lucky Fluckey" by his crew, had earned a reputation as
a risk-taker and master of underwater warfare techniques. Under his command,
the Barb had compiled an enviable war record in sinking 34 Japanese
merchant ships and several Imperial warships, including the Escort Carrier Unyo
After completing a refit in Pearl Harbor in late 1944, the submarine returned
to the Western Pacific to continue terrorizing the Japanese Merchant Fleet.
However, always the innovator, while in Hawaii, Fluckey had the shipyard equip
his submarine with a portable rocket launcher. Waiting for merchant targets to
wander into the Barb's patrol area was not going to be a problem
anymore. Fluckey intended to attack ships at anchor in Japanese harbors. The
installation of the rocket launcher was endorsed by COMSUBPAC, who theorized
that a submarine's ability to circumvent Japanese coastal defenses made it the
perfect platform to attack the enemy where the least expected. When the Barb
arrived at its assigned patrol area in the La Perouse Strait near Hokkaido,
Japan, there was a severe shortage of shipping targets. The submarine patrolled
the shore line of Karafuto Island where the crew noticed a much-traveled
railway system was transporting Japanese troops and equipment on a regular
schedule. Fluckey and his crew went to work on a plan to blow-up the train.
Eight volunteers were chosen for the mission in a ship-wide lottery. Those who
won were offered as much as $200 to sell their billets. Everyone wanted to be
the first American warriors to set foot on Japanese soil.
That night, two rubber boats were loaded with the saboteurs along armed with
hundreds of pounds of high-explosives and several makeshift contact exploders.
The landing party traveled almost a mile into Japanese territory where they
went to work planting the explosives on the tracks. Several trains passed them
before their work was completed, forcing them to hide in the bushes until it
was safe to proceed again. After the charges were placed and the circuits were
connected, the team headed back to the Barb. Before they were safely
aboard, a sixteen-car train roared down the track where it exploded in a
tremendous flash of light. A prisoner taken a few days later said that the
Japanese newspapers reported the wreck was caused by an aircraft bomb. The
Silent Service had struck again.
Not content with "sinking" a train, Fluckey took the Barb to a small
island in the Sea of Okhotsk where the Japanese Government maintained a seal
rookery. He had observed the island on an earlier patrol and noticed that it
was only staffed by a few unarmed civilians. Fluckey planned to capture and
occupy the island, but his preliminary periscope survey determined that it was
well garrisoned and was protected by numerous machinegun emplacements, one
3-inch field piece and several concrete pillboxes.
With his eight-man commando team unable to overcome the Japanese defenses,
Fluckey ordered a rocket attack. For the first time in US naval history, the
order, "MAN BATTLESTATIONS ROCKETS," was made prior to the Barb's attack. Three
rounds – of twelve rockets per round – were fired at the island. The damage
report verified the destruction of the rookery, and the destruction of a nearby
fish processing factory. In addition to the numerous Japanese flags –
representing the submarine's successful sinking of an enemy ship – the Barb's
final battleflag also depicted the image of a train and several rockets.
Barb's crew received more medals for its wartime accomplishments than any other
US submarine, culminating with the Medal of Honor for Commander Fluckey.
Final World War II battle flag of USS Barb (SS-220)
The Bluegill used its idle time while assigned to lifeguard duty to
attack and invade Pratas Island, located 150 miles of the Chinese coast. The
island served as a radio and meteorological station for the Japanese after the
Allies recaptured the Philippines in 1944. Several members of Bluegill's
crew armed with machine guns and cutlasses, along with two commandos from the
Australian Z-Force who were embarked on the submarine, stormed ashore and
captured the radio station. The Japanese had abandoned the facility a few days
earlier so the "Pirates of Pratas" met no enemy resistance during their
invasion. The radio equipment and printed messages that the Japanese left
behind were taken back to the submarine. The two Z-Force members destroyed the
radio towers and burned the meteorological facility. Before leaving, the crew
of the submarine hoisted the American flag over the island in an appropriate
ceremony, and renamed it "Bluegill Island."
World War II battle flag of USS Bluegill (SS-242)
Finding poor hunting in her assigned patrol area in the East China Sea, the Spot
proceeded to the Korean coast where she sighted an enemy radio station atop a
200-foot cliff on the island of Kokuzan To. The submarine surfaced less than a
mile off shore and opened fire on the radio station with her deck gun. Spot's
gunners confirmed 42 hits on the facility. The aim of the gunners was
particularly effective in the attack as they also destroyed an oil storage
facility. The resultant fire from the attack on the oil tanks left several
barracks in flames as Spot submerged and retreated back to her home
base in the Mariana Islands.
World War II battle flag of the USS Spot (SS-413)
Shortly after her release from lifeguard duty around the area of Okinawa, the Bowfin
sighted a three-ship Japanese convoy headed to its port in Minami Daito Jima
Island. The submarine followed the convoy right into the harbor and commenced a
submerged attack. Bowfin fired three torpedoes at a range of 1,750
yards. Two of the torpedoes hit their targets, but the third ran deep and wild.
The errant torpedo hit the ship repair facility and destroyed a cement pier, a
large crane and a busload of Japanese soldiers that was on the pier when the
torpedo hit it.
World War II battle flag of USS Bowfin (SS-287)
By the summer of 1945, the submarine force had run out of targets, and the
boats could go almost anywhere they wished to accomplish special missions. In
the closing months of the war, submarines equipped with rocket launchers
regularly bombarded military and industrial targets in northern Japan. The
rocket launches made earlier by the Barb, and classified as special
missions, became just one more weapon in the repertoire of US submarines.
Photographs of enemy positions taken from the periscopes of submarines were
unheard of at the start of the war. However, by war's end that type of
information became so valuable, that Allied war planners were unwilling to
devise definitive operational plans without it. The overall effects of
submarine warfare were so obvious that some American planners believed that the
economic collapse of Japan made an invasion of the home islands
Like all other elements of the American military, the submarine force was
unprepared for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Beginning the war with no
combat experience and limited numbers, the submarine force seemed to live up to
its nickname as the Silent Service. The heavy demands made on the submarines to
attack the Japanese fleet were flawed by poor equipment, doctrine and tactics
that limited the effectiveness of submerged attacks, and officers in command
who refused to take risks or press the offensive.
Despite all of their early shortcomings, the American submarines accomplished
something that the German and Japanese forces did not – they had destroyed the
enemy's ocean commerce. The submariner's designation for all of the non-routine
tasks they were assigned was special missions. This applied to hundreds of
missions that deviated from their primary missions of sinking ships and
included: evacuating nationals, the landing of coast watchers, agents and
commando, carrying aviation gasoline, participating in shore bombardments,
lifeguarding, acting as beacon ships for landing forces, carrying out photo
reconnaissance, conducting beach and reef surveys, weather reporting and
destroying enemy minefields.
From their first special missions running ammunition and supplies to the
defenders of Corregidor, to the well-planned and organized support of the
Philippine guerrillas through Chick Parsons' SPYRON Operation, US submarines
were vitally important to the Allied war effort in every phase of its conduct.
The supplies and trained personnel delivered by the submarines played a major
role in organizing the scattered remnants of guerrillas throughout the
Philippines into formidable effective combat units and reconnaissance
operations. As the war continued and the submarine's versatility was more
widely recognized by all branches of the service, the undersea warriors were
called upon to undertake all manner of special missions. The joint operations
culminated in a mutual respect between the men in the field and the men on the
boats, and increased the likelihood of the success of every special mission.
Because they seldom afforded an opportunity to sink enemy shipping, many of
those missions were disliked by the men who accomplished them. Although
difficult to measure in terms of cold facts or statistical parameters, their
value in promoting the ultimate defeat of the enemy was immense.
After the war, the Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee (JANAC) of the
Strategic Bombing Survey verified the rightful force and unit of every Japanese
ship sunk in the Pacific theater. In many cases, verification was impossible as
there were no survivors or witnesses. The JANAC figures significantly altered
the battle scores in terms of tonnage sunk for many of the submarines force's
best skippers. Nevertheless, the report was published and made official in
1947. No matter how the figures were computed, the evidence clearly showed that
the US submarine force played a major role in the Allied victory over Japan.
The JANAC report had no statistics for rescued aviators, but it noted that
every airman who survived the crash of his plane at sea was rescued, thanks in
large part to the submarine lifeguard league.
It is the opinion of many old submarine sailors that submarines do not receive
enough credit for their role in helping to win World War II. While there are
many written accounts delineating the accomplishments of America's submarine
force in destroying enemy shipping, little attention is given to the special
missions of those same submarines. The reason for the oversight in this element
of submarine historiography may be due to the very nature of the submarine
service itself. Submarines have always been a relatively small and secretive
group. Those who served onboard were not supermen, nor were they endowed with a
supernatural propensity toward heroism. They were average Americans, well
trained, well armed and serving on superb ships.
The twenty submarines that supported the guerrilla operations in the
Philippines as part of "MacArthur's Navy," successfully completed 41 missions
in which 472 persons were evacuated, 331 persons were delivered, and 1,325 tons
of supplies were unloaded. All of the special missions were accomplished in
the enemy's backyard at great risk to the safety of the submarine and her crew.
Given the strategic circumstances of some of the tasks, the variety of
operations that were performed and the hazards involved, it is more appropriate
to designate those operations as "extraordinary missions." As if the danger
imposed on a submarine by the enemy were not enough, many boats conducting
special missions during World War II were attacked by friendly forces. One of
the first submarines assigned special missions, the USS Seawolf, was
sunk in a case of mistaken identity during a depth charge attack by an American
Most people will never know what the submarine force accomplished in World War
II. In the other services, the territory that was captured was represented on
maps. That was not the case with submarines. No flag was raised over the spot
where an enemy ship was sunk indicating the submarine responsible for that
sinking. Submarines had to disappear as quickly as they had struck. Stealth
and surprise were never more needed than during the accomplishment of special
missions. Yet for all of the special missions they accomplished, submarine
service in the Pacific was a highly personal experience marked by combat
operations against enemy ships. That action was filled with memories of the
smells of sweat and oil, the bone-shattering concussion of exploding depth
charges, the controlled chaos of an emergency dive, the tension of a submerged
attack and the quick peek through the periscope at a flaming tanker, but most
of all, there was a deep sense of accomplishment.
The pre-war strategists who saw submarines as secondary naval units limited to
torpedo attacks were surprised by what the boats left untouched in the attack
on Pearl Harbor were able to accomplish with only four years of combat
experience. The employment of submarines in extraordinary special missions,
combined with the ingenuity of submarine commanders and their crews, made
impossible tasks realities, and proved that through initiative, teamwork,
leadership and ingenuity, America's submarines were the most valuable assets of
World War II.
The most versatile warships in the US Navy at anchor in Tokyo Bay following the
Japanese surrender in 1945
Show Footnotes and
. Statement of RADM Malcolm I. Fages, US Navy Director, Submarine Warfare
Division Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (N87) and RADM J.P. Davis, US
Navy Program Executive Office for Submarines before the House Armed Service
Committee on Submarine Force Structure and Modernization, 27 June 2000.
. Refers to the naval theories and tactics of US Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan
(born 1840 - died 1914).
. Allan R. Millett and Peter Maslowski. For the Common Defense, A Military
History of the United States, (New York, NY: The Free Press), 475.
. Edward L. Beach. Submarine! , (New York, NY: Henry Holt and
Company, 1952), 5.
. Clay Blair, Jr. Silent Victory, The U.S. Submarine War against Japan,
(Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1975), 877. See also, Don Keith. Final
Patrol, (New York, NY: NAL Caliber, 2006), 3. See also, Theodore Roscoe.
Submarine Operations in World War II, (Annapolis, MD: United States Naval
Institute, 1949), 493.
. Kenneth J. Hagan. This People's Navy, (London and New York: The
Free Press, 1991), 256.
. Richard Connaughton, Rising Sun and Tumbling Bear, (London:
Cassell Military Paperbacks, 2003), 345.
. Blair, 47 and 48. After 1924, different fleet problems were added to Plan
Orange in order to allow the Navy to plan for different threats. One of the
operational scenarios that was practiced (in 1928, 1932 and again in 1938) was
based on an enemy carrier group launching a surprise attack on the Pearl Harbor
Naval Base. In all three attacks, the "enemy" destroyed the American base. See,
Alan Schom. The Eagle and the Rising Sun, (New York, NY: W.W. Norton and
Company, 2004), 35 and 36.
. Blair, 36-40.
. Hagan, 254.
. Ibid., 46.
. Weigley, 194.
. Ibid., 36-40.
. Ibid., 190.
. Richard E. Winslow III. Portsmouth-Built Submarines of the Portsmouth
Naval Shipyard, (Portsmouth, NH: Portsmouth Marine Society, 1985), 69.
. Hagan, 290. See also, Lautenschlager, 119.
. The Japanese failed to destroy the machine sheds and the repair
facilities that serviced the submarine fleet. In addition to missing the
submarines and their support facilities, the Japanese pilots also failed to
destroy 4.5 million gallons of diesel fuel in storage at the Navy Yard – it has
been speculated that those oil storage facilities were never targets of
interest. Schom, 142-44.
. Roscoe, Foreword by Admiral Chester Nimitz.
. Lautenschlager, 119.
. Roscoe, 245-247.
. Millett and Maslowski, 475 and 476.
. N.L.A. Jewell. Secret Mission Submarine, (Chicago and New York,
Ziff-Davis Publishing, 1944), 53.
. Ibid., 32.
. The two books that cover the Spyron mission, Guerrilla Submarines and
Secret Mission to the Philippines, are currently out of print. Those
listed in the bibliography were purchased from private collectors.
. William Wise. Secret Mission to the Philippines, (New York, NY:
E.P. Dutton and Company, Inc., 1968), jacket cover.
. Schom, 32.
. Bob de Graaff. "Hot Intelligence in the Tropics: Dutch Intelligence
Operations in the Netherlands East Indies during the Second World War," Journal
of Contemporary History, Vol. 22, No. 4, (Oct., 1987), 563-584.
. Ibid., 570.
. Ibid., 581.
. Edward Dissette and H.C. Adamson. Guerrilla Submarines, (New
York, NY: Ballentine Books, 1972), 2.
. Roscoe, 5.
. Ibid., 18.
. Blair, 361 and 362.
. Padfield, 274-276. See also, Charles A. Lockwood. Sink ‘Em All, (New
York, NY: Bantam Books, 1984), 4-6.
. Edwin P. Hoyt. Submarines at War, (New York, NY: Jove Books,
1983): 118-19. See also, Millett and Maslowski, 474-476.
. The term Mustang refers to a young ambitious officer who oftentimes had
previous enlisted experience in the Navy – specifically in the submarine Navy.
. Keith, 245. Cutter's first four war patrols netted him 21 enemy ships for
a total of 142,000 tons sunk. The final total figures were reduced by JANAC
after the war.
. The support schedule Lockwood created was revised after the fall of
Corregidor. Submarine missions in the Philippines were altered in order to
support guerrilla operations. Those special missions required dedicated naval
assets that were provided by the submarines USS Nautilus and USS
. Bill Fawcett. Hunters and Shooters. An Oral History of US SEALs,
(New York, NY: Avon Books, 1995), 220. See also, Roscoe, 78.
. Roscoe, 78.
. Hoyt, 104 and 105.
. Roscoe, 80.
. Hoyt, 105.
. Dissette and Adamson, 13-15.
. Wise, 68 and 69.
. Ibid., 68.
. Dissette and Adamson, 33.
. Ibid., 72.
. Ibid., 23.
. Thomas Holian. "Saviors and Suppliers, World War II Submarine Special
Operations in the Philippines," Undersea Warfare Magazine, Issue no.
23, (Summer 2004), www.chinfo.Navy.mil (accessed online 15 Jun 2007).
. Wise, 45.
. The information concerning the incident at Panay was provided by Peter
Parsons, the son of the Spyron Commander Charles "Chick" Parsons, through
personal correspondence with the author. General background on the guerrilla
submarine from the Chick Parsons archives in Baguio, Philippines. It was
Parsons, working within the Philippine Regional Section (PRS) of GHQ, who
organized the 20 special mission submarines and their cargoes. He often
accompanied the boats into the Philippines. It was reported that Peralta
harbored a dislike of Parsons because he had backed Ruperto Kangleon's
guerrilla leadership on Leyte rather than Lt. Blas Miranda, Peralta's choice.
Parsons wrote a long letter to Peralta offering his cooperation and friendship;
later the two met on Panay during the liberation. Parsons wrote home: "I was
glad he didn't shoot me." Peter Parsons generously provided a copy of his
unpublished essay, The Panay Guerrillas/USS Narwhal Debacle, for
inclusion in this capstone paper. Much of his work was taken from the book, Guerilla
Warfare on Panay Island in the Philippines, (Quezon City, PI:
Bustamante Press, 1977).
. Claude C. Conner. Nothing Friendly in the Vicinity, (Annapolis,
MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999), iv.
. Lockwood, 62.
. Conner, 32-34.
. Joseph L. McGrievy. Submarine Rescue at Night, www.ussubvetsofworldwarii.org
(accessed June 18, 2007).
. Roscoe, 161.
. Special Marine Corps Units of World War II (For Official Use Only), 1972,
Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, Washington DC. Accessed at the
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Library Archives.
. Roscoe, 466.
. Ibid., 474.
.Third War Patrol Report of USS Pampanito (SS-383) actions of 15
September 1944, Ser. 0384 (FC5-4/A16-3), dtd. 6 October 1944. Submarine Base
New London, CT, Archives. Accessed 15 June 07. Every submarine that made a war
patrol turned in an official patrol report. The reports are sometimes more than
100 pages long and contain a daily log of noteworthy events. There were 1,682
patrols made in WWII with corresponding reports. Those reports are filed by
submarine hull numbers at the Submarine Force Library, US Submarine Base, New
London, CT. The task of sifting through the reports was made easier by only
viewing selected submarines. The Navy's OFFICIAL endorsement of each report
appears as the first page. That first page indicates the patrol area and
whether or not a Special Mission was accomplished by the submarine in question.
The CLASSIFIED reports are located at the Classified Operational Archives at
Building 210, at the Washington, DC Navy Yard.
. Eugene B. Fluckey. Thunder Below!, (Chicago, IL: University of
Illinois Pres, 1992), 435.
. Ibid., 299 and 300.
. Lockwood, 322.
. Ibid., 323. See also, Fluckey, 371-385.
. Lockwood, 324-326.
. Fluckey, 389-391.
. Ibid., 434.
. Ibid., 406-413.
. Lockwood, 307 and 308.
. Third War Patrol Report of USS Spot (SS-413) actions of 4 May
1945, (FF-12-10/A16-3 (18)), dtd. 16 May 1945. Submarine Base New London, CT,
Archives. Accessed 15 June 07.
. Sixth War Patrol Report of USS Bowfin (SS-287) actions of August
1944, (FF12-10?A16), dtd. 22 Sep 1944. Submarine Base New London, CT, Archives.
Accessed 15 Jun 07.
. Lockwood, 357.
. Christley, 42.
. Millett and Maslowski, 475.
. Lockwood, 356.
. Dissette and Adamson, 232 and 233.
. Roscoe, 78.
. Blair, 878. Medal of Honor winner Dick O'Kane had been credited with
sinking thirty-one ships for a total of 227,800 tons. The JANAC Report reduced
him to twenty-four ships and 193,360 tons. The most significant reduction was
that of Roy Davenport who had served as the Commanding Officer of three
different submarines. His total at the end of the war was seventeen ships and
151,900 tons. JANAC reduced his kills to eight ships and 29,662 tons.
. O'Kane, 469.
. Dissette and Adamson, 235
. Ibid., 157-165.
. Keith., 7.
. Millett and Maslowski, 474 and 475.
Beach, Edward, L. Submarine!, New York, NY: Henry Holt, 1946.
Blair, Clay, Jr. Silent Victory, The U.S. Submarine War against Japan,
Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1975.
Christley, Jim. US Submarines 1941-45, New York, NY: Osprey
Connaughton, Richard. Rising Sun and Tumbling Bear, London: Cassell
Military Paperbacks, 2003.
Conner, Claude, C. Nothing Friendly in the Vicinity, Annapolis, MD:
Naval Institute Press, Bluejacket Books, 1999.
Dissette, Edward and H.C. Adamson. Guerrilla Submarines, New York, NY:
Ballentine Books, 1972.
Fluckey, Eugene, B. Thunder Below!, Urbana and Chicago, IL: University
of Illinois Press, 1997.
Hagan, Kenneth, J. The People's Navy, New York, NY: The Free Press,
Hoyt, Edward, P. Submarines at War, New York, NY: Jove Books, 1983.
Jewell, N.L.A. Secret Mission Submarine, Chicago and New York:
Ziff-Davis Publishing, 1944.
Kaufman, Yogi and Paul Stillwell. Sharks of Steel, Annapolis, MD:
Naval Institute Press, 1993.
Keith, Don. Final Patrol, New York, NY: NAL Caliber, 2006.
Mendenhall, Corwin. Submarine Diary, The Silent Stalking of Japan, Annapolis,
MD: Naval University Press, 1991.
Millett, Allan, R and Peter Maslowski. For The Common Defense, A Military
History of the United States, New York, NY: The Free Press, 1984.
O'Kane, Richard. Clear the Bridge! The War Patrols of the U.S.S. Tang,
United States of America: Rand McNally, 1977.
Padfield, Peter. War Beneath the Sea, New York, NY: John Wiley and
Sons, Inc. 1998.
Roscoe, Theodore. Submarine Operations in World War II, Annapolis, MD:
Naval University Press, 1949.
Schom, Alan. The Eagle and the Rising Sun, New York, NY: W.W. Norton
Weigley, Russell, F. The American Way of War. A History of United States
Military Strategy and Policy, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University
Winslow, Richard, E. III. Portsmouth-Built Submarines of the Portsmouth Naval
Shipyard, Portsmouth, NH: Portsmouth Marine Society, 1985
Wise, William. Secret Mission to the Philippines, New York, NY: E.P.
Articles and Chapters
Allen, Leland, C. "The Role of Undersea Warfare in U.S. Strategic Doctrine," Military
Affairs, Vol. 23, no. 3, (Autumn, 1959), 153-157.
De Graaff, Bob. "Hot Intelligence in the Tropics: Dutch Intelligence Operations
in the Netherlands East Indies during the Second World War," Journal of
Contemporary History, Vol. 22, No. 4, Intelligence Services during the
Second World War: Part 2, (October, 1987), 563-584.
Lautenschlager, Karl. "The Submarine in Naval Warfare, 1901-2001," International
Security, Vol. 11, no. 3, (Winter, 1986-1987), 94-140.
Report of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Washington DC, 1963.
"United States Submarine Losses in World War Two," Portsmouth Naval Shipyard
Archives, Portsmouth, NH.
History of USS Seahorse (SS-304), Author Unknown, (Updated July 22,
Holian, Thomas. "Saviors and Suppliers, World War II Submarine Special
Operations in the Philippines," Undersea Warfare Magazine, Issue no.
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McGrievy, Joseph, L. "Submarine Rescue at Night," United States Submarine
Veterans of World War II, (1999), www.ussubvetsofworldwarii.org.
Copyright © 2008 Daniel T. Rean, CWO3 USN Ret.
Written by Daniel Rean. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Daniel Rean at:
About the author:
Daniel Rean is originally from NY where he enlisted in the
Navy in 1972. He spent 14 years as a submarine sailor and diver. From 1980-84, he
was assigned to the Navy's deepest diving manned submersible the Bathyscaph
TRIESTE II (DSV-1) where he served as Chief of the Boat, Engineer, and Assistant
Officer in Charge. He qualified as a Deep Submergence Pilot in 1983. He was
commissioned as a CWO-2 in 1986 and assigned to the USS PROTEUS (AS-19) at Apra
Harbor, Guam. He completed tours as a technical instructor at Submarine Officer
Basic School and as a division officer at the Naval Submarine Support Facility
in New London, CT. He retired in 1993 and completed his college undergraduate
degrees at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire and his Master's at
Norwich University in Vermont. He is married to the former Kyle Harrington, and
he has 4 children and live in Portsmouth, NH.
Published online: 02/25/2008.