In April of 1928, the U.S. Navy commissioned one of the largest non-nuclear subs it would ever built, the 2,700-ton (surfaced displacement) minelayer USS V-4 (SM-1/APS-1/SS-166). (By way of comparison, USS NAUTILUS (SSN-571) has a surfaced displacement of about 3,000 tons.) After a short period in the waters off the New England coast, she shifted to California and spent the next decade operating off the West Coast and around Hawaii. Her name was changed to ARGONAUT in 1931.
ARGONAUT was on a routine patrol near Midway when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. When two enemy destroyers attacked the island later on that day, the boat became the first Pacific-Fleet submarine to attempt to attack the Japanese navy, although she was spotted and pursued before she could carry it out.
In 1942, the navy decided to convert the old and clumsy—but spacious—ARGONAUT to a transport submarine, thereby changing her designation to APS-1. (Although SS-166 was held out for her in the numbering process, she never actually used the designation.) In August of that year, ARGONAUT and her sister sub USS NAUTILUS (SS-168) took on the task of delivering 200 Marines to Makin Atoll in the Gilbert Islands, where they won a battle staged to distract the Japanese from activity in Guadalcanal and Tulagi. ARGONAUT returned to Pearl Harbor in late September and was transferred to Brisbane, Australia, shortly thereafter. The transit to her new homeport would prove to be the boat’s last voyage.
On 10 January 1943, a Japanese patrol aircraft keeping watch over five freighters and several destroyers watched helplessly—the plane was out of bombs—as an American submarine torpedoed at least one of the destroyers. But the warships fought back and soon, the airmen reported, the sub came to the surface and heeled over to one side, the victim of a depth-charge explosion. The Japanese ships closed in and rained shells on the wounded boat until, a report examined after the war noted, they “had destroyed the top of the sub.” Too wounded to stage an escape, ARGONAUT succumbed. She took 102 men to the bottom with her, the single largest group of submariners lost in the war.