On the China Patrol Asiatic Fleet Submarines Between the Wars.


Photo of USS A-2. Caption follows.
USS A-2 (SS-3, formerly Adder) was designed by John Holland and launched at the Crescent Shipyard in Elizabethport, New Jersey in 1901. A-2 was shipped to the Philippines in 1909 and served in the defense of Manila Bay until 1919. The two tall “masts” are actually fixed periscopes.

By Edward C. Whitman

With the “opening” of China to the west in the early 19th century, American traders and missionaries were quick to join their European counterparts in expanding commerce and seeking Christian converts, both in coastal ports and along the large inland rivers of that Asian nation. With the Treaty of Wangsia in 1844, the Chinese imperial government granted the United States both “most-favored nation” trade status and the privilege of “extraterritoriality” for U.S. citizens living and working in China. Within a decade, U.S. warships had begun “protecting American interests” with port calls along the China coast and occasional forays up the Yangtse River from a newly established U.S. “concession” at Shanghai. To provide a more permanent far-eastern “presence,” the U.S. Asiatic Squadron was formed just after the Civil War with five ships. Ultimately, Navy gunboats and U.S. Marines would play a major role in the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

First Submarines to Manila 
The successful outcome of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and the subsequent acquisition of the Philippine Islands gave the United States an even greater stake in the western Pacific. Accordingly, the Navy established a major operating base and repair facility at Cavite in Manila Bay, which would serve the Asiatic Squadron and its successor, the Asiatic Fleet, until the beginning of World War II. At the turn of the 20th century, the Asiatic Squadron consisted largely of a handful of ex-Spanish gunboats – prizes from the recent war with Spain – several light cruisers, and two monitors. Within only two years of the end of the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Navy’s first submarine, USS Holland (SS-1) had joined the fleet, and by 1908 there were a dozen in commission, all built to John Holland’s basic design and powered by gasoline engines. Moreover, as a result of America’s growing interest in the western Pacific, two of these early boats – A-6 (originally USS Porpoise, SS-7) and A-7 (originally USS Shark, SS-8) – arrived in the Philippines in July of that year as deck cargo on the collier USS Caesar (AC-16). This was the very first overseas deployment by U.S. submarines. In October 1909, they were joined by A-2 (originally USS Adder, SS-3) and A-4 (originally USS Moccasin, SS-5), also carried across the Pacific in Caesar’s well deck, and collectively they constituted the First Submarine Division of the Asiatic Torpedo Fleet, based at Cavite and Olongapo.

One can hardly imagine what it must have been like to take these submarines to sea in the tropical climate of the Philippine Islands. Displacing only 107 tons (surfaced) on a length of 64 feet, they were terrible sea boats under any but the calmest conditions and then could only make eight knots on the surface. Additionally, their primitive gasoline engines – rated at only 180 horsepower – and fumes from their volatile fuel created a serious danger of both fire and asphyxiation. Gasoline “jags” – a form of intoxication – were a common occupational hazard on gasoline-powered submarines, and one rudimentary safety precaution was to carry a small cage of mice in the engine room as a warning indicator, somewhat like canaries in a coal mine. In any event, the conning tower hatch was normally left open for ventilation when running on the surface, and the water that was shipped down the trunk made the A-boats damp and uncomfortable inside. For this reason, when these early submarines were in port, the officers and crew generally lived onboard the local station ship, such as the gunboat USS Elcano (PG-38), which served in that capacity at Cavite for several years. 

Photo of various submarines docked at Olongapo in the Philippine islands. Caption follows.
From left to right, USS A-6 (SS-7, formerly Porpoise), USS A-4 (SS-5, formerly Pike), and USS A-2 (SS-3, formerly Adder) in the large “Dewey” floating dock at Olongapo, Philippine Islands, circa 1912. To the left is the bow of USS Mohican, which was built as a steam sloop-of-war in 1883 and served as a submarine tender in the Philippines until 1915.

By March 1915, the Asiatic Fleet submarine force consisted of nine boats – A-2 through A-7 and B-1 through B-3 – and after the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the squadron was assigned to patrol the Manila Bay area and to protect allied shipping against the unlikely threat of German merchant raiders – which indeed never materialized. Although the war years were relatively uneventful for the Manila-based submarines, their gasoline-fueled engines continued to threaten both ships and their crews. In July 1917, for example, gasoline fumes exploded on A-7 during a patrol in Manila Bay, and seven men died in the ensuing fire, including the Commanding Officer, LTJG Arnold Marcus, who stayed at the helm in an attempt to beach the ship. After the war, when the A- and B-boats began reaching the end of their useful service lives, they were gradually withdrawn from the Far Eastern force, leaving only four in operation at the end of 1919. The last of these were phased out in late 1921, with virtually all expended as targets. They were soon replaced by more modern units.

S-Boats and the “China Navy” 
In December 1921, ten new diesel-powered S-class boats – Submarine Divisions 12 and 18 – arrived in Cavite, having sailed across the Pacific from the West Coast in company with the submarine tender USS Rainbow (AS-7). Also pressed into service as a Manila Bay tender at that same time was the minesweeper USS Finch (AM-9), herself newly arrived from California. Of interest is the apparent attempt, even then, to maintain homogeneity of design within each division: SUBDIV 12 (S-4, S-6, S-7, S-8, and S-9) consisted entirely of boats commissioned at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard between late 1919 and early 1921, whereas the submarines of SUBDIV 18 (S-2, S-14, S-15, S-16, and S-17) were all Lake Torpedo Boat Company progeny commissioned in 1920 and 1921. 

Image of a map showing China, Japan and the Philippine regions. Caption follows.
This map illustrates the principal operating area of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet prior to World War II. During this era, U.S. submarines were based at Cavite and Olongapo near Manila but made regular excursions to the indicated ports on the Chinese coast.

This augmentation of the Manila-based submarine force coincided with a general build-up of 
the U.S. Asiatic Fleet in response to growing unrest and increasing threats to American lives and property in China. The regional turmoil that followed the Chinese revolution in 1911 soon devolved into the country-wide depredations of the so-called “Warlord Period” (1916-1928), 
during which local leaders contended ruthlessly for power, and the struggle between what 
would later become the Nationalist and Communist actions first began to coalesce. The U.S. Navy had formally organized the Yangtse and South China Patrols in 1919, and two years 
later, the administrative and logistics base of the former had been moved from Shanghai far upriver to Hankow, now Wuhan. Additionally, the Asiatic Fleet established a major presence 
on the northeastern coast of China by establishing forward bases at Tsingtao (for several light cruisers) and at Chefoo, now Yentai (for the Asiatic destroyer flotilla). During the 1920s and 
into the following decade, these ships would normally operate in the winter months from Manila – near their key maintenance facilities at Cavite – but then out of the north China ports and along the Chinese coast from approximately May until late October. Throughout this period – but particularly in 1926 and 1927 – civic unrest and recurring armed threats against foreign nationals and their concessions ashore required frequent naval intervention and shows of force. (This is the situation portrayed in Richard McKenna’s classic novel, The Sand Pebbles, and the popular movie that resulted from it.) 

Photo of deck guns on various submarines. Caption follows.
Pictured here are S-36 (SS-141), S-37 (SS-142), S-39 (SS-144), S-41 (SS-146), and an unidentified boat of SUBDIV 17 alongside USS Canopus (AS-9) at Tsingtao, China, circa 1930. All commissioned in the early 1920s, the San Francisco-built S-boats of SUBDIV 17 came to the Philippines in 1924 and stayed until driven out by the Japanese at the beginning of World War II. The prominent deck guns are 4-inch/50 caliber.

Not surprisingly, the Asiatic Fleet submarine force soon became part of “the China Navy” also, and in October 1922, a flotilla consisting of both SUBDIV 12 and SUBDIV 18 representatives made their first brief port call on the Asian mainland – visiting Hong Kong. Subsequently, the submarines and their accompanying tenders would normally mirror the deployments of the Asiatic Fleet cruisers and destroyers, spending winters at Manila and summers on the China coast, operating largely from Tsingtao and Chefoo, but also calling at Shanghai, Amoy, and Chinwangtao. 

In October 1924, SUBDIVs 12 and 18 returned to the United States and were relieved a month later by the six S-boats of SUBDIV 17 and their tender USS Canopus (AS-9). This new division – S-36 through S-41 – was also a homogeneous group: All had been built by the Union Iron Works in San Francisco. They were joined in July 1925 by another six San Francisco-built boats – SUBDIV 16, consisting of S-30 through S-35 and their tender USS Beaver (AS-5). The two new divisions entered quickly into the routine of wintering in the Philippines and “showing the flag” along the China coast during the summer. In his first-person account of that era, Yangtse Patrol (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1971), RADM (ret.) Kemp Tolley recalls 

...on 8 April [1932], the old submarine tender Canopus shoved off from Manila and wallowed up the China coast, via Hong Kong, Amoy, and Shanghai, en route to the summer operating grounds off Tsingtao. This annual trek was described in musical detail by a favorite old Far East ditty which began, “Oh! We’ll all go up to China in the springtime!” 

The Canopus could make eight knots. Her tender old hull, topped by a towering deckhouse, took a permanent port or starboard list, depending on the wind. Chugging along astern came five obsolete S-class submarines, the sixth of her brood having been left behind at Cavite for overhaul. 


When the Canopus reached Hong Kong, the British Navy threw a welcoming party aboard the submarine tender Medway. During the festivities, dress uniforms suffered in charging manned barricades of furniture, or in skinning the cat on wardroom overhead piping. The Americans played a return engagement ashore in the Hong Kong Hotel, known locally as “The Grips.” There, $350 worth of round, marble-topped tables were surveyed by rolling them down the stairs. Several pedestrians were near-missed by large potted plants dropped from the third floor balcony, until imperturbable Sikh policemen had cleared the area of strollers. In such tribal rites, the Far East submarine forces of two great navies celebrated the semiannual ceremony of becoming blood brothers.

Photo of the USS Sealion. Caption follows.
Built by Electric Boat and commissioned in November 1939, the new “fleet” submarine USS Sealion (SS-195) arrived in the Philippines from Pearl Harbor a year later – and was destroyed in a Japanese bombing raid on the Cavite Navy Yard on 10 December 1941. She was the first U.S. submarine lost in World War II.

In retrospect, one can only speculate on the operational or tactical role expected of the Asiatic submarine force in the 1920s and early 1930s. Originally intended for harbor defense at Manila, the earlier boats – with their strictly limited capabilities – had little potential for substantive tactical integration with the Asiatic Fleet’s cruisers and destroyers, particularly since the latter were engaged largely in maintaining “presence” in the Far East and responding to contingencies in China. Too lightly manned to organize credible landing parties, and in any event restricted to the coastal ports, the U.S. submarines may well have attracted some respectful attention during their annual forays to the Chinese mainland, but in that status-conscious region – where reputedly the intimidating effect of a gunboat depended largely on the height of its smokestack – they could not have had much influence. Nonetheless, the operating experience gained in East Asian waters by both officers and crews proved invaluable when the Pacific boiled over in the next decades. 

The Gathering Storm and the End of an Era
In May 1932, SUBDIV 16 and Beaver returned to Pearl Harbor, leaving only the six 
submarines of SUBDIV 17 and Canopus to weather the storm clouds gathering over Asia in 
the mid-1930s. They would remain on station until the U.S. Navy was driven out of the Philippines by the Japanese at the beginning of World War II, and in fact, Canopus was 
scuttled there in early 1942.

The first clear demonstration of Japan’s aggressive intentions in East Asia came in September 1931, when a rogue Japanese general and his army invaded Manchuria and presented his own government with a fait accompli. Subsequently, Japan set up a puppet government there in what they then called “Manchukuo,” attacked Chinese forces from the Japanese concession at Shanghai in 1932, and settled into a de facto, but relatively quiescent, state of war with the divided Chinese nation. Increasingly, the U.S. Asiatic Fleet – and particularly the Yangtse Patrol – was called on to protect American citizens and national interests from Japanese incursions. 

By provoking an incident at the Marco Polo Bridge near Peking on 7 July 1937, the Japanese created a pretext for beginning unrestricted warfare on China. Their rapid military gains in north-central China culminated in the infamous “Rape of Nanking” in mid-December 1937 and the “accidental” sinking of the river gunboat USS Panay (PR-5) near that city only days before. As tensions mounted in the Far East and the likelihood of conflict with Japan increased relentlessly, the Asiatic Fleet moved closer and closer to a war footing in accordance with its expected role in the “Rainbow Five” war plan, which envisioned fighting a holding action in the Philippines against superior Japanese forces. 

Photo of the Cavite Navy Yard in Manila Bay. Caption follows. Photo of the USS Beaver with other boats alongside. Caption follows.
The Navy established the Cavite Navy Yard in Manila Bay shortly after acquiring the Philippines in the Spanish-American War. Cavite became one if the Asiatic Fleet’s major operating bases and repair facilities in the decades following World War I but was destroyed by Japanese air attacks in the first week after Pearl Harbor. This aerial view was taken in the 1930s. USS Beaver (AS-5) at Olongapo in March 1929, with the six boats of SUBDIV 16 – S-30 (SS-135) through S-35 (SS-140) – nested alongside. SUBDIV 16 served in the Philippines between July 1925 and May 1932. Beaver was built in 1910 and acquired by the Navy for use as a tender in 1917. After an eventful career that included servicing submarines in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, late in World War II’s Aleutians campaign, she was decommissioned in July 1946.

In July 1939, two months before the outbreak of World War II in Europe, Admiral Thomas Hart relieved Admiral Harry Yarnell as Commander, Asiatic Fleet, and faced with the growing threat, called immediately for reinforcements. In October, a month after Hitler rolled into Poland, the first fruits of that request arrived at Cavite: SUBDIV 14 from San Diego and Pearl Harbor, consisting of seven transitional “P”-class boats – Permit, Perch, Pickerel, Porpoise, Pike, Shark, and Tarpon. With the six old S-boats of SUBDIV 17, this made 13 submarines at Manila. 

Although until the late-1930s the Manila-based boats continued to go through the motions of visiting China during the summer months, Japanese encroachments down the Chinese coast made their presence increasingly untenable as the decade wore on. Bowing to the reality of the strategic situation, the Asiatic submarine force made its last deployment to Tsingtao between April and June 1940, and in October of that year, Admiral Hart withdrew all his surface units – except for the Yangtse and South China gunboats – from the mainland, reestablished his headquarters at Manila, and concentrated on preparing to defend the Philippine Islands. 

In November 1940, four new fleet submarines – Seadragon, Sealion, Searaven, and Seawolf – arrived from Pearl Harbor to augment Hart’s submarine force. A year later, as Japanese intentions became more and more unmistakable, Submarine Divisions 15 and 16 – 12 Salmon (SS-182)-class fleet boats – were also transferred from the Hawaiian Islands. This yielded a total of 29 Asiatic Fleet submarines at Manila on the eve of Pearl Harbor, organized in five divisions, which were re-numbered SUBDIVs 21, 22, 201, 202, and 203. This considerable force was supported by two tenders and a converted merchant ship: the venerable Canopus, USS Holland (AS-3), and USS Otus (later AS-20), respectively. 

On 18 November 1941, in the face of increasingly more urgent war warnings, Admiral Hart ordered the last of the China gunboats out of the country, and they began withdrawing down the rivers and across the seas to the Philippines. On 23 November, the supply depot at Hankow was liquidated, and on 5 December, the Yangtse Patrol was officially disestablished, thus ending a century-old tradition. By that time, Hart had already ordered virtually all of his surface forces south to the Malay Barrier to put them out of range of Japanese bombers on Formosa. Thus, at Manila, there remained only the submarine force to counter the Japanese juggernaut when it erupted southward on 8 December. For most of their idyllic 35 years in the Far East, the test of war had remained only a distant prospect for the submariners of the Asiatic Fleet. Suddenly they were in the middle of it. 

Dr. Whitman is the Senior Editor for 
UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine.

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