An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Periscope photography by submarines was vital for Battle of Tarawa

Nov. 24, 2013
This photo shows USS Nautilus (SS-168) off the Mare Island Navy Yard, Calif., April 15,1942, following modernization. Note her very heavy deck armament of two 6"/53 guns; also embrasure in her upper hull side, just in front of the forward gun, for newly-installed topside torpedo tubes. At least two torpedoes are on deck above this location, probably being prepared for stowage below. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives

For more than 113 years, submarines have been silently gliding under the water, stealthily scouting out coastlines, harbors and lagoons. But it was 60 years ago that attack submarine Nautilus (SS-168) would perform the first combat periscope photography leading to the capture of the Apamama Atoll in the South Pacific Nov. 19-24, 1943. The strip of land would later serve as a landing field for allied forces, perhaps the only atoll in history to be captured by a submarine. It was an early example of the effective use of submarines in recon and troop insertion, both of which are essential capabilities of today's submarine force.

In fact, just two weeks ago on Nov. 4, 2013, the newest boat in the Virginia-class submarine fleet was launched: USS North Dakota (SSN 784). And just like Nautilus, six decades earlier, these "crown jewels" of America's defense continue to provide intelligence gathered by means of surveillance and reconnaissance (Defense Science Board's 1998 study "Submarine of the Future"). While maintaining much of the same mission as Nautilus, the Virginia-class boats are better in shallow water along the coasts, plus they can be easily configured to carry a contingent of SEALs for clandestine operations. New surveillance technology being developed for Virginia-class submarines includes both aerial and undersea unmanned vehicles. Cyber threats have only increased the submarine's mission to own the undersea domain, according to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert.

"Today we are inextricably connected to the EM (electromagnetic) and cyber environment, and occasionally we conduct military operations in it. This situation parallels in many ways the period around the First World War, when submarines transited on the surface, preferred to submerge only to clandestinely move into firing position, and then surfaced to attack," Greenert said in a July 2012 blog. "In subsequent years, submarines spent more time submerged, and with the advent of nuclear power, no longer need to surface or snorkel. As a matter of survival, we developed an understanding of underwater acoustics and the ocean environment, a culture of sound silencing, and a doctrine of operating under water - eventually turning the undersea environment into a primary warfighting domain." Global warming may soon open sea lanes in the Arctic where U.S. submarines will be deployed to deter regional tensions and conflicts, according to the Nov. 2012 Design for Undersea Warfare guidance by Commander, Submarine Forces (COMSUBFOR).

Besides being able to inflict attacks without support and assert U.S. sea control, the submarine fleet will depend upon new capabilities that "trick, jam or blind adversary sensors, disrupt cyber systems, cripple targets without killing them, destroy seabed targets, attack shallow and fast surface ships and permit time-critical strikes against distance targets," the Undersea Warfare Guidance states. But back to our history lesson: The unprecedented use of periscope photography used by USS Nautilus (SS 168) helped provide some of the best intelligence gathered among an arpeggio of atolls that populated the Gilberts in the South Pacific. It was Nautilus' successful sixth patrol mission that was the basis for similar submarine reconnaissance for the rest of the Pacific campaign. Tarawa was the largest of the atolls that populated the Gilberts in the South Pacific. The Japanese fortified it shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Submarines, already used in landing teams of the Fifth Amphibious Corps to scout out enemy territory under darkness, were becoming vital in providing periscope photography.

Up to that point, pictures shot through periscopes were used to document the sinking of ships. Rear Adm. Richard Turner and Marine Gen. Holland Smith determined periscope photography could provide panoramic sequence and topographic features. With the addition of aerial photographs, it would provide the best information possible for landing teams. The perfect submarine to achieve that goal was Nautilus, a large, mine-laying sub that had already performed a number of missions in the South Pacific. Under the leadership of Cmdr. William D. Irwin, the Nautilus was given orders in September 1943 to conduct periscope reconnaissance and photograph the beachheads of Tarawa, Kuma, Butairiari, Apamama (also known as Abemama) and Makin.

After 18 days of periscope photography, Nautilus returned to Pearl Harbor to prepare for an operation called Boxcloth, in which the sub would land the first recon unit to perform amphibious reconnaissance in the Gilbert Islands. Knowing Japanese troops were on the island, Gen. Smith determined it was best to scope out the size and location of the troops before committing more Marines in taking Apamama Atoll. Nautilus returned to just outside Tarawa's harbor, where reconnaissance discovered an 11-degree compass error in old British charts for the entrance into the Tarawa Atoll. The charts were adjusted, and that correction would later prove crucial for task forces headed toward the Nov. 20-23 battle.

After performing periscope photography along Tarawa, Irwin received orders to look for a missing naval aviator shot down in the area. As Nautilus skimmed along the coast, she was fired upon by a Japanese shore battery, forcing her to dive. At this point, the rescue mission was called off and Nautilus ordered to proceed to Apamama, loaded with 5th Amphibious Reconnaissance Company and an Australian scout who spoke the Gilbertian language. While gliding on the surface, Nautilus made radar contact with an "unknown" vessel traveling at 25 knots. Irwin correctly assessed it wasn't likely to be the enemy and since his oxygen and battery were low, he chose not to submerge.

Unfortunately, word of the rescue mission being aborted didn't reach the command of the cruiser Santa Fe (CL-60) and destroyer Ringgold (DD-500), from a nearby task force. Picking up Nautilus on radar and with low visibility, they fired on what they thought was a Japanese patrol vessel. A shell struck the submarine in the conning tower hatch, but luckily, the shell didn't explode. Water poured into the tower, flooding the main induction and shutting down the gyroscope. After diving to 300 feet, repairs were made to the sub. After two hours, Nautilus continued on to Apamama Atoll. The submarine's landing party began to wet-dock into six 10-man rubber boats under the cover of night and high tide, beginning at 11:53 p.m. Nov. 20. Despite squalls, currents and motors shutting down the boats, all of the landing parties made shore by 3:30 a.m. Nov. 21 and joined an earlier scouting party.

The mission, while extremely successful, wasn't without its tense moments. Unable to communicate with the submarine, the landing party would send messages to the sub by certain placements of four Navy mattress covers in the trees. The Gilbertian natives had no problem relaying information to the Americans about the Japanese, who had conscripted them into labor and treated them with contempt. Most importantly, the natives told the landing party that the Japanese knew they were there. While not high in numbers, the Japanese coast defenders were well fortified and protected in bunkers. But submarine shell bombardment Nov. 24, 1943, from the 6-inch guns held the enemy at bay while exacting losses from the Japanese.

As the Americans steadily took command of the island, the last remaining Japanese garrison was located near a radio station. The Japanese captain gathered his troops to give a motivational talk to "Kill all Americans," but his weapon accidentally discharged and killed him. The remaining troops, fearing what was to come, then dug their own graves, laid down and committed mass seppuku by shooting themselves. The Americans suffered their own losses: Two killed, two wounded and one injured. Nautilus would go on to conduct a total of 14 mission patrols before returning to Philadelphia May 25, 1945, where she was decommissioned.

During her service, the sub earned the Presidential Unit Citation for aggressive war patrols in enemy-control waters and 14 battle stars, one for each mission. The next-generation of attack submarines will continue USS Nautilus' legacy. "And should diplomacy fail," as the Undersea Warfare Guidance states, "submarines will be on the forefront ?to deliver credible, decisive firepower from beneath the sea."