The Loss of USS S-39–But Not Her Crew

Built by the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation of San Francisco and commissioned in 1923, USS S-39 (SS-144) spent nearly all of her first two decades with the Asiatic Fleet and Submarine Division 17. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, she was perfectly positioned to begin patrolling. She spent her first four patrols chasing Japanese minelayers, attempting to disrupt supply lines, and sinking several ships. But during her fifth patrol, which began on 10 August 1942, her luck ran out. Clay Blair, Jr., describes what befell the boat in his definitive history of America’s submarine war against Japan, Silent Victory.

“Leaving Brisbane, [S-39 commanding officer Francis Elwood] Brown twice suffered major breakdowns and was forced to return for repairs. When S-39 finally got to sea and seemed well on her way, her exec came down with pneumonia. Brown radioed [commander of submarine operations in Fremantle, Admiral Ralph W.] Christie for instructions. Christie told him to put the exec ashore in Townsville [on the northeastern coast of Australia]. After this was done, Brown proceeded toward his patrol area north of Guadalcanal.

“Three nights later, while S-39 was traveling on the surface minus one executive officer, she ran aground on a reef off Rossel Island. Jolted up and down by heavy seas breaking over the afterdeck, the boat immediately took a 35-degree list to port. Brown blew his ballast tanks dry, dumped fuel, and backed emergency, but S-39 was stuck fast.

“During the next twenty-four hours, Brown and his crew did everything possible to save the ship, including dumping more fuel and deactivating and firing the four bow torpedoes. Meanwhile, the boat was twisted sideways to the sea and pounded fiercely. Brown sent a call for help. The Australian naval vessel Katoomba responded.

“On the morning of August 15, when S-39 was thrown violently on her side, Brown passed the word that anyone who wanted to abandon ship and swim through the crashing surf to a nearby reef might do so. No one did. Then a young lieutenant volunteered to swim to the reef with lines. Joined by one of the enlisted men, he made it and tied the lines to one of the jettisoned torpedoes which had lodged on the reef. Using these lines, thirty-two of the crew transferred to the reef. The remaining twelve stayed on board, awaiting rescue by Katoomba.

Katoomba appeared, and by ten the following day all hands had been rescued from the reef or the stricken sub. The codebooks and other classified material were removed or destroyed. Satisfied that S-39 would soon be torn to pieces on the rocks, Brown did not request that Katoomba destroy her by gunfire. He and his crew were dropped in Townsville, from where they made their way back to Brisbane Meanwhile, Christie sent aircraft out to ensure S-39’s destruction by bombing.

“Christie was impressed by Brown’s coolness and his efforts to save his ship. Although some on his staff (and higher up) suggested court-martial, Christie headed them off and gave Brown command of Irish Hannon’s S-43.”

Brown would go on to command USS S-44 (SS-155). He would be lost with the boat and all but two of her crew in October of 1943.

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