Submarine Battle Flags of World War II PART I: Silent Service Battle Flags do the Talking

By Wendy Gulley

When, on the morning of December 7, 1941, Japanese torpedo planes and dive-bombers appeared through the broken clouds over the Submarine Base at Pearl Harbor, the crew of the submarine USS Tautog (SS 199) was enjoying a period of rest, having just returned from a grueling 45-day pre-war exercise. With two thirds of the crew on liberty and the submarine undergoing a major overhaul, they were effectively disarmed. Yet, as soon as the sound of Japanese bombs exploding on the Naval Air Station across the harbor alerted them to the air raid, the crew was at battle stations. A .50 caliber machine gun was broken out of the locker and ammunition passed up from below, and soon Tautog was sending a steady stream of return fire skyward. By the end of the attack, Tautog’s crew reported shooting down one bomber and contributed to downing a second. The Submarine Force had drawn its first blood.

Pearl Harbor attack, 7 December 1941,looking toward the Navy Yard from the Submarine Base during the attack. The submarine in the left foreground is Narwhal (SS-167). Tautog (SS 199) is berthed nearby.

Four days later the Pearl Harbor based submarines, unscathed in the attack, were fueled, armed, and battle ready. One by one, they steamed out past the smoldering surface fleet, headed for Japanese home waters and the unknown. By New Year’s Eve USS Pollack (SS 180) was off the coast of Honshu, Japan, the first American warship to reach Japanese waters. Seven days later, she sent the 2,250-ton cargo ship Unkai Maru to the bottom of Tokyo Bay, the first confirmed victim of the US Submarine Force. Two weeks later, USS Gudgeon (SS 211), also on “Empire Patrol” in Japanese waters, torpedoed and sunk the first enemy warship, the submarine I-73. With the surface fleet still scrambling to recover, the Submarine Force was boldly taking the battle to the doorstep of the Japanese. Encouraging as this news would have been to a country still reeling in shock from the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, no one but the submarine high command (and the Japanese) knew of these early submarine successes. The always close-lipped Submarine Force had gone completely silent, muted by life-saving censorship.

Although a curtain of secrecy would shroud the Submarine Force throughout the war, to the observant there were clues to the success our submarines were having against the Japanese. Long before Pasqual Mignon, the Tautog Torpedoman credited with shooting down the bomber during air raid on Pearl Harbor, could finally, in Pearl Harbor attack, 7 December 1941, looking toward the Navy Yard from the Submarine Base during the attack. The submarine in the left foreground is Narwhal (SS-167). Tautog (SS 199) is berthed nearby. 1957, tell his story to a local reporter; “It seemed to disintegrate in mid-air. I kept firing until I ran out of ammunition,” bits and pieces of Tautog’s story were told in the wartime battle flag the crew created to record and celebrate their successes.’

Post-war reproduction of the battle flag of USS Tautog (SS 199) – the Navy’s top-scoring submarine. In action from the start, she single-handedly downed a Japanese plane during the air raid at Pearl Harbor (highlighted to the right).

Sporting the insignia of the submarine and symbols representing Japanese ships sunk, battle flags like Tautog’s were flown from the masts with pride as submarines returned to port following a patrol. For the men of the US Submarine Force, these battle flags did the talking that they could not – providing a few pieces of the stories that couldn’t be told in full until decades later.

By the end of the war, submarine battle flags were large, colorful, and crowded with symbols of the boat’s successes. Early battle flags, however, were more humble and much of the story of their origin has been lost in the fog of time. We do know that from the start of the war submarine crews kept a “scorecard” of their victories using miniature Japanese flags to represent ships sunk. A white flag with a crimson-red disc in the center (the national flag of Japan) indicated merchant ships sunk – the mising sun flag with its spreading rays (the Japanese Naval ensign) represented warships sunk. These scoreboards could be found in several places on the boat; painted on the breach doors of the torpedo tube from which the successful shot was fired, on the wardroom bulkhead, or on various panels such throughout the boat such as the flood and vent manifold.

USS Halibut (SS 232)

USS Jack (SS 259)

USS Jack (SS 259)

While these onboard records of success served to motivate the crew, they did not satisfy the submariner’s urge to brag on their accomplishments as the boat returned to port. Before long, submarine crews returning from patrol took to flying these small flags in the form of pennants – one for each sinking – along with a broom lashed to the periscope to signal a “clean sweep,” having “swept the enemy from the seas.” Eventually the practice of flying individual pennants began to evolve into sewing the
pennants added during each patrol onto one large piece of fabric that captured the entire war record in one place – thus the battle flag was born.

USS S-32 (SS 137) entering Dutch Harbor, Alaska, after a 1943 war patrol. Note the broomstick lashed to the forward periscope indicating that the boat claimed a clean sweep – the sinking of all enemy ships attacked – and the Japanese flags on her flanks representing the vessels sunk.

As with so many of our naval traditions, the flying of submarine battle flags imitated a practice originating in the British navy. It was at the start of World War I that one British submarine captain began flying the traditional skull and crossbones pirate flag, the “Jolly Roger,” after returning from successful patrols. The choice of this emblem was not by whim, but in response to an insult issued by a member of the Admiralty, who claimed that submarines were “underhanded, unfair, and damned un-English” and no better than pirates. By the advent of World War II, the attitude of the British Admiralty had undergone a complete reversal, and flotilla commanders
actually sent small boats out to meet submarines returning from their first successful war patrol to present them with a Jolly Roger to unfurl from the shears before entering port. By mid to late 1942, the earliest of American submarine battle flags began to appear, in the form of their own Jolly Rogers.

Earliest known photograph of a submarine battle flag – USS Sturgeon (SS 187), Freemantle, West Australia, March 1942.

Earliest known photograph of a submarine battle flag – USS Sturgeon (SS 187), Freemantle, West Australia, March 1942.

Members of USS Plunger (SS 179) ship’s crew display her battle flag, June 1943.

Members of USS Plunger (SS 179) ship’s crew display her battle flag, June 1943.

As the US Submarine Force entered their third year of war, with their successes mounting and the friendly competition between the boats growing, more and more submarines began designing battle flags. By 1944, the crews were moving away from the Jolly Roger and creating much more unique, individualized, and flashy battle flags to run up the periscope when they returned in triumph to their base. Because the flags were designed on board the different boats while on patrol, during the crew’s spare time, the creativity, style and design of each varied. There were, however, common elements to most of the flags. Generally, a submarine’s battle flag included a mascot, a record of how many enemy ships were sunk indicated by small Japanese flags; and important commendations awarded to the boat. After the crew agreed on the main design feature,
usually a caricature of the fish after which the boat was named, the design was then painted or sewed onto a large cloth of contrasting color. Then, patrol by patrol, as the submarine’s torpedoes found their targets, the running tally grew.

USS Batfish (SS 310) – champion “Submarine-Killer” of World War II. In February 1945, Batfish encountered three submarines and sank them in as many days. A feat that has never been matched since. The submarines are represented by three of the rising sun flags.

USS Batfish (SS 310) – champion “Submarine-Killer” of World War II. In February 1945, Batfish encountered three submarines and sank them in as many days. A feat that has never been matched since. The submarines are represented by three of the rising sun flags.

USS Queenfish (SS 393) – was awarded a prestigious Presidential Unit Citation (the tri-colored pennant) for “defying severe air and surface opposition to strike with concentrated fury at heavily escorted Japanese convoys,” and for braving “the perils of a tropical typhoon to rescue eighteen British and Australian prisoners of war.

USS Queenfish (SS 393) – was awarded a prestigious Presidential Unit Citation (the tri-colored pennant) for “defying severe air and surface opposition to strike with concentrated fury at heavily escorted Japanese convoys,” and for braving “the perils of a tropical typhoon to rescue eighteen British and Australian prisoners of war.

These banners would serve as a “living canvas” on which to record the submarine’s accumulating successes and would often need to be lengthened as the war progressed. Some crews, full of the confidence that characterized the men of the Submarine Force, started with a flag large enough to accommodate the numerous symbols of success they were certain they would be adding over the course of the war.

Battle flag of USS Snook (SS 279) at the conclusion of the fourth war patrol on the left, and following the seventh patrol on the right.

Battle flag of USS Snook (SS 279) at the conclusion of the fourth war patrol on the left, and following the seventh patrol on the right.

Most of the flags were sewn entirely by hand out of bunting, sheets, or bolts of colored cloth carried aboard for making signal flags, usually by one of the more artistic crewmembers aboard. Although in the case of the famed USS Wahoo (SS 238), commanded by Dudley W. (“Mush”) Morton, legendary for his ‘down the throat’ attacks and surface-running gun battles, it was Morton himself, not a junior crewmember, who designed and produced the flag (and provided each sailor on the crew with a tee-shirt bearing the emblem).

Enroute to Pearl Harbor, a Batfish crewmember prepares battle-flag pennants.

Enroute to Pearl Harbor, a Batfish crewmember prepares battle-flag pennants.

Newspaper photograph showing CDR Dudley “Mush” Morton, Commanding Officer, USS Wahoo (SS 238) showing off the battle flag he created for Wahoo. His son wears a pint-sized version of the tee shirt Morton created for each of the crewmembers.

Newspaper photograph showing CDR Dudley “Mush” Morton, Commanding Officer, USS Wahoo (SS 238) showing off the battle flag he created for Wahoo. His son wears a pint-sized version of the tee shirt Morton created for each of the crewmembers.

Occassionally, a battle flag originated from a source outside the boat, as in the case of USS Cavalla (SS 244), who’s first battle flag arrived as a surprise via the mail in a package for one of its officers from a girl back home. She had used the letterhead from a letter sent on the boat’s stationary as the model from which to craft a beautiful silk flag in blue and gold. Or in the case of the imaginative and distinctive battle flag of USS Halibut (SS 232) designed by art students and instructors at San Jose State College in California, Alma Mater of one of the ship’s officers who took the oppurtunity to visit a former art professor and ask for a favor while the boat was in nearby Mare Island Shipyard for repairs in mid-1944.

USS Cero (SS ) who’s crew for much of the war had no battle flag – only a broom to show a clean sweep – also obtained their flag late in the war while at Mare Island Shipyard, when they had the good fortune of running into a famous film cartoonist from a major Hollywood studio. While touring the boat he remarked that he had seen many boats in the shipyard with battle flags yet noticed that Cero had none. It was shortly thereafter that the crew received a battle flag featuring Bugs Bunny eating a carrot, with additional carrots around the borders indicating Cero’s successful attacks.

As the competition between the boats began to flourish, battle flag designs became increasingly vibrant and detailed. Many a crew modified their original design to make it even showier. At the end of the war, “polished” versions of the flag were sometimes created, and professional seamstresses working at shipyard “sail lofts” were often hired to produce souvenir copies for each crewmember.

USS Jack (SS 259) battle flag created on board the boat with the limited materials available.

USS Jack (SS 259) battle flag created on board the boat with the limited materials available.

Representation of the “refined” 1945, end of war, version of Jack’s battle flag - complete with final tally of sinkings, ribbon bars and stars representing the type and number of awards earned, and sporting a much more colorful and detailed version of the ship’s insignia.

Representation of the “refined” 1945, end of war, version of Jack’s battle flag – complete with final tally of sinkings, ribbon bars and stars representing the type and number of awards earned, and sporting a much more colorful and detailed version of the ship’s insignia.

In late 1945, a new manifestation of the submarine battle flag emerged. As the tide of battle rolled closer and closer to Tokyo, the Navy lifted the blanket of strict censorship covering the Submarine Force just a little in order to acquaint the world with the tremendous effectiveness of the ‘Silent Service.’ The stories of the achievements, previously revealed in brief glimpses of a fluttering battle flag as a submarine returned from patrol, were now boldly proclaimed in a much easier way to ‘read’ by painting them on the boat’s conning tower fairwater for all to see.

USS Jack (SS 259)

USS Jack (SS 259)

USS Nautilus (SS 168)

USS Nautilus (SS 168)

When the hostilities in the Pacific finally ended and the war-weary submarines came steaming home to their US bases, it was often with each of the evolutionary stages of their battle flag proudly on display. The pennants strung from the masts, the battle flags flying from the periscopes or cigarette decks, and the conning towers emblazoned with the boat’s scoreboard, together told the tale of the unique and significant part each submarine played in winning the war.

USS Atule (SS 403), a.k.a the “Fighting O’Toole,” returns to Submarine Base New London, in Connecticut following the end of World War II. In her short but illustrious career, at a time when enemy surface targets were rare, she had more than made her mark as her battle flag attests. Atule sank four Japanese warships in four successful patrols and exploded or sunk forty-nine floating Japanese mines by gunfire.

USS Atule (SS 403), a.k.a the “Fighting O’Toole,” returns to Submarine Base New London, in Connecticut following the end of World War II. In her short but illustrious career, at a time when enemy surface targets were rare, she had more than made her mark as her battle flag attests. Atule sank four Japanese warships in four successful patrols and exploded or sunk forty-nine floating Japanese mines by gunfire.

Next time, in Part II of the history of submarine battle flags we will learn some of the unique visual vocabulary of the battle flags and ‘read’ in more detail a few of the remarkable stories the flags tell. In the process, we will discover that the US Submarine Force did much more to win the war in the Pacific than just sink enemy shipping.

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