As the USS Gudgeon, SS-211 nudged its way out of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii the morning of December 11, 1941, smoke was still curling skyward from the wreckage strewn along “battleship row” and American dead were still being counted. Just three days into World War II for the United States and skipper Lt. Commander Elton W. Grenfell and the crew of the Tambor class submarine Gudgeon were setting course for the Japanese home islands, more than 3700 nautical miles away, with orders to wage “unrestricted warfare” against the Empire of Japan. Only a small handful of people knew that this 307-foot- long undersea craft manned by an all-volunteer crew made up of the youth of the Great Depression was the country’s first offensive action against a cruel enemy in a war destined to last more than four long bloody years. Three-and-a-half months before the Doolittle raiders carried out their token raid on Japan, U.S. submarines Gudgeon, Plunger (SS-179) and Pollack (SS-180) were successfully hunting maritime victims in Japanese home waters.
While U.S. submarines played only a limited role in the Battle for the Atlantic, the opposite was true in the Pacific beginning in those very early days. While great naval surface battles and aerial warfare above would dominate the headlines in the months and years to come, a relatively small force of dedicated men would be fighting a lonely but deadly battle in the “silent service”. Their number would never exceed 1.6% of the U.S. Naval forces engaged, yet they would account for more than 55% of the losses inflicted upon the Merchant and Naval forces of the Empire of Japan while making it possible for the U.S. to take the offensive in the vast Pacific which strategically ought to have been a Japanese- controlled “lake”. In fact six out of every ten enemy merchant ships sent to the bottom would fall prey to American undersea warriors, operating at distances and under conditions unimagined by many of the world’s most brilliant pre-war admirals.
It has always been disappointing to me after a lifetime of study and admiration on a personal level to note how little attention and patriotic pride has been focused on our nation’s WWII submariners and their incredible contribution to victory in the Pacific. With the undeniable help of intelligence provided by “Magic” – the top secret code-breaking operation which made possible the Allied “miracle” at Midway – a handful of American subs with names like Bowfin, Cod, Drum, Ling and Skate were wreaking havoc on Japanese shipping, denying supplies and replacements to an island empire stretching over thousands of square miles of ocean, and causing the enemy to curtail or displace entire manufacturing industries.
(In 1945, not so much as one ounce of sugar reached the Japanese homeland and oil and petroleum products dwindled to a trickle, with artificial gasoline made from potatoes becoming a stark option.)
As aware as I am of the impressive statistics of defeat and victory, it is the image of young Americans living under the most challenging of daily conditions, enduing the trauma of depth-charges and aerial attack and the constant threat of a watery grave just a half-inch of steel skin away that haunts me. I picture the entire crew of Silversides (SS-236), one of the most high-scoring boats of WWII, departing Brisbane harbor, its crew proudly lining the decks, wearing their jaunty “Digger” hats and singing “Waltzing Matilda” as they undertook one more war patrol. On that storied boat it was a young pharmacist mate named Tom Moore, trained to treat colds and boils, who used kitchen cutlery and medicinal whiskey to remove the gangrenous appendix of a shipmate as the skipper kept the submerged sub steady, a thousand miles from any kind of real medical help. His work was good enough that his patient George Platter was back “on shift” six days later.
And I think of the Gudgeon which had gone to war as America’s first “spear-carrier” back in December 1941, and then mysteriously disappeared after the beginning of its 12th war patrol in April, 1944, after accumulating a success score almost without parallel. The proud fighting boat and her 78-man crew were reported “unheard from and assumed lost” a month later; and then virtually forgotten by everyone except the families back home who were left wondering. Not until 2006 would the mystery of its fatal bombing attack off the coast of Iwo Jima be confirmed by author Mike Ostland, the nephew of a Gudgeon crew member, and whose “Uncle Bill” he had never gotten to know in life.
Fifty-two of America’s WWII submarines did not return from their final patrols, and 28% of those who served in the Silent Service were lost – the highest percentage of any combat unit serving in World War II.
The U.S.S. Silversides, SS-236 survived WWII, and is today a museum open to the public at 1346 Bluff St., Muskegon, Michigan. With an amazing war record, she became known as “The Lucky Ship”. There are 15 WWII submarines maintained for the public around the U.S. today.
Photo courtesy U.S. Naval Museum Assoc.