Warship Wednesday, Mar. 30, 2022: Jesse James of the Java Sea

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, Mar. 30, 2022: Jesse James of the Java Sea

Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command. Catalog #NH 99230

Here we see the Salmon-class fleet submarine USS Sturgeon (SS-187) off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 3 May 1943. Note the barrage balloon in the right background as it is just 18 months past Pearl Harbor and just over a year past when Japanese Navy submarine I-17 shelled the Ellwood Oil Field to the South in Santa Barbara. While the Cold War-era USS Sturgeon is well known to the current generation of naval enthusiasts, her WWII namesake gets little attention.

The Salmon class boats, and the successive very similar 10-boat Sargo class submarines, set the Navy on the road for the mass-produced WWII “fleet boats” of the Gato, Balao, and Tench classes. Some 308 feet in length, they were the first American boats able to hit 21 knots while surfaced, meaning they could help screen and scout for the fleet, and conduct a lengthy 75-day/11,000nm patrol without refueling/replenishment. They took with them a 3″/50 DP deck gun capable of sinking a small craft under 500 tons as well as space available for 24 torpedoes stored both in the hull and in topside deck storage. This put the whole Pacific at the feet of these vessels, and it was no surprise that Admiral Hart’s Philippine-based Asiatic Fleet in 1941 included all 16 Salmon and Sargo-class boats. 

The six boats, all with fish names beginning with an “S” (Salmon, Seal, Skipjack, Snapper, Stingray, Sturgeon) were ordered in 1936 from three yards: Electric Boat (SS 182-184); Portsmouth (SS 185,186), and Mare Island (SS 187) with our vessel being the sole West Coast model.

Class leader USS Salmon (SS-182) running speed trials in early 1938. Note the S1 designator. NH 69872

Salmon class subs USS Stingray (SS-186), foreground Operating in formation with other submarines, during Battle Force exercises, circa 1939. The other three submarines are (from left to right): Seal (SS-183); Salmon (SS-182) and Sturgeon (SS-187). Collection of Vice-Admiral George C. Dyer, USN (Retired). NH 77086

Same as the above, Submerging. NH 77089

Sturgeon, named for the large, bony-plated fish with an elongated body. It is found in both fresh and saltwater, was the second such vessel in the Navy with that name, the first being an early E-class submarine (SS-25) that was christened USS Sturgeon but was renamed USS E-2 before she entered the fleet in 1911 and went on to make four war patrols against the Germans in 1918.

Laid down at Mare Island on 27 October 1936, our Sturgeon was sponsored at launch by the wife of a Great War Navy Cross holder who retired as a vice admiral.

USS Sturgeon (SS 187) was launched by Mare Island Navy Yard, Vallejo, CA. Note St. Vincent Church in distance and the temporary “S6” designator on her hull. Via Mare Island Navy Museum

Commissioned on 25 June 1938, she was assigned to SubRon 6 and conducted her shakedown along the coast of Latin America, then made two summer squadron cruises (1939 and 1940) to Hawaii with the Pacific Fleet.

USS Sturgeon (SS-187) arriving at Pearl Harbor pre-war, likely on summer maneuvers in 1939 or 1940. Note the Somers-class destroyer USS Sampson (DD-394) in the distance. An East Coast-based tin can, Sampson was in Hawaii for both the 1939 and 1940 fleet exercises. 

It was around this time that LCDR William Leslie “Bull” Wright (USNA 1925), a colorful six-foot-three cigar-chomping Texan, arrived as her skipper.

A brand new beautiful West Coast submarine, the Navy detailed her to help film the 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer action movie, Thunder Afloat, whose plot involved a piratical submarine, played by Sturgeon on screen.

Stock footage of Sturgeon surfacing, her crew dutifully barefoot and bare-chested, firing her deck gun at targets unseen and resubmerging all within a couple of minutes, was reused in other films for years.

On 18 November 1941, the submarine tender USS Holland (AS-3) with Salmon, Swordfish (SS-193), Skipjack, and our Sturgeon, arrived at Manila and formed SubDiv 21 of the Asiatic fleet.

War!

Sturgeon was moored in Mariveles Bay at the southern tip of Bataan on 7 December 1941, then put to sea the next afternoon to patrol an area between the Pescadores Islands and Formosa. After missing a chance at a target on the third day of the war, she spotted a Japanese cruiser escorting a coastwise invasion convoy on 18 December– the whole reason the Salmons were in the PI– but her attack was spoiled, and she received her first depth charge attack instead.

From her First War Patrol records:

Bull Wright and company returned to embattled Mariveles Bay on Christmas, then left again just three days later for her second war patrol.

Hart ordered Sturgeon and two other S-boats to patrol off Tarakan, Borneo, in the oil-rich Netherlands East Indies, with the hope of sniping Japanese convoys in the Makassar Strait. Meanwhile, other members of his submarine forces were left to try to run the blockade around the PI to keep Bataan in the fight. 

While Sturgeon claimed torpedo hits that were not borne out by post-war examination boards– and after believing she sank a Japanese ship, signaled to Pearl Harbor “Sturgeon no longer virgin!”– she ended her second war patrol at Surabaya on Java on 13 February 1942. She was then was forced to head for Australia within the week due to the looming fall of Java. She sailed with sisters Sturgeon and Stingray, escorting Holland, and the destroyer tender USS Black Hawk (AD-9) safely to Fremantle. Bull Wright received a Navy Cross. 

Departing on her third war patrol on the Ides of March, she headed for the Makassar Strait once again and, 80 years ago today, chalked up her first confirmed kill, that of the Japanese AK Choko Maru (842 GRT) off Makassar city.

Another notable incident of this patrol was to put ashore LT Chester William “Chet” Nimitz Jr. (yes, that Nimitz’s son) and a small search party looking for evading Australian personnel on Japanese-held Java.

Her fourth war patrol, which began on 5 June 1942 from Freemantle, would be both successful and incredibly tragic.

Montevideo Maru

Constructed at Nagasaki in the 1930s, the 7,266 ton, twin-screw diesel motor vessel passenger ship MV Montevideo Maru was used by the Imperial Japanese Navy as a troop transport in the early days of the war, supporting the landings at Makassar in February 1942 and was part of the Japanese seizure of New Britain. The vessel and her two sisters were well-known to U.S. Naval Intelligence before the war.

Via ONI 208J.

Sailing 22 June unescorted for Hainan Island off China, Montevideo Maru ran into Sturgeon eight days later. Our submarine pumped four fish into the “big fella” in the predawn hours of 1 July, after a four-hour stalk, with young Nimitz as the TDC officer.

Tragically, in what is now known as the “worst maritime disaster in Australian history,” Montevideo Maru was a “Hell Ship,” carrying more than 1,000 prisoners of the Japanese forces, including members of the Australian 2/22nd Battalion and No.1 Independent Company of the incredibly unlucky Lark Force which had been captured on New Britain.

All the prisoners on board died, locked below decks. Of note, more Australians died in the loss of the Montevideo Maru than in the country’s decade-long involvement in Vietnam.

Sturgeon, of course, was unaware that the ship was carrying Allied POWs and internees.

DANFS does not mention Montevideo Maru‘s cargo.

Four days later, Sturgeon damaged the Japanese oiler San Pedro Maru (7268 GRT) south of Luzon, then ended her 4th war patrol at Fremantle on 22 July.

A new skipper

On 13 August, Bull Wright left his submarine, replaced by LCDR Herman Arnold Pieczentkowski (USNA 1930), who would command Sturgeon for her 5th and 6th war patrol.

Of the Piaczentkowski period, only the 5th patrol, which sank the Japanese aircraft ferry Katsuragi Maru (8033 GRT) off Cape St. George on 1 October 1942 with a spread of four torpedoes, was the boat’s only success.

IJN Katsuragi Maru had just delivered A6M fighter aircraft to Bougainville when Sturgeon found her. Struck by at least three torpedoes, she carried two crew members and 27 ship gunners to the bottom. Here she is seen in an ONI photo taken in 1937 as she passed through the Panama Canal. NH 111553

On Christmas 1942, Sturgeon was sent to California for a five-month refit that would include swapping out her original diesels for a more reliable set of GM Detroit’s, relocating her main deck gun from aft of her sail to forward, and installing new sensors and equipment.

USS Sturgeon (SS-187) At the Hunters Point Navy Yard, San Francisco, California, 23 April 1943, following overhaul. White outlines mark recent alterations, among them the relocation of Sturgeon’s 3/50 deck gun, installation of watertight ready service ammunition lockers in her sail, and fitting of 20mm machine guns. Note the large concrete weight on deck, indicating that Sturgeon was then undergoing an inclining experiment to check her stability. 19-N-46405

USS Sturgeon (SS-187) Off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 3 May 1943. Note the barrage balloon and tall radio towers to the right. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives. 19-N-46400

USS Sturgeon (SS-187) Off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 3 May 1943. Ship in the left-center distance is the Fulton-class submarine tender USS Bushnell (AS-15), which was then completing her post-commissioning outfitting. Of note, Bushnell would remain in service until 1970 and be expended in a 1983 SINKEX– appropriately enough sent to the bottom by submarines. NH 99231

Another new skipper and five more patrols

Getting back into the war in June 1943, Piaczentkowski would command Sturgeon for her 7th patrol– another quiet one despite being in Japanese home waters– then leave the boat on 6 August, replaced by LCDR Charlton Lewis Murphy (USNA 1932) who had already commanded the old R-boat USS R-7 (SS-84) on the East Coast.

Murphy and the gang would embark on a fruitless 8th war patrol then strike the Empire hard on the 9th. Conducted in Japan’s Home Waters, Sturgeon sank the transport Erie Maru (5493 GRT) on 11 January 1944, blew both the bow and stern off the destroyer Suzutsuki— killing 135 including the tin can’s skipper– four days later, then sank the transport Chosen Maru (3110 GRT) before the month was up. This earned Philadelphia-born Murphy a Navy Cross. 

On her 10th patrol, she sank the Japanese transport Seiryu Maru (1904 GRT) north of Chichi Jima on 11 May 1944.

Her 11th patrol, like her encounter with the Montevideo Maru, would earn the boat a degree of infamy.

Toyama Maru

Built in 1935 at Nagasaki as a 7,090-ton cargo ship for Nippon Yusen Kaisha, K. K. (NYK) Line, Tokyo, MV Toyama Maru was requisitioned by the Imperial Army as Army No. 782 in January 1941 to help move troops to Manchuria.

Japanese cargo ship Toyama Maru at the dock in Vancouver before the war. Photograph by Walter E. Frost, Vancouver City Archives CVA 447-2781.

Departing Koniya on 29 June 1944 for Naha as part of Convoy KATA-412, Toyama Maru was transporting over 6,000 men of the 44th Independent Mixed Brigade’s 298th IIB, 299th, 300th IIB, and 301st IIBs and a cargo of gasoline in cans, all of which would have proved a formidable reinforcement to the defenders on Okinawa.

Would have.

Sturgeon found her the same day and, four torpedoes later, she was ablaze and sinking, carrying some 5,400 IJA troops and ship’s crew members to the bottom in very short order– often described as the greatest loss of life in a ship sunk by a U.S. submarine. As payment for the title, Sturgeon’s crew withstood an estimated 273 depth charges and aircraft bombs between 29 June and 3 July, as the boat’s war history says, “All went for naught, for she was as tough-skinned as the fish whose name she bore.”

Murphy’s report on Toyama Maru sinking

As noted by RADM Cox in H-Gram 33, “Yanagi Missions and Submarine Atrocities”:

Of 6,000 Japanese troops of the 44th Independent Mixed Brigade on board, over 5,400 died, the highest death toll of any ship sunk by a U.S. submarine (and the fourth highest of any ship sunk by a submarine of any nation. The two highest tolls were German ships packed with thousands of civilian refugees sunk by Soviet submarines, and the third-highest was a Japanese “hell ship” crammed with thousands of Allied prisoners of war and native forced laborers unknowingly sunk by a British submarine).

Sturgeon ended her final patrol when she returned to Pearl Harbor on 5 August 1944 then was sent back to California for further overhaul, with it being likely those 273 depth charges and bombs left more damage than the war history would imply. Sent to the East Coast in early 1945, she ended the war as a training boat with SubRon 1 out of New London.

Sturgeon earned ten battle stars for World War II service, with seven of her war patrols deemed successful enough for a Submarine Combat Insignia.

She was decommissioned on 15 November 1945.

Epilogue

Ex-Sturgeon was sold for scrapping, on 12 June 1948, to Interstate Metals Corp., New York, New York, just short of 12 years after she was laid down.

Her class was very successful– and lucky– with all six boats still afloat on VJ Day, earning a total of 54 battle stars after completing 70 war patrols:

  • Class leader Salmon (nine battle stars, 11 patrols) was a constructive loss due to battle damage after a late war surface action with Japanese surface escorts that earned her the Presidential Unit Citation, was soon disposed of in late September 1945.
  • Seal (10 battle stars, 11 patrols) was used as a Naval Reserve training ship after the war and sold for scrapping in 1956.
  • Skipjack (seven battle stars, 10 patrols) was sunk as a target twice after the war, the first time at Bikini atoll in 1946 and then, raised and examined, off California in 1948.
  • Snapper (six battle stars, 11 patrols) assisted with training for a while post-war then was sold for scrap in 1948.
  • Stingray, with an impressive one dozen battle stars after 16 war patrols (the record for any American submarine), was scrapped in 1946 but two of her GM diesels were saved and are now part of the Gato-class museum sub USS Cod (SS-224) in Cleveland.

Speaking of relics and museums, few relics are around of the Sturgeon, but her war patrol reports are digitized and in the National Archives.

Her war flag is preserved at the USS Bowfin Museum in Hawaii.

There is also a smattering of period art.

Sturgeon Herz Postcard via the UC San Diego Library

Of her seven skippers, Bull Wright was the best known but, despite his Navy Cross, he never commanded a submarine again– perhaps dogged over the Montevideo Maru, or perhaps because he was 40 years old when he left Sturgeon— and he retired quietly from the Navy after the war as a rear admiral. Although a number of WWII submarines and skippers with lower tonnage or fewer patrols/battle stars under their belt were profiled in the most excellent 1950s “Silent Service” documentary series, Bull Wright and Sturgeon were skipped.

In late 1945, an author by the name of Carl Carmer, after sitting with Bull Wright, would pen the 119-page “Jesse James of the Java Sea,” which is filled with gems reportedly from the mouth of the submariner including, “You fire a fish, and it hits or misses. You sink one or get pasted. There isn’t much variety in our pattern, you know.”

Another anecdote about Bull:

He passed in 1980 in Corpus Christi, a Texan to the end.

Her other Navy Cross-earning skipper, the quieter CDR Charlton Lewis Murphy, who commanded the boat during her 8th-11th War Patrols and chalked up five big marus including the brigade-carrying Toyama Maru, ended the war on the USS Carbonero (SS-337) and retired as a rear admiral before passing in 1961, aged 53.

Don’t worry, we aren’t throwing rocks at Piaczentkowski, he too would earn a star before he retired.

Speaking of admirals, Chet Nimitz would skipper two submarines of his own after he left SturgeonUSS Haddo (SS-255) and USS Sarda (SS-488)— then retire as a one-star in 1957, commanding SubRon 6– which was ironically the old Sturgeon’s first squadron. He saw the 21st century and passed in 2002.

The third, and so far, final, USS Sturgeon was the lead ship (SSN-637) of the last class of American submarines named for fish. Ordered in 1961, she had a career more than twice as long as “our” Sturgeon and was decommissioned in 1994, earning two Meritorious Unit Commendations and a Navy Unit Commendation. Her sail is preserved at the Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Washington, while her control center is now on display at the Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, Connecticut, giving her the distinction of stretching from coast to coast.

A starboard bow view of the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS STURGEON (SSN-637) underway off Long Island, N.Y, 2/1/1991 Photo by PH1 Grant. National Archives Identifier:6467979

As for Montevideo Maru, in July 2012 a new memorial by Melbourne sculptor James Parrett was dedicated on the grounds of the Australian War Memorial to commemorate those Australians who died in the defense of Rabaul, and those who later died as prisoners in the sinking of the Japanese transport.

Specs:

Displacement: 1,449 tons Surfaced; 2,198 tons Submerged.
Length: 308 feet
Beam: 26 ft. 2 in.
Draft 14′ 2″
Watertight Compartments: 7 plus conning tower.
Pressure Hull Plating: approx. 11/16 in. mild steel.
Propulsion:
4 main motors with 2,660 shaft horsepower (Hoover, Owens, Rentschler Co. diesels replaced in 1943-1944 with four General Motors 278A diesel engines
4 Elliot Motor Co. electric motors, 3,300 hp
2 126-cell main storage batteries.
Maximum Speed: 17 knots surfaced; 8.75 knots submerged.
Cruising Range: 11,000 miles surfaced at 10 knots.
Submerged Endurance: 48 hours at 2 knots.
Fuel Capacity: 96,025 gallons.
Patrol Endurance: 75 days.
Operating Depth: 250 feet.
Complement: 5 Officers 50 Enlisted
Armament:
Torpedo Tubes: 4 bows; 4 sterns.
Torpedo Load, Max: 20 internal, 4 external (later removed)
Deck Guns:
1 x 3″/50-cal Mk21 (relocated in 1943)
2 x .50 caliber M2 machine guns
2 x .30 caliber M1919 machine guns


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