07 May 2012

Turn 20: Hail and farewell

1—7 May 1942
Streak breaker

Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat (and then never speak of it again): the wretched, incomprehensible scoreless streak that swallowed April whole is over, finally over. USS Saury (SS-189) ended it on 5 May by bringing down a 3,000 ton merchant in the Solomons. It was Saury’s second kill (but her first on purpose).

Saury’s victory was the first for the service since 24 March, 42 long days ago. (But who’s counting?) During that streak, the service conducted 80 sub-weeks worth of patrols, made a total of 71 attacks, and saw six submarines damaged and one lost. (That last point bears repeating. Number of enemy sunk in April: 0; number of subs lost: 1.) It was, to say the least, a mind-boggling experience. It showed me in a quite tangible way that incredibly unlikely is not the same as impossible.

It also might well end up costing me the game. The May career longevity milestone looms; a month ago, it looked like we’d make it in a walkover. Now...? Let’s just say that operations this month will be fraught with interest.

Three other boats added scores this week. Notably, USS Silversides (SS-236) became the first Drum-class boat to sink a target. (And yes, I said “Drum-class.” More on that jarring turn of phrase in a moment. If you noticed it, you can probably guess what it implies.) Four kills for the week, but only a paltry 8,000 tons in total. Yes, 8,000 is a lot better than zero—but it is nevertheless a distressingly small number. We are standing at 196,000 for the war; we need to rack up 24,000 more by the end of the month.

With that out of the way, an observation: lost in the quagmire of our abysmal performance has been the fact that the complexion of the theater has changed dramatically over the last several weeks. Boats are joining the fleet in droves. April saw nine newcomers enter the war. The beginning of May has brought a baker’s dozen more (ten new plus three returning from refit). The order of battle now comprises 65 submarines; that number stood in the low 40s during the first two months of the war. The transit lanes in the eastern half of the theater are crowded with boats shuffling to and from their assigned patrol areas. To accommodate the new arrivals, the fleet is undertaking—albeit, relatively slowly—a net shift of assets from east to west. A re-emphasis of the more challenging western patrol areas is all but necessary now in order to avoid dangerous overcrowding in the familiar hunting grounds easily accessible from Pearl Harbor. A challenge arises from balancing the need to redistribute the boats with the absolute imperative of sacrificing as few patrol-weeks as possible in the process. The next few weeks will be even more trying than normal for ComSubPac’s operations staff.

Gato and her crew, circa 1942
Finally: we went 17 weeks in a row without losing a boat. We’ve now lost two in 13 days.

USS Gato (SS-212) seemed ill-starred from the moment she joined the fleet (to great and highly premature fanfare). She made her first deployment on 3 April, and contacted the enemy for the first time a week later. She was damaged in that fruitless encounter, albeit superficially, and returned to port in Fremantle. She commenced her second war patrol on the 22nd. On 5 May, she met her fate while attempting to attack a large convoy in the Java Sea. Luck and skill were with the escorts that day. {About five different things went perfectly wrong, including turning up a Diligent Escort, being spotted thereby, and pulling a −3 TDC counter for the only possibly hittable target (thus avoiding an “impossible shot,” which would have negated the counterattack)—it really was astonishing.} Her loss was the first of the war directly attributable to counterattacking escorts.

Gato’s loss, coming as it did—so early in her career and in the face of such incredible expectations—has made reference to the “Gato-class” more than a little uncomfortable. Accordingly, the phrase “Drum-class” has begun to circulate around the Admiral’s offices. USS Drum (SS-228), it must be noted, was both laid down and commissioned before Gato herself, and arrived in theater at the same time—so the tentative change in designation isn’t entirely baseless. It is early yet; time will tell whether it takes hold.

The real Gato’s career was far more successful than that of her AL&SW counterpart. She earned a Presidential Unit Citation, and represented the submarine service at the surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay. Unlike many of her sisters, she continued to serve her country long after the war ended, as a naval reserve training ship. She was finally sold for scrap in 1960; sent to the blowtorch by a nation that didn’t need any more monuments, apparently.

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