Here at LSOZI, we are going to 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, Dec. 25, 2019: A Tough Christmas in the Lingayen Gulf
Courtesy of the Submarine Force Library and Museum, Groton, Connecticut, 1972. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 78922
Here we see a prewar photograph showing the S-class diesel submarine USS S-38 (SS-143) underway, sometime in the 1930s.
The S-class, or “Sugar” boats, were actually three different variants designed by Simon Lake Co, Electric Boat, and the Bureau of Construction and Repair (BuC&R) in the last days of the Great War in which U.S.-made submarines had a poor record. Looking for a better showing in these new boats, of which 65 were planned, and 51 completed in several subgroups, these small 1,000~ ton diesel-electric “pig boats” took to the sea in the 1920s and they made up the backbone of the U.S. submarine fleet before the larger “fleet” type boats of the 1930s came online.
The hero of our tale, USS S-38, was a first flight EB/Holland design that ran some 219-feet oal, could dive to 200 feet and travel at a blistering 14.5-knots on the surface on her two 600hp NELSECO diesel engines and two GE electric motors for 11-knots submerged. Armament was a quartet of 21-inch bow tubes with a dozen deep-running but reliable Mark 10 torpedos (which carried a then-huge 500-pound warhead) and a 4″/50 cal popgun on deck for those special moments. Crew? Just 38 officers and men.
Laid down 15 January 1919 Bethlehem Steel Company’s Union Plant, Potrero Works, San Francisco, she commissioned 11 May 1923.
Fitting out at the Bethlehem Steel Company shipyard, San Francisco, California, 29 March 1923. NH 97960
Fitted out at Mare Island, S-38 joined Submarine Division 17 (SubDiv 17) at San Pedro on 24 May and immediately began preparations for a cruise to the Aleutians, a deployment that would validate the class working out of Dutch Harbor– which many would see during the coming conflict with Japan.
By August 1924, S-38 was detailed to join many of her sisters in the Asiatic Fleet, which she would call home for the next two decades.
On regular operations there, she cruised off the Philippines, along the Indo-China coast, and into the Dutch East Indies. In the 1930s, except for trading in their Great War-era torpedos for the new-fangled Mark 14, the boats were otherwise unmodified from their original 1918 design.
Description: Crewmen posing with a 4″/50cal deck gun onboard an S-Type submarine, March 1929, with another 4″/50cal in the foreground. Photographed from USS Beaver (AS-5). In the background is USS Pittsburgh (ACR/CA-4), in the Dewey drydock. Catalog #: NH 51830
USS S-38 (SS-143) nested between sister submarines S-40 (SS-145), at left, and S-41 (SS-146), at right, alongside USS Canopus (AS-9) off Tsingtao, China, in 1930. Note these submarines’ 4/50 deck guns. NH 51833
On 8 December 1941 (7 December east of the International Date Line), the U.S. was hauled in from the sidelines of WWII and “the indomitable old” S-38 departed Manila Bay on her first war patrol on the first day of the U.S. involvement in the war.
Poking around the PI archipelago, S-38, under command of Lt. Wreford G. ″Moon″ Chapple, the aging sub fired a torpedo on an enemy vessel off the coast of Mindoro on 9 December without a hit. Looking for better hunting, she headed into the Lingayen Gulf in the predawn hours of 22 December and promptly saw an enemy convoy at first light. Firing a spread of four unreliable Mark 14s, she garnered nothing but a counter-attack from Japanese destroyers.
Two hours later, she fired two more fish at an anchored cargo ship, Hayo Maru (5446 GRT) which blew up less than a minute later. It was only the *second Japanese vessel sunk in the war by a U.S. submarine up to that point.
*[ The first Japanese vessel claimed by an Allied submarine was the troopship Awajisan Maru which had been bombed by RAAF Hudsons and set on fire, then sank by a torpedo from the Dutch submarine HNLMS K XII on 12 December. The same day, HNLMS K XII also sank the tanker Toro Maru. On 13 December, the Dutch sub O 16 splashed the transports Asosan Maru and Kinka Maru in the Gulf of Siam while K XII increased her own tally with the tanker Taizan Maru off Indochina the same day. Meanwhile, the first U.S. submarine to get on the board was USS Swordfish (SS-193) with the freighter Atsutasan Maru sent to the bottom in the East China Sea on 16 December. ]
However, the next three days– across both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day– was an epic fight for survival.
According to DANFS:
The enemy destroyers again closed the submarine. Depth charges went off close aboard. From 0804 to 0930, the S-boat ran silent, using evasive tactics. At 0930, she grounded at 80 feet; then coasted up the bank to 57 feet. The destroyers, joined by small boats, continued the search through the day. At 2130, the hunted submarine began efforts to clear by backing. During the maneuvering, her port propeller was damaged; but, by 2201, she was free and underway for the Hundred Islands area on the western side of the gulf.
S-38 remained there through the 23d and, on the 24th, moved to the southern section of the gulf where she closed a formation of six large auxiliaries just prior to 1130. Her presence, however, was discovered. At 1152, a depth charge exploded on her port side. She went deeper. Between 1206 and 1208, eight more exploded around her. At 1209, she stopped all motors and sank to the bottom in 180 feet of water. The depth charging continued, but the explosions were more distant. At 1230, the submarine began to move again. At 1245, the enemy hunters again located her and resumed depth charging. S-38 again settled to the bottom. The depth charging continued until after 1300. The search continued until after 1800.
At 1842, the submarine got underway, heading back to the Hundred Islands area. At 2235, she surfaced to recharge her batteries. Five minutes later, her after battery exploded. At 2304, she went ahead on her starboard engine, making her way out of Lingayen Gulf.
Soon after 0200 on the 25th, she sighted two enemy destroyers, but remained undetected. At 0346, however, she sighted a third, which sighted her. S-38 submerged. The destroyer closed the submarine’s last surface position and, at 0350, commenced depth charging. From then until after 0900, the submarine evaded the destroyer, using her one quiet propeller. She then grounded on a steep bank at 85 feet. For the next two hours, the destroyer circled. S-38 slid down to 200 feet, used her motor to bring herself up; then repeated the maneuver. The destroyer moved off; and, at 1235, the S-boat got underway for Manila. An hour later, she grounded, but only briefly; and, at 2145 on the 26th, she entered the outer minefield at the entrance to Manila Bay.
Ordered to Soerabaja in the Dutch East Indies, S-38 arrived there on 14 January and spent her 2nd War Patrol in the Makassar Strait off Balikpapan. Moon Chapple left the boat then, headed to the larger and newer USS Permit (SS- 178) and later the USS Bream (SS-243). S-38 would continue on her 3rd Patrol under the command of Lt. Henry Glass Munson.
The old boat’s 3rd Patrol was unproductive but on her 4th Patrol Munson would surface and shell the Japanese facilities at Sangkapura on 26 February and two days later go on to rescue 54 haunted survivors of the heroic British E-class destroyer HMS Electra (H27) which had been pummeled by the Japanese at the Battle of the Java Sea.
On 2 March, S-38 spotted the Japanese Nagara-class light cruiser Kinu and a destroyer off Cape Awarawar and, although she fired six torpedoes, did not achieve a hit, and was in turn depth charged for 24-hours straight for her effort. Kinu would later be sunk in the Philipines in October 1944 by carrier aircraft.
Transferred to Brisbane in Australia to join the other Sugar boats of SubRon5, S-38 completed a 4th, 5th, and 6th Patrol without much to show for it.
On her 7th Patrol splashed the Japanese freighter Meiyo Maru (5628 GRT) in the St. George Channel on 8 August 1942.
A Chief Torpedoman paints another hashmark on the Torpedo Shop scoreboard of Japanese ships claimed sunk by SubRon 5’s S-Boats, operating out of Brisbane, Australia, during April-November 1942. Photographed on board USS Griffin (AS-13), tender to the squadron. Submarines listed on the scoreboard include S-37 (SS-142), S-38 (SS-143), S-39 (SS-144), S-40 (SS-145), S-41 (SS-146), S-42 (SS-153), S-43 (SS-154), S-44 (SS-155), S-45 (SS-156), S-46 (SS-157), and S-47 (SS-158). NARA 80-G-77065
At the end of her 8th Patrol, S-38 headed to California for a much-needed overhaul– attempting to sink a fat Japanese tanker off Tarawa on the way without success– then completed one final patrol, from Pearl Harbor, on 27 July 1943.
USS Harris (APA-2) moored in the background of this photo of USS S-38 (SS-143) following overhaul at San Diego, April 1943. US Navy photo # 1198-43 from the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard collection now held at Seattle NARA
From there, S-38 spent a year in ASW training duties in the relatively safe New Hebrides, an OPFOR for air and surface units passing to the real war in the West.
Ordered to San Diego, she was decommissioned on 14 December 1944, struck from the Navy list a month later, and sunk as a target by aerial bombing on 20 February 1945, her last full measure.
In all, S-38 earned three battle stars during the war.
Following the conflict, the tale of her harrowed Christmastime raid in the Lingayen Gulf during the darkest days of the war was retold in the first season of The Silent Service in 1957. A guest on the show was Moon Chapple, who at the time was a double Navy Cross recipient and a full Captain. After he left S-38 in 1942 he would go on to bag another half-dozen Marus and heavily damage two Japanese cruisers before going on to skipper the reactivated heavy cruiser USS Pittsburgh (CA-72) in the Korean War
When asked if anything else could have happened to one submarine on one patrol, Moon answered, “I don’t see how. By the time you’ve been through depth charge attacks, groundings, broken instruments, mechanical damage and a battery explosion you sorta run out of ideas of how to get into trouble.”
Moon would go on to retire as a rear admiral in 1959. He died in 1991, aged 83.
As for S-38’s sisters, though obsolete, several S-boats remained on the Navy List and served the Navy well in both the Atlantic and Pacific (including several lost to accidents) during WWII. A half-dozen were even transferred to the Royal Navy as Lend-Lease including class leader and the former submersible aircraft carrier, USS S-1.
None of these hardy, if somewhat unlucky, craft endure though Pigboats.com keeps their memory alive.
Displacement: 854 tons surfaced; 1,062 tons submerged
Length: 219 feet 3 inches
Beam: 20 feet 9 inches
Draft: 16 feet
Propulsion: 2 × New London Ship and Engine Company (NELSECO) diesels, 600 hp each;
2 × General Electric electric motors, 560 kW each; 120 cell Exide battery; two shafts.
Speed: 14.5 knots surfaced; 11 knots submerged
Range: 5,000 miles at 10 knots surfaced on 168 tons (41,192 gals) oil fuel
Test depth: 200 ft
Crew: 4 Officers, 34 Enlisted as designed. Up to 42 during WWII.
Armament (as built):
4 × 21-inch (533 mm) torpedo tubes (bow, 12 torpedoes first Mk 10 then later Mk 14)
1 × 4-inch (102 mm)/50 cal Mark 9 “wet mount” deck gun
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