Did A US Navy Destroyer Sink 6 Japanese Submarines?
On 13 May 1944, Fleet Radio Unit Pacific (FRUPAC), Hawaii (successor to Commander Joe Rochefort’s Station Hypo), intercepted and decoded a transmission from Japanese submarine I-16 to Japanese Commander Submarine Division 7 that gave its estimated time of arrival off Buin, Bougainville, Solomon Islands as 2200 22 May. This intelligence was passed via Third Fleet to Commander Hamilton Hains, commander of Escort Division 39 at Tulagi, who ordered a three-ship hunter-killer task group get underway to intercept I-16. The group consisted of destroyer escort USS George (DE-697—Lieutenant Commander Fred W. Just commanding), and destroyer escort USS Raby (DE-698—Lieutenant Commander James Scott commanding), joined by destroyer escort USS England (DE-635—Lieutenant Commander Walton B. Pendleton commanding), from Escort Division 40 at Purvis Bay, Florida Island.
All three ships departed Purvis Bay on 18 May 1944, with Commander Hains embarked in George as officer in tactical command (OTC).
That same day, additional radio intelligence was received that the Japanese were establishing a line of seven submarines between the Admiralty Islands (north of New Guinea) and Truk (in the central Pacific Caroline Islands) designated “NA,” through which U.S. carriers were expected to pass. The Japanese were anticipating additional Allied landings, but were uncertain about whether the Marianas, the western Caroline Islands, or the western end of New Guinea was the target, although the Japanese planners thought western New Guinea was most likely due to recent U.S. carrier strikes in support of General MacArthur’s westward advance along New Guinea’s north coast. The commander in chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet issued orders for Operation A-GO, which was intended to be a decisive battle in defense of the Marianas–Western Carolines–Western New Guinea perimeter. (The execution of this plan would lead to the Marianas “Turkey Shoot,” the Battle of the Philippine Sea, and the loss of three Japanese carriers and hundreds of aircraft in June 1944.)
In support of Operation A-GO, Vice Admiral Takagi Takao, commander of the Japanese Sixth Fleet (the Japanese submarine force) based on Saipan, directed that submarines from the 7th Submarine Squadron establish scouting line “NA.” Seven Japanese submarines were assigned to specific positions along the line (rather than being assigned operating areas as the U.S. subs were), which would prove to be a fatal weakness. The chain of dominos that doomed these submarines began when the Japanese intercepted a contact report from a U.S. aircraft on submarine RO-104. Sixth Fleet then promptly radioed orders to the entire “NA” line to move 60 nautical miles to the southeast, and the message included specific positions.
This message was intercepted by the FRUPAC and shared with the Joint Intelligence Center Pacific Ocean Area (JICPOA) Estimates Section. With some difficulty, the coordinates were broken out. Although a process had been developed to “sanitize” code-breaking intelligence to share with U.S. submarines (which, along with fixes to defective torpedoes, was making the U.S. submarines far more effective), this would be the first time a similar process was employed for U.S. anti-submarine forces in the Pacific. A newly assigned “ASW officer” at JICPOA passed the sanitized intelligence to the U.S. Third Fleet and thence to the escort squadron commander, who would be OTC of the hunter-killer group. In each case, the Japanese submarines were located within 50 miles (often less) of where the intelligence said they would be.
The three ships of the task group, George, Raby, and England were all relatively new Buckley-class destroyer escorts, which were being produced in large numbers (154 were ordered and 148 were completed, some serving in the British Royal Navy).
George was named after Seaman 2nd Class Eugene F. George, who’d been awarded a posthumous Navy Cross as an anti-aircraft gunner aboard the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco (CA-38) on 12 November 1942 off Guadalcanal for refusing to abandon his gun while continuing to fire on a crippled Japanese G4M Betty bomber. The bomber was hit by San Francisco’s guns while attempting to torpedo the cruiser. The torpedo missed. Knowing his flaming plane would crash anyway, the pilot deliberately aimed for San Francisco’s 20-mm gun battery deck. Seaman George, and other gunners, stood their ground, firing on the Japanese bomber until the bitter end. A number of the other San Francisco gunners were also awarded the Navy Cross and had ships named after them.
Raby was named after Rear Admiral James Joseph Raby, who was killed in a car wreck in 1934 while he was commandant of the Charleston (6th) Naval District and who had been awarded the Navy Cross during World War I while in command of transatlantic convoys, including the very first one under U.S. escort.
England was named after Ensign John C. England, who was killed aboard battleship USS Oklahoma (BB-37) during the attack on Pearl Harbor. England, stationed in the radio room, survived the initial torpedo hits and re-entered the ship three times to bring out three other sailors from the radio room, but never returned from his fourth attempt. (England’s remains, which had been buried with the unknown crewmen of Oklahoma at the Punchbowl National Cemetery, were identified in 2016 and reburied in Colorado Springs next to his parents.) Although England received only a Purple Heart for his heroism, two ships would be named in his honor, DE-635 and guided missile destroyer leader/cruiser DLG-22/CG-22, in commission from 1962 to 1994.
The Buckley class was armed with three 3-inch guns, but was principally designed for anti-submarine warfare and convoy escort. As such they were armed with one triple bank of 21-inch torpedoes, two stern depth-charge racks, eight side-throwing K-gun depth charge projectors, and one Mark 10 Hedgehog anti-submarine mortar. The Hedgehog had been designed by the British in 1941 and was first used in 1942, but didn’t become widely available (or recognized for its effectiveness) until late 1943.
The Hedgehog was designed to fire an elliptical (for the Mark 10) spread of 24 ASW projectiles up to 200–300 yards ahead of the ship. The projectiles would fire in a sequence so that they would all impact the water at the same time. Unlike standard depth charges, which had hydrostatic fuzes (which had to be set to the estimated depth of the submarine), each Hedgehog projectile had a contact fuze that detonated on impact with the submarine—which had several advantages. For one, it was obvious whether the attack was successful or not. If one of the projectiles hit a submarine, there would be an explosion; if not, there would be nothing (there was no need to wait 20 minutes or more to see if any debris came to the surface to determine if the submarine had been hit, and even that was subject to deception).
The Hedgehog could be reloaded in about three minutes for a repeat attack. The lack of explosions would facilitate the re-attack, because, unlike with standard depth charges, sonar contact could be more readily maintained (the sound of the detonation of standard depth charges would “blind”—or, more accurately, deafen—the attacking ship’s sonar, and if the submarine survived the first attack, many were able to get away during the period of sonar deafness).
An additional advantage of the Hedgehog was that the submarine could not detect that the weapon was being employed until it was too late (the projectiles would take about seven seconds to sink to 200 feet, which gave the submarine no time to evade them). With standard stern-dropped depth charges, experienced submarine skippers could calculate when they went into the attacking ship’s minimum sonar detection distance (“instantaneous echo”) and evade to either the side of the attacking ship and avoid the depth charges being rolled off the stern (the side-throwing K-guns were a partial countermeasure to this tactic).
Although the explosive charge of the Hedgehog projectile (about 30–35 pounds of TNT or Torpex) was smaller than that of a standard depthcharge, a contact explosion of only one would usually be sufficient to breech the submarine’s hull and sink it, whereas it usually took the cumulative impact of multiple near-misses by standard depth charges to sink a submarine. British figures from World War II showed that, on average, one submarine would be sunk for every 60 standard depth charge attacks; for the Hedgehog, the ratio was closer to one submarine sunk for every six attacks. About the only disadvantage of the Hedgehog was psychological; it lacked the adverse impact on the morale of the submarine crew resulting from numerous depth charge explosions, which left them wondering which one would be close enough to sink the sub. Conversely, depth charge explosions had a significant morale-boosting effect on the crew of the ship dropping them, which the Hedgehog lacked.
19 May 1944: I-16 Sunk
On 14 May 1944, Japanese submarine I-16, a veteran of nine war patrols and multiple re-supply missions, departed Truk under the command of Lieutenant Commander Takeuchi Yoshitaka, carrying a cargo of rice in 75-pound rubber bags for the bypassed Japanese garrison at Buin, Bougainville, in the northern Solomon Islands. I-16 was a large submarine (Type C-1) equipped to carry piggy-back a two-man/two-torpedo Type A midget submarine. I-16 had launched the first midget submarine (under the command of Lieutenant Junior Grade Masaji Yokoyama) of a total of five that attempted to enter Pearl Harbor several hours before the air attack on 7 December 1941.
The fate of Yokoyama’s midget is unknown, but it wasn’t the one known for certain to have entered Pearl Harbor, or the one that ran aground and was captured on the east coast of Oahu. The I-16 received a radio transmission from what was believed by I-16 to be Yokoyama’s midget on the afternoon of 7 December reporting a successful air attack, and another on 8 December (about 0100) that reported it could not navigate. None of the five midgets or their crews were recovered by the Japanese (one officer was captured by the Americans, the first Japanese POW of the war).
On 30 May 1942, I-16 launched a midget submarine (under the command of Ensign Katsusuke Iwase) that penetrated the British anchorage at Diego Suarez, Madagascar (which had been forcibly taken from the Vichy French). The midget hit the British battleship HMS Ramillies with one torpedo, which caused severe damage. Ramillies survived thanks to excellent damage control and would go on to bombard German defenses during the D-Day landings in Normandy on 6 June 1944. Iwase then torpedoed and sank the tanker British Loyalty, but his midget did not return to I-16. I-16 then sank four Allied and neutral merchant ships in the western Indian Ocean.
During the Guadalcanal campaign, I-16 conducted several midget submarine and resupply operations. On 11 November 1942, I-16 launched midget HA-30 in an attempt to attack U.S. ships off Guadalcanal, but HA-30 was sighted by U.S. destroyers and scuttled, with the two crewmen able to reach Japanese positions ashore on Guadalcanal. On 28 November 1942, I-16 launched midget HA-10, which hit the ammunition- and fuel-carrying cargo ship USS Alchiba (AK-23) with a torpedo, forcing Alchiba to beach herself. Alchiba would be hit shortly after by yet another torpedo from a different midget and would be the only cargo ship to be awarded a Presidential Unit Citation due to the extraordinary and successful efforts of her crew to save the ship. Both midgets and their crews were lost. On 3 December 1942, I-16 conducted yet another midget mission to Guadalcanal. Midget HA-22 fired torpedoes at a U.S. destroyer but missed.
The midget submarine was subsequently scuttled and her crew made it ashore. One of the midgets lost off Guadalcanal was subsequently raised during the war and is the one on display at the NHHC Naval Submarine Force Museum and Library in Groton, Connecticut. (Note: The “HA” numbering system is a post-war accounting method and was not used by the Japanese.) I-16 subsequently covered the Japanese evacuation of Guadalcanal in January/February 1943, made supply runs to New Guinea, and was lightly damaged in an air attack in December 1943.
I-16’s radio transmission just before departing Truk on 14 May 1944 would be her doom (and her cargo of rice would never reach the Japanese troops at Buin). The intelligence was accurate, and the England, Raby, and George were waiting. On 19 May 1944, an Allied aircraft sighted I-16 on the surface north of Bougainville. The three destroyer escorts conducted a line-abreast sonar sweep and, at 1335, England gained sonar contact on I-16. The boat commenced standard Japanese submarine tactics of radical evasive maneuvering. England’s first and second Hedgehog attacks missed. One projectile hit during the third attack, but the big submarine survived and continued evasive maneuvers. The fourth attack by England missed, but the fifth achieved solid hits, followed by a massive underwater explosion at 1435 that lifted England’s fantail out of the water, with debris reaching the surface 20 minutes later. I-16 was lost with all 107 hands.
Meanwhile, on and around 17 May 1944, the seven Japanese submarines departed Saipan to take station along “NA.” All seven submarines were Type Ko’s, relatively small and originally intended for coastal defense, and were much less capable than the larger Type I boats, which by then had been increasingly pressed into service as underwater transports to supply food to starving bypassed Japanese garrisons. They Type Ko’s were armed with four 21-inch bow torpedo tubes (eight torpedoes total) and a 76-mm deck gun. Most were equipped with radar detectors, but lacked radar themselves, which made them not all that well suited for the reconnaissance and reporting mission they were assigned on line “NA.” (Of 18 Type Ko submarines produced, none survived the war.)
22 May 1944: RO-106 Sunk
Japanese submarine RO-106, under the command of Lieutenant Keitai Uda, was on her 11th war patrol. During a previous patrol on 18 July 1943, RO-106 hit LST-342 with a torpedo in the Blanche Channel near New Georgia in the central Solomon Islands. The torpedo blew LST-342 in two. The stern sank immediately, while the forward section remained afloat and was towed to shore in Purvis Bay, beached and equipment aboard salvaged. Among the 121 men killed on LST-342 (158 survived) was the entire five-man mess division of African-American stewards and cooks, as well as the famed artist Lieutenant Commander McClelland Barclay. Barclay had been a highly successful pre-war artist who joined the Naval Reserve and was brought on active duty in 1940, creating aircraft camouflage schemes as well as many of the most famous recruiting posters of the era before serving as a combat artist in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. NHHC’s Art Collection contains much of Barclay’s Navy work.
In October 1943, RO-106 sustained serious damage from air and surface dropped depth charges, but was repaired and returned to service. During the U.S. landings at Eniwetok Atoll in February 1944, RO-106 conducted a reconnaissance mission, locating several U.S. cruisers and destroyers and a repair ship, and attempted to vector in a strike of G4M Betty bombers, a rare case of a Japanese submarine trying to guide an airstrike.
On 22 May 1944, at 0351, George gained radar contact on RO-106 on the surface. George and Raby were ordered to attack, with England ordered to stand off and keep the submarine from escaping. RO-106’s E27 radar detector failed to work, and the submarine was surprised while still on the surface when George lit her up with a searchlight. Nevertheless, RO-106 was able to crash-dive and commence evasive maneuvers and George’s Hedgehog attack missed. At 0425, England gained sonar contact as RO-106 tried to escape. England’s first Hedgehog attack missed, but the submarine reversed course bow-on to England, possibly in attempt to torpedo the ship, and probably not understanding the Hedgehog system. England’s second Hedgehog attack scored at least three hits. RO-106 was lost with all 49 hands.
23 May 1944: RO-104 Sunk
RO-104, under the command of Lieutenant Hisashi Izubuchi, was in her assigned station on 23 May 1944. RO-104’s previous patrols had mostly been in the north Pacific and in the vicinity of the Aleutian Islands, where she was attacked by an unknown submarine (which missed) while she was pursuing what turned out to be a Soviet merchant ship. (Although the Japanese were allied with Nazi Germany, the Japanese had no desire to get into a war with the Soviet Union, much to Hitler’s annoyance, so Soviet ships were off-limits to Japanese attacks. In fact, much U.S. war materiel was shipped to the Soviet Union on neutral ships via the North Pacific throughout the war, all unmolested by the Japanese except for a few accidental sinkings.)
In late 1943, RO-104 commenced operations in the Solomon Islands area. On 3 November 1943, the submarine rescued 75 survivors of the Japanese light cruiser Sendai, sunk in action with U.S. cruisers the night before in the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay off Bougainville. The survivors included Rear Admiral Baron Matsuji Ijuin, commander of Japanese Destroyer Squadron 3.
On 23 May 1944, RO-104 was sighted by Allied aircraft on the surface about 250 nautical miles north northwest of Kavieng, New Ireland. At 0604, Raby gained radar contact. This time, the radar detector worked and RO-104 quickly submerged. Raby conducted four Hedgehog attacks on RO-104; all missed. In addition to radical maneuvers, RO-104 attempted to jam Raby’s sonar with bursts of tuned sound impulses, possibly with some success. George then made five Hedgehog attacks on the evasive submarine, all of which missed.
Commencing at 0819, England commenced two Hedgehog attacks, hitting with 10–12 projectiles on the second attack, which was followed by a huge underwater explosion. England then dropped 13 depth charges for good measure, but it wasn’t until 1045 that debris finally reached the surface. RO-104 was lost with all 58 hands.
24 May 1944: RO-116 Sunk
RO-116 was relatively new and didn’t have much of a war record, and was on only her second war patrol under the command of Lieutenant Commander Takeshi Okabe. At 0120, George gained radar contact on the submarine at a range of 17,000 yards about 225 nautical miles north northwest of Kavieng, New Ireland, causing RO-116 to dive.
At 0150, George gained sonar contact at a range of 750 yards. Ro-116 employed the same violent maneuvers, rudder shifts, and sonar jamming techniques as RO-104, foiling attack at least for a while. England made two aborted Hedgehog attack runs before getting a good solution on the third, hitting RO-116 with at least three projectiles. The submarine was lost with all 56 hands.
26 May 1944: RO-108 Sunk
RO-108, under the command of Lieutenant Kanichi Obari, was on her fifth war patrol. During a previous patrol on 3 October 1943, RO-108 fired a spread of four torpedoes at three U.S. destroyers that presented an overlapping target in the Huon Gulf at the eastern end of New Guinea. USS Smith (DD-378) sighted three torpedo wakes and successfully (barely) turned to comb the wakes and avoid being hit. USS Henley (DD-391) was able to avoid two torpedoes, but was hit port side amidships in the No. 1 fireroom, knocking out the boilers and power, and breaking the ship’s keel. The “abandon ship” order was given before Henley broke in two and sank, suffering 15 killed (one officer and 14 enlisted) and 52 wounded. Smith and USS Reid (DD-369) counter-attacked, but were unsuccessful. On 17 December 1943, RO-108 was attacked on the surface while recharging batteries by a VP-52 PBY Catalina flying boat, suffering serious damage and going down by the stern. Although reported as sunk, RO-108 managed to survive.
On 26 May 1944, at 2303, Raby gained radar contact on RO-108 at range of 15,000 yards about 110 nautical miles northeast of Seeadler Harbor, Manus Island. England also gained radar contact before RO-108 dove and commenced evasive action. England then gained sonar contact at 1,650 yards. Raby was vectored in for the kill, but missed with a Hedgehog attack. At 2323, England commenced a Hedgehog attack and hit with 4–6 projectiles. RO-108 went down with all 53 hands.
30 May 1944: RO-105 Sunk
RO-105 had sortied from Saipan on 14 May 1944 under the command of Lieutenant Junichi Inoue with the commander of Japanese Submarine Division 51, Captain Ryonosuke Kato, embarked. On a previous patrol on 12 August 1943, RO-105 had narrowly avoided two torpedoes fired in a stern shot from USS Tarpon (SS-175) by radical evasive action. In September 1943, RO-105 fired torpedoes at the light cruiser USS Columbia (CL-56), but missed. RO-105 also had rescued several downed Japanese aviators at various times.
On 27 May 1944, Japanese Sixth Fleet intelligence intercepted and decoded U.S. Navy communications indicating several submarines had been sunk in the area north of the Admiralty Islands and issued a warning. These U.S. reports were described by the Japanese as increasingly “jubilant.” RO-112 received the warning and moved out of the area (she would be sunk by USS Batfish—SS-310—off Luzon on 11 February 1945 with all 61 hands).
RO-109 also received the warning and cleared the area (she would be sunk by destroyer-transport USS Horace A. Bass—APD-124—off Okinawa on 7 May 1945 with the loss of all hands). For whatever reason, RO-105 didn’t get the warning or chose not to leave. (Although Japanese radio intelligence never achieved the success that the U.S. Navy’s did, it wasn’t for lack of trying.)
After sinking RO-108, George, Raby, and England had gone into Seeadler Harbor to replenish their severely depleted stock of Hedgehog projectiles. When they got underway, they re-joined a larger hunter-killer task group centered on the escort carrier USS Hoggatt Bay (CVE-75) and including destroyers USS Hazelwood (DD-531) and USS McCord (DD-534), and destroyer escort USS Spangler (DE-534), which had arrived in the area on 25 May.
Spangler and England formed up as a group with Commander Thorwall embarked on England as OTC.
On the night of 30–31 May, Hazelwood gained radar contact on RO-105, which caused the submarine to dive and commence evasive maneuvers. During the course of the night and into the next morning RO-105 used every trick in the book in an attempt to escape, including discharging debris and deceptive oil slicks. Hazelwood gained sonar contact and dropped depth charges to no apparent effect. George made several Hedgehog attacks and may have hit with three projectiles, yet still the submarine kept maneuvering and fighting for survival.
At dawn, Spangler and England joined the attack. Spangler attacked with Hedgehogs and missed, at which point the OTC for George and Raby, Commander Hains, radioed, “Oh hell, go ahead England.” England’s attack resulted in a massive underwater blast, and RO-105 was lost with all 55 hands.
England wasn’t the only ship sinking enemy submarines. During the period of May–June 1944, of about 25 deployed Japanese submarines, about 17 were sunk. In the Atlantic, the British 2nd Escort Group (a flotilla of six sloops) centered on HMS Starling, sank six German U-boats in 19 days in February 1944, and Starling herself was credited with sinking 14 U-boats during the course of the war, making her the most successful ASW ship of all time. Nevertheless, six submarines sunk in 12 days by a single ship (England) remains an unequaled record. Upon learning of the feat, Chief of Naval Operations Ernest J. King sent a message “There’ll always be an England in the United States Navy.” (King was wrong.) England was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation, and Lieutenant Commander Pendleton would receive one Navy Cross for the six submarines sunk.
The loss of the Japanese submarines on the “NA” line initially convinced the Japanese that a large U.S. force had gone through the area en route the western Carolines or Western New Guinea, rather than to the actual U.S. target, which was the Marianas Islands. As a result, the Japanese execution of Operation A-GO was confused, delayed (wasting much precious fuel), and ultimately turned into a disaster (which I will cover in a future H-gram). Although the U.S. Navy kept a tight lid on ENGLAND’s success to protect the source of intelligence, Japanese intelligence correctly deduced that the loss of the submarines was due to U.S. radio intelligence—yet the Japanese still persisted in believing that their codes were secure.
England went on to earn 10 battle stars for action in the Pacific until she was attacked by three kamikaze aircraft off Okinawa and hit by one of them on 9 May 1945. Then under the command of Lieutent Commander John A. Williamson (previously the executive officer during the submarine sinkings), England hit the first kamikaze with anti-aircraft fire, but the burning aircraft still crashed into the ship just below the bridge. Its bomb detonated moments later, inflicting many casualties and forcing the abandonment of the bridge.
Fighters shot down the other two kamikazes. Despite the damage, England’s crew was able to bring the fires under control, losing 37 killed or missing and 25 wounded.
England was towed into Kerama Retto (near Okinawa), received temporary repairs, and then proceeded on her own power to the States. Given the severity of her damage and the by-then plethora of destroyer escorts (with the end of the war with Germany), it was deemed not cost-effective to repair her. The ship was sold for scrap in 1946. (I can’t find any record if Williamson received any award for bringing his ship through the ordeal. In a number of accounts, Williamson as executive officer is credited with being the driving force behind England’s tactical ASW proficiency.)
Raby would later participate in the sinking of Japanese submarine I-48 in January 1945 near Ulithi. George would later rescue three crewmen from a ditched US Army Air Force B-29 bomber off Iwo Jima in April 1945 and would deliver the surrender terms to the Japanese garrison on Truk at the end of the war. Commander Hamilton Hains was awarded a Legion of Merit for his actions as escort division commander; he suffered a brain hemorrhage as a result of a water-skiing accident in 1946 that forced his retirement as a Rear Admiral (he lived until his eighties). Japanese submarine fleet commander Vice Admiral Takeo Takagi (who’d also been senior Japanese commander in the Battle of the Coral Sea) never made it off Saipan when the Americans invaded; he essentially went down with his island.
The Leahy-class guided missile destroyer leader USS England (DLG-22) was commissioned in December 1963 and re-designated as a guided missile cruiser (CG-22) in 1975. England served in Vietnam and during Operation Desert Storm. She was decommissioned in January 1994 and scrapped in 2004. Since then, Fleet Admiral King’s promise remains unkept.
Sources include: NHHC Dictionary of American Fighting Ships (DANFS) for U.S. vessels, and combinedfleet.com for Japanese vessels. In addition, Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of United States Naval Operations in World War II—Vol. VII—New Guinea and the Marianas serves as a baseline. An excellent account is “Seek..Attack…Destroy” by Patrick J. Chaisson at warfarehistorynetwork.com. Combined Fleet Decoded: The Secret History of American Intelligence and the Japanese Navy in World War II by John Prados (Random House, 1995) is the best source on the intelligence aspects. It should be noted that sources conflict regarding how many Hedgehogs hit during which attack and some other details; I took my best assessment. Also of note, Japanese naval officers killed in action would be posthumously promoted one rank; I use their rank at the time of the event.