Appendices - Hirohito's War
APPENDIX A: SUBMARINES - THE UNDERSEA WAR
Newport Torpedo Station Scandal: If Japan’s submarine force performed poorly in the Pacific War, the US submarine force’s performance was equally lamentable, perhaps worse, in the first eighteen months of the conflict. “We had the greatest concentration of submarines in the world,” recalled war correspondent Hanson Baldwin, “but we didn’t do a thing!”21
In the initial phases of the Pacific War the main problem for Nimitz and his submarine force was that there were just fifty-three mainly obsolete S-Class American submarines in the whole of the Pacific region. With the Battle of the Atlantic in full flow the priority for supply of new submarines was the war in Europe. With the need to supply both Great Britain and Russia, Germany’s U-Boat posed a credible threat to the logistical chain that kept America’s allies in the war.
What submarines were available to the US in the Pacific were ordered to Brisbane, Australia after the fall of the Philippines. Captain Ralph Christie, stationed in the Atlantic with S-Class submarines was ordered to join them and set up a command base. Under his direction US submarines were designed mainly as scouts. It was a strategy in keeping with pre-war orthodoxy. Pre-war training had over-emphasized the ability of planes and destroyers to track down submarines using sonar. By contrast Nimitz’s submarines based in Hawaii were ordered to target Japanese capital ships.
Leadership was also a problem. Until the development of wolf-packs (groups of submarines) each submarine operated alone and depended heavily on the skill and determination of its commander. When war arrived, it was found that a high percentage were not up to the job. During 1942 alone Admiral Lockwood removed 30 percent of all submarine commanders. The removal rate fell to 7 percent per annum in the following two years. Unlike in the German Navy, US commanders were not trained in nighttime attack from which their enemies had yielded good results. Furthermore the standard training manual recommended sound (sonar) attacks rather than sight attacks using periscopes. The latter was a far more reliable system.
As a result, in the first eighteen months of the war, the US submarine fleet was anything but successful. But the main reasons for this was neither strategic nor due to poor leadership. It became quickly apparent that the Mark XIV torpedo did not work. In Brisbane, Christie, whose S Class submarines were still using the Mark X torpedo of World War I vintage, disputed the causes of the failure of the new torpedo. Perhaps this was not surprising as Christie, after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, joined project G-53, which the Bureau of Ordnance had initiated to develop a magnetic exploder for torpedoes. The German Navy had developed magnetic mines in World War I and in the post-war period both Britain and Germany further developed magnetic devices. By firing a torpedo to explode underneath the hull of an enemy ship, a powerful gas bubble would force itself upwards and rip apart the hull at a point that was weaker than the more heavily plated sides of an enemy warship.
Having developed the Mark VI magnetic exploder, Christie, at the Newport Torpedo Station, was also involved in the design and manufacture of the Mark XIV torpedo to carry the new exploder. Remarkably, because of obfuscation by the Navy Department, the Mark VI exploder and Mark XIV torpedo were never live tested before they were put into service. One of the reasons for this was the tiny production volume of the Mark XIV. Submarine captains were ordered to hold back on firing spreads (numbers of torpedoes fired in a spread pattern) on targets because of the shortage of stock – a problem that had been massively exacerbated by the monopoly that Newport Torpedo Station exercised on the production of torpedoes and the antiquated hand-built production techniques that they employed. The result of protective monopolistic practice and outdated manufacturing processes was that in 1941 each torpedo cost US$10,000 (US$150,000 in 2015 terms). Small wonder that Newport did not live-test their products.
After reports that the Mark XIVs were running too deep, Christie, in Brisbane, disputed the extent of the problem and blamed malfunctions on poor maintenance and operational mistakes. Submarines were ordered to persist with the Mark XIV. Much to his annoyance in November 1942, Christie, promoted to the rank of rear-admiral, was ordered to return to Newport as Inspector of Ordnance, to solve the problems of manufacture and reliability. It did not help that officials at the Newport Torpedo Station, in attempting to cover the tracks of their incompetence, consistently lied about the issues of depth setting and the non-working of both magnetic and contact exploders.
Almost uniquely with regard to American weapons procurement, the Navy was its own supplier. On the grounds of security Newport Torpedo Station fiercely protected its monopoly position. It was protected by the Bureau of Ordnance, known as BuOrd, whose power, supported by Congressional influence, notably from Rhode Island’s legislators, was largely untouchable by the Navy’s top commanders. Even when Admiral Charles Lockwood managed to get experienced submarine officers appointed to Newport, they were ignored. An exasperated Lockwood wrote to Rear-Admiral William ‘Spike’ Blandy, Newport chief, to get BuOrd “off its duff (buttocks).”22 Later revelations showed that it was a corrupt self-serving bureaucracy. It was only when Admiral King in Washington took a direct interest in the matter and appointed the Navy Inspector General’s office to investigate BuOrd and Newport in 1943 that major changes began to be made.
Remarkably Newport’s commanding officer, Rear-Admiral William ‘Spike’ Blandy’s career was unaffected by the disastrous Mark XIV torpedo episode which not only disadvantaged US submariners but pointlessly sacrificed the lives of torpedo crews at the Battle of Midway. It was a scandal that was largely covered up until after the war. Full attention only came to the scandal and its cover-up after publication of World War II submariner, Clay Blair’s Silent Victory: The Submarine War Against Japan .
President Roosevelt was never drawn into the internal conflict. He had unfortunate history with regard to Navy affairs in Newport. In March 1919, Roosevelt, then Secretary of the Navy, had ordered an investigation into institutional naval homosexual practice centered on the Army and Navy YMCA and the Newport Art Club. After a three-week trial in which thirteen sailors were found guilty of sodomy, Roosevelt came under attack for the methods used by the investigators and ultimately resigned his position. He was subsequently reprimanded by a US Senate Committee.