Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020: The Empire Strikes Back
Here we see Balao-class fleet submarine USS Atule (SS-403), left, torpedoing ex-U-977 during weapon tests off Cape Cod, 14 November 1946. The (in)famous German boat was far from Atule’s only kill, although it was likely her easiest. However, in the end, she would meet a somewhat ironic fate that had, some contend, an aspect of divine intervention.
A member of the 180+-ship Balao class, she was one of the most mature U.S. Navy diesel designs of the World War Two era, constructed with knowledge gained from the earlier Gato-class. U.S. subs, unlike those of many navies of the day, were “fleet” boats, capable of unsupported operations in deep water far from home. The Balao class was deeper diving (400 ft. test depth) than the Gato class (300 foot) due to the use of high yield strength steel in the pressure hull.
Able to range 11,000 nautical miles on their reliable diesel engines, they could undertake 75-day patrols that could span the immensity of the Pacific. Carrying 24 (often unreliable) Mk14 Torpedoes, these subs often sank anything short of a 5,000-ton Maru or warship by surfacing and using their deck guns. They also served as the firetrucks of the fleet, rescuing downed naval aviators from right under the noses of Japanese warships.
Some 311-feet long overall, they were all-welded construction to facilitate rapid building. Best yet, they could be made for the bargain price of about $7 million in 1944 dollars (just $100 million when adjusted for today’s inflation) and completed from keel laying to commissioning in about nine months.
An amazing 121 Balaos were completed through five yards at the same time, with the following pennant numbers completed by each:
- Cramp: SS-292, 293, 295-303, 425, 426 (12 boats)
- Electric Boat: 308-313, 315, 317-331, 332-352 (42)
- Manitowoc on the Great Lakes: 362-368, 370, 372-378 (15)
- Mare Island on the West Coast: 304, 305, 307, 411-416 (9)
- Portsmouth Navy Yard: 285-288, 291, 381-410, 417-424 (43)
We have covered a number of this class before, such as the sub-killing USS Greenfish, rocket mail slinger USS Barbero, the carrier-slaying USS Archerfish, the long-serving USS Catfish, and the frogman Cadillac USS Perch —but don’t complain, they have lots of great stories.
The first (and only) U.S. warship named for the bluish-olive colored fish, Atule (SS-403) was laid down 25 November 1943 at Portsmouth; launched on 6 March 1944; and commissioned on 21 June 1944, LCDR (later RADM) John Howard Maurer (USNA 1935) in command. Maurer would be Atule’s only wartime skipper, coming to the new boat from a stint as Engineer Officer and later XO of USS Harder (SS-257) across three successful patrols that saw him receive the Silver Star.
Following a rushed wartime shakedown cruise and fortnight at the sonar school at Key West, Atule was soon off to the Pacific, leaving Pearl Harbor on her first patrol in company with sisterships USS Pintado (SS-387) and USS Jallao (SS-368) as a Yankee wolfpack on 9 October under the latter sub’s skipper’s nominal tactical control.
Heading for patrol areas in the Luzon Strait and the South China Sea, partner Jallao bagged the Japanese Kuma-class light cruiser Tama (5,200 tons) on 25 October northeast of Luzon.
On Halloween night, it was Atule’s turn and she bagged a big one, stalking a large Japanese surface contact in a night surface radar attack and into All Saints Day.
0305 hours – In position 19°59’N, 117°25’E obtained radar contact bearing 225°, range 26000 yards. Started tracking.
0325 hours – Obtained radar contact on escort vessel.
0331 hours – Obtained radar contact on a second escort vessel.
0359 hours – Started attack, during the approach a third escort was sighted.
0432 hours – In position 20°09’N, 117°38’E commenced firing six torpedoes from 1850 yards. The target was a large passenger liner. Two torpedoes were seen to broach and then disappear.
0434 hours – A terrific explosion threw material three times the height of the target’s masts. Range to one of the escorts was only 1200 yards. Decided to dive. When clearing the bridge, a second torpedo hit the target. Atule dived to 450 feet.
0440 hours – 9 depth charges were dropped but they were not close.
0445 hours – Heard very loud and crackling breaking up noises on the bearing of the target.
0740 hours – Lost contact with the escorts.
The contact was the Japanese NYK liner Asama Maru (16,955 GRT), escorted by two armed minesweepers and a torpedo boat.
Asama Maru was a beautiful ship that in her peacetime service had such personalities as Baron Nishi Takeichi, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Hellen Keller grace her decks. In wartime, she repatriated U.S. Ambassador Joseph P. Grew and hundreds of American diplomats and their families back to the West before serving as a shuttle carrying up to 5,000 of the Emperor’s troops at a time to the front lines while hauling Allied POWs back on “hell ship” missions back to the Home Islands. While a troopship, she was armed with depth charges, listening gear, 8cm deck guns, and an assortment of AAA mounts.
When Atule found her, Asama Maru was carrying a mix of 1,383 military personnel, civilian employees for the military, and survivors from sunken Japanese merchant ships as well as 170 tons of iron scrap, 80 tons of hemp, 80 tons of raw rubber, and other items. As noted by Combined Fleets, “98 of 201 crew, 21 of 266 gunners and armed guards and 355 of 1,383 military personnel and passengers are KIA. Survivors are rescued by the three escort vessels.”
On 20 November, Atule drew blood once again, sinking the Japanese minesweeper W-38 (648 tons).
Just five days later, Atule haunted Japanese convoy MATA-34 just after midnight on 25 November, with six overlapping torpedoes from her bow tubes reaping the freighter-turned-sub tender Manju Maru/Santos Maru (7,266 GRT) and the escort patrol boat No.38 (935 tons) in the same salvo. Santos Maru was carrying 2,400 troops and sailors including 430 survivors of the battleship Musashi. In the end, she took almost a third of those men to the bottom with her. As for No.38, it “disintegrated.”
Finally, Atule bagged a 4,000-ton freighter on 27 November, anchored between Dequey and Ibuhos Islands, Philippines. “Fired four bow torpedoes,” said her patrol report. The rest of the report was eloquent if terrifying:
Postwar, Atule was not given credit for the almost certain kill, although Nanko Maru No. 6, which went missing at about the same time, seems a good fit.
Wrapping up her first patrol at Majuro on 11 December, which ran 63 days/16,570 nm with a green crew (53 of 77 men were on their first patrol) and expended 22 Mk 18 torpedoes for 11 hits, Atule claimed five ships for a total of 26,600 tons. Postwar, this would be confirmed at four ships and 25,804, which is fairly close to the estimate tonnage-wise.
Atule shipped from Majuro on her second war patrol on 6 January 1945, bound for the Yellow Sea. There, she sent the brand-new freighter Daiman Maru No.1 (6888 GRT) to the bottom on 24 January, having to break ice off her deck gun in the process. Not as exciting as her inaugural cruise, she ended her 2nd war patrol at Midway on 7 March.
Her third patrol left out of Midway on 2 April, tasked with lifeguard duties off the Japanese Home Islands which were under constant attack by Navy and USAAF planes (U.S. submarines rescued 504 downed airmen– to include future President George Bush– during WWII lifeguard duty), with her crew often taking the time to sink floating mines and wreckage found in her operational area and (unsuccessfully) stalk an elusive Japanese submarine near the Ashizuri lighthouse.
In a twist of irony– she would have many in her career– the only aviator she would rescue was a Japanese naval observer on 5 May. The observer was retrieved from the water from a downed Jake, which had been smoked by a passing B-29 gunner with spotting provided by the sub.
Once again, Maurer, Atule’s skipper– who was a near classmate of Robert Heinlein— showed his prose in detailing the scene in the patrol log.
Putting into Pearl Harbor on 30 May, she had some downtime to train and resupply, then left on her fourth patrol on 3 July– no Independence Day leave in Honolulu for them– bound once again for Japan’s front yard. On that cruise, in a night action across 12/13 August, she spotted two Japanese frigates, Kaibokan 6 and Kaibokan 16 (both 740 tons), sinking the former and damaging the latter with a brace of six torpedoes.
And that was it, the ceasefire was called on the 15th when Emperor Hirohito announced that his country would accept unconditional surrender. With that, she was ordered to terminate her patrol on the 45th day by COMSUBPAC and return to Pearl via Midway, arriving in Hawaii on the 25th.
By the end of August, even before the official surrender, she was headed to New London.
Reaching the East Coast, Atule was assigned to Submarine Squadron 2 and was used as a training and trial boat. In this role, she traveled to the Arctic in July 1946 as part of Operation Nanook in company with the icebreaker USS Northwind (WAG-282), two auxiliaries, and the seaplane tender USS Norton Sound, the latter embarking PBM flying boats.
It was on this frozen trip along the coast of Greenland that she “reached latitude 79 degrees 11 minutes north in the Kane Basin, setting a record for the United States Navy,” and rescued a PBM that had to put down with engine trouble.
Then came her dramatic sinking of U-977, the Type VIIC that famously ignored the formal German surrender order for U-boat at sea on VE-Day and made for South America instead. The rouge boat entered the port of Mar del Plata, Argentina on 17 August 1945, some 108 days and more than 7,600 nm after it had departed Norway.
In the end, turned over to the U.S. Navy and towed to Boston for a photoex, Atule sent her to the bottom in the test of a prototype steam-powered torpedo off Massachusetts.
Her wartime service complete, on 8 September 1947, she was placed out of commission, in reserve, with the New London Group of the Atlantic Reserve Fleet. Atule earned four battle stars for World War II service.
As for Maurer, who earned the Navy Cross on Atule, he went on to hold two surface commands, including the cruiser USS Saint Paul, and be both COMSUBPAC and COMSUBLANT. His final assignment was as Commander of Naval Forces in Key West, retiring from the Navy in 1974.
When it comes to Atule’s sisters, of the schools of Balaos which were commissioned, 10 were lost in the war during operations while another 62 were canceled on the builders’ ways as the conflict ended. In 1946, the Navy was left with 120 units.
After three years on red lead row, Atule was towed to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard– her birthplace– for reactivation and conversion to a Guppy 1-A type submarine.
Outfitted with a German-style snorkel not too different from the one the Navy inspected on U-977, and a streamlined superstructure sans deck guns, Atule rejoined the fleet a stronger, more versatile warship, recommissioned 8 March 1951.
For the next 19 years, she led a quiet life, participating in operations with Latin American allies in a series of UNITAS exercises, working with NATO allies on Mediterranean deployments as part of the 6th Fleet, visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras, training naval reservists, and, as part of SUBRON12, alternated duty at Key West with service at Guantanamo Bay supporting ASW training for the destroyer force while keeping an eye on Castro.
Reclassified AGSS-403 on 1 October 1969, Atule was decommissioned on 6 April 1970, and her name was struck from the Navy list on 15 August 1973.
In all, she had spent 29 years on the Naval List, with nearly 24 of those on active duty. Not a bad return to Uncle Sam for the $7,000,000 original cost to build her.
Ex-Atule was sold to Peru in July 1974, and renamed BAP Pacocha (S 48), duplicating the name of an earlier boat used by the Marina de Guerra del Perú. She was sent south in tandem with BAP Pabellón de Pica/La Pedrera (SS-49), ex-USS Sea Poacher (SS/AGSS-406) after a refit. Atule/Pacocha was commissioned on 28 May 1974 into the MGP, where she continued her quiet life of training and exercises over the course of the next 14 years. Then came disaster.
On the evening of 26 August 1988, with a reduced crew of 49 men aboard, the 44-year-old submarine was operating on the surface with her hatches open when, just off the port of Callao, a 412-ton Japanese fishing trawler with a reinforced ice-breaking prow collided into her aft port quarter, opening her like a tin can with a 2 meter by 10 centimeters split in the pressure hull. Pacocha didn’t even have time to sound her collision alarm.
It was almost as if the ghosts of the Asama Maru, Santos Maru, and others, had returned as wraiths and exacted retribution for the Atule’s past actions.
Nonetheless, the Peruvians had a spirit of their own, it seems.
With the boat taking on water and three men dead, including the skipper, 23 submariners were able to scramble off the submarine before she raced for the bottom of the Pacific some 140 feet down. As the boat was drowning, Teniente Roger Cotrina Alvarado was somehow able to dog a partially flooded hatch to compartmentalize the sub’s forward torpedo room with 21 other survivors, a feat he chalked up to the help of Marija of Jesus Crucified Petković, a Croatian nun who had traveled extensively through Latin America helping the poor and sick.
A 61-page U.S. Navy report on the resulting rescue, compiled in 1989 through first-hand interviews, is fascinating but somewhat outside the scope of this. Suffice it to say, rescue divers were able to use the escape trunk in the forward torpedo room to retrieve the remainder of the crew 23 hours later in six groups, utilising Mark V dive lines.
Naturally, after spending almost a full day 140 feet down in a compromised atmosphere and making a swim to the surface with only the assistance of a rescue hood, most suffered from the bends, but in the end, only one perished.
As for Alvarado, a documentary was made of his efforts and his personal beliefs on the source of his “humanly impossible” strength that day.
Some 11 months after Atule/Pacocha hit the bottom, she surfaced again following 800 hours of work by Peruvian Navy salvage crews, raised on 23 July 1989.
Towed ashore and drydocked, she was studied for the effects of the ramming and sinking, then her hulk was cannibalized for spare parts for other Peruvian submarines.
In the U.S., Atule’s war engineering drawings, patrol diaries, post-war deck logs, and complete WWII muster rolls have been digitized and are online at the National Archives. A veteran’s group was active for several years, but their webpage has since been archived.
Eight Balao-class submarines are preserved (for now) as museum ships across the country.
Please visit one of these fine ships and keep the legacy alive:
-USS Batfish (SS-310) at War Memorial Park in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
–USS Becuna (SS-319) at Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
–USS Bowfin (SS-287) at USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park in Honolulu, Hawaii.
–USS Clamagore (SS-343) at Patriot’s Point in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. (Which may not be there much longer)
–USS Ling (SS-297) at New Jersey Naval Museum in Hackensack, New Jersey. (Which is hopefully in the process of being saved and moved to Kentucky)
–USS Lionfish (SS-298) at Battleship Cove in Fall River, Massachusetts.
-USS Pampanito (SS-383) at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park in San Francisco, California, (which played the part of the fictional USS Stingray in the movie Down Periscope).
–USS Razorback (SS-394) at Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum in North Little Rock, Arkansas.
Displacement: 1,526 tons (surfaced), 2,391 (submerged)
Length: 311.7 ft.
Beam: 27 ft.
Draft: 13.75 ft.
Machinery: Fairbanks Morse diesel engines, 5,400 HP, fuel capacity, 116,000 gals.; four Elliot Motor Co. electric main motors 2,740 shp, two 126-cell main storage batteries, 2 shafts
Speed: 20.25 kts. (surfaced) 8.75 kts. (submerged)
Endurance: 11,000 miles surfaced at 10 knots; submerged endurance: 48 hours at 2 knots; 75 days
Test Depth: 412 ft.
Complement: 6 officers, 60 enlisted
1 5″/25cal deckgun, 25 rounds
1 40mm/60 Bofors AAA
1 20mm/80 Oerlikon AAA
2 M2 .50-cal machine guns
10 21-inch torpedo tubes (6 forward, 4 aft), 24 torpedoes
(Post GUPPY 1A)
Displacement: 1,870 tons standard (surfaced), 2,440 (submerged)
Beam: 27 ft.
Machinery: 3 Diesels; 4,800 bhp. 2 Electric motors; 5,400 shp, 2 shafts
Speed: 17 kts (Surfaced) 15 kts. (Submerged)
Endurance: 90 days
Complement: 8 officers, 73 men
10 21-inch torpedo tubes (6 forward, 4 aft) 24 torpedoes
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