Red Scorpion: The War Patrols of the USS Rasherby Peter T. Sasgen
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The USS Rasher was one of America's most successful Word War II submarines, and her wartime exploits earned her three Presidential Unit Citations. Accordingly, the Rasher sank eighteen enemy ships and destroyed 99,901 tons, which was the second highest tonnage of the war. The Rasher's fifth war patrol is the stuff of legends: during a single night surface attack on a Japanese convoy off the Philippines in August 1944, she sank the escort carrier Taiyo and three maru Japanese warships, and later during the same patrol sank another ship. Rich in detail and entertaining to read, the book covers all aspects of the Rasher's combat history in a way that both the general reader and veteran submariner will appreciate. The author's father served aboard the Rasher for all eight of her war patrols, and this lively chronicle of events draws from his letters and papers as well as those of other crew members. In his examination of the factors that contributed to the Rasher's success, Peter Sasgen pays tribute to the skipper's daring and aggressive tactics.
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RED SCORPIONThe War Patrols of the USS Rasher
By Peter T. Sasgen
Naval Institute PressCopyright © 1985 by Peter T. Sasgen
All right reserved.
PrologueThrough the attack periscope, the captain of the Rasher can just make out the masts and smokestack of an enemy ship peeking above the silver horizon line. Unless one knows where to look she can easily be missed, since she's still hull down, 15,000 yards away. As the submarine speeds up to close in, the skipper makes observations at regular intervals to plot the target's course and speed and assess the situation.
Lumbering into full view at 6,000 yards, the target is identified as a large, heavily laden transport, blotchy with rust, topsides cluttered with cargo-handling equipment. On either beam and slightly astern, what first appeared as two thin masts now reveal themselves as two well-armed escorts. Following standard Japanese convoy procedure, the trio is zigzagging off its southerly base course, offering port and starboard sides to the Rasher's periscope.
"She has escorts. Chidoris," announces the captain. Sound reports their distant echo-ranging.
The Rasher maneuvers silently, ventilation, air conditioning, and other machinery not vital to the business at hand secured. The conning tower is stiflingly hot. The only sounds are those of the whirring Torpedo Data Computer (TDC) and, when theskipper motions "up" with his thumbs, the periscope hoist motors.
"Two-seven-double-oh, Captain," answers the TDC operator as the range counters click down. The Rasher is closing with the target rapidly.
"Distance to the track?"
"Twenty-one hundred yards."
Thumbs up, and the periscope hums out of its well. Squatting on his heels, the captain snatches it off the deck, snaps the handles down, rises with it, and quickly sweeps the sky and sea, checking for intruders. Then he settles on the target. "Bearing-mark! Range-mark!"
"Zero-four-zero. Nineteen hundred."
"The near escort will pass astern. Down periscope!"
The malevolent sound of the Chidori's thrashing screws grows louder and louder. Inside the submarine the men rivet their attention on the overhead; they stare as if they could follow the enemy's progress with their eyes. The escort crosses from port to starboard, "pinging" all the while, propeller declivity fading rapidly as she sweeps by overhead. The Rasher has not been detected inside the enemy screen.
Now the submarine is maneuvered to fire a spread of three torpedoes from the bow tubes on a 90-degree track. The big transport is approaching, broadside on. The skipper makes his final shooting observation. "Open outer doors on One, Two, and Three! Standby forward! Standby One!" The periscope crosshairs are on the target's big, black stack.
"Shoot any time, Captain," he is advised as the TDC's Correct Solution Light comes on.
The captain gives the order to fire at intervals of ten seconds. Three times the Rasher jolts as torpedoes whine out of the tubes, running hot, straight and normal. The skipper watches their smokey wakes streak for the ship; momentarily, he's mesmerized by them. Just before they reach the end of their timed runs, he twists the periscope around to check on the Chidori that passed astern.
"Escort's seen the fish." His voice is calm but clipped. "Take her deep! Use Negative! Three hundred feet! Rig for depth charge! Here she comes!"
With a frighteningly steep down-angle and her rudder hard over, the Rasher goes deep to escape. The Chidori, alerted to the attack by the telltale torpedo wakes, heels about and rushes in at full speed to counterattack. Sonar pulses zing like bullets; depth charges are sure to follow. The sharp reports from exploding torpedo warheads crackle through the water, but there's no time to rejoice over the hits. The Rasher plunges deeper and deeper, until she is far below her test depth. And it is only the beginning of her ordeal.
Chapter OneThe Rising Sun
Shortly after World War I, America's sixty-odd-year friendship with Japan began to deteriorate. Ever since Commodore Matthew Perry and his Black Ships visited Yokahama in 1854 to negotiate steamship coaling privileges and other matters important to international trade, there had been an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust between the two nations. But because her expansionist strategies conflicted with U.S. interests in the Far East, the Empire was seen as the most likely military threat America would face in Asia in the future. Adding to this belief was the fact that the Treaty of Versailles signed after the war gave Japan the Mariana, Caroline, and Marshall Islands (the so-called "Mandates"), all former possessions of Germany. President Wilson and his naval advisors feared that these possessions, if developed as military bases, would be future stepping stones to the conquest of New Guinea, the Philippines, the Malays, eventually Australia, thence the whole of the western Pacific.
To counter this potential threat, the United States developed "Plan Orange," a complex and, in light of the technical abilities of the day, unwieldy tapestry of troop and ship deployments designed not only to retake these islands from Japan, but also to completely destroy the Imperial Navy in one mighty sea battle. Plan Orange required a large, fast, mobile fleet of warships that could project America's power quickly and emphatically over the great breadth of the western Pacific. Submarines, their offensive ability amply demonstrated by the German Navy in World War I, were to be integrated into this plan in the role of forward reconnaissance units, screen protection for the main U.S. battle fleet, and major offensive weapons against enemy naval vessels.
Unfortunately, an exercise held in 1921 to prove the feasibility of the submarine's role in support of Plan Orange quickly and decisively demonstrated that the Navy's submarines were woefully unable to do what was expected of them. Lack of speed, disastrous breakdowns, and poor seakeeping qualities conspired to relegate them to their traditional coastal defense roles. Despite the fact that German U-boats proved beyond a doubt that no navy could be a world sea power without submarines, the role played by U.S. submarines in the defense of the Pacific would have to be rethought, if not flat out discarded, by Navy planners.
Still, it was obvious to younger, less hidebound officers that the Navy needed modern submarines that were capable of operating far from home. They had to be equipped with large fuel and torpedo capacities and endowed with total mechanical reliability-traits heretofore unknown in the submarine service. The search for such a submarine began in earnest after the Navy digested the hard lessons learned in 1921. And once the chronic problem of diesel-electric propulsion could be mastered (how to build reliable and powerful diesel engines eluded the Navy for decades), the successful design and construction of true fleet submarines would manifest itself in the massive V-boats of the late twenties: Barracuda, Bass, and Bonita. Or so the Navy thought.
As expected, the naval arms limitation conference of 1921 had far-reaching effects. Being in a pacifist frame of mind, notwithstanding Plan Orange (renamed Rainbow Five in 1941), the United States agreed to scrap its surface warship building program and to vastly reduce its submarine fleet. Some delegates to the conference went so far as to demand that submarines be outlawed altogether because they were thought to be immoral; others considered them obsolete, what with the recent invention of ASDIC (the British version of sonar) and the advent of bombing aircraft. Though submarine tonnage limitations suggested at the conference were never adopted, the attitude of Congress and the nation slowed submarine development and construction to a snail's pace.
The big V-boats were finally completed in 1926. Three more-Argonaut, Narwhal, and Nautilus-soon followed. While there were technical difficulties associated with these big boats-among others, leaky tankage and balky diesels-they were a crucial advance in the evolution of some of the world's finest warships: the Gato-, Balao-, and Tench-class fleet-type submarines.
The world situation changed drastically in the thirties. On 18 September 1931, Japan's Kwantung Army invaded Mukden in Manchuria. Two years later, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler launched a massive U-boat building campaign. By 1937, both Germany and Japan had repudiated the Naval Armament Limitation Treaties. President Franklin Roosevelt understood that these events warranted a new naval building program to counter the dual threat of a rearmed, Nazified Germany and a militarist Japan. Congress immediately planned for the building of 200 ships totaling 1,350,000 tons, which included 7 battleships, 8 carriers, 27 cruisers, 115 destroyers, and 43 submarines.
From these events was born the Navy's Gato (SS 212)-class fleet-type submarine, the prototypical attack boat of World War II. The Gato's development lineage actually began with the P-class and Salmon (SS 182)-class submarines, laid down in 1933 and 1935. These were smaller, more maneuverable boats than the Vs. The design was refined further in the Tambor (SS 198)-class adopted by the Navy's General Board and the Submarine Officers' Conference for the 1939 program.
Credit must go to three naval officers, Comdr. Charles A. Lockwood, who was later admiral and Commander Submarines Pacific, Lt. Comdr. Andrew I. McKee, planning officer at Portsmouth Navy Yard, and Lt. Armand M. Morgan, head of the Navy's submarine design section. Working together, these men overcame the inherent bureaucratic and technical difficulties of such a complicated undertaking and were the masterminds behind the design and construction of the boats that would eventually be deployed against the Japanese.
One key to the Tambor's success was the development of a compact diesel engine designed in concert with the American railroad industry, which enthusiastically embraced the benefits of diesel-powered locomotives (and was delighted by the Navy's willingness to fund the huge research and development costs associated with their creation).
Thus, as the Tambor-class evolved into the Gato-class in the fall of 1940, the United States had at last a submarine whose performance transcended its specifications. The trouble was, the Navy had not thought to order nearly enough boats. And when the sky over Pearl Harbor was peppered with flak on 7 December 1941, America needed submarines, and lots of them.
The Silent Service
Nobody seems to know with any degree of certitude the derivation of the appellation "Silent Service." Perhaps, some say, it developed in peacetime when submarine sailors had a certain mystique about them, as though schooled in some black art or possessed of some arcana unknown to their surface counterparts. During the war it was an apt description of a service that resisted pressure from Congress, the news media, and even the White House to release information about its operations, its engagements, its losses, and even its victories. Silent or not, among submarine sailors there existed an esprit de corps, camaraderie, and pride that did not exist in any other branch of the military service. And why not? After all, it was dangerous to take a pre-World War II submarine to sea, much less submerge in it.
Charles D. Nace, later one of the Rasher's commanding officers, had firsthand experience in these matters:
The older boats were full of rust, and they leaked a lot of sea water. It was disconcerting to dive a very old submarine, look aft to the engine room and see water cascading down through a warped hatch which would only seat when the boat was deep enough for sea pressure to slam it shut.
Incidents like these built character and fostered a condition of togetherness. And these sorts of happenings were very common in peacetime operations for many years, along with the sweat and stench which was the result of no air conditioning, diesel fumes, and oil in the bilges.
Only those who served in these older submarines could truly appreciate the hardships which the crews endured, particularly submerged, when temperatures ran over 100 degrees and the standard uniform was usually skivvy shorts, a Turkish towel around the neck, and sandals to squish through the puddles of sweat on the painted canvas decks.
These veterans would be the nucleus of the crews that would man the submarines that fought the Japanese.
The submarine service took only volunteers because the duty was demanding and hazardous. Those who volunteered did so for varying reasons. Some saw opportunities for faster promotion, since the force was minuscule compared to the surface fleet. Many wanted to be part of an elite group. Others were attracted by the extra pay. And others just felt that submarines were a challenge that demanded their best. For whatever reason, they reported to submarine school at New London, Connecticut.
Before training commenced, students were screened by medical officers to ensure they did not suffer from claustrophobia (certainly a debilitating affliction for any submariner), that they had good night vision, and that they would be mentally suited to the environment of a submarine.
Even before Pearl Harbor, it was necessary to shorten submarine school from six months to three months for officers and to one month for enlisted personnel because the submarine building program had been accelerated and the fleet was expanding at the rate of seven or eight new boats per month. Training covered everything from torpedoes, diesel engines, storage batteries, and electric motors, to submarine operations themselves. Inside the water-filled training tower all students were required to make an ascent from a 100-foot depth using a Momsen Lung breathing device to acquaint them with the difficulties of escaping from a sunken submarine. The most realistic and most interesting training took place aboard the old school boats-mostly decrepit O-class and R-class submarines better suited for the scrap yard.
After submarine school the primary objective for each officer and enlisted man was to earn the designation "qualified in submarines" and to wear the coveted "Twin Dolphins," which signified he was a full-fledged submariner. To achieve this status required long hours of intense study outside of regular work and duty hours. Each man had to become familiar with the location and operation of practically every piece of machinery on board. The submariner needed to know about loading and firing torpedoes, charging batteries, the operation of diesel engines and main propulsion systems, the location of water and hydraulic piping systems and their valves, control of the boat during diving and surfacing, and the details about what to do in every conceivable type of emergency.
This regimen of training, rigorous in peacetime, gained a much greater sense of urgency when war broke out. Every new man had to learn his responsibilities in less time than normal. It became routine procedure for every submarine to conduct intensive training-"school of the boat," as it was known-every day during a war patrol. The training was essential to enhance the combat performance of each ship. In addition, it helped provide the crews for new construction; after each war patrol a submarine gave up about 20 percent of its crew and took on new and mostly inexperienced officers and enlisted men.
Additions to the submarine fleet required that the regulars who were in the boats at the start of the war be augmented with reserves. These men volunteered for submarine service possessed of a vast range of badly needed skills. Many had technical, electronic, and engineering backgrounds, and in short order they were as proficient as the men who had been there since before Pearl Harbor. By the end of the war nearly 75 percent of submarine personnel were reserves. Each man, regular or reserve, knew his shipmates' and his own life depended on his knowledge and actions: in submarines, there was no margin for error.
These were the men who took the Rasher to war.
Excerpted from RED SCORPION by Peter T. Sasgen Copyright © 1985 by by Peter T. Sasgen
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Peter T. Sasgen is a graphic designer and photographer.
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