Warship Wednesday, May 3, 2017: The battleship slaying avenger of the Pacific

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 their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, May 3, 2017: The battleship slaying avenger of the Pacific

Here we see the Balao-class fleet submarine USS Sealion (SS/SSP/APSS/LPSS-315) later in the WWII flying her victory pennants, she was to earn them the hard way.

A member of the 128-ship Balao class, she was one of the most mature U.S. Navy diesel designs of the World War Two era, constructed with knowledge gained from the earlier Gato-class. U.S. 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 4-inch/50 caliber and 40mm/20mm AAA’s. The also served as the firetrucks of the fleet, rescuing downed naval aviators from right under the noses of Japanese warships.

We have covered a number of this class before, such as carrier-sinking USS Archerfish, the long-serving USS Catfish, the rocket mail firing USS Barbero, and the frogman Cadillac USS Perch, but don’t complain, they have lots of great stories.

Laid down on 25 February 1943 by the Electric Boat Co., Groton, Conn, Sealion was the second submarine to carry that name.

The first, SS-195, was also built by Electric Boat in 1939 and was part of SubDiv 202 at Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines when the war started. She took two direct hits in the Japanese air raid which demolished the navy yard and sank on 10 December. Four of her crew– Chief Electrician’s Mate Sterling Foster, Chief Electrician’s Mate Melvin O’Connell, Machinist’s Mate First Class Ernest Ogilvie, and Electrician’s Mate Third Class Vallentyne Paul—were killed in the attack. Her surviving crew scuttled what was left on Christmas day.

(SS-195) Ship’s wrecked hulk at the old Cavite Navy Yard, Philippines, in November 1945. Her conning tower, with periscopes, is at left, with her stern at right. Sealion had been scuttled at Cavite on 25 December 1941, after suffering fatal damage during a Japanese air attack there on 10 December. Photographed by B. Eneberg, who was then navigator of a Royal Australian Air Force PBY-5 aircraft. Courtesy of B. Eneberg, 1977. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 85725

Our new Sealion was launched by none other than Mrs. Emory S. Land, then commissioned on 8 March 1944, Lt. Comdr. Eli T. Reich in command (former executive officer and engineer of SS-195), and sailed for the Pacific to join SubDiv 222, arriving at Pearl Harbor on 17 May.

Then she got cracking.

On 23 June, on her first war patrol, she sank the Japanese naval transport, Snasei Maru, in the Tsushima Island area. Two weeks later, Sealion intercepted a convoy south of the Four Sisters Islands and commenced firing torpedoes at two cargomen in the formation. Within minutes, the 1,922-ton Setsuzan Maru sank, and the convoy scattered. On July 11, she conducted several attacks, sinking two freighters, Tsukushi Maru No. 2 and Taian Maru No. 2.

Her second patrol saw her scratch the Shirataka, a minelayer, and conduct a wolf pack attack along with the submarines Pampanito and Growler, which accounted for the tanker Zuiho Maru and transports Kachidoki Maru and Rakuyo Maru, the latter afterward found to be carrying British and Australian POWs. She swung to and picked up 54 of the oil-coated allies, landing 50 who survived at Saipan five days later. Tragically, of the 1300 Allied POW’s on board, only some 160 were rescued by the U.S. submarines.

British and Australian prisoners of war rescued by SEALION on 15 September 1944. The prisoners had been aboard transports en route from Singapore to Japan when their ships were sunk in an attack by U.S. submarines SEALION, GROWLER (SS-215), and PAMPANITO (SS-383). The position of the sinking was 18-42 N; 114-30 E. Description: Catalog #: 80-G-281718

On her third patrol, Sealion stumbled across three surface contacts that turned out to be the 37,500-ton battleship Kongo, 2035-ton destroyer Urakaze, and another escort.

Built at Barrow-in-Furness in Britain by Vickers Shipbuilding Company, the Kongō was the last Japanese capital ship constructed outside Japan– she was also the only Japanese battleship sunk by submarine in the WWII and the last battleship sunk by submarine in history. Colorized photo by Atsushi Yamashita/Monochrome Specter http://blog.livedoor.jp/irootoko_jr/

LCDR Reich’s original patrol report:

21 NOVEMBER 1944

0020: Radar contact at 44,000 yards, on our starboard quarter, (Ship contact #3) three pips, very clear and distinct. Came to normal approach, went ahead flank on four engines, and commenced tracking. Overcast sky, no soon, visibility about 1500 yards, calm sea.

0043: Two large pips and two smaller pips now outlined on radar screen at a range of 35,000 yards. These are the greatest ranges we have ever obtained on our radar. Pips so large, at so great a range, we first suspected land. It was possible to lobe switch on the larger targets at 32,000 yards – we now realized we probably had two targets of battleship proportions and two of larger cruiser size as our targets. They were in a column with a cruiser ahead followed by two battleships, and a cruiser astern, course 060 T, speed 16 knots. not zigging.

0146: Three escorts now visible on the radar, at a range of 20,000 yards. One on. either beam on the formation, and one on the starboard far quarter. We are pining bearing slowly but surely. The formation is now on our starboard beam. Seas and wind increasing.

0245: Ahead of task force. Turned in and slowed for attack, keeping our bow pointed at the now destroyer who is now 1800 yards on the port bow of our target. the second ship in column. Able to make out shape of near destroyer from bridge. Kept swinging left with our bow directly on the destroyer, and at

0256: Fired six torpedoes, depth set at 8 feet, at the second ship in column, range 3000 yards, believed to be a battleship. Came right with full rudder to bring the stern tubes to bear.

0259-30: Stopped and fired three torpedoes, depth set at 8 feet, from the stern tubes at the third ship in column (i.e. the second battleship). Range 3100 yards. Range to near destroyer at the time of firing stern tubes about 1800 yards. While firing stern tubes, O.O.D. reported he could make out outline of the near cruiser on our port quarter. During the firing of the bow tubes the bridge quartermaster reported he could make out outline of a very high superstructure on target, he said it looked to him like the pagoda build of the Jap battleships.

0300: Saw and heard three hits on the first battleship – several small mushrooms of explosions noted in the darkness.

0304: Saw and heard at least one hit on the second battleship – this gave a large violent explosion with a sudden rise of flames at the target, but it quickly subsided.

0304-07: Went ahead flank, opening to westward from target group. Noted several small explosions, flames, and probably lights in vicinity of target group.

0308: Heard a long series of heavy depth charge explosions from vicinity of enemy force – we are about 5000 yards from group. P.P.I. shows one escort opening and rapidly to east of target group. Continued tracking.

0330: Chagrined at this point to find subsequent tracking enemy group still making 16 knots, still on course 060T. I feel that in setting depth at 8 feet, in order to hit a destroyer if overlapping our main target. I’ve made a bust – looks like we only dented the armor belt on the battleships.

0406: Tracking indicates the target group now zigzagging. We are holding true bearing, maybe gaining a little. Called for maximum speed from engineers – they gave us 25% overload for about thirty minutes, then commenced growling about sparking commutators, hot motors, et al , forced to slow to flank. Sea and wind increasing all the time – now about force 5 or 6 – taking solid water over bridge, with plenty coming down the conning tower hatch. SEALION making about 16.8 to 17 knots with safety tank dry and using low pressure blower often to keep ballast tanks dry. Engine rooms taking much water through main induction.

0430: Sent SEALION Serial Number TWO. [?]

0450: Noted enemy formation breaking up into two groups – one group dropping astern. Now P.P.I. showed:(a) one group up ahead to consist of three large ships in column – cruiser. battleship, cruiser with a destroyer just being lost to radar view up ahead. Range to this group about 17000 yards. (b) Second group dropping astern of first to consist of a battleship, with two destroyers on far side. Close aboard – range to this group about 15000 yards and closing.

0451: Shifted target designation, decided to attack second group, which contains 1 battleship, hit with three torpedoes on our first attack. Tracking shows target to have slowed to 11 knots. Things beginning to took rosy again.

0512: In position ahead of target, slowed and turned in for attack.

0518: Solutions on T.D.C. and plot is getting sour – target must be changing speed.

0520: Plot and T.D.C. report target must be stopped, radar says target pip seems to be getting a little smaller. Range to target now about 17000 yards.

0524: Tremendous explosion dead ahead – sky brilliantly illuminated, it looked like a sunset at midnight, radar reports battleship pip getting smaller – that it has disappeared -leaving only two smaller pips of the destroyers. Destroyers seem to be milling around vicinity of target. Battleship sunk – the sun set.

0525: Total darkness again.

The crew, left with sound recording equipment by a visiting CBS film crew, archived the audio of the attack, the only occasion in which a live attack on an enemy ship was recorded. They were preserved by the Navy’s Underwater Sound Laboratory and can be heard at the following website.

Four of the torpedoes fired carried the names of the fallen Sealion (SS-195) crew, lost in 1941.

Sealion holds the distinction of being the only Allied submarine to sink a battleship during World War II and LCDR Reich received the Navy Cross.

Lt.Cdr. Charles Frederick Putnam took over Sealion for her 4th patrol, which netted the 15,820-ton Japanese supply ship Mamiya about 450 nautical miles north-east of Cam Ranh Bay, French Indo-China after a two-day running chase as well as her 5th patrol that added the Thai oiler Samui (1458 GRT) to her tally in March 1945. Her 6th patrol was uneventful.

The successful submarine was decommissioned 2 February 1946 and laid up in the Pacific Reserve Fleet. In all, Sealion earned the Presidential Unit Citation and received five battle stars for her World War II service.

She was then later converted to a Submarine Transport, at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, San Francisco, California and recommissioned 2 November 1948. Her torpedo tubes and forward engines were removed and her forward engine room and after forward and after torpedo rooms were converted to hold up to 123 troops.

Her insignia changed during this time to reflect her new role.

Sealion continued a schedule of exercises with Marines, Underwater Demolition Teams (and later SEALs) and Beachjumper units; and, on occasion, Army units, landing helicopters on her deck and launching small boats and LVTs from her “hangar”

Sealion (SSP-315) after her conversion to a submarine transport. The “notch” in her deck near the large stowage chamber abaft the conning tower is fitted with rollers to aid in retrieving rubber landing boats.

U.S. Marines land on the deck of the SEA LION by helicopter during a practice reconnaissance mission, 4 May 1956. The helicopters are from HMR-26 and HMR-262, shuttling 55 Marines of 2nd Marine Amphibious Reconnaissance Company in an exercise. Note the M14s and “duck hunter” camo. Description: Catalog #: K-20159

A Marine helicopter aboard the SEA LION during a practice reconnaissance mission off Little Creek, Virginia, 4 May 1956. Note her earlier LVT hangar is removed. Description: Catalog #: K-20154

Submerged Sealion (SS-315) during exercises with Marine scouts of the 2nd Marine Division circa May 1956. Note the HRS/H-19 helicopter resting on the after deck; 5-inch/25 and 40mm guns are still carried. Shortly after this photo was taken the boat was reclassified APSS-315. USN photo and text from The American Submarine by Norman Polmar, courtesy of Robert Hurst, via Navsource.

Her peacetime training schedule included breaks for a Med deployment and support of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1961.

On 3 December 1962 Sealion (APSS-315) returned to Norfolk and from then into 1967 she maintained her schedule of exercises with Marine Reconnaissance, UDT, and SEAL personnel. She is pictured here in October 1964– note she still has her WWII deck guns, one of the last subs in the fleet to do so. USN photo # NPC 1106522 courtesy of usssubvetsofwwii.org via Navsource.

Between 1949-1969 her designation switched from SSP to Transport Submarine (ASSP-315) to Amphibious Transport Submarine, (LPSS-315) though her role remained the same.

Decommissioned 20 February 1970, she was laid up in the Atlantic Reserve Fleet. Stricken 15 March 1977, she was sunk as a target off Newport, Rhode Island 8 July 1978.

The flag from her 3rd War Patrol is maintained in the collection of the U.S. Undersea Warfare Museum.

“The upper left quadrant contains the submarine’s insignia, a black sea lion riding a red torpedo. The upper right and lower left quadrants depict Japanese merchant ships sunk — six tankers and five freighters, respectively. The submarine’s most significant actions are represented in the lower right quadrant: the large battleship above the broken rising sun flag is Kongo, the smaller battleship with the intact rising sun flag is damaged battleship Haruna, and the number 50 atop the red cross refers to the 50 prisoners of war that Sealion rescued from torpedoed Japanese transport Rakuyo Maru. The crew of Sealion created this battle flag and presented it to Sealion skipper Lieutenant Eli Reich.”

Reich, a retired Vice Admiral, died at age 86 in 1999.

From the Washington Post:

Retiring from the Navy in 1973 after 38 years of service, Adm. Reich was named director of the Emergency Energy Allocations Program, which was responsible for the distribution of scarce oil and gasoline during the Arab oil embargo. Described as a “crusty three-star admiral” by syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, Adm. Reich was reported by the columnists to have told staff members: “I don’t give a damn for the public image. We’re not here to create an image. We’re to do a job–my way. And that’s the military way.”

There has never been another Sealion on the Navy List other than the two war babies mentioned above. Their memory is maintained by the USS Sealion veterans group.

Although Sealion is no longer afloat, eight Balao-class submarines are preserved as museum ships across the country.

Please visit one of these fine ships and keep the legacy alive:

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 (for now).
USS Ling (SS-297) at New Jersey Naval Museum in Hackensack, New Jersey (for now).
USS Lionfish (SS-298) at Battleship Cove in Fall River, Massachusetts.
USS Pampanito (SS-383) at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park in San Francisco, California, (which played the part of the fictional USS Stingray in the movie Down Periscope).
USS Razorback (SS-394) at Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum in North Little Rock, Arkansas.

As for SS-195, she is considered on eternal patrol.


Displacement, Surfaced: 1,526 t., Submerged: 2,424 t.
Length 311′ 10″
Beam 27′ 3″
Draft 15′ 3″
Speed, Surfaced 20.25 kts, Submerged 8.75 kts (halved after 1949)
Cruising Range, 11,000 miles surfaced at 10kts; Submerged Endurance, 48 hours at 2kts
Operating Depth Limit, 400 ft
Complement 6 Officers 60 Enlisted
Armament, (as built) ten 21″ torpedo tubes, six forward, four aft, 24 torpedoes, one 5″/25 caliber deck gun, one 40mm gun, two .50 cal. machine guns
(troop conversion)
Berthing for 123 Marines/Soldiers
One 5″/25 caliber deck gun, one 40mm gun, two .50 cal. machine guns
Patrol Endurance 75 days
Propulsion: diesel-electric reduction gear with four Fairbanks-Morse main generator engines., 5,400 hp, four Elliot Motor Co., main motors with 2,740 hp, two 126-cell main storage batteries, two propellers. (Halved after 1949)
Fuel Capacity: 94,400 gal.
If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International

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The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.

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