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May 17, 1942: USS Tautog sinks Japanese submarine I-28

This article appeared in the March 1958 issue of Proceedings, published as Deep Battleground by Commander Charles W. Rush, Jr., USN.

May 17, 1942. Somewhere under the long mid-Pacific swells.

The stillness inside the conning tower of the U. S. submarine Tautog muffled the tense excitement of men who knew they were about to battle their most feared enemy—another submarine.

“Bearing—zero-seven-five,” the sound man called.

“Range-two thousand yards,” Lieutenant Jim Barnard read from the dial of the torpedo data computer.

Perspiration glistened on the faces of the men. At that moment, the enemy sub might be aiming a lethal salvo at Tautog.

But Captain J. H. Willingham had the drop on his opponent. His orders followed in rapid succession:

“Make ready all tubes forward. Set depth fifteen feet—speed high.”

“Open the outer doors forward.”

“Fire One! . . . . . . . . . . Fire Two!”

A tremor passed through Tautog as the torpedoes were blown out by high-pressure air. The whine of propellers was tracked on the sound gear. After an interminable minute, a weak explosion was heard—the enemy was hit, damaged, but not killed. Then, like a wounded bull, the damaged sub fought back.

Tautog‘s sound man reported, “Enemy sub is firing torpedoes!”

No time for deliberation. Captain Willingham shouted down to his diving officer, Lieutenant Norman D. Gage, “Take her down, Norm—one hundred and fifty feet!”

In the control room, Lieutenant Gage signalled the manifold operator, the planesmen. Tautog leaned forward, seeking the dark, safe deep.

Thirty seconds later, Gage reported, “One hundred and fifty feet, sir.”

Slowly, he gazed upward. The men’s eyes followed his; their ears caught the buzz-saw  sound of a torpedo getting closer. The sound grew louder—then faded.

“Z . . Z . . Z . . . z . . . . z . . . z . . . “: a second torpedo passed overhead.

But Captain Willingham, who had bested the Japanese submarine RO-30 in an under­-sea duel three weeks previously, was not willing to call it quits. He brought Tautog up to periscope depth and sighted the damaged ­sub, bored in to point-blank torpedo range  and aimed another shot at the enemy’s ex­posed underside. This torpedo ran straight  and true, gouged into the vitals of the Japanese submarine I-28 and exploded, sending her to the bottom.

Tautog‘s exploit is a true example of submarine vs. submarine fights-to-the-finish during World War II. Although our sub­marines of the war years were not designed to sink enemy undersea craft and although anti-submarine work was not their main job, they sank 25 enemy submersibles—23 Japanese and two German U-boats—in the Pacific, thus giving a ring of truth to the pre-war prediction, “The best defense against sub­marines is other submarines.”

The blood that pumped through the arteries of the Japanese Empire of 1941 was men, material, and supplies carried on the sea lanes by six million tons of merchant shipping. The primary mission of our wartime undersea force was to cut off this life-giving flow by sinking the ships that carried it. They did a bang-up job of it. Tautog sent 26 enemy ships to the bottom—more than any other submarine in our history. Her sister subs demolished some five million tons of Japanese merchantmen and more than half a million tons of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s warships, including all types: aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines.

We can be thankful that many unsung pa­triots of the 1930’s—planners, designers, builders—had the foresight to provide our operators with the proper submersible to fight the war in the Pacific; the fleet-type submarine was long-legged, tough-skinned, and equipped with a double-ended battery of ten torpedo tubes with which it could saturate the water through which enemy ships had to pass. In short, our subs were successful because they were designed to do the job at hand.

In many respects, building a modern navy is like playing a gigantic poker game, in which the chips are billions of dollars (or rubles); the cards are ships, weapons, and trained men; and the stakes are national life or death. The game is not played according to Hoyle. If we are unwilling to risk coming out second best, we must keep a winning hand ready for the showdown at any time—hiding cards up our sleeve whenever possible.

In this game, Red chips have already been spent on making their navy the greatest under-sea power ever known. The 1956-57 edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships reported that the Soviets had over 400 submarines, with another 100 under construction in their dockyards. The Reds now have 450 to 500 undersea craft—most of them modern, ocean-going ships, fitted with snorkels and the latest in equipment and weapons.

In contrast, the German Navy had only 57 U-boats at the outset of World War yet blasted at the outset of World War II; yet they blasted the Allied convoys and came close to winning the Battle of the Atlantic. The U-boats were armed with torpedoes loaded with a few hundred pounds of TNT; the modern submarine may be armed both with torpedoes and with missiles carrying hydrogen warheads the equivalent of millions of tons of TNT.

Admiral Arleigh A. Burke, the Chief of Naval Operations, recently stated that the Soviet Union is building toward a fleet of 1,200 submarines—enough to station a every mile on a line from the northernmost coast of Maine to Miami, Flor­ida. In addition, the Soviets are reported to have an atomic-powered submarine undergoing trials, to be building a number of additional atomic subs, and to have produced a submarine missile which can be fired from underwater at targets 150 miles distant.

In the undersea department, they hold a powerful hand—increasing in strength with every draw of the cards. Unless we meet this threat with sufficient counter-strength in the right places, we could be exposed to annihilation launched from under the sea. That is the main reason we are building nuclear powered submarines—to prevent enemy submarines from attacking and isolating our country.

After World War II, we had about one hundred fleet-type submarines still in service. They had smashed the Japanese right under the shadow of Mount Fuji. Archerfish sank the 59,000-ton monster Shinano, a brand-new aircraft carrier, before the Japanese even completed her sea trials.

But, we are no longer opposed by an island empire; our own life-lines, our own shores are threatened by a power building the world’s largest submarine fleet. Our fleet-type submarines were not equipped to fight other undersea craft—most of the enemy submersibles which they had given a one-way ticket to Davy Jones’ locker had been caught on the surface.

It was apparent that submarine warfare had to undergo a “sea change.” We had to fit our submarines to meet the new threat con­fronting our Navy.

First, our subs were streamlined and given increased storage battery power; then, they were fitted with snorkels to allow them to ex­pose a smaller target when they had to come up to use their diesel engines. These re­modelled fleet-subs were named “Guppies”—because of their higher speed, the men called them “hot rods.” But high speed was only a partial answer to the problem.

The next major improvement was not one of submarine design, but one of equipment. Radars could not find subs hiding hundreds of feet underwater—a better means of detect­ing submerged submarines had to be devised. By 1949 Congress authorized the Navy to build three new craft of a radical type—the first SSKs, “killer” submarines designed to detect and destroy other subs. They were de­signed to carry new sound detection equip­ment unlike any sonar our Navy had ever seen. On the bow of the ship, the builders in­stalled a large, boxy housing for the new
sound equipment’s “ears.” They looked awk­ward, but when the sonarmen first pulled on the earphones and plugged into the new sonars, they were amazed!

Sounds which with the older “hearing aids,” they had been unable to hear from more than a few hundred yards suddenly came in clearly and distinctly from distances of many miles. But these “killer” subs still had an Achilles’ heel—when their storage bat­teries became exhausted, it was necessary to come up from the depths and gasp for air like a spouting whale.

The Navy and the Atomic Energy Com­mission had been working on the solu­tion to this problem for some time. A nuclear reactor already had been built and tested at the AEC’s National Reactor Testing Station at Arco, Idaho, and the development of con­trolled fission power had progressed to the stage where it could safely be installed in a ship. The Navy selected a submarine for the first application of nuclear power. This was not a coincidence—a power plant which is in­dependent of the atmosphere offers greater advantages to an undersea craft than to a sur­face ship. For the first time, a true submarine became possible—one capable of operating fully submerged indefinitely.

The submarine Nautilus, the first applica­tion of nuclear propulsion, was built. Into her blunt nose, streamlined for high underwater speed, electronic detection equipment like that on the killer-subs was carefully installed. Designated SS(N), nuclear, she is the fore­runner of a new breed of submarine—SSK(N), designed to do a new job—hunt down and kill enemy submarines.

With this revolutionary development came the need for a new shape to go with the new power. For years, submarines had been fash­ioned to travel both on the surface of the water and submerged. Now that a true sub­marine was possible, it could be configured for underwater travel only. Because a surface ship kicks up a big wave at high speeds and a submerged submarine doesn’t, designers had long known that with enough power they could make a submarine go faster underwater than on the surface. By testing models in the wind tunnel at the David Taylor Model Basin in Carderock, Maryland, they found the best design for high underwater speed.

Soon, workmen at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard were forming flat plates of heavy steel into curved patterns laid down by the designers. The plates were welded together to form Albacore, the world’s fastest submarine.

All the pieces of the puzzle, nuclear power, tear-drop shape, and electronic sound equip­ment, were now ready to be fitted together.

The Navy plans to build a second Tautog­—one of the new breed. With her nuclear power plant moving her streamlined hull through the depths, the new Tautog will carry her electronic ears down under the cold layers of water where enemy subs lurk. There she will stay as long as her captain wills, hunting the enemy in his own element.

She will be a key fighter on the Navy’s air, surface, and submarine team—ready to meet the enemy in deadly combat where a war need never be fought if we are prepared to fight it—in the deep battleground.