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.

Along the way Batfish encountered an unusual foe, the lineal descendant of a British innovation in World War I. She looked like the sort of quarry every submariner coveted, a Maru, a substantial Japanese merchant ship. In fact, she was what the Royal Navy dubbed a “Q-ship,” a merchant vessel filled with lumber or cork, crammed with concealed guns and manned by a regular Navy crew. They were trained to remain hidden no matter what punishment their vessel absorbed, hoping an enemy submarine would surface long enough for their guns to sink her.

This time the Japanese were unsuccessful. Batfish engaged the Maru at long range on the surface, but turned to run for her life once the shielding on the Q-ship’s guns fell away to reveal her true nature. “That was the biggest damn barrel,” said one lookout afterward, remembering the gaping muzzle of the Japanese ship’s forward gun. Fyfe recalled a series of unsuccessful salvos from the frustrated Japanese ship, and crew members vividly remembered a dive in record time. “One hundred feet in 26 seconds,” said one.

Batfish had more enemies at sea than the destroyers and smaller escort vessels of the Japanese Navy. Aircraft were a constant threat in the waters off Japan, Formosa, and the Philippines, although Captain Fyfe was surprised by the number of hostile aircraft that came close to the submarine but did not attack. The captain attributed this lack of vigilance in part to American air power. Japanese aviators, he thought, probably spent “as much time looking up as looking down,” for fear of American planes.

Those same friendly aircraft, however, were sometimes a mighty trial to Batfish. Eager American aviators were occasionally wont to attack anything that looked like a submarine, without wondering long to whom the boat belonged. Three times, Tex Davis recalls, U.S. aircraft bombed Batfish. On one occasion, he remembers, the boat was attacked by American aircraft when the submarine had two rescued American pilots on board. At another time, a friendly airplane dived on them while Batfish was talking by radio to the offending pilot’s squadron leader. On at least one occasion, an American aircraft dove on Batfish while the submarine was operating her IFF (identification friend or foe) equipment.

Surviving not so friendly fire, in October 1944 Batfish was part of the massive submarine cordon around the Philippines during the long-awaited invasion. In the next month, she was part of a wolfpack led by the submarine USS Batfish, Plaice, Scabbardfish, Archerfish, Blackfish, , attacking a convoy in Lingayen Gulf. Captain Fyfe got credit for two freighters on this occasion, but the best was yet to come. It happened in February 1945, as Batfish was on her sixth combat patrol.

Batfish returned to Pearl Harbor to refit after her fifth patrol, traded in her 4-inch gun for a 5-incher and added a 40mm antiaircraft gun. Some 67 alterations, read additions and repairs, were undertaken during the boat’s 16-day refit, and even then there was not enough time to fully finish up everything necessary to get Batfish up to her top fighting trim. But the Pacific War did not wait for repairs or much of anything else, and after a brief training period, Batfish announced her readiness for sea on December 30, 1944.

The Year 1945 Would be a Banner Year for Batfish.

She was working the area of Luzon Strait, off the Philippines, when American codebreakers picked up a message that four Japanese submarines were bound for Luzon. Their mission was to run ammunition into the Philippines, and on the return leg to evacuate Japanese aircrews and other critical personnel to Formosa. American naval intelligence had even deciphered the submarines’ sailing dates and the routes they would take. The Japanese boats were sailing straight into the teeth of a waiting American picket line composed of Batfish, Plaice, Scabbardfish, Archerfish, Blackfish, and Sea Poacher, all deployed across Luzon Strait.

Batfish was combat worthy, but she had developed some defects her commander looked forward to repairing during the next refit. In addition to some more minor problems, both of the boat’s periscopes leaked badly, and the once quiet boat had developed a serious noise problem. “Now any speed over 3 knots,” wrote Captain Fyfe, “and we sound like a freight train.” But even with these and the other nagging problems, she was about to have her finest hour.

About 10:15 on the night of February 9, the submarine’s radar watch picked up signals on the sub’s APR gear, emissions from somebody else’s radar, somewhere out there in the blackness of the night. Not long afterward, the submarine’s own radar picked up a blip, a vessel some 11,000 yards distant. But was the vessel friend or foe?

Fyfe radioed the other American boats in the pack to which he belonged, asking each her position. Crewmen remembered the answers coming in one by one, “not me, not me.” Once all the friendly boats had answered, Fyfe was virtually certain that the contact was not a friendly ship and assumed it to be one of the Japanese submarines making for Luzon.

He was right, but even then he would not shoot until he gained visual contact and made sure the target was an enemy. At last the captain saw what radarman Jim Callanan and Tex Davis remembered as the characteristic hump forward of the conning tower in Japanese I-class submarines. Fyfe was sure of his quarry now and set up his torpedo attack.

The night was gloomy, dark and overcast, and there was no moon, excellent weather for a surface attack. Captain Fyfe positioned his boat to take advantage of the darkness, so that he approached his target from the east with the deepest of the gloom behind him.

Just before midnight, Fyfe fired at 1,850 yards, but all of his torpedoes missed. He was still in the game, however, for the Japanese vessel did not dive or otherwise react, but went steadily on its way. Apparently nobody on the target’s conning tower had seen the track of the American torpedoes, and her crew had obviously ignored the explosion of Fyfe’s torpedoes at the end of their unsuccessful run.

And so Fyfe reasoned that the Japanese radar was either designed solely for antiaircraft detection, or terribly inefficient, or maybe both. So, Fyfe recomputed his attack, deciding that the enemy’s estimated speed for the first attack had been two knots too slow. He then closed to 990 yards and fired three more fish just after midnight. The first ran hot in the tube, ejecting on the second try but running erratically off into the night. The third also missed. But the second torpedo ran true.

In a “brilliant red explosion that lit up the whole sky,” the Japanese boat exploded and sank quickly, and Fyfe’s radar watch saw the target blowing apart. Crewmen thought they had heard an “air fish,” a compressed air torpedo, rush past their hull in the water, as if the Japanese boat had fired about the same time Batfish did.

Because Fyfe’s crew heard he had spotted the hump forward of the conning tower, and Fyfe noted in his log that he had seen an I-class boat from his bridge, the Japanese boat was almost surely I-41. Various authorities have later theorized that the submarine might have been either one of two RO-class boats, but the RO boats had no such distinctive bulge.

Fyfe rigged a searchlight and searched for survivors and debris, but found neither. There was only a heavy stench of oil and a thick oil slick, but nothing more. Fyfe sensibly called off the search, realizing, as he wrote later in the ship’s log, “We were advertising ourselves needlessly and accomplishing little except ruining the night vision of the bridge personnel and probably drawing airplanes.”
The sinking was a substantial success, for the Japanese boat was almost surely inbound to Formosa from the Philippines, loaded with Japanese aviators or other VIPs, perhaps even bullion or other wealth destined for the imperial treasury. But Batfish was not finished.

The next day aircraft flew toward Batfish. They might have been friendly, although Fyfe was convinced the offending planes were using Japanese antisubmarine tactics. Batfish was still on the surface, and the appearance of the aircraft drove her under, spoiling Fyfe’s plans for a surface reconnaissance, losing the advantages of better speed and better visibility that surface cruising would have given his boat.

He came to periscope depth later in the morning, but again approaching aircraft made him dive, and this time they dropped a torpedo, which fortunately missed. It was, wrote Fyfe, “a tender moment, and if these actually prove to be blue planes [American] a most unfriendly act.” But he stayed on station, even though Japanese aircraft remained active deep into the night.

Fyfe’s persistence paid off again on the very next night, February 11. As Batfish surfaced to recharge her vital batteries, the APR again alerted the radar watch. Once more, something was out there in the night, its radar looking, searching, reaching out its long, probing fingers in the gloom. Batfish’s own radar picked up her target at about 8,000 yards.