It was just after 0200 on 5 June 1942, smack in the middle of the moonlit Pacific. On the bridge of the submarine USS Tambor (SS-198), Lieutenant Commander John W. Murphy Jr. was staring into the night. A great battle had been fought the previous day, 150 miles north of the Tambor’s position. Even now, the burning hulks of the Japanese carriers Akagi and Hiryū were still in their death throes, having been wrecked by U.S. dive bombers. Their compatriots the Kaga and Sōryū already had gone to their watery graves.
History would soon remember this as the U.S. Navy’s most seminal victory. But on the night of 4–5 June, that victory was not yet sealed. Indeed, the mood on the U.S. side was one of great uncertainty. No one knew whether the Japanese would retreat or if the waters off embattled Midway Atoll would be teeming with enemy warships come morning. The Tambor’s job was guarding against the latter possibility, and so she was patrolling on the surface, some 90 miles east of Midway.
Listen to a Proceedings Podcast interview with author Jon Parshall below:
1. Jon Parshall interview with Joann Murphy Langrock, John Murphy’s daughter. We are grateful to Jon’s genealogically minded sister-in-law Anne Sullivan for having sleuthed up biographical details and contact information for Murphy’s relatives. We thank J. Michael Wenger for help in these matters as well.
2. U.S. Naval Academy annual register, 1924–25, 70–71.
3. “USS Tambor (SS198) War Diary, Third Patrol, From May 21, 1942 to June 17, 1942,” 11, RG 38, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.
4. Course heading derived from fold-out track chart in the Japanese official history (Senshi Sōshō) of Midowei Kaisen (Midway Sea Battle) (hereafter BKS).
5. Tambor War Diary, 11. It should be noted that the Tambor’s report states that three targets were trailing the first quartet. This is in error. The only other Japanese ship in the area—the oiler Nichiei Maru, which had been attached to CruDiv 7—hadn’t remotely the speed to keep up (17.5 knots) and would not have been risked in such a fashion. The fact that Destroyer Division 8’s destroyers later fueled from her, after transits of several hours, supports the notion that she was well to the rear.
6. Tambor War Diary, 11–12.
7. Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2005), 345–46. This also includes the very detailed account (and somewhat stylized track chart) in Robert Schultz and James Shell’s We Were Pirates: A Torpedoman’s Pacific War (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2009), 71–73.
8. BKS, 473.
9. BKS, 475; Japanese Monograph No. 93, “Midway Operations May–June 1942,” Department of the Army, 1947 (henceforth JM), 60, notes that “the signal . . . was not clear”; Kamei Hiroshi, Midowei-Senki (Battle Record of Midway) (Tokyo: Kodansha, 2014), 263–64, provides the following explanation: “Observing the enemy sub, Lt. Cdr. Okamoto Isao, the duty staff officer [on the bridge of the Kumano], ordered ‘Aka-Aka’ by blinker, which meant ‘Emergency turn to port, 45-degrees.’ But thinking that 45 degrees was too small, he ordered ‘Aka-Aka’ again by radio telephone. He might have thought that by ordering a 45-degree turn twice, that it would make 90 degrees when put together. But things did not go the way he wished. If one orders the ship to turn 90 degrees to port, the order must be ‘Aka-Aka Number Nine.’ Likewise, the IJN did not use such combined signals (of both blinker and radio) during its fleet maneuvers. Later, CDR Okamoto asserted in Senshi Sōshō that he had ordered “Aka-Aka Number Nine” by radio telephone. [Taken together], Kumano seemed to be unsure whether it should turn 45, or 90 degrees . . . . Suzuya, which was 800 meters behind, interpreted the signal as a 45-degree turn.”
10. Tambor War Diary, 12.
11. Matome Ugaki, Fading Victory: The Diary of Admiral Matome Ugaki, 1941–1945, Donald M. Goldstein, ed. (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991), 152.
12. It appears that the two destroyers of DesDiv 8 rejoined Kurita just as he split his force (probably around 0400), departing with the Suzuya and Kumano, and taking the destroyers with him. This left the Mikuma and Mogami heading west, which is why the Tambor’s subsequent sightings of the pair from 0412 onward saw only two enemy ships. However, at 0325 Tokyo time (0625 local), Admiral Nobutake Kondō, evidently with some displeasure at Kurita, ordered Kurita to detach the Arashio and Asashio and send them back (BKS, 492).
13. Tambor War Diary, 13.
14. RADM Frank Jack Fletcher, USN, was the senior carrier commander but had handed tactical command to Spruance after Fletcher’s flagship the USS Yorktown (CV-5) was disabled during the battle.
15. Richard W. Bates, “The Battle of Midway Including the Aleutian Phase, June 3 to June 14, 1942: Strategical and Tactical Analysis” (hereafter Bates Report), U.S. Naval War College, 1948, 157.
16. Bates Report, 157.
17. The only Japanese survivors from the Mikuma’s sinking were two sailors rescued later by the USS Trout (SS-202). Parshall and Tully, Shattered Sword, 381.
18. CINCPAC File No. A16/Midway/(90), 8 August 1942, From: Commander in Chief, United States Pacific Fleet, To: Commander in Chief, United States Fleet, 1. We are grateful to our friend John Lundstrom for his insights on these matters.
19. Clay Blair Jr., Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan (Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1975), 249–50.
20. Blair, Silent Victory, 250.
21. Parshall and Tullly, Shattered Sword, 363.
22. Parshall interview with Joann Murphy Langrock, 11 September 2018.
View the War Diary of the Tambor's third war patrol below: