Today marks the 69th anniversary of V-J Day, the date on which the Japanese officially surrendered. American submarines were a huge part of that defeat: although they made up less than two percent of the forces that fought in the Pacific, they were responsible for more than 50% of the sinkings of enemy vessels, both merchant and military. But that success came at a price. Submariners were more likely to die in the service of their country than any member of any other branch of the armed services during World War II; of the approximately 275 boats that ventured out on war patrols, 52 were lost.
In 1949, the Navy Personal Command issued an edition of NAVPERS 15784 entitled “United States Submarine Losses, World War II,” which closely examined what had happened to the submarine force and drew some general conclusions, the most important of which being that the Silent Service’s losses were surprisingly small. The report reads as follows:
“U.S. submarines paid heavily for their successes in World War II. A total of 52 submarines were lost, with 374 officers and 3,131 enlisted men. These personnel losses represented 16% of the officer and 13% of the enlisted operational personnel. Of the 52 losses, two submarines, Dorado and R-12, were lost in the Atlantic, S-26 was sunk in a collision off Panama and S-28 was an operational loss in training at Pearl Harbor. The remaining 48 were lost either directly or indirectly as a result of enemy action, or due to stranding on reefs during combat operations. S-39, S-36, S-27 and Darter were lost as a result of such strandings. In all of these events, all personnel were rescued.
“In the cases of losses due to enemy action, three officers and five men from the Flier were saved and all but four of the men from Sealion were saved. The remaining submarines were lost with all hands, though some personnel from Grenadier, Perch, Sculpin, Tang, two men from S-44 and one from Tullibee were repatriated at the end of hostilities, having been held as prisoners of war by the enemy. Four are said to have survived Robalo’s sinking but they have not been recovered following the end of the war, and it is assumed that they perished as prisoners of the enemy. [The final fate of these men has never been determined.]
“The 52 submarines represented 18% of all submarines which saw combat duty. This loss of 18%, while high in comparison to the losses sustained by other types of ships of the Allied Forces[,] is considered remarkably low when considered in relation to the results achieved, or when compared with the losses sustained by enemy submarine forces. The Germans, in World War I, lost 178 submarines of a total 272 boats in commission during that war, and in World War II, they lost between 700 and 800 submarines. With but meager results to show for their submarine effort, the Japanese in WWII lost 128 submarines and had but 58 remaining at the end of hostilities, many of the remaining 58 were non-operational.
“In analyzing our losses, the following factors are considered as having been responsible for the low figures as compared to our enemies:
- Excellent mental and physical condition of our submarine personnel and their high state of training.
- Superiority of our radar over that of the Japanese.
- Weakness of Japanese anti-submarine measures.
“Submarine crews, upon their return from a war patrol, were transferred to a Rest and Recuperation Camp for a period of two weeks while their submarine was being refitted by a relief crew. During this two week period, the regular crew had no official duties to perform other than to rest and relax and divorce their minds from all thoughts of war and combat. There were some who criticized this practice as being in the nature of pampering. The submarine force commanders vigorously defended it as being a luxury but a vital part of submarine warfare. War patrols, normally lasting 45 to 60 days, introduced a protracted mental tension unknown to other types of warfare. Without the rest periods to ease this tension the personnel would have soon cracked under the strain. As a result of the rest and recuperation policy submarine crews went to sea mentally and physically alert and it is considered a primary factor in keeping our losses to a minimum. Hand in hand with the excellent mental and physical condition of our personnel, was the high state of training in which they departed on patrol. Prior to a submarine’s first patrol she was given an extensive training period, on the east coast or at Panama, followed by advanced training in the Pearl Harbor area. Immediately preceding the departure upon subsequent patrols, the submarine was given an intensive refresher training period lasting from four to eight days. Training kept pace with enemy anti-submarines measures, new training methods being introduced to counter the latest trends in enemy offensive or defensive measures.
“The superiority of submarine radar as compared to the Japanese anti-submarine forces was another factor contributing much to keeping our losses low. Submarines started the war without radar, but within a few months all were equipped with the SD (aircraft warning) radar. The SD, by giving early warning of the approach of planes, did much to prevent surprise air attacks on surfaced submarines. The installation of the SJ (surface search) radar a few months later did the same to prevent the undetected approach of enemy surface craft during darkness and low visibility. When it became apparent that enemy electronic science had progressed to the point where they were able to produce efficient radars, the APR was developed to warn of their presence, and later, the ST and SV radars, using shorter waves than the SD and the SJ, were installed to combat the enemy’s quite successful efforts to detect our own radars.
“ENEMY ANTI-SUBMARINE TACTICS
“At the start of the war, enemy anti-submarine materiel was comparable to our own; their listening and echo ranging were practically duplications of that installed in our own anti-submarine vessels. The Japanese were poor inventors at the time but great copyists, and with their espionage services cut off during the war, they rapidly fell behind in the development of anti-submarine measures. And although their original equipment was good, their techniques of employing it was faulty. They seemed to have little trouble in locating a submarine with their listening gear following a torpedo attack, but having located her, they failed in the solution of where to drop their depth charges. Their attacks were characterized by a consistent lack of persistence. They were prone to accept the most nebulous evidence as positive proof of a sinking, and being sure of a kill, they were off about their business, to let the submarine surface and thank God for the Japanese superiority complex. While 48 submarines were lost in combat operations, and of these, not more than 41 were directly due to enemy action, the Japanese, at the end of hostilities, furnished us with information which showed a total of 468 positive sinkings of our submarines. The U.S. Navy, by a wise policy of total censorship of submarine operations, encouraged the enemy in their belief of their anti-submarine successes. When we failed to announce the successful attacks of our submarines, the enemy naturally assumed that the submarines never got home to report them.”