Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, May 7. Archer the giant killer and her pink sister ship.
Here we see the United States Ship Archerfish, SS-311, a diesel-electric fleet submarine of the USS Balao-class with a bone in her mouth in open waters. The Archerfish had a safe and happy life, with an earned a reputation as the Jack the Giant Killer of the US WWII sub force.
A member of the 128-ship Balao class, she was one of the most mature US navy diesel designs of the World War Two era, constructed with knowledge gained from the earlier Gato-class. US subs, unlike those of many navies of the day, were ‘fleet’ boats, capable of unsupported operations in deep water far from home. 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, thee subs often sank anything short of a 5000-ton Maru or warship by surfacing and using their 4-inch/50 caliber and 40mm/20mm AAA’s. They also served as the firetrucks of the fleet, rescuing downed naval aviators from right under the noses of Japanese warships.
Laid down at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Kittery, Maine 22 JAN 1943, she was commissioned just over eight months later on 4 September and promptly sailed for the Pacific to join the fray. She left Pearl Harbor two days before Christmas, 1943 on her first of seven war patrols. Her first four patrols were entirely uneventful, detailed to scan regions of the Pacific that were largely devoid of Japanese activity by 1944. Her fifth one, however, struck pay-dirt.
Standing off Tokyo Bay in November 1944, she was positioned to rescue downed B-29 crews who were bombing the Japanese Home Islands in preparation for the huge planned invasions in 1945-46. Then on the evening of November 28th, she was what appeared to be a huge naval tanker with a strong destroyer escort nudge out of the bay. This ‘tanker’ soon picked up 23-knots and started to zig-zag, which meant she was something altogether different.
Following closely, Archerfish worked her way through the screen of escorts, aligned her six forward tubes amidships of the immense target, and let rip a half-dozen improved Mk14 torpedoes, four of which found purchase on the hull of the largest aircraft carrier ever built in the world up until that time– the 73,000-ton, 872-foot long Imperial Japanese Naval ship Shinano. Capable of carrying up to 120 aircraft, including 47 in an armored hangar, she was the largest warship built until the USS Forrestal was completed in the 1950s.
Originally laid down as a super-battleship of the Yamato-class, she was converted following Japanese losses at Midway Island to a flattop. She had just been commissioned nine days before and was, when Archerfish found her, on her sea trials before entering service. Her existence was a secret and she was being moved in the middle of the night to Kure to complete her fitting out (she didn’t even have most of her watertight hatches installed). She was such a secret, in fact, she is the only major warship built in the 20th century to have avoided being officially photographed during its construction, with just two known photos, taken by chance, existing of her.
The Japanese didn’t even send radio messages about her sailing, much less her sinking.
Since the US Navy didn’t even think she existed, Archerfish and her skipper, Commander Joseph F. Enright, were not recognized for the feat of killing the huge carrier– which to this day is the largest ship ever sunk by a submarine in warfare– until after the war ended and post-war analysis of Japanese records. It was then that Enright picked up the Navy Cross and Archerfish was given the Presidential Unit Citation.
Her citation reads:
“For extraordinary heroism in action during the Fifth War Patrol against enemy Japanese combatant units in restricted waters of the Pacific. Relentless in tracking an alert and powerful hostile force which constituted a potential threat to our vital operations in the Philippine area, the Archerfish (SS-311) culminated a dogged six and one-half-hour pursuit by closing her high-speed target, daringly penetrated the strong destroyer escort screen, and struck fiercely at a large Japanese aircraft carrier Shinano with all six of her torpedoes finding their mark to sink this extremely vital enemy ship. Subjected to devastating air and surface anti-submarine measures, the Archerfish skillfully evaded her attackers by deep submergence and returned to port in safety. Handled with superb seamanship, she responded gallantly to the fighting determination of the officers and men and dealt a fatal blow to one of the enemy’s major Fleet units despite the most merciless Japanese opposition and rendered valiant service toward the ultimate destruction of a crafty and fanatic enemy.”
After this her sixth and seventh war patrols were back to being much less exciting, performing lifeguard duty for pilots and watching the almost-empty sea lanes for the occasional ship. Nevertheless, she was part of the US Fleet anchored in Tokyo Bay on Sept 2, 1945, for the Japanese surrender and end of WWII.
(Above) Archerfish and the rest of Subron 20 in Tokyo Bay at the surrender of Japan being nursed by the Fulton-class submarine tender, USS Proteus (AS-19). The hard-serving Proteus would remain as a submarine tender as late as 1992 and used as a berthing ship for sub crews for another decade after that, only being scrapped in 2007.
Future actor Tony Curtis, who was then a bluejacket by the name of Bernard Schwartz, had been inspired by Cary Grant’s role as a submarine skipper in the film Destination Tokyo to join the navy, was aboard Proteus at the time. Archerfish, Curtis, and Grant would all meet again 14-years later.
Decommissioned soon after World War Two, she sat in mothballs until Korea when she was reactivated. Unlike more than 90 WWII-era US diesel subs, she was not updated in the Guppy program with a new sail, snorkels, and improved batteries and fire control systems, keeping her old retro look until the end of the career– which helped make her a movie star.
She was famously used in 1959 along with two of her sisters to simulate the fictional USS Sea Tiger in the Cary Grant/Tony Curtis film Operation Petticoat. USS Balao SS-285 was painted pink and was used for exterior shots in and around Key West while USS Queenfish SS-393 was used in opening and closing scenes, and was used for the “at sea” shots filmed in and around San Diego. Archerfish herself retained her standard haze grey and black trim and was used for interior and exterior shots in and around Key West.
It was at Key West, loaned out to the hydro-graphic command, that Archerfish was visited by then 44-year old Dr. George “Papa Topside” Bond who, along with EMC C. Tuckerfield ascended to the surface from a depth of over 322-feet over a 52-second time period, testing emergency escape protocols from the sub while she was bottomed on the Gulf of Mexico. Bond later grew famous for his work with the Sealab program in the 1960s and is considered the father of saturation diving techniques used today.
Finding further use for her, the Navy kept Archerfish around as an auxiliary submarine (AGSS-311), and, trading in her deck-guns and torpedoes for hydro-graphic gear and naval scientists, she conducted a series of ‘sea-scan‘ cruises around in the Atlantic and Pacific through 1968.
Then, on 1 May of that year, at the age of just under 25 years, she was condemned, decommissioned, and struck from the Navy List. She was one of the last unconverted WWII diesel boats in service in the US Navy.
On October 19th, stripped of anything useful, she was towed out to sea and sunk by the new Pascagoula-built Skipjack-class nuclear submarine USS Snook (SSN-592).
Archerfish survived the first two torpedoes until sunk appropriately by an old-school WWII-era Mk 14-5 in 52 seconds.
The ship still has a very active veterans association at ussarcherfish.com. Although she is no longer afloat, eight Balao-class submarines are preserved 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.
- USS Ling (SS-297) at New Jersey Naval Museum in Hackensack, New Jersey.
- 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, Surfaced: 1,526 t., Submerged: 2,424 t.
Length 311′ 10″
Beam 27′ 3″
Draft 15′ 3″
Speed, Surfaced 20.25 kts, Submerged 8.75 kts
Cruising Range, 11,000 miles surfaced at 10kts; Submerged Endurance, 48 hours at 2kts
Operating Depth Limit, 400 ft
Complement 6 Officers 60 Enlisted
Armament, ten 21″ torpedo tubes, six forward, four aft, 24 torpedoes, one 4″/50 caliber deck gun, one 40mm gun, two .50 cal. machine guns
Patrol Endurance 75 days
Propulsion: diesels-electric reduction gear with four Fairbanks-Morse main generator engines., 5,400 hp, four Elliot Motor Co., main motors with 2,740 hp, two 126-cell main storage batteries, two propellers.
Fuel Capacity: 94,400 gal.
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