At 12:30 am, October 9, 1943, Commander Edward S. Hutchinson spotted his first targets as a submarine commander. His boat, USS Rasher, was on her maiden war cruise out of Brisbane, Australia, and every man in her was eager for his first taste of blood.
They were off Ambon when they sighted a pair of freighters that were zigzagging in antisubmarine patterns, deliberately making stalking difficult and protracted, but Hutchinson was tenacious. Throughout the night he trailed the careening targets, slowly bringing his boat within torpedo range. By the time he was able to commence his attack it was dawn. He fixed the targets in his periscope sights and fired a six-torpedo spread. Four missed, but the other two ripped open Kogane Maru. The 3,132-ton freighter went down swiftly while her sister ship blindly dumped depth charges that killed no one but hapless seamen who had jumped from Kogane Maru. With the surviving ship hurrying for shallow water and her crew doubtless radioing news of the attack and its location, Hutchinson, exultant over his first kill, turned his sub back to the open sea.
A Choppy Sector for the Rookie Crew
On December 20, 1942, workmen had broken the ice at the end of a ramp of greased fir tree trunks leading from the dry dock into the Manitowoc River outside Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The boat launched that sub-zero day was the U.S. Navy’s Gato-class submarine USS Rasher. Her hull number was 269, and she weighed 1,806 tons. Her construction had commenced the previous May 4, and she was the first of 28 submersible warships constructed by the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company during World War II. There were six 21-inch torpedo tubes opening from the forward torpedo room, and the after torpedo room brandished four such tubes. During each of her combat patrols, Rasherwould carry 20 torpedoes.
The 39-year-old Hutchinson, Rasher, and her first crew were delivered to the Navy on June 7, 1943. By the end of August, all training and loading were complete and the sub embarked for Brisbane for a brief refit and combat indoctrination. After these final preliminaries her next date was with the enemy.
New boats with rookie crews were usually sent to sedate sectors, but for state-of-the-art Rasher and her splendidly trained crew this rule was overlooked. Hutchinson and his command would steam into the Makassar-Celebes sector, which was thick with Japanese supply vessels and warships. By September 24, the last preparations were complete, and America’s future premier attack submarine sallied north from Brisbane to commence hunting.
Evading Two Destroyers
By October 13, Rasher’s patrol circuit brought her back to Ambon, and at 1 pm four Japanese ships chugged from the harbor while a sub-hunting floatplane circled above them. Two of the vessels were destroyers escorting for a pair of freighters, and when one of the six torpedoes Hutchinson fired at them proved defective and detonated seconds later, the destroyers were alerted to the sub’s presence long before her crew had expected.
Screaming for his diving officer to head for the depths, Hutchinson also ordered full speed to hasten the process. Passing the 90-foot mark, the Americans were thrilled by four reverberating reports as their torpedoes slammed into the 3,217-ton Kenkoku Maru, sinking her in 11,000 feet of water.
The destroyers commenced depth charging, but Rasher reached the thermal barrier where sharply differing temperatures in layers of water cause inaccurate sonar readings. Chief Pete Sasgen counted 24 hollow blasts fading away to the west as the frustrated sub hunters could not catch their quarry’s scent. Two hours later the Americans surfaced to find the area deserted.
Suspecting the destroyers and surviving transport had retreated into the harbor, Hutchinson stayed put for the next 24 hours. His prey never reappeared, and the following night he received an intelligence report directing him to the shipping lanes around the Talaud island chain 550 miles to the north. An enemy convoy was expected to pass through this vicinity about October 17, and the Allied command gave it high priority.
Taking Out a Tanker
Despite breakdowns in two of the boat’s four diesel engines, the submariners arrived at the Talauds on schedule but found only small sailboats and assorted fishing vessels. If the fifth-column operatives had been right about a convoy in the area, it had apparently taken a different route. The hunting turned very poor.
It was 2:30 on the afternoon of October 31 before Hutchinson’s lookouts spied a tanker’s masts poking over the horizon near the Celebes coast off Watcher Island. It was an old ship but so laden with crude oil that its decks were almost awash. Again a worrisome floatplane buzzed overhead, so the hunters trailed about seven miles behind their quarry for 51/2 hours until the plane had to depart to refuel.
The ship was evidently headed for the Japanese-held port of Manado, and before it rounded the Minahassa Peninsula, Hutchinson lined up his aft tubes and fired three torpedoes at 10:04 pm. Two minutes and 29 seconds later, two of the warheads impacted and blew the rusty oiler into a spectacular petroleum conflagration. The vessel turned out to be much smaller than the skipper had estimated. The late Koryo Maru had weighed just 589 tons but had been loaded with the most highly prized cargo afloat.
The hunters now headed north to just above the equator and the Balikpapan-Truk-Palau shipping lanes. On the afternoon of November 8, Hutchinson was in the conning tower making a standard periscope sweep when he noticed a column of smoke and a tall mast on the horizon. Barking orders to his men, he kept the target in sight as he maneuvered his boat into position for a stern attack. A spotter on the tanker’s deck trained his binoculars directly on the approaching periscope but somehow overlooked it. An escorting patrol boat was churning about 2,000 yards to the oiler’s port side, but Hutchinson gave it little thought as he aligned his ship and shot three torpedoes from 13,000 yards. Two of the fish hit and blew off the old tanker’s stern. It was the 2,046-ton Tango Maru. Unfortunately for the hunters, this victim had been empty and there was no roiling bonfire to punctuate her passage. The submariners would not have had time to watch anyway.
The patrol boat had been just 1,000 yards from the sub when the torpedoes exploded, and this time the periscope was seen. Bearing down on the raider at full speed, the ship began unloading depth charges before the Americans could reach the temperature gradient. Although some of the bombs went off close enough to rattle the sub, none were near enough to damage her. By 6:39, Hutchinson felt secure enough to surface. He found the seascape serenely empty.
Late that night the submariners sighted three more ships in the Makassar Strait and immediately set out after them, but, at 1am on the 9th, another vessel popped up on a course approaching the other three and converging on Rasher. Hutchinson had been sweeping around in a wide arc to attack the targets broadside, but to continue on this course would bring the newcomer alongside him. If he torpedoed the new arrival, his primary prey would be warned and escape. He elected to abort his end run and change course to approach the original targets in a risky, high-speed surface charge.
Turning around, Rasher advanced straight on the unsuspecting merchantmen in the bright moonlight while her men primed their last six torpedoes. As the attackers bore in, the victims inadvertently made the attack easier by swerving 45 degrees left, positioning themselves on either side of the submarine, and making for easy simultaneous bow and stern shots. At 1:22 am, the sub spat out four missiles from her fore tubes and two from the aft. Seconds later, the right-hand cargo vessel fired a signal flare to alert the escorting destroyer that something was afoot. Someone had seen either the torpedo wakes or the periscope, and the destroyer swung around to counterattack. A handful of randomly dropped depth charges went off far from Rasher. It was a fair swap—all six torpedoes missed. It was time for Hutchinson to head for port.
Willard R. Laughon Takes Command
Following his productive cruise on Rasher, Hutchinson was promoted to command of Submarine Squadron 22. Lt. Cmdr. Willard R. Laughon took Hutchinson’s place. Thirty-nine-year-old Laughon was fresh from antisubmarine patrol duties off Bermuda.