Warship Wednesday December 17, 2014, the Catfish of the Falklands
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, December 17, 2014, the Catfish of the Falklands
Here we see the Balao-class submarine USS Catfish (SS-339) “swim” at Portland, Oregon, 27 October 1946. In this picture, she submerged in the Willamette River to permit the flowers placed on her deck in honor of the naval dead to float to sea with the outgoing tide. These 311-feet long fleet boats could float in as little as 15-feet of water, swim as above with her decks awash in just over 25 feet, and completely submerge in 50.
(*Note the USS Blueback SS-581, the last U.S. diesel sub to be decommissioned has since 1994 been a museum ship near where this very picture was taken.)
Back to the Catfish
As part of the huge U.S. submarine build-up in World War II, Catfish was a member of the immense 120-ship Balao-class, the largest class of submarines in the United States Navy. US subs, unlike those of many navies of the day, were ‘fleet’ boats, capable of unsupported operations in deep water far from home. Able to range 11,000 nautical miles on their reliable diesel engines, they could undertake 75-day patrols that could span the immensity of the Pacific. Carrying 24 (often unreliable) Mk14 Torpedoes, these subs often sank anything short of a 5000-ton Maru or warship by surfacing and using their deck guns. The also served as the firetrucks of the fleet, rescuing downed naval aviators from right under the noses of Japanese warships.
Laid down 6 Jan 1944 at Electric Boat Company in Groton, Catfish (SS-339) was commissioned 19 March 1945 with less than six months left in the war. By the time she was accepted and transited to the Pacific, she only appeared in Japanese controlled waters in August 1945, just days before the cease-fire. By the end of September, she was back on the West Coast, based out of San Diego with one battle star for her very quiet World War II service.
In 1948-49, she was given a ten-month long extensive modernization to upgrade her to a more Atomic-era GUPPY II profile. This involved streamlining her hull, having a new sail installed, removing her topside armament, and giving her sensors an update. Her auxiliary engines were removed, her batteries doubled, and a snorkel fitted.
June 1950 found her on a routine West Pac cruise when the Korean conflict broke out and, along with USS Pickerel, was the first submarines to make war patrols under a UN flag. Like her WWII service, Korea proved a quiet war for the Catfish, making two combat patrols in the area keeping a sharp eye out for encroaching Chinese and Soviet ships.
In January of 1951, the recently GUPPY’d Catfish slipped into San Francisco Bay underwater and remained in the harbor for three days taking photos of the Bay Area through their periscope in daylight as part of an authorized mission to see if they could do it with a minimum of civilian reaction. The mission was successful to a degree, as no one called SFPD or the military, as reported by the San Fran Chronicle.
Over the next two decades, she made regular cruises and by 1968 had conducted her 6,000th dive. She was used both as a fleet boat and as a training platform for Naval Reserve bubbleheads. Notably, she was one of the few submarines that were given the chance to sink a warship in peacetime when she sent the retired Barnegat-class seaplane tender ex-USS Suisan (AVP-53) to the bottom in an October 1966 Sinkex just after her last refit. At the time, she had augmented her WWII-era MK 14 fish with more modern Mk 37 ASW torpedoes against submarines.
Fresh off her sinking she made an appearance in a third U.S. war, spending time in Vietnam waters from Jan-Oct 1967 and again from March-Sept 1970. She engaged in lifeguard duty for aircrews lost at sea, as well as hung close (within 100 yards, close enough to catch mortar rounds according to VA records,) to shore for reasons likely still classified.
Speaking of classified, Catfish had already been there unofficially in 1962, laying off Dong Hoi, North Vietnam keeping tabs on that country’s navy in Operation Wise Tiger, quietly transmitting intelligence information that would, in turn, be used by the CIA to run a group of Nasty boats and armed sampans in black ops all along the coast.
By 1971, the aging 27-year old smoke boat had seen better days and the U.S. Navy was increasingly all-nuclear when it came to submarines.
Under new management
However she still had some life left in her and on 1 July 1971, the same day she was decommissioned and struck from the Naval List, officers and men of the Argentine Navy took possession of their newest submarine through the Military Assistance Program, which they promptly renamed the ARA Santa Fe (S-21).
The Argentines also took possession of Catfish‘s sistership, USS Chivo SS 341, whom they renamed ARA Santiago Del Estero (S-22). Already extensively worn out, the two ships sailed for Argentine waters for another decade of service without the benefit of a refit. During that time, they extensively prowled the areas around the Islas Malvinas (otherwise known as the Falklands), which Argentina had an increasingly militant claim towards.
By 1981, sistership Chivo/Santiago Del Estero was laid up with bad batteries and was increasingly cannibalized to keep the Catfish/Santa Fe afloat as two new German-designed diesel attack boats were to replace the pair within a year or two. In fact, Santa Fe was scheduled to be decommissioned in August 1982, but history had a funny story to tell before that could happen.
In the first part of 1982, the Argentine military junta decided that it would be an easy walk over to quickly occupy the Falkland Islands from an ailing British military machine. The colony only had a garrison of 40 Royal Marines and its guardship, a supped up supply boat with a red hull by the name of Endurance, was slated for retirement. The Brits had little power-projection capability, having scrapped their full-size aircraft carrier just years before, and was planning to sell even their tiny new Harrier carrier, HMS Invincible, to Australia. Further, the Brits were 8,000 miles away while the Argentines just 400.
With that, a military expedition was launched in which a small Argentine force set up shop on remote (and unoccupied) South Georgia Island, a frozen extension of the Falklands, and, when the Endurance and a small Marine detachment sailed for Hoth, a much larger Argentine task force seized the Falklands.
On the early morning hours of April 2, 1982, Santa Fe, by nature of her shallow draft for a large submarine, helped to land some 120 Buzos Tácticos, an elite force of Argentine naval commandos, just outside Port Stanley. These commandos assaulted the (empty) Royal Marine barracks at Moody Brook and took prisoner after a short series of lop-sided skirmishes, the Royal Marines in Port Stanley.
After this, Santa Fe headed to South Georgia Island to reinforce the Argentine garrison there after HMS Endurance had left the area. Lt.Cmdr Horatico Bicain, commander of the submarine, which had last seen a dry-dock in the 1960s and had been advised his Mk14 torpedoes were so deteriorated that they were more dangerous to his submarine than to a British ship, was ordered to lay low and keep out of the way.
However, the Brits would be back just three weeks later and in force. In the opening moves of recapturing the Falklands, the Royal Navy took South Georgia, where Santa Fe was hold up with a small Argentine garrison, first.
From Lieutenant Chris Parry, Flight Observer of a Westland Wessex helicopter (XP142 #406- “Humphrey”) from the destroyer HMS Antrim off South Georgia on Sunday, April 25, 1982:
It’s a submarine,’ said our pilot, Lieutenant Commander Ian Stanley. ‘You’re joking,’ I said.
I quickly worked out the ballistic calculations for the movement of the submarine. He was heading 310 degrees northwest at eight knots. Talk about making it easy for us: we could just fly along the submarine’s track – and, when we were above, release. I fused both the depth charges.
Ian then spoiled it for everyone: ‘Are you sure that it is not one of ours? It could be Conqueror (one of our nuclear-powered subs).’
I was craning my neck and head trying to see. Frustrated, I asked, ‘Has he got a flat casing and a tapering flat fin?’
‘It’s the Argie, no doubt about it,’ came the reassuring call from Stewart in the left-hand seat. ‘OK,’ said Ian, ‘are you sure that we have the RoE [Rules of Engagement]?’
‘Of course,’ I replied, reflecting the briefing of the previous night. ‘He’s fair game.’
What a moment. It is every Observer’s dream to have a real live submarine caught in the trap with two depth charges ready to go! I thought about the men we might be about to kill, but Ian started calling down the range.
As Ian called: ‘On top, now, now, now,’ I saw the fin of a submarine pass under the aircraft through the gap around the sonar housing and I released both charges.
Ian flipped the cab around violently to starboard to see the results. As we turned, the whole of the aft section of the submarine disappeared and two large explosions detonated either side of it. Plumes of water shot up.
It looked as if she was in the process of diving when we struck her, but the explosions lifted her aft end up and out of the water. She then began careering violently as I reported back to Antrim.
Simultaneously, I asked Plymouth to launch her Wasp helicopter armed with AS-12 missiles, since the submarine still posed a threat.
The low cloud was lifting, as if a curtain was being raised on a stage, to reveal a stunning backdrop of peaks and glaciers. Antrim and the frigates Brilliant and Plymouth were closing at high speed from the northeast.
Plymouth’s Wasp fired an AS-12, which hit the submarine aft on the casing, causing a number of plates to fly off. The submarine was also attacked by Wasps from Endurance. We returned to Antrim, refueled, and relaunched with one depth charge to witness the final stages of the submarine flopping alongside the British Antarctic Survey jetty and the Grytviken whaling settlement on South Georgia. It was obvious that the submarine was no longer a threat and her ship’s company was streaming ashore. So we returned to Antrim and everyone was in a high state of excitement. It was all Boy’s Own Annual stuff!
In all, the hardy little diesel smoke boat was subjected to a combined attack from six (6) Royal Navy helicopters: one Westland Wessex, one Westland Lynx (from HMS Brilliant), and four Westland Wasps.
These aircraft attacked the sub with machine guns, two depth charges (that did the most damage), one MK-46 torpedo, and eight AS-12 missiles, several of which peppered the topside of the Sante Fe, including breaching her sail, thus making it impossible to submerge.
Amazingly, with her sailors firing back at the slow British helicopters with small arms from her frozen decks, the crippled boat made it back to Grytviken harbor on South Georgia and landed her 76-man crew without a loss while setting booby traps on board the abandoned sub. They surrendered along with the rest of the Argentine garrison later that night.
The Brits, afraid the battered hulk would sink at the only dock on the island, the next day allowed some of her crew, under guard, to board her and move the sub to a more isolated shallow area at the old whaling jetty where she could settle on the bottom in peace. Tragically, when Argentine Navy Machinist First Class Felix Oscar Artuso moved too fast for the likes of a Royal Marine commando on board, he was shot and became the Catfish/Santa Fe‘s only wartime fatality in four conflicts over 38 years of service.
LCPL Jeremy “Rocky” Rowe, the then-23-year-old Royal Marine who shot Artuso, later had to sell his South Atlantic Medal and General Service Medal at auction after spending his savings while he recovered from cancer.
In 2019, Mr. Rowe, 60, said:
‘The shooting was a split second decision to stop him from throwing levers at the forward end of the control after receiving a phone call from the fin end holding his captain.
‘What was gong through my mind was a precarious position with many possibilities that could go wrong, i.e prisoners could pick up a weapon, fire a torpedo, it was listing and smoke coming out of it.
“It was claustraphobic and many things were happening.I had a Browning automatic pistol and warned him to touch nothing in the room clearly.I had received instructions from a naval officer about the levers which would sink the sub, which had open hatches. Artuso leapt for them so I shot him. Sometime after I was told our officer had the levers the wrong way round.”
Her crew removed, the old girl technically became a British war prize but was dead in the water, full of moody munitions and old batteries.
They towed her to a more out of the way location in June 1982 after the Falklands conflict ended and then in Operation Okehampton she was raised by the Brits, and in Feb 1985 towed “about 12 miles out from the mouth of Cumberland Bay, she lurched to starboard and started taking on water. The tow line broke and she sank to a depth of about 1176 feet… and lies there today.”
The grave of Felix Artuso, ARA, is on Grytviken where he was buried with full military honors and is maintained by the British government.
There is a USS Catfish Association that keeps her memory alive in the U.S. while in Argentina several Malvinas groups treasure the memory of that country’s lost submersible.
Eight Balao‘s are preserved in the country, making them the most popular submarine museum ship class.
–USS Batfish (SS-310) at War Memorial Park in Muskogee, Oklahoma
–USS Becuna (SS-319) at Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
–USS Bowfin (SS-287) at USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park in Honolulu, Hawaii
–USS Clamagore (SS-343) at Patriot’s Point in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina
–USS Ling (SS-297) at New Jersey Naval Museum in Hackensack, New Jersey
–USS Lionfish (SS-298) at Battleship Cove in Fall River, Massachusetts
–USS Pampanito (SS-383) at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park
–USS Razorback (SS-394) at Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum in North Little Rock,
Further, when in the UK, you can pay Humphrey a visit when at the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Museum where he is preserved and has quite the war record on her fuselage.
Humphrey’s observer, Chris Parry, retired in 2008 as a Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy and is unlikely to forget the Catfish of the Falklands any time soon.
(Sources: Histarmar.com.ar, elsnorkel.com.ar, DANFS, Navsource, USS Catfish Assoc homepage, and Revista Defensa)
Displacement, Surfaced: 1,526 t., Submerged 2,242 t.
Length 311′ 9″
Beam 27′ 3″
Draft 15′ 3″
Speed, Surfaced 20.25 kts, Submerged 8.75 kts
Cruising Range, 11,000 miles surfaced at 10kts
Submerged Endurance, 48 hours at 2kts; Patrol Endurance 75 days.
Operating Depth, 400 ft.
Complement 6 Officers, 60 Enlisted (WWII) 75 Post-Guppy
Propulsion, diesel-electric reduction gear with four main generator engines, General Motors diesel engines, HP 5400, Fuel Capacity 118,000, four General Electric motors, HP 2,740, two 126-cell main storage batteries, two propellers. (As commissioned)
Post Guppy: three GM 16-278A diesel, 2 direct drive motors of 2700 HP each, 504-cell battery bank.
Armament (fish) ten 21″ torpedo tubes, six forward, four aft, 24 torpedoes,
Guns: One 5″/25 deck gun, one 40mm gun, one 20mm gun, two .50 cal. machine guns; (All removed in Guppy conversion)
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