On the afternoon of 9 July 1943, the Soviet oceanographic vessel Seiner #20 was plying the oceans west of La Perouse Strait in the northern part of the Sea of Japan. The small vessel and her youthful crew of scientists were studying the disappearance of sardines that used to be in the vicinity of the strait, northeast of the large Russian port of Vladivostok.1
The Soviet vessel’s crew were not concerned about the war. The Soviet Union and Japan had had a testy neutrality since 1940, and U.S. submarines were not known to have entered the Sea of Japan because the passages into it were either mined or thought to be heavily patrolled.
The weather of the North Pacific was overcast and foggy, limiting visibility, but occasional breaks in the clouds allowed the sun to peek through. The water of the Sea of Japan was calm, making the water glassy.
A Siberian crewman, Kukanov, was manning the Seiner’s helm atop of the superstructure. Another crewman, Kozakov, was at the stern chopping wood, while the rest of the crew and scientists were going about its business. Unexpectedly, at about 1900 (Vladivostok time), an artillery round sailed over the small ship from the stern. Moments later, a second round virtually tore off Kozakov’s leg and continued into deckhouse.2
Because of the poor visibility and the sudden chaos on deck, no one saw where the shells were coming from. Two more rounds came in. The first was an incendiary round, striking the Seiner amidships and catching the vessel on fire. The second one struck below the waterline on the stern, causing the trawler to settle by the stern.
As the small vessel slowly sank, the crew members rushed onto the bow to take cover. One of the crew, a blonde woman, had the courage to grab a white sheet and wave it. She and the others began to shout out into the fog hoping their assailant would cease their attack.
The firing stopped, and from the gloom emerged an American submarine, the USS Permit (SS-178).
An Ambitious Plan
Since 7 December 1941, when Japan declared war on the United States by attacking Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy had waged a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare against Japanese shipping. The offensive eventually would sink more than 6 million tons of enemy merchant shipping and claim several warships. But from December 1941 until May 1943, the submarine war was confined to the greater Pacific Ocean. The sea routes between Korea, China, and Japan by way of the Sea of Japan were protected by narrow straits assumed to be heavily mined or too shallow for any sane skipper to run through and without anywhere to escape from antisubmarine Japanese patrols.
Tsushima Strait, between Korea and Kyushu, was mined, as was Tsugaru Strait, between Honshu and Hokkaido. La Perouse Strait, a shallow channel between Sakhalin Island and Hokkaido, was thought to be mined, but from some helpful hints from Russian merchantmen who sailed to the West Coast of the United States, it was soon understood that La Perouse Strait was open for those who dared.
In May 1943, Rear Admiral Charles Lockwood, Commander, Submarine Forces, Pacific (COMSUBPAC), developed a plan to sail three submarines into the Sea of Japan to stir things up in the “Emperor’s Bathtub,” as the Navy commonly referred to the Sea of Japan.3 The operation was planned for July, and the three submarines would be the USS Lapon (SS-260), Plunger (SS-179), and the Permit. The three boats would enter the Sea of Okhotsk through the Etorofu Strait between two of the main Kuril Islands. The submarines would then sail south along Sakhalin Island to transit into the Sea of Japan using La Perouse Strait.
On 20 June, the Permit, under the command of Commander Wreford G. “Moon” Chapple, set sail from Pearl Harbor with orders to rendezvous with the two other submarines at Midway. The Lapon and Plunger departed Midway on 24 June, and the Permit did so a day later.
The three boats sailed north toward Alaska and then west to the Kuril Islands. The Permit transited the Etorofu Strait early on 3 July. The submarines rendezvoused with the USS Narwhal (SS-167) and refueled before continuing their patrols.4 On the morning of 5 July, the Permit was the third submarine to transit La Perouse Strait and slip into the Emperor’s Bathtub. These would be the first American submarines to attack shipping in the Sea of Japan. What could go wrong?
Mishaps and Successes
The ninth patrol of the Permit would be a mixed bag of successes and potentially detrimental mistakes. From the start, beginning with her transit of La Perouse Strait, the Permit ran into problems. In attempting to evade a surface vessel, Chapple wanted to dive deeper than periscope depth, and the sound gear reported the depth of the strait as being 240 feet. To the surprise and horror of the captain and crew, the Permit came to a resounding stop at 180 feet.
Grounding a submarine can be dangerous depending on the softness of the seabed; the suction caused by mud can hold a vessel like glue. Or, if the seabed is jagged stone, a rock can puncture the hull and compromise a boat. Fortunately for the Permit, she quickly was able to get under way with only some minor damage to the underside of the hull—the active sonar rod (QB) was bent.5
After the grounding, once the boat finally entered the Sea of Japan, things began to pick up for the crew of the Permit. The Emperor’s Bathtub proved to have a bounty of targets, and hunting was good. Unsuspecting ships sailed without worry, for to them the war was a world away. There was peace on the seas, but not for long.
Between 6 and 8 July, the Permit would expend all her 16 torpedoes, sinking three Japanese freighters and damaging two others. The three freighters accounted for 16,080 tons of shipping, and the two damaged ships accounted for 8,000 tons of shipping.6 These were pretty good results for a patrol, and Commander Chapple could have been proud of his crew and the successes they had achieved if it had ended there.
On 7 July, following a successful attack earlier that morning on one ship of a two-ship convoy, Chapple began to set up the attack on the second ship of the convoy. At dawn, he ordered the Permit to submerge to 35 feet to make a periscope attack. The captain fired two aft torpedoes at the freighter, which only damaged the vessel. Chapple ordered the Permit to surface and prepare to finish off the stricken ship with the submarine’s 4-inch deck gun. But upon opening the bridge hatch after surfacing, the Permit was pooped by a wave that sent seawater down into the conning tower, forcing the crew to break off the attack while pumps removed the water. As the submarine was recovering, the damaged ship escaped into the opening rays of new day. The Permit submerged to hide during the daylight.
Meanwhile, water from the wave had shorted out the surface radar (SJ). For now, the submarine would have to continue without it.7 Repairing the SJ radar would take several days. And to add injury to insult, the crew of the Permit had suffered either food poisoning or water contamination just after entering the Sea of Japan. Forty percent of the crew were nauseated and vomiting. Their plight ended around 9 July. A second bout of the illness broke out during 17–19 July, but it affected only 20 percent of the crew. Pharmacist’s Mate First Class Gerhardt Lowitz noted the health of the crew was generally poor, and several crewmen had been on nine successive patrols since the beginning of the war and showed “signs of needing a prolonged rest.”8
One Final Target
On 9 July, with torpedoes expended, Chapple ordered the Permit back to Pearl Harbor. On the approach to La Perouse Strait at around 1435, while patrolling on the surface, Chapple spotted a small fishing vessel putting around about six miles ahead of the submarine. The skipper decided to set up a surface attack and plotted a course to open the distance between his boat and the trawler. About half an hour later, the Permit submerged and came about heading back toward the unknown vessel. The trawler, either going very slowly or dead in the water, was 55 miles off Sakhalin and 28 miles from the small island of Kaiba Ko. The submarine approached to about 1,200 yards. The sky was overcast, the sea was moderate, and visibility was about six miles, according to Chapple. Permit officers observed that the vessel was unarmed and unmarked, had two antennas, and did not appear to be fishing on or near any particular bank or shoreline.
Chapple ordered the submarine to make ready for battle surface. The trawler was a good target for a 4-inch deck gun. She would not have been worth a torpedo even if the submarine had had any to fire.
Because of depictions of submarine combat in print or in movies or on television, the deck gun seemingly has become a forgotten weapon. It was a way for submarines to attack smaller cargo or fishing vessels to disrupt small-scale trading or commercial fishing. Torpedoes were expensive, and for part of the war, U.S. “fish” were also unreliable, with failures, premature detonations, or erratic runs. Deck guns were as reliable as their gun crews.
Immediately after surfacing, the Permit’s gun crew assembled on deck and quickly began preparing the gun for firing, undoing the weapon’s restraints and removing the cover on the barrel. Other crewmen brought up artillery rounds from the ammunition holds. The gun was maneuvered into position and aimed at the unsuspecting vessel at 800 yards. In quick succession, several rounds were fired at her, scoring some hits and setting her afire.
Looking through binoculars, Chapple saw a white flag raised and a blonde woman calling out, and he ordered cease fire. The captain then instructed the Permit to approach the stricken vessel, but her crew waved at the submarine crewmen to stand off because of a potential fuel explosion.9
The crew of the vessel, all of whom were wearing life jackets, jumped into the water, swam to the Permit, and were hauled aboard. But Kozakov, the wounded crewman, was left on board the sinking trawler. Several attempts were made to get the injured man, but initially the distance to the Seiner was too great and the water was too cold. Finally, Chief Motor Machinist’s Mate Martin Oliver and Gunner’s Mate First Class Sidney Jones managed to help him to the submarine. Jones swam the 35 yards to the vessel with a safety line, which he tied around the man’s torso. Jones and Oliver swam with Kozakov until the crew pulled them to safety.10
Caring for the Survivors
Up on deck, crewmen were caring for the survivors, most of whom were evaluating the situation in which they found themselves. Pharmacist’s Mate Lowitz first began to treat Kozakov with morphine. The captain noted that when the injured man was brought aboard, he no longer was bleeding from his wounds but was near death. There was not much that could be done for him. Kozakov’s right leg mostly had been shot off; Lowitz amputated the remains of the leg four inches below the pelvis. The captain and other officers participated in the operation. Despite the medical treatment the Russian received, his injures were too great, and he passed away a few minutes after 1700.11
While Kozakov was being operated on, the rest of the trawler’s crew were brought down below and taken to the wardroom. Chapple wanted to make them comfortable, and they were given dry clothes, hot coffee, hot soup, cigarettes, and medicinal whiskey. Lowitz, meanwhile, treated their minor injuries. He removed shrapnel, stitched cuts, and disinfected and bandaged the wounds.
Shortly after 2100, funeral services were held for Kozakov with the trawler’s and the Permit’s crews in attendance. A U.S. ensign was used to cover the body. Chapple conducted the ceremony and recited the Lord’s Prayer, and other funerary rituals were observed. The captain of the Seiner, Nickolai Troshkin, made remarks in Russian, and Kozakov’s body was committed to the sea.
The forward torpedo room was turned into a temporary berthing space for the survivors. They were given towels and toiletries, candy, and cigarettes. Of the 12 survivors, four were young women. They ate in the wardroom, while the men ate in the crew’s mess. The women also were allowed to use the officers’ showers; the men used the crew’s washroom.12 For Commander Chapple, this was quite the situation.
Reverberations and Repatriation
The Permit began to head out of the Sea of Japan and transited La Perouse Strait later that night and into the next day. The following day, 11 July, she transited the Etorofu Strait. Late that night, Chapple informed COMSUBPAC in Pearl Harbor of the situation.13 The report of the sinking of the Seiner #20 reverberated across military and diplomatic channels.
Admiral Lockwood reported the situation to his commanders, and the news went up the chain of command to Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, who informed Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who apprised the Soviets of the incident. A few days later, on 15 July, the assistant Soviet naval attaché, Commander Skriagin, demanded information from U.S. Fleet Commander-in-Chief Admiral Ernest J. King, via the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, on the welfare of the crew of the Seiner #20 and how they could be repatriated.14
As the diplomatic flurry blew between Washington and Moscow, the Permit was ordered to sail to Naval Operating Base Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. Dutch Harbor, which was the headquarters for Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, Commander, North Pacific Force, was notified of the Permit’s pending arrival. Until then, the Soviet survivors continued to be the guests of the submarine’s crew. Despite the tragedy of the loss of two of their comrades and the sinking of their ship, the crew of the Seiner were friendly and in good spirits. The two crews got along as they sailed toward the Aleutian Islands.
On the evening of 16 July, the Permit rendezvoused with the USS Kane (APD-18), which escorted the submarine through the fog into Dutch Harbor. After the boat moored at the submarine base, the Seiner’s survivors were escorted aboard the Kane to be transported to an exchange point, from which they could be returned home. Once on board the high-speed transport, the survivors received clothes, food, and additional medical care.15 The Kane also took aboard three intelligence officers, as the Navy intended to take this opportunity to glean as much information as they could from the Seiner’s officers while they waited for the Soviets to pick them up at the fueling station on Akutan Island.
The three officers spoke with the trawler’s crewmen, but in particular with Ivan Romanov, the ship’s engineer, because he had considerable knowledge of the Sea of Japan area. With the help of a small book of English-Russian phrases and words, Romanov explained, using charts, what he knew about Japanese operations and minefields in the Sea of Japan close to the Soviet Union. He explained that Russian fishing boats scouted and used La Perouse and Tsugaru straits. Russian merchant vessels that plied La Perouse and Tsushima straits regularly reported of ships that used the passages. Russian submarines patrolled these areas and observed Japanese shipping and had sunk three Japanese ships.
He told them gun emplacements were along La Perouse Strait and on the south side of Kuril Strait, at the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula. He also reported that the eastern pass of Tsushima Strait was mined, but the western pass was not, and the whole of the strait was heavily patrolled. Tsugaru Strait was mined. The crew also showed the intelligence officers where the Japanese had laid communication cables between Sakhalin and Hokkaido islands, where patrol vessels operated out of the nearby small islands, and where navigation lights were on the area’s islands.16
The Russian merchant vessel Dneprostroi arrived at Akutan on 19 July and took aboard eight of the survivors, including Captain Troshkin, Romanov, and the women. The remaining four crewmen, an officer and three sailors, were eventually picked up by another Russian merchant ship, the Ternei. All were returned to Vladivostok.17
Commander Chapple and the Permit had been ordered to Pearl Harbor so that Admiral Lockwood could lead an investigation into this embarrassing accidental sinking. The incident did not prevent Lockwood from sending more submarines into the Sea of Japan. These missions continued until the fall of 1943, when the submarine force’s top ace, Commander Dudley W. “Mush” Morton, and his crew of the USS Wahoo (SS-238) were pronounced overdue and presumed lost. Admiral Lockwood did not want to risk any more crews to an enemy that had caught on to their trick.
A Risk of Unrestricted Warfare
What happened on 9 July 1943 and its ramifications for U.S.-Soviet relations continued to be debated. In the initial report taken by officers of the Permit, the crew of Seiner #20 stated that the trawler had all the proper markings, and they could not understand why an American submarine would shoot at them. During the trip to Akutan, Troshkin and Romanov recanted their previous statements and said their one flag had gotten fouled on the mast. Nor did it help that their helmsman out on deck was a Tartar with very Japanese-looking features.18 During the Navy’s investigation, the executive officer of the Permit, Lieutenant F. L. Taeusch, stated he had been asked to verify the then-unknown ship as the submarine passed at a range of 1,000 yards and he did not see her flying any colors or other markings of nationality.19
Unfortunately, the Permit’s attack on the Seiner would not be the last time a U.S. submarine mistook a Soviet ship for a Japanese target. Two other major incidents and several close calls occurred in 1944 and 1945; each time the Russian ships had been running without proper identification and illumination.20
Friendly fire attacks were one of the risks of conducting unrestricted submarine warfare in an ocean shared not only by belligerents but also by allies. By comparison, there were more such attacks on U.S. submarines by American, British, Australian, and Dutch forces than there were U.S. submarine attacks on other allied shipping. This was because the United States’ other allies communicated their shipping routes and complied with the rules for identifying their ships so they would not be confused with the enemy.
1. Report of Nicholi Troshkin, Master of Seiner #20, dated 18 July 1943; Correspondence Concerning Sinking of the Russian Trawler, USS Permit (SS-178), World War II Action and Other Operational Reports; Record Group (RG) 38 (Records of the Chief of Naval Operations), National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD (hereafter NARA).
2. Report of Interview with Survivors of the Russian Seiner #20 Sunk July 9, 1943, in Japan Sea, L11-1/EF61, 1943 Secret Correspondence (formerly Security-Classified Correspondence of the Secretary of the Navy and Chief of Naval Operations [SECNAV/CNO]), RG 80 (Records of the Department of the Navy), NARA.
3. Operational Order 112-43 dated 16 June 1943, Operational Plans and Orders and Other Related Documents, 1941–45 (hereafter OPOORD), RG 38, NARA.
4. Operational Order 118-43 dated 25 June 1943, OPOORD, RG 38, NARA.
5. USS Permit (SS-178), Report of Ninth War Patrol (hereafter Permit patrol report), A16-3 Copies of Submarine Patrol Reports, Confidential, Restricted and Unclassified Administrative Files, 1942–45, RG 313 (Records of Naval Operating Forces), NARA.
6. Permit patrol report.
7. Permit patrol report.
8. Permit patrol report.
9. Correspondence Concerning Sinking of the Russian Trawler, USS Permit (SS-178), World War II Action and Other Operational Reports (hereafter Permit action report), RG 38, NARA.
10. Permit action report.
11. Permit action report.
12. Permit action report.
13. Permit action report.
14. Letter from SECNAV Knox to Secretary of State, 12 July 1943, L11-1/EF61, 1943 Secret Correspondence, RG 80, NARA.
15. Report on Russian Survivors, Seiner #20, 18 July 1943, Task Force Group 16.5, World War II Action and Other Operational Reports, RG 38, NARA.
16. Intelligence Report Based on Information Received from Survivors of Soviet Seiner #20 Serial 244-43, A6 [Jacket #37], Secret Serial Files, 1940–47, RG 313, NARA.
17. Sinking of Soviet “SEINER #20” by U. S. Submarine USS Permit, L11-1/EF61, 1943 Secret Correspondence (Formerly Security-Classified Correspondence of the Secretary of the Navy and Chief of Naval Operations [SECNAV/CNO]), RG 80, NARA.
18. Report of Interview with Survivors of the Russian Seiner.
19. Permit action report.
20. Attacks on Russian Shipping, Submarine Operational History, World War II, vol. 4, by Commander, Submarine Force, US Pacific Fleet, World War II Command Files; RG 38, NARA.