Warship Wednesday, August 18, 2021: The Last Sub Killer

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, August 18, 2021: The Last Sub Killer

National Archives photo 80-G-442833

Here we see a starboard bow view of the Balao-class fleet boat USS Spikefish (SS-404) underway on the surface on 5 June 1952 when she operated from New London making training cruises along the east coast from Bermuda to Nova Scotia. Commissioned in the twilight of the conflict, she is notable in naval history for sinking the final submarine lost by the Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II, some 76 years ago this week.

The Balao Class

A member of the 180+-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. The Balao class was deeper diving (400 ft. test depth) than the Gato class (300 foot) due to the use of high yield strength steel in the pressure hull.

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 5,000-ton Maru or warship by surfacing and using their deck guns. They also served as the firetrucks of the fleet, rescuing downed naval aviators from right under the noses of Japanese warships.

Some 311-feet long overall, they were all-welded construction to facilitate rapid building. Best yet, they could be made for the bargain price of about $7 million in 1944 dollars (just $100 million when adjusted for today’s inflation) and completed from keel laying to commissioning in about nine months.

An amazing 121 Balaos were completed through five yards at the same time, with the following pennant numbers completed by each:

  • Cramp: SS-292, 293, 295-303, 425, 426 (12 boats)
  • Electric Boat: 308-313, 315, 317-331, 332-352 (42)
  • Manitowoc on the Great Lakes: 362-368, 370, 372-378 (15)
  • Mare Island on the West Coast: 304, 305, 307, 411-416 (9)
  • Portsmouth Navy Yard: 285-288, 291, 381-410, 417-424 (43)

We have covered a number of this class before, such as the sub-killing USS Greenfish, rocket mail slinger USS Barbero, the carrier-slaying USS Archerfish, the long-serving USS Catfish, the U-boat scuttling USS Atule, and the frogman Cadillac USS Perch —but don’t complain, they have lots of great stories.

Spikefish!

The first (and only) U.S. warship named for the common label for the striped Pacific marlin, Spikefish was laid down on 29 January 1944 at Portsmouth; launched on 6 March 1944, and commissioned on 30 June 1944.

Her christening sponsor was a true “Rosie” with a compelling backstory, Mrs. Harvey W. Moore. The widow of LT Harvey Wilson Moore, Jr., a submariner lost with USS Pickerel (SS-177) off Honshu the previous April, she was a welder at PNY and affixed Spikefish’s christening plate to the boat’s bow before ditching her leathers for the champaign ceremony.

Mrs. Moore. NARA 12563144, 12563137, and 12563134.

Commissioning day, 30 June 1944, finds the Spikefish (SS-404) off Portsmouth (N.H.) Navy Yard. Note her single 5″/25 over the stern and her 40mm single on the sail. National Archives photo # 80G-453355

After workups, Spikefish arrived in Pearl Harbor the week before Halloween 1944 to prepare for her 1st War Patrol.

Setting out in mid-November with 24 Mark 18-2 torpedoes to conduct an anti-shipping sweep through the Kuril Islands and the Sea of Okhotsk, she didn’t have much luck as Japanese Maru traffic by this stage of the war had been halted as most of it was on the bottom of the Pacific by then. The highlight of her time in the area was being socked in a six-day gale and stalking two merchant vessels on Christmas Eve into Christmas that turned out to be Russian. She ended her 48-day, 9,976-mile fruitless patrol at Midway on New Year’s Day 1945. As noted by Submarine Force Pacific, even though “Spikefish on this patrol underwent the rigors of cold, rough weather in the Kurile Island areas at this time of year without the satisfaction of contact with the enemy…the award of the Submarine Combat Insignia for this patrol is not authorized.”

Setting out on her 2nd War Patrol on 26 January, Spikefish was ordered to patrol off the Ryukyu Islands.

On 24 February, Spikefish encountered a mixed convoy of six cargo ships protected by four escorts and conducted a submerged attack, firing all six forward tubes at two of the freighters, three of which were heard to hit. While it is not known if she sank anything, she did have to dive deep to withstand an 80-depth charge attack over the span of four hours.

Spikefish sighted another convoy on the morning of 5 March while working in tandem with her sistership USS Tilefish (SS-307), fired another six torpedoes with no confirmed results, and took another pounding. Meanwhile, Tilefish bagged a Japanese minesweeper.

Spikefish ended her patrol at Pearl Harbor on the 19th and was credited at the time with damaging a 5,000-ton Sinsei Maru-type cargo ship in her first attack. She had traveled 11,810 miles in 54 days. With space limited in barracks, her crew was put up at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, which surely was horrible.

On 3 May 1945, Spikefish departed from Guam for her 3rd War Patrol and was ordered to patrol east of Formosa where she was assigned lifeguard station duties as the Fleet’s big carrier task forces were at the time hammering the Japanese province. She managed to pull a downed pilot (Ensign H.O. Cullen, USNR 390961, an FM-2 Wildcat pilot off the escort carrier USS Sargent Bay (CVE-83)) from the drink on 7 June. On the same patrol, our submarine conducted a fruitless attack on a passing cargo ship and rained 29 5-inch shells on the Miyara airstrip on Ishigaki Jima from a range of 10,000 yards.

USS Spikefish (SS-404) rescues Ens. Cullen (in the raft, lower right), VC-83, five miles off Ishigaki Jima, 7 June 1945. NS0308306. Via Navsource

Spikefish ended her 3rd patrol after 55 days and 13,709 miles in Guam on 13 June 1945.

She began her 4th, and most historically significant war patrol, on 8 July 1945, ordered to operate in the East China and Yellow Seas.

Besides dodging random Japanese aircraft and at least 19 floating mines (marksmen firing rifles from her cigarette deck detonated/sank at least six and hit four others that failed to explode), combat opportunities were slim, with most surface contacts proving to be Chinese junks which the sub sent on their way with the gift of a carton of cigarettes. She surfaced off Surveyor Island in the Yellow Sea on the night of 24 July and bombarded random points with 39 5-inch and 60 40mm shells from a range of about 4,500 yards, with the intent of hitting a supposed Japanese radar site.

On the pre-dawn of 11 August, Spikefish came across a 250-ton sea truck dead in the water. Closing to within 1,500 yards and ascertaining it was an awash Japanese Sugar Dog (SD) type wooden-hulled coaster, the sub opened with 5-inch (15 rounds, 5 hits), 40mm (28 rounds), and 20mm (20 rounds) on the vessel at close range. The craft was quickly sent to the bottom and Spikefish recovered three survivors, including the skipper who said the vessel was homeported in Korea.

Then, tipped off by Ultra intelligence provided by the FRUMEL team at Melbourne, came a two-day stalk of Japan’s only completed Type D-2 Modified “Tei-gata Kai” (Project Number S51C) transport submarine, I-373 while on her inaugural tanker run to Takao, Formosa.

I-370 Type D1 submarine by Takeshi Yuki via Combined Fleet. The 18 planned Type D submarines, 241-foot/2,200-ton boats could carry five Kaiten manned torpedoes of the Shinchō Tokubetsu Kōgekitai topside and carry 85-100 tons of freight or gasoline to blockaded far-flung outposts. Only 13 were completed 1944-45 and nine of those subsequently lost during the war. I-373 was the only one completed as a tanker.

Foreshadowing EW of today, Spikefish was able to track the zigzagging and doubling back I-373 some 200 miles SE of Shanghai in part due to the impulses of the Japanese submarine’s Type 13 air-search radar picked up on her primitive APR warning gear. The end game was played at 0424 on 14 August when the American sub let lose a full salvo of four Mk. 14-3A and two Mk. 23 torpedoes at 1,500 yards, with at least two hits.

After surfacing and passing through a debris field just after dawn, a single survivor, coated with oil, was taken aboard, the remaining 84 Japanese submariners were lost. The recovered Japanese sailor identified the lost sub as the non-existent I-382.

As noted by H-Gram 051, Spikefish claimed the last of 128 Japanese submarines lost during the war while her sistership, USS Torsk (SS-423) went on to claim the final surface warfare vessel:

Later that day, having penetrated the heavily mined Tsushima Strait, Torsk torpedoed and sank Japanese escort ship CD-47 and then did the same to CD-13, using new acoustic homing torpedoes and passive acoustic torpedoes. CD-13 was the last Imperial Japanese Navy ship sunk by the United States before the surrender, going down with 28 crewmen. (Other Japanese ships would be sunk by U.S. mines in the weeks after the surrender.)

At 0800 on 15 August, just over 27 hours after I-373 was sent to the bottom, Spikefish was notified by COMSUBPAC to cease hostilities. She put into Saipan on 21 August to turn over her two prisoners after a 44-day patrol, her war over. Spikefish received three battle stars for World War II service.

Besides claiming the last Axis/Japanese submarine sent to the bottom in WWII, Spikefish can arguably tote the title of the last warship to have sunk an enemy submarine in combat with the narrow exception of the Korean submarine infiltration stranding incidents in 1998 and 1996. While one day there may be an unlikely bombshell about one of the five Cold War-era submarines still on Eternal Patrol (K-129, Thresher, Dakar, Scorpion, and Minerve; four of which were all lost in 1968), Spikefish still holds the trophy.

When it comes to Spikefish’s sisters, of the schools of Balaos which were commissioned, 10 were lost in the war during operations while another 62 were canceled on the builders’ ways as the conflict ended. In 1946, the Navy was left with 120 units.

Jane’s entry on the Balao class, 1946

Postwar

Transferring to the East Coast, she was given a short refit at Portsmouth then in February 1946 was assigned to Submarine Squadron 2 at New London where she trained new personnel at the sub school, making regular training cruises along the east coast from Bermuda to Nova Scotia for the next 17 years, alternating with runs down to Key West to perform service for the Fleet Sonar School.

Portside view of the Spikefish (SS-404), 1950s. Note that her topside armament has all been removed and she has large sonar domes installed on her deck.

This streak as a school ship was only broken by two short refits/yard periods and a five-month deployment to the Med under the 6th Fleet in 1955, possibly the last such active overseas service for a non-GUPPY Balao. She earned the Navy Occupation Service Medal (Europe) for this cruise, which included exercising with the British submarine HMS Trenchant (P-331), being an OPFOR for the Greek Navy’s ASW forces off Crete, and port calls at Malta, Cartagena, Monaco, and Gibraltar.

Photograph of Spikefish undated. NHHC Photograph Collection, L-File, Ships.

Spikefish, as she looked in the late 50s with a large bubble trunk entrance on her foredeck.

Spikefish diving, photos by Larry Thivierge, Royal Canadian Navy, taken from HMCS Lanark off the coast of Newfoundland/Labrador, via RCN History.

“US Navy submarine USS Spikefish on display at Port of Tampa on McKay St. near 13th St banana docks, circa the late 1950s.” Original Kodachrome by photographer Hector Colado courtesy of Tampa native Yvonne Colado Garren via Tampapix. https://www.tampapix.com/tampa50s.htm

“A good view of the Peoples Gas tanks at 5th Ave. and 13th Street, Ybor City. The smaller tank was built in 1912 for the Tampa Gas Co. and at the time, its 212-foot height made it the tallest structure in Tampa. The tanks were disassembled in 1982 because they were no longer needed for storage and their upkeep was costly.” Original Kodachrome by photographer Hector Colado courtesy of Tampa native Yvonne Colado Garren via Tampapix. https://www.tampapix.com/tampa50s.htm

With so much time spent educating new bubbleheads, on 18 March 1960, Spikefish became the first United States submarine to record 10,000 dives, an impressive safety record that earned her the title of “The divingest Submarine in the World.” As she was the repeated target for scores of destroyers and ASW aircraft, she was probably the “Most depth charged Submarine in the World” as well, albeit they were simulator charges rather than the real thing as she had rained on her back in 1945.

It seems Mrs. Moore and her fellow tradespeople were good at their welding.

Spikefish (SS-404) at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, circa the early 1960s, Courtesy of Jay Jones EM3, Roberts (DE-749). via Navsource.

Bill Bone, a Spikefish vet of that period, speaks of his experience on the aging diesel boat in Key West in 1960-61, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He confirms that Spikefish didn’t even have a snorkel conversion in place at the time but did carry warshot torpedos just in case:

Spikefish was redesignated an Auxiliary Research Submarine and renumbered AGSS-404 (auxiliary, submarine) in 1962, was decommissioned on 2 April 1963 at Key West, and was struck from the Navy list on 1 May 1963.

Epilogue

Spikefish was subsequently sunk as a target off Long Island, New York, SSE of Montauk point in about 255 feet of water on 4 August 1964, just past her 20th birthday. Ironically, she was sent to the bottom by another submarine. 

Eastern Search & Survey has extensively surveyed her wreck via side-scan sonar noting:

Due to residual buoyancy from air trapped in her hull, USS Spikefish moved on the bottom in the weeks after it sunk, making it difficult for Navy divers to locate the wreck and inspect the damage caused by the experimental torpedo that sunk her, a MK 37-1. Damage from this torpedo is still visible in these scans on the starboard side just aft of amidships. Also, note the shadows and faint reflections of nets that drape the wreck.

Note torpedo damage on the starboard side, just aft of amidships Via Eastern Search Survey

Her war history, patrol reports, logbooks, and positional reports are digitized in the National Archives. 

Finally, she has a small public Facebook group for vets and families of vets. 

Eight Balao-class submarines are preserved (for now) 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. (Which will not be there much longer)
USS Ling (SS-297) at New Jersey Naval Museum in Hackensack, New Jersey. (Which is hopefully in the process of being saved and moved to Kentucky)
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.

Specs:
(1944)
Displacement: 1,570 tons (std); 1,980 (normal); 2,415 tons submerged
Length: 311 ft. 8 inches
Beam: 27 ft. 3 inches
Operating depth: 400 feet
Propulsion: diesel-electric reduction gear with four Fairbanks Morse main generator engines, 5,400HP, two Elliot Motor Co. main motors with 2,740HP, two 126-cell main storage batteries, two propellers.
Speed: 20 surfaced, 10 submerged
Fuel Capacity: 113,510 gal.
Range: 11,000nm @ 10 knots surfaced, 48 hours at 2 knots submerged, 75-day patrol endurance
Complement 7 officers 69 enlisted (planned), actual manning 10 officers, 76 men
Radar: SV. APR and SPR-2 receivers, TN tuning units, AS-125 antenna, SPA Pulse Analyzer, F-19 and F-20 Wave Traps, VD-2 PPI Repeater (1946 fit), Mark III Torpedo Data Computer
Sonar: WFA projector, JP-1 hydrophone (1946 fit)
Armament:
(1944)
10 x 21-inch torpedo tubes, six forward, four aft, 28 torpedoes max, or up to 40 mines
1 x 5″/25 deck guns (wet mount)
1 x 40mm guns (wet mount)
1 x 20mm gun (wet mount)
2 x .50 cal. machine guns (detachable on six mounting points)

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