December of 1941 found USS SEALION (SS-195), commissioned in 1939 and the veteran of one war patrol, in the midst of a routine overhaul at Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines. She would never make it back to sea. On 10 December the Japanese struck, pounding the facility with bombs dropped by waves of aircraft. SEALION was hit twice. The first bomb landed on the aft section of the conning tower, exploding just over the control room but outside the hull. The second hit was far worse. The bomb sliced through a ballast tank and the pressure hull and blew up in the aft engine room. The four men who were working there—Chief Electrician’s Mate Sterling Foster, Chief Electrician’s Mate Melvin O’Connell, Machinist’s Mate First Class Ernest Ogilvie, and Electrician’s Mate Third Class Vallentyne Paul—were killed. (Another crewmember, Chief Machinist’s Mate Howard Firth, would end up being captured by the Japanese after they occupied the facility the following month; he would die in a POW camp.) Water poured in through the gash in the sub’s side, submerging nearly half her main deck and causing her to list to starboard. The yard, devastated as it was by the attack, could do nothing to fix her, so workers stripped the sub of all useable equipment and set up explosive charges. On Christmas Day, SEALION was destroyed.
On 31 October 1944, exactly a year to the day after her launching, the new USS SEALION (SS-315) stood out from Pearl Harbor to begin her third war patrol. The boat’s commanding officer was Lieutenant Commander Eli Reich, who had been an officer aboard SS-195 and was with the boat when she was bombed. SS-315 was his first command and he had already earned a reputation as an aggressive and successful leader: the second SEALION had sent 19,700 tons of Japanese shipping to the bottom on her first patrol and 51,700 on her second, during which she had to put in at Saipan to load more torpedoes, having exhausted her initial supply.
Just after midnight on the morning of 21 November, SEALION made radar contact with several ships in the Taiwan Strait; within half an hour it became clear that she had stumbled upon a formidable Japanese fleet comprising two battleships, one battleship, one light cruiser, and three destroyer escorts. The ships were making a steady sixteen knots and were not zig-zagging—Reich must have felt like Christmas had come early. He pulled ahead of the convoy and, at 0256, loosed six torpedoes. Three minutes later, three more followed. “Saw and heard three hits on first battleship—several small mushrooms of explosions noted in the darkness,” Reich wrote in his patrol report. He had hit Kongō, the battlecruiser, sending water gushing into her boiler rooms. The battleship Nagato, now painfully aware of the sub’s presence, turned away and so SEALION’s second set of torpedoes hit Urakaze, a destroyer escort, sending her to the bottom with all hands. As the remaining Japanese ships began dropping depth charges, SEALION peeled off to the west. The convoy split in two and the sub resumed tracking, following the slower group. At 0524: “Tremendous explosion dead ahead—sky brilliantly illuminated, it looked like a sunset at midnight. Radar reports battleship pip getting smaller—that it has disappeared—leaving only the two smaller pips of the destroyers. Destroyers seem to be milling around vicinity of target. Battleship sunk—the sun set.”
During World War II, torpedoes carried by American subs were often launched with a name, often that of a Sailor’s wife or girlfriend, painted on the side. But on 21 November, four of SEALION’s torpedoes carried the names of the crewmen who died aboard SS-195, giving the lost Sailors a measure of revenge.
The attack was also notable for another reason. For a time SEALION had carried as a passenger a war correspondent from CBS. When the man departed, he left behind an audio recorder and the crew decided to take advantage of this unexpected gift. When the men were ordered to battle stations for the attack on the convoy, one of them hung the microphone next to the intercom in the conning tower. The crew made another, similar recording during the boat’s fifth patrol. They are believed to be the only extant audio recordings of a World War II submarine’s attacks. They were preserved by the Navy’s Underwater Sound Laboratory and can be heard here.