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.

RO-112 was on the Surface Again, Working Her Radar but Obviously Seeing Nothing on it. Her Blindness Would be Fatal.

On the conning tower, Batfish’s officers and lookouts strained to pierce the darkness ahead through their binoculars … and there she was, some 1,800 yards away, moving at only about seven knots but zigzagging. Fyfe went to battle stations and Batfish closed to 1,200 yards. At that range the American lookouts were sure. They were stalking a Japanese submarine, apparently somewhat smaller than their last victim.

It was RO-112, outbound from Formosa. Fyfe again had perfect weather for his attack, an overcast, moonless night, and he began his approach on the surface with rain squalls behind him, shielding his boat from the Japanese lookouts.

Before Fyfe could make his range and speed calculations and shoot, his quarry disappeared. He could not tell whether she had seen him on her radar or made visual contact, or whether she was simply making a routine dive. Either way, his disappointment was intense, and Fyfe wrote in his log that he blamed himself. “Signal on APR went off and target dove. Changed course to left and speeded up, in the meantime trying to reconcile myself to the fact that I had lost this one by trying to wait for the theoretically perfect set up.”

Then, only half an hour later, Batfish’s sonar equipment picked up the characteristic sounds of a submarine blowing its ballast tanks, the Japanese radar resumed operating, and RO-112 was on the surface again, working her radar but obviously seeing nothing on it. Her blindness would be fatal. This time Fyfe dove to radar depth at about 6,000 yards and was able to close the range to less than 900 yards. From that distance, at about 10 pm, he fired a spread of four torpedoes.

The blackness of the night erupted in a garish yellow fireball, and RO-112 was finished. As she began to sink, two more torpedoes exploded, detonated either by fragments of her hull or by the water turbulence caused by the first torpedo. Her death was spectacular, maybe a byproduct of a cargo of ammunition, for she was headed for the Philippines, where ammo was in short supply. As Fyfe wrote, “The target literally blew apart and sank almost immediately.”

Two more heavy explosions followed as RO-112 went down, capped by a third colossal blast and the sounds of escaping air and structural collapse. The Japanese boat was gone, and Batfish’s sonar men listened to the secondary explosions as she went down, and to the ghastly death rattle of a sinking vessel breaking up as she drifted into the terrible pressures of the great deep. Batfish could find no trace of her enemy left on the surface of the dark water, only a monstrous oil slick.

Two in a row. No American boat would surpass that record throughout the war, and only one other boat, USS Tautog, would even equal it. But only one night later, early on the morning of February 13, Batfish would break her own new record in spectacular fashion. Before another night was out, she would have a crack at still another submarine of the Imperial Navy.

The next night the faithful APR again warned the skipper and crew of Batfish. This time it was a little past midnight when the apparatus picked up hostile radar emissions far out in the night, almost 11,000 yards away. Although she could not pick up her enemy with her own surface radar, Batfish circled slowly, zeroing in on the Japanese signals with her own anti-air radar. Fyfe got a bearing on the Japanese transmission and followed it through the darkness.

And then, at about 2:15, Fyfe’s own radar picked up the target. This time it was RO-113, another of the Formosa boats, again bound for the Philippines to deliver supplies and ammunition and rescue critical Japanese personnel. Fyfe began his stalk.

As Batfish closed to about 7,000 yards, but before Fyfe could set up to shoot, the target dived as her sister had done during his last attack. Fyfe moved his boat to a position flanking the track of the Japanese submarine, ready to attack if she reappeared. Tension ran high in Batfish, for the crew knew that if the Japanese boat had spotted them she would have a good shot at the American hunter.

But then, more than an hour later, the quarry surfaced again some 9,600 yards away; this time Fyfe had time to close, compute, and fire. With only two torpedoes left forward, he swung his boat to bring the aft tubes to bear. Batfish’s crew had their hands full stabilizing the boat’s depth and bearing against a tidal rip, but Fyfe managed to fire three torpedoes from about 1,500 yards.

“I Knew Our Torpedo had Hit at Almost the Same Instant as the Lookouts Did.”

The first torpedo struck home, and his quarry disintegrated, blowing apart and slashing the night with a “large yellow ball of fire,” probably the result of a cargo of ammunition for the battered Japanese forces in the Philippines. The Japanese submarine was gone in 10 seconds, its image on the radar screen torn into “a wide diffusion of pips as the vessel went to pieces.” On the radio equipment, Callanan had been listening to the Japanese radar man “keying” his set, listening to the signal rising, then fading away. Callanan heard the Japanese apparatus quit abruptly, as if it had been cut off, and shouted, “We got him!”

“I knew our torpedo had hit,” he told this author, “at almost the same instant as the lookouts did.” Batfish closed in to the scene of the sinking and used her spotlight to look for survivors, without success. This time Captain Fyfe stayed in the area until daylight, hoping to recover something useful from his sunken foe. In the midst of a large oil slick, the crew recovered books and papers and a small wooden box about 14 inches square and about eight inches deep, a box that held Japanese navigation equipment, including navigation tables and a battery. From the contents of the box, Captain Fyfe learned something about his late opponent. “From the positions listed in the work book, it looks like this guy went from Nagoya to Formosa before he headed down to Luzon to join his ancestors.”

Batfish’s sixth war patrol had been spectacularly successful and would earn her crew the Presidential Unit Citation for “extraordinary heroism in action against enemy Japanese combatant forces.” Sometimes medal citations can err on the side of hyperbole, but in this case the Navy’s recognition of the crew’s “courage, superb seamanship and gallant fighting spirit” was right on the money. At the time of that sixth patrol, there were no more than four Japanese submarines in the waters around the Philippines. Batfish had sent three of them to the bottom.

No compliment rings truer or means more than a tribute from an enemy. The Japanese submarine force recognized courage and efficiency when they saw it. “American submarine crews were very well trained, skillful, and brave,” says Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Miwa, who commanded the Japanese undersea fleet. “We did not expect such skillfulness.”

Batfish had survived dozens of Japanese depth charges, hostile bombs and friendly ones, and the guns of a Q-ship. She had overcome grounding on a volcanic crest 240 feet below the surface when her chart said she had 400 feet of water beneath her keel. Now it was time for quieter days and nights, for rest. Her war over, Batfish was decommissioned in April 1946 and retired to the mothball fleet at Mare Island Navy Yard in California.

But then, with the increasing pressures of the Cold War, Batfish was sent back into harness, recommissioned in the spring of 1952. She served thereafter as a training boat, until she was finally decommissioned in November 1969. In February 1972, she moved to her final resting place in the warm sun of Oklahoma. Her old crewmen visit and remember other, perilous days. “After you’ve served in submarines,” said Tex Davis, “you’re not afraid of anything anymore.”

Batfish had retired from the sea, but she left a hardy heir. Attack submarine USS Batfish won herself well-deserved fame as the boat that shadowed a big Soviet Yankee-class missile submarine for almost 9,000 miles through all kinds of sea conditions. She surfaced for the first time 77 days later, still undetected by her quarry.

Altogether, American submarines sank 25 enemy boats in the Pacific, including two German U-boats. For a single submarine to sink three of the enemy is extraordinary and speaks volumes for the efficiency and drive of Batfish’s captain and crew. It is easy to attribute successes like these to luck, but it is also well to remember that Jake Fyfe and his crew not only managed to find three enemy boats, but efficiently stalked and killed all of them.
You cannot argue with three for three.

Robert Barr Smith is a retired U.S. Army colonel and serves as associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Oklahoma Law Center in Norman.