The Buzz

This U.S. Navy Escort Group Changed the Course of World War II in the Pacific

Hains’s choice was made for him by the arrival on May 26 of Task Group 30.4, centered on the escort carrier USS Hoggatt Bay (CVE-75). Captain William V. Saunders commanded this force sent by Admiral Halsey to assist in antisubmarine operations. After learning of Escort Division 39’s extraordinarily productive week, Saunders directed Commander Hains’s warships to make for Seeadler Harbor at Manus in the Admiralty Islands. This was MacArthur’s territory, and here Lt. Cmdr. Pendleton saw an opportunity to continue the winning streak. Rather than head straight for Manus, Pendleton suggested, why not bend the track “coincidentally” on the same bearing as the enemy’s NA Line? The other skippers agreed.

Now authorized to cross into the Southwest Pacific Area, Escort Division 39 resumed its hunt. That evening, Raby reported a surface contact bearing 180 degrees, range 14,000 yards. One minute later, at 2304 hours, England also acquired the target on radar. It was Ro-108, Lieutenant Kanichi Obari commanding.

All three destroyer escorts charged in, but when Raby fell out of position England took over for a rare surface engagement. Just as her crew was about to launch torpedoes, however, Ro-108 submerged. With John Prock at the sound tower and England’s engine gang slowing her to 10 knots, Lieutenant Williamson maneuvered the agile warship into a bow-attack position. At 2323 hours, he let fly a salvo of Hedgehogs, exactly half the projectiles remaining on board. Any error now would prove embarrassing, if not fatal, for the high-scoring DE.

Williamson need not have worried. A series of muffled blasts from 250 feet down signaled the annihilation of Ro-108 and the 58 men who died with it. The next morning search teams found a huge oil slick as well as numerous pieces of flotsam drifting in the vicinity of England’s attack. Polished mahogany fragments from a chronometer case convinced the crew that one of their Hedgehog charges had struck the enemy sub’s conning tower.

Commander Hains’s warships then made for the American base at Manus, arriving there by 1500 hours on May 27. Awaiting them at Seeadler Harbor was the destroyer escort USS Spangler (DE-696), which had sailed from the Solomons with a welcome resupply of Hedgehog rounds. After spending the night to take on fuel, ammunition, and provisions, the destroyer escorts—now accompanied by Spangler—headed back into the patrol area where Task Group 30.4 was now operating.

The next two days passed uneventfully, but early on May 30, one of Captain Saunders’s destroyers acquired a target and pressed in with depth charges (at this point in the war, fleet destroyers were not equipped with Hedgehogs). George and Raby were close enough to offer assistance; Commander Hains ordered them in while directing England and Spangler to sweep a sector about 30 miles to the south.

So began a two-day battle against one of the most able submarine officers in the Imperial Japanese Navy. Captain Ryonosuke Kato had made Ro-105 (skippered by Lieutenant Junichi Inoue) his flagship and was now ducking every punch the hunter-killers of Escort Division 39 could throw at him. Both George and Raby made multiple attacks throughout the morning, even scoring a few Hedgehog hits, but the stubborn Ro-105 refused to die.

Kato employed every ruse he knew, jettisoning oil and debris while blowing air from his boat’s tanks in an attempt to deceive the prowling DEs overhead. Just after sunset, Captain Kato took more direct action. Snapping briefly to the surface, Ro-105 loosed a brace of torpedoes at its tormentors. All missed but served notice to the Americans that this was an exceptionally dangerous opponent.

Doubling their efforts, George and Raby continued to hound Ro-105 all night. Their crews knew that sooner or later the Japanese boat would run out of breathable air or battery power and be forced to surface. Shortly after 0300 it did—directly between the two DEs. Neither of them could get off a shot, but Raby briefly managed to lay a searchlight beam on the nettlesome submarine before it once again slipped beneath the waves.

That shaft of light caught the attention of England’s lookouts, still 30 miles to the northwest. Together with Spangler, the veteran sub-killer rushed in to offer assistance. At first it was not welcome. “We’re not telling you where we are,” a prickly voice taunted Williamson over talk-between-ship radio. “We have a damaged sub, and we’re going to sink him. Don’t come near us!”

Commander Hains offered a more measured response, keeping England and Spangler off at 5,000 yards while his other two DEs continued to track Ro-105 on sonar. At first light the attack resumed. First George then Raby went forward with Hedgehogs; both missed. “It’s your turn, Spangler,” Hains ordered. She ran in and fired a volley of projectiles, which also failed to connect.

“Okay, England, it’s your turn,” Commander Hains said with resignation. The 30-hour battle came to a close at 0736 hours on May 31 when at least 10 well-aimed Hedgehog charges exploded 180 feet below the surface. Five minutes later a resounding undersea boom sounded the death knell for Ro-105 and its 55 crewmen. Soon too came up the usual field of fuel and wooden detritus accompanied by 10 or so frenzied sharks.

The USS England had just sunk six submarines in 12 days, an unprecedented feat in the chronicles of naval warfare. Yet her mission was not over. FRUPac had reported a total of seven enemy boats on the NA Line; England and her companions spent the next two weeks vainly searching for any remaining subs. Unbeknownst to them, Admiral Owada had once more repositioned his boats. Ro-109 and Ro-112 thus escaped the deadly American hunter-killer teams then combing South Pacific waters.