Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, Feb. 8, 2023: The Only ‘T’ in the P-class
Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command. Catalog #: NH 41932
Above we see a great 1937 image of the Porpoise-class fleet boat USS Tarpon (SS-175), her bow breaking the surface at a relatively steep up angle. The only one of two of her class that was commissioned without a “P” series fish name (note her “P4” bow number), some 80 years ago today, Tarpon accounted for an entire Japanese regiment when her torpedoes sent the troopship Tatsuta Maru to the bottom in the middle of an overnight gale while some 42 nautical miles east of Mikura Jima, and none of the 1,400 men aboard her were ever seen again.
Background on the Porpoise class
As noted by Pigboats.com, the Porpoise was the first of the so-called “fleet boats,” large cruising submarines of a full double hull design thought suitable for cross-ocean combat and dives as deep as 250 feet. “These boats were the culmination of the four decades of submarine design and research that preceded them and were the height of US technology leading into World War II.”
Some 301 feet overall, they went almost 2,000 tons when fully loaded and submerged. Capable of 19 knots on the surface, they could overhaul most merchant ships but could never outrun an enemy destroyer or sub-buster. Submerged speed maxed out at just eight knots. Armament consisted of four forward 21-inch torpedo tubes and two stern tubes of the same size. Besides the capability to carry 16 torpedoes, the class also had a 3-inch/50 single deck gun wet mount over their flat sterns.
Sistership USS Shark, SS-174, the only other non-P-named Porpoise class boat. Seen here under construction at Electric Boat in Connecticut, 20 May 1935, her four-pack of forward torpedo tubes is plainly seen.
USS Shark (SS-174). Official model, photographed circa 1938 by her builder, the Electric Boat Company NARA
Detailed by Norman Friedman in U.S. Submarines Through 1945, An Illustrated Design History:
Porpoise (SS-172) was the first of a new generation of submarines that developed into successful WW II fleet boats. Her design shows much of the standard above-water configuration for U.S. submarines completed through 1942. Many features of her internal arrangement were adopted in Dolphin (SS-169): Officer’s quarters above the forward battery, control room below the conning tower & above the pump room, crew’s quarters above the after battery, the engine room & a maneuvering room above the motor room. Dolphin differed in having a large galley above an auxiliary (battery-charging) machinery room abaft the crew’s mess / after battery forward of the main engine room. In Porpoise, a small galley & washroom with a storeroom below was worked in at the after end of the control room.
Porpoise plan, Drawing by Jim Christley via Navsource.
In all, ten Porpoise class boats were constructed in three sub-classes with USS Porpoise (SS 172) and Pike (SS 173) in the initial run built at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, sisters Shark (SS 174) and Tarpon (SS 175) constructed at Electric Boat to a slightly upgraded arrangement, and the final six boats with much better endurance split between both yards: Perch (SS 176), Pickerel (SS 177), Permit (SS 178), Plunger (SS 179), Pollack (SS 180), and Pompano (SS 181). All were completed in 44 months between 27 October 1933 when Porpoise was laid down and 12 June 1937 when Pompano was commissioned. Not bad when you remember this is peacetime construction.
The first USS Tarpon on the Navy List, like our vessel, was a submarine, only the 14th ever commissioned. A humble little 105-foot craft with fire-prone gasoline engines, she was only in commission for 10 years before her career ended.
USS Tarpon (Submarine # 14) Photographed by Enrique Muller, 1909. The gunboat in the right distance is either USS Castine or USS Machias. NH 43600
Constructed at EB, our second Tarpon was commissioned on 12 March 1936, then almost immediately sailed for the West Coast to join Submarine Division (SubDiv) 13 with whom she operated out of San Diego and Pearl Harbor.
A great series of diving images of Tarpon, from which the first photo of this post was taken, was captured at the time, the benefit of being so close to Hollywood, I guess.
USS Tarpon (SS-175) recovering a practice torpedo, during exercises off San Diego, California, 22 August 1937. NH 63184
USS Tarpon (SS-175) underway on the surface, circa 1937. NH 41923
Same as the above, NH 41924
A great stern shot from the series, showing her single 3″/50 deck gun. Catalog #: NH 41919
USS Tarpon (SS-175) submerging, with her foredeck awash, circa 1937. NH 41918
USS Tarpon (SS-175) submerging NH 41934
USS Tarpon (SS-175) submerging NH 41933
USS Tarpon underway while nearly submerged, circa 1937. NH 41929
USS Tarpon running submerged, with her periscope extended. NH 41927
USS Tarpon surfacing, with her bow at a shallow up angle, circa 1937. NH 41920
USS Tarpon underway on the surface, circa 1937. Crew members appear to be preparing to bring her 3/50 deck gun into action. NH 41928
She was soon transferred to the Philippines with SubDiv 14 where she was forward deployed along with many of her sisters, augmenting a half-dozen old “Sugar Boats” that had been in the PI since the 1920s.
Six Porpoise-class boats nested together, circa 1939-1941. Probably seen from the tender USS Canopus (AS-9) in Manila Bay, Philippines. The inboard submarine is not identified. The others are (from left to right): USS Pike (SS-173); USS Tarpon (SS-175); USS Porpoise (SS-172); USS Perch (SS-176); and USS Permit (SS-178). Collection of Jack L. Wheat, who served in Canopus. NH 99672.
A different view of the above
Assigned to the newly-formed SubDiv 203 just days before the war in the Pacific started, Tarpon began her first war patrol just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor and was assigned to patrol off southeastern Luzon. With little to show for her efforts, she put into Darwin, Australia on 11 January 1942.
Her second patrol went even worse, with the boat surviving a tense grounding situation west of Flores Island in the Dutch East Indies. After jettisoning anchors, torpedoes, oil, and ammunition she is able to free herself and make it back to Freemantle.
Her third and fourth patrols ended with no enemy ships on her tally and her original skipper that she started the war with subsequently reassigned to shore duty, while Tarpon was ordered to the Mare Island Navy Yard for an overhaul in June 1942 that would change her sensor suite, add two extra external torpedo tubes, and a 20mm AAA mount.
She would spend four months refurbing in California and leave with a new skipper, LCDR Thomas Lincoln Wogan, (USNA 1930). A career submariner, Wogan had commanded the old Sugar Boat USS S-34 (139) out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska already under nightmarish conditions and was surely glad to get the upgrade and orders for warmer waters.
Leaving Mare Island, Tarpon had another great photo shoot.
USS Tarpon (SS-175) At the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, after an overhaul, 24 September 1942. Circles mark recent alterations to the ship. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives. 19-N-35372
Same as above. Note the new 20mm gun. Catalog #: 19-N-35373
Same as above. Note the two recently installed external bow torpedo tubes, giving her a six-tube main punch. NH 99008
Off Mare Island. NH 99009
USS Tarpon off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, after an overhaul, 30 September 1942. Note barrage balloons in the distance. 19-N-35370
A smashing Sixth Patrol
Getting back in the war, Tarpon would spend her 5th war patrol roaming north of Bougainville in the Solomon Islands area in October-November.
It would be her sixth patrol, and second with Wogan, 33, as the “old man” that Tarpon would finally draw blood. In nine days across the first two weeks of February 1943, while on patrol in Japanese home waters, south of Honshu, she claimed two massive transports.
First was the Japanese troopship Fushimi Maru (10935 GRT) about 20 nautical miles south of Omai Zaki on 1 February after a pair of night attack runs (one submerged, one surfaced) and six torpedoes. A former Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK) lines merchant passenger-cargo ship delivered in 1914, she was carrying a battalion-sized element when sunk. The auxiliary net layer Kokai Maru rescued 214 survivors and dropped depth charges on Tarpon without success.
From her war patrol report:
The second was the aforementioned Japanese troop transport Tatsuta Maru (16975 GRT), another NYK liner although one with a much more interesting history. Carrying 1,223 soldiers and passengers and 198 crew members to Truk under escort from the destroyer Yamagumo, she never made it, taking what was believed to be all four torpedoes launched from Tarpon’s forward tubes.
Sinking in less than a half-hour with seas in too high a state to take to the lifeboats, Yamagumo stood by but was not able to recover any survivors. As with Fushimi Maru, the attack on Tatsuta Maru was a submerged night attack run aided by radar conducted from at periscope depth (35 feet) from almost point-blank range.
The rest of the war
Tarpon’s continued service saw a slow 7th patrol followed by an 8th patrol that damaged the Japanese merchant Shinsei Maru (4746 GRT) off Mikura Shima and sank the 97-ton guard boat Yulin Maru in a surface gun action.
On her 9th patrol, she would end the career of the 4,700-ton German armed auxiliary commerce raider Michel (Hilfskreuzer-9/Schiff-28/Raider H) off Chichi Jima.
The former Gdynia-America-Line steamer Bielsko, the German was armed with a half-dozen 6-inch guns and another half-dozen torpedo tubes, making her deadly for any Allied merchantman her Arado seaplanes could find, and she had claimed no less than 18 of them. Tarpon would end Michel’s second raiding voyage just 50 miles short of the safety of Yokohama on 17 October 1943. Hit by four torpedoes from Tarpon across four attack runs, the last of Hitler’s operational HSKs went to the bottom carrying her skipper, KzS Günther Gumprich, and three-fourths of her crew.
Although Tarpon went on to complete three further patrols under a new skipper, her record of kills stopped with the German raider’s end. An aging vessel whose design was surpassed by the newer Gato and Balao-class fleet boats, she was ordered to the East Coast to serve as a training boat for new crews.
The submarine departed Pearl Harbor on Christmas Eve, 1944, and arrived at New London, Conn., on 17 January 1945.
USS Tarpon in New London, note her long homeward bound pennant and the snow-covered landscape– a big difference from her last eight years of Pacific service for sure!
With the war soon over, Tarpon decommissioned in Boston on 15 November 1945.
Tarpon decommissioned at Boston
She received seven battle stars for her World War II service.
Tarpon went on to serve as a Naval Reserve training hulk for a time at New Orleans before being stricken from the Navy List in 1956.
She ended her career off Cape Hatteras in 1957 where she sank while under tow to the salvage yard.
Part of NOAA’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, Tarpon today rests 135 feet down and, as noted by the agency, “The site is heavily encrusted with coralline algae and supports an array of cnidarians, such as sea anemones and corals. Tarpon also typically has several sand tiger sharks on site, which can provide dramatic photographic subjects while enjoying this historic shipwreck dive.”
Today, the ex-USS Tarpon wreck site is home to an abundance of marine life. Here, a sand tiger shark swims in the foreground with the Tarpon’s dive planes in the background. Photo: Tane Casserley, NOAA
Meanwhile, most of her patrol reports and plans are in the National Archives.
Her most famous skipper, Capt. Wogan, who had earned a Navy Cross and two Silver Stars while aboard Tarpon, sadly took his life in 1951 while commander of the tender Sperry, aged just 42.
There has not been a third Tarpon in U.S. Navy service.
As for her nine sisters, four (Shark, Pompano, Perch, and Pickerel) were lost while on service in the Pacific. They are considered on Eternal Patrol, numbered among the 52 American submarines that never returned to port during the conflict.
Their names are inscribed on a memorial at the USS Albacore Museum in New Hampshire. (Photo: Chris Eger)
Like Tarpon, many of her surviving sisters spent a short spell as training boats in the last days of the war and immediately after.
Also like Tarpon, they were all disposed of by the mid-1950s. Since they were all scrapped, Tarpon endures as the best-preserved relic of the class.
Ships are more than steel
And heart of burning coal,
For those who sail upon
That some ships have a
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