Commissioned on 4 April 1923, USS S-36 (SS-141) spent most of the first eighteen years of her life operating on what was referred to as the “Asiatic Station,” wintering in the Philippines and spending the summer and fall in Chinese waters. The latter cruises grew shorter as the threat of war increased; the boat conducted her last Chinese patrol in the summer of 1940 and then stuck to the Philippines until the situation began to spiral out of control. “Some thirty minutes before the high noon of 2 December 1941, a dispatch was received on board S-36 directing her commanding officer to report on board the flagship,” a history of the boat recalls. S-36 had begun an overhaul period the day before, but it soon became clear that it could not continue. After the C.O., Lieutenant John R. McKnight, Jr., received “verbal orders” to “carry out a secret mission,” the crew scrambled to get their sub ready to go to sea. “All machinery was in commission by 2000 and torpedomen toiled for thirteen hours without rest in making preliminary adjustments and loading torpedoes.” By 0100 the following morning, S-36 had slipped away. Her mission: conceal herself in Cape Bolinao Harbor on the Philippine island of Luzon in order “to deal with any hostile force which might enter Lingayen Gulf for a surprise landing on Philippine shores.” She remained “on ceaseless vigil” until the morning of 7 December when she “received a plain language dispatch that Japan had started hostilities.”
This, which had just become S-36’s first war patrol, lasted another 13 days and was plagued with mechanical problems: air, exhaust valve, and seawater leaks, as well as a failure of steering. On 20 December she pulled into Mariveles in the Philippine province of Bataan for repairs. She was back out on patrol ten days later, but her issues persisted: first the port air compressor went down, then the starboard began acting up. The port main motor shut down on the thirteenth. Early in the morning on the fifteenth, disaster struck. S-36 was unable to dive because of an interruption to the oil supply of her starboard engine. As crewmen worked to fix the problem, a Japanese destroyer came over the horizon and zeroed in on the crippled sub.
With no other choice, the boat dove, leveling off 60 feet below the surface. Miraculously, the oil leak was fixed and the sub turned to attack. She was too late. Within a span of 90 seconds, seven depth charges exploded directly overhead. “S-36 lost power control of her bow planes, starboard lighting circuits fuses blew, the gyro compass follow-up failed, and all lights in her motor room were broken. She went down one hundred and fifty feet, losing all sense of direction because her magnetic compass binnacle light could not be lighted.” McKnight eventually managed to get his boat running in the correct direction, but he and his crew were not out of the woods.
“Running at one-third normal speed to keep the main motor bearing from burning out, [S-36] slowly swung around to put the hunting destroyer astern. Now she lost depth control and started sinking with her trim pump stalled. She continued on down until the high pressure pump on auxiliary, coupled with blowing the number two main ballast tank, started her on the rise. She fluctuated between one hundred and two hundred feet as the metal bearing in her starboard main motor began to give out. Life jackets and lungs were issued to all hands, and they prepared to man the deck guns and fight it out on the surface. A grim two hours passed before depth control was established. Meantime the temperature of the starboard main motor bearing was brought under control by backing off on the cap bolts and a jury rig was improvised to supply cooking water to the main motor cooling system.”
S-36 finally managed to clear the area about four hours after spotting the destroyer, but she was in bad shape. Crewmen got the port main motor working only to have it begin smoking. They shut it down. Then oil delivery to the starboard motor failed again and a small fire broke out in the main motor auxiliary circulating pump. On the seventeenth, shortly after the boat had been ordered to proceed to Surabaya for repairs, both port and starboard shafts failed; one man collapsed from the heat before the main motor lube oil pumps were fixed. The next day, 18 January, was something of a miracle: “1st day since January 8 with no major part of engineering plant out of commission,” McKnight wrote.
It was a brief respite. Just after 0400 on 20 January, S-36 ran aground on Taka Bakang Reef, the victim of strong currents and inaccurate charts. The C.O. sent out an unencoded call for assistance, which a nearby sub, USS SARGO (SS-188) sent up the chain of command. An aircraft responded, noting that McKnight felt the sub could be saved; accordingly, a Dutch vessel called Attla set out from Makassar City to help. Meanwhile, S-36’s crew worked valiantly to save their boat, but within 24 hours it was clear that she would not make it. At 1330 on 21 January, the final man opened her seacocks and was evacuated by Attla.
S-36 was awarded one battle star for her brief wartime service. Her crew, all the members of which survived, was taken to Makassar City for reassignment.