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World War II Magazine
January 1997

----------- Armament -----------

The destroyer escort England was one of the U.S. Navy's most prolific killers of Japanese submarines during WWII.

By Dale P. Harper

Destroyer escort USS England (DE-635 off San Francisco on February 9, 1944. Three months later, the hedgehoge-armed vessel sank or shared in the destruction of six Japanese subnarines between the islands of Manus and Truk in a period of just two weeks.

In the spring of 1944, American forces were on the move in the Pacific. A huge naval force was assembling in the Marshall Islands for a strike somewhere to the west. With New Guinea firmly under his control, General Douglas MacArthur was readying his troops for a strike somewhere to the north.

Admiral Soemu Toyoda of the Japanese Combined Fleet was well aware of all the activity. With his powerful naval force at anchor at Tawi Tawi in the Philippines, he needed to find out just what the Americans had in mind. Based on the latest intelligence reports available, he concuded that they would strike either Guam or Saipan in the Marianas or Palau in the western Caroline Islands. In tile final analysis, he determined that the Americans would assemble their assault forces at Manus Island in the Admiralty chain and attack Palau, with the Mariahas as an alternate possibility. He wanted more convincing evidence, however, before he began to formulate his own plans.
Toyoda contacted the headquarters of the Japanese submarine force in Tokyo and requested enough submarines to establish a scouting line stretching from the Japanese stronghold on Truk in the Carolines to the American base on Manus. Any invasion fleet bound for the Marianas, Palau or even the Philippines would be detected as it passed through this line, and appropriate measures could be taken. The admiral was granted his request, and six submarines were provided for the mission. Toyoda had hoped for more, but six were all that were available at the time. He accepted them gratefully, and as they journeyed south in mid-May to take up their stations, Toyoda began to plan his strategy.

At about the same rune the submarines were moving into position, a new destroyer escort had arrived tit Purvis Bay on Florida Island, in the Solomons. The new vessel was USS England ( DE-635 ), commissioned on December 10, 1943. Her captain, Commander Walton B. Pendleton, was a seasoned naval veteran, bur most of his crew was young and inexperienced and had not yet fired a shot against tile enemy. England and the destroyer escorts George (DE-697) and Raby (DE-698) were assigned to Escort Division 39, along with the escort carrier Hoggat Bay. Together the ships would serve as an anti-submarine warfare team. Lieutenant Commander Hamilton Hains, aboard George,, was the officer in tactical command (OTC) of the group.

On the evening of May 17, 1944, word was received by Admiral William E Halsey's Third Fleet that an enemy submarine had been sighted headed south from Truk toward the Solomons. The submarine was attempting to bring supplies to the isolated garrison at Buin on Bougainville, which had been bypassed by the Allied forces. On the morning of the 18th, England, George and Raby were sent out to investigate. They steamed northwest in a line at 4,000-yard intervals, making sonar sweeps.

No contacts were made on the first day, but on the aftenoon of the 19th, England's sonar made a contact. Commander Pendleton did not want to delay an attack by replacing his inexperienced sonar man, so he made a dry run first and was convinced that the contact was indeed a submarine. He made four firing runs, letting loose with hedgehogs (anti-submarine weapons firing a pattern of bomblets) each time--but with no apparent success. Shortly after the fifth hedgehog run there was a violent underwater explosion that knocked men off their feet and led them to believe they had been torpedoed. They had not been hit, however, and confirmation of the destruction of 1-16 came at 2:33 p.m., as oil, wood and debris came boiling to the surface.

On May 21, the destroyer escorts were still headed toward Truk when they received word from Halsey's flagship that a patrol plane had spotted a submarine in their area. No contacts or sightings were made that day, but early on the rooming of the 22nd George made radar contact with a surfaced sub at about seven miles. As the three ships converged on the target, George used her searchlight to comb the area but failed to see anything. England's lookouts, however, spotted the sub just before it submerged less than a mile away. George quickly made a sound contact and charged in, firing a hedgehog salvo. There were no signs of a hit, and contact was lost.

England promptly picked up the submarine on sonar at 2,500 yards, rushed in and let loose with hedgehogs, but the sub was fishtailing and managed to avoid being hit. On his second firing run, Pendleton ordered another volley of hedgehogs, which found their mark. Three distinct underwater blasts were followed by a tremendous explosion that reverberated through all three ships. Oil and debris rose to the surface to confirm the destruction of RO-106. At approximately 4:50 a.m., Admiral Toyoda had lost the first submarine of his scouting line, and England had her second kill.

About 24 hours later, with the destroyer escorts still on stations between Manus and Truk, a surfaced submarine came into view on Raby's radar scope. She went speeding in to attack. The contact submerged but was immediately picked up by sonar. After several attacks failed to produce results, Raby retired to the sidelines after 50 minutes, having used up a large portion of her ammunition. George then took over. Her first hedgehog salvo missed, and her next four runs were also unproductive. So George followed Raby to the sidelines, and England moved in for her turn.

It was 8:19 a.m. when England made her first run through the area, releasing a full barrage of hedgehogs. With no evidence of a hit, another run was made. Even though there were some underwater explosions and the water seemed to be boiling, Pendleton went back over the area and dropped 13 depth charges set to blow deep. This did the job, and oil and wreckage immediately came to the surface, indicating that submarine RO-I04 had been destroyed. The scouting line was now minus two of its subs, and England recorded three enemy subs destroyed in five days.

About an hour later, the destroyer escorts made another underwater contact. Although this one eluded them, Commander Hains, the OTC, was now convinced that the Japanese had set up a scouting line between Truk and Manus; however, he was faced with a problem that required immediate attention. The group was running low on fuel and ammunition. Should they keep heading toward Truk, where the hunting had been so good for the past few days, or head for Manus to replenish? Hains decided to reverse course and remain on the same line they were already patrolling. It was a wise decision that would bring them into contact with the rest of the scouting force.

Shortly after midnight on May 24, as the group was patrolling at eight-mile intervals, George made a radar contact at seven miles. It quickly disappeared from the radar screen, but England picked it up as a sound contact at 1:50 a.m. The sub was good at evasive tactics, forcing Pendleton to make two dry runs. On the third run he released a pattern of K-gun depth charges, and a rumbling noise from beneath the sea indicated success. A search of the area at daybreak revealed deck planking and pools of oil. England's fourth kill was submarine RO-116. The scouting line was now down to 50 percent of its original strength.

On May 26, England, George and Raby were patrolling their way back to Seeadler Harbor at Manus Islam while maintaining their eight-mile intervals. Just before midnight, Raby located a radar target at seven miles. England had the "pip" on her radar screen about a minute later and made a dash to the target area. At two miles, radar contact was lost, but the sonar operator picked it up at 1,700 yards. The destroyer escort moved in and unleashed a hedgehog salvo at 11:23 p.m., which was soon followed by rumbling explosions. England moved out of the attack area and let George and Raby come in to try and locate the target with their detection gear, but they were unsuccessful. As they had done on the previous kill, the group remained in the area until daybreak to search for evidence. It was there--oil, deck planking, cork and other debris all over the surface. England's fifth kill, RO-108, reduced the enemy surveillance line to two submarines. It had been an outstanding performance so far, considering that all this was accomplished without the services of their escort carrier, Hoggatt Bay.

The three destroyer escorts finally arrived at Manus on the afternoon of May 27, very low on fuel and ammunition. Waiting for them was Spangler, another destroyer escort (DE-696), with a load of hedgehog ammunition and orders to join the group when it went out again. The returning group stayed overnight, took on ammunition and fuel and departed late in the afternon of the 28th. Admiral Halsey, impressed by the group's success, strengthened their team by sending along Hoggatt Bay and her screen of two destroyers, Hazelwood and McCord.

At 1:44 a.m. on May 30, the group was steaming along the Manus-Truk line when Hazelwood picked up a radar contact at 7 1/2 miles. About 10 minutes later, the target vanished from the radar scope but was regained by the destroyer's sonar. Hazelwood dropped depth charges with no apparent luck. She was able to maintain contact but had no success in flushing out the deceptive submarine. At 4:35 a.m. George and Raby were called upon for a helping hand. The two team members had been echo ranging with England and Spangler during Hazelwood's attack. George made several runs, releasing hedgehogs each time. On the last run there was enough underwater noise to indicate probable hits but no indication that the elusive sub had been finished off. Raby then made several attacks without any sign of success.

For the rest of the day the sub evaded the two destroyer escorts, although they were able to maintain contact. Three underwater explosions occurred after sundown, but no telltale debris or wreckage came to the surface. Was the clever Japanese skipper somehow detonating his own torpedoes to deceive the hunters above him? George and Raby remained in the area all night and renewed their attacks in the morning with no positive results.

England and Spangler had still been echo ranging outside the attack area, but they had been following the action over the radio. Both came racing in, and Spangler made the first ran, letting go with a salvo of hedgehogs that produced no evidence of hits. Then word was received from Halsey's flagship ordering the ships to depart the area because a possible air attack was headed their way. Commander Hains knew the sub must be in bad shape from the pounding it had taken so far, and he did not want to let it escape. So he radioed, "Oh, hell, go ahead England."

With a clear sound contact, England went charging in and released a full hedgehog barrage. The small explosions of the bomblets were soon followed by a shattering blast felt by everyone aboard, and confirmation of the kill was forthcoming oil and wreckage began to cover the water's surface. At 7:26 a.m. England had destroyed RO-105, the fifth submarine of Toyoda's scouting line. The sixth and last sub of the scouting line, RO-117, was sunk by a patrol plane from Manus.

With the line gone, Toyoda, still at Tawi Tawi with the Japanese Combined Fleet, lost his best source of intelligence information and a chance to figure out the next Allied move. He correctly deduced that a great invasion fleet was being formed in the Manus area and that some of those ships were responsible for destroying his submarine scouts. With all this activity going on between Truk and Manus, Toyoda guessed that the forthcoming Allied drive would be aimed at Palau. To prepare to meet this threat, he had 71 planes transferred from Guam to Palau. Toyoda's preparations were all for naught, however; on June 15, 1944, just two weeks after England had sunk RO-105, the Allied assault forces stormed ashore on Saipan in the Marianas. A short time later, landings were made on Guam and Tinian.

For the remarkable achievement of destroying six enemy submarines in 12 days, England was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation. The war continued, however, and England moved on. A little less than a year later, the sub killer, now under the command of Lieutenant J .A. Williamson, was a part of the Okinawa campaign. This was the last stop in the island-hopping strategy that would take the Allied forces to within 340 miles of the enemy's homeland. After Okinawa was seized, plans for the invasion of Japan itself could be finalized.

The Japanese knew that if they could stall or by some miracle defeat the Allies at Okinawa, they could delay the assault on their homeland and perhaps gain more time to prepare their defenses. They threw everything they could spare into the battle. England and the hundreds of other ships involved in the campaign would be sailing into a hornet's nest. The main weapon the enemy planned to employ against the invaders was the kamikaze, or suicide plane. Although they had been encountered before at Leyte, Mindoro, Luzon and Iwo Jima, never had the kamikazes been deployed in such vast numbers as they were at Okinawa. And who was in charge of these suicide attackers? None other than Admiral Toyoda, whose submarine scouting line had been wiped out almost single handedly by England the previous year. He was now directing this last-ditch effort from his land-based headquarters at the Naval War College just outside Tokyo.

Okinawa, 60 miles long and 10 miles wide, was not the first objective in the battle plan. The first objective was Kerama Retto, a group of small islands about 19 miles west of the southern tip of Okinawa. Because the few good harbors available at Okinawa would be filled with transports, cargo ships and other vessels of the invasion armada, another anchorage was needed to furnish ships of the protective screen with fuel, provisions, ammunition and repair facilities. Kerama Retto would provide just such a large harbor and anchorage.

On March 27, 1945, the day after troops of the 77th Infantry Division landed and overpowered the few defenders on Kerama Retto, England received a rude Okinawa welcome when a kamikaze struck close by while she was on patrol. Luckily, there were no casualties and no damage. However, this was just a taste of what England and the ships of the invasion armada would face in the following weeks as Toyoda unleashed the fury of his suicide planes.
The invasion of Okinawa took place on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945. Throughout the violent campaign England performed numerous tasks. As a member of the radar picket line, deployed to provide early warning of kamikaze attacks, she was fortunate to remain unscathed for more than a month. Her luck ran out, however, on May 9. At sunset on that day, England was patrolling the waters of station A28A, a few miles northwest of the Kerama Retto anchorage, when her radar detected three inbound kamikazes at seven miles and closing fast. They were being pursued by two planes of the Combat Air Patrol, which quickly shot down two of them.

The surviving plane of the group, an Aichi Val dive bomber, kept coming, even though England's gunners were raking him with accurate fire. Lieutenant Williamson had the ship at flank speed and was taking evasive action. The gunners saw a wheel fly off the plane --there was fire around the cockpit and the canopy was riddled with shell holes. The pilot surely must have been dead, but it seemed that he had somehow locked onto England as a target. For an instant it looked as if the kamikaze would miss because it was coming in rather high. The kamikaze's wing grazed the forward boat davit, however, and the plane cart wheeled aboard, striking just aft of the ship's office. Smoke and flames engulfed the entire superstructure and destroyed the officers' wardroom, radio shack and ship's office. With the bridge totally afire, Williamson made his way aft and resumed the conn from there. Damage control parties worked furiously, and with help from minesweepers Gherardi and Vigilance, extinguished most of the fires within an hour. But it would be midnight before all the fires were out.

England was towed to Kerama Retto for repairs, with 35 dead and 27 wounded aboard. Shortly thereafter she departed for Leyte, where further repairs were made. In June she began the long voyage back to the United States. England's career came to an end on October 15, 1945, when she was decommissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard after a short but distinguished service career spanning one year, 10 months and five days.