“When I assumed command of the Pacific Fleet on 31 December 1941, our submarines were already operating against the enemy, the only units of the fleet that could come to grips with the Japanese for months to come. It was to the submarine force that I looked to carry the load. It is to the everlasting honor and glory of our submarine personnel that they never failed us in our days of great peril.”
– Admiral Chester Nimitz Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet
On December 7, 1941, there were four submarines stationed in Pearl Harbor. USS Narwhal, USS Dolphin, USS Cachalot and USS Tautog. Tautog (SS-199) was the only one built in Groton, Connecticut. She would also be one of the first to fire on the enemy on that fateful day. By the war’s end, Tautog would be one of the most decorated submarines in the war, sinking 26 Japanese ships. Her nickname? “The Terrible T.”
Tautog’s keel was laid on March 1, 1939 by the Electric Boat Company. Launched on January 27, 1940, she was sponsored by Mrs. Hallie N Edwards, the wife of Captain Richard S. Edwards, the Commander of Submarine Squadron Two. In her early career, Tautog would operate out of Naval Base New London until May of 1941 when she would move to Pearl. On October 21, 1941, Tautog along with USS Thresher (SS-200), would begin a 45-day simulated war patrol in the area around Midway Island. Unbeknownst to the crewmen, the simulated patrol would become very real, very soon. Tautog would return to Pearl on December 5, 1941.
On the morning of December 7th, torpedoman’s mate Pat Mignone was on the deck of the Tautog when he saw planes flying over Ford Island. Much of the 59-man crew was getting some much-needed rest after their 45-day patrol when Mignone realized that the low flying planes weren’t a paratrooper exercise but enemy planes dropping bombs. Mignone recalls that “The deck watch sounded battle stations, but it caught everybody by surprise. All over the navy, 8 o’clock is ‘colors’ [ceremonial raising of the flag] and when the sirens sounded, that’s what they thought it was. I went below to get a machine gun out of the ready locker. It was three decks down, so I had a hard time getting it up and getting it mounted. I had somebody else bring me ammunition. “ Mignone would man the machine gun as he watched low flying Japanese torpedo planes head toward battleship row. Pat remembers firing until he ran out of ammunition. These first shots fired on that day took down one of the Japanese planes, bringing it down into the channel. All eight battleships in Pearl by the end of December 7th were damaged, four having been completely sunk. There is some curiosity as to why the submarine piers were not targeted. Whatever the reason, it was a mistake that would allow the submarine force to help win the war.
During the attack on Pearl, the submarine base, fuel storage depot and the munitions storages were left untouched. It has been estimated that if the fuel storage had been attacked, it would have taken over two years to replenish the supply. After the attack, the submarine force was the only force able to begin immediate war patrols. While submarines only made up 2% of the U.S. Navy, they were responsible for the sinking of 30% of Japanese battleships and 55% of all Japanese merchant ships.
Nineteen days after the attack, the Tautog would leave on a reconnaissance mission near the Marshall Islands in search of the Japanese fleet. In its next war patrol in April 1942, the Tautog would sink two enemy submarines and a Japanese cargo ship. In an article in Connecticut Magazine, Lt. Cmdr. Reginald Preston commented that “She was the ‘killingest’ submarine in the war, and notably the first to sink three enemy submarines, later tied, never bested.” The USS Tautog represents the emerging of Submarine power in the 1940’s. While submarines were used during WWI, the real potential for the submarine force was still not at its height. One theory is that the submarine base wasn’t attacked at Pearl because Japan saw the surface fleet as the Navy’s major weapon. And up until that point, that was the case. But with the first shots fired by the Tautog and the USS Narwhal, submarines became as much a threat as its surface counterparts. With the Tautog’s wartime record, we see that submarines were not just for surveillance and reconnaissance. The force could stand their own and, in some case, perform in ways none of the other military branches could. Early on the United States realized the importance of the Pacific sea routes to the Japanese. The “Silent service” with the help of U.S. Navy code breakers were able to inflict major losses on the Japanese fleet that ensured victory in the Battle of the Philippine Sea and established a blockade of the home islands that strangled the Japanese economy.
With everything the US Submarine Force was able to accomplish during the war, they also paid the heaviest cost. Fifty submarines were lost, and 3,628 submariners (22% of the force) either died or were missing in action. The actions of the Submarine Force on December 7 and after only exemplify the power and strength of the silent service.