Periscope Spies I

After the Solomons campaign in 1942 and the Midway disaster the Japanese High Command decided that perhaps discretion was not only the better part of valor, but very much the best part, and so the fleet was held in readiness until the opportune moment should arrive when a devastating blow could be struck at the American forces rolling across the Pacific. It had been a costly lesson but well-learned: the fleet would best be used in waters where fuel and land-based planes were available to their own forces but denied the enemy, meaning us.

By early summer, 1944, it was quite obvious to the Japanese High Command that the next major Allied effort would be against either Palau or the Marianas, in what the Japanese considered their inner defense ring. Either was the occasion for which the still powerful Japanese fleet had been held in reserve. Either would commit the biggest concentration of force the United States could afford, and if the Japanese could triumph in that battle, they might not be able to win the war but they would certainly not lose it.

So when the first of the Marianas, Saipan, was attacked in June, 1944, the Japanese Navy prepared to smash the Allied spear thrust, shaft and head, with an all-out’effort. However, the Allied High Command, fully aware of what the enemy’s reasoning had to be, expected the Japanese to oppose the Marianas’ invasion with all strength by land, sea, and air. But it was one thing to guess—however accurately—what the enemy was going to do and quite another to find out how he was going to do it.

Admiral Spruance and his Fifth Fleet had the job of supporting the landings on Saipan and protecting the amphibious forces. This itself was a full-time job and could not be combined with the highly important task of watching for the expected sorties by the enemy fleet, without weakening the force necessary to protect the beachhead on Saipan. True, the Fifth Fleet contained Admiral Mitscher’s strong carrier force, but to send carrier units westward to the Philippine area to scout the bases where the Jap naval forces lay would only create a double jeopardy: first, because the operation at Saipan needed the planes almost hourly to consolidate landings; second, because no fast battleships or cruisers could be spared to supply the carriers with their curtain of fire against the enemy’s land-based planes.

Yet if Admiral Spruance was going to be able to withdraw his fleet from the Saipan area at the critical moment to intercept and frustrate the Japanese counterattack, accurate information would have to be made available to him well in advance. He had to know positively the time of the departure of the enemy from his base or bases, the composition of the Japanese fleet and its route to the Marianas area.

This truly grave responsibility was given to the one force that had carried the offensive into Empire waters from the first day of the war onward, the fleet arm that was sinking (and would continue to sink) more enemy tonnage than all of the other military agencies combined—the submarines.

Commander Submarines assigned twenty-eight of his boats to the network that was to keep the necessary information flowing to Admiral Spruance up to the very hour his fleet would have to assemble to checkmate the enemy.

Submarines had already informed their boss that the main enemy units had left Singapore and Brunei, Borneo, and were concentrated at the Tawi Tawi anchorage in the Sulu Archipelago between Borneo and the Philippines. The Japanese had good reasons for selecting this anchorage. It was close to their own oil supply on Borneo, and equally handy to the sites they surmised the Allies would strike next, Palau or the Marianas. Moreover it was out of the reach of troublesome carrier planes, which had already made the Truk area untenable for their ships.

As a first step in the information network, three submarines were sent to prowl the vicinity of Tawi Tawi; three others to the southeast of Mindanao, on the route to Palau or the Marianas; three more were in Luzon Straits (between Luzon and Formosa); and one each in San Bernardino and Surigao Straits—the only passages for large ships to the Philippine Sea. Thus, all avenues of approach by enemy fleets were watched.

To obtain and transmit information on the course, speed, composition, and disposition of the anticipated enemy fleet, five other submarines were placed north and west of the Marianas. They were also to watch for war ships from the Empire’s homeland bases. Patrolling the lanes west of the Marianas were the other craft assigned to the watchdog detail.

With this network not much privacy or secrecy was probable for any enemy fleet trying to slip in and smash the Saipan landing. The Fifth Fleet was provided with a story-book setup.

The movement of the first enemy force from Tawi Tawi was observed on June 10 by the Harder, commanded by Commander Dealey. Through the sub’s periscope the skipper observed three battleships, four or more cruisers, and six or more destroyers heading south, probably for Sibutu Passage (between Sibutu and Tawi Tawi). Before diving deep to escape a destroyer that headed for him belligerently at high speed Sam Dealey coolly fired three “down the throat” torpedoes and damaged it enough to take the sting out of the depth-charge attack that followed.

That night the Harder sent in her report that the first enemy contingent was on the move. At the time it appeared headed for Halmahera, western New Guinea. Actually, it turned north several days later and passed to the east of Mindanao where it came under the surveillance of other subs.

The Redfin (Commander M. H. Austin) took over the Harders vigil when she returned to Darwin for more torpedoes and fuel. On June 13 the Redfin observed the main Japanese Fleet striking force sortie from the anchorage: four battleships, eight cruisers, six carriers with planes on deck, and eleven destroyers, a formidable fleet. The submarine was not quite able to see without being seen, and the Japanese destroyers laid down a heavy depth-charge curtain which prevented the Redfin from getting a torpedo in a major ship, but Austin was able to send in the contact report of the enemy’s composition and its course toward the coast of Borneo.

To the self-appointed welcoming committee of the Fifth Fleet it was now evident that this force would transit either Surigao or San Bernardino Strait to reach the Philippine Sea. There was a chance it would choose the much longer route via Luzon Strait, but the possibility was ruled out considering the fuel and time the longer but safer route would require, and time and fuel was what the Japanese were running out of.

So the Flying Fish and Growler, guarding the San Bernardino and Surigao Straits, were alerted. The question Admiral

Spruance wanted answered now was: where and when would the enemy striking force, under the command of Vice-Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, enter the Philippine Sea?

On June 15 the Flying Fish, commanded by Commander Robert D. Risser, patrolling in San Bernardino Strait, answered that question. During the early morning of that day Bob Risser knew something important was impending, when he sighted several patrol planes and two carrier-based aircraft sweeping back and forth over the Strait.

Later that morning the sight that presaged the real story was revealed. “Sighted two small unidentified (possibly carrier-based) planes to the southeast,” the skipper logged. “Sighted masts—they are coming through the east channel and are hugging the beach. Came to normal approach at standard speed. It was soon apparent that our chances for attack were zero but we continued in at high speed to develop the contact. Even this was difficult for the closest range attained was approximately 22,000 yards. It was a large task force, however, and I estimated three carriers, three battleships, several cruisers and destroyers. The only one definitely identified was a Nagato-class battleship.”

The Flying Fish was too far away to see all the ships. Redfern had reported, but it was obviously the same force that had sortied from Tawi Tawi on June 13. Admiral Ozawa and his striking force were in the Philippine Sea. Everyone knew he would probably be joined by the ships reported by Sam Dealey in the Harder. But where was that force now?

The answer was given the same day by Slade Cutter in the Seahorse: TASK FORCE IN POSITION 10-11S … 129-35 E … COURSE NORTHEAST SPEED 16.5 KNOTS … SEAHORSE TRAILING.

The two enemy task forces were now in the Philippine Sea and evidently spoiling for trouble. It was equally evident that the two forces would unite before their big strike.

When and where would this take place?

Again the submarines furnished the answer, while disposing of two of the enemy carriers.

The Cavalla (Lieutenant Commander Herman J. Kossler, making his first war patrol, in command) supplied Admiral Spruance with the required information and, with the primary job done, then attacked and sank a large carrier, the Shokaku.

The Cavalla was en route to San Bernardino to relieve the Flying Fish, who was very low on fuel, when Kossler was told about that submarine’s June 13 contact. An area on the suspected track of the enemy fleet was assigned her. The Flying Fish’s relief could wait a while.

Late that night the Cavalla made a long-range contact on a small task force consisting of a large and a medium tanker and three escorts.

Herman Kossler immediately started an.approach on the, high-speed, zigzagging ships but he was sighted by the alert escorts and driven down. On surfacing, the Cavalla got off its contact report to the Big Boss and then prepared to carry out his original job of replacing the Flying Fish, for his own fuel supply was inadequate to pursue the tanker group, which was making high speed.

But Commander Submarines knew something about the over-all picture that Herman Kossler didn’t. These tankers were vitally important! They were en route to rendezvous with and to refuel the Jap Striking Force—and that rendezvous would answer another of Admiral Spruance’s burning questions: where were the two Japanese fleets meeting? So Commander Submarines told the Cavalla that the destruction of the tankers was of priority importance. TRAIL, ATTACK, REPORT, he directed the Cavalla, and gave the same instructions to the Seahorse, Pipefish, and Muskallunge. If the tankers could be destroyed, the dearth of fuel would seriously handicap the enemy striking force. But if they could not be sunk, at least they would lead the submarines to the enemy fleet.

On second thought Commander Submarines realized that the race might prove too long for the Cavallas fuel supply. He therefore amended his original orders, instructing Kossler to follow the enemy’s track at normal two-engine speed, concluding his message with the dubiously encouraging words, KEEP YOUR CHIN UP.

From the several submarine contact reports Admiral Spruance estimated that the enemy could not arrive in the Marianas area before June 17, so early that day he led his fleet westward to meet the Japanese, counting on the subs to give him the enemy’s exact position. Again they did not let him down, for that same night the Cavalla, tailing the convoy, saw blobs sprout on the radar screen as thickly as freckles on a red-headed boy’s nose.

“Following was estimate of the situation,” wrote Herman Kossler. “Our contact was a large task force, zigzagging between 060 and 100, speed 19 knots. Seven good size pips were showing, indicating a very large ship, probably a carrier on the starboard flank, flanked on the port quarter by two columns of ships of two ships each. Probably battleships or cruisers… . Range to carrier, which was closest ship, 15,000 yards. Although the night was fairly dark, this ship could be seen and looked mighty big. We were in position on the track ahead of the formation … it was apparent that we were on the track of a large fast task force, heading some place in a pretty big hurry.”

Herman Kossler was right. His submarine was spang in the middle of Admiral Ozawa’s force, and in a position that every submarine skipper dreams of—a real chance at a large combat ship. But something of greater importance than making a dream come true stayed the hand of the young skipper. The primary mission of the subs was to get the word of the enemy’s disposition to Admiral Spruance, so his ships of the Fifth Fleet could prevent the Japanese from piling into the amphibious force putting 8,000 men ashore at Saipan.

It was not easy to obey orders; everyone in the Cavalla was anxious to make the first kill, but they all knew Kossler could make only one decision. “Since we had no knowledge of a previous contact report on this force,” as Kossler himself logged it, “it was decided to abandon the attack and surface as quickly as possible in order to send in a contact report. This was a tough decision to make, because the carrier tracked very nicely up to the time it passed us by. Went to 100 feet and tried to keep count of the ships as they passed.”

It took almost an hour for the Cavalla to get clear of the two destroyers covering the rear of the formation and get off her report to Commander Submarines and Admiral Spruance, concluding with, “Chasing task force at four-engine speed!” Admiral Spruance informed Commander Submarines that he and his Task Force 58 now had all the information they needed and would carry the ball from there out. The next succinct word sent to the subs was the welcome order, “Shoot first and report afterward.”

The skipper of the Cavalla smiled happily as his boat sped along on the trail of the enemy with all the power the engineers could coax from the four engines, but their best was not good enough. At 1:00 a.m. on June 19 he reluctantly discontinued the chase and changed course to head for the submarine’s previously assigned area. Commander Submarines, upon receiving the report, ordered the Cavalla back into the race. The Jap ships were in front of the submarine, not behind her, so the Cavalla, rejuvenated in spirit, swung about and continued the chase. There was always a chance, all hands thought hopefully, of overtaking a laggard.

At 3:45 a.m. the roar of an airplane’s engine roused Herman Kossler from needed sleep, and he hustled into the control room just as the Cavalla was submerging, and a white-faced and almost speechless officer of the deck stammered the report that a plane had dived low over the ship.

“A plane, hey?” mused the skipper. “Let’s see. The closest enemy base is Yap, 180 miles off. This fellow must belong to a carrier. That’s worth taking a look at.”

But when they surfaced, another plane dove on them so Kossler decided to watch for further developments through his periscope.

At 10:39 a.m. four small planes were sighted. Crew and skipper tensed with excitement. By all the signs a carrier must be near.

The planes were tracked back to the horizon, and then, right under them, the superstructure of a ship appeared. “Shoot first and report afterwards, ComSubs said, didn’t he?” Kossler repeated happily.

The word sending all hands to battle stations was anticipated well in advance. Magazines, crossword puzzles, acey-deucey boards and even the time-honored morning coffee cups had already been put aside. The big moment for which all had prayed—their first kill—had arrived!

“When I raised my periscope this time,” related the skipper, “the picture was too good to be true. I could see four ships, a large carrier with two cruisers ahead on the port bow, and a destroyer about 1,000 yards on the starboard beam. The carrier was later identified as Shokaku class (it was the Shokaku itself) and the cruisers as Atago class … I could see the destroyer on the cruisers’ starboard beam might give me trouble but the problem was developing so fast that I had to concentrate on the carrier and take my chances with the destroyer … I let the Executive Officer and Gunnery Officer take a quick look at target for identification purposes … when sighted and during attack she was in the act of taking’On aircraft … at the time of the attack only one plane was seen left in the air and the forward part of the flight deck was jammed with planes. My guess at least thirty, maybe more.”

At 11:18 a.m. the low-voiced “Stand by” sounded through the Cavalla. Only quickened breaths could be heard in the compartments. Then: “Fire One!”

The submarine lurched as the first torpedo left the tube, to be followed quickly by five others.

Before the Cavalla could reach deep submergence, the first three torpedoes were heard to explode on the target. Then another type of explosion was not only heard but felt. For three unrelenting hours the Cavalla was buffeted by a furious depth-charge attack; three destroyers blindly rained tons of explosive into the depths in search of revenge for the mortal blow that had been dealt one of their best carriers. After dropping 106 depth charges the destroyers withdrew, leaving the battered submarine badly leaking, her crew glassy-eyed and groggy, but happy twice over. For what had caused the destroyers to break off the engagement was signaled by a different kind of explosion. Their carrier had blown up!

For Kossler, who had to sacrifice the earlier opportunity to sink the carrier, it was a fitting reward to deliver so magnificent a first blow at the Japanese fleet that had finally come out of hiding.

But the Silent Service added much more to Admiral Ozawa’s grief before he finally came to grips with Task Force 58. Some hours before the Shokaku was stricken from his fleet the Admiral stood on the bridge of his flagship, the carrier Taiho, to watch seventy planes take off for the first strike against the American fleet. For more than six months the pilots had been training for this moment, and Ozawa knew they were good. And they were, but just not good enough, nor numerous enough, to contend with Admiral Mitscher’s carrier boys. What followed, then, was what in naval history will forever be known as the famed “Marianas Turkey Shoot.” Some planes of the first Japanese wave did manage to break through to Admiral Lee’s force of battleships and cruisers, registering bomb hits on the South Dakota and Indiana, but when the fight was finished, so was Japan’s naval air power.

Ozawa was still optimistic, however, when he shockingly had to take an unanticipated boat ride. Scarcely had the planes taken off, when his trained eyes saw by the action of a screening destroyer that a submarine had been detected trying to penetrate the screen. Ozawa raised his binoculars, which were immediately jarred from his grasp as the Taibo shook convulsively. There was no doubt that a submarine was in their midst, nor which target the submarine had selected.

It was the Albacore, commanded by Commander James W. Blanchard, that had bitten savagely into Ozawa’s flagship.

Upon sighting the enemy task force, big Jim Blanchard had maneuvered the Albacore in position to attack the fast-moving carrier as she steamed into the wind to discharge her planes. Then, when the submarine was ready to fire, the skipper was horrified to discover that the computer for giving the correct periscope angle had suddenly gone sour—and with a twenty-seven-knot target there could be no second chance. He had to make the best of a bad situation. So with a “by guess and by God” periscope angle, Jim Blanchard crossed his fingers and sent six torpedoes lunging toward the target. The first five missed astern, but the sixth struck home and started a fire that doomed the ship. An hour later, above the din of depth charge explosions against the submarine’s hull the Albacore crew heard three heavy explosions that signaled success. They learned afterward that when the Taiho had foundered they had knocked the Japanese fleet’s flagship from under the feet of the Empire’s most distinguished admiral, and the unhappy Ozawa had been forced ignominiously to transfer to the carrier Zuikaku—sister ship of the Cavalla’s victim, the Shokaku.

At the crucial moment for both fleets, the United States submarines destroyed two of the enemy’s best carriers. It was the second major contribution of the Silent Service to the conquest of the Marianas, although history inadequately records them in relating the battles for Guam, Saipan and Tinian. Earlier in the month, prior to the first American landing made on Saipan, the Pintado, Shark, and Flier sank eight troop and cargo ships carrying food, supplies, and about half a division of troops to the garrison there. How much this meant to the United States assault force in that bloody battle no one can estimate, and only those who were there can appreciate.

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