Shadow Warriors Submarine Special Operations in World War Two

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Shadow Warriors - Submarine Special Operations in World War Two
by Daniel T. Rean, CWO3 USN Ret. Professor of History Franklin Pierce University

I'm the Galloping Ghost of the Japanese Coast,
You don't hear of me or my crew—
But just ask any man off the coast of Japan
If he knows of the Trigger Maru

Constantine Guiness, US Navy, 1943

The submarine's ability to penetrate a hostile area independently, covertly and for a long duration, provides a unique tactical advantage. Submarines operating undetected near the enemy's coastline provide a complete picture of the undersea, surface and near shore military conditions, including enemy force dispositions and preparations. The submarine, with its extremely capable communications ability, operating well inside the enemy's defensive barriers, provides valuable tactical information to assist Army and Marine Corps field commanders in making timely, informed decisions. In that role, submarines pave the way for the effective employment of special covert forces and insulate those same forces from unnecessary risks during the initial phases of guerrilla warfare operations.

Between January 1942 and August 1945, dozens of American submarines participated in special operations ranging from destroying enemy mines to serving as lighthouse beacons in order to guide Allied ships through uncharted hostile waters. Oftentimes, those special operations were documented by single-line entries in ships' logs, or mentioned in passing in the official reports of the supported units. Those special operations could not have been performed by any other naval assets, military organizations, or land-based forces at the time, yet their documentation is incomplete and relatively unknown outside military fraternities. The historiography of the special operations of World War II submarines is documented in countless publications scattered throughout museums, military archives and libraries, but no single comprehensive record exists to adequately provide authoritative information on the numerous support missions participated in on a routine basis by members of America's "Silent Service."

In World War II, the submarine's ability to circumvent traditional defenses was exploited to the fullest to deliver supplies to American-led guerrilla forces, to rescue pilots (both Allied and enemy) who had been shot down over the ocean, to land and extract coast watchers on remote Pacific islands, to evacuate escaped prisoners of war, to lay mines and to conduct reconnaissance of potential invasion sites for future Allied actions. Submarines differ from other warships because they operate in the underwater medium, and unlike surface ships and most aircraft, they operate best in isolation relying on the elements of stealth and surprise. They are designed for the role of hunter in hit-and-run attacks, in attrition warfare and for single salvo strikes on shore targets. They are least capable in missions that require prolonged exposure in a sustained defensive posture. Submarines are different: the tactics that give them their greatest fighting potential do not conform to the classical Mahanian naval strategy of defeating the enemy in a battle of annihilation. Therefore, they are the most effective means for a Navy to circumvent traditional defenses and engage in specialized warfare.

Volunteers manned submarines in recognition of the fact that shipboard life was difficult and conditions of habitability less than ideal. Most were attracted by the force's elite standards, casual discipline, technical challenges and extra pay. The Navy realized that undersea warfare created stresses that weaker personalities could not handle, so all submariners had to pass rigorous physical, mental and psychological tests to qualify for the demanding submarine training program. Crewmembers were chosen for their attributes as hard-working, thorough and idealistic sailors.
The submariner was always aware that an error during underwater operations jeopardized everyone's life. They were dependent upon one another for survival, and any mistake was considered unworthy of the individual sense of trust that formed their common bond. If they lacked judgment and initiative, so did their ship. Every submariner was therefore a reflection of his ship's abilities and character – and no one wanted to disappoint his shipmates or bring dishonor to his ship. Although the US Submarine Service made up but 2% of the United States Navy, it accounted for 55% of Japanese maritime losses. But, this service paid a high price: out of a total of 16,000 Submariners, 375 Officers, and 3,131 enlisted men died at sea. That was a 22% casualty rating, the highest percentage of all US Armed Forces

Modern historians who study the great sea battles of World War II most often focus on the obvious aspects of modern naval warfare by examining the contributions made by aircraft carriers and carrier task forces at battles like Midway, the Coral Sea and the Marianas "Turkey Shoot." To be sure, great sea battles severely crippled the enemy's ability to wage war and provided an incalculable boost to Allied morale, but despite the Mahanian strategic importance of decisive sea battles fought between battleships, heavy cruisers and their supporting units, their outcomes had little tactical value to the troops fighting on land. The old eighteenth century European tradition of guerre de course reasserted itself in the twentieth century. The continued erosion of a nation's ability to support land-based troops through its Merchant Fleet showed how lethal commerce raiding could be when wedded to submarine technology. The gradual shift in Naval wartime policy from a strategy relying on sea battles of annihilation to one stressing protracted commerce raiding transformed America's submarine force from a military curiosity to an invaluable wartime asset in less than fifty years.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, and in the wake of the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese showed the world that an oriental nation, armed with the same weaponry, comprising the same organization, and using the same techniques and methods as Europeans, could defeat them in a head-to-head war. The Russo-Japanese War also demonstrated the importance of Army and Navy cooperation in the combat theater. In other words, the advantage fell to the nation best capable of cultivating an effective strategy of joint Army-Navy operations. Japan was the nation that proved capable of defeating an enemy by maximizing its military effectiveness through joint-service operations under a single command authority.

In response to the possible Japanese military threat, the US Navy created "Plan Orange." Based on the theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan the plan assumed that a Japanese attack on the United States would begin in the Philippines. The response to that action would have the Army garrison in the Philippines slow the initial attack, fall back to the island of Corregidor at the mouth of Manila Bay, and await reinforcements and naval support. The main drawback to Plan Orange came from the long transit that the Navy faced in having to go "around the horn" to reach the Pacific Ocean. The plan was a major influence on President Theodore Roosevelt's decision to complete the Panama Canal. The plan became doctrine after the completion of the canal and the establishment of a new American Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and its provisions dictated the characteristics for all fleet vessels with regard to speed, range, armament, and at-sea endurance right up until World War I.

At the outbreak of World War I, the British imposed a naval blockade against Germany and the Central Powers. British warships captured or sank any enemy merchant ship attempting to run the blockade. The German Navy was strong, but not strong enough to defeat Britain in an all-out sea battle. Unable to apply naval force to stop the blockade, Germany appealed to the neutral nations, including the United States, to help persuade the British to lift the blockade for humanitarian reasons. Those appeals failed, and Germany was forced to find another means to circumvent the British blockade. On February 4, 1915 Germany announced that a war zone would be established around all of the British Isles and that all hostile ships found within that area would be destroyed by U-boats.

By World War I, the idea of submarine warfare was not new. Militarists had long attempted to develop effective underwater warships. A submarine's underwater invisibility gives it two distinct military advantages: surprise and the means to retreat relatively undetected and safe from counterattacks. Despite the fact that British Intelligence had a tremendous amount of information concerning the movements of the German U-boats, their naval surface forces were unable to destroy the German submarine force. In discussing how much information the British Navy had in regard to German U-boat activity, naval historian Carroll Storrs Alden noted:

They knew almost every time a boat left a German base and often who was the commanding officer … [They could] determine what course the Germans were following in going to and from their billets, the number of days each stayed out, and the characteristic activities of each, e.g., certain ones used only torpedoes, others preferred to sink ships by gunfire and bombs, others laid mines.

Knowing where submarines might be was only half the battle; destroying them was another matter altogether different and difficult.

Before 1917, German U-boats operating in the Atlantic and practicing commerce raiding were extremely effective in reducing the amounts of war materials and goods that reached England and France. A continuation of that type of warfare would have caused the economic strangulation of Great Britain by November. The Mahanian preoccupation with decisive battleship engagements continued to dominate British military thinkers who concluded that there was "no strategic solution whatsoever to the U-boat menace."

In World War I, German U-boats sank ten battleships, eighteen cruisers, twenty-one destroyers, nine submarines and an astounding 5,708 Allied vessels totaling 11 million tons. About half the merchant ships destroyed by U-boats were British. American naval strategists were able to convince the British Admiralty to abandon their reliance on the dreadnaughts to wipe out the German U-boats and employ a new strategy. American naval leadership theorized that in order to eliminate the threat imposed by the U-boats, they had to be neutralized, not destroyed. To counter the German Navy's unrestricted submarine warfare strategy, the Allies adopted a convoy system that used a screen of warships to protect the merchant vessels crossing the Atlantic. By November of 1917, less than one percent of the ships traveling in convoys were lost.

Following World War I, the United States learned new lessons about the changing nature of naval combat. The sea war in Europe profoundly influenced America's naval policy. President Woodrow Wilson issued a directive designed to make the Navy equal to the most powerful force maintained by any nation of the world. Unlike World War I, the new Navy was to be comprised of all types of ships to reduce the emphasis on building large ships of the line. The policy was accompanied by specific recommendations and plans for an unprecedented build-up of battleships, cruisers, destroyers—and submarines. However, naval strategy was still largely based on the Mahanian model of structure, and although the Navy was better prepared for World War II than it was for World War I, naval planners and politicians controlling the purse strings made the mistake of paying little concern to the utility of submarines when assembling the fleet components. The political influence went beyond local funding issues. International treaties limiting the sizes and types of ships – creating parity among the world powers – kept most aggressive naval building programs in check.

The advent of another war in Europe in 1939 accelerated the pace of American shipbuilding. In June 1940, Congress authorized additional submarines to be built, and after the fall of France Congress passed the "Two Navy Act" authorizing another increase in the number of submarines to be built. Even as President Franklin D. Roosevelt emphasized antisubmarine warfare when he established the neutrality patrols in 1940 and 41, American war planners continued to disdain the strategy of commerce raiding. At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Navy had only 51 submarines stationed at forward bases in the Pacific.

The Japanese commander of the carrier task force that wrought so much damage at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 missed a golden opportunity to knock out the US Navy's most effective warships by limiting his target selection to aircraft carriers and battleships. The ships that were sunk or severely damaged in the attack at Pearl Harbor could not have operated effectively in the far western Pacific theater for many months even under the best of circumstances, and their loss to the Navy proved only temporary when they were eventually refloated and repaired. The Japanese Naval High Command knew the strategic importance of knocking out the dockyards, the above-ground fuel supplies and the airfields, but they underestimated the value of other ships, which were left untouched in the attack.

Fortunately for the United States, the Japanese failed to destroy the submarine base in Hawaii, preserving intact the supplies, facilities and fuel that were needed so that the only branch of the service capable of bringing the war to the enemy through immediate offensive actions could begin its combat operations. It was the submarine force that carried the load until the great industrial activity of America produced the weapons needed to prosecute the war against Japan. From 1941 to 1945, 249 US submarines conducted sorties against Japanese shipping. Because over three-quarters of Japan's requirements for basic raw materials and foodstuffs needed to support the war came from overseas sources, through their unique brand of warfare the submarine force was able to wage a devastating campaign against the Japanese Merchant Fleet. American submarines sank almost half of the merchant tonnage available to Japan. Even so, the hunter-killer aspects of submarine warfare demonstrated only a part of their strategic importance to the overall Allied war effort.

American submarine warfare operations, both conventional and unconventional, in the Atlantic were severely hampered by the successes of the Allied convoy system. In the first six months of 1943, the war in the Atlantic turned decisively in favor of the Allies after they had sunk 150 German U-boats. The American submarines that had previously patrolled a wide area of ocean were shifted to patrol positions off Norway and North Iceland. After several months it became apparent that those submarines were not being used to the best advantage – not for any operational deficiencies, but because there was a serious lack of targets. Accordingly, the American submarine squadron in the Atlantic theater was returned to the United States for refit and reassignment to the Pacific Fleet.

There are hundreds of books written that document submarine combat operations during World War II, but most of those are narrowly focused on the individual accomplishments of a handful of officers or concentrate on the "find ‘em, shoot ‘em, sink ‘em" aspects of submarine warfare. This may be due to the fact that submarine service was a highly personal experience, filled with the memories of the smell of sweat and oil, the pounding concussion of exploding depth charges, the controlled chaos of emergency deep operations, the quick peeks through the periscope made to verify the sinking of another target and the tension of submerged attacks in enemy waters. The destruction of the Japanese Merchant Fleet was the submarines' primary mission, but they also had significant influence in conducting secondary missions like transporting guerrillas and raiders, carrying supplies to guerrillas behind enemy lines, and performing reconnaissance duties. The historiography of World War II submarine warfare is treated almost as a separate conflict that pitted the US Submarine Pacific Fleet against the merchant shipping and naval forces of Japan – a sort of war within a war.

Submarines performed numerous special operations in the Atlantic theater, but most of those were conducted by British naval assets. The most well known of those submarines, was the HMS Seraph. In between the numerous encounters with German shipping, the Seraph, under the command of Lieutenant N.L.A. Jewell, conducted topographical and military reconnaissance of the Algerian and Sicilian coasts prior to the invasions of Africa and Italy, and rescued French General Henri Honoré Giraud right from under the noses of the Gestapo. Even those special operations performed by the HMS Seraph that proved to be so important to the Allied war effort, were treated by her captain and crew as mundane and counter-productive to their primary mission as hunter-killers. The diary entry of Lieutenant Jewell emphasized his indifference toward secret missions where he wrote:

For us aboard the Seraph, there ensued the hardest part of any operation, land or sea—the thumb-twiddling business of waiting in fretful idleness while the other fellows are off having the fun [of sinking ships]. If a fat Italian freighter had happened along just then—oh, I suppose I'd have let her pass rather than jeopardize our mission, but it would have been a close squeak for the freighter.

That indifference toward the special operations aspects of submarine warfare was also present in the attitudes of American submarine captains. The numerous personal diaries that were published after 1945 by those who served onboard submarines during World War II have under-reported the special missions that were accomplished by the crews of those ships.

The only special mission that is covered in any detail was the Spyron Operation, which supported the resistance efforts of American-Filipino guerilla warriors throughout the Philippine Islands after the fall of Corregidor in 1942. Two books were written about Spyron – an operation that was supported solely by American submarines specifically assigned to the mission – but neither of those books gives credit to any submarine by name. They are only mentioned in vague descriptions or to clarify the organizational and operational actions of Commander Charles "Chick" Parsons, the leader of the Spyron mission. The following excerpt is typical of how past historians have interpreted and documented the Spyron mission:

By 1943 the government in Tokyo, Japan realized that a mysterious "Mr. X" was operating in the Philippines. Arriving by submarine, he was supplying the American-Filipino guerrilla forces with medicine, ammunition and arms. By early 1944 Tokyo had established his identity, and from then on, there was a reward of $50,000 for the capture of Commander Charles Parsons – dead or alive. Through a secret organization called "Spyron," "Chick" Parsons helped to organize and supply one of the most successful undergrounds the world had ever seen – the American-Filipino guerrilla movement of World War II. Parsons, however, was an unconventional military leader, fighting an unconventional war. During the many months that he lived behind enemy lines, he never carried a weapon or fired a shot. Rather, he was a collector of psychological and political warfare – a shadowy will-of-the-wisp figure, who sought to remain invisible. By the end of the war, however, he had become one of America's most decorated heroes. It was at that time that Chick Parsons received his highest award – the Medal of Valor, bestowed with gratitude and affection by the Philippine Government and the Philippine people.

The Filipino-American guerrilla movement would have been impossible to arm or supply, and their combat effectiveness rendered impotent, without the support of America's Pacific Submarine Fleet.

It must be said that American submarines in the Pacific, with but limited help of a few British and Dutch boats, played a major role in the defeat of Japan. They decimated that country's Merchant Fleet, choked off essential supplies and prevented material support for the Japanese war effort. Most historiographies of submarine warfare have focused on the destruction of enemy shipping by describing every aspect in locating, stalking, determining a firing solution, attacking and sinking a target. There is also an emphasis on trying to recreate the atmosphere that pervaded all submarine combat action – the talking in whispers and movement in stocking feet to reduce unnecessary noise that might be emitted through the hull, and the everyday life in cramped quarters that became even more suffocating when submariners faced the terror and uncertainty of survival while enemy depth charges relentlessly rattled their boat. What is lacking in the history of submarine combat actions during World War II is a summary of all the special operations that were conducted in between the "find ‘em, shoot ‘em, sink ‘em" aspects of submarine warfare. Although the commerce raiding conducted by submarines was their most obvious contribution to the war effort, the secondary role of the submarine as a "shadow warrior" used in covert operations was equally important, and had far greater influences on the peripheral elements of warfare that contributed to the defeat of the Japanese military.

Pearl Harbor set into motion a succession of rapid and extensive Japanese conquests that carried their armed forces to Malay, Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines and the western Pacific until they threatened India in the west, Australia in the north, and Midway and Hawaii in the east. Against the rush of those Japanese conquests, Allied strategic planners theorized that no action could be brought against the enemy until the lines of communication were secured against the loss of America's battleships and the shifting of naval assets to support the priority assigned to the defense of the Panama Canal and Caribbean seaports.

The fall of France at the hands of the Nazis in 1940 had an immediate significance for the United States. The Germans had already established active and influential communities from Brazil to Argentina. If the Nazis occupied the French colonies and seaports in the Caribbean, the Axis Powers would be a stone's throw away from the Panama Canal, Puerto Rico, Guantánamo, Cuba and the Gulf of Mexico. The fear of a German presence in the Caribbean was a definite threat to international commerce as the fuel-hungry German Navy would surely covet the unprotected Dutch oil refineries in Aruba and Curacao. Through diplomatic measures, Roosevelt convinced the governments of the Latin American Republics to adopt a policy of neutrality that stressed a doctrine of noninterference by Europe in the territories of North and South America. The intention was to deny the German military machine any access to, or domination of, "American" skies and water. With the US Navy's largest warships reassigned to protect the Panama Canal and guard against enemy mines and submarines, American military planners were forced to rely on the submarine force to carry the fighting load in the Pacific until the nation's industrial power could be fully mobilized.

Similar strategic problems affected the Dutch government in her East Indian colonies. After Pearl Harbor and the quick defeat of Dutch troops in the Indies in March 1942, the Dutch government quickly realized that an intelligence network had to be established to prevent the Japanese from cutting off the East Indian colonies from the rest of the world. Immediately following capitulation, some preparations for guerrilla warfare were made, but the number of troops involved was reduced from several hundred to a few small units whose sole mission became establishing communications between the East Indies and the Netherlands. The initial guerrilla campaigns on Java failed as did the establishment of a network of communications units. Part of the continuing problems that plagued the Dutch resistance efforts was the general hostile reception from the local population. Most of the Dutch guerrillas were betrayed by the local population soon after their infiltration.

A larger part of the problems that the Dutch encountered in trying to establish a sustained guerrilla campaign against the Japanese was due to the shortage of available special mission submarines. Most special missions had to be postponed or cancelled due to the lack of reliable transportation. As the head of the Dutch intelligence organization, Charles Olke van der Plas, stated in 1943, the problem with the intelligence/guerrilla movement in the East Indies was first of all one of "submarines, submarines and once again submarines." In general, the military value of the Dutch intelligence gatherers proved to be of no use to the Allied war effort in the Pacific theater. The only Dutch-sponsored special mission that achieved any positive results – codenamed "

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