What Were the Top-Secret 'Special Missions' Of U.S. Submarines During World War II?

USS Seawolf (SS-197) - Periscope photograph of a sinking Japanese ship, torpedoed by Seawolf in the Philippines-East Indies area during the fall of 1942. U.S. Navy.

What Were the Top-Secret 'Special Missions' Of U.S. Submarines During World War II?

They undertook over 300 of them.

“Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John”

The voyage was routine, at least until November 10, when, at 10:35 pm, lookouts spotted a Japanese tanker escorted by three warships, range 12,000 yards. Latta decided to attack, waiting until the range dropped to 3,100 yards before firing four torpedoes at the target. All missed.

Less than three hours later two of those escorts spotted the old girl and took off in pursuit, one of them opening fire. Latta screamed for more power. The engine men gave him enough to push the boat through the Bohol Sea at an astonishing 19 knots (she was built to top out at 17). In time, Narwhal pulled ahead. When the ordeal was over, Latta christened the diesels that had saved his boat, “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”

Two days later the sub reached Paluan Bay on the northwest coast of Mindoro, where half the cargo was unloaded along with one of the Army teams.

Narwhal then sailed down to Nasipit in northern Mindanao. While maneuvering into the tiny port, the sub ran aground on a shoal.  Though it took less than an hour to back her free, those were tense moments for the crew in waters alive with Japanese patrols. When the boat finally reached the dock an enthusiastic Filipino band, resplendent in neatly pressed uniforms, struck up a warm welcome with a rousing rendition of “Anchors Aweigh.”

It took just a few hours to get the remaining supplies ashore. That accomplished, 32 evacuees boarded the boat for the trip back to Australia. Chick Parsons stayed behind with the guerrillas.

Narwhal arrived at Darwin on November 22, 1943, did a three-day turnaround, and headed back to the Philippines with another 90 tons of materiel and 11 men. The trip up was uneventful. The supplies were quickly unloaded, seven evacuees and Commander Parsons embarked, and the boat was steaming back toward Australia by December 2. The voyage was not without some excitement. Latta attacked and sank a Japanese freighter.

Recovering the Z Operations Order

Spyron was off to a promising start. Thereafter, resupply missions were run every four or five weeks. The addition of Nautilus in July 1944 doubled the unit’s carrying capacity. It seems President Roosevelt had urged her reassignment after being nudged by Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon, who sought ever greater support for his country’s guerrillas. In August, two smaller boats, Freddie Warder’s old Seawolf and Stingray, were added to the Spyron fleet.

Even while Spyron operated, other boats continued to run special missions into the Philippines, usually diverted from a regular war patrol to effect an emergency evacuation. In March 1944, USS Angler was sent to Panay to pick up 58 civilians who had been stranded there since the beginning of the war. There was some urgency to her assignment. The Japanese had brutally murdered 17 missionaries and their children just before Christmas, and MacArthur wanted to remove the remaining Americans on the island as quickly as possible.

In May, USS Crevalle was diverted to nearby Negros to bring out 40 people, a mixture of missionaries, civilian contractors, and more escaped POWs. But that was not why she was sent there. A month before, the guerrillas had come into possession of a briefcase full of top-secret Japanese Navy papers following the crash of a flying boat carrying a high-ranking officer. When rebels radioed MacArthur that they had these mysterious documents, GHQ hastened to send a submarine to pick them up. Crevalle just happened to be the closest.

Embarking the 40 provided a neat cover story for the real mission In fact, they would have been evacuated by Narwhal or Nautilus within a few weeks. When the papers got back to MacArthur, they were quickly translated and analyzed. The cache turned out to be the Z Operations Order, a strategic battle plan for the defense of the Western Pacific. American forces used the intelligence to their advantage that June in the invasion of Saipan and the Battle of the Philippine Sea.

From Spyron to the Lifeguard League

In early 1945, when most of the Philippines was back under American control, Spyron was dissolved, and any special missions required were once again assigned to operational subs.

When the great offensive across the Central Pacific opened in late 1943, another phase of special missions began. During air strikes against enemy-held islands and atolls, subs were stationed offshore to rescue any pilots that went down. Over the next 18 months, more than half the boats in the submarine force participated in what came to be known as the Lifeguard League. Perhaps the best known incident was USS Finback’s September 1944 rescue of a young Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber pilot, Lieutenant (j.g.) George H.W. Bush. Perhaps the hairiest was USS Harder’s April 1944 extraction of a pilot at remote Woleai Atoll in the eastern Carolines.

The sub, commanded by Lt. Cmdr. Samuel D. Dealey, was assigned lifeguard duty there to cover a bombing raid by carrier-based planes. On April 1, Dealey received a radio message telling him that a fighter pilot was down on the beach. Harder sped to the scene, easy to find because other aircraft were circling overhead.

The skipper conned his boat as close to the reef as he dared. “White water was breaking over the shoals only 20 yds in front of the ship and the fathometer had ceased to record,” he wrote in his patrol report. Harder was literally between a rock and a hard place, so the flyers suggested backing off and trying a different approach. No sooner had the sub begun to maneuver away than the stranded pilot, Ensign John R. Galvin, fell to the ground in profound despair, thinking his saviors were abandoning him. “My heart stood still,” he said.

The new spot did not pan out, so Dealey returned to the first and began in earnest to execute a rescue. He put over a rubber boat that had no paddles and three volunteers. Word came up from the forward torpedo room that the sub’s bottom was scraping the coral. Dealey, worried that Harder might get pushed broadside by the surf, “worked both screws to keep the bow against the reef.” If that was not enough, enemy snipers hiding in the palms along the beach kept up a continuous fire. “Bullets whined over the bridge, uncomfortably close,” the skipper noted.

The volunteers had a 1,200-yard swim to the beach. It took them half an hour to reach Galvin, who had by then climbed into his own raft and was being pushed by the currents away from his rescuers. Finally, they got the pilot into their boat. Sailors on the sub began to haul in the line to the raft, but an over-exuberant, would-be rescuer in a Curtiss floatplane managed to sever it while taxiing toward Galvin. Another Harder crewman had to swim out with a second line, and slowly the raft was pulled alongside the sub.

Despite the mishaps, the entire rescue took just an hour and 19 minutes. But to all involved, it must have seemed an eternity.

The Hellcats

Throughout the final months of the war, fleet submarines continued to conduct special operations. Many involved landing intelligence teams throughout Southeast Asia. But in April 1945, Tigrone and Rock teamed for an unusual mission to use their five-inch guns to knock out an enemy radio station on Batan Island in the Luzon Strait.

Also that spring a group of boats conducted a series of special missions as guinea pigs for a new kind of Frequency Modulated (FM) sonar designed to detect underwater mines. It was not a particularly popular assignment. In June 1945, a group of nine FM-equipped submarines dubbed the Hellcats successfully penetrated the minefields guarding the southern entrance to the Sea of Japan. In 15 days they managed to sink 28 enemy ships at the cost of one of their own, USS Bonefish.

The final official submarine special mission was run by USS Catfish. On August 15, 1945, the boat began an FM sonar sweep for mines off the coast of Kyushu. None were detected, but after surfacing at the end of the day, the ship’s radioman picked up a flash. “Received War News and heard war was over,” the skipper wrote in his report. “News was received in ‘proper’ manner by all hands. Now the topic is ‘When can I go home?’”

Stunning Successes of Spyron and the Lifeguard League

When the record of the submarine force was compiled after the war, the results were impressive. The boats had accounted for 55 percent of all Japanese maritime losses. And the record for special missions was equally impressive. In fact, 15 percent of all patrols were either wholly special operations or had a special operations component.

Chick Parsons’s Spyron unit delivered 1,325 tons of supplies and 331 personnel and evacuated 472, most of them civilians, many of these women and children. Parsons himself made eight round trips to the Philippines. A 1948 SWPA assessment of Spyron said, “The practical importance of this efficient supply service by cargo submarine can scarcely be overestimated. It became the ‘life-line’ of the guerrilla resistance movement.” Narwhal was withdrawn from service in January 1945, having made nine cargo runs. Nautilus was sent home in April with six under her belt. Spyron had one tragic loss. Seawolf went down with all hands during an October 1944 mission, very likely sunk by an American warship.