True Stories of Submarine Combat
By Larry Bond
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1996 Larry Bond
All rights reserved.
by Commander Edward L. Beach
We begin our tour with an excerpt from Submarine! by one of the most famous and decorated naval heroes of the twentieth century, Commander Edward L. Beach (1918–2002). Commissioned as an ensign in 1939, he attained the rank of commander before his retirement after twenty-seven years of naval service. He served throughout World War II in the Pacific theater, participating in the battle of Midway, and overseeing twelve combat patrols that sank forty-five enemy vessels. Afterward, he served on nuclear submarines, and commanded the USS Triton on its record-breaking submerged voyage around the world. He was awarded numerous honors and decorations for his valiant service, including the Navy Star, the Silver Star Medal, two Presidential Unit Citations, the Legion of Merit, and the National Defense Service Medal. After his retirement, he wrote both fiction and nonfiction, including the classic novel Run Silent, Run Deep, which was made into a film in 1958, and his autobiography, Salt and Steel: Reflections of a Submariner. He was also the coeditor of three editions of the Naval Terms Dictionary and wrote numerous articles for periodicals ranging from American Heritage to National Geographic. The Naval Historical Foundation History Prize has been renamed the Commander Edward L. Beach Prize in his honor.
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It takes a certain kind of man to write about the everyday happenings aboard a submarine on war patrol, and make it as real as if you were standing right beside the men as it happened, and few do it better than Commander Beach. This excerpt is no exception, detailing the sixth war patrol of the USS Batfish, and bringing home the cramped, crowded, tense conditions under which its captain and crew played a deadly game of hide-and-seek with enemy submarines during the latter part of World War II.
USS Batfish got under way from Pearl Harbor on December 30, 1944, on what was to be her sixth war patrol. It was also to be one of the epoch-making patrols of the war, one whose influence may be discerned even at this late date. Her skipper was Commander J. K. Fyfe, a Naval Academy graduate of the class of 1936, who had already built up an outstanding record of successful submarine action. From the time when the PC boat escorting her out of Pearl Harbor was dismissed until she arrived at Guam, Jake Fyfe kept his ship at flank speed. He, in common with most submariners, saw no reason for delay in getting into the war zone, except the necessity of conserving fuel. The capture of Guam removed that necessity, insofar as the first leg of the trip was concerned. After leaving Guam ESPN it usually paid to be a bit conservative, in case you ran into a long chase, or were given a prolonged special mission.
On January 9, 1945, Batfish arrived at Guam, and on the next day she departed en route to an area north of the Philippines. On January 12 she sighted what was probably her first enemy contact on this particular patrol, presaging the turn which the whole patrol would subsequently take. A periscope suddenly popped out of the water some distance ahead. Since you don't stick around to argue with an enemy submarine which has the drop on you, and since, besides, Jake was in a hurry to get to his area where he was scheduled for immediate lifeguard services, he simply bet on everything she would take and got out of there. Sightings of Japanese periscopes by our boats were fairly numerous during the war. The Japs never learned how doubly cautious you must be when stalking one of your own kind; we never learned a lesson better.
Between January 13 and February 9 Batfish had rather a dull time. She wasted two days looking for several aviators who were reported ditched near her track; investigated twenty-eight junks to see what kind of cargo they were carrying; dived at occasional aircraft alarms. Then, on February 9, while she was patrolling in Babuyan Channel, south of Gamiguin Island, the radar operator sounds a warning.
Something in his radar arouses his attention — he looks closely — there it is again — and again. It is not a pip which he sees; if it were, he would not wait to sing out "Radar contact" and thereby immediately mobilize the ship for action. This is something more difficult to evaluate. A faint shimmering of the scopes — a momentary unsteadiness in the green and amber cathode ray tubes — which comes and goes. Almost unconsciously he times them, and notices the bearing upon which the radar head is trained each time the faint wobble in the normal "grass" presentation is noticed. A few moments of this, and — "Captain to the conn!" No time to wait on ceremony. This particular lad wants his skipper, and he wants him badly.
A split second later the word reaches Jake Fyfe in his cabin, where he had lain down fully clothed for a few minutes of shut-eye. In a moment the skipper is in the conning tower.
The radar operator points to his scope. "There it is, sir! There it is again!I just noticed it a minute ago!" The operator is doing himself an injustice;from the time he first noticed there was something out of the ordinary to the moment Fyfe himself was beside him could not have been more than thirty seconds.
The captain stares at the instrument, weighing the significance of what he sees. This is something new, something portentous — there is a small stirring in the back of his mind — there seems to be a half-remembered idea there, if he can only dig it up — then, like a flash, he has it! If he is right, it means they are in grave danger, with a chance to come out of it and maybe add another scalp to their belts; if he is wrong, what he is about to do may make a bad situation infinitely worse. But Jake knows what he is doing. He is not playing some far-fetched hunch.
"Secure the radar!" he orders. The operator reaches to the cutoff switch and flips it, looking questioningly at his skipper.
"What do you think it is?" Fyfe asks the lad.
"It looked like another radar to me, Captain." The reply is given without hesitation.
The boy is at a loss for an answer, and Jake Fyfe answers his own question:
Submarine vs. submarine! The hunter hunted! The biggest fear of our submarine sailors during World War II was that an enemy submarine might get the drop on them while they were making a passage on the surface. It would be quite simple, really. All you have to do is to detect the other fellow first, either by sight or by radar, submerge on his track, and let go the fish as he passes. All you have to do is to detect him first!
Our submarines ran around the coast of Japan as though they were in their own backyards. They usually condescended to patrol submerged only when within sight of the enemy shoreline in order not to be spotted by shore watchers or aircraft patrols, for you can't sink ships which stay in port because they know you are waiting outside. But when out of sight of land, and with no planes about, United States submarines usually remained on the surface. Thus they increased their search radius and the speed with which they could move to new positions. And it should not be forgotten that the fifty-odd boats doing lifeguard duty at the end of the war were required to stay on the surface whether in sight of land or not! Small wonder that our submarine lookouts were the best in the Navy.
United States submariners were, as a class, far too well acquainted with the devastating surprise which can be dealt with a pair of well-aimed torpedoes to take any preventable risk of being on the receiving end themselves. Submarines are rugged ships, but they have so little reserve buoyancy that a torpedo hit is certain to permit enough water to flood in to overbalance what remaining buoyancy there is. Even though the submarine might be otherwise intact, she would instantly sink to the bottom of the sea with most of her crew trapped inside. Tang was a prime example. Ordinarily there are no survivors from sunken submarines, with the exception of the Germans, who had a habit of surfacing and abandoning ship when under attack.
The submarine, which hunts by stealth, is therefore itself peculiarly susceptible to attack by stealth. But don't make the mistake of underestimating the enemy submarine crew. The fact that they are operating a submarine at all indicates that they are picked men, who know as much about the game, in all probability, as you do. The odds are definitely even, and it is a question of dog eat dog. The only advantage lies in superior ability and equipment.
Not counting midgets, the first Japanese submarine sunk by our forces was the I-173, which fell victim to the Gudgeon on January 27, 1942. The last such was sunk by the Spike fish on August 13, 1945. Between these dates twenty-three additional Japanese subs were destroyed by our own undersea warriors. And we regret to chronicle that some five of our own subs, it is thought, went down under the periscope sights of Japanese submarines. Unfortunately the Jap records are so poor that the precise manner in which all of our lost submarine vessels met their doom will never be discovered. The fact remains that our submarines were convinced that the Japs were sending the two-man midgets out at night, looking for them. And almost every patrol report turned in by our people toward the end of the war records that one or more torpedoes had been fired at them.
The most outstanding record of enemy subs sunk was the one hung up by Batfish, beginning that fateful February 9.
"Secure the radar!" Jake Fyfe turned to a shocked conning tower crew, and ordered crisply, "Battle stations torpedo!"
The helmsman instinctively had already extended his hand in the direction of the general alarm. Now he grasped it, pulled it out, and then down. The low-pitched chime of the alarm resounded through the ship, penetrating every corner, waking men who had turned in dead tired, vowing to sleep for a year — meaning only until their next watch — bringing them upright, fully alert, instinctively racing to their battle stations, all in the space of an instant.
What is it? What is it?
Don't know. Something on the radar.
Skipper says a Jap sub out there.
How does he know that?
The process of deduction by which Fyfe arrived at the conclusion that the source of the radar peculiarities was an enemy submarine was not at all illogical. The wavering of his radar scope was probably due to the presence of another radar. It was known that the Japs had radar, though of an inferior type to ours. If this radar came from a vessel as large as a destroyer, he should have been detected on Batfish's radar before the emanations from his low-powered radar had been noticed. This, of course, was the usual case. Since the radar waves had been the first to be picked up, it followed that the ship producing them must be small and low on the water. Yet it must be a valuable ship, sufficiently important to rate one of the relatively few radar sets the Nips possessed. Hence, a submarine.
The reason why Fyfe ordered his own radar temporarily secured was simply to deny the Jap the same information which he himself had just received, while he and his executive officer, Lieutenant C. K. Sprinkle, USNR, broke out the charts and did some very rapid figuring.
The enemy radar emanations have been from 220, approximately southwest. Babuyan Channel runs more or less north and south. Therefore the target must be on a northerly course, approaching from the south.
To check this deduction, Batfish's radar is cautiously turned on for only a moment. Sure enough, the bearing of the other radar has changed slightly. It is now 225.
"All ahead full! Right full rudder!" Batfish leaps ahead and steadies on a course calculated to get to the north of the approaching enemy vessel. She runs for a short time, every now and then checking the situation with her radar. All clear — no other ships around. Just the Jap, and his signals are becoming stronger, while his bearing is now drawing to the southward. This is as it should be.
But Fyfe does not, of course, propose to make his approach and attack on bearings alone. He wants to close the range, but on his own terms, with his bow on the enemy, his torpedoes ready — in short, with the drop on him.
Finally, Jake Fyfe and Sprinkle figure their position is about right. Batfish turns toward the enemy and ghosts in, keeping the darkest section of the midnight horizon behind her, and sweeping frequently, but at odd intervals, with her radar.
"Radar contact!" The word from Radar this time startles nobody — they have all been expecting it for several minutes. The tracking party now goes to work in earnest, with some concrete information instead of the rather sporadic and imprecise dope they have had up to now.
Target is on course 310, speed 12. The dials whirl on the TDC in the conning tower, where Sprinkle is in charge.
The range continues to decrease, the radar operator and the TDC operator tirelessly feeding in the essential information on the fire-control instruments. The plotting party also has its part in this, for all solutions must check before torpedoes may be fired.
On the bridge, the captain strains his eyes, and so do the lookouts up therewith him. Suppose the Jap has somehow learned of the presence of the American submarine! It is possible. In this case, if he deduces what is going on, he might very logically turn the situation to his own advantage by firing his torpedoes first. After all, when you make an approach on another ship, there is a period during which you are in a much better position for him to shoot torpedoes at you than you at him — at a somewhat longer range, of course. Or, more probably, he might simply dive, thus spoiling the shot Batfish has worked for so long, not to mention making it immediately imperative for her to get the hell out of there!
Closer and closer comes the unsuspecting enemy sub. It is so dark that as yet he cannot be seen by the tense bridge party. As the situation develops, it is apparent that he will pass through the firing position at just under 2, 000yards' range. This is a little long for optimum torpedo fire, but Fyfe wants to take no chances of being detected. On he comes — only a little more now — then from the conning tower, "On the firing bearing, Captain!" This from the exec.
"Let them go when ready, Sprink. Shoot on radar bearings. I still can't see him from up here." From the skipper.
Silently, four torpedoes are loosed into the water. Four new wakeless electric fish start their run toward the target They have 1, 800 yards to go; it will take a while. The watch hands crawl slowly and maddeningly around their faces. The wait grows longer, more anxious. Something should have happened by now! Those fish should surely have arrived! We could not have been so far off that our spread missed also!
But miss they do, all four torpedoes. Finally there is no escaping that conclusion. The whole careful and well-executed approach — wasted! All hands are bitterly disappointed. What can have gone wrong?
The question is answered by Plot, dramatically. "Target has speeded up!Speed now fourteen knots!" Too bad this was not detected a minute or two earlier. At least it explains the trouble, and allays the suspicious doubts which had already inevitably crept into the minds of both skipper and exec.
But the target continues serenely on his way, giving no sign of being aware of having been fired upon. Maybe Batfish will be able to try again.
No sooner thought than tried. The four murmuring diesels of the hunter lift their voices, and the submarine slips away through the water, seeking another position from which to launch her deadly missiles. But by this time, of course, the target has passed beyond Batfish, and in order to regain firing position it will be necessary to execute an end around.
Jake Fyfe has elected to remain on the surface for the whole attack, crediting to his superior radar the fact that he had been alerted before the Jap;and trusting to his belief that he could keep the enemy from detecting him. His plan is to get up ahead of the other submarine, and to head in toward him while the unsuspecting Nip is pounding along in nearly the opposite direction. Thus the range would close rapidly, and the amount of warning the other submarine could expect before torpedo junction would be very little. It was surprising that the Jap sub gave no indication of being aware he had been shot at. Whereas Fyfe had expected only one chance at him, he now finds another. "Obviously the fellow isn't as good as I gave him credit for!" And concurrent with this came the resolution to get in closer the next time, play his luck a little harder. If he could only sight the enemy, and fire on optical bearings instead of radar bearings, he would have a much neater solution to his fire-control problem — and thus greater certainty of hitting. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Crash Dive by Larry Bond. Copyright © 1996 Larry Bond. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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