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Some of the Top Secret Ways Submarines Helped Win World War II

Some of the Top Secret Ways Submarines Helped Win World War II

Especially in the Pacific.

Sunsets over Manila Bay are nothing less than spectacular. Once  the sun dips below the horizon there is a lingering illumination known as “blue hour” as the sky gradually shifts from pale azure to deep indigo before fading completely into the black tropical night. But for the men of USS Seawolfthere was no blue hour that warm January evening in 1942. Their submarine rested on the inky bottom of the bay awaiting nightfall, when it would be safe to surface.

At 7:30 pm, Lt. Cmdr. Frederick “Fearless Freddie” Warder, gave the command. The submarine broke the calm waters off the besieged island of Corregidor, sailing cautiously toward South Dock. When Seawolf was securely moored, the crew began transferring her cargo: 36 tons of antiaircraft shells destined for the island’s desperate garrison.

Though Pearl Harbor was barely a month past, this was already Seawolf’s third war patrol. And it was to become a landmark, for it was the first of nearly 300 “special missions” undertaken by American submarines during World War II.

After unloading her cargo, Seawolf embarked 25 passengers for transport to Surabaya on Java’s eastern coast. It must have galled Freddie Warder that his warship had been used as a truck and was about to become a bus. But most of his refugees were VIPs—Very Important Pilots—men who had lost their planes in the first days of the war. It was Seawolf’s mission to deliver those flyers to new aircraft to rejoin the fight.

In those first, dispiriting months of the war, Asiatic Fleet submarines were kept busy on similar missions—so many that the chief, Admiral Thomas Hart, complained bitterly in a report to Washington: “This Command has been continuously attempting to satisfy numerous demands for use of submarines for various evacuation and ferrying trips.” Those trips included transporting high-ranking officials, more pilots, members of a top-secret radio intelligence unit, and 20 tons of gold and silver from the Philippine treasury. They also carried in as much ammunition and foodstuffs as the boats could fit. Hart noted that these special missions detracted from offensive operations, but Washington seemed to pay no heed.

The last trip to Corregidor was made on May 3 by USS Spearfish, redirected from a war patrol off the Lingayen Gulf to pick up 27 passengers. Twelve were Army nurses; two were unauthorized stowaways. The island fortress fell to the Japanese just three days later.

Two Cruiser Submarines and a Minelayer

The typical modern diesel-electric “fleet submarine” of the time was 311 feet long and displaced 1,525 tons. The Navy had three boats greatly exceeding that size: the minelayer Argonaut and the cruiser subs Narwhal and Nautilus. Each was more than 370 feet in length, displaced over 4,000 tons, and was armed with pairs of six-inch guns. Built between 1927 and 1930, the boats were big, slow, and ill-suited for the underwater attack role. It was said that Argonaut’s diving time was four or five minutes.

However unsuitable the trio may have been for deployment offensively, their sheer size proved attractive to Navy planners for special missions.

 

One of the first was deployment of Nautilus and Argonaut for landing a Marine Corps raiding party on Makin Atoll in the summer of 1942. The assault was meant to divert enemy attention from Guadalcanal, where a full-scale invasion had begun a week before. In all, 252 Marines were crammed into the boats’ torpedo rooms, where the “fish” had been replaced by tiers of bunks.

In the predawn darkness of August 16, the men of Colonel Evans Carlson’s 2nd Raider Battalion launched their rubber boats and paddled ashore to destroy Japanese facilities. While the Marines were on the island, Nautilus had an opportunity to unlimber her six-inch guns. Firing blind, over the island and into the lagoon, the ship managed to sink an enemy patrol vessel and a 3,500-ton freighter.

 

Nautilus and twin Narwhal were used in a similar capacity 10 months later, when they supported the American assault in the Aleutians, landing 214 Army Scouts on Attu Island. As they had at Makin, the big subs amply demonstrated their versatility as transports.

Aiding Guerillas in the Philippines

At the beginning of 1943, a whole new phase of special operations began. In January, six agents were landed on Negros in the central Philippines by USS Gudgeon. Code-named Planet Party, the group was led by Captain Jesus Villamor, a much decorated Filipino pilot and war hero. The unit’s task was to set up a communications network that could radio intelligence back to General Douglas MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific Area headquarters (SWPA GHQ) in Brisbane, Australia.

Villamor discovered a flourishing guerrilla organization in desperate need of arms, ammunition, and more. That news excited GHQ, which made arrangements in February for USS Tambor to deliver 70,000 rounds and $10,000 in cash to the rebels on the southern island of Mindanao while en route to her patrol area. Even as she was sailing north, commanders in Brisbane were discussing the feasibility of establishing a regular submarine transport service to the Philippines. “It is suggested that every effort be made to provide [the Philippine] sub-section with undersea boats,” wrote Lt. Col. Allison W. Ind, deputy controller of the Allied Intelligence Bureau on February 25, 1943.

Like Gudgeon, Tambor was also carrying a group of agents, led by an unassuming naval reserve officer, Lt. Cmdr. Charles “Chick” Parsons. He was an old Philippine hand, arriving there in 1921. Before the war he had been an executive at Luzon Stevedoring Company in Manila and seemed to have knowledge of every channel and bay and inlet throughout the islands. He was widely connected and widely respected. After disembarking from the sub, he began an island-by-island investigation of the situation, talking to rebel leaders, observing daily life, forming opinions on the state of the country. He would become, in a very real way, MacArthur’s eyes and ears in the Philippines.

SWPA continued to send men and supplies north—but in ad hoc dribs and drabs. In April, Gudgeon went back with four men and three tons of supplies for Panay Island. And that July, Trout put ashore another reconnaissance party on Mindanao, evacuated four escaped POWs and, after four months in country, Chick Parsons.

On August 20, 1943, Parsons submitted a lengthy report to MacArthur on the state of the Philippines. There were sections on political and economic conditions, on military and civilian internees, and on the morale of the nation under Japanese occupation. Parsons then offered up some thoughts on how the United States might aid the resistance movement. Among them he recommended submarines be employed to supply the guerrilla districts. This idea had been kicking around GHQ for months, but it took another old Philippine hand, Colonel Courtney Whitney, a close friend of MacArthur’s, and before the war a very sharp Manila lawyer, to get the ball rolling.

Spyron’s Inaugural Trip

Until then the Navy had been reluctant to commit a boat full time to the Philippine guerrilla campaign. Whitney, frustrated by the lack of cooperation, persuaded the general to threaten to take the issue to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It still took six more weeks to convince the Commander Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral Arthur S. Carpender, that the Navy’s assistance in inserting intelligence teams would produce “information of direct benefit to [the Navy’s] operations against the enemy,” through the establishment of a network of coastwatchers reporting Japanese ship movements, valuable information that would be of paramount interest to patrolling submarines. Carpender went to his boss, Admiral Ernest J. King, commander in chief, United States Fleet, with a recommendation that a Nautilus-class submarine be made available to SWPA to make two trips into the islands toward the end of the year. The plan was approved.

Because of his experience and expertise, Commander Parsons was handed the job of organizing the sub supply system under the aegis of both Whitney and the Seventh Fleet’s director of Naval Intelligence, Captain Arthur H. McCollum. In time the unit came to be called the Spy Squadron, or “Spyron.” From an office in Brisbane, Chick coordinated the materiel requisitions from rebel commanders. Once the freight was assembled, it was forwarded to Darwin on Australia’s north coast for loading aboard the submarines.

Narwhal was made available to Spyron late that autumn after receiving a complete refit, including removal of her torpedo-handling gear to clear space in the torpedo rooms for cargo, though 10 fish were left in her tubes just in case.