The Last Patrol:
Finding closure in the deep
Water gently slapped the bodies of two boats standing alone on a dark, indefinite plane. It was a rare occasion for the usually turbulent shallow waters of the Gulf of Siam, but that night, the world was still and clear, and the moon provided ample illumination. The sloshing water was the only audible sound for miles.
Two attack submarines, USS Lagarto (SS 371) and USS Baya (SS 318), had rendezvoused to discuss plans for attack. Baya had just barely outrun intense gunfire from a heavily armed Japanese convoy.
Baya had sent out a distress call to all submarines in the area and Lagarto was the only one to respond to the call for help.
A decision had to be made.
From their respective perches on the conning towers, Cmdr. Frank Latta of Lagarto and Lt. Cmdr. Ben Jarvis of Baya finalize a game plan to attack a heavily defended Japanese convoy.
Jarvis and his men were shaken up pretty badly from the attack in which they had just barely evaded. Latta, a Naval Academy graduate and Navy Cross recipient, calmed down Jarvis and his men through soothing words and encouragement, allowing the men to regain focus. Latta's unsurpassed confidence was rooted in his seven successful previous patrols as commanding officer of USS Narwhal (SS 167). Latta's victory record was surpassed by no other commanding officer in the submarine force.
Both skippers lean over the edge of their bridges and talk like two neighbors conversing over a picket fence. However, these two neighbors do not discuss light matters such as a Fourth of July barbeque or the way Penny looked in that new dress. They speak of a subject perilous and grave.
Jarvis concluded that one of the escorts in the Japanese convoy is a minelayer. The water and the night are so serene that the men do not need megaphones to hear one another.
Latta makes a decision.
"Jarvis, you've been shot up pretty badly, maybe we oughta take a shot at the sonofabitch," he bravely tells the shaken-up commander.
The plan consisted of Lagarto diving on the enemy's track and moving ahead of the convoy to set up a position to torpedo attack. Baya was to trail 10 to 15 miles behind Lagarto.
The decision to retaliate unsettled some of the crew as Lagarto was en route to safety, her patrol was over and at the time of Baya's distress call, she was on her way to Freemantle, Australia.
And now, one final patrol.
Jarvis salutes his mentor and marvels at his courage as they both quietly descend beneath the waves, with Lagarto on the offensive. USS Lagarto, 86 strong, departed on an attack mission.
Lagarto was never heard from again.
. . .
The Lost is Found
There came a point where the men had had enough, their fishing nets had been snagged yet again. The fishermen in the Gulf of Thailand were sick and tired of their unsuccessful fishing expeditions. An empty catch was bad enough, and excited faces turned to disappointed frowns which changed quickly to perplexed looks when they saw the nets had vanished.
Something on the sea bed was snagging them.
The fishermen contacted local divers in Thailand, asking them to explore the source of their frustrations. It was no coincidence that the location where the nets were snagged was believed to be the final known position of USS Lagarto.
Adventurous British diver, Jamie MacLeod, discovered the reason for the fishermen's dilemma. Mummified in layers of netting, surrounded by fish feeling lucky they were not caught in those nets; lay the solemn submarine, the submerged sepulcher of 86 unfathomably courageous men. Each one of them was a volunteer, a new-comer, and a very young man.
The World War II Navy Balao-class Submarine USS Lagarto was last heard from on May 3, 1945 when she met her sister ship USS Baya that fateful night. Incredibly, almost 60 years to the day the boat was lost, she was heard from again.
Divers discovered the submarine's remains about 200 feet below the surface, sitting upright and intact. Divers said the torpedo door was open and the torpedo was missing. This suggested a glorious revelation.
USS Lagarto went down fighting.
And she did not fall in vain.
The "Old Man" and his men
Lagarto was born and built in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Her keel was laid on January 12, 1944. The whole town came out to witness Lagarto being launched into the water. Families cheered as she was launched sideways into the familiar waters of Lake Michigan. The celebration was so vibrant and animated that one would think it was Christmas or the Fourth of July.
The crew who would later take control of the boat was so young that it would seem they wouldn't be capable of taking on such an important duty of manning a submarine during wartime.
But courage overcomes age, and the men were well-trained and ready. The average age of any young man on Lagarto was only 19 to 20 years old.
However, one man was a veteran, Lagarto's commanding officer, Cmdr. Francis D. Latta, who was affectionately referred to as "the old man," even though he was only 34-years-old. Latta acted as a father figure to the young men on the boat. He was a gentle man, yet as commanding officer, he was stern when he had to be. His capability was affirmed through numerous successful war patrols and various awards earned for his honor and courage.
Latta's passion as an avid motorcyclist remained with him on Lagarto. Latta's passion was shared by the fun-loving and mischievous Motor Machinist's Mate Dick Fisher. Unbeknownst to their superiors, Latta had allowed Fisher to dismantle and store his Harley on Lagarto, on one condition: That Latta could share in the run and ride it when they were on land. Whenever Lagarto was ashore, the two men would take turns riding it.
The motorcycle remains in its crate aboard the Lagarto, in its resting place at the bottom of the Gulf of Thailand.
Following commissioning and sea trials, she was floated down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, then through the Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean.
Lagarto arrived at Pearl Harbor on Christmas Day of 1944. She spent the first few weeks of the new year training and having new attack and communications equipment installed.
Finally, Lagarto began her maiden war patrol in the dark waters east of Japan.
Lagarto's first mission was to create a diversion accompanied by two other submarines, USS Haddock (SS 231) and USS Bowfin (SS 287).
The three submarines were led by Latta and together, the three were known as "Latta's Lances."
The trio was instructed to travel south of another group of submarines as they swept the path to Tokyo. The other boats were leading aircraft carriers to Tokyo where they would conduct air strikes. The Lances were to attack Japanese picket boats with heavy gunfire, but not to sink them right away, so the enemy would have ample time to dispatch a warning. "Latta's Lances" were to act as decoys by making the enemy believe submarines were leading the squad of aircraft carriers.
On February 13, 1945, "Latta's Lances" fired at battle surface at four Japanese picket ships, sinking two of them.
The diversion created by the trio was deemed successful. In fact, it was so successful that the troop of five submarines leading the aircraft carriers farther north did not encounter a single picket boat.
After the victory, Lagarto traveled southward on an underwater patrol. Suddenly, she detected a Japanese RO-class submarine on her radar, and fired four torpedoes at the enemy. When the crew heard a roaring underwater explosion that sounded to them like a collapsed hull, they knew they were successful once again.
Unfaltering camaraderie lived, grew and flourished on Lagarto. The bonds between the young men on the submarine were forged through shared duty and strengthened by the knowledge that they were in this together. Their courage was beyond description. After the first patrol, the men were given the option to depart and return home to their families.
Only one crew member left his new subterranean home. The remaining men chose to stay on the boat.
Young Men and Letters Home
Fireman Second Class Richard Fox Grace, of Wilmington, Delaware was so eager to join the Navy that he simply could not bear to finish his senior year at Archmere Academy. Richard had one health ailment that would easily prevent him from entering service, but it wasn't enough to deter him.
The nurse looks at him quizzically and looks down at her file again.
"I'm sorry, but your record says you have asthma, and that is enough to preclude you from serving."
The nurse had dark hair, and full, red lips. Grace knows he has this part covered.
"I won't tell anyone if you don't," he says with a sly smile.
The nurse, stunned by Grace's courage, looks to her left and right furtively. She thinks to herself how much of a push-over she is.
Then she guiltily marks his service papers with a stamp of approval. This young man is fit for service. She simply could not say no. The pretty young nurse could not resist that smile.
This wasn't the only instance where courage and determination to enter service defeated similar circumstances.
There was nothing Alvin Enns wanted more than to serve his country on a submarine. However, there was a problem, Enns was a tall young man; too tall, in fact to be able to serve on a submarine.
There was no way he would let an irrelevant factor like his height deter him from his goal. So, he perfected the art of slouching, and apparently after much practice he became pretty good at it. Enns would on to become a third class torpedoman.
Although the men were courageous, fear was undeniably present aboard the boat. Perhaps out of pride, the fear was never made apparent among the men. But through the written word, fear had its way of making itself known.
In letters to his sweetheart back home, Lt. Harold A. Todd Jr. made this fear known.
He tells her of the paranoia, saying "porpoises are torpedoes, and their fins are periscopes, and every dark cloud either hides a plane or makes you think there's one there. Even a harmless little bird flying along damn near makes you jump off the bridge."
In another letter, he said that whenever someone dropped something, everyone would jump and spill coffee everywhere.
It wasn't as if the possibility of death and defeat wasn't ever-present in their minds. They know of its existence when they signed up, and it faced them everyday.
In a letter home to his family, Richard Fox Grace talked about the possibility of death. "If anything bad happens to me, please don't worry. I'll be in a million dollar casket with plenty of company."
His letter proved one momentous, immutable fact that was shared among the men, one thing they didn't have to suffer through and experience.
That one thing was loneliness.
Although they missed their families at home, they had new family on the submarine. The men were not lonely.
Grace also expressed his fear of being depth charged in a letter when he said, "I'm so scared I've said prayers the Pope wouldn't dream of."
In the final moments of the life of Lagarto, the strong bonds of the men were suspended, and each retired into individual ultimate thoughts. It wasn't so much the fate of Lagarto the men were concerned with now. The fate and mortality of each individual Sailor was on the forefront of every mind.
They also thought of their families.
However, in the very last moments of life, right before the impact, camaraderie returned once again. The crew realized they had lived together on the boat for roughly a year and in a few moments they would die together.
Decent to the depths and Revenge
The ultimate moments are still unknown. However, much can be learned by the dive planes and the torpedo tubes. The dive planes were turned downward, which indicates an extreme evasive diving maneuver. However, the length of the boat was much longer than the depth of the water, so her mobility was greatly restricted. The torpedo tube is empty, and the door is still open, which means she fired off a torpedo in her last moments, but something happened before they could move to safety and close the door.
Lagarto was struck by a perfectly timed depth charge dropped by a Japanese ship. The depth charge made contact on the port bow area that would have assailed the men in the forward torpedo room. Escape would have seemed probable given the shallow depth of the water, but all the hatches were sealed shut. It is possible the men chose drowning over being captured.
Richie Kohler, a diver who explored the aquatic tomb, summed it up perfectly.
"I believe Lagarto went down swinging," Kohler said. "I don't think that she went quietly into that good night, I think she took a bunch of swings on her way out."
"Lagarto" in Spanish means "lizard" or "lizard fish." Although it is a masculine word in Spanish, the Lagarto and all other U.S. Navy submarines were referred to in the feminine form, "she," as a term of endearment. Transposing this effeminate characteristic onto an instrument of war commands a greater respect for the vessel, as a man respects a woman. The submarine is a sacred vehicle, in a sense. Calling the submarine "she" also makes it more difficult to bear when she falls.
Revenge is translated in Spanish as "la venganza," and like the Lagarto herself, this term is also feminine.
Captain Scanland, commanding officer of USS Hawkbill, was devastated when the news of Lagarto's fate reached him and his crew during their fourth war patrol. Scanland and Latta were dear friends and he was completely crestfallen and heartbroken.
He was also angry, very, very angry and hell-bent on revenge.
Much to the convenience of Scanland and the crew, vengeance knew her target. The U.S. Navy Submarine Headquarters had identified the perpetrator as the Hatsutaka, a colossal destroyer that had the capability to drop mines.
Very much enraged but acting well to conceal it, Scanland composed a message back to headquarters at Pearl Harbor. Scanland requested permission for Hawkbill to divert patrol orders for the more important mission of avenging Lagarto. He knew the odds of his request being granted were scant. Still he had hope that his mind would be at ease as soon as there was retribution.
Then something extraordinary happened. Permission was granted.
Much to the disadvantage of the Japanese destroyer, Hawkbill knew where she was headed. Hawkbill positioned herself across the most likely track Hatsutaka would take to return home to Singapore. And there she waited.
The night is silent and sinister.
The vast darkness is accompanied by a light, misty drizzle.
The batteries are charging.
Scanland springs to his feet as the emergency buzzer sounds. He runs through the passageway, through the control room, and he is half way up the ladder to the conning tower before he realizes he is completely and utterly naked.
Although this must have been an incredibly comic scene, no one so much as smirks due to the gravity of the situation. The time had finally come to strike.
The crew is manning their battle stations. The bow torpedo tubes are ready. The target is dead straight ahead. Hawkbill is at battle surface, obscured from the view of the enemy by swirling mists and vaporous drizzle.
Scanland gives an order and three torpedoes disappear in the dark depths, target-bound, and Hawkbill moves away.
Except for the beeping of the radar, all is completely silent.
And then the men hear something.
The crew cheers and shouts triumphantly when they hear the glorious sound of a thundering explosion coupled with a bright flash coming from the stern of the enemy ship.
Celebratory cigars were lit, then quickly stubbed out.
The target is still alive.
With the sounding of enemy shots, the crew realizes they should not have celebrated so soon. Celebrating before an unwarranted victory is always bad luck.
The crew still had work to do.
Hawkbill moves away from the enemy and kept her under radar surveillance; she sinks once again and sends up the periscope to get a look at their situation.
The enemy destroyer was afloat but paralyzed.
Scanland notices a small float plane and a small power vessel moving toward the enemy target. The two vessels were attempting to pull Hatsutaka away to safety and Scanland was not going to let that happen. Hatsutaka had to be taken down to the depths.
However, another dilemma existed. Between the enemy and the Hawkbill is a large Allied-planted mine field. Hawkbill could not get any closer than 5000 yards.
But still, they had to try.
Hawkbill maneuvers as close to peril as it dares to go, and the torpedo tube is made ready. Scanland aims at the area between the enemy's two smoke stacks.
The torpedo is fired. Five minutes will pass before they know if its firing was successful. Scanland watches the path of the torpedo through the periscope during the longest five minutes of any crew member's life.
The Japanese see the torpedo moving straight toward them and in vain fire a barrage of gunfire at it. There was nothing they could do to save themselves.
Captain Scanland looks through the eyepiece at the exact moment the torpedo collided with the port side of the Hatsutaka at the exact spot he aimed for. A huge roar sounds into the infinite night and a huge blast of seawater shoots into the air.
The enemy destroyer was broken into two hulking pieces, and the pieces were beginning to sink, moving steadily to the bottom of the Gulf of Siam.
The enemy float plane and the other enemy power vessel retreat for their lives.
Lagarto had been avenged, and swiftly too. Retribution for the lives of 86 men came in just 12 days.
Closure and Honor
In May of 2005, closure was granted to the families of the fallen men of Lagarto, when their tomb was discovered on the sea floor, mummified by snared fishing nets.
A year later in May 2006, a memorial service for Lagarto was held in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Rear Adm. Jeffrey Cassias, then-commander Pacific Submarine Force spoke at the ceremony.
"In a few minutes you will witness a Navy tradition-the tolling of the bells," Cassias said. "It is a remembrance I've heard many times in my 32 years of naval service, and no matter how many times I hear it, it always fills me with emotion. Being here this weekend, and having the chance to meet so many of you...the loved ones these men left behind...will make those bells hold even greater meaning, especially when the bell rings for USS Lagarto."
The discovery of the Lagarto was a confirmation of the fate of the boat. The 86 letters to 86 families sent out in 1945 declaring the boat was missing had brought uncertainty and despair. But as the years passed, the uncertainty was gradually replaced with a strong belief that all were lost, but that belief wasn't confirmed until the day Lagarto was heard from once again. Now the families know where their loved ones lay, in a million dollar casket with plenty of company.