image of USS Bowfin

“Yesterday,
December seventh 1941,
a date which will live in
infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

by Thomas Holian

With these famous words, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt served notice to the world that the previous day’s surprise attack on America’s Pacific fleet would not go unanswered. Japan had dealt a severe blow to the fleet; by the end of the day of the attack, five battleships were sunk or sinking, three destroyers were wrecked, a minelayer and target ship had capsized, two cruisers were heavily damaged, and many other ships were in need of serious repairs. Navy and Army aviation, Pearl Harbor’s air cover, was decimated. In all, the attack left 2,403 Americans dead and 1,178 wounded.

Grievous though the attack was, it was not a complete victory for Japan. The Imperial Forces failed to inflict any damage on Pearl Harbor’s aircraft carriers, all of which were at sea, and did not target fuel storage and maintenance facilities, most cruisers and destroyers, and submarines. Submarines in particular were to play a decisive role in the upcoming war in the Pacific.

In the aftermath of the assault, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who was responsible for the idea of the surprise attack, is credited with saying “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” Although it has not been historically proven that he ever uttered or wrote these words, the sentiment holds true: the attack had a galvanizing affect on the American public, and the United States quickly mobilized for entry into World War II. Only eight days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Portsmouth Navy Yard was ordered to begin construction on the new Balao-class fleet submarine. The third boat of the class, christened USS Bowfin (SS-287), was launched on
Dec. 7, 1942 – one year to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In honor of this historic coincidence, and with hopes for future wartime success, she was given the nickname the “Pearl Harbor Avenger.”

Bowfin, under the command of Cdr. Joseph H. Willingham, Jr., arrived at Brisbane, Australia, on Aug. 10, 1943 in preparation for her first war patrol. A month and a half later she drew her first blood when she and USS Billfish (SS-286) launched a coordinated submerged attack on a large convoy on September 25. Bowfin was assigned responsibility for five ships, and managed to sink two, a cargo ship and a tanker, while setting another tanker ablaze. This skirmish was quickly followed two days later by a failed attack on an inter-island steamer due to the receding light of dusk and the desperate maneuvering of the steamer’s crew. Following the successful torpedo attack, Bowfin was quick to show her versatility when she sank two small vessels, one carrying about 100 enemy troops on Sept. 30, and a dual-mast schooner on Oct. 2, all with her deck guns while transiting the Celebes Sea.

USS Bowfin (SS-287) was launched on Dec. 7, 1942—
one year to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In honor of this historic coincidence, and with hopes for future wartime success, she was given the nickname the “Pearl Harbor Avenger.”

While on her first patrol, Bowfin took part in two secret missions in the Philippines, which had been occupied by the Japanese. The first consisted of a rendezvous with Philippine guerrilla fighters just offshore in Liaugan Bay, Mindanao, to deliver much needed medical supplies, radio transmitters, ammunition, money, and other supplies. The second secret mission took place at the same location on the return trip from the South China Sea. This time, Bowfin took aboard nine guerrillas who had been selected by their superior officers for transport to Australia. One of the nine, Samuel C. Grashio, was a U.S. Army Air Corps fighter pilot until he was captured by the Japanese on Bataan. Grashio survived the infamous “Death March” and three different prison camps before escaping from the Davao Penal Colony with a group of ten other prisoners of war and two Philippine convicts, then joining the Philippine guerrilla movement.

The limitations of World War II-era submarine technology often caused sailors to find themselves practically stumbling into extremely dangerous situations. On Nov. 26, on her second patrol, Bowfin was running on the surface off the coast of Vietnam in the middle of a pitch-black rainstorm. Nearly blind, Bowfin suddenly found herself in the middle of a Japanese convoy and had to back all engines to avoid ramming a tanker. Despite the shock of the near-collision, the crew managed to sink two Japanese ships in a surface torpedo attack. Staying with the convoy, Bowfin submerged, and after a two-hour stalk, she sank the Vichy French coastal steamer Van Vollenhoven. This afforded Bowfin the rare distinction of featuring a French tricolor on her own battleflag. During the battle, one of the Japanese ships scored hits on Bowfin, opening leaks in her starboard induction line. The submarine’s crew still managed to fire their last two torpedoes, but they exploded prematurely. Daylight repairs the following morning could not fully stem the flooding, and Bowfin was forced to return to Fremantle. En route, Bowfin’s new commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Walter Thomas Griffith, sighted a “two masted yacht…which…looked like it might have been some planter’s yacht taken over by the Japs.” Bowfin quickly sank the yacht with her deck guns, and returned to base at Fremantle.

As a result of her early success, Bowfin was by this point beginning to earn quite a reputation. Her second patrol garnered Griffith the Navy Cross, and the boat and crew were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. Perth-based Rear Adm. Ralph Waldo Christie, Commander, U.S. Submarine Force, Southwest Pacific (ComSubSoWesPac), praised the patrol as the “classic of all submarine patrols.” In fact, Christie was so taken with Bowfin’s performance (and also desiring to see the Navy’s notoriously unreliable torpedoes firsthand) that he boarded the boat at Darwin in the middle of her third war patrol, in defiance of his superior officers’ denials of his repeated requests to do so. Thus, Bowfin became the first U.S. submarine to host a force commander and the first to host a flag officer on a war patrol. Christie acted as a watch officer whenever possible to rest sailors needed for exhausting night attacks, and even served as OOD (Officer of the Deck) during a night surface attack.

Bowfin, it seems, had a special affinity for singular targets. On Aug. 10, 1944, during her sixth patrol, the submarine followed a three-ship convoy into Minami Daito Dock. There, her crew sank two ships, the dock, a crane, and a bus that was being boarded by Japanese sailors. Accordingly, in addition to the French flag representing the Vichy French Van Vollenhoven, Bowfin’s battleflag features a flag depicting a crane and a bus on a dock. Twelve days later, on Aug. 22, the crew made a night attack on convoy of three cargo ships and two destroyer escorts, sinking all five vessels. Due to the crew’s impressive efforts, Bowfin was awarded the Navy Unit Commendation. Bowfin was one of only five vessels in the entire U.S. Navy to earn both the Presidential Unit Citation and the Navy Unit Commendation.

Historic as this sixth patrol was, it also demonstrated the true horrors of war. Not until twenty years after the end of World War II did Bowfin’s crew learn that one of the unmarked, unlighted passenger-cargo targets sunk on the night of Aug. 22 was the Tsushima Maru, loaded with 826 children. The children, along with several teachers and parents, were being transported from Okinawa to the mainland of Japan in anticipation of a U.S. invasion of the Ryukyu Islands. Of the children on the doomed vessel, 767 were lost and only 59 were saved. Survivors of the sinking were forbidden by the Japanese government to speak of the incident under threat of extreme punishment.

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