Category Archives: for those lost at sea

Warship Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2022: Way Down Upon…

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, Sept. 24, 2022: Way Down Upon…

U.S. Navy photo in the National Archives. 80-G-344419

Above we see Naval Aviators of the “Flying Boars” of Fighter Squadron (VF) 40, upon their return to the Sangamon-class escort carrier USS Suwannee (CVE 27), talking about splashing three Japanese Vals off Okinawa, on 16 May 1945. In flight suits are (L-R): Ensign Raymon L. Lebel, LT John E. Lockridge, and LT (jg) Joseph Coleman. For that month alone, the F6F-3 Hellcat squadron would claim six enemy aircraft and nine fishing boats destroyed.

Not a bad job for flying from a converted oiler.

Tanker flattops

During WWII, the U.S. launched 50 of the Kaiser Shipbuilding Company’s Casablanca-class and 45 smaller Bogue-class escort carriers between September 1941 and June 1944. These 95 rapidly built flattops, based on simple Liberty ship/C3-class freighter hulls, were the bulk of the “jeep carrier” production. At just 10,000-ish tons and about 500 feet long with the ability to carry about 20 or so aircraft (typically Wildcats and Avengers), these formed the backbone of the Allied “hunter-killer” ASW teams in the Battle of the Atlantic and later lent their shoulders to support amphibious warfare landings across the Western Pacific.

However, before the Navy settled for these little guys, it rushed a four-ship class of oiler conversions into service which set the bar high for the type.

The largest escort carriers converted for the U.S. Navy; the Sangamon-class all started life as big Maritime Commission Type T3-S2-A1 oil tankers. Large and turbine powered, the 553-foot, 11,300-ton (gross) vessels could tote 146,000 bbl. of oil at 18-19 knots and do it reliably. A full dozen of these had been laid down before WWII started, originally intended for a variety of U.S.-flagged oil companies. Of that dozen, all were rapidly taken up by the Navy in the summer of 1941 for conversion to desperately needed Cimarron-class oilers, a type the fleet would need possibly more than any other in 1942.

The thing is, in 1942, the Navy found it needed aircraft carriers even more.

Four CimarronsSS Esso Trenton, Esso Seakay, and Esso New Orleans, all originally planned for Standard Oil; and Esso Markay, which would drop the “Esso” and become just the SS Markay for the Keystone Tankship Corp– had only just gotten as far as changing their names to the Cimarron-class standard convention after rivers when the Navy stepped in once again and ordered their fast conversion to “Aircraft Escort Vessels,” often with different hull numbers to keep things properly confusing.

  • SS Esso Trenton became USS Sangamon (AO-28), then AVG-26.
  • SS Esso Seakay became USS Santee (AO-29), then AVG-29.
  • SS Esso New Orleans became USS Chenango (AO-31), then AVG-28
  • SS Markay became USS Suwannee (AO-33), then AVG-27.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

While our vessel is the only “Suwannee” on the NVR– named for the river which rises in Ware County in southeastern Georgia and flows southwest across Florida to empty into the Gulf of Mexico at Suwannee Sound– the Navy had two previous “Suwanee,”: a Civil War gunboat that spent her career fruitlessly chasing the Confederate raider CSS Shenandoah, and a captured German steamer (ex-SS Mark) that was turned into a collier in the Great War.

Four ladies swimming and eating watermelon in the Suwannee River, Fanning Springs Florida

Our subject vessel was laid down at New Jersey’s Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. as hull number 5 on 3 June 1939 for Standard Oil, then, as mentioned, was delivered to Keystone in early 1941 sans her planned “Esso” prefix. She was purchased by the Navy on 26 June 1941.

Tanker SS Markay (incorrectly listed as Esso Markay) was photographed on 26 June 1941, just before conversion into USS Suwannee (AO-33), later AVG/CVE-27). Probably photographed in Baltimore, Maryland. 19-N-24297

Her Navy conversion was brief, and Suwannee was placed in commission on 16 July 1941 after just three weeks of work which consisted primarily of adding underway replenishment gear, painting her haze gray, and bolting on a topside armament of a single 5-inch gun and four water-cooled .50 caliber machine guns.

Her first task was to take Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron (MTBRon) 1, including its men as passengers and six 77-foot Elco torpedo boats (PT-20, PT-21, PT-22, PT-23, PT-24, and PT-25) as deck cargo, to Hawaii, shipping out from Brooklyn with the mosquito boats aboard and arriving at Pearl Harbor on 18 September, delivering the craft to Hawaii. Originally to go to the Philippines, MTBRon 1 would instead see action at Pearl Harbor, then later at the Battle of Midway, and participated in the Aleutian campaign.

PT Boats and Zeros Painting, Oil on Canvas; by Griffith Baily Coale; 1942; Unframed Dimensions 10H X 20W Accession #: 88-188-AF On the brightly colored waters of the lagoon, the PTs are skimming about, darting here and dodging there, maneuvering between the rows of machine gun splashes, incessantly firing their twin pairs 50 caliber guns.

Shipping back to the East Coast, Suwannee carried passengers and cargo from Texas to Newfoundland in the uneasy neutrality that was the U.S. in 1941. At Norfolk Navy Yard in maintenance on December 7th, she continued her service as an oiler, dodging U-boats along the East Coast.

With the success of the small early escort carriers USS Long Island (originally AVG-1, later ACV-1 then CVE-1), her sister HMS Archer (D78), and the Royal Navy auxiliary aircraft carrier (aka escort carrier) HMS Audacity (D10), it was decided just two months after Pearl Harbor to convert the quartet of above-mentioned oilers to carriers.

With that, Suwannee decommissioned on 20 February 1942 at Newport News, Virginia, to begin the conversion process.

Meet your new carrier

Recommissioned 24 September 1942– 80 years ago this week– our new carrier’s first skipper was Capt. (later Admiral) Joseph James “Jocko” Clark. The first Native American to graduate from Annapolis when the Cherokee passed out in 1917, Jocko learned his trade in the surface warfare field and then became a Naval Aviator in 1925. He was XO of USS Yorktown (CV-5) at the Coral Sea and Midway, having just seen his beloved carrier sent to the bottom just three months before taking command of his tanker-turned oiler-turned-AVG. Kind of a demotion and promotion all at the same time.

Armed with two 5″/38s, one port another starboard, these ships would eventually carry 22 40mm and 21 20mm AAA guns before the war was out, giving them a respectable self-defense armament.

The Sangamon class carrier’s air department included the flight deck and hangar deck crew, an Aerology Lab, radar, and radio maintenance shops, a photographic lab, a parachute loft, an ordnance gang, and Air Office. With a flight deck 503 feet long and 85 feet wide, they had a single catapult installed but would later pick up a second. They were the only CVEs during the war that were deemed suitable to fly dive bombers from as the SBDs were awkward on small hulls since their tough wings, filled with massive air braking flaps, did not fold.

Keep in mind that in their full-load 1944 displacement, the Sangamons went almost 25,000 tons, twice the weight of other CVEs. 

USS Sangamon, as converted

Suwanee’s first air group, 18 F4F Wildcats and 15 new TBF Avengers of Escort Scouting Group (VGS) 27 were the Navy’s top aircraft of the time and were attached on the day she was recommissioned. It should be noted this was significantly larger than the freighter-based CVEs (some of which only shipped out with eight aircraft) and, with a more robust hull type, the oiler-based baby flattops could conduct ops in higher seas. Truth be told, they should have been labeled “light carriers” as they were much close to the cruiser-hull converted Independence-class CVLs in size (15,000 tons, 620 feet oal for Indy) and supported roughly the same sized air wing.

As noted in Hunter-Killer: U.S. Escort Carriers in the Battle of the Atlantic by William T. Y’Blood:

The Sangamon-class ships were much more stable than the Bouge-class vessels because they had lower flight decks– 42 feet versus 54 feet– on a longer hull. These vessels also had two elevators but the hangar deck distance between them was shorter than in the other carriers. This shorter length was mitigated by increased width and no shear in the hangar deck area. A number of openings in the flat sides of the hull gave excellent ventilation for the hangar deck.

One big advantage that vessels of the Sangamon class had over the Bogue class was in the amount of fuel oil the former could carry. The Bouge could carry only 3,290 tons whereas the Sangamons could carry over 5,880 tons. Over and above this, too, was the fact that these ex-oilers could carry 100,000 gallons of aviation fuel and 7,000 gallons of aviation lubricants.

The Sangamon-class were very efficient, with more speed, greater range, increased stability, and the capability of operating more aircraft than the earlier escort carrier classes. However, because of the critical need for more oilers, these four ships would be the only such vessels converted. Had sufficient tanker hulls been available, the Kaiser CVEs might never have been built.

Aerial view of the escort carrier USS Suwanee (CVE-27) underway. USN 470158

Torch!

Just barely out of the shipyard– their guns had only been test fired for structural validation and yard workers were still aboard– the four Sangamons were joined with the Navy’s only “real” carrier in the Atlantic at the time, the smallish USS Ranger (CV-4), to form TF34 under RADM Ernest McWhorter and head to North Africa where they would support the Operation Torch landings.

As the Vichy French had 170 modern aircraft ashore in Morrocco as well as a significant surface and submarine force, and, if they wanted to, could be a formidable opponent, the five-carrier task force had its hands full.

The carriers had to mix and match their air wings so that Chenango could carry 76 Army P-40F Warhawks on a one-way trip. To support the landings, Ranger carried 54 Wildcats and 18 SBDs while Sangamon would ship with 9 Avengers, 9 SBDs, and 12 Wildcats; Santee with a strike-heavy package of 14 F4Fs, 8 TBFs, and 9 SBDs; and Suwanee with at least 29 Wildcats drawn from VGF-27 and VGF-28 and 9 TBFs. The Wildcats, fresh from Grumman, had to test fire their guns for the first time on the trip from the East Coast to the war zone.

USS Brooklyn (CL-40) and USS Suwannee (ACV-27) underway, with the amphibious convoy, en route to North Africa, in early November 1942. 80-G-30228.

USS Santee (ACV 29) en route to Torch landings

Color image showing SBD Dauntless and F4F Wildcat aircraft on the flight deck of USS Santee (ACV 29) during Operation Torch. Note the directions written on the deck

USS Chenango (CVE-28) ferrying army P-40F fighters to Morocco, with the North African Invasion force, November 1942. 80-G-30221

As the landings had three major objectives– Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers– Ranger and Suwanee would remain in the Center Attack Group (TG 34.9) headed for Casablanca, Sangamon and Chenango headed for Port Lyautey with the Northern Attack Group (TG 34.8), and Santee would cover the Southern Attack Group (TG 34.10)’s push off Safi.

Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat fighter (nicknamed “Rosenblatt’s Reply”) on board USS Suwanee (ACV-27), circa late 1942 or early 1943. The plane bears traces of the yellow Operation Torch marking around its national insignia. Photographed by Ensign Barrett Gallagher, USNR. 80-G-K-15634

SBD Dauntless dive bombers pictured in flight over an escort carrier during Operation Torch. NNAM photo

As noted by DANFS:

Early in the morning of 8 November, Suwanee arrived off the coast of Morocco, and, for the next few days, her Wildcat fighters maintained combat and antisubmarine air patrols, while her Avengers joined Ranger’s in bombing missions. Between 8 and 11 November, Suwannee sent up 255 air sorties and lost only five planes, three in combat and two to operational problems. On 11 November, off Fedala Roads, her antisubmarine patrol claimed the destruction of a submarine, a “kill” not verified in post-war accounting.

While DANFS says Suwanee’s claim wasn’t borne out post-war, most other sources disagree.

To expand on that, Suwanee’s operations included sending her Avengers with Ranger’s airwing to attack the French battleship Jean Bart and three submarines at Casablanca, scoring a bomb hit on the incomplete dreadnought and one on the docked submarines. Her Avengers also got in licks against the cruiser Primaguet and the destroyer Albatros as they tried to sortie from Casablanca’s outer harbor.

With her Wildcats burning gas providing a CAP over the Task Force, it once again fell to her Avengers to do the heavy lifting, with four TBF “Turkeys” smothering the French Redoutable-class submarine Sidi Ferruch (Q181) in a dozen Mk.17 depth bombs off Fedhala Roads.

French submarine Sidi-Ferruch (Q181) facing the cathedral of Saint Mary Major in the Old Port of Marseille, pre WWII

As noted by Y’Blood:

The Sidi-Ferruch was diving when the last four bombs exploded directly over her. The conning tower bobbed back up, and pieces of the vessel were flung in the air. The conning tower then submerged vertically. Violent explosions and a “boiling” of the water disturbed the surface for about ten minutes. Seeing the obvious death throes of the submarine, the fourth pilot held his bombs. A light boiling of the water, accompanied by some oil, continued for 45 minutes. There was no doubt that the VGS-27 fliers had destroyed the sub.

Even Uboat.net, the gold standard these days for Axis submarine losses in Europe, holds that Sidi Ferruch met her end at the hand of Suwanee’s air group.

It was the first time an American escort carrier would bag an enemy submarine but it would be far from the last. In the Battle of the Atlantic, jeep carriers would harvest more than 50 U-boats and at least two Japanese submarines while in the Pacific and Indian Oceans at least another nine would be added to the list. Suwannee’s sister Santee’s embarked VC-9 air group across a single cruise in July 1943 would tally three German boats: U-160, U-509, and U-43

Overall, the four “oiler carriers,” rushed through a hasty conversion to aviation vessels, acquitted themselves well in Torch. Despite almost near total inexperience by all involved, with new planes flown by green crews from ships that had been cobbled together, the three operational Sangamons flew 582 combat sorties in four days, dropped 399 bombs, and fired 111,000 rounds of ammunition. In exchange, they lost 29 aircraft– 21 from Santee alone– and landed 74 of 76 Army P-40s from Chenango.

Shifting gears to Guadalcanal

The Vichy regime over, and all but occupied metropolitan France now in with the Allies, Suwannee sailed home and, after a short yard period, was transferred to the Pacific where the fight around Guadalcanal was at its height and the Navy could only count on one or two forward deployed carriers at a time, all the others having been sunk or sent home with a beating.

Reaching New Caledonia on 4 January 1943, Suwannee spent the next seven months providing air escorts for Guadalcanal-bound convoys and in the occupation of New Georgia, Rendova, and Vanunu. She was interchangeably part of TF 18 and TF 69 during this period. The beans, bullets, and avgas that made it to the Marines and Soldiers on “The Canal” during this period largely did so under a protective umbrella of Wildcats and Avengers from Suwannee.

View from another ship showing a Sangamon-class aircraft carrier underway in the South Pacific in 1943. NNAM photo

It was during this time that one of her airedales, AMM B. L. Thomas, penned several safety drawings that were turned into posters.

USS Suwannee (AVG-27), April 7, 1943. Flight deck poster made by an AMM, B. L. Thomas, of the crew. Artwork details the dangers of propellers. Photograph: April 7, 1943. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. 80-G-39315

USS Suwannee (AVG-27), poster by Thomas. Artwork details crossing the flight deck during launchings. 80-G-39316

USS Suwannee (AVG-27), poster by Thomas. Artwork details crossing the flight deck during landings. 80-G-39317

USS Suwannee (AVG-27), poster by Thomas. Artwork details sitting on the flight deck during flight operations. 80-G-39318

Suwannee returned to the U.S. for a brief refit, leaving Espiritu Santo on 26 August and arriving at Alameda on 10 September. There, she left her original air wing of VGS-27 behind and picked up the 12 F6F-3 Hellcats, 9 TBM-1C Avengers, and 9 SBDs of the newly formed Air Group (CVEG) 60 composed of VC-60 and VF-60. She would carry this force through November 1944 and would be the only carrier to embark CVEG-60.

Leaving San Diego on 16 October, Suwannee was back at Espiritu Santo and returned to service in time to spend Thanksgiving 1943 as part of the Gilbert Islands operation, bombing Tarawa with TF 53.

Another short stint on the West Coast and she headed for the Marshalls in January 1944 with her planes raiding the Roi and Namur islands of the Kwajalein Atoll and performing antisubmarine patrols.

Parry Island, Eniwetok Atoll, under bombardment 21 Feb 1944 recon from USS Suwanee (CVE 27) 80-G-218634

Escort carrier Suwannee (CVE 27) pictured at anchor at Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands in an image taken from the heavy cruiser Baltimore (CA 68) Feb 7, 1944

March, joining her three sisters– Sangamon, Chenango, and Santee— as Carrier Division 22 (CarDiv 22), brought raids on the Palau Islands while April saw Suwannee supporting the Hollandia landings. By June, they were part of the invasion of the Marianas including the campaigns against Saipan and occupied Guam.

Much as Suwannee has been the first escort carrier to sink an Axis sub in the Atlantic when she pulled the plug on Sidi-Ferruch, her sister Chenango was the first to sink one in the Pacific, with VC-35 aircraft flying from Chenango splashing I-21 (Inada) in November 1943. However, Suwannee soon caught up and would be the only carrier of her class to sink enemy subs in both oceans. 

As part of the Battle of the Philippine Sea in which CVEG-60 came face-to-face with a Japanese Type KD7 boat.

As told by Combined Fleets on IJN Submarine I-184:

19 June 1944: The Battle of the Philippine Sea: 20 miles SE of Saipan. The USS SUWANEE (CVE-27) is supporting the invasion of the Marianas. Ensign G. E. Sabin’s Grumman TBM-1C “Avenger” torpedo-bomber of VT-60 is flying an ASW patrol. Sabin drops below the cloud cover and spots a surfaced Japanese submarine. LtCdr Rikihisa spots the Avenger and crash-dives, but Sabin drops his depth bombs just ahead of the submarine’s track and sinks I-184 with all 96 hands at 13-01N, 149-53E.

By September, Suwannee was supporting the landings on Morata in the Dutch East Indies and then was placed in the vanguard of the force headed to liberate the Philippines after two years of Japanese occupation.

The Divine Wind

Sailing from Manus with RADM Thomas L. Sprague’s Escort Carrier Group Task Unit 77.4.1 (Taffy 1) of TF77 on 12 October with her sisters Santee and Sangamon along with the new Casablanca-class “Kaiser coffin” USS Petroff Bay (CVE-80), Suwannee’s planes were soon raiding the Visayas.

By the 24th Taffy 1 was embroiled in the wild combat that swirled around the Battle of Leyte Gulf, just escaping the sacrifice of TG 77.4.3 (“Taffy 3”) off Samar. While her airwing landed several blows against Japanese capital ships– battered survivors of the Battle of Surigao Strait– Suwannee and her sisters were subject to repeated kamikaze attacks from land-based planes across the 24th-26th.

Despite bagging at least one Zeke with her AAA guns, Suwannee took a hit about 40 feet forward of her aft elevator which peeled back a 10-foot hole in her deck and penetrated to the hangar where a 25-foot gash was ripped in the deck.

“Two Japanese Zero aircraft making suicide attacks on USS Sangamon (CVE 26) off Leyte Gulf, Philippines, as seen from USS Suwannee (CVE 27). One Japanese near miss near the bow. Trailing Japanese turned away and was shot down by our fighters, 25 October 1944.” 80-G-270665

Fires and explosion on USS Suwannee (CVE 27) resulting from a suicide hit of a Japanese “Zero” near Leyte Gulf, Philippines, taken from USS Sangamon (CVE 25), 25 October 1944. 80-G-270626

Japanese “Zero” crashes deck of USS Suwannee (CVE 27) and bursts into flames, Leyte Gulf, Philippines, 25 October 1944. TBM may be seen in flight behind the smoke. This plane which was loaded with a torpedo was unharmed by the crash. 80-G-270662

Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 1944. Damage done to USS Suwannee (CVE 27) after attack by a Japanese kamikaze off Leyte Gulf, photographed 25 October 1944. Note the hole in the flight deck. 80-G-270693

Battle of Leyte Gulf, wardroom of USS Suwannee (CVE 27) in use as an emergency sick bay following the kamikaze hit of 25 October 1944. 80-G-289527

Back conducting air ops just three hours later, the 26th saw a second kamikaze hit, this time creating a fire that destroyed nine of CVEG-60’s aircraft along with much of the ship’s bridge.

Fires and explosions on the flight deck of USS Suwannee (CVE 27), resulted from a suicide hit of a Japanese “Zero” near Leyte, Philippines. The airborne plane is friendly. Taken from USS Sangamon (CVE 26) at Leyte, Philippines, 26 October 1944. 80-G-270619

Japanese suicide “Zero” coming in for dive on USS Suwannee (CVL 27) off Leyte Gulf surrounded by ack ack This attack was the second one of the day, 26 October 1944. 80-G-270673

U.S. Navy escort carriers pictured at sea during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The photograph was probably taken from USS Petroff Bay (CVE-80), which was part of Task Unit 77.4.1 (Taffy I), together with the USS Sangamon (CVE-26), USS Suwannee (CVE-27), and USS Santee (CVE-29). The carrier burning in the background is most probably Suwannee, which was hit by two kamikazes, Santee by one amidships. U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation photo No. 2000.236.023

Damage done to USS Suwannee (CVE 27) after attack by Japanese suicide plane off Leyte Gulf. Note the shrapnel pattern. Photographed on 26 October 1944. 80-G-270689

Damage to elevator well on USS Suwanee following October 26, 1944 kamikaze hit

Nonetheless, her crew again patched up, made an emergency open-air navigational bridge, and made for the Palaus for repair.

An emergency bridge manned on after flight deck of USS Suwannee (CVL 27) was attacked by a Japanese kamikaze plane off Leyte Gulf, the Philippines, on 26 October 1944. 80-G-270674

In all, her two kamikaze hits in two days would result in almost 100 dead, another 58 missing, and 102 wounded. Keep in mind her crew and embarked air group at its largest only numbered about a thousand, meaning a full quarter of the men who sailed aboard her were on her casualty lists:

The same battle left sister Santee extensively damaged, hit both by a torpedo from Japanese submarine I-56 and a kamikaze, while Sangamon was struck by two kamikazes of her own. Retiring on 29 October, Sprague’s “oiler carriers” proved they could take abuse of the kind that was hard to shrug off.

Operation Iceberg

After some quick patchwork to get her that far, Suwannee made for Pearl Harbor in mid-December and then spent Christmas in San Diego. Repaired, she set out for Hawaii again in mid-January 1945 where she would shake down with a largely new crew and a new air wing, Air Group (CVEG) 40 composed of VC-40 and VF-40. This final package, of 20 F6F-5s and 12 TBM-1Cs, would be her last and, like CVEG-60, CVEG-40 would only know Suwannee as home.

By April Fool’s Day, she was off Okinawa as part of TF for Operation Iceberg, an 82-day battle that is known in Japan as the Kotetsu no ame (“rain of steel”) due to the intensity of the Japanese kamikaze attacks sent at the American forces. Keep in mind Japan lost an estimated 1,600 planes against the U.S. Fifth Fleet at Okinawa, a figure that never fails to stun no matter how many times you read it.

Again, Suwannee would sail with her three sisters of CarDiv 22 and was the flagship of RADM William Dodge Sample.

F6F-5 Hellcats of Fighting Squadron (VF) 60 pictured preparing to launch from the escort carrier Suwanee (CVE 27) on April 21, 1945

From DANFs on Suwannee during the period:

Her first assignment was close air support for the invasion troops; but, within a few days, she settled down to a routine of neutralizing the kamikaze bases at Sakishima Gunto. For the major portion of the next 77 days, her planes continued to deny the enemy the use of those facilities. Periodically, she put into the anchorage at Kerama Retto to rearm and replenish, but she spent the bulk of her time in air operations at sea.

In May, Suwannee suffered another serious fire because of a cracked-up Avenger.

Fire-fighting crews on board USS Suwannee (CVE 27) brought the blaze under control when a 100-pound bomb of TBM-3 (Bu# 68368) exploded after the plane landed on board. Pilot, Lieutenant Junior Grade Obed F. Flingerland, USNR, was killed and 13 crewmembers were injured. One of the crewmen died later. Photographed by Seaman First Class Hyman Atias, 24 May 1945. 80-G-325116

Likewise, both Chenango and Santee would suffer similar incidents during the operation. High-tempo carrier ops in a combat environment on a 500-foot deck across extended periods with lots of new pilots will do that.

As noted in her War Diary:

Part of CVEG-40’s scoresheet for Iceberg:

Balikpapan

With Iceberg thawed, Suwannee was pulled from the line, stopped in the PI for a week or so, then shipped south for the Dutch East Indies to support the cakewalk Free Dutch-Australian landings at Balikpapan on the Borneo coast. That accomplished, she headed North to the Japanese Home Islands once again and was at Buckner Bay, Okinawa when the news came that the Emperor would throw in the towel.

F6F-5 Hellcat of Fighting Squadron (VF) 40 launches from USS Suwanee (CVE 27) on August 30, 1945

VF-40 pilots smiling around the “kill” scoreboard, August 1945. Left to right: LCDR James C. Longino, Jr., LT (jg) Levi Monteau– pointing to trophy flags– LT(jg) Joseph Coleman, Ensign Raymond L.J. Lebel, and LT Earl E. Hartman. 80-G-349434

While RADM Sample and Suwannee’s skipper, Capt. Charles C. McDonald would go missing after their Martin PBM Mariner flying boat disappeared near Wakayama, Japan soon after VJ Day (they would be recovered in 1948), the rest of her crew made it home in late September 1945 under the command of XO, CDR Schermerhorn Van Mater.

Epilogue

Assigned to the Atlantic Inactive Fleet in October 1945 at Boston, Suwannee spent the rest of her career in mothballs there where she was re-designated to an escort aircraft carrier (helicopter) CVHE-27 in 1955. Stricken from the Navy List on 1 March 1959, she was sold later that year for conversion to merchant service but, with that falling through, was instead towed to Spain where she was scrapped in 1962.

She earned a Presidential Unit Citation and 13 battle stars for her World War II service, the most decorated of her class.

Her 13 stars and Unit Citation

Suwannee’s war diaries and plans are in the National Archives but few other relics endure.

Her three sisters of CarDiv22 likewise were mothballed just after the war, silently redesignated CVHEs– a job they were no doubt suited for– and scrapped by the early 1960s. Between them, Santee, Sangamon, and Chenango received a total of 28 battle stars, a Navy Unit Commendation, and the Presidential Unit Citation during WWII. An impressive record. It should be noted that the Navy’s final 19 escort carriers ever finished, the Commencement Bay-class, were all based on Maritime Commission type T3 tanker hulls like the Sangamons. Apparently, a lesson had been learned.

Of Suwannee’s 31 Cimarron-class oiler half-sisters, two, USS Neosho (AO-23) and USS Mississinewa (AO-59) were lost during the war while the rest continued to serve throughout the Cold War. The final Cimarron in the fleet, USS Caloosahatchee (AO-98), only decommissioned in 1990 after an amazing 45 years of service and was not scrapped until 2010.

The U.S. Navy fleet oiler USS Caloosahatchee (AO-98) underway in 1988.

Specs:

(1942, as Converted)
Displacement (design): 11,400 tons standard; 24,275 tons full load
Length: 553
Beam: 114 over deck
Power plant: 4 boilers (450 psi); 2 steam turbines; 2 shafts; 13,500 shp (design)
Speed: 18+ knots
Endurance: 23,920 nm @ 15 knots (with 4,780 tons of oil fuel)
Aviation facilities: 2 elevators; 1 hydraulic catapult
Crew: 830 (ship’s company + air wing)
Armament: 2 single 5″/51 gun mounts; 4 twin 40-mm/56-cal gun mounts; 12 single 20-mm/70-cal gun mounts
Aircraft: 25-40


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Warship Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022: Last Dance of the Prancing Dragon

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, Aug. 24, 2022: Last Dance of the Prancing Dragon

Colorized photo by Atsushi Yamashita/Monochrome Specter http://blog.livedoor.jp/irootoko_jr/

Above we see the Japanese light carrier Ryujo (also sometimes seen in the West incorrectly as Ryukyu) on sea trials at Satamisaki-oki, 6 September 1934 after her reconstruction, note her open bow and tall flight deck, showing off her bridge under the lip of the flattop. Built to a problematic design, she had lots of teething problems and, while she breathed fire in the Empire’s dramatic expansion after Pearl Harbor, the sea closed over her some 80 years ago today and extinguished her flames.

If you compare the development of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s aircraft carrier program in the 1920s and 30s to that of the U.S. Navy, there is a clear parallel. Each fleet had an initial, awkward, flattop commissioned in 1922 that proved to be a “schoolship” design to cradle a budding naval aviation program (Japan’s circa 1922 10,000-ton Hosho vs the 14,000-ton USS Langley). This was followed by a pair of much larger carriers that were built on the hulls of battlewagons whose construction had been canceled due to the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty but still carried large enough 7.9-inch/8-inch gun batteries to rate them as heavy cruisers in armament if not in armor (the 38,000/40,000-ton Kaga and Akagi vs. the 36,000-ton USS Lexington and USS Saratoga) that would pioneer the art of using such vessels via war gaming exercises. Then came smallish (to make the most of treaty limits), specially-designed, one-off carriers that were built after several years of experience with the type– the “under 10,000-ton” Ryujo vs the 15,000-ton USS Ranger (CV-4), which would be test beds for the bigger and better designs that each country would turn to for heavy lifting in 1942 (32,000-ton Shokaku class vs the 25,000-ton Yorktown class).

Laid down on 26 November 1929 at Mitsubishi in Yokoyama, Ryujo, whose name translates into something akin to “prancing dragon” or “dragon phoenix,” was slipped in by the Japanese as a nominal 8,000-ton aviation ship before the 1930 London Naval Treaty came in and limited even these small carriers as well as placed an armament cap of 6-inch guns on flattops.

Ryujo under construction Drydock No. 5, Yokosuka, Japan, 20 Oct 1931. Note how small she appears in the battleship-sized dock

Built on a slim 590-foot cruiser-style hull that, with a dozen boilers and a pair of steam turbines could make 29 knots, the Japanese elected for an extremely top-heavy build above the waterline placing her double-deck hangars and stubby 513-foot long flight deck towering some 50-feet into above the 01 deck to what proved to be an unsteady metacentric height (GM). Like Langley and Hosho, she was a true flattop, lacking a topside island, which would have made the whole thing even more unstable, instead opting to have a broad “greenhouse” bridge on the forward lip of the flight deck.

A period postcard of the Japanese aircraft carriers Ryūjō (top) and the legacy Hōshō. Note the height difference

Close-up view of the stern of carrier Ryujo, Yokosuka, Japan, 19 June 1933. Note how high her flight deck is from the main deck.

Ryujo Photograph taken in 1933, when the ship was first completed. The original print was provided by Dr. Oscar Parkes, Editor, Jane’s Fighting Ships. It was filed on 27 October 1933. NH 42271

She spent 1933 and 1935 in a series of rebuilds that moved to address her stability issues– which she suffered in a typhoon that left her hangar flooded. These changes included torpedo bulges and active stabilizers on her hull, more ballast, and, by a third rebuild completed in 1940, carried a redesigned bow form with re-ducted funnels.

Close-up of Japanese carrier Ryujo’s side mounted exhaust funnels and 12.7cm anti-aircraft guns, Yokosuka, 20 March 1933

This pushed her to over 12,700 tons in displacement and change her profile.

Aircraft carrier Ryujo undergoing full-scale trials after restoration performance improvement work (September 6, 1934, between the pillars at Satamisaki). Colorized photo by Atsushi Yamashita/Monochrome Specter http://blog.livedoor.jp/irootoko_jr/

She saw her inaugural taste of combat in the war with China in the last quarter of 1937, operating a mix of a dozen Navy Type 95 Carrier Fighter and Type 94/96 Carrier Bombers (Susies), both highly maneuverable biplanes. Her Type 95s met Chinese KMT-flown Curtiss F11C Goshawks in aerial combat with the Japanese claiming six kills.

Ryujo at sea 1936. Colorized photo by Atsushi Yamashita/Monochrome Specter http://blog.livedoor.jp/irootoko_jr/

Ryujo. Underway at sea, September 1938. Donation of Kazutoshi Hando, 1970. NH 73072

Ryujo at sea between 1934 and 1937 with only 4×2 127mm AA-guns after 1934 refit

It should be observed that the two 670-foot submarine tenders, Zuiho and Shoho, that were converted to light carriers in 1940-41, as well as the tender Taigei (converted and renamed Ryuho) and the three Nitta Maru-class cargo liners converted to Taiyō-class escort carriers in 1942-43, greatly favored our Ryujo in profile and they were surely constructed with the lessons gleaned from what had gone wrong with that latter carrier in the previous decade. Notably, while still having a flush deck design without an island, these six conversions only had a single hangar deck instead of Ryujo’s double hangar deck, giving them a smaller maximum air wing (25-30 aircraft vs 40-50) but a shorter height and thus better seakeeping ability.

Japanese carrier Zuiho, note the similarity to Ryujo

Running Amok for five months

Ryujo would be left behind when Yamamoto sent Nagumo’s Kido Butai eight-carrier strike force (Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, Shokaku, Soryu, and Zuikaku on the attack itself, screened from a distance by Hosho and Zuiho) to hit Pearl Harbor, instead tasking the wallowing light carrier with being the sole flattop supporting Takahashi’s Third Fleet’s invasion of the Philippines.

USN Recognition slide of the Ryujo LOC Lot-2406-5

With the Japanese keeping their battleships in a fighting reserve in the Home Islands for the anticipated Tsushima-style fleet action, and every other carrier either in the yard or on the Pearl Harbor operation, Ryujo was the Third Fleet’s only capital ship, a key asset operating amid a force of cruisers, seaplane tenders, and destroyers– appreciated at last!

Ryujo was still 100 percent more carrier than RADM Thomas Hart’s Asiatic Fleet had in their order of battle, and the dragon was very active in the PI with her airwing of Nakajima B5N “Kate” torpedo bombers and Mitsubishi A5M “Claude” fighters. It was her planes that delivered the first strikes of the Japanese invasion on 8 December when they hit U.S. Navy assets in Davao Bay in Northern Luzon then spent the rest of the month covering the landings there.

A Japanese Nakajima B5N1 Type 97 from the aircraft carrier Ryujo flies over the U.S. Navy seaplane tender USS William B. Preston (AVD-7) in Malalag Bay, Mindanao, Philippines, during the early morning of 8 December 1941. Two Consolidated PBY-4 Catalinas (101-P-4 and 101-P-7) from Patrol Squadron 01 (VP-101), Patrol Wing 10, are burning offshore. Via Maru magazine No. 461, December 1984 via j-aircraft.org

In January 1942, she was shifted south to support the Malaysia invasion from Japanese-occupied Camranh Bay in French Indochina, with her Claudes thought to have shot down at least two RAF Lockheed Hudsons off Redang Island while her Kates are credited with anti-shipping strikes off Singapore on 13-17 February that sent the Dutch tankers Merula (8,226 tons) and Manvantara (8,237 tons) along with the British steamer Subadar (5,424 tons), to the bottom. Fending off counterattacks, her Claudes shot down two RAF Bristol Blenheim from 84 Squadron and a Dornier Do 24 flying boat of the Dutch Navy.

Here we see Hr.Ms. Java was under attack by Japanese Nakajima B5N “Kate” high-altitude bombers from the light carrier Ryujo in the Gaspar Straits of what is today Indonesia, 15 February 1942. Remarkably, the Dutch light cruiser would come through this hail without a scratch, however, her days were numbered, and she would be on the bottom of the Pacific within a fortnight of the above image. Australian War Memorial photo 305183

While her Kates twice attacked Hr.Ms. Java and HMS Exeter (68) of Graf Spee fame on 15 February without causing either cruiser much damage, Ryujo’s air group found more success in attacking the Dutch destroyer Hr.Ms. Van Nes two days later. A strike of 10 B5N1s chased the Admiralen-class greyhound down in the Java Sea and landed two hits, sending her to the bottom with 68 of her crewmen.

Two Japanese Nakajima B5N torpedo bombers (B5N2 in the foreground and B5N1 in the background) over the Java Sea on 17 February 1942. The smoke in the background is coming from the Dutch destroyer Hr.Ms. Van Nes. She was sunk by Japanese aircraft from the aircraft carrier Ryujo circa 30 km from Toboali, Bangka Island while escorting the troop transport Sloet van Beele.

On the morning of 1 March in the immediate aftermath of the overnight Battle of the Java Sea, her Kates all but disabled the old Clemson-class four-piper USS Pope (DD-225) off Bawean Island, leaving her to be finished off by Japanese cruisers.

April saw Ryujo join Ozawa’s mobile force for the epic “Operation C” raids into the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal, where she split her time sending out Kates on search-shipping strikes (sinking the 5,082-ton British steamer Harpasa on 5 April) and raids on the Indian ports of Vizagapatam and Cocanada, accounting for eight assorted Allied ships on 6 April in conjunction with the guns of Ozawa’s cruisers. It is even reported by Combined Fleet that Ryujo was able to use her own 5-inch guns against surface targets as well, an almost unheard of level of sea control.

Arriving back home in Kure in May after five solid months of running amok, Ryujo would land her obsolete Claude fighters in favor of shiny new Mitsubishi Type 0 A6M2 “Zekes” of the latest design– some of which just left the factory– as the Admiralty aimed to send her into an operation where she may expect interference from American F4F Wildcats and P-39 Aircobra/P-40 Warhawks: Operation AL, the diversionary seizure of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians during the Battle of Midway.

Dutch Harbor & Koga’s Zero

Sent to attack Alaska as part of VADM Hosogaya Boshiro’s Aleutian invasion force in company with the new 27,500-ton carrier Junyo, Ryujo would be active in a series of three air raids on Dutch Harbor and Unalaska on 3-4 June which didn’t cause much damage on either side, then covered the bloodless landings at Attu and Kiska on the 7th.

Dutch Harbor, Unalaska Island, Alaska, 3 June 1942: A Navy machine gun crew watches intently as Japanese aircraft depart the scene after the attack. Smoke in the background is from the steamer SS Northwestern, set ablaze by a dive bomber (80-G-11749).

However, one of the aircraft that failed to return to Ryujo was one of those beautiful new Zekes, SN 4593/Tail DI-108, flown by 19-year-old Flight Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga. His oil line hit by a “magic BB” from small arms fire over Dutch Harbor, Koga tried to land his smoking fighter on remote green Akutan Island, some 25 miles from nowhere, where it could possibly be recovered and flown back home or destroyed in place if needed. However, it turned out that the flat field Koga aimed for on Akutan was a bog and his aircraft flipped, killing him, on contact.

Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero-sen 10 July 1942, on Akutan Island, in the Aleutians aircraft had been flown by petty officer Tadayoshi Koga, IJN, from the carrier RYUJO. Aircraft damaged on 4 June 1942; the pilot was killed when the plane flipped over on its back. This “Zero” was the first captured intact for flight tests. NH 82481

U.S. Navy personnel inspect Koga’s Zero. The petty officer’s body was recovered still inside the cockpit, relatively preserved by the icy bog despite being there for over a month. Regretfully, a number of images of his cadaver are digitized and in wide circulation. Museum of the Aleutians Collections. MOTA 2018.16.10

Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero-Sen on the docks at Dutch Harbor, Alaska, 17 July 1942. This plane, from carrier RYUJO, had crash landed after the Dutch Harbor Raid on 4 June 1942. It was salvaged by VP-41 and was the first “Zero” captured intact for flight tests. NH 91339

The Zero on a barge in Alaska on August 8

More on Koga’s plane later.

The Dragon’s final dance

Having returned to Kure in July after the disaster that befell the Japanese carrier force in a single day at Midway (“scratch four flattops”), Ryujo was now suddenly more important than she had ever been before.

By early August, she was attached to Nagumo’s Main Unit Mobile Force– who the Japanese somehow still trusted– alongside the large fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku of the First Carrier Division which had survived Midway by not being at Midway. Coupled with the battleships Hiei and Kirishima (which would never come back home), the force was dispatched towards Truk to challenge the growing American presence on Guadalcanal. With Shokaku and Zuikaku large enough to tote both strike and fighter packages, the smaller Ryujo, paired with the old battleship Mutsu in a diversionary force away from the two bigger carriers, would instead have a fighter-heavy air wing of 9 Kates and 24 Zekes as American flattops were known to be lurking in the area.

On 24 August, Nagumo’s carriers were close enough to attack Henderson Field on Guadalcanal but in turn fell under the crosshairs of the numerical inferior Task Force 61, commanded by VADM Frank J. Fletcher (who had spanked Nagumo 11 weeks earlier at Midway), in what went down in the history books as Battle of Eastern Solomons. While Ryujo’s strike would hit the U.S. positions on Lunga Point– in a raid observed by Fletcher’s radar-equipped force– SBDs from Bombing Three and TBFs from Torpedo Eight off USS Saratoga (CV 3) would find the relatively undefended Ryujo and leave her dead in the water where land-based B-17s would find her in two follow-on raids.

A U.S. Navy Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless flies over the aircraft carriers USS Enterprise (CV-6), foreground, and USS Saratoga (CV-3) near Guadalcanal. The aircraft is likely on anti-submarine patrol. Saratoga is trailed by her plane guard destroyer. Another flight of three aircraft is visible near Saratoga. The radar array on the Enterprise has been obscured by a wartime censor. U.S. Navy National Naval Aviation Museum photo NNAM.1996.253.671

Battle of the Eastern Solomons, 24 August 1942: The damaged and immobile Japanese aircraft carrier Ryujo was photographed from a USAAF B-17 bomber, during a high-level bombing attack on 24 August 1942. The destroyers Amatsukaze and Tokitsukaze had been removing her crew and are now underway, one from a bow-to-bow position and the other from alongside. Two “sticks” of bombs are bursting on the water, more than a ship length beyond the carrier. The bow of the cruiser Tone is visible at the extreme right. 80-G-88021

Diorama of Ryjuo attack from the Don Garber Collection South Pacific WWII Museum

As detailed by Combined Fleet:

  • 1357 RYUJO is attacked by enemy aircraft (30 SBD and 8 TBF launched at 1315 from USS SARATOGA, (CV-3). The CAP manages to shoot down one TBF, but the carrier receives four bomb hits, many near-misses, and one torpedo hit aft of amidships. The torpedo floods the starboard engine room, and the ship begins to list and lose speed. A second torpedo hit, or large bomb appears to have damaged the port bow.
  • 1408, RYUJO turned north and attempted to retire as ordered by Admiral Yamamoto. But though the fire is extinguished, the list increased to 21 degrees, and flooding disabled the boilers and machinery.
  • 1420 RYUJO stops. At 1515 ‘Abandon Ship’ is ordered. AMATSUKAZE draws close along the low starboard side to attempt to transfer the crew bodily to her by planks linking the ships.
  • 1610-1625 During abandonment, the carrier and screen are bombed by B-17s that are engaged by her fighters, and she receives no further damage.
  • 1730 B-17s bomb again but again no additional damage. AMATSUKAZE completes rescue, and shortly after, about:
  • 1755 RYUJO capsized to starboard and after floating long enough to reveal holes in her bottom, sinks stern first at 06-10S, 160-50E, bearing 10 degrees 106 miles from Tulagi.
  • Four aircraft go down with the ship. Seven officers – including XO Cdr (Captain posthumously) Kishi and Maintenance Officer LtCdr (Eng.) (Cdr (Eng.) posthumously) Nakagawa – and 113 petty officers and men are lost; Captain Kato and the survivors are rescued by destroyers AMATSUKAZE and TOKITSUKAZE and heavy cruiser TONE. The destroyers soon transfer these survivors to the TOEI MARU and TOHO MARU.

Epilogue

While Ryujo has been at the bottom of the Southern Pacific for 80 years now, her legacy should not be forgotten. When it comes to Koga’s advanced model Zero, left behind in Alaska in what was described as “98 percent condition,” the aircraft was so key to Allied intelligence efforts that it has been described as “The Fighter That Changed World War II.”

Koga’s Zero in U.S. markings while assigned to NACA 1943

The folks over at Grumman were able to get their test pilots and engineers in it, then use lessons drawn from it to tweak the F6F Hellcat and later, the F7F and F8F.

Koga’s Zero in flight

As noted by Wings of the Rising Sun excerpts at The Aviation Geek Club:

Once the fighter had been sent to NAS Anacostia in late 1942, a series of test flights were performed by the Naval Air Station’s Flight Test Director, Cdr Frederick M. Trapnell. He flew identical flight profiles in both the Zero and U.S. fighters to compare their performance, executing similar aerial maneuvers in mock dogfights. U.S. Navy test pilot LT Melvin C. “Boogey” Hoffman was also checked out in the A6M2, after which he helped train Naval Aviators flying new F6F Hellcats, F4U Corsairs, and FM Wildcats by dogfighting with them in the Zero.

In 1943 the aircraft was evaluated in NACA’s LMAL in Hampton, Virginia, where the facility’s Full-Scale Wind Tunnel was used to evaluate the Zero’s aerodynamic qualities. It was also shown off to the public at Washington National Airport that same year during a war booty exhibition. By September 1944, the well-used A6M2 was stationed at NAS North Island once again, where it served as a training aid for “green” Naval Aviators preparing for duty in the Pacific.

RADM William N. Leonard said of Koga’s plane, “The captured Zero was a treasure. To my knowledge, no other captured machine has ever unlocked so many secrets at a time when the need was so great.” On the other side of the pond, Japanese Lt-Gen. Masatake Okumiya said the plane’s loss “was no less serious” than the Japanese defeat at the Battle of Midway, and “did much to hasten Japan’s final defeat.”

PO Koga, the teenage son of a carpenter, was at first buried in the hummocks some 100 yards from his crash site after he was extracted from the Zero. Exhumed in 1947, his remains were interred in the cemetery on Adak, in grave 1082 marked as “Japanese Flyer Killed in Action.” He was exhumed a final time in 1953 for repatriation along with 253 others from the Aleutians, and since then has been in the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery in Japan. The location of his lonely crash on Atukan, half a mile inland from Broad Bight, is occasionally visited by groups from Japan.

While Koga’s Zero was mauled in a mishap on the ground in February 1945 and then later scrapped, instruments from it are on display at the Museum of the U.S. Navy and two of its manufacturer’s plates are in the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum in Anchorage, some of the only relics of Ryujo left.

Ryujo is remembered in a variety of maritime art, most of which is used for scale model box art. 

Specs:

(1941)
Displacement: 12,732 tons
Length: 590’7″
Beam: 68’2″
Draft: 23’3″
Machinery: 12 x Kampon water-tube boilers, 2 geared steam turbines, 2 shafts, 65,000 shp
Speed: 29 knots
Crew: 924
Airwing: up to 48 single-engine aircraft
Armament:
8 x 5″/40 Type 89 naval gun
4 x 25mm/60 Hotchkiss-licensed Type 96 light AA guns
24 x 13mm/76 AAAs


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Remembering Dieppe at 80

The colossal foul-up that was Operation Jubilee or the Dieppe Raid, using a brigade-sized mix of mostly Canadian troops augmented by a few U.S. Army Rangers and Allied Commandos to capture and hold a French Channel port in a dress rehearsal for taking Europe back, was 80 years ago today. It turned out to be the Canadian Army’s costliest day of WWII with 907 men killed, another 2,500 wounded, and 1,976 captured.

Two Canadians received the Victoria Cross for their bravery.

German officer and soldiers examining a Churchill tank stuck on the beach in front of the boardwalk after the battle, its left track broken. Wounded men lying on the ground are about to be evacuated. Dieppe, August 19th, 1942. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada C-017293.

The poor showing led to putting off the liberation of France for two years as the Allies concentrated on opening the second front in the Axis’s “soft underbelly” in the Med. 

This year’s commemoration includes a few of the remaining Veterans, contingents from the Canadian Army, and HMCS Kingston.

Avenger down der periscope

Paintings of Naval Aviation during World War II: Abbott Collection. #98: “The Kill” Artwork by Robert Benney.

“In this dramatic presentation of sea-sky battle, a Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber, bomb bay doors open, leaves death in its wake as it zooms away from a conclusive attack on a surfaced enemy submarine. All the vivid action in this scene has been repeated many times in actual combat by U.S. Naval airmen. Naval planes from escort aircraft carriers wreaked havoc on submarine wolf packs attacking Atlantic convoys, and they virtually blasted them from the ocean for many months. Bombers were fitted with depth charges, one of which is pictured exploding off the U-boat’s beam here. In the attack, the plane’s rear ‘stinger’ gun splits death at the gun crews attempting to ward off these lethal hawks from the sky.” National Museum of the U.S. Navy Lot 3124-14

While the Grumman TBF Avenger was a war baby– the first production TBF-1 was completed on 3 January 1942– and saw its best use in the Pacific from Midway (where it saw its inaugural action) to Tokoyo Bay, chalking up a long list of layups in delivering torpedos against Japan’s surface ships and Marus of all types, it also did its work in the Atlantic.

Tapped to make up the sub-busting part of the composite air wings on escort carriers, Avengers would tally no less than 35 U-boat “kills” during the Battle for the Atlantic, running from U-569 (Oblt. Hans Johannsen)– scuttled on 22 May 1943 in the North Atlantic east of Newfoundland after being badly damaged by depth charges from two Avenger aircraft (VC-9 USN/T-6 & T-7) of the escort carrier USS Bogue— to U-711 (Kptlt. Hans-Günther Lange), sunk on 4 May 1945 at Kilbotn, near Harstad, Norway by bombs from Avenger and Wildcat aircraft (846, 853 and 882 Sqn FAA) of the British escort carriers HMS Searcher, HMS Trumpeter, and HMS Queen.

The crew of German submarine U-664 prepares to go over the side of the ship during an attack by two Avenger aircraft from USS Card (CVE 11), August 9, 1943. Note, the laughing sawfish insignia on the conning tower of the 9th U-boat Flotilla. 80-G-43638

Attack on German U-boats, 1943. Aerial attack on U-378, Incident #4786, October 20, 1943. The U-boat was sunk by Fido homing torpedo and depth charges from Avenger and Wildcat aircraft from Composite Squadron Thirteen (VC-13) based on USS Core (CVE-13). 80-G-207651

Air Attacks on German U-boats, WWII. U-801 was sunk on March 17, 1944, by a Fido homing torpedo by two Avengers and one Wildcat aircraft (VC-6) from USS Block Island (CVE-21), along with depth charges and gunfire from USS Corry (DD-463) and USS Bronstein (DE-189). Note, Lieutenant Junior Grade Paul Sorenson strafed and Lieutenant Junior Grade Charles Woodell depth charged U-801. 80-G-222854

1st USS Jacob Jones found

Laid down in Camden, New Jersey in August 1914, the day after the Kaiser’s troops crossed into Belgium, the Tucker-class tin can USS Jacob Jones (Destroyer No. 61) was the first U.S. Navy vessel named in honor of Commodore Jacob Nicholas Jones who, as skipper of the USS Wasp in 1812, was most notable for capturing the Royal Navy sloop of war HMS Frolic after an intense battle.

USS Jacob Jones (Destroyer # 61) underway in 1916, soon after she was completed. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. NH 52123.

Sent to Europe after the U.S. entered the Great War in April 1917, the 1,225-ton four piper was steaming independently from Brest to Queenstown, Ireland on 6 December 1917 when she caught a torpedo in her starboard side three feet below the water line, rupturing her fuel oil tank located below the auxiliary and engine rooms. Shipping water, her stern depth charges went off and just eight minutes after the German fish struck, she went down some 25 miles southeast of Bishop Rock, Scilly Islands.

Kptlt. Hans Rose, commander of the U-51 class submarine SM U-53, had made a record (for the time) hit from over 3,000 yards. A gentleman of the old order, Kplt. Rose surfaced, took two seriously wounded blue jackets aboard, and radioed the approximate location and drift of the survivors to the American base in Queenstown, requesting rescuing ships give him an hour to leave the vicinity.

USS Jacob Jones (Destroyer # 61) Sinking off the Scilly Islands, England, on 6 December 1917, after she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-53. Photographed by Seaman William G. Ellis. Smithsonian Institution Photograph. Catalog #: Smithsonian 72-4509-A

Speaking of the survivors, DD-61‘s XO at the time was one LT Norman (Nicholas) Scott, a fighting salt who as a rear admiral would go on to lead his cruiser-destroyer force to victory at the Battle of Cape Esperance off Guadalcanal in October 1942 then perish under the lackluster command of the inexperienced RADM Daniel J. Callaghan the next month. Rose, at the time, was back in uniform complete with his Kaisarian-awarded Blue Max training officers for Donitz as a recalled Fregattenkapitän in 1. Unterseeboots-Ausbildungsabteilung.

Fast forward to yesterday and a group of divers in England have identified the bones of DD-61 in 400 feet of water 60 miles south of Newlyn, Cornwall.

USS Jacob Jones bell by Rick Ayrton

Ironically, the second USS Jacob Jones (DD-130) was also sunk by a German submarine albeit in WWII off New Jersey. It is possible that the good FKpt. Rose may have had a hand in training the young men who sent that tin can to the bottom.

Admiralty to stop printing paper nautical charts after 227 years.

The UKHO, which assumed the role of printing Admiralty charts some time ago and has some 3,500 such nautical works of art on file, recently announced they are going digital-only, because why worry enough to have paper backups, right?

Today’s world is unrecognisable to the one that existed in 1795, when our organisation was founded. Back then, mariners navigated by the stars using a magnetic compass and surveying with a leaded line marked in fathoms. They could fix where they had been, but not where they were. 

Every aspect of modern life is now driven by technology. Mariners use global navigation satellite services combined with electronic navigational charts (ENCs) and inertial navigation systems to determine where they are, in near real-time, to centimetric accuracy. This enables them to navigate and berth vessels of all shapes and sizes more safely and with incredible precision.  

Shipping is steering rapidly towards a future underpinned by digital innovations, enhanced connectivity at sea and optimised data solutions, all of which are bringing about the next generation of navigation. 

The UKHO aims to be at the forefront  of this digital transition, continuing to provide the assured and globally trusted ADMIRALTY navigation services that seafarers the world over depend on. Withdrawing from paper chart production will allow us to increase our focus on advanced digital services that meet the needs of today’s seafarers. 

Importantly, the past few years have seen a decline in demand for paper charts, driven in part by the SOLAS-mandated transition to ECDIS and by the growing recognition of the benefits of digital products and services.

As we look to the future, our core purpose remains the safety of shipping operations and delivering the best possible navigation solutions to achieve that. Whether for the Royal Navy, commercial vessels or other ocean users, our focus is on developing and delivering ADMIRALTY digital services that promote and underpin safe, secure and thriving oceans. 

On the bright side, the phase-out is supposed to take until 2026, so at least you have a minute to stock up. 

Warship Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022: Savo Pig Boat Avenger

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, Aug. 11, 2022: Savo Pig Boat Avenger

Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Catalog #: 80-G-33750

Above we see the bearded and very salty-looking crew of the S-42-class “Sugar Boat” USS S-44 (SS-155) manning the submarine’s 4″/50 cal Mark 9 wet-mount deck gun, circa January 1943. Note the assorted victory flags painted on the boat’s fairwater, she earned them.

The S-class submarines, derided as “pig boats” or “sugar boats.” were designed during the Great War, but none were finished in time for the conflict (S-1 was launched by the builders on 26 October 1918, just two weeks before the Armistice). Some 51 examples of these 1,000-ton diesel-electrics were built in several sub-variants by 1925 and they made up the backbone of the U.S. submarine fleet before the larger “fleet” type boats of the 1930s came online. While four were lost in training accidents, six were scrapped and another six transferred to the British in World War II, a lot of these elderly crafts saw service in the war, and seven were lost during the conflict.

The six boats of the S-42 subclass (SS-153 through SS-158) were slightly longer to enable them to carry a 4-inch (rather than 3-inch) deck gun with its own dedicated gun access hatch in the deck. Some 225 feet long overall, their submerged displacement touched 1,126 tons, making them some of the largest of the breed. Armed with four forward tubes (and no bow tubes), they had enough storage space to carry 10 21-inch torpedoes but were restricted in size to 16-foot long WWI-era fish as their tubes were shorter and couldn’t handle the newer 21-foot long Mark 14 torpedo which was introduced in 1931.

The Mark 10 of the 1920s, compared to the Mark 14, was slower and had shorter legs, but still carried a 500-pound warhead. The older torps were simple and dependable– provided you could get close enough to make them count.

It was thought the Sugar Boats, after testing, had enough fresh water for their crews and batteries to enable a patrol of about 25-30 days, and provision and diesel/lubricants for slightly longer.

S-42 subclass. Drawing & Text courtesy of U.S. Submarines Through 1945, An Illustrated Design History by Norman Friedman. Naval Institute Press. Via Navsource

Referred to as the “2nd Electric Boat/Holland” type of the S-boat series, all six were built at Bethlehem’s Fore River yard.

Commissioned on 16 February 1925 (all six of the class were similarly commissioned inside 10 months across 1925-26) S-44 completed her shakedown in New England waters and then headed south for Submarine Division (SubDiv) 19, located in the Canal Zone, where she joined her sisters. For the next five years, homeported at Coco Solo, they ranged across assorted Caribbean, Pacific, and Latin American ports. This idyllic peacetime life continued through the 1930s as the Division’s homeport shifted to Pearl Harbor, then to San Diego, and back to Panama.

USS S-44 (SS-155) In San Diego harbor, California, during the later 1920s or the 1930s. Note how big her deck gun looks and her high-viz pennant numbers. NH 42263

USS S-44 (SS-155) Underway during the later 1920s or the 1930s. NH 42262

USS S-44 (SS-155) Leaving Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 1929. Photographed by Chief Quartermaster Peck. NH 42264

With the “winds of war” on the horizon and the realization that these small and aging boats may have to clock in for real, sisters S-42, S-44, and S-46 were sent to Philadelphia Naval Yard in early 1941 to be modernized. By August 1941, S-44 was on a series of shakedown/neutrality patrols along Cape Cod and Rhode Island, conducting mock torpedo runs on the destroyer USS Mustin (DD-413), a tin can that would go on to earn 13 battle stars in WWII. Still on the East Coast when news of the attack on Pearl Harbor hit, she soon got underway for Panama.

S-44’s principal wartime skipper, from October 1940 through September 1942, covering her first three War Patrols, was Tennessee-born LT. John Raymond “Dinty” Moore (USNA 1929).

While most Sugar Boats still in the fleet in 1942 were relegated to ASW training and new submariner school tasks as well as defense of the Panama Canal Zone and Alaska, some were made ready to go to the West Pac and get active in the war. Though small and armed with obsolete torpedoes, a handful of Sugars– our S-44 included– were rushed to block the Japanese progress in the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands, until larger and more capable Fleet Boats (Balao, Gato, Tench classes, etc.) could be sent to the area.

First Patrol

Assigned to SUBRON Five, S-44 got underway from Brisbane for her patrol area on 24 April 1942, she haunted the Cape St. George area of New Ireland in the Bismarck Archipelago for three weeks and reported a successful hit on a Japanese merchant of some 400 feet/4,000 tons on 12 May after a four-torpedo spread.

From Moore’s report: 

Post-war, this was confirmed to be the Japanese repair ship Shoei Maru (5644 GRT) returning to Rabaul after coming to the assistance of the minelayer Okinoshima, sunk by S-44′s sistership S-42 earlier in the day. Talk about teamwork.

USS S-44 returned to Brisbane on 23 May, just shy of being out for a month.

Second Patrol

After a two-week refit and resupply, S-44 left Brisbane again on 7 June 1942– just after the Battle of Midway– ordered to patrol off Guadalcanal where local Coastwatchers reported a Japanese seaplane base to be under construction. There, she compared the coastline to old Admiralty charts of the area and watched for activity, noting fires and shipping traffic. Midway into the patrol, the Sugar boat fired three torpedoes at a 200-foot/2,000-ton freighter with “69” on the side of her bridge and one visible deck gun.

From Moore’s report: 

This was post-war confirmed to be the Japanese auxiliary gunboat Keijo Maru (2626 GRT, built 1940) sent to the bottom about 12 nautical miles west of Gavutu, Solomon Islands.

As noted by DANFS:

The force of the explosion, the rain of debris, and the appearance and attack of a Japanese ASW plane forced S-44 down. At 1415, S-44 fired her torpedoes at the gunboat. At 1418, the enemy plane dropped a bomb which exploded close enough to bend the holding latch to the conning tower, allowing in 30 gallons of sea water; damaging the depth gauges, gyrocompass, and ice machine; and starting leaks. Her No. 1 periscope was thought to be damaged; but, when the submarine surfaced for repairs, a Japanese seaman’s coat was found wrapped around its head.

Two patrols, two kills under her belt, S-44 arrived back at Brisbane on 5 July.

Third Patrol

After three weeks of rest and airing out, S-44 headed North from Brisbane on 24 July, ordered to keep her eyes peeled off the New Britain/New Ireland area. After stalking a small convoy off Cape St. George in early August but unable to get a shot due to heavy seas, she began haunting the Japanese base at Kavieng Harbor on New Ireland. This, likewise, proved fruitless and she ranged the area until when, on the early morning of 10 August 1942 (80 years ago today), some 9,000 yards away, she sighted four enemy heavy cruisers steaming right for her.

What a sight it must have been!

Just 18 minutes later, having worked into a firing position for the oncoming column– over 30,000 tons of the Emperor’s bruisers in bright sunlight on a calm sea — S-44 fired all four tubes at the heavy bringing up the rear then dived deep to 130 feet. Four old reliable Mark 10s launched from just 700 yards did the trick.

Moore would later detail, “We were close enough to see the Japanese on the bridge using their glasses” and that the looming cruiser looked bigger than the Pentagon building. While submerged and listening, Moore would later say, “Evidently all her boilers blew up…You could hear hideous noises that sounded like steam hissing through the water. These noises were more terrifying to the crew than the actual depth charges that followed. It sounded as if giant chains were being dragged across our hull as if our own water and air lines were bursting.”

The details of action from Moore’s official report:

Post-war, it was confirmed this target was the Furutaka-class heavy cruiser HIJMS Kako, one of the four heavy cruisers of Cruiser Division 6 (along with Aoba, Furutaka, and Kinugasa) which just five hours before had jumped the Allied cruisers USS Astoria, Quincy, Vincennes, and HMAS Canberra off Savo Island, leaving all wrecks along Iron Bottom Sound. During that searchlight-lit surface action, Kako fired at least 192 8-inch, 124 4.7-inch, and 149 25-mm shells as well as ten Long Lance torpedoes, dealing much of the damage to the Allied vessels.

Furutaka Class Heavy Cruiser Kako pictured at Kure Naval Arsenal on March 30th, 1926

While Kako had received no damage at Savo, her meeting with S-44 was lopsided in the other sense.

As told by Combined Fleet: 

The Kawanishi E7K2 “Alf” floatplane from AOBA, patrolling overhead, fails to send a timely warning and at 0708 three torpedoes hit KAKO in rapid succession. The first strikes to starboard abreast No. 1 turret. Water enters through open scuttles of the hull as the bow dips and twists further within three minutes of being hit. The other torpedoes hit amidships, in the vicinity of the forward magazines, and further aft, abreast boiler rooms Nos. 1 and 2. KAKO rolls over on her starboard side with white smoke and steam belching from her forward funnel. An enormous roar ensues as seawater reaches her boilers.

At 0712, the Japanese start depth charging the S-44, but without success. S-44 slips away.

At 0715, KAKO disappears bow first in the sea to the surprise and dismay of her squadron mates. She sinks off Simbari Island at 02-28S, 152-11E. Sixty-eight crewmen are killed, but Captain Takahashi and 649 of KAKO’s crew are rescued by AOBA, FURUTAKA and KINUGASA.

“The S-44 (SS-155), vs HIJMS Kako. Patrolling off New Ireland, the veteran S-boat ambushes the enemy cruiser division at the entrance to Kavieng Harbor. Four torpedoes (range 700 yards) send Kako to the bottom, an 8,800-ton warship sunk by an 850-ton sub. This sinking of the first Japanese heavy cruiser avenged the defeat at Savo Island.” Drawing by LCDR Fred Freemen, courtesy of Theodore Roscoe, from his book “U.S. Submarine Operations of WW II”, published by USNI. Original painting in the LOC. 

S-44 returned to Brisbane, Australia, on 23 August 1942, where the sinking of Kako was a big deal for a Navy that had just suffered its worst night in history.

Truth be told, it was a big deal for the American Submarine Force as well.

In the first 245 days of the Pacific War, suffering from a mix of bad torpedoes (mostly the vaunted new Mark 14s) and timid leadership, U.S. subs had only accounted for nine rather minor Japanese warships, even though the Navy had no less than 56 boats in the Pacific at the beginning of the war and soon doubled that number:

  • Submarine I-73, sunk by USS Gudgeon, 27 January 1942.
  • Destroyer Natsushio, sunk by USS S-37, 9 February 1942.
  • Seaplane carrier Mizuho, sunk by USS Drum, 2 May 1942.
  • Minelayer Okinoshima, sunk by USS S-42, 11 May 1942.
  • Submarine I-28, sunk by USS Tautog, 17 May 1942.
  • Submarine I-64, sunk by USS Triton, 17 May 1942.
  • Destroyer Yamakaze, sunk by USS Nautilus, 25 June 1942.
  • Destroyer Nenohi, sunk by USS Triton, 4 July 1942.
  • Destroyer Arare, sunk by USS Growler, 5 July 1942.

Indeed, by that time in the war, the Japanese had only lost one heavy cruiser, Mikuma, which was finished off by carrier aircraft at Midway after she was crippled in a collision with another ship.

So of course, Dinty Moore earned hearty congrats and would eventually pin on a Navy Cross for S-44s action against Kako.

Captain Ralph W. Christie, USN, Commander Task Force 42 and SUBRON5 (left) Congratulates LCDR John R. Moore, USN, skipper of USS S-44 (SS-155), as he returned to this South Pacific base after a very successful week of patrol activity. (Quoted from original World War II photo caption) The original caption date is 1 September 1942, which is presumably a release date. 80-G-12171

Fourth Patrol

Dinty Moore would leave his first command to take control of the more advanced Sargo-class boat USS Sailfish (SS-192) and S-44 would head back out from Brisbane on 17 September with LT Reuben Thornton Whitaker as her skipper.

Dogged by Japanese ASW patrols as well as a persistent oil leak and a battery compartment fire, S-44 returned to Australia on 14 October after a 4,262-mile patrol with nothing to add to her tally board despite a claimed attack on an Ashashio-class destroyer that was not borne out by post-war analysis.

The boat needed some work, that’s for sure. She had spent 150 of the past 220 days at sea, with 120 of that on war patrol. She leaked and had numerous deficiencies, all exacerbated by repeated Japanese depth charging. Her crew, which was largely original men that had shipped out with her from Philadelphia in 1941, had lost up to 25 pounds apiece, and nerves were frayed.

Refit

On 4 November 1942, with LT Whitaker sent on to the Gato-class fleet boat USS Flasher (SS-249), S-44 was sailed for the East Coast via the Panama Canal under the command of LT Francis Elwood Brown (USNA ’33) (former CO of USS S-39) and slowly poked along until she arrived at Philadelphia Navy Yard in April 1943.

USS S-44 (SS-155) Underway off the Panama Canal Zone, circa February 1943, while en route to the Philadelphia Navy Yard for overhaul. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives. 19-N-41382.

At PNSY, S-44 was reworked over the summer and picked up a 20mm Oerlikon as well as a JK passive sonar and SJ/ /SD radars.

USS S-44 (SS-155) Underway off the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Pennsylvania, after her last overhaul, on 11 June 1943. 19-N-46194

Same as above, 19-N-46193.

“S-44 (SS-155), was one of six E.B. boats extensively modernized during WW II. The refit included the installation of air conditioning, with the unit installed in the crew space abaft the control room, alongside the refrigerator. S-44 was fitted with radar (SJ forward, SD abaft the bridge), a loop antenna built into the periscope shears for underwater reception, & a free flooding structure carrying a 20-mm anti-aircraft gun, with a box for 4-in ready-service ammunition below it. A JK passive sonar, probably installed at Philadelphia during a refit between November & December 1941, was located on the forward deck. On the keel below it was a pair of oscillators.” Drawing by Jim Christley. Text courtesy of U.S. Submarines Through 1945, An Illustrated Design History by Norman Friedman. Naval Institute Press, via Navsource.

Fifth, and Final, Patrol

Departing PNSY on 14 June 1943, S-44 transited the Ditch once again and arrived at Dutch Harbor, Alaska on 16 September, with Brown still in command. After 10 days of making ready, S-44 sortied out past the Russian church on her 5th War Patrol on 26 September, bound for the Kuriles, where she never came back from, although two survivors eventually surfaced in 1945.

The story of what happened to her was only learned after VJ Day.

It is believed that S-44 was sunk east of the Kamchatka Peninsula by the Japanese Shimushu-class escort vessel Ishigaki.

As detailed by DANFS:

On the night of 7 October, she made radar contact with a “small merchantman” and closed in for a surface attack. Several hundred yards from the target, her deck gun fired and was answered by a salvo. The “small merchantman” was a destroyer. The order to dive was given, but S-44 failed to submerge. She took several hits, in the control room, in the forward battery room, and elsewhere.

S-44 was ordered abandoned. A pillowcase was put up from the forward battery room hatch as a flag of surrender, but the shelling continued.

Possibly eight men escaped from the submarine as she went down. Two, Chief Torpedoman’s Mate Ernest A. Duva and Radioman Third Class William F. Whitemore, were picked up by the destroyer. Taken initially to Paramushiro, then to the Naval Interrogation Camp at Ofuna, the two submariners spent the last year of World War II working in the Ashio copper mines. They were repatriated by the Allies at the end of the war.

Epilogue

S-44 remains one of the Lost 52 U.S. submarines from WWII still regarded on eternal patrol.

S-44 was one of six Sugar Boats lost during WWII. Their names here are inscribed on a memorial at the USS Albacore Museum in New Hampshire. Similar memorials are located in all 50 states. (Photo: Chris Eger)

Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery USS S-44 memorial in Illinois, installed in 2003 by Members of U.S. Submarine Veterans of World War Two

Thus far, her wreck, believed off Paramushir (AKA Paramushiro or Paramushiru) Island, has not been located and as that windswept volcanic rock has been occupied by the Russians since August 1945, she likely will never be discovered.

S-44’s war records from August 1941 – October 1942, including her first four War Patrols, have been digitized and are in the National Archives. She earned two battle stars during World War II.

She was remembered in postal cachets on the 40th anniversary of her loss when the USPS issued an S-class submarine stamp in 2000, among others. 

For what it is worth, her killer, the escort Ishigaki, was herself sent to the bottom by the American submarine USS Herring (SS-233) in May 1944.

S-44’s most famous skipper, Dinty Moore, would command Sailfish on that boat’s 6th, 7th, and 8th War Patrols, sinking the Japanese merchant Shinju Maru (3617 GRT) and the Japanese collier Iburi Maru (3291 GRT) in 1943. He would join Admiral Lockwood’s Roll of Honor in 1944 and ultimately retire as a rear admiral in 1958. The Navy Cross holder would pass at age 79 and is buried in Georgia. 

RADM Dinty Moore 11 Oct 1905-10 June 1985.

Of S-44’s five Fore River-built EB-designed sisters, all survived the war and gave a full 20+ years of service in each case. They conducted over 25 patrols, mostly in the West Pac, and claimed a half dozen ships with class leader S-42 being the most successful (besides S-44) with the aforementioned minelayer Okinoshima confirmed as well as an attack on a destroyer logged. All these sisters were paid off just after the war and sold for scrapping or sunk as a target by the end of 1946.

None of the 51 Sugar Boats are preserved. Those ancient bathtubs held the line in ’42-43 during the darkest days of the Pacific War and proved their worth.

The Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee post-war attributed 201 Japanese sunken warships, totaling some 540,192 tons, to American submarines.

Specs:

Displacement: 906 tons surfaced; 1,126 tons submerged
Length: 216 feet wl, 225 feet 3 inches overall
Beam: 20 feet 9 inches
Draft: 16 feet (4.9 m)
Propulsion: 2 × NELSECO diesels, 600 hp each; 2 × Electro-Dynamic electric motors, 750 horsepower each; 120 cell Exide battery; two shafts.
Speed: 15 knots surfaced; 11 knots submerged
Bunkerage: 46,363 gal
Range: 5,000 nautical miles at 10 knots surfaced
Test depth: 200 ft.
Crew: 38 (later 42) officers and men
Armament (as built):
4 x 21 in (533 mm) torpedo tubes (bow, 10-12 torpedoes)
One 4″/50 deck gun


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The Worst Night in U.S. Navy history at 80

USS Quincy (CA-39) photographed from a Japanese cruiser during the Battle of Savo Island, off Guadalcanal, 9 August 1942. Quincy, seen here burning and illuminated by Japanese searchlights, was sunk in this action (NH 50346).

Known today as the Battle of Savo Island British RADM Victor Crutchley’s Task group 62.6 cruiser and destroyer covering force, subordinated under U.S. ADM Richmond K. Turner for the amphibious landings at Guadalcanal, seemed mighty on paper: three Australian and five American cruisers, 15 destroyers, and some minesweepers.

The thing is, most were huddled around the beach and those that weren’t were separated into a number of smaller groups including:

  • Two tin cans on radar picket (USS Blue and USS Ralph Talbot)
  • A Southern cruiser group with the heavy cruisers HMAS Canberra and USS Chicago along with the destroyers USS Bagley and USS Patterson; and…
  • A Northern cruiser group with the heavy cruisers USS Vincennes, USS Quincy, and USS Astoria along with the destroyers USS Helm and USS Wilson.

Running a barricade to defend the landing beaches and ‘phibs, this immediate force of five Allied heavy cruisers and six destroyers– equipped with radar!– seemed a good match for Japanese VADM Gunichi Mikawa’s incoming striking group from Rabaul and Kavieng of five heavy cruisers (Chokai, Aoba, Furutaka, Kako, and Kinugasa) two light cruisers (Tenryu and Yubari) and the destroyer Yunagi.

Seemed.

However, ineffectively deployed into three separate and spread-out forces against Mikawa’s unified squadron, the Australian-American task group was sleepwalking with fatigued crews in the dark without properly using their radar (which was so new that tactics were still being developed for its use) and largely ignoring aerial spotting reports that should have warned the force while the Japanese, skilled in night fighting and armed with formidable Long Lance torpedos, took the Allies out with almost spooky ease, pounded to the seabed while fixed under the gaze of enemy searchlights.

Battle of Savo Island, 9 August 1942. cruisers USS Astoria (CA-34), USS Vincennes (CA-44), USS Quincy (CA 39) shown torpedo attack and shellfire from the Japanese cruisers. by John Hamilton NHHC

Japanese cruiser Yūbari shines searchlights toward the northern force of Allied warships during the battle of Savo island

Heavy cruiser Furutaka during the Battle of Savo Island.

“Night Battle of Savo Island by an unknown Japanese artist.”

In the short pre-dawn hour between 01:31 of 9 August 1942, when Mikawa ordered “Every ship attack” and 02:20 when he ordered them to retire, Vincennes, Quincy, Astoria, and Canberra were all mortally wounded while Chicago and two destroyers were very seriously damaged. Only two Japanese cruisers were damaged but could still make it back to base.

It was a mauling, an execution by large caliber shells at point blank range.

Canberra was hit at least 24 times. Astoria took 65 hits. Vincennes was struck an estimated 74 times. They were the first ships to be sunk in what today is named “Ironbottom Sound.”

HMAS Canberra’s last moments off Savo Island, 9th August 1942

Hits sustained by Astoria at the Battle of Savo Island off Guadalcanal on August 9, 1942

The Allies suffered at least 1,077 killed and missing while the Japanese a mere 58. 

Some 500 no doubt traumatized survivors of the lost American cruisers would be held under Marine guard at Treasure Island for weeks with orders not to talk about the defeat– something that only hit the papers back home nearly three months later. After all, nothing stays secret forever. 

James D. Hornfischer’s Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal, covers this sad tale in great detail. See chapter “The Martyring of Task Group 62.6” in particular.

An interesting conversation on the battle from the Australian point of view– Canberra was the RAN’s largest warship loss in any conflict– the Naval Studies Group at the University of Canberra held a panel of Dr. Greg Gilbert, Vice Admiral Peter Jones, and Dr. Kathryn Spurling to discuss the engagement a few years ago.

Assiniboine takes a scalp

Some 80 years ago today, on 6 August 1942, the Royal Canadian Navy’s C-class destroyer leader HMCS Assiniboine (I18) turned herself into a knife to slice up a German sausage in the form of a U-boat

Ordered in 1929 for the Royal Navy as HMS Kempenfelt, she joined the British fleet in 1932 and served until the outbreak of World War II, when shortly after Hitler sent his legions over the Polish border, the 1,400-ton tin can moved over to the Canadians and was given her Assiniboine moniker (just “Bones” to her crew) and was soon busting German blockade runners in the Caribbean. Allocated for mid-ocean escort service in June 1941, she would ride shotgun on a staggering 71 convoys.

This brings us to Kptlt. Rudolf Lemcke’s U-210, a Krupp-built Type VIIC operating with the Steinbrinck wolfpack some 20-days into her first war patrol.

From the excellent Post Mortems On Enemy Submarines – Serial No. 4 in the NHHC collection:

At 1325 on August 6, in a patch of clear weather, H. M. C. S. Assiniboine, forming part of the escort of S. C. 94 from Halifax to the United Kingdom, sighted a conning tower bearing 30° range 6 miles. At 1338 she fired three salvos, before the last of which the U-boat altered course to port and dived. It has been positively established by survivors’ statements that this boat was not U-210Assiniboine arrived in the vicinity of this U-boat’s diving position at 1357 and altered course to 330°, this being the estimated course of the U-boat before she dived. Assiniboine then carried out a box sweep in the area, at 1418 firing a pattern of depth charges set at 100 to 225 feet, but with no evident results, and continued to sweep in the presumed track of this U-boat.

At 1912 Assiniboine sighted a conning tower bearing 120° at 2,000 yards retiring at full speed into the fog. At 2036, with visibility about 2,000 yards, she established a Radar contact bearing 270°. Almost immediately she sighted U-210, stopped. Then U-210 went ahead at full speed and altered course to starboard, disappearing into the fog after Assiniboine had fired one round. Assiniboine, hearing H. E. at this time bearing 300°, increased speed, but misjudged the distance she had run and, thinking she had passed the U-boat’s position, altered to 345°, the target’s estimated course. She then realized her mistake, and altered course back to 190°. Visibility was then 600 to 800 yards.

At 2000 the bridge watch was relieved aboard U-210, the following men coming on duty: Quartermaster Holst, Coxswain Krumm, Monbach, and Meetz. Mueller relieved Mycke at the helm. Mueller is believed to have stood alone in the conning tower at this time. As none of the bridge watch survived the following action, accounts of the sinking of U-210 are limited to his statements and those of men below decks.

According to Mueller, fog closed around the U-boat as the watch was relieved and Lemcke, thinking that U-210 was safely hidden, came below to eat his supper. A few minutes later Mueller heard confused sounds of shouting and firing above, and Lemcke and Tamm passed him on the way to the bridge. General alarm was sounded throughout the U-boat, by buzzers in the forward compartments and by flickering green and red lights in the engine room, as the crew were eating their evening meal.

–13–

View from aboard Assiniboine.
Assiniboine.

–14–

Closing in on the sub.
closes

–15–

Ship along side submarine.
enemy.

–16–

Assiniboine takes a scalp.
Assiniboine takes a scalp.

–17–

At 2050 Assiniboine gained another Radar contact at 035° on the starboard bow, range 1,200 yards. She closed it at full speed and about 1 minute later sighted U-210, still on the surface. She closed to ram at full speed, having first housed the dome and prepared a 50-foot depth-charge pattern.

Both vessels opened fire and for about 25 minutes a furious action ensued at almost point-blank range. U-210 took a constant evading action, and Assiniboine was forced to go full astern on the inside engine to prevent U-210 getting inside her turning circle, which the U-boat seemed to be trying to do. During some of this action the two vessels were so close that Assiniboine‘s company could see Lemcke on U-210‘s bridge bending down to pass wheel orders.

Aboard U-210 no effort was made to dive immediately nor could anyone reach the 8.8-cm. gun, but fire from Assiniboine was returned by Holst, manning the 2-cm. gun at a range of approximately 200 yards. Explosive bullets were used and started a second-degree fire in Assiniboine‘s forecastle, spreading aft almost to the bridge.

Lemcke was blamed posthumously by his men for not submerging at once, but the volume of smoke pouring from the destroyer apparently led him to believe that he had damaged her considerably, and encouraged him to prolong the action. Prisoners also stated that he felt he could escape on the surface through the protecting fog, if need be.

Assiniboine‘s first hits damaged one of U-210‘s port trimming tanks. The bridge was then struck by machine gun bullets. Holst was shot through the neck and killed outright, and Krumm was badly wounded. An instant later Assiniboine scored a direct hit with her 4.7 gun on the conning tower, the shell making a shambles of the bridge.

A prisoner stated that Lemcke was literally blown to pieces, and that Krumm, lying wounded, was virtually decapitated. It is assumed that Tamm also suffered a violent death.

Mueller believed that a body was flung against the torpedo firing mechanism, releasing an unset torpedo. Between them prisoners counted three more direct hits: One through the forward torpedo tubes, another which carried away the deck covering between the 8.8-cm. gun and the forward torpedo hatch – neither causing leaks in the pressure hull – and one aft which smashed the screws, water entering the boat. The boat was down by the stern, the electric motors had caught fire, and the round hitting the conning tower had severely damaged the Diesel air-intake.

During the action an attempt was also made to fire one torpedo.

The tube’s crew was told to stand by, but the order was never given.

With the conning tower practically demolished, Sorber, the engineer officer, now attempted to dive U-210. As the boat submerged, she

–18–

was rammed to starboard by Assiniboine abaft the conning tower and over the galley hatch (Kombüsenluke). U-210 descended to a depth of 18 meters. Water was flooding into the boat through the damaged Diesel air-intake, and through the battered stern. The electric motors had failed and everything breakable within the boat had been shattered.

Sorber gave the order to blow tanks and abandon ship, under the misapprehension that Göhlich, who had received superficial cuts, was too badly injured to make the ultimate decision. Sorber later reproached himself for surfacing and surrendering as he believed, upon subsequent reflection, that he might have been able to escape submerged. On surfacing, it was found that the water in the air-intake prevented the Diesels from being started and, according to survivors, U-210 remained stopped and slightly down by the stern. Assiniboine rammed again aft as U-210 surfaced, firing a shallow pattern of depth charges as she passed. The C. O. of the destroyer stated that the U-boat then sank by the head in 2 minutes.

Mueller stated that he stayed at his post until he heard the order. “Blow tanks; stand by life jackets!” He then left the helm as his life jacket was in the forward torpedo compartment and the men had been told never to take any but their own. He clambered through to the bow compartment, where he found a number of men abandoning ship through the forward torpedo hatch. Water was flooding through the hatch as he followed them. The majority of the engine-room personnel thought they were trapped when they found, first, that the galley hatch was jammed, and then, that they could not move the conning tower hatch which had become jammed by the direct hit on the bridge. Through their combined exertions they finally got the conning tower hatch open. The last man out of the control room stated that water was well over his boots there as he left.

When all were mustered, the engineer officer and one of the control room petty officers apparently went below, opened flooding valve 5 and put an explosive charge in the periscope shaft. There is a special opening in the shaft inside the boat for this purpose. The radio men threw overboard a number of secret papers, or burned them with incendiary leaflets. They also smashed the radio equipment with a hammer. Sorber himself denied that he had done anything more than open the seacocks before leaving the boat, as the last man out.

U-210 sank at 2114, H. M. S. Dianthus appearing out of the fog in time to see her go under. Although at the time of her sinking her after aerial was out of action and her Morse key broken, the chief radioman said he was able to send a signal reporting her sinking. Although this signal was much under power, he was sure that if B. d. U. did not receive it, one of the other U-boats in the vicinity did.

–19–

One survivor said that the radioman told them afterward that he had not been able to send any signals.

In view of the tremendous punishment taken by U-210 it is remarkable that the entire crew below decks escaped with their lives.

Bones would survive the war and be scrapped in 1952 with three Battle Honours (Atlantic 1939-45, Biscay 1944, English Channel 1944-45).

Four years later a new St-Laurent class destroyer (234) would perpetuate her name in the RCN, carrying it until 1995.

The battle between Bones and U-210 is remembered in maritime art. 

HMCS DIANTHUS IN THE DISTANCE. BONES BEATS U210 THE AUGUST 1942 SINKING OF THE GERMAN SUBMARINE, U210 BY HMCS ASSINIBOINE Tom Forrestal CWM 20110023-001

HMCS ASSINIBOINE by SubLt Beatty Grieve CWM 19740552-002-2487×2160

ASSINIBOINE VERSUS U-BOAT U-210 CDR Harold Bement CWM 19710261-1021

Warship Wednesday, July 26, 2022: 146 Miles SSW of Biloxi

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, July 26, 2022: 146 Miles SSW of Biloxi

(Photo: Deutsches U-Boot-Museum / Stiftung Traditionsarchiv Unterseeboote, Cuxhaven-Altenbruch)

Above we see 28-year-old Oberleutnant zur See (=Lieutenant) Hans-Günther Kuhlmann on the running bridge of DKM U-166, a brand new German Type IXC U-boat, circa 1942. The good Oblt. Kuhlmann was U-166‘s sole skipper during WWII and he, his submarine, and all 51 of her hands, have been sleeping along the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico for 80 years as of this week, although how they got there was the subject of contention.

One of the 54 Type IXCs completed during the war, U-166 was laid down at Seebeckwerft A.G. (Yard # 705) in Bremerhaven at the mouth of the Weser River on 6 December 1940 just after the Battle of Britain served up the first German defeat. At some 1,232 tons, she was not a big boat, running just 251 feet overall. However, the class was well designed and capable of 13,450-nm cruises on their economical diesel engines. Able to carry 22 torpedoes and a 4.1-inch deck gun with 180~ shells as well as a Flak armament, they were deadly and efficient killers when it came to stalking Allied merchantmen. While most of these boats could carry as many as 66 mines, all could also carry TMC-type torpedo mines in the place of a fish.

Commissioned on 23 March 1942, she spent the next two months in the 4. Flottille training squadron out of Stettin on the Baltic, then chopped on 1 June to Korvkpt. Günther Kuhnke’s 10. Frontflottille at Lorient in occupied France.

An AGFA video exists of her sea trials.

Arriving on 10 June after a combat sortie from Kristiansand in occupied Norway, her first war patrol was uneventful.

U-166 with her commander, Han-Günther Kuhlmann (bareheaded, top), before her patrol. Image courtesy of the PAST Foundation.

Spending a week in France stocking up and enjoying the local sights, U-166 sailed for her second (and final) war patrol on 17 June 1942.

Making for the Gulf of Mexico via the Florida Straits, U-166 drew her first blood when on 11 July 1942 she shelled and sank the unescorted and unarmed Dominican two-masted schooner Carmen (84 tons), which had been carrying a mixed cargo of maize, mahogany, and cedar, about 8 miles northeast of Gaspar Hernández, DR. The Dominicans had declared war on Germany four days after Pearl Harbor, for reference, and Carmen was one of four Dominican-manned ships sent to the bottom by U-boats during the conflict. While the country never sent troops overseas to help the Allies, at least 100 Dominicans signed up with the U.S. military during the war.

Two days later, U-166 fired her first warshot torpedo, ending the career of the unescorted and unarmed Ford Motor Company’s SS Oneida (2,309 tons), sailing empty from Puerto Rico to Cuba, while steaming about two miles north of Cape Maysi, Cuba. The steamer sank in minutes, but 23 survivors were able to make it safely to shore.

On 16 July, U-166 would claim her third vessel in a week, stopping the Miami Fish & Ice Co’s unarmed trawler Gertrude (16 tons) about 30 miles northeast of Havana, a port to which she was carrying a load of fresh onions. Putting her three-man crew into their motor launch and pointing them towards the shore, Gertrude was sent to the bottom with a scuttling charge or gunfire (reports vary).

Moving into the Gulf of Mexico, U-166 quietly laid nine TMC mines off Port Eads/South Pass, at the southern tip of the Mississippi River on the Louisiana coast. This was considered the boat’s primary mission, as each of these massive 2,400-pound mines could break the back of a merchantman and potentially block the Mississippi– not to mention cause a massive panic as, in typical U.S. Navy fashion, there was nowhere near enough mine countermeasures assets available to safeguard the domestic sea frontier. However, although Kuhlmann’s special mission was successful on its face, in a stroke of luck for mariners in the area, none of the mines ended up making contact and the field was cleared post-War after Allied panels were given access to Kriegsmarine records logging some 43,636 mines sown worldwide in at least 1,360 minefields.

Anyway, after delivering his eggs to the mouth of the Mighty Miss, Kuhlmann & Co. decided to stick around and pursue targets of opportunity for his remaining torpedoes. This brings us to the…

Robert E. Lee

Constructed for “Ice King” banking and shipping magnate Charles Wyman Morse for his Eastern Steamship Lines, the sistership 5,100-ton passenger liners SS George Washington and SS Robert E. Lee were put into service with Eastern’s Old Dominion Line. In 1937-38, they were making four regular sailings weekly between NYC’s Pier 25 to Norfolk’s Pier S at a cost of $12 one way or $16.50 round trip.

SS Robert E. Lee and her sister George Washington were simple one-stack, three-decker 373-footers that, besides work-a-day transport of almost 400 passengers on each coastwise trip, could run fresh produce as cargo from Virginia to New York City by the next day and return with garments, furniture, and dry goods from the North.

A June 1924 detail from the Marine Review on SS Robert E. Lee and her sister George Washington, noting they could carry almost 250,000 bales of cargo (1,700 tons) loaded through 10 cargo elevators as well as 322 “white and colored” passengers along with 58 in steerage. Capable of 16 knots, they were fast for their type and time.

Just weeks after Pearl Harbor, Lee and Washington were taken up by the War Shipping Administration under contract by the Alcoa Steamship Co. and converted to carry up to 778 troops, typically on shuttle runs from U.S. East Coast ports to assorted Allied Caribbean bases and Bermuda. This conversion included a dark paint scheme, degaussing equipment to help avid mines and magnetic exploders on torpedoes, lots of Carley floats rigged to break loose topside if needed, and a single 3″/50 DP mount with its accompanying Naval Guard crew.

Sailing from Trinidad on 21 July for Tampa with eight officers, 122 crewmen, six armed guards, and 268 passengers– including 115 waterlogged mariners of the sunk tankers Andrea Brovig (Sunk by U-128 on 23 June), Høegh Giant ( U-126 on 3 June), and Stanvac Palembang (U-203 on 11 July)– along with 47 tons of general cargo and personal effects, Lee was part of Intracoastal Convoy TAW-7. However, just short of Florida, TAW-7 was dispersed, and she was carved out and diverted, escorted by the brand-new (commissioned 15 June) PC-461-class submarine chaser USS PC-566 riding shotgun, for New Orleans.

USS PC-566, via The Ted Stone Collection, Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, VA. She would spend her entire career in the Florida-Caribbean area on patrol and escort duty and as a training ship out of Miami then go on to be sold to Venezuela in June 1961 and serve for another decade.

It was on the late hours of 30 July, about 45 miles southeast of the entrance to the Mississippi River and 146 miles south-by-southwest of the Biloxi lighthouse, that U-166 would see its biggest prize.

Firing a single torpedo, Lee was as unlucky as the men of the three tankers that she carried, and the ship soon sank, taking 25 souls with her.

As detailed by Uboat.net:

Lookouts had spotted the torpedo wake about 200 yards away before it struck just aft of the engine room. The explosion destroyed the #3 hold, vented through the B and C decks, and wrecked the engines, the radio compartment, and the steering gear.

The badly damaged Robert E. Lee first listed to port then to starboard and finally sank by the stern about 15 minutes after the torpedo hit. One officer, nine crewmen, and 15 passengers were lost. The survivors…abandoned the ship in six lifeboats, eight rafts, and five floats and were soon picked up by USS PC-566, USS SC-519, and the tug Underwriter and landed in Venice, Louisiana.

The end of U-166

Immediately after Lee was hit, her escorting 173-foot subchaser PC-566, with her green crew under the command of LT Herbert Gordon Claudius, USNR, dropped five depth charges across a sonar contact, circled back and dropped another five, then proceeded to pick up survivors after the contact disappeared in deep water and a large– reportedly 200 feet wide– oil slick was observed.

PC-566‘s depth charge runs were considered (at the time) ineffective, but U-166 never made it back to Lorient.

As Claudius and his crew had been rushed into service and had not received any formal ASW training yet, his reported “kill” was dismissed as unlikely. The new skipper was stripped of his command, sent to Sonar school to ride a desk, and admonished “for breaking radio silence twice prior to his arrival” and for “not being in the proper patrol station, nor that any proven system of attack was followed.” Further, the Navy said, “it is not considered probable that any except minor damage could have been sustained by the submarine.”

Post-war U.S. Navy analysis of German records chalked up the killer of Oblt. Kuhlmann’s boat as a Coast Guard Grumman J4F-1 Widgeon seaplane (the same type of plane from “Tales of the Golden Monkey”), #V212, from Coast Guard Air Station Biloxi.

The Coast Guard flew some 25 Widgeons, numbers V197 through V221 from 1941 to 1950, purchased from Grumman for $75,000 each. V203 is pictured here. Equipped with twin inverted Ranger L-440 engines, the J4F-1 was a high wing all-metal monoplane with a range of 750 miles at a pokey 135 miles per hour. It was modified to carry a crew of two and a single 325-pound depth charge under the inboard right wing. Alternatively, a bomb, raft, or droppable SAR gear could be carried in that position.

Piloted by Chief Aviation Pilot Henry C. White with RM1 George H. Boggs as a crewmember, V212 was forward deployed from an outlying grass field at Houma, Louisiana owned by Texaco, and reported depth charging a surfaced German U-boat on 1 August, two days after Robert E. Lee was lost and about 100 miles away from that killing field.

As detailed by CG Aviation History:

They were at 1,500 feet at the base of a broken cloud deck 100 miles south of the Houma base. Through the open windows of their twin-engine Grumman J4F-1 Widgeon amphibian, they could see about 10 miles across the hazy gulf sea. White had just turned to the northeast to set up a ladder search for the assigned area and moments later they saw a surfaced German submarine. White started to maneuver the Widgeon behind the sub for a stern attack, but it immediately became obvious that as soon as White and Boggs had seen the sub, the sub had seen them, and the U-boat began to slide underwater in a crash dive. White banked sharply to starboard and from a half mile away began his dive towards the sub fully aware that he had only a sole depth charge under his wing and that he would have but one try.

At an altitude of 250 feet, the single depth charge was released. Boggs stuck his head out of the window and watched the depth charge fall into the Gulf waters, its fuse set to explode 25 feet below the surface. He estimated it entered the water 20 feet from the submarine on the starboard side. Boggs saw a large geyser of water rise from the explosion. White later wrote that the submarine was visible during the entire approach being just under the water and still clearly visible when the depth charge was released. When they circled back around, they saw only a medium oil slick. German records obtained after the war verified that the U-166 had been sunk in that area at the beginning of August. White and Boggs were given credit for the sinking.

Coast Guard Air Station Biloxi was an 18-acre seaplane base founded at Point Cadet on Back Bay in 1934 and remained in service until 1966 when the land and its 12,000 square-foot hangar and barracks were turned over to the city.

The above image is from 1941. In the far back of the hangar pictured above is a twin-engine PH-2 Hall Aluminum Flying Boat, either V-166 or V-170. Next to it is the single-engine JF-2 Grumman Amphibian V-143. A brand new twin-engine JFR-2 Grumman Amphibian, V-184, pokes its nose into the sunshine.

Biloxi Coast Guard Air Station would become the Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum. The structure was destroyed in Katrina

A stylized 1940s postcard made from composite photographs showing two J2F Ducks, three airborne J4F-1 Widgeons, and an RD-4 Dolphin at USCG Air Sta Biloxi at Point Cadet. After 1966, the old hangar was used by the city for concerts and festivals until it was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina

The destruction of U-166 by V212 went down in Coast Guard (and Grumman) history and was celebrated for the rest of the 20th Century. This led V212– which had been sold on the commercial market in 1948 when the USCG got out of the Widgeon game and later flown as a commercial airliner (N212ST) in Alaska– to be acquired by the National Naval Aviation Museum at NAS Pensacola in 1988 and preserved, reverted to her WWII USCG livery.

In all, from 1942 into 1943, no less than 24 German U-boats patrolled the Gulf of Mexico– the American Sea– sinking 56 Allied vessels of which 39 are in the coastal waters of Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. U-166 has the distinction of being the only German submarine lost in the Gulf.

Epilogue

In 1986, Shell Offshore found two likely shipwrecks on a deep tow survey in one of their leased oil fields due south of the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 5,000 feet of water. It was thought that one was possibly the remains of the bauxite freighter SS Alcoa Puritan, another World War II casualty lost in the same rough area as Robert E. Lee, sunk by U-507 about 15 miles off the entrance to the Mississippi River in May 1942.

In 2001, deep water HUGIN 3000 AUVs of C&C Technologies working pipeline survey along the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico’s Mississippi Canyon for BP and Shell (the Mississippi Canyon is home to well MC 252, the infamous Deepwater Horizon well), found a single-stack ocean liner and, less than a mile away, a broken submarine.

This was the first time U-166 was reported found.

In 2003, a more extensive search in conjunction with NOAA extensively documented the sites.

In 2010, U-166 was briefly revisited during the Lophelia II study, where archaeologists collected additional ROV videos, still photos, core samples, and biological samples and re-examined the test platforms that had been deployed on site since 2003.

Finally, in 2014, as part of a National Geographic Explorer-funded effort that was turned into a one-hour special, Robert G. Ballard surveyed the U-boat and suggested that one of PC-566’s depth charges had wrecked the bow and likely detonated several torpedo warheads.

Further analysis by the Naval History and Heritage Command agreed. It turned out PC-566 was the only one of the 343 PC-461 class submarine chasers to be credited with sinking a U-boat.

The Navy (posthumously) awarded Capt. Claudius, USNR (ret), the Legion of Merit Medal with a combat “V” for sinking U-166.

This also brought some closure to Kuhlmann’s widow. Following the film crew documenting the discovery of the U-boat, she donated an ample collection of images from Kuhlmann’s service to The National WWII Museum in New Orleans through the PAST Foundation, where it is preserved as part of the story.

Some personal images of Kuhlmann in the collection of The National WWII Museum.

Down the coast in Biloxi, U-166 has always had a special place in the city’s lore, as for years it was celebrated as the base where V212, the long-thought dispatcher of the boat, was assigned. The City’s Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum— located on the grounds of the old Coast Guard Air Station at Point Cadet– has exhibits on the base, its aircraft, and history, as well as the barrack’s tower, saved after Hurricane Katrina.

(Photo: Chris Eger)

Since 2005, the Seafood Industry Museum has been in the possession of a 45-foot U-boat model, constructed for the film U-571, that has been dedicated to U-166 (although it depicts a German Type VII U-boat) after a rework in 2008 from volunteers of the Tullibee Base Submarine Veterans and those of Seabee Base Gulfport.

The U-571 model next to the old tower from the USCG Air Sta Biloxi barracks. (Photo: Chris Eger)

As for V212, the NHHC revised the record book and cited that the Coast Guard seaplane likely had attacked but failed to sink U-171, a Type IXC sistership of U-166 that was operating in the same area at the time and reported being bombed by a “Flugboot” (flying boat) on 1 August with slight damage. U-171 went on to sink the tanker R. M. Parker Jr. (6,779 tons) two weeks later off the Louisiana coast, then was herself lost just short of Lorient when she struck a mine just miles short of the end of her maiden war patrol.

Speaking of losses, of U-166’s sister boats, 50 of 54 were lost, almost all to Allied ASW efforts. Only four survived the war and a single example, U-505, is the only one of two of her class (U-534 was sunk in 1945 and then salvaged by the British in 1993) preserved. Of all places, U-505 is in Chicago.

4 June 1944 Tug USS Abnaki (ATF-96) tows U-505 photo from USS Guadalcanal (CVE-60) Note the large U.S. Ensign flying from U-505’s periscope. 80-G-324351

And finally, Robert E. Lee’s sister, George Washington, survived the war and lived a second life in the Pacific until the mid-1950s.

George Washington’s entry in “U.S. Troopships of WWII.” After the war, she was acquired by the Alaska Transport Company (ATCo.) to run between Seattle and Alaska until ATCo went bankrupt in 1948. A French company named CGT bought her in 1949, renamed her SS Gascogne (Gascoigne), ran her in the Caribbean for a while, then in 1952 sold her to Messageries-Maritimes, who operated her in Indochina until she was scrapped in Hong Kong in 1955.

Specs:

Displacement:
1,144 t (1,126 long tons) surfaced
1,257 t (1,237 long tons) submerged
Length:
251 ft 10 in o/a
192 ft 9 in. pressure hull
Beam:
22 ft 6 in o/a
14 ft 7 in pressure hull
Height: 31 ft 6 in
Draught: 15 ft 4 in
Installed power:
4,400 PS (3,200 kW; 4,300 bhp) (diesels)
1,000 PS (740 kW; 990 shp) (electric)
Propulsion:
2 shafts
2 × diesel engines
2 × electric motors
Range:
13,850 nmi at 10 knots surfaced
63 nmi at 4 knots submerged
Test depth: 230 m (750 ft)
Complement: 4 officers, 44 enlisted
Armament:
6 × torpedo tubes (4 bow, 2 stern)
22 × 53.3 cm (21 in) torpedoes
1 × 10.5 cm (4.1 in) SK C/32 deck gun (180 rounds)
1 × 3.7 cm (1.5 in) SK C/30 AA gun
1 × twin 2 cm FlaK 30 AA guns


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