14 Kills: This U.S. Navy Submarine Had No Enemy Match in World War II

June 25, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: USS BatfishImperial JapanWorld War IIMilitary HistoryU.S. Navy

14 Kills: This U.S. Navy Submarine Had No Enemy Match in World War II

She terrorized Imperial Japan.

Here's What You Need To Remember: Before Japan surrendered, USS Batfish would do seven war patrols, sinking 14 enemy vessels, almost 38,000 tons of shipping.​

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She was a sleek, efficient, deadly killer, a home to six officers and 60 enlisted men, and a holy terror to the enemy. She was a fleet submarine, and she was called Batfish.

She was not among the record-holding American boats in total tonnage or number of ships sunk, but the submarine force of Imperial Japan had reason to fear her. For Batfish was one of only two Allied boats with the distinction of sinking three enemy submarines. Her only competition came from Great Britain’s HMS Upholder, which sank three Axis boats in the Mediterranean, part of almost 130,000 tons of German and Italian shipping she sent to the bottom.

Oddly, Batfish’s first encounter with a hostile vessel was also with a submarine, this time a presumed German U-boat in the Atlantic, not long after her commissioning. The German fired two torpedoes at her, but both missed entirely. Engine room crewman Tex Davis remembers the occasion vividly, especially three commands in quick succession from the skipper of Batfish: “Battle stations, fire 9 and 10, and dive.”

“It was all over,” says Tex, “before I could even get to my battle station.” Today, surviving Batfish crewmen suspect that they may have sunk still another submarine on that day, but no official confirmation of the German sub was ever received.

Sadly, Batfish’s only rival—Upholder—disappeared with all hands on her 25th sortie from embattled Malta, victim of an Axis mine or surface escort, but Batfish had better luck. Today she lies quietly on the lawn outside the World War II Museum in Muskogee, Oklahoma, basking in the sun, dreaming, maybe, of other days. Some of her old crew visit her from time to time, and the public goes aboard her and wanders through her compartments, sometimes wondering aloud how so many men could live and fight in such a tiny, cramped space for weeks on end.

In fact, her crew quickly got used to their cramped quarters: “It was,” says signalman Jim Callanan, “like being in my own living room.” And by the standards of World War II Batfish was not tiny at all. She was state-of-the-art for those far-off days, a diesel-electric submarine of the Balao class, just over 300 feet long, displacing some 1,800 tons surfaced and about 2,400 submerged. She was capable of just over 20 knots on the surface, using all four of her diesel engines. She could do almost nine knots submerged for short periods, and her 10 21-inch torpedo tubes gave her a mighty punch. She carried 24 torpedoes, each of which would run at 45 knots over about 4,500 yards; they could also be set to run at 31 knots, extending their range to some 9,000 yards.

In addition to her sonar and radar, Batfish also carried a unique piece of equipment called a bathythermograph, which measured the thermal layers of the deep sea. These layers, made up of water of differing temperatures, distorted and deflected sound, and so provided a refuge for submarines, places in which to hide from the deadly tentacles of a destroyer’s sonar search. Properly used, it could also help the boat find a spot from which her own “ears” could reach out extraordinary distances to locate an enemy.

Batfish mounted a 4-inch deck gun plus antiaircraft weapons—one 40mm and one 20mm—and later in her career she would be fitted with still another light cannon of each caliber. And she carried radar, two sets in fact, much more efficient equipment than that installed in her Japanese rivals, as time would prove.

One radar set scanned the vastness of the sky for aircraft, generally hostile in her operational area. It would efficiently warn of the presence of an aircraft somewhere within the set’s range, but could not pinpoint its direction. On the other hand, the surface-search radar would reach far out to tell the direction of a vessel on the surface. It could give the radar men a bearing on anything the set saw, and it could be used when the submarine was slightly submerged. These radars were the key to surviving in her operational area, the extremely perilous waters off Japan, the Philippines, and Formosa.

Batfish could easily operate as far below the surface as 400 feet, about a hundred feet deeper than her otherwise similar predecessors of the Gato class. If she were driven deeper, somewhere below 400 feet lay her “crush depth,” but just how far down that was, nobody knew. The best guess was that she could not live below 850 feet.

For Batfish was built to survive. Her all-welded hull was made of inch-thick steel, and she was divided into eight watertight compartments. The passage between compartments was only one by four feet, a perpetual danger to heads and shins, but each compartment could be closed by a massive 500-pound watertight steel door. Her conning tower, also watertight, was a tiny place, about eight feet by 15, the heart of the boat during an attack. Once she neared a target, she closed down her big search periscope, relying on the attack periscope, which was longer and thinner and left less of a wake, a “feather” in submariner jargon.

Before Japan Surrendered, Batfish Would do Seven War Patrols, Sinking 14 Enemy Vessels, Almost 38,000 Tons of Shipping.​

Running on the surface, she used one or more of her four diesels, which were also used to charge her array of batteries, more than 50 tons of them. When she had to dive, those batteries powered her electric motors, which would keep her going submerged for about 24 hours at very low speeds.

Batfish was commissioned August 21, 1943, at the Navy Yard in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. After her trials, she joined the ever-increasing submarine offensive in the Pacific, a ceaseless, merciless campaign that accounted for more than 300 enemy ships during that year at a cost of 15 American boats. Before Japan surrendered, Batfish would do seven war patrols, sinking 14 enemy vessels, almost 38,000 tons of shipping. She also damaged two or three other ships, and along the way she fished three American aircrews out of the unforgiving waters of the South China Sea.

Batfish earned a Presidential Unit Citation, nine battle stars, a Navy Cross, four Silver Stars, and 10 Bronze Stars. It was a gallant and enviable record, and the men who sailed in her had every reason to be proud.

Early on, however, in spite of some modest success against the Japanese, some of the men who sailed in Batfish may have felt that she still had something to prove. Under a prior commander, later relieved of command, Batfish had spotted the super-battleship Yamato, but failed to attack her. Batfish had picked up the huge ship on radar at night in heavy seas, but according to one story the sub’s skipper so feared a hit from one of the battleship’s 18-inch main guns that he refused to press home an attack.

According to that version of the incident, the captain remained adamant even when one of his own officers told him he had been a battleship turret officer and, “[I]t would be utterly impossible for a pointer and trainer of a fire control party to stay on us the way we were bounding around. [He] was still concerned over being ‘blown out of the water’ by a 16-inch [sic] shell.…”
Batfish’s executive officer was so angry that he later asked to be—and was—transferred out of the boat. In any case, after the boat’s second patrol this captain was relieved of command, probably because of an alcohol problem.

On the other hand, one crew member, Tex Davis, recalls that a combination of Yamato’s speed, the heavy weather, and the battleship’s alert escorts made an attack impossible, although several attempts were made to close in to torpedo range. Yamato steamed directly over Batfish, he remembers: “Her screws shook the whole boat.”

The captain, he recalls, tried to close with Yamato in spite of the escorts and very rough seas but could not shoot without endangering his own boat. Davis remembers that Yamato’s escorts dropped more than a hundred depth charges to protect their huge charge. For his part, he admired the captain, who, he said, “was like a father to me.”

Better, more successful days followed under the new captain, Commander John K. Fyfe, called “Jake,” who took over the boat after her second patrol. Patrolling off Honshu under Fyfe’s highly effective leadership, Batfish got one Japanese ship, and then, in the Palaus, she finished off the destroyer Samidare, already damaged by an air strike. Jake Fyfe made very sure of Samidare, putting six torpedoes into her, blowing off her stern, and leaving her “sinking fast and smoking heavily.” When a Japanese minesweeper showed up to help Samidare, Fyfe got her too.