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TWO LITTLE SHIPS

By FLETCHER PRATT
From U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings - July 1947 [Pages 782-787]

FLETCHER PRATT, author of more then an a dozen previous articles in the Proceedings, is well known as a writer on naval affairs both to the Services and to the civilian reading public at 
large. He is the author of numerous books on naval and historical subjects, his latest book being a treatment of the naval actions In the Solomons

On June 19, 1944, the Imperial Japanese Navy began that long-desired and long-predicted general fleet action with the forces of the United States. It took place approximately in the area foreseen by pre-war strategists and as a result of the operation that had been counted upon to render such a battle inevitable--an American thrust into the Marianas. But there the resemblance to prediction ends. The immediate action was not fought out with the great guns, but in the skies by fleets of planes ---more of them than the whole U. S. Naval service had contained at the outbreak of the war. And the last red sinking sun looked not on the ruin of the Japanese battle line, but on the destruction of her carrier air service, so carefully hoarded and rebuilt since it had last been seen at Santa Cruz, a year and a half before.

It was the Fleet's victory, Task Force 58's victory. But it is taking nothing from the performance of that force to say it hardly could have occurred at that time or in those terms but for the operations of two little ships which no one on the carriers or battleships ever saw. The whole operation, indeed, stands in illustration of the immense importance of insignificant things. As the Japanese planes whirled down their carrier decks to take off amid mechanical gestures of salutation and the mechanical barking of the Banzai, they were already strategically beaten, hopelessly handicapped. It was required of Task Force 58 only to present the bill of judgment in the tactical action.

After the American conquest of the Marshalls and the simultaneous carrier attacks that reduced Truk from a major base to an outpost on caretaker status, there was a long pause in the sea offensive against Japan. From February to May the only American attacks were along the New Guinea coast at Hollandia and Aitape. Those gains were consolidated by mid-May and it was evident that our forces would soon take a new step forward. In what direction?

Let us look at the problem from the standpoint of Tokyo. The indefinable, powerful political influence on strategy of General MacArthur's ideas was a phenomenon of a type thoroughly familiar to the Japanese in their own country. They were fully aware of his intention to return to the Philippines, and the New Guinea moves confirmed the idea that he was coming there soon. Major units of the American fleet had taken part in the Hollandia-Aitape operation, and the Japs knew that Manus had been erected into a base capable of serving any fleet. They had also remarked how our advances were by stages, so that from each to the next there was some cover from land-based planes and a naval operating base was within easy steaming distance of the new point of impact.

From the Marshalls to the Marianas, the next group in the central Pacific, no air support would be available and the distance was oceanic. On the other hand the islands on Geelvink Bay were within easy reaching distance of points now under the American flag; Yap, Palau, and Woleai were possible. From these data the deduction could be drawn that the offensive in the Marshalls had been undertaken in order to permit our major fleets to come down in a direct line from Pearl Harbor to the support of MacArthur's movement, and that the general would carry it further with the support of all our forces. This was the deduction the Japanese actually drew, and they disposed their forces to meet such an offensive, with 60 per cent of the available planes and the most experienced pilots shifted southward, and with their battle fleet at Tawi Tawi anchorage where the Philippines meet Borneo. All the battleships were in that fleet, and nine carriers, which left it inferior to the forces under Admiral Spruance but by no means crushingly so, considering the nearness of the Jap bases and the aviation support they provided.

One thing was necessary to a valid defense--warning as to which of the possible points of attack we would choose, and that warning received in time to permit the Japanese to catch our forces at sea or at least astride the beaches. Of course the air scouting organization in the Carolines was alerted; but, since the two attacks on Truk, the enemy had learned that he could not place very firm reliance upon snoopors. Vice Admiral Mitscher's fast carriers were undertaking their major moves beneath combat patrols so strong and so widely extended that the Japanese scouts were frequently shot down before they could report.

The answer was to supplement the scouting by submarine. A division of six of the war-built smaller Ro class submarines was assigned to cover the southern approaches-Ro-I04, 105, 106, 108, I16, and 117. They were spread out on a line of bearing, slanting from a point well south of Truk to a point well west of Manus, so that a fleet of American size moving westward could hardly fail to be sighted by one and perhaps by two. It would probably end in a suicide mission for the boat lucky or unlucky enough to contact the Americans, but no Japanese hesitated because of that.

At Purvis Bay the new U. S. destroyer escort England was assigned to Escort Division 39, along with the George (DE 697) and the Raby (DE 698), the duty being the rather monotonous one that usually falls to DE's, that of covering an escort carrier, the Hoggatt Bay, chiefly on anti-submarine work. On May 17, 1944, Third Fleet ordered all three DE's out on the information that a big Jap submarine was bound down from Truk toward Bougainville, probably on a supply mission. The three were to intercept her.

The information was perfectly accurate, the sub being the 1-16, one of the 1,700-tonners completed just before the war, which Japanese strategists had expected to use for long range raids against our west coast. They had become cargo carriers after one of the most violent interservice quarrels on record, when the Japanese Army declared it would build and operate its own submarines unless the Navy agreed to the diversion.

The accepted and obvious technique for hunters on such missions is to plot a course for the submarine from start to destination, and then run back up it, with the pursuing ships spread far enough apart to get a contact on an enemy trying to penetrate between them. This was done, and calculations from the daily positions of the undersea craft showed they should pick her up near midnight of May 19, when they would presumably be able to make good radar contact on the surfaced submarine.

But at noon that day, when the little squadron was at a point not far north of the passage between Bougainville and Choiseul, the second sound man, who had had very little experience, reported that he had a contact dead ahead. Even if the England's skipper had wished, there was no time to replace anyone on watch with more experienced personnel. He ran right in, firing a salvo from the hedgehog. No one aboard had ever heard the sound of an explosion from that device, but the dull boom that came up from the depths of the sea was unmistakably that of a hit.

As the turbulence died and the ship swung around, the sound man reported he still had contact. The sub seemed to be fish-tailing, but slowly, as though she had been hurt. The England made another run, but did not get a good position; then a third, a fourth, and a fifth. A second hedgehog salvo was let go. Again there came the boom, followed like the stroke of a clock by a heavier, wider explosion. As tile England turned for a sixth run, the water boiled and garbage began to come up out of it. The I-16 was all through.

The rule in anti-submarine warfare is to take nothing for granted. The three ships remained in the area all afternoon and night, searching. Toward morning a 75 pound sack of rice in a water-proof covering drifted past, and the commander of the little Task Force judged it would be a good idea to continue his back track up the line from which the Jap bad come. The contact bad been made a full 12 hours before the anticipated time,  and some eight miles off the true line; it was quite possible that it represented a different sub.

The three DE's ran up toward Truk, then, for something over another 24 hours. During those 24 hours a plane operating out of Manus spotted one of the submarines in the Japanese scouting line which would seem to have been the Ro-117, dropped some bombs on her, thought it was a miss, and reported. This was Admiral Halsey's first knowledge of the Jap submarine concentration, which he did not yet know to be a concentration. Since his big board showed the England, Baby, and George near the area of the contact, he ordered them down toward it for a look. There was this much luck in it--the position the three ships had attained as a result of their pursuit of the 1-16 was precisely that which would carry them right along the Jap scouting line in making for the area of the contact with the Ro-117. But let us not attach too much importance to the J factor, for this line was also the line from Truk to the reported contact position which the DE's would have swept out in any case.

The three ships were running this line at 0350 on the morning of May 22 when the George, in the center of tile formation, reported a radar contact, unmistakably a submarine. The DE's opened out and speeded up; the George illuminated. As the searchlight beam swept around, the England's bridge gang caught one glimpse of the low sinister shape and then it disappeared from sight and radar screen together. The George ran in for an attack, using the hedgehog; she missed. The England's sound gang confirmed that the sub was still there, and at 0420 she got her order to try a run. The first salvo wits a clean miss. As the DE came around for a second try, the enemy was fish-tailing and moving slowly about 240 feet down, apparently expecting to put on speed and rudder to dodge a depth charge attack. It was a good fix, and the England used the hedgehog again. On the heels of the salvo came a triplicate explosion; and seven minutes later, as the England tried once more to find her opponent, a heavy dull shock seemed to shake the whole Pacific. The sound men could pick up nothing but the knuckle of explosion and Ro-106 was gone.

The England and her skipper had learned a good deal in that attack. For one thing, the Japs expected to be attacked with depth charges and were using the kind of tactics that would counter such an approach. But the explosion after the hits was somewhat puzzling; aboard the DE they were disposed to think that the submarine commander had some device for setting off his torpedo warheads and that he had suicided when he saw he could not save his ship. But one of the important features of this second submarine sinking in four days was that the Executive Officer had happened to have the bridge when the attack began, and the Commanding Officer had let him continue there, conning the ship in, while he himself kept the general supervision of all departments. The arrangement worked so very well that he resolved to try it again if contact were made on another submarine.

There was another contact within 24 hours as the three DE's were still running toward the position where the Ro-l17 had been seen. It came just its the ships were setting dawn alert next morning, May 23. The Raby made contact on radar, as much as 8,000 yards distant. She attacked at once, giving ranges and bearings as she did so to let the other DE's plot positions. It seems that this submarine skipper was a clever and experienced man. He used speed, and when pinged on, pinged right back, throwing off the attacker's recorder. Fifty minutes and four hedgehog salvos from the Raby produced no results. The George tried twice, making contact and losing it for over an hour, and at 0814 was sent out to join the circle round the position while the England ran in for a try. The first salvo missed; at the second there was an explosion so loud that it was felt aboard both the other DE's, 3,000 yards away. Four minutes later, in came the big bang that had marked the death of the previous submarine. And that was tile end of the Bo-104.

By this time it was clear both to the destroyer escort unit and the Third Fleet that they were dealing with a regular formation, and that noon the three DE's steamed away from an oil slick five miles long and still being fed from below "to look for bigger and better submarines." They found Ro-l16 at two o'clock in the morning, the George picking her up on radar at 8,000 yards as the three DE's were running several miles apart --good work by the George's radar watch. She closed at once. But the England was nearer, and as the submarine dived, obtained a beautiful sound contact, fired a hedgehog salvo, and got hits the very first time. Apparently this Japanese submarine skipper never got a chance to touch off his suicide mechanism. Only a deep rumbling sound followed the noise of the hedgehog explosion; and at dawn, the DE, quartering the area for another contact it never got, found many pieces of shattered inside wood and some chromium boxes. That was all there was left of the Ro-116.

That same morning at 0944 the England picked up another sound contact, ran in once again, and fired hedgehog salvos without any response. She was getting perilously low on this species of ammunition, so she conned the George, which could not get the contact, in for another try. This one too brought no results; the George dropped a pattern of depth charges, but the contact vanished in a highly unsatisfactory manner. It could not be regained, though the three DE's searched a long time.

And now came the question of what to do next.

All three ships were low on fuel, and both the George and the England almost out of hedgehog ammunition; yet anyone could look at a chart and see that there was a scouting line, probably with more submarines to complete it. But they could put into Seeadler Harbor for logistics, and it was perfectly natural that they should proceed toward Seeadler along the Japanese scouting line.

It worked. At 1120 on the morning of the 261h, the Raby and the England simultaneously obtained radar contact on a surfaced sub. Both closed in. The England got the first sound contact, so made the first run, and once again on the very first salvo there came up from below the booming noise of hits followed by a deep rumble as of a train crossing a badly adjusted switch. The England swung into the conventional circle around the area--she had now but three patterns of hedgehog charges left--while the Raby ran through. There was no contact, but the second DE saw a meat-chopping block and some shattered bedposts come boiling through the oil slick. And those were the relics of the Ro-108. The Raby and the George remained in the area, as prescribed by doctrine, while the England ran back a little distance to make visual contact with their old companion, the escort carrier Haggatt Bay, and pass over information about the submarine. Admiral Halsey had sent the carrier out under the concept that if there were as many submarines in the area as there seemed to be, he ought to have some planes on the job.

The contact brought it about that instead of making Seeadler Harbor at dawn of the 271h, the three DE's did not get in till midafternoon of that day. A sister ship, the Spangler, DE 696, was waiting for them with the desired projector charges. They loaded, refueled, and stayed overnight. The Spangler went out with them in the morning for the run back, and once more it was only logical to proceed along the line where the Jap subs had been found. Two destroyers of the Seventh Fleet, the Hazlewood and the Heerman, were now working in the area; on the night of May 30 one of them had a fleeting and inconclusive contact which could not be developed. The following night the George and the Raby both got a radar contact which was speedily developed into a good sound fix. The task group commander ordered them to hold it till daylight. With two destroyers and four DE's to make the circle, this was not too difficult, and as light began to come up over the sea the George ran in for an attack.

She missed. The Raby gave it a try and missed also; then the Spangler and another miss. It was now full day and there was a message on hand from Admiral Halsey warning the little ships that there were indications that they might be attacked from the air and had better clear the area. "Oh, hell," came the task group commander's voice over TBS, resignedly, "go ahead, England." The England did go ahead, and at the second salvo got the welcome boom of hedgehog hits, followed by that same violent explosion downstairs that had attended the passing of the other submarines. The Ro-105 was gone, and the Japanese scouting line was wiped out.

For the Ro-117 never reported. A PBY got her north of Truk. Apparently the aviator who first saw her was a little more accurate than he had imagined, and she was on her way in for repairs.

It hardly matters what did happen to her. Neither does it matter for this consideration that the destroyer escort England was to receive a Presidential Unit Citation for a record never equaled by the frigate Constitution or any other vessel of naval history--the destruction of six enemy warships in 12 days.
What was immediately important in the domain of strategy was that a clean sweep of the Japanese scouting line had been made, and in a manner that prevented any of the scouts from reporting except negatively. One day they were on the job, the next there was silence, and the points from which they had disappeared were approximately a day's steaming apart. There had been submarine losses before, but nothing like this ever, anywhere. The Japanese high Command deduced logically from the available evidence, as every command must deduce at times, the presence of a gigantic American fleet rushing westward, accompanied by destroyers and planes so numerous that crushing force had been thrown on their scouts.

Their previous concept had sent the Combined Fleet to Tawi Tawi Anchorage. This new one caused it to be alerted for action off Peleliu. Earlier the 22rid Air Flotilla had been ordered to the latter place; now all but 18 of the planes based on Truk were distributed among Yap, Woleai, and Guam, and some 71 planes were brought down from Guam to Peleliu.

It is an instructive illustration of the effect a single operation can have, and of how misleading the information may be upon which command decisions must be based. The destroyer escort England had gone out for the purpose of hunting submarines; she succeeded so well as to achieve an utterly unexpected and unplanned major strategic feint. Even the Japanese air searches flown from the Marianas were routine, and due to the shortage of planes there, with so many absent in the south, were concentrated entirely in the hours when a fleet moving into attack at dawn would be spotted by searchers at the limit of their range. This turned into a major error, for Admiral Spruance had changed pace by timing his arrival for the afternoon. It was changed from a major to a monstrous mistake by the operations of the second of the two little ships mentioned in the title of this article.

This was the submarine Harder, already moving out of Exmouth Gulf, Australia, on her fifth war patrol while the England was demonstrating that no submarine is safe from a well-handled destroyer escort. The Harder would presently equal if not surpass the DE's incredible record for the destruction of enemy warships, with the demonstration that no destroyer is safe from a well-handled submarine.
The Harder already had a record sensational even in the sensational annals of the submarine service when she left Freemanle on May 26. The extent of it can be judged from the fact that her first four patrols had brought her commander as many Navy Crosses. On the fourth of these patrols she had worked into the breakers off the inhospitable beach of the Jap base at Woleai to rescue a downed aviator, a task which involved holding the submarine's nose against a reef with slowly turning screws while three volunteers took a rubber boat in to bring off the flyer under the fire of Japanese shore guns.

Two weeks later, still in the same general area, the Harder was sighted by a plane. She made a quick dive to 100 feet; but when she came back up to periscope, a medium bomber was circling overhead, and it was not more than two minutes later that sound reported a sharp ping from astern and the llarder's commander knew he had been found. It was at this time customary for submarines to let destroyers alone unless the latter were hampered by a convoy. Night was near, and the set of the currents around Woleai was such as to make evasive action relatively easy. But the Harder's skipper never even thought about evasion. tie turned toward the destroyer, manned battle stations, and waited to be attacked, on the theory that the boldest course is the safest.

[The rest of the article was not provided but will be obtained]