Warship Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018: Father goose and his guard fish
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 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, Oct. 10, 2018: Father goose and his guard fish
Here we see a Japanese merchant steamer wallowing in the Pacific off the Home Islands in September 1942 after taking a torpedo from the subject of our tale today, the Gato-class submarine USS Guardfish (SS-217), whose periscope the image was snapped through. One of the most successful submarines of WWII, she earned 11 battle stars and two Presidential Unit Citations across a full dozen war patrols— and saved a small village worth of Coastwatchers.
One of the 77 Gatos cranked out by four shipyards from 1940 to 1944 for the U.S. Navy, they were impressive 311-foot long fleet boats, diesel-electric submarines capable of extended operations in the far reaches of the Pacific. Able to swim an impressive 11,000 nautical miles on their economical power plant while still having room for 24 (often cranky) torpedoes. A 3-inch deck gun served for surface action in poking holes in vessels deemed not worth a torpedo while a few .50 and .30-cal machine guns provided the illusion of an anti-aircraft armament. A development of the Tambor-class submarines, they were the first fleet boats able to plumb to 300 feet test depth, then the deepest that U.S. Navy submersibles were rated.
Our hero, Guardfish, was the first U.S. Navy ship to carry the name of the “voracious green and silvery fish with elongated pike-like body and long narrow jaws,” as noted by DANFS.
Built by Electric Boat Co. of Groton, Conn., she commissioned 8 May 1942, five months and a day after Pearl Harbor, EB’s 144th submarine for Uncle.
She was the first of the so-called “Mod 1A” Gatos, as described by Floating Dry Dock.
Starting with Guardfish, EB shortened the forward to aft length of the covered navigation bridge on their boats. This change was incorporated into production several months prior to the war starting so it may have been economically driven, rather than by operational feedback from the fleet. Compare the photo below of Guardfish with that of Growler above and the difference becomes readily apparent. Shortening the navigation bridge also eliminated several of the round portholes that were used by the helmsman. Manitowoc incorporated this change in their very first boat, with construction of Peto starting ten weeks after that of Guardfish.
By 22 August, she was in the Pacific and on her first war patrol, the inaugural U.S. submarine to poke around off Honshu in the Japanese Home Islands. In a two-week period, she made 77 contacts, scratched an armed trawlers and at least five Japanese freighters– including three in a single day. Evading escort vessels, Guardfish sank 5,253-ton Kaimei Maru and 1,118-ton Tenyu Maru. The Chita Maru, a 2,376-ton freighter, retreated and anchored in Kinkasan Harbor. In one of the war’s longest torpedo shots, Guardfish sank the Chita Maru from over three nautical miles (7,500 yards) out, which is pretty good for unguided torps. This was the year after serious depth flaws in U.S. torpedoes had finally been proven and properly fixed. Returning to Midway to complete her first war patrol, the exploit earned her first Presidental Unit Citation.
Her second patrol only yielded one merchant ship while her third, switching to the Bismarck Archipelago on her way to Australia, netted the 1,390-ton Japanese Patrol Boat No.1 and the 1,600-ton destroyer Hakaze in January 1943.
She took a licking on her 3rd patrol when she unsuccessfully attacked a large convoy near Simpson Harbor on the surface but was driven off by concentrated shore fire and escort attacks. Over a two day period from 11-12 February 1943, the Japanese destroyers Makigumo, Hayashio, and Oyashio plastered her with literally every depth charge they had, only stopping their combined attack once they were out of ASW weapons. When Guardfish made Brisbane on the 15th for repairs it was determined she suffered at least 8 direct hits.
It was while operating out of Australia that Guardfish, in the summer of 1943, came to the aid of the Coastwatcher program.
CoastwatchersEstablished to monitor the operations on Australia’s far-flung outer territories as well as in the British-controlled Solomons chain (itself seized from the Germans in WWI), the Royal Australian Navy’s Coastwatcher program proved a godsend to the Allies when these remote atolls and green archipelagos became prime real estate in 1942. In all, some 600 Coastwatchers and their native police and tribal allies provided yeomen work spotting Japanese planes and vessels. Arguably, had it not been for their intelligence gathering ability behind the Japanese lines, the Guadalcanal Campaign would have been a lot harder if not impossible.
As Halsey said later, “The Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific.”
The best-known Coastwatcher reference in the U.S. is Father Goose, the tale of Walter Ecklund, a boozy American beachcomber played by Cary Grant who is shanghaied into the program and later inherits a group of female students and their French schoolmarm. [Spoiler] Threatened by encroaching Japanese patrols, they are all saved at the last minute by an American submarine (we are getting to that later).
Besides operating the teleradio “tip line” that allowed the Cactus Air Force and Halsey’s South Pacific command to repeatedly jump incoming waves of Japanese aircraft and tin cans of The Tokyo Express coming down The Slot, the Coastwatchers shepherded downed Allied aircrews and shipwreck survivors.
Amazingly, some 165 crew of the St. Louis-class light cruiser USS Helena (CL-50) lost at the Battle of Kula Gulf, 6 July 1943, were rescued and cared for by Coastwatchers Henry Josselyn and Robert Firth along with Methodist Missionary Rev. A.W.E. Silvester and the natives of Vella LaVella until they could be picked up by a fast destroyer convoy under the cover of night.
Lt. (JG) John F. Kennedy, and the survivors of PT-109, sliced in half by a Japanese destroyer, were saved by native Coastwatchers Biaku Gasa, Eroni Kumana and Reginald Evans.
The Coastwatchers also actively fought on occasion, disappearing Japanese patrols that stumbled across them, vowing to kill every man lest they be betrayed, always making sure to bring the captured guns and munitions back.
A few Japanese were taken alive and, with captured airmen of the Emperor, guarded and shipped out to Australia.
That’s where PBYs and submarines came in, frequently landing new coast watching teams, as well as evacuating recovered Allied sailors and airmen, and EPOWs.
One such Coastwatcher was the ‘overage, undersized, slightly deaf, a bit shortsighted’ Sub. Lieut Paul Mason, RANVR:
Based on Malaita Hill near the southern coast of Bougainville, Mason had been in the Solomons most of his life. Described by Walter Lord in his book on the Coastwatchers entitled Lonely Vigil: Coastwatchers of the Solomons, the author wrote that “At first glance, Paul Mason looked like a bank clerk who had somehow strayed into the jungle. He was small; his mild blue eyes seemed to abhor violence, and he had a self-effacing diffidence that would seem far more appropriate in an office than in the bush.”
However, Mason was famous for his exploits on Bougainville, spending 17 months calling in Japanese bomber raids headed towards the Allies– at times giving them as much as two hours’ warning– while remaining one step ahead of the Japanese. Dealing with the double-crosses and betrayal, he narrowly avoided Japanese troops hunting for him, becoming a pied piper for still-loyal Solomans native police, Chinese refugees, Australian commandos in the area, and even other Coastwatchers– Jack Keenan, Eric Robinson, and Jack McPhee– chased out of their areas.
Needing emergency evac, Guardfish was sent in to collect Mason’s group at Atsinima Bay on the evening of 24 July 1943. Inching close into the bay with pre-1914 German charts, Guardfish surfaced at dark and inflated eight rubber boats, sending the rescue craft ashore.
From Lonely Vigil:
On the beach, the evacuees watched with mounting excitement as the little flotilla shot the breakers and spun ashore. In half an hour the first boats were loaded and, on their way, out again. Now they were even harder to row and one capsized in the surf. Righting it the men clamored back in, grunting and cursing but with no loss except an officer’s cap that floated away in the night.
On the Guardfish, [Lt.Cdr. Norvell Gardner] “Bub” Ward watched incredulously as the motley collection of Australians, Chinese, natives, men, women, and children swarmed aboard. “We gathered a bit more of a crowd than we’d anticipated,” Paul Mason explained, adding apologetically, “There are still some more on the beach.” When the submarine finally headed to sea, a total of 62 evacuees were jammed aboard.
On 28 July, Guardfish swooped in and picked up another 22 Coastwatchers, natives, police and scouts from a coastal plantation at Kuuna.
Later, squeezing in a couple more war patrols, Guardfish found time to sink the Japanese transport ships Suzuya Maru and Kashu Maru before 1943 was up.
Then, on 27 October, in the conclusion of the Coastwatchers’ war she landed two U.S. Marine officers, six Coastwatchers– including three that she had picked up in July– and 40 Bougainville native scouts near the mouth of the Laruma River close to Cape Torokina, returning them to the same island they had been chased from so they could again work against the Japanese, providing crucial intelligence for the landing at Empress Augusta Bay in November.
As for Mason, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography:
Mason’s unexpected return in November 1944 impressed locals, wavering in their opposition to the Japanese, with his possible indestructibility. He recruited a small partisan band which terrorized the enemy and was credited with a record body count of 2,288. Always he put his scouts’ welfare before his own. His daring rescues were notable for the care taken of former prisoners, especially missionaries, and the lack of vindictiveness towards collaborators. His continued wrangling with headquarters over supplies and the deficiencies of regular soldiers probably led to his transfer home in May 1945 before final victory.
Mason received a DSC for his efforts. He later died in 1972.
Her role with the Coastwatchers over, she continued her war, sinking the Japanese destroyer Umikaze off the southern entrance to Truk Atoll in 1944, and at least five other Japanese merchant ships, earning her second nod from the President for her 8th Patrol.
Sadly, she also claimed the Anchor-class salvage ship USS Extractor (ARS-15) in January 1945 in a case of mistaken identity while on her 10th patrol, though DANFS points out that “Guardfish succeeded in rescuing all but 6 of her crew of 79 from the sea.”
Guardfish finished the war on lifeguard duties, picking up two downed aviators off Saipan in March 1945.
Decommissioned at New London on 25 May 1946, two years later Guardfish was one of 28 Gatos preserved as pierside trainers (sans propellers) for Naval Reserve personnel to hold their weekend drills, the last service of this great class. She continued in this role until struck from the Navy List 1 June 1960.
USS Dogfish (SS-350) and USS Blenny (SS-324) sank her with the newly-developed Mk-45 torpedoes off New London 10 October 1961.
She was commemorated in an episode of The Silent Service, with her Presidential Unit Citation-winning Honshu patrol the subject of the dramatized short, that includes a horse story.
Other Gatos lived on, although an amazing 20 were lost in the Pacific during WWII. The last two Gato-class boats active in the US Navy were USS Rock (SS-274) and Bashaw (SS-241), which were both decommissioned on 13 September 1969 and sold for scrap. Nine went to overseas allies with the last, USS Guitarro (SS-363) serving the Turkish Navy as TCG Preveze (S 340) in one form or another until 1983.
A full half-dozen Gatos are preserved in the U.S. so please visit them when you can:
USS Cavalla is at Seawolf Park near Galveston, Texas
USS Cobia is at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, Wisconsin
USS Cod is on display in Cleveland
USS Croaker is on display in Buffalo, New York
USS Drum is on display on shore at Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile, Alabama
USS Silversides is on display in Muskegon, Michigan
In 1965, the Navy launched a second Guardfish, SSN-612, a Thresher-class nuclear submarine commissioned the next year that remained in service until 1992. A crew reunion group exists for this boat, the last to carry the name.
1,525 long tons (1,549 t) surfaced
2,424 long tons (2,463 t) submerged
Length: 311 ft 9 in
Beam: 27 ft 3 in
Draft: 17 ft maximum
4 × General Motors Model 16-248 V16 diesel engines driving electrical generators
2 × 126-cell Sargo batteries
4 × high-speed General Electric electric motors with reduction gears
5,400 shp (4.0 MW) surfaced
2,740 shp (2.0 MW) submerged
21 knots (39 km/h) surfaced
9 kn (17 km/h) submerged
Range: 11,000 nautical miles surfaced at 10 kn
48 hours at 2 kn submerged
75 days on patrol
Test depth: 300 ft
Complement: 6 officers, 54 enlisted (plus up to 62 evacuees!)
10 × 21-inch (533 mm) torpedo tubes, 6 forward, 4 aft
1 × 3-inch (76 mm) / 50 caliber deck gun
Two each, .50-caliber and .30-caliber machine guns
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