Rekindling the Killer Instinct

Lieutenant Commander Brian McGuirk, USN

Frustration and Failure, 1941–42

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, no entity in the Allied armed forces was in a better position to slow Japan’s advance than the U.S. submarine force, yet the Japanese crossed the Malay Barrier and overwhelmed the Philippines with minimal opposition. The story of submarine operations in those campaigns is one of frustration and failure, beginning in the Philippines. Pre-war plans, most notably War Plan Orange, assumed the Japanese would move quickly to capture U.S. installations near Manila. 1 Planners also knew that the most likely location for a Japanese invasion of the Philippines was the beach at Lingayen Gulf. 2 Nobody should have been surprised, therefore, when Japanese amphibious forces began massing in Lingayen Gulf two weeks after Pearl Harbor.

The U.S. Asiatic Fleet submarine force, however, was caught out of position. Although eight submarines had been reserved to counter the expected invasion, they had been dispersed to patrol areas around the Philippines out of fear for their safety at Cavite Naval Base. 3 To make matters worse, at the outset of war little was known about Japanese antisubmarine warfare (ASW) tactics; U.S. submarine COs were advised to cautiously observe enemy operations and return to Cavite after about three weeks, reporting what they had learned. 4 They were not directed to mass against the anticipated invasion at Lingayen.

Thus, of the 29 submarines based in the Philippines before the outbreak of the war, just one—the USS Stingray (SS-186)—was in a position to damage the invaders before they entered Lingayen Gulf. It did not. Only 5 of those 29 were in position to penetrate the shallow, reef-infested, and well-patrolled gulf to attack the landing force once it had arrived. Of those only the S-38 (SS-143) managed to enter the gulf and sink a Japanese vessel—a pinprick that did little to slow the invasion.

As the Japanese enveloped American and Filipino defenders on Corregidor they continued to push south to the Malay Archipelago, and U.S. submarines were no more effective against that offensive than against the landing forces in the Philippines. This is surprising because the geography of the archipelago should have bottlenecked the invading Japanese into a few narrow sea corridors and canalized the Japanese merchant ships returning to the home islands with vital raw materials. Rather than concentrate the submarines against those vulnerabilities, however, force commanders allowed them to be dispersed, shuttling reactively between invasion beaches—one step behind the Japanese—carrying supplies to the doomed garrison at Corregidor, or landing Marine commandos in ill-conceived raids against Japanese-held island fortresses.

When submarines did make contact, they did not slow the enemy advance. Cautious tactics imposed on commanders during peacetime ensured the safety of the submarine but discouraged aggressive attacks during this campaign. The story of the Seal (SS-183) is illustrative: Patrolling in excellent position north of the Dutch East Indies island of Lombok in February 1942, the Seal encountered an escorted enemy convoy. Submerged (per pre-war doctrine) and thus spotting the convoy late, she nonetheless had sufficient time to close for an attack. Hurrying to close track submerged, her commander decided (again, per pre-war doctrine) not to risk a periscope exposure in glassy seas with enemy air cover very probable. The Seal fired four torpedoes from below periscope depth using sound bearings. The convoy proceeded unhindered. 5 Excessive caution in patrol tactics had made it difficult for the Seal to get in position for a shot; excessive caution in her approach resulted in inadequately aimed torpedoes.

Submarines operating from Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941 were subject to similar restrictions. Boats traveling west from Hawaii were ordered to remain submerged during daylight hours once within 500 miles of Japanese air bases, rather than rely on lookouts and quick dives to maintain operational security. 6 Submarines that traveled from Pearl Harbor to Japan were equipped to spend 51 days at sea without logistic support. Under that restriction, however, it took one submarine more than 21 days to reach its patrol area. 7 Then, after a little more than a week on station, it was time to begin the transit home. Additionally, while operating submerged during their short time on station, submarines spotted targets later, closer, and less frequently than had they patrolled on the surface. Risk-averse tactics had predictable effects: Before the war naval staffs assumed that half of U.S. submarines would not return from their first war patrol in the Pacific. After nearly five months of continuous operations just four submarines had been lost, but the subsurface force had not seriously contested the Japanese advance. 8

From that operational history we can draw some conclusions: First, the commanders directing submarine operations early in the war did not employ their boats for maximum impact against the enemy, as indicated by the failure to concentrate against the landing at Lingayen and again against Japanese merchant shipping in the chokepoints of the Dutch East Indies. Second, the tactics used by submarine commanders early in the war were cautious to the point of being ineffective. To avoid repeating these mistakes, we must understand their root causes.

The Roots of Failure

The inability of senior commanders to properly employ their submarines can be attributed in part to the diplomatic prejudices that colored discussion of submarines in the interwar period, and in part to the lack of any formal warfare education within the submarine leadership. Beginning with the Washington Naval Conference of 1921–22 and continuing through the outbreak of war, diplomats in most of the Western nations demonstrated distaste for submarines as legitimate weapons of war. The general thinking was that ASW techniques had advanced sufficiently that submarines could not be employed effectively against warships, and therefore had no useful purpose except as commerce raiders. 9 The concept of sending submarines to attack civilian merchant shipping, however, was distasteful—thought to be immoral and contrary to the freedom of the seas.

As a result, prewar planners concluded that submarines only would be employed in high-risk attacks against capable ASW warships. It was not until 1941 that the Naval War College proposed a strategy of barring merchant shipping from certain “strategic areas,” in which unrestricted submarine warfare would be permitted—but that came too close to the start of the war, precluding a review of submarine employment doctrine or wartime strategy. 10

Even if time had permitted such a review, few submariners had the education to conduct it. Those who were submarine force commanders had significant technical training and experience at sea, but few had attended the Naval War College. Two who had—Chester Nimitz and Ernest King—by the onset of hostilities, however, were flag officers and several levels removed from submarine operational decision-making. Force commanders such as John Wilkes, James Fife, Charles Lockwood, Robert English, and Ralph Christie, while fine submariners in their own right, simply lacked the training to employ their boats strategically. Nobody in the higher levels of submarine command seems to have recognized that in a naval war with Japan, the merchant shipping transiting the sea lines of communication between outlying resource areas and the home islands would be the empire’s crucial vulnerability, or that because Japan possessed interior lines, the submarine was the only weapon capable of reaching behind the fighting front to sever them. Similarly, no one seems to have seriously disputed the decision not to concentrate forces at Lingayen or the Dutch East Indies chokepoints.

Unrealistic Tactics and Training

In addition to shaping U.S. thinking on submarine employment, the diplomatic environment had far-reaching effects on prewar tactics and training, and on the culture in which American submariners of the era grew up. Prewar exercises assumed that submarines only would attack warships. Enemy warships presumably would have significant air and surface ASW screens, which made periscope approaches tantamount to suicide. Submarine commanders, admonished to attack from below periscope depth and fire torpedoes based on sound bearings, were threatened with instant relief of command if their periscope was sighted during an exercise. 11

Submarine division and squadron commanders continued to train for artificial attacks against well-defended warships, seeing that as the only acceptable role for the force. But many of their junior officers disagreed. Indeed, officers serving in submarines believed that restrictions on commerce raiding would gradually erode during the early phases of a conflict with Japan. 12 In an essay written in 1935—after he had served as executive officer aboard the S-48 (SS-159)—then-Lieutenant Hyman G. Rickover argued that unrestricted submarine warfare not only was a legitimate form of combat, but that it was the most effective (and only practical) use of a submarine. 13 That innovative thinking seems to have been ignored, as submarine-force leadership did not train to or encourage that capability.

Not only was the choice of targets unrealistic, the fighting conditions considered in peacetime training exercises were seldom worst-case. In a 1929 lecture delivered to submarine commanders and officers of the control force, a submarine CO bemoaned the fact that superfluous schedule requirements prevented submarines from taking the time to properly train their officers in approach tactics. He noted that in an effort to ensure that the officers attempting to qualify for submarine command successfully complete the required number of graded approaches within the ship’s schedule constraints, those approaches were almost always conducted under the most favorable conditions. 14

Compounding the problem, the U.S. submarine force, like the rest of the Navy, did not train at night in the years leading up to World War II. Top commanders deemed the risk of collision (and the potential loss of a submarine) too great to operate darkened submarines near darkened, high-speed surface ships. In fact, it was not recognized until the beginning of the war that for many submarines, the targeting equipment mounted on the bridge could not be read at night. (In response, some enterprising ships improvised equipment to take visual bearings in a dark bridge.) But certainly even the most rudimentary night exercises before the war would have identified that deficiency and corrected it. 15 Thus, while it is reasonable to expect that a wartime submarine commander would encounter half of his targets at night, and could approach those targets with greater speed and endurance (because surfaced), the tactic was not rigorously practiced before the war. Rather than seeking innovative ways to mitigate the risk involved in night training to gain a wartime tactical advantage, the U.S. submarine force leadership was risk-averse—and thus less effective in the early months of the war.

Contemporary Challenges and Solutions

Junior submariners today are often taught that prewar submarine skippers simply lacked the courage to place their ship in harm’s way, breaking down under the strain of command, and that those overly cautious commanders were relieved by younger, more aggressive heroes—after which submarine performance improved. That was certainly true in several dramatic cases, but there was never a systemic lack of courage among World War II submarine COs. Any perception to the contrary stems from the submarine force having taught them to be cautious, punishing them for aggressive or innovative behavior, and limiting their training.

The need to train under realistic wartime conditions while a nation is not in conflict is perhaps the greatest peacetime challenge of any armed service. This is even more evident in a liberal democracy that views its sailors as citizen-soldiers and therefore will not tolerate casualties in training accidents. That truism is as valid today as it was in 1941. We cannot afford to assume, however, that the commanding officer who keeps his ship safe in peacetime will, at the outbreak of hostilities, acquire the blood-lust of a late-World War II skipper, or that the staff operations officer who maximizes schedule efficiency in peacetime can recommend appropriate employment during a war. Our history contradicts those assumptions.

In spite of all the paradigm-shifting advantages that nuclear propulsion brings to the submarine force, the accompanying culture emphasizing reactor safety over innovation can only be detrimental to the aggressive operation of submarines against a determined, capable enemy. At the same time, nobody reasonably can argue for the acceptance of more risk in reactor operations. The great contemporary challenge of the U.S. submarine force, therefore, is to reach a balance between a crucial, zero-defect nuclear culture and an equally crucial aggressive combat heritage that allows us to prioritize safety of ship in peacetime, shifting to prioritize mission-accomplishment in wartime. The suggestions that follow, if implemented, will encourage the retention of a warrior culture within the submarine force while minimizing operational risk in peacetime.

First, we must nurture junior officers who are independent thinkers. To that end, qualified junior officers may be assigned operational planning problems that encourage them to think creatively about the employment of the ship in tactical situations, and thus contribute to the ship’s library of standing plans. That should not be seen as a collateral assignment, but as a “fight the ship” function, and therefore regarded as an officer’s primary duty. Expect them to be confused; they probably have not been required to innovate during their careers to date.

Beyond that we need our best and brightest to be conversant at the strategic and operational levels of war. As was the case in 1941, many of our most promising young submariners today are in shore duty assignments with inspection teams and technical staffs. True, that experience makes them better tactical and technical submariners and the practice improves the force, but it also denies us their critical thinking on force employment. The officers who will hold high commands in the submarine force require an education in the theory of war that will allow them to successfully use their boats during a conflict. They must be able to analyze enemy capabilities and weaknesses, determine centers of gravity, and attack the enemy’s vulnerabilities with our strengths. In short, we need to send our most promising officers to staff colleges and war colleges, and they must serve tours as staff planners where they can consider wartime operations against an enemy. To the extent that we fail to do this, we will continue to produce great peacetime commanders who are inadequately prepared for war.

Finally, attack-center training time, specifically in the officer pipeline schools, should occasionally challenge students with wartime scenarios in which they are forced to prioritize mission accomplishment over safety of ship in nonstandard approach-and-attack scenarios. Those scenarios can never replicate the personal stress of combat, but they will force an officer to think harder about the level of risk he is willing to accept and at the same time test his ability to innovate under pressure.

Those actions alone will not guarantee success in war, but they will place additional emphasis on some of the skills required in a desperate conflict, and they will help the force to guard against the easy complacency of peacetime service. They will encourage well-informed critical thinking and discussion on submarine employment at all levels of the force, and they may help identify more effective wartime submariners. In a future conflict with a peer competitor, we cannot afford to spend a year correcting peacetime mistakes, as we did in 1942. In our peacetime submarine operations, we must remember the precepts of Admiral Hyman Rickover—but we must not forget about Commander Dick O’Kane.

1. Edward S. Miller, War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897–1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991), 53.

2. W. J. Holmes, Undersea Victory: The Influence of Submarine Operations on the War in the Pacific (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966), 22.

3. Ibid., 68–69.

4. Ibid., 64.

5. Ibid., 79.

6. Ibid., 8.

7. Ibid., 13.

8. Ibid., 114.

9. Joel Ira Holwitt, “Execute Against Japan”: The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2009), 32.

10. Miller, 319–320.

11. Holmes, p. 47.

12. Ibid., 46.

13. Holwitt, 47.

14. J. W. Lorenz, “Authority and Responsibility in Submarines,” Leadership: Study of Command , ed. United States Bureau of Naval Personnel (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1931), 59.

15. Holmes, 48.

Lieutenant Commander McGuirk is executive officer of the USS Michigan (SSGN-727) (Gold Crew) based in Bangor, Washington. Prior to that assignment he attended Marine Corps University Command and Staff College at Quantico, Virginia. He has served in various attack and ballistic-missile submarines.


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