29 February 2012

Turn 11: Codename: “Wounded Bear”

22–28 February 1942

The era of carrier warfare dawned a little earlier in the AL&SWverse than in real life.

The calm:  Lexington, from Yorktown
By that, I mean that the “war event” dice have dictated that the Battle of the Coral Sea occurred this week; 25 February 1942 to be precise (vs. 7/8 May in real life). It is an interesting mental exercise to consider whether a major carrier engagement was remotely possible at this early date in the real world—but we are considering an alternate history here, after all, so let’s just go with it.

As anyone with a passing interest in naval history likely knows, Coral Sea was the first naval battle ever fought where ships of the two opposing sides never saw each other—all of the offense was delivered by carrier-based air power. Two US fleet carriers (USS Lexington (CV-2) and USS Yorktown (CV-5)) squared off against two fleet carriers (Shōkaku and Zuikaku) and a light carrier (Shōhō) of the IJN. The carriers exchanged strikes over the course of two days; ultimately, Lexington and Shōhō were fatally wounded, and Yorktown and Shōkaku were seriously damaged. Both sides lost many aircraft (and their crews) and a handful of smaller ships as well. The human toll was about 1,700 men killed.

The storm:  The Lady, in extremis
Most of the sources that I have seen conclude that the battle was a tactical victory for the IJN, but a strategic victory for the US. The destruction of Lexington was a serious blow, but the losses the Japanese sustained in return forced them to abandon their planned invasion of Port Moresby (the battle’s precipitating event). I won’t pretend to be a historian here, so I will recommend Wikipedia’s extensive and well-written article on the battle as an excellent starting point for readers who’d like the explore the topic further.

As mentioned above, Shōkaku came out of the battle significantly worse for the wear. On the second day of strikes, she took three bomb hits, wrecking her flight deck and damaging her bow. Her crew managed to put out the resulting fires, giving her at least a chance to survive to tell the tale. She was, however, still far from home—and her enemies well knew they’d hurt her badly. They codenamed her “Wounded Bear,” and directed all available assets to find and kill her before she could make port.

That task, of course, largely fell to the submarines.

As fate would have it, though, in the AL&SWverse the battle caught the sub fleet a point in their operational cycle when only a few boats were available to participate in the search—and, distressingly, most of them were of older, less capable classes. Only seven boats in all were able to reach the search area in time to have a chance to intercept the damaged carrier. Five of those abandoned their assigned patrol areas to hastily reposition themselves for the search—always a prospect fraught with peril. One, USS Tuna (SS-203), made just such a patrol move despite having been damaged during a fruitless attack on a task force last week—marking the first time in the war that a damaged boat has elected to remain at sea and actively seek further combat. The potential prize was just too valuable. Tuna—perhaps fortunately—did not contact the enemy.

Other boats did, though. The day after the battle, USS Perch (SS-176) encountered a small group of warships in the Coral Sea. Somehow, the practically obsolete boat managed to torpedo and sink a 5,000 ton light cruiser, only the second warship sunk by a submarine thus far in the war. {She needed, and rolled, a 0 to get the hit.} Nearby, and later the same day, USS Stingray (SS-186) sank a 5,000 ton fleet auxiliary.

So far, though, there was no sign of the true quarry.

Enter USS S-36 (SS-141). Three-six, whose keel was laid in 1918, was among the oldest of the “S-Boats”—a class so highly regarded that they were not given actual names. They were, to put it mildly, obsolete by now. Nevertheless, she was attending diligently to her assigned patrol area when the historic carrier battle erupted nearby. And, equally diligently, she abandoned her regular patrol upon receipt of the “Wounded Bear” order. She was the oldest and least capable boat in the area. So, of course—of course—she was the one who found the battered carrier.

Try though she might, Three-six was simply unable to maneuver effectively enough to get off a shot on Shōkaku. The small boat simply wasn’t fast enough, and the angles weren’t in her favor. After what felt like a tantalizing eternity, she—and with her, the USN—lost contact with the Japanese carrier. And thus ended The Hunt.

The real Shōkaku made it home too. She arrived at Kure nine days after being hit and remained there for over a month. She had survived Coral Sea, and the subsequent Hunt—but history showed her apparent good fortune to be illusory. While they hadn’t proved fatal, her wounds were the direct cause of her missing the most fateful and important battle in her empire’s history. But that is a tale for another day.

For the submarine service, the (nearly) fruitless Hunt dominated the week. The two ships sunk in the Coral Sea were the only scores, while one boat was damaged. Next week, however, should see a return to a more normal operating pace, with more subs on station to conduct patrols.


  1. I'm just happy reading your AARs with held breath. Keep on outstanding job!

    And don't worry: you will sink her later :)

    Best regards from Polish veteran of SW!

  2. Thanks for your comment Andrzej. And hello to those reading from Poland. Witam!

    1. Zatop ich wszystkich! ;)