Eli T. Reich was a highly decorated World War II veteran who was awarded three Navy Crosses for his command of the USS Sealion (SS-315), including, notably, the destruction of the Japanese battleship Kongō—the only battleship sunk by an Allied submarine in the war.
Reich graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1935 and served on several World War I–era four-stack destroyers before attending Submarine School in 1939. His second submarine, the USS Sealion (SS-195), was destroyed by Japanese bombers while being overhauled at the Cavite Navy Yard, near Manila in the Philippine Islands, in December 1941. Lieutenant Commander Reich was evacuated from Manila by submarine. War patrols in the USS Stingray (SS-186) and Lapon (SS-250) followed, then Reich was given command of the second Sealion (SS-315, aka Sealion II), commissioned on 8 March 1944.
Close Shaves at Patrol’s Outset
Reich was awarded a Navy Cross for each of the Sealion’s first two war patrols, as was customary for any commander who had sunk an enemy warship—but even higher achievement was to follow. With Reich again in command, the Sealion departed Pearl Harbor for her third patrol on 31 October 1944. After a ten-day run, the submarine transited the Tokara Strait and entered the East China Sea, her assigned patrol area. Within one three-day period during the first part of her patrol, Reich experienced three separate harrowing incidents, each of which had the potential for sinking his sub.
The first occurred during a routine check of the torpedo firing circuits. Somehow, things got mixed up between the torpedo officer in the conning tower and the torpedomen in the aft torpedo room. Instead of testing an empty torpedo tube, they closed the firing circuit on a fully loaded torpedo tube. The torpedo took off and exited the submarine, taking the outer door with it. There was very little danger from an explosion because the torpedo had to travel 250 yards before the exploder mechanism would arm.
Without the outer door to close, the only thing keeping the sea out was the inner door. Knowing that they were in shallow water, Reich decided to make the best of it and continue on patrol. He was more concerned with the loss of the torpedo and the fact that one of the torpedo tubes was now out of action.1
The second harrowing incident occurred while the Sealion was patrolling off the mouth of the Yangtze River. As Reich was looking through the periscope, he saw an old-fashioned horned mine coming toward his sub. He could see that it wasn’t going to hit the periscope, but there was nothing he could do except to watch it float by 75 yards or so away.
A day later, the battery in one of the Mk-18 electric torpedoes in one of the forward torpedo tubes caught fire, filling the forward torpedo room with smoke. Reich surfaced the boat, and after receiving instructions from ComSubPac, ejected the smoking torpedo while making 12 knots astern just in case it dropped and exploded as they went over it. Reich also was concerned that it might take a circular run. Backing away at maximum speed would minimize the danger to the Sealion. Despite the loss of the outer door and the other dangers Reich experienced in those first few days of patrol, he continued to search for enemy ships in the Sealion’s assigned area of operation.2
The Sealion was running on the surface, heading south in a smooth sea, when, at 20 minutes after midnight on 21 November 1944, her radar operator detected what he believed was a contact at 44,000 yards (25 miles). Reich, asleep in his bunk in the captain’s cabin, was notified immediately. He jumped out of his bunk and went up to the conning tower.
He was skeptical at first. The SJ radar could detect a convoy at 19,000 yards and a large warship at 25,000. Reich’s first thought was that they had contacted the north point of Formosa. But the Sealion’s radar officer, Ensign Daniel P. Brooks, insisted it had to be a contact. Reich had his doubts, but he ordered the watch to close the contact, went down to his cabin, and came back 15 or 20 minutes later.3
Reich did not know it at the time, but the Sealion had discovered a large force of Japanese warships under the command of Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita—a force that included three battleships, a light cruiser, and four escorting destroyers. The three battleships—the Yamato, Nagato, and Kongō—were heading to Japan to repair damage suffered at the Battle of Leyte Gulf and were cruising at 16 knots to save fuel.
As they closed the contact, the radar returns faded in and out until the Sealion was 30,000 yards from the convoy, when individual returns began to show up on the radar. At 0048 they could see “pips” for what appeared to be two battleships and two cruisers. Unbeknownst to Reich, the Yamato had detected the Sealion’s radar at some spot between a bearing of 0 and 70 degrees. After a short discussion on the Yamato’s bridge, Admiral Kurita ordered a course change that would break past whatever lay ahead at 16 knots with minimal zigzagging.4
The radar return from 30,000 yards indicated the Sealion had detected four large ships. Reich, realizing the only way he could get into firing position, decided for a surfaced attack, ordered the crew to battle stations, and instructed the engineering spaces to make full speed. At 20 knots, the Sealion’s surface speed allowed Reich to overtake the convoy in darkness without being seen.
By 0146, the Sealion was parallel to the convoy’s port beam. Her radar now showed three heavy ships in line with three escorts, one on either beam of the formation and one on the starboard quarter. “The Japanese fleet,” wrote historian Anthony Tully, “was still not zigzagging, and was steaming blissfully unaware on course 057 as the submarine [Sealion] gradually edged out in front.” (Zigzagging is an antisubmarine maneuver that, by changing course unexpectedly, interferes with a submarine’s ability to obtain a firing position.) At 0245, the boat was ahead of the convoy. Reich ordered speed reduced and turned the Sealion into the convoy to obtain a firing position.
Eleven minutes later, with the range to a target ship at 3,000 yards, he fired all six Mk-18 electric torpedoes from the forward torpedo tubes. “Noting the tendency of the destroyers to overlap on the radar with the BBs, Reich set his torpedo depths forward at eight-feet.” Running at the somewhat slow speed of 30 knots, Mk-18s would take about three minutes to reach the enemy ship. As the torpedoes were launched, the bridge lookout stated that he thought he had seen a pagoda mast on the target.
Meanwhile, Reich had swung the Sealion around and fired three fish at the second battleship in line. A minute later the crew saw the plumes and heard the explosions of the first salvo.
Two of the Sealion’s torpedoes had hit the battleship Kongō.
‘Vibrated the Whole Body of the Ship’
Tully, who extensively researched Japanese naval records, described the damage inflicted by the Sealion’s torpedo strikes:
One in the port bow chain locker, the other aft of amidships, port side, under the No.2 stack jarring the great battleship and causing spouts visible two ships astern on Yamato. The hits came with two loud booms followed by a “low grinding sound which vibrated the whole body of the ship.” The bugle blared over the speakers, sounding the crew to action stations. Loudspeakers called for emergency teams to proceed to the inner anchor deck and effect shoring procedures. The torpedo hit there had torn a large gash in the bow. The second hit had flooded Kongō’s Nos. 6 and 8 boiler rooms, but the remaining boilers could provide adequate steam pressure, and despite the loss of fuel, enough remained to continue onward at fleet speed of 16 knots. . . . Though a considerable section of the port side and machinery spaces amidships aft were flooded, there was little initial concern among Kongō’s veteran crew.5
When the captain of the Nagato, the second ship in line, saw the waterspouts from the Sealion’s exploding torpedoes on the Kongō, he ordered the helm hard to port to comb any more torpedoes that might be coming from that direction. In doing so, the Nagato deprived Reich of a hit on a second battleship. As the Nagato turned away, the Sealion’s second salvo went straight on to intersect the path of the first destroyer on the starboard side of the convoy—the Urakaze, which blew up a in brilliant circle of light followed by a series of lesser explosions.6
After firing his second salvo from the stern tubes, Reich ordered the Sealion away from the convoy at flank speed until he thought it was safe enough to turn around and regain contact with the enemy. By 0310, the Sealion had reloaded her torpedo tubes and was back to tracking the convoy, which had sped up and begun zigzagging.
On board the flagship Yamato, Admiral Kurita received word that the Kongō’s damage seemed manageable and decided to maintain speed in an attempt to escape pursuit by the U.S. submarines. As the weather worsened and the ship continued to maintain 16 knots, the damage to the Kongō’s hull got worse and brought on more flooding, forcing the battleship to suspend zigzagging and to slow down to 12 knots. Progressive flooding continued to spread through leaks, fractured bulkheads, sprung seams, and pipes throughout the ship. The convoy split into two groups; the Kongō, escorted by the destroyers Hamakaze and Isokaze, headed to Keelung, Formosa, for emergency repairs.7
The Final Detonation
Reich described what happened next: “We must have run about an hour [actually, it was two] in order to get back out and into what we thought was a good firing position, and all at once the target slowed and stopped. We were out ahead about five or six thousand yards, and if he’d have come by, we would have had him. But he sat there in the water—still. And then there was a tremendous explosion” that was so bright that it was described by Reich as looking “like a sunset at night.”8
The Kongō had succumbed to flooding and to the detonation of her forward magazine, which exploded as the ship rolled over.
Eli Reich had accomplished something no other submariner in the U.S. Navy had done. He and his crew sank a battleship. And Reich received his third Navy Cross, “for extraordinary heroism in the line of his profession as Commanding Officer of the USS Sealion (SS-315) on the third war patrol of that submarine . . .”
1. “Sealion II (SS-315),” Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships (hereafter DANFS); VADM Eli T. Reich, USN, Ret., Reminiscences of Eli T. Reich, John T. Mason Jr., interviewer (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute. 1978), vol. 1, 206–7.
2. Reich, Reminiscences, vol. 1, 209.
3. Reich, Reminiscences, vol. 1, 211; U.S. Fleet, Headquarters of the Commander in Chief, Radar Bulletin No. 3: Radar Operators Manual (Navy Department, April 1945), 4-SJ-9.
4. Anthony P. Tully, “The Loss of Battleship KONGO–: As told in Chapter ‘November Woes’ of ‘Total Eclipse: The Last Battles of the IJN—Leyte to Kure, 1944 to 1945;” “Sealion II (SS-315),” DANFS; Reich, Reminiscences, vol. 1, 211.
5. Tully, “The Loss of Battleship KONGO–.”
6. Reich, Reminiscences, vol. 1, 211–14; “Sealion II (SS-315),” DANFS; Tully, “The Loss of Battleship KONGO–.”
7. Tully, “The Loss of Battleship KONGO–”; “Sealion II (SS-315),” DANFS.
8. Reich, Reminiscences, vol. 1, 216; Reich as quoted by Tully, “The Loss of Battleship KONGO–.”