The Role of Chance

“1109   Moored starboard side to USS COUCAL [ASR-8, a submarine rescue ship] at DARWIN.

“1200   203 MILES, 4400 GALLONS.”

With those words, the commanding officer of USS NAUTILUS (SS-168) concluded his boat’s fourteenth and final war-patrol report on 30 January 1945. From Australia, the sub made her way to Philadelphia where, on 30 June, she was decommissioned as a bottle of champagne was smashed over her forward six-inch gun. By November, the North American Smelting Company had begun the process of scrapping the distinguished vessel, winner of fourteen battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation.

The success started early for NAUTILUS—although no one would initially realize that fact. Her first war patrol, begun in the spring of 1942, took her to Midway Island, which was expecting an attack from the Japanese fleet. Early in the morning on 4 June, NAUTILUS had confirmation: she spotted masts on the horizon. After a strafing run by Japanese planes forced the sub down to 100 feet, she returned to the surface to face a battleship, a cruiser, and two destroyers. But she was soon spotted again and dove, evading more strafing and nine depth charges. Thus began two frantic hours in which NAUTILUS roller-coastered from the surface to the depths, alternately firing torpedoes and avoiding Japanese attacks, including two more depth chargings.

Just before ten in the morning, the Japanese stopped pinging—actively searching for the sub—and NAUTILUS came to periscope depth to find the seas empty. But not for long. Four hours later the boat zeroed in on a damaged aircraft carrier, firing four torpedoes. Unfortunately, one failed to explode, a common issue with the temperamental Mark XIV torpedoes, but five different officers swore they saw the other three hit. Fearing the carrier’s two escorts, NAUTILUS dove to 300 feet, where she waited out a two-hour-long depth-charge attack. When she finally rose to the surface once more, she found the carrier burning and abandoned. “Heavy black smoke enveloped the carrier and formed a cloud over the ship to a height of a thousand feet,” NAUTILUS’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander William H. Brockman, Jr., noted. “The officer making this observation compared the cloud to the oil smoke which arose from the U.S.S. ARIZONA when that ship burned at Pearl Harbor….”

In his patrol-report summary, Brockman brushed off the morning’s attacks on his boat: “Very few of the depth charges…were very close.” But he did note that “at least once during the forenoon the commanding officer had the unique experience of looking at a whole broadside being fired at him.” The afternoon, however, was hairier—“the Japs were much more accurate and many of the charges were very close. During this time the sound as though heavy chains were being dragged across the deck was heard. It is believed that the Japs therefore use[d] drag wires in an effort to locate the submarine. …Also during the afternoon the sound as though two heavy objects dropped on deck was heard. This vessel at that time was at 340 feet. It is believed quite possible that two charges hit the hull and due to the pressure did not explode.”

At the time, no one gave NAUTILUS’s morning encounter much thought: she had fired several torpedoes, which may have caused no damage at all, and survived 42 depth charges—just another day in the life of a World-War-II sub. But later, another story emerged. The Japanese destroyer Arashi, part of the detachment of ships NAUTILUS spotted at 0800 on 4 June, broke off from the main task-force group to continue pursuing the sub. When her captain determined that he had kept NAUTILUS down long enough to neutralize any threat, he turned his ship and made haste to catch up with the main force. Unfortunately for the Japanese, two squadrons of dive bombers from USS ENTERPRISE (CV-6) spotted Arashi and let her lead them directly to the task force and its carriers, whose fighter planes were engaged with Torpedo Squadron 8, a group of bombers off USS HORNET (CV-8), some distance away. With no air cover, the ships were sitting ducks for ENTERPRISE’s dive bombers. By the end of the day, the Japanese had lost all four of their carriers, as well as a cruiser and 272 aircraft, all of which had been headed for a critical destination: a tiny pair of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean called Midway Atoll.

Five months later, Lieutenant Commander Brockman was awarded a Navy Cross for his actions on 4 June. NAUTILUS’s game of chicken with Arashi ultimately proved to be one of the key pieces of one of the United States’ biggest victories.

Midway Atoll, 24 November 1941. Eastern Island, then the site of Midway's airfield, is in the foreground. Sand Island, location of most other base facilities, is across the channel.

Midway Atoll, 24 November 1941. Eastern Island, then the site of Midway’s airfield, is in the foreground. Sand Island, location of most other base facilities, is across the channel.

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