The face of submarine warfare started changing in 1943. During the previous two years, we had lost a total of only eight submarines. Whether we owed these numbers to cautious commanders or ineffective Japanese antisubmarine measures, or both, is not easy to evaluate. After the Battle of Midway in 1942, the tempo of sinkings attributed to U.S. submarines picked up, as new boats made their way to the Western Pacific.
Torpedo inadequacies garnered publicity only through the grapevine (usually at officers’ clubs between patrols), and “quick fixes” in depth setting were applied. Even these failed to correct exploder problems. Some captains who blamed misses on the torpedoes or who complained too vigorously lost their commands. Finally, in mid-1943, with changes in submarine commands in Pearl Harbor and Australia, real action was initiated to correct torpedo problems.
Perhaps energized by earlier criticisms of unaggressiveness, our submarines began rolling up impressive sinking totals in late 1942, 1943, and 1944. Unfortunately, this new aggressiveness and, possibly, improvement in Japanese antisubmarine measures, also led to more losses: 17 in 1943 and 19 in 1944.
The face of submarine battle had changed again. Virtually all commanding officers, most other officers, and crews were veterans of previous war patrols by that time and were not heirs to long years of prewar caution. They were all well aware of the earlier syndromes and were determined to use all of their skills to eliminate Japanese ships and hasten the end of the war. This was the period of the “calculated risk,” the balance between a loss to the enemy or the possible loss of a submarine with the potential to inflict constant losses on the enemy. There was no indication that captains were suicidal kamikazes, nor were they all out to win Medals of Honor, but many made calculated- risk decisions and lost.
Successful war patrols, those that resulted in sinking Japanese ships, were not wholly the result of effective performance by the submarine commanding officer or his crew. Certain areas where submarines were assigned had a lot more Japanese shipping traffic than other areas. Some commanding officers were fortunate enough to receive highly classified intelligence information on Japanese ship movements and were able to position their ships for a high possibility of interception. The submarines allocated to the Pearl Harbor submarine command appeared to have had a greater opportunity at merchantmen targets than those allocated to the Southwest Pacific command. Strategic positioning of certain submarines was often done without regard to target opportunities when submarines were placed on barrier lines to report and intercept possible Japanese fleet movements. In many such cases, for security reasons, submarines were not told why they had been assigned to specific areas.
The ultimate success of a submarine patrol, however, resulted from the decisions of the commanding officer on the positioning of his ship within his assigned area and the tactical decisions made once a target was found. Although “successful” patrols still required the sinking of Japanese ships, the determination of a commanding officer’s worth became based on the foregoing factors, especially the conduct of an attack once contact was made, not just numbers of sinkings or tonnages. This was the face of submarine battle in the macro sense.
In the micro sense, the two-submarine wolfpack patrol of the Darter (SS-227)—under Commander D. H. McClintock, pack commander—and the Dace (SS-247)— under Commander B. D. Claggett—in the South China Sea in October 1944 combines all of these elements. Although the submarines were not told in advance, they were part of a large deployment to cover the South China Sea and Sulu Sea approaches to the Philippines in the event of a Japanese fleet attack against U.S. landings on Leyte. The area assigned to the “Double Ds” included the seas between northwest Borneo and up the passage to the west of Palawan Island in the area known as the “Dangerous Ground” because of its many reefs and shoals.
Here, the personal face of submarine battle deserves a note. Both commanding officers were experienced submariners. This was McClintock’s second patrol in command of the Darter. He was also a veteran of patrols in the Plunger (SS-179)and the Cero (SS-225). Claggett had made two patrols as torpedo and gunnery officer in 1942 in the highly successful Guardfish (SS-217). I had been one of his shipmates in that submarine, had made three patrols in the Guardfish, and was with him on my fourth patrol in the Darter as executive officer. As commanding officer of the Dace, Claggett had three sinkings to his credit before the current episode.
Neither submarine had been especially successful: the Darter had two sinkings on two previous patrols under a very cautious and older commanding officer; the Dace had one sinking on a prior patrol and two sinkings on this one. Morale was high in both submarines, nevertheless, and officers and crew were eager for action.
On the morning of 21 October 1944, the Darter heard about the Leyte landings on a radio news broadcast, which led McClintock to position the two submarines to cover the shortcut to Leyte, Balabac Strait, and Palawan Passage, west of the island, abutting the Dangerous Ground. That evening the Darter made contact with three large warships heading north at high speed. She made her radio report and tracked them for seven hours but was unable to close for attack. The Dace, to the north, received intercept information—even the Japanese zigzag plan—from the Darter tracking party, but she was equally unable to close. Early warning had been given to the U.S. fleet that the Japanese were on the move.
After the futile chase, the Darter headed back toward the Palawan Passage entrance for a rendezvous with the Dace about midnight on 22 October. To avoid radio intercept, the two submarines were communicating at close range by megaphone and heaving line. Minutes after midnight on the 23rd, the Darter’s radar picked up a large group of apparently heavy ships at long range. The “Double Ds” were about to make their contribution to the new face of submarine battle.
The Darter reported the contacts to the submarine command, and the two submarines worked their way on the surface ahead of the Japanese task force after five hours of tracking. Submerging just before dawn in the Palawan Passage, the Darter and the Dace were about two miles apart on the projected track of the task force, with the Dace to the north of the Darter. Within 25 minutes after diving, the Darter fired six torpedoes from her bow tubes, sinking the heavy cruiser Atago, flagship of the task force commander, Admiral Takeo Kurita. Moments later, four torpedoes from her stern tubes severely damaged the heavy cruiser Takao, leaving her dead in the water. About 20 minutes later, the Dace fired her six bow torpedoes, and the heavy cruiser Maya went to the bottom within minutes. The Dace had no torpedoes remaining aft for a shot at another target.
After a desultory depth-charge riposte by the confused Japanese and a torpedo reload, the two submarines regained periscope depth. The Darter attempted several approaches on the crippled Takao, which was being guarded by two destroyers and a float plane. Each time she tried to get into an effective attack position with her remaining torpedoes (all Mark XVIII electric torpedoes of limited range) she was forced deep by one of the destroyers. At this point McClintock decided to rest his weary attack party and crew (they had been tracking enemy ships since early on 21 October and it was 1500 on 23 October at the time) and rendezvous with the Dace after dark for a night surface attack on the cruiser. Believing that the cruiser would head eventually for a dry- dock in the Philippines if it got way on, McClintock worked his ship to the north of his target but remained within periscope sighting range. Claggett, in the Dace, also sighted the Takao that afternoon and decided that a submerged approach past the destroyers was not feasible.
By late afternoon on the 23rd, the Takao had made repairs enabling her to set off for the south at about six knots. This unexpected course selection and movement forced the Darter to follow submerged in order to maintain contact. To avoid detection, the Darter awaited complete darkness to surface, thereby missing a chance for a navigational starsight fix. McClintock signaled Claggett to make a coordinated end-around surface attack on the cruiser, one on each flank, with a probable attack time around 0100 on 24 October.
At 0005 that night, making 17 knots, the Darter grounded on a shoal at the western edge of Palawan Passage on the Dangerous Ground. At that point the Darter had had no navigational fixes for almost 30 hours and was only roughly aware of her longitude by using a radar range on Palawan Island. As navigator, I had informed McClintock that by dead reckoning from the last good fix and taking account of variable currents at the change of the monsoon season, the Darter was moving in about a 20- mile circle of possible positions and that the Palawan Passage was only about 20 miles wide at several points. McClintock replied to the effect that reefs were no worse than depth charges. Besides, there still was a cruiser to sink. Within minutes, the Darter was firmly aground almost one third of her length. The Dace was informed by aircraft code.
Almost two hours later, the Dace approached the Darter carefully from astern, put over a line, and attempted to haul us clear. Previous attempts—sallying ship and using maximum backing power—had failed. After failure of all freeing attempts and destruction of classified material, we abandoned the Darter, and the entire crew was shuttled to the Dace by rubber boat, hand-in- hand over her bowline.
After unsuccessful attempts to destroy the Darter, including her demolition charges, expenditure of the Dace’s remaining four torpedoes on the reef, and shelling, the Dace—- with two full crews on board—set course for a 12-day passage to Fremantle, Western Australia.
The saga of the Double Ds encompasses all the elements of the submarine face of battle:
• Strategic deployment of the submarines by higher command.
• Selection of appropriate patrol sectors in the assigned patrol area once the rationale for area assignment was known (the landings).
• Prompt and accurate reporting of the approach and composition of the Japanese task force, enabling the fleet protecting the Leyte area to take proper measures.
• Aggressive tactics in the attack on the Japanese task force and successful use of weapons.
• Decisions by both McClintock and Claggett not to press a submerged attack on the crippled Takao, in light of the fully alerted destroyers and the fatigued condition of their crews.
• A calculated-risk decision by McClintock to attempt the end-around when he was well aware of the navigational problems. The surface attack appeared to be a better course of action, since the Japanese had shown no sign of radars or detection of the submarines’ radar.
• A decision by Claggett to rescue the Darter crew rather than press an attack on the Takao. The Darter crew would almost certainly have been slaughtered by the destroyer that arrived on the scene within hours after the grounding.
The last three of these brought forth some unfavorable comments at fleet staff level, but the submarine command supported both McClintock’s and Claggett’s decisions and regarded McClintock’s classic calculated-risk decision as one of the mishaps always possible in submarine warfare.
The Double Ds fired the opening rounds in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, often labeled the greatest naval engagement in the history of the world. Of the 64 Japanese warships that took part, 26 were sunk. The Leyte landing forces were never attacked. In sinking Kurita’s flagship, the Darter unknowingly had caused the loss of much of his communications team, undoubtedly a contribution to his confused tactics later in the battle. Never again would the Japanese fleet seek battle as an integrated force.
By the end of 1944, U.S. submarines had virtually worked themselves out of a job. The face of submarine battle was due to change again with large wolfpack raids into the Sea of Japan and the picking off of assorted single ships. Thus ended the face of submarine battle which began by filling the breach after Pearl Harbor and, as Admiral Chester Nimitz wrote: “can claim credit, not only for holding the line, but also for carrying the war to the enemy.”