The Forgotten Theater U.S. Submarine Operations in the Aleutians in World War II

Photo, caption follows
by Edward C. Whitman

This 1943 view of the U.S. submarine base at Dutch Harbor, Alaska conveys the icy desolation that characterized the Aleutians campaign. Originally established as a seaplane base in the late 1930s, Dutch Harbor also had provision for six submarines by the opening of the war. As an adjunct to Admiral Yamamoto’s plan for the invasion of Midway in June 1942, the Dutch Harbor facilities were heavily damaged on the 3rd and 4th in bombing raids by carrier aircraft from IJS Ryujo and IJS Junyo.

Even as the likelihood of Japanese aggression mounted in the 1930s, Alaska and the Aleutian Island chain remained virtually undefended. Although the Aleutians themselves stretch nearly 900 nautical miles west from the tip of the Alaskan Peninsula to the outermost island of Attu – and reach to within 650 nautical miles of what was then Japan’s northernmost naval base at Paramushiro in the Kurile Islands – they seemed unlikely candidates for Japanese conquest. Cold, inhospitable, virtually unpopulated, totally lacking in any natural resources but fish, and afflicted with some of the worst weather in the world, the Aleutians held little military interest for either the United States or Japan.

The Aleutian Islands stretch 900 nautical miles westward from the Alaskan Peninsula to the outermost island of Attu, only 650 miles from what was then Japan’s northernmost naval base at Paramushiro in the Kurile Islands. The principal U.S. base was at Dutch Harbor on the island of Unalaska.

Submarines to Alaska
Even so, with the Japanese conquest of Manchuria in 1937, defense of the northeast Pacific region assumed new importance, and seaplane bases were established first at Sitka, southwest of Juneau – and later on Kodiak Island (south of the Alaskan Peninsula) and at Dutch Harbor on Unalaska in the eastern Aleutians. The last two of these were also provided with the support facilities for basing six submarines each, and by late 1941, they were ready for operation under a newly-formed Alaskan Naval Sector, part of the 13th Naval District headquartered in Seattle. When the war began, the sector commander controlled a small force of hand-me-down gunboats, two World War I destroyers, and a few Coast Guard cutters and improvised patrol craft, plus ten PBY Catalina flying boats. Meanwhile, the Army had established an Alaskan Defense Command and begun the construction of an airfield on Umnak, near Dutch Harbor, from which land-based bombers could be staged.

After Pearl Harbor – and in accordance with the Rainbow Five war plan – COMSUBPAC RADM Thomas Withers sent two older submarines, S-18 (SS-123) and S-23 (SS-128) to Alaska from the U.S. West Coast, and they arrived at Dutch Harbor on 27 January 1942. Within two weeks, they had departed on their first war patrols, defensive sweeps south of the Aleutian chain and easterly toward Kodiak Island. Although no contact was made with the enemy, the two S-boats were the first to experience the full rigor of the weather and ocean conditions that characterized Alaskan submarine operations for two miserable years. An entry in S-23’s deck log for 13 February 1942 notes:

Shipped heavy sea over bridge. All hands on bridge bruised and battered. Officer of the Deck suffered broken nose. Solid stream of water down hatch for 65 seconds. Put high pressure pump on control room bilges; dry after two hours… Barometer 29.60, thirty knot wind from northwest.

Photo, caption follows
In preparation for the U.S. invasion of Attu in May 1943, USS Narwahl (SS-167) and USS Nautilus (SS-168) carried 215 Army Scouts to the island and inserted them behind enemy lines. Here, Nautilus (formerly V-6), with Scouts and raiding craft on deck, rehearses the mission at Dutch Harbor. Earlier, in August 1942, she had joined USS Argonaut (SS-166) in bringing Carlson’s Raiders to Makin Atoll.

RADM “Fritz” Harlfinger, who served on S-boats in the Aleutians, later described how dreadful it was:

The conditions those boats endured up there are simply indescribable. It was God awful. Cold. Dreary. Foggy. Ice glaze. The periscopes froze. The decks and lifelines were caked with ice. Blizzards. You could never get a navigational fix.

Moreover, the tides, currents, and weather throughout the region were often unpredictable and frequently treacherous, and the rocks and shoals of the island-studded archipelago posed a constant danger under the usual conditions of poor visibility from driving snow and rain, particularly during the long northern nights.

After their relatively brief patrols, S-18 and S-23 returned to San Diego for an overhaul that included superstructure modifications and additional internal heating in accordance with the “lessons-learned” from their first Alaskan experience. Simultaneously, a division of six additional S-boats – originally intended for Brisbane, Australia – was redirected to Dutch Harbor. These submarines – S-30 through S-35 (SS-135 through 140) – arrived in the theater between April and August 1942, to be augmented by S-27 (SS-132) and S-28 (SS-133), which headed north from San Diego in late May. Thus, when S-18 and S-23 completed their overhauls and returned to the theater at that same time, a total of ten S-boats had been assigned to Alaskan waters. In April, on the first Dutch Harbor war patrols into Japanese territory, both S-34 and S-35 penetrated as far as Paramushiro, but despite several attacks on merchant ships, they scored no successes.

The Japanese Seize Attu and Kiska

Photo, caption follows
A squadron of PBY Catalina flying boats over an Alaskan glacier. Designed by the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation, about 4,000 Catalinas were built between 1936 and 1945 and served in every maritime theater for patrol, night bombing, and search and rescue. At the beginning of the war, ten were assigned to the Alaskan Naval Sector

Even before the Battle of the Coral Sea in early May 1942, cryptologic intelligence had revealed that Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s next major offensive in the central Pacific would be the invasion of Midway Island, some 1,100 miles west of Hawaii early in June. This main attack would be accompanied by a diversionary thrust toward the Aleutian Islands. In response to the latter, CINCPAC Admiral Chester Nimitz assigned two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and ten destroyers to a North Pacific Force under RADM Robert Theobald, who also assumed command of the existing “Alaska Navy,” including the Dutch Harbor submarines, then under CAPT Oswald Colclough.

Since RADM Theobald expected the Japanese attack – possibly including amphibious landings – to be directed against military facilities on the Alaskan Peninsula and the eastern Aleutians, he deployed his main surface force south and west of Kodiak Island during the first days of June. Of the six submarines that had already arrived in the theater, four were set to patrolling off the approaches to the expected Japanese objectives in the east and the remaining two as far west as Attu in hopes of intercepting the enemy.

In fact, RADM Theobald’s surface task force made no contact at all with the Japanese. Except for bombing raids by aircraft from the carriers IJS Ryujo and IJS Junyo on Dutch Harbor on 3 and 4 June, Japan had no designs whatsoever on the eastern Aleutians, and all along had planned only to occupy Attu, Kiska, and Adak well to the west. Several thousand miles to the south, however, the Japanese suffered a major setback in the Battle of Midway on the 4th through the 6th, and Admiral Yamamoto had nearly cancelled the Aleutian invasions. In the event, he was persuaded by his staff to proceed with the seizure of Attu and Kiska, which was accomplished without opposition on the 6th and 7th. The attempt on Adak was abandoned. Only S-34 and S-35 were in any position to oppose the Japanese landings. Both had been patrolling north of Attu since the end of May, but neither had sighted any elements of the invasion force by the time they were ordered back to Dutch Harbor on 11 June.

To consolidate their hold on Attu and Kiska, the Japanese began convoying reinforcements and supplies into the islands from Paramushiro and Ominato (on northern Hokkaido). To protect these supply lines, they formed a powerful task force around the heavy carrier Zuikaku, the light carriers Zuiho, Ryujo, and Junyo, and two battleships, which operated south of the western Aleutians until mid-July. these were discontinued in August 1942 in favor of supporting the Guadalcanal campaign, seven fleet boats had made sorties into the northern theater – in order, Growler (SS-215), Triton (SS-201), Finback (SS-230), Grunion (SS-216), Trigger (SS-237), Tuna (SS-203), and Gato (SS-212).

Of these, only Growler, Triton, and Grunion scored sinkings. The most spectacular success was achieved by Growler under LCDR Howard Gilmore – later to be awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. [Ed. Note: See “Submarine Hero – Howard Walter Gilmore” in the Summer 1999 issue of UNDERSEA WARFARE.] On 5 July, Gilmore came upon three Japanese destroyers anchored off Kiska and in his first attack of the war loosed torpedoes at all three, scoring hits on each. Growler went deep to avoid two torpedoes fired back at her, but when the smoke cleared, one of the destroyers – IJS Arare – had sunk, and the other two were so severely damaged they had to be towed back to Japan for repairs. Similarly, the day before, Triton sank another destroyer off the island of Agattu, and Grunion destroyed two patrol craft near Kiska on the 15th. Unfortunately, that same war patrol ended tragically, because contact was lost with Grunion after 30 July, and she was never heard from again.

The Travail of the S-boats

U.S. S-Class Submarines

Designed during World War I, the first several members of the S class were
commissioned in 1919 and 1920. Eventually, 51 were built in a number of variants by four different shipyards: Fore River Shipbuilding, the Lake Torpedo Boat Corporation, the Portsmouth Navy Yard, and the Union Iron Works. The last to be commissioned was S-47 (SS-158) in September 1925. (She was also one of the last to be de-commissioned, in October 1945.) Planned as a compromise between a coastal defense boat and a full-fledged fleet submarine, the S-class were powered by twin diesel engines and electric motors on two shafts. Over many re-enginings during the life of the class, per-diesel output ranged from 500 to 1,000 horsepower. Most were fitted with four 21-inch bow torpedo tubes, but several were later re-designed to add one or two stern tubes. During World War II, the S-boats carried a 4-inch deck gun and occasionally a 20-millimeter anti-aircraft gun. Although there was a great deal of variability among individual submarines, approximate general characteristics of the later ships of the class follow:

225 feet
21 feet
Draft: 17 feet
Displacement: 960 tons surfaced
1,130 tons submerged
Surface Speed: 12-14 knots
Submerged Speed:
10 knots
Surface Endurance:
3,500 nm at 6.5 knots
Submerged Endurance: 20 hours at 5 knots
Complement: 4 officers; 39 enlisted men
Photo, caption follows
Shown at Pearl Harbor in 1927, only three years after she was commissioned, USS S-18 (SS-123) was one of the first two submarines sent to Dutch Harbor in January 1942. Eventually, she made seven arduous war patrols in the Aleutians before being withdrawn from the theater and reassigned to training duties in early 1943.

The Alaska-based S-boats did even less well in the months after the Japanese invasion. In a total of 14 war patrols from Dutch Harbor targeted on Japanese shipping in the western Aleutians between July and September, no enemy sinkings were credited. Moreover, S-27 was lost to grounding on a reconnaissance mission to Amchitka Island, when an undetected current carried her onto the rocks while she was charging batteries on the surface during the night of 19 June. S-27’s Commanding Officer, Herbert Jukes, managed to get his entire crew ashore in rubber boats, and after being stranded for six days, they were discovered by a PBY and brought back to Dutch Harbor.

Built to a World War I design based on early submarine technology, the S-boats assigned to the Aleutians were 20 years old, largely worn out, and clearly regarded as “second-line” submarines. [See associated sidebar.] Powered by only two 600-horsepower diesel engines, they could make only 12-14 knots on the surface – perhaps 10 submerged on battery – and with a test depth of 200 feet, there was little margin for error. Moreover, their surface displacement of somewhat less than 1,000 tons and their low freeboard made operating in the stormy, northern waters of the Aleutians and the Bering Sea a grueling, daily challenge. Despite the electric heaters that had been installed for the northern climate, life below decks was dispiriting, cold, and wet, not only from seawater sloshing down through the conning tower, but also from the condensation of atmospheric moisture on all the metal surfaces inside.

Engine breakdowns, battery trouble, and electrical “shorts” were continuing problems, exacerbated by the age and condition of the machinery. S-35 was nearly lost in December 1942 to a chain of events that began when she took several massive waves over the bridge during a storm near Amchitka, sending tons of water into the control room and injuring her captain, LT Henry Monroe, who was forced to go below. Shortly thereafter, electrical fires broke out in both the control room and forward battery and began to spread, filling the boat with acrid smoke and forcing the engines to be shut down and the control room sealed off. The crew fought back with every trick they could think of, including bucket brigades to lower the water level, eventually restarting the engines under local control, and the boat retreated toward Dutch Harbor, fighting recurrent fires so serious that twice the crew was driven up to the bridge. After three days, they reached Adak, where assistance was available, and finally, on 29 December, under escort, S-35 made it back to Dutch Harbor and eventually to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, where she was completely overhauled – only to return to the Aleutians again six months later.

Alaskan Countermoves
As a first step in regaining the islands lost to the Japanese, the U.S. Army occupied Adak in late August 1942 and commenced building an airfield that could threaten Attu and Kiska more directly. Then, in January 1943, meeting no resistance, they invaded and secured Amchitka, only 70 miles from the latter. Pressure mounted on the two enemy-held islands with sporadic bombardments by both Army aircraft and Navy surface forces, and the Japanese began to fear that their loss could become the prelude to an invasion of the Kurile Islands from the northeast, perhaps with the intervention of Russia. Thus newly resolved to hold Attu and Kiska at all costs, they stepped up the reinforcement of their garrisons there, and in particular, sent a powerful convoy from Paramushiro, escorted by virtually the entire Japanese 5th Fleet, including two heavy cruisers. This move precipitated the Battle of the Komandorski Islands on 26 March, in which an outnumbered force of U.S. cruisers and destroyers fought a retiring action in which the heavy cruiser USS Salt Lake City (CA-25) was heavily damaged and went dead-in-the water, yet survived to fight another day. More significantly, the enemy supply ships broke off their mission and returned to Japan.

On 11 May 1943, the Army landed in force on Attu. Several days prior to the main assault, USS Narwhal (SS-167) and USS Nautilus (SS-168), coming from Dutch Harbor, had clandestinely inserted 215 officers and men of the Army’s 7th Infantry Scout Company behind enemy lines. Nonetheless, Attu was fiercely contested by the Japanese, and it wasn’t until the end of the month, when over 2,300 of their number had been lost in several suicidal “banzai” attacks, that they yielded the island to the invaders.

With Attu retaken, attention shifted to Kiska, which was blockaded by a ring of destroyers and bombed regularly, weather permitting. A powerful surface bombardment force, including several old battleships, pounded the island on 22 July, and an invasion fleet was assembled for an assault in mid-August. Meanwhile, however, the Japanese had reluctantly decided to relinquish the island, and 13 large I-class transport submarines were assembled to evacuate the garrison. This plan was revealed to the U.S. high command in a series of cryptologic intercepts, and after seven of the 13 I-boats were lost or crippled in evacuating only 820 men, that approach was abandoned. Instead, on 28 July, under a heavy fog, the Japanese managed to sneak in two light cruisers and six destroyers and spirit away the remaining 5,200 personnel without being detected by the waiting Americans. When the latter came ashore after heavy bombardment on 16 August, they found Kiska entirely abandoned. The Japanese had held the western Aleutians for only 13 months.

Photo, caption follows
U.S. Army troops land in force at Massacre Bay, Attu, on 12 May 1943. Defended with suicidal tenacity by the Japanese garrison, the island was not finally secured until the end of that month.

Last Operations in Northern Waters
In preparation for the retaking of Attu and Kiska, seven more S-boats (S-40, S-41, S-42, S-44, S-45, S-46, S-47) had been ordered north in the spring of 1943 and trickled into Dutch Harbor between May and December. Until August, the Dutch Harbor boats concentrated on the supply lines between Japan and the western Aleutians, but after the re-conquest of Attu and Kiska, the emphasis shifted to more general hunting expeditions in the northern Kuriles. Again, little was achieved. The 24 war patrols mounted from Dutch Harbor between May 1943 and the end of the year – generally about a month long but as much as 40 days – produced only four enemy victims totaling some 13,000 tons, all Japanese merchant ships sunk near Paramushiro. S-28, S-30, S-35, and S-41 (SS-146) were the lucky boats, but S-44 (SS-155), caught on the surface by a Japanese destroyer on 7 October during her first Alaskan patrol, was lost with all hands save two crewmembers, who survived to became prisoners of war for the duration.

At the end of 1943 with the end of a credible Japanese threat to the Aleutians, COMSUBPAC RADM Charles Lockwood finally acknowledged the futility of sending the Dutch Harbor submarines into harm’s way for so little return, and he ordered the remaining S-boats withdrawn from Alaska and for the most part assigned to training duties in both the Southwest Pacific and home waters. In the very last war patrol mounted from Dutch Harbor, S-45 (SS-156) left the submarine base there on New Year’s Eve and returned to Attu at the end of January 1944, before departing for San Diego and a general overhaul. And thus ended the U.S. submarine campaign in the Aleutians.

It had to have been the worst duty in the world. The privation, hardship, and danger endured by the more than 1,000 U.S. submariners who served in the Aleutians during 1942 and 1943 – most of them in small, obsolete, and worn-out boats – were never repaid by the spectacular success later achieved by submarines in the wider Pacific conflict. Only nine confirmed kills were scored in over 80 war patrols conducted in the Alaskan theater in those years – and four of these were claimed by Pearl Harbor-based fleet boats, which accounted for only one eighth of the total sorties. On the negative side of the ledger, two S-boats – S-27 and S-44 – and one fleet boat – Grunion – were lost, two with virtually all hands. In retrospect it is an extraordinary tribute to the seamanship, dedication, and perseverance of the men who suffered and died there that an even larger toll of ships and men was not exacted by the many perils of the williwaw, the frozen and desolate islands, and those awful seas.

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