Still on Patrol

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them – ding-dong, bell.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE WROTE these poetic words in The Tempest (Act I, Scene II). The context is that Prospero has ordered Ariel, the “airy Spirit,” to lead the shipwrecked Ferdinand to him. Ariel, invisible to Ferdinand, does this by singing a song to gain Ferdinand’s attention and thus guide him by the sound of her voice. The stanza has great meaning to Ferdinand, whose father is drowned.

Perhaps You Read the Recent News Accounts?

Perhaps you read the recent news accounts of the discovery of a U.S. Navy submarine that was lost during World War II in the Gulf of Thailand. In May 2005 a British diver named Jamie MacLeod found what he believed was the wreckage of a sunken submarine in the waters about 100 miles off the east coast of Thailand, or about halfway between the coast lines of Thailand and Cambodia. MacLeod reported the finding to the U.S. Navy, which in turn sent an expedition to investigate the site.

Navy divers spent several days surveying the wreckage, and determined that the sunken vessel is the lost submarine USS Lagarto (SS 371). The best evidence is that a ship of the Imperial Japanese Navy, the minelayer Hatsutaka, sank Lagarto on May 3, 1945. All of the 86-man crew of Lagarto were lost.

The Telegrams Arrived, “We Regret To Inform You”

In late June 1945 the Department of the Navy sent telegrams to families across the country. “We regret to inform you that your husband is missing in action,” said many of the notes. Others referred to a “son” or “brother.” In at least one documented case the bearer of the telegram saw that a woman was home alone, and he pretended that he had the wrong address and took the note to the home of a neighbor. But during that era, people knew what was going on. It was unusual to receive a telegram, and even more unusual when a brown staff car pulled up in front of a home. Yes, people knew.

The Navy officially listed submarine Lagarto as missing on May 24, 1945, after the vessel failed to make a routine report to higher command. For reasons of wartime security, the loss of a fleet submarine could not be confirmed. Thus the telegrams from the Navy Department respectfully asked the family members to avoid publicly discussing the fact that their next-of-kin, or the submarine Lagarto, was missing. The Navy promised to send more information when it became available.

On September 1, 1945 Lagarto was stricken from the Naval Register. In May 1946 the Navy sent out more letters detailing what little was known about the missing submarine’s last mission. The letters said, in essence, that the submarine was presumed lost, with all onboard killed in action. Due to the indeterminate nature of the loss, the official date of death of the 86 crew members was listed as May 25, 1946. This had the not unintended effect of granting full pay and allowances to the family members of the deceased for more than a year after death.

No Submarine Is Ever Lost

There is a tradition in the U.S. Navy that no submarine is ever lost. Those that go to sea and do not return are considered to be “still on patrol.”

But at the same time, the Navy is not overly romantic when it comes to losing its ships. The Navy is a practical institution that wants answers to questions, and for those ships that do not return the questions are many. The search goes on, and for as long as it takes. Here is what we know.

USS Lagarto was constructed in 1944 in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Lagarto was what is referred to as a “Balao Class” of vessel (see the P.S. at the end of this article for more information on the Balao Class.) She was named after the lagarto, a lizard fish. Lagarto was launched on May 28, 1944 and commissioned on October 14 of that year. In the fall of 1944 the newly built submarine, and its fresh crew, journeyed down the Mississippi River in a floating drydock. In November 1944 the vessel was eventually launched into the Gulf of Mexico and began its sea trials. Soon Lagarto sailed to Panama, transited the Panama Canal, and sailed to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. From Pearl Harbor, Lagarto was sent to the South China Sea.

According to the official records of Commander Submarine Forces Pacific, submarine Lagarto’s first war patrol was in the Nansei Shoto island chain, as part of an anti-picket-boat sweep made by U.S. submarines to aid Admiral Halsey’s Task Force 38 when it moved carrier-based aircraft to within range of Japan undetected. In the course of her duties, Lagarto sank the Japanese submarine RO-49 on February 24, 1945.

Lagarto returned to Subic Bay, Philippine Islands, refueled and rearmed, and departed on April 12, 1945 for her second war patrol in the South China Sea. On April 27 Lagarto was directed to the outer part of the Gulf of Siam.

Lagarto joined forces with USS Baya (SS 318), another of the Balao-Class of vessels, already patrolling in Siam Gulf on May 2, 1945, exchanging signals via radar. Later that day Baya ordered Lagarto to investigate a contact report of a Japanese convoy consisting of one tanker, one auxiliary vessel and two destroyers. Lagarto soon reported locating the convoy, and began the process of coordinating an attack with Baya. However the Japanese escorts were equipped with their own version of primitive radar. They detected Baya and drove her off with gunfire, whereupon the two U.S. submarines decided to withdraw, wait and plan a subsequent attack.

She Went Down Fighting

Early on the morning of May 3, 1945, Lagarto and Baya joined again and coordinated their plans. Lagarto was tasked to dive beneath the convoy’s presumed track and wait for the Japanese ships to pass over. Baya would be about 12 miles further along the track. Lagarto would determine its best firing solutions, and attack the Japanese ships with torpedoes. When the Japanese ships moved to escape, they would run into the waiting Baya.

During the day on May 3, 1945, Japanese records document an engagement between a U.S. submarine and the minelayer Hatsutaka, a vessel equipped with a surface search radar. By the night of May 3 to May 4, there were numerous contact reports that included the sounds of underwater explosions. In the middle of the night of May 4, after a prolonged but unsuccessful attack, the alert and very combative Japanese escort ships drove off Baya. There was no further contact with Lagarto, “a silence that is still unbroken” as the Baya ship’s history states.

Japanese records state that minelayer Hatsutaka dropped depth charges on a submerged contact in about 30 fathoms of water (about 180 feet, a relatively shallow depth that would have made it very difficult for Lagarto to maneuver). In view of the historical information, coupled with the physical evidence of the now-located submarine, the engagement on May 3, 1945 must be presumed to be the one that sank Lagarto.

Lagarto’s wreck lies beneath about 225 feet of water in the Gulf of Thailand. The lost ship is mostly intact, and is sitting upright on the ocean floor. During the investigation conducted by the U.S. Navy, the divers noted a large rupture on the port bow, indicating a depth charge blast as the cause of the sinking. The divers also noted that one of the torpedo tube doors is open, with an empty chamber behind it. This suggests that Lagarto fired off a torpedo shortly before being sunk. She went down fighting.

The Strategy and Calculus of War

The Japanese strategists planned for a quick war against the United States. A quick war was, in reality, all that the Japanese economy and military could afford to wage. The lightning strike at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 was intended, from the Japanese perspective, to inflict a great harm upon the American Navy, and convince the American political leadership that it should settle for peace on terms relatively favorable to Japanese expansionism in Asia.

The operational model for the attack on Pearl Harbor was the Japanese assault in 1904 on the Russian fleet at anchor at Port Arthur. The strategic model of suing for peace while holding military advantage was the set of events during the late part of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) that led to the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905. Thus was the leadership of Japan living in a world in which they were, as the saying goes, “fighting the last war.”

Japan went to war against the U.S. not simply to battle gratuitously against powerful U.S. arms, let alone to conquer or occupy U.S. territory. The key policy and strategic goal of Japan was to gain access to the petroleum and other rich resources of Southeast Asia, to include the resources of the Philippine Islands (then a U.S. colony, but to which the U.S. had planned to grant independence). The Japanese feared interference with their expansionism from the U.S., and therefore believed that it was necessary to disrupt any ability of U.S. forces to interfere with Japanese plans.

The element of surprise in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was supposed to make their strategy an overwhelming success. And it nearly was, except for the U.S. perception of Japanese treachery in the Japanese attacking without any formal declaration of war being given. The failure to deliver a single slip of paper from the Japanese Embassy to the U.S. Department of State on the first Sunday in December 1941 directly led to an overt U.S. policy of “total war” against a distant land.

The surface forces of the U.S. Pacific Fleet were all but crippled at Pearl Harbor. And then, immediately, the Japanese Navy began to implement their operational plan, moving troops to Southeast Asia and sweeping widely in support of their army. The Philippines, Malaya and Indonesia were immediately engulfed and Australia was threatened.

In order to implement this operational plan, Japan required a strong merchant marine to carry the logistics of warfighting in faraway places. Japan’s merchant ships were necessary to haul oil, iron ore, coal, bauxite, rubber, and food to the homeland. The Japanese merchant fleet was also required to lift and carry to distant ports the arms, munitions and soldiers in those days before large air transport planes. Thus maritime logistics were critical to the Japanese operational plan to conquer vast territory.

After Pearl Harbor, America’s surface forces were centered on the protection and use of a few remaining aircraft carriers. These then-novel ships, for all their hard work and the extreme bravery of the fighting crews, were hard pressed to carry the war to the Japanese.

But when the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor they focused their bombs mainly at the battleships, completely neglecting the United States Submarine Base. Ironically, by failing to nullify the U.S. submarine assets, or to destroy the U.S. repair and servicing capabilities for submarines, the Japanese sealed their own defeat. In the end it was the U.S. submarine effort, with operational orders to commence unrestricted submarine warfare, that strangled Japan into submission.

A Handful of Submarine Sailors

During the war with Japan a handful of U.S. submarine sailors, comprising less than 2% of the U.S. Navy’s entire personnel, sailed on over 1,600 war patrols. These sailors single-handedly accounted for the sinking of more than 1,150 Japanese merchant ships as well as a significant portion of the ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy. These latter combat victories by the U.S. submarine fleet included sinking eight Japanese aircraft carriers, one battleship, three heavy cruisers, and eight light cruisers. And looking at Japanese combat losses in another perspective, it was the threat of lurking U.S. submarines that drove many a Japanese ship into the bombsights of U.S. aircraft.

Japan began the war with 6,000,000 tons of cargo ships. Of this total, U.S. submarines are credited with the sinking 214 Japanese naval vessels, or nearly a third of all Japanese warship losses, and a staggering 1,178 Japanese merchant ships. This latter number constitutes over half of Japan’s then-total merchant shipping fleet, for a total sinking of 5,631,117 tons. Arguably, the submarine war against Japanese shipping and operational logistics was the most decisive single factor in the collapse of the Japanese economy, and led directly to the inability of Japan to support its far-projected military power.

Remembering the Price of Battle

U.S. success in submarine operations did not come without a high price. During the war with Japan 52 American submarines, carrying 375 officers and 3,131 enlisted men, were lost out of the total 16,000 sailors who actually made war patrols. These figures represent a casualty rate of almost 22%, statistically the highest loss for any branch of the U.S. military. Far away, behind enemy lines, and often as not beneath hundreds of feet of seawater, submarine sailors paid their way across the River Styx with those at home having to note grimly that a vessel was “overdue and presumed lost.”

And now we know the fate of USS Logarto, lost in battle. Now she is found, and still on patrol. The questions of old are now answered. In U.S. Navy tradition, the sunken submarine will not be raised or the bodies disturbed. The U.S. Navy considers the sea to be a fit and proper final resting-place for those entombed within their iron coffin. And none are lost as long as they are remembered. Full fathom five, and toll the bells.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
July 4, 2006

P.S.: The Balao Class of submarine was about 312 feet in length overall; had an extreme beam of 27’3″; had a standard displacement on the surface of 1,526 tons, and, when in diving trim, had a mean draft of 16’10”. Submerged displacement was 2,424 tons. The designed compliment was 6 officers and 60 enlisted men. Safe maximum operating depth was 400 feet, although many ships of this class tested and operated during wartime at deeper depths. Armament consisted of six bow and four stern 21-inch torpedo tubes, with 24 torpedoes in the standard loadout. The ship carried one 5-inch/25 caliber dual-purpose deck gun; one 40-mm antiaircraft gun, one 20-mm antiaircraft gun, and two .50-caliber machine guns. The ship carried 118,000 gallons of diesel fuel to burn in the four General Motors 1,600 horsepower, main propulsion engines. There was one auxiliary engine which generated electricity to power General Electric main propulsion motors that could develop 2,740 shaft horsepower. The ship’s propulsion plant could propel the submarine on the surface at slightly over 20 knots. The engines could also charge the Exide 252-cell main storage battery system that provided the power for submerged propulsion at a maximum speed of just under 9 knots.

P.P.S.: If you live in or visit Southern California, it is worth a trip to see the National Submarine Memorial — West, located near the main entrance to the U.S. Naval Weapons Station at Seal Beach.

Directions: Travelers coming north from the San Diego area proceed north on I-5 to the I-405, continuing north on the I-405 until you pass the Garden Grove Freeway SR-22, exiting on Los Alamitos Avenue / Seal Beach Boulevard off ramp. Turn left (south) at the top of the ramp toward Seal Beach. Continue on Seal Beach Boulevard past Westminster Avenue and you will see the NAVWEPSTA on your left. The Main Gate Entrance is on the left side and is the only left turn on that whole stretch of Seal Beach Boulevard after crossing Westminster Avenue.

Travelers coming from Los Angeles should take I-405 south, just past the I-605; or I-605 to the I-405 south; exiting on the Los Alamitos Avenue / Seal Beach Boulevard off ramp. Turn left (south) at the top of the ramp toward Seal Beach. Continue on Seal Beach Boulevard past Westminster Avenue and you will see the NAVWEPSTA on your left. The Main Gate Entrance is on the left side and is the only left turn on that whole stretch of Seal Beach Boulevard after crossing Westminster Avenue.