Veterans of WWII US submarine service honored at California Naval Base

Photo story (Clockwise from left): (1) Veterans of WWII US submarine service honored, in the photo (from left to right)- Robert Bell, Pat Zilliacus, Royal C. Harrison, Harold Staggs, Mark Maynard and William Thomas (2) Japanese destroyer Yamakaze torpedoed and being sunk, photographed through the periscope of US submarine USS Nautilus on 25th June 1942 (3) USS Harder, the Gato class submarine, rescuing a pilot John Galvin from fighting squadron of USS Bunker Hill at Woleai Atoll in Micronesia on 1st April 1944. Galvin’s Gruman F6F-3 Hellcat was hit by antiaircraft fire while attacking a Mitsubishi G4M1 bomber.   

United States Navy played the central role in the war against Japan during WWII between 1941 and 1945. It also played a major role in the European theater against Nazi Germany and Italy. US navy started to produce large and small battleships from 1937.

Japan unsuccessfully tried to mitigate this strategic US navy threat by carrying out a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. However US navy grew tremendously following American entry into the WWII as participation was required in two theaters. US Navy and Imperial Japanese Navy fought 6 great naval battles with each other during WWII.  These were- Attack on Pearl Harbor, Battle of Midway, Battle of the Coral Sea, Battle of Leyte Gulf, Battle of the Philippines Sea and the Battle of Okinawa.

By 1943, the US Navy’s size was larger and the most powerful than all the combined fleets of all other nations who were fighting in WWII. By the end of the war in 1945, at its peak, US Navy had 6,768 ships operating on ‘Victory over Japan (V-J) Day’, including 23 battleships, 28 aircraft carriers, 72 cruisers, 71 escort carriers, 377 destroyers, thousands of auxiliary ships and 232 submarines. In December 1941, USN had 18 submarines in the pacific, 38 in other places and 73 more under construction.

WWII US submarine service was responsible for 55% of Japan’s merchant ship losses. The war against shipping was the all important decisive factor in the destruction of Japanese economy. Majority of the allied submarines were from the US Navy but these campaigns are one of the least publicized feats in the history of warfare.

In 1943 and 1944, US submarine service caused devastating losses to Japanese merchant ships. However, merchant ships were secondary targets. Primary targets of the US submarines were conducting attacks on enemy warships and reconnaissance. To meet their role with the surface fleet, these submarines were large in size and were boasted with fast cruising speed, long range and heavy armament in the form of torpedoes. US submarines were also more comfortable and habitable than the German U-boats or other super powers’ submarines as they had air conditioning and water distilleries. As a result, these were better for long patrols in the tropics.

The pacific fleet of US submarine service had emerged unharmed from the attack on Pearl Harbor and USS Gudgeon carried out the first offensive patrol of the fleet on 11th December 1941. US Asiatic fleet’s 27 submarines also went offensive on the same day in the waters around Indochina and the Philippines.

US Asiatic fleet’s efforts to prevent the Japanese invasion of Philippines were unsuccessful and the fleet was forced towards Surabaya in Dutch East Indies (Now Indonesia). On 1st March 1942, the Asiatic fleet’s 27 submarines managed to sink only 12 Japanese ships but lost 4 US boats and were forced to leave Surabaya for Fremantle in Australia.

After the battle of Coral Sea, US submarine service finished off the damaged Japanese aircraft carrier Shokaku. At the Battle of Midway, USS Nautilus carried out an unsuccessful attack on the battleship Kirishima which helped the USS Enterprise’s carrier air wing 6 to send dive bombers to sink 4 fleet carriers. In 1942, US submarines managed to sink heavy cruiser Kako and light cruiser Tenryu only.

In 1944, they were quite successful with destroying two Japanese fleet carriers including Taiho in the Battle of Philippines Sea and disabled or sank 3 Takeo class cruisers at the beginning of Battle of Leyte Gulf. The same year, they sunk Kongo, the only Japanese battleship that lost to a submarine, and also the carrier Shinano, the largest ship ever lost to submarine torpedoes.

By the end of the WWII in August 1945, the Japanese merchant shipping had less than a quarter of the tonnage it had in 1941. Overall, US submarines sank around 214 warships and roughly 1,300 Japanese merchant ships. Argonaut, Nautilus and other US submarines also supplied guerilla forces and reconnaissance, transported commandos and rescued airmen.

Online edition of renowned daily newspaper published in Long Beach, California, The Press-Telegram reported that nearly two dozen Veterans of WWII US submarine service gathered on 16th February 2014 at the Naval Weapons Station at Seal Beach in California where they were honored at a private ceremony in appreciation of their service. It was hosted by the ‘Los Angeles Pasadena Base of the U.S. Submarine Veterans of WWII’. The service details of the 25 honored submarine veterans were also published.

The organizers said that when the veteran served on the submarines, they were mostly in their teens, but many are now passing on due to their advanced age and it prompted the push to honor them. Phil Jaskoviak, secretary of the submarine organization said that it was now or never for a growing number of veterans.

The submarine forces consisted only 2% of the US Navy but they carried out tremendous impact. The cost was also high as over 3,400 submarine crew member or roughly 22% of the submarine forces were killed and 52 submarines were lost.

Service members said that life was difficult even when they were out of combat zones. Because of limited water, little or almost no bathing, and laundry was a luxury. The air was also thick with cigarette smoke and body odors.

Mark Maynard, past president of the “Los Angeles Chapter of the WWII US Submarine Veterans”, said that it had been pretty grim and the crew, with an average age of 19, simply had dealt with it.

Patrick Zilliacus said that his habit of sitting in smoke filled bar made him easily adjust with the breathing conditions inside submarine. “There are short periods of hell and long periods of boredom” he said.

Bell said that temperatures in the subs varied from one place to another. He added that South Pacific was much more comfortable than the waters off the Aleutian Islands near Alaska.

Harold Staggs, 89, now living in Azusa, said that a submarine’s crew consisted of approximately 80 sailors. He added that some of them enjoyed the small quarters and some never even went to the top of the submarine. The bunk area was so small that sailors with large shoulders often had to get out of bed to change lying positions.

The ceremony included traditional naval ‘piping aboard’ ceremony, honor guards and a brief story of each veteran’s valiant war service.

Video story: Documentary on WWII submarine warfare in the Pacific

Mohammad Rafi Saad

Mohammad Rafi Saad is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE