USS ROBALO (SS-273) was built at Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company in Manitowoc, Wisconsin and commissioned on 28 September 1943. She was soon on her way to Pearl Harbor. Her first patrol, 57 days long, yielded only a single unsuccessful attack. Perhaps hoping for a better performance in subsequent outings, naval authorities gave command of the boat to a new officer, Lieutenant Commander Manning Kimmel.
Kimmel’s first patrol, ROBALO’s second, was certainly much more dramatic. Over the course of 51 days, the crew launched twenty torpedoes in four attacks. During one of these engagements, as the boat was trying to disrupt Japanese tanker traffic in the South China Sea, an enemy aircraft zeroed in on her, dropping bombs that damaged the conning tower and the periscopes and completely destroyed the radar. When the boat dove to escape the attack, water poured into the main induction. By the time the crew managed to level off, they had descended to 350 feet. Kimmel, undaunted, continued the patrol. At its conclusion the boat put in at Fremantle, Australia, for repairs. There was some discussion of relieving Kimmel—several officers believed he was too aggressive—but he was ultimately permitted to take ROBALO out on her third patrol, which began on 22 June 1944.
The plan for the patrol was relatively straightforward. The boat would transit both the Makassar and Balabac Straits to make her way into the South China Sea, then remain on station from approximately 6 July until nightfall on 2 August. The Balabac Strait, which separates Palawan Island from Borneo, was known to be mined, but a number of subs, including ROBALO herself, had made it through successfully. Kimmel surely believed he could transit it without incident. On 2 July ROBALO transmitted a message stating that she had sighted an enemy battleship, along with aircraft and two destroyer escorts, in the waters east of Borneo. She was never heard from again. The Navy declared her presumed lost.
But on 2 August, the day on which ROBALO’s patrol was supposed to end, an American prisoner-of-war being held at Puerto Princesa Prison Camp on Palawan Island picked up a note that had been dropped from the window of a cell in the area where he was working. He passed it along to a yeoman, also a prisoner, who in turn got it to the wife of a local guerilla leader, who himself passed it on to Admiral Ralph W. Christie, the commander of submarine operations in Perth and Fremantle. The note indicated that ROBALO was about two miles off the western coast of Palawan Island when, on the night of 26 July, she hit an enemy mine and sank. Some number of crewmen, perhaps as many as seven, managed to swim to shore, but they were soon captured by the Japanese. At the time the note was written, four survivors remained—Quartermaster First Class Floyd George Laughlin, Signalman Third Class Wallace Keet Martin, Electrician’s Mate Second Class Mason Collie Poston, and Ensign Samuel Lombard Tucker.
Less than two weeks after the note was recovered, the ROBALO survivors were probably loaded onto one or more Japanese destroyers for transportation to another prison camp. Tragically, the two most likely ships, Akakaze and Yunagi, were sunk by USS HADDO (SS-255) and USS PICUDA (SS-382), respectively, in the final days of August. None of ROBALO’s crew would survive to return home.
ROBALO’s crew of eighty-one men were lost either with their boat or in the weeks after her sinking. The sub earned two battle stars for her wartime service.