Prepare for Collision! The Ramming of the USS Growler and a Japanese Gunboat

Today’s post is by Nathanial Patch, Reference Archivist and Subject Matter Expert for Navy Records at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

January 1943, while on her fourth war patrol, the USS Growler (SS 215) from Brisbane, Australia, had been patrolling the sea lanes to Rabaul on the western end of New Ireland, she encountered a fatal missed opportunity. The area had been active and alerted to the presence of an American submarine prowling around. The Growler had been successful in sinking a ship on January 15, and two more merchant vessels on January 16. The Japanese convoys were escorted with patrol craft and destroyers. With each attack, the Growler was responded to in kind with shots fired and depth charges dropped, forcing the submarine to submerge and withdraw.[i]

U.S.S. Growler, Report of Fourth War Patrol, Page 1, (National Archives ID 74818721).

On the afternoon of January 31, the Growler had taken up a position to watch the sea lanes near the Hermit Islands, west northwest from Rabaul. Smoke from a ship was spotted on the horizon and Commander Howard W. Gilmore changed course in pursuit of a possible new target. While running on the surface, the Growler caught up with the ship, and when the ship’s masts could be seen, they submerged. The target turned out to be a 2,500 ton converted gun boat with a 3” inch gun and depth charges.[ii]

The Growler submerged to periscope depth to make a submerged attack at a range of 800 yards and fired a torpedo at the gun boat. Assuming the ship had a 10 foot draft, he had the torpedo set for a depth of 0 feet. Meaning, the special magnetic detonator on the torpedo would explode just underneath the ship because she had a shallow draft.

Prior to World War II, the US Navy developed these magnetic exploders thinking it would be more efficient to have a torpedo explode underneath, where it could crack the keel of the ship, rather than use several torpedoes to blow holes in the sides of ships. Due to several design oversights, this miracle weapon was not living up to its promise. Commander Gilmore monitored as the torpedo headed towards the gun boat; hot, straight and normal. He could see through the periscope the crew of the gun boat watch the torpedo as it approached. Together they watched as it sailed harmlessly under the ship.[iii] 

The gun boat swung towards the submarine, and the Growler pulled the plug and went deep.  The Japanese tossed two depth charges for the offense of shooting at them and moved on.[iv] This was how the fourth war patrol of the USS Growler went. Despite sinking three ships up to this point, those successes were intermingled with countless failed attempts to attack other convoys where fate looked ill upon CDR Gilmore and frustratingly deprived him of contact with the enemy. How much worse could it possibly get? Even though the submarine eventually returned to Brisbane after this patrol, it still got pretty bad.


What follows is the fateful story of the USS Growler, a United States Navy submarine that patrolled the waters off Rabaul, in the Southwest Pacific, during World War II and a near fatal encounter that it had with the Japanese, damaging the submarine in a collision, the death of the bridge crew in the ensuing gun battle, and the dramatic sacrifice of her commander. The details of this story are revealed in the Submarine War Patrol Reports (National Archive ID 305243) and the World War II Action and Operational Reports (National Archives ID 305236) from the Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (Record Group 38), in the custody of the National Archives. The 4th War Patrol Report for the USS Growler (National Archive ID 74818721) is digitized and available online.

The Growler, a Gato-class fleet submarine built in Groton, CT, by the Electric Boat Company was one of many new submarines ordered prior to World War II and completed shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

To wage a subsurface war against Japan, three major submarine bases were set up: in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, for the Central Pacific, at Dutch Harbor, Alaska, for the North Pacific, and in Brisbane, Australia, for the Southwest Pacific. The Growler, along with other submarines old and new, were sent to Commander, Submarine Forces, Southwest Pacific to attack the Japanese merchant fleet. Sent out from Brisbane, Australia on January 1, 1943, the Growler had a patrol in the shipping lanes near the Japanese fortress of Rabaul. This area was known for Japanese shipping and prime for targets for American submarines because the Japanese were still recoiling from the loss of Guadalcanal and wanted to deter the American advance up the Solomon Island chain. Soldiers and material were being sent to Truk and Rabaul to reinforce and possibly repel the Americans. 

The USS Growler was under the command of CDR Howard W. Gilmore, USN. His Executive Officer was Lieutenant Commander Arnold. F. Schade. CDR Gilmore, a native of Alabama, became a commissioned officer from the US Naval Academy in 1922 and entered the Submarine Force in 1930. Prior to the beginning of World War II, Gilmore had been the Executive Officer and in 1941, became the Commanding Officer of the USS Shark (SS 174). The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, CDR Gilmore was given the command of the newly constructed USS Growler.  LCDR Schade was from Stamford, CT and graduated from the Naval Academy in 1933. He entered the Submarine Force in 1935 after graduating from Sub School. 

Australia was an ideal base of operations during the Pacific War, but for submariners getting to and from patrol areas it took a long time to sail up the coast from Brisbane. In the case of the Growler, shehad departed Brisbane on January 1 and arrived on station on January 11, on the western edge of her patrol area near New Ireland.

The patrol began with Growler locating a number of patrol vessels and several merchant vessels.  The merchant vessels and oil tankers Growler encountered were aggressively zig-zagging with good escort coverage. On January 16, Growler damaged the lead ship of one of two columns of an eight ship convoy with two torpedoes, but her firing position placed her within 400 yards of an escorting destroyer, which then promptly took chase. Between the destroyer, a patrol boat, and two patrol planes, the Growler was held at bay while the remaining ships of the convoy scattered. There were no more attacks on that convoy. The Japanese, aware of an American submarine in the area, began to actively search for the predator. 

Growler moved on to a new area where the Japanese were not actively searching. For the next several days, no viable targets materialized, and the Growler moved around several approaches to Rabaul that had reports of heavy traffic, and moved up and down New Ireland inspecting straits between nearby islands. There were very few targets, and persistent rain was making it difficult to spot enemy ships.

On the night of January 26, the Growler spotted two patrol boats escorting a merchant ship. Trying to establish a firing solution while submerged proved to be frustrating as the convoy slipped away. To establish a better firing position, Growler surfaced and ran on the surface at full speed to not only catch up with the convoy, but to get ahead of it to make her shot. Within minutes, the patrol vessels began firing on the exposed submarine. She was unable or unwilling to return fire because the bridge could not get a good fix on the patrol vessels position. Visibility was poor because the bright moon cast a cloud shadow, obscuring the patrol vessels. The only way Growler knew their location was from the muzzle flashes of their guns. Growler broke off the attack and headed for another area.[v]

On January 30, when the Growler located a merchant ship on the horizon 25 miles off of Cape Forster, Mussau Island, she fired three torpedoes at 2,000 yards in a spread. All missed. As before, the Japanese returned fire and dropped depth charges. Growler repositioned to set up another torpedo firing, again at 2,000 yards, and fired a single torpedo. This one struck the bow, which damaged the ship, but did not sink her.[vi]

After the failed attack on the converted gun boat on January 31, the Growler continued to patrol the area near Manus and Massau Islands until February 3, when a message from Australia indicated two merchant ships were due to sail through the Steffen Strait on February 4. This information was most likely derived from intercepted Japanese messages. This process was highly classified and therefore not mentioned outright in patrol reports. The other source of information may have been from other submarines patrolling in neighboring areas that had lost contact with the convoy and estimated their route and speed to the straits. That afternoon, the Growler spotted the smoke of two ships clearing the Steffen Straits, with an escort of two patrol vessels.

The Growler tracked the small convoy through the evening and attempted her first attack in the early morning of February 5. On the surface, the Growler estimated the course of the convoy, and approached them at high speed to close the distance to 8,500 yards where the convoy could be tracked on RADAR. With visibility poor, a periscope attack was not an option, and so the Growler continued to set up an attack using RADAR.

At about 4 a.m., at 5,000 yards, the lead ship of the convoy began to fire on the Growler and a minute later, the two patrol boats were in fast pursuit. Almost from the outset, the patrol vessels began dropping depth charges, and Growler again was forced to submerge to elude her attackers.  Ten minutes later, a second depth charge attack shook the Growler. This attack partially blew out the gasket to the first Main Ballast Tank in the forward torpedo room. The damage was not enough to make the Growler retire. The ballast tank flooded, but not in the personnel compartments. Although it seems strange to worry about flooding in a tank designed to take in water, the problem was the ballast tank would not stay empty when the water was expelled. A leak of 1,000 gallons of water per hour made it difficult to maintain a level depth while submerged and certainly made it difficult to stay on the surface. The repair to the gasket allowed the main ballast tank to remain airtight so the compressed air that pushes the water out has maximum force. Otherwise, the outside water pressure is greater than the internal air pressure and water flows into the tank.

The crew of the Growler jerry-rigged a makeshift gasket using a sheet of rubber and spare deck plating held in place with shoring and jacks. After a test dive at 275 feet and with the repair to the ballast tank gasket holding, the Growler set off towards Waton Island to look for prospective targets. 

On the night of February 6, Australia sent a message that Growler should relocate to a new area.  In response, the surfaced submarine went full speed towards the suggested area. In the early hours of February 7, the Growler spotted a ship and prepared an attack. To obtain a better firing solution, the Growler turned away to give the torpedomen time to load the tubes. The submarine swung back around to make her attack.

As the Growler finally got set-up to fire, the Japanese ship, now aware of the American submarine, reversed her course to attack the Growler. The poor visibility from the bridge prevented CDR Gilmore and the other crew members on top from noticing the change in position of the Japanese ship. The fire control party using RADAR observed the change in heading and fed the Torpedo Data Computer (TDC), the submarine’s fire control system, accurate information for a solution, but did not inform the bridge. CDR Gilmore was caught by surprise when he noticed the Japanese ship was too close to fire a torpedo. Left with few choices, CDR Gilmore ordered “Left Full Rudder” and for the collision alarm to sound.[vii]

A minute later, the USS Growler plowed into the Japanese vessel’s forward section, between the bow and bridge, puncturing a giant hole in her side. Growler had been at 17 knots when she struck, and the force of the collision bent the first 18 feet of the bow of the Growler down to frame 10.[viii] 

As the two ships collided and locked together, the Japanese crew open fired and sprayed the bridge with .50 caliber machine guns. When the order to clear the bridge was given, the Officer of the Deck (OOD), the Quartermaster, and two other wounded crewmen made it down the hatch from the bridge into the conning tower. 

As the attack began, CDR Gilmore shouted an order to the crew on deck. What he shouted remains unknown if it was “Clear the Bridge!”[ix] or “Take Her Down!”[x] Regardless, CDR Gilmore sought the safety of his crew and ship at the expense of his own life. After 30 seconds, with no one else coming down, LCDR Schade ordered the submarine to submerge and escape. 

CDR Gilmore, the assistant OOD, Ensign William W. Williams, and watchman Wilbert F. Kelley, F 3/c remained on top and were believed to have been killed in the Japanese attack. Their bodies washed overboard when the submarine submerged.

Schade assumed command of the Growler. He had his hands full addressing the collision damage. The initial leak observed was a bullet hole through the Conning Tower hatch (1/2” by 3/4″). This leak, which could not be plugged, caused a number of electrical systems in the conning tower to fail. The damaged Growler took up a depth of 150 feet where the crew waited out the Japanese. In the chaos of the dive, the Japanese gun boat dropped two depth charges, far off enough that the crew of the Growler barely noticed. Lieutenant L.L. Davis, the diving officer, kept a cool head and was able to keep his crew calm enough to maintain control over the submarine during this adverse dive. All the drain and trim pumps were running continuously, as the control room still had 6 feet of water and the pump room had several feet.

LCDR Schade, the officers and crew believed the Japanese gunboat they rammed was the same gunboat that escaped sinking due to faulty torpedoes on January 31. The damaged Japanese vessel limped off, not to be seen again. Sometime later, the Growler surfaced and the officers inspected the damage to the submarine. The officers reviewed the crumpled bow that was at a 90-degree angle to the left. The outer doors to torpedo tubes 3 and 4 could not be closed. The damage from the bow extended to the bow buoyancy tanks, stretching the damage to 35 feet from the bow. The bridge superstructure was riddled with bullet holes. The hole in the hatch was the only major leak, and was fixed with a bolt and several washers. All the circuits in the conning tower were grounded out. There were several small hydraulic and service air leaks, and both periscopes were out of commission.[xi]

At the end of the day on February 7, LCDR Schade reported the condition of the Growler to Australia and set course for Brisbane. The return trip back to base took longer, with surface speed reduced by 30 percent from the damage to the bow and the constant challenge of trying to keep afloat.

Photograph from COMSUBRON 8 Action Report on Damage to USS Growler.

On February 17, Growler arrived in Australia and pulled up alongside her submarine tender, USS Fulton (AS 11). In the following days, a catalog of the extensive damage to the Growler was made. The bow section was bent down to frame 4. From frame 5 to 10, the bow structure was twisted and bent. The underlying and associated damage from this structural bend included jammed torpedo tube doors, damage to the operational subsystems and structural alignment of the torpedo tubes, and distorted deck plates going back to frame 12. The conning tower, which had been shot up by the Japanese gunship, also had extensive damage. In addition to external damage to the hatch with a 50-caliber bullet hole, the deck plating to the tower, and several internal systems were also damaged. The bullets damaged the electrical systems, air compressor motors, hoist motors to the periscope and antennas, trim pumps, and communication cables and circuits for controlling the submarine from the conning tower and bridge. Some of the damage in the conning tower was a direct result of the Japanese attack, while others were from water leaks when the submarine submerged evading further attack.[xii]

The damage was extensive enough that the Growler required a dry dock. The Bureau of Ships determined that local facilities were capable of making the repairs. The supervisor of shipbuilding at Electric Boat Company in Groton, CT, sent a complete set of prints of the bow section to assist with the repairs.[xiii]

Photograph from COMSUBRON 8 Action Report on Damage to USS Growler.

On February 21, the damaged submarine was shifted to Musgrave’s Wharf in Brisbane. The Evans Deakin Company began removing the damaged bow section around the torpedo tubes. As the bow section was being removed, great care was given to preserving any of the internal workings and fittings that were undamaged or could be easily repaired to be re-used in the replacement of the bow. The shipyard estimated a month to complete fabricating a new bow section.[xiv]

As the bow section was being fabricated and while the torpedo tubes of the Growler were laid bare, workmen began to check the alignment of the tubes. The port side tubes had suffered some damage from the collision, and there was a concern that the structural damage may have knocked the tubes out of alignment. It was found that the tubes needed slight adjustments, but otherwise they were in good condition.

The bow of the Growler was rebuilt in two phases, working on the lower section first and then the upper section. The purpose of this was to enact changes to the submarine in order to remove outmoded designs that had been originally built in when she was constructed.

The work to replace the bow began on April 3 when the Growler was docked. Internal workings and subsystems that were exposed were checked, prepped, and repaired if needed. On April 8, the lower section of the bow was installed. As with any plan, the execution of it was fraught with minor problems of making constant readjustments of alignment of the prefabricated replacement bow with the internal and external parts. The prefabricated replacement was made to fit the submarine at frame 10. To avoid distortion of the bow during installation, welders started in the center of the bulkhead and worked outward. During the welding process, the workmen had to constantly stop and realign the bow because it would be pulled one way or the other.

By April 20, work on the upper section had begun, and by May 1, most of the repairs were complete. Growler was undocked and performed a series of test firings of torpedoes. The tests left two 8-inch scratches in the center of the shutters of tubes 4 and 6. The shutters were rubbing up against the torpedo tubes, causing the gashes. The submarine had to return to the dock for adjustment.

On the morning of May 4, with all the work complete, the Growler made practice dives, going bow-first to test the buoyancy and trim tanks. With only a few minor leaks that were easily repaired, the Growler moved to another round of test firing dummy torpedoes without incident. 

From March to May 1943, as the structure of the ship was being repaired, and as the holed plating of the bridge was being stripped away, it was a grisly reminder of the lives lost on February 7. The solemn duty of the commanding officer was to write the families of CDR Howard W. Gilmore, ENS William W. Williams, and Wilbert F. Kelley, F 3/c. Five of the eight personnel were awarded the Purple Heart, with the above receiving them posthumously; survivors John A. Baxley TM 3/c and George Wade GM 3/c received them for gunshot wounds.  

Because of his actions following collisions to secure the safety of his crew and ship at the expense of his own life, CDR Gilmore was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was the first of the Submarine Forces to receive this high honor. LCDR Schade received another Navy Cross for returning the damaged Growler back to Brisbane, as well as assuming command of the submarine and became the youngest submarine commander.[xv]

Unfortunately, the story of the Growler came to an ambiguous end. After all the repairs made, she completed six more war patrols between May 1943 and September 1944. While on her 11th war patrol in November 1944, she sailed off into the unknown and was later declared “overdue and presumed lost” with a total loss of crew of over 80 officers and sailors. The Growler joined other boats on Eternal Patrol. 

She was not forgotten. The cry to “Take her down!” became iconic. As an homage, the events of February 7 were captured in the Hollywood film Operation Pacific (1951) with John Wayne and Ward Bond. The film focuses on the fictional USS Thunderfish and incorporates several remarkable events of several submarines during World War II, including the collision of the USS Growler.  Ward Bond depicts Commander John T. “Pop” Perry, the fictional version of CDR Gilmore, and John Wayne depicts Lieutenant Commander Duke E. Gifford, the fictional version of LCDR Schade. The film re-enacts the collision, and similar to history, John Wayne’s character assumes command of the Thunderfish. Ward Bond’s character, mortally wounded, orders the submarine to dive: “Take her down!”


Footnotes:

[i] Fourth War Patrol Report, U. S. S. Growler – Report of.; USS Growler (SS 215); World War II Submarine War Patrol Reports, Entry A1 307; Record Group 38: Records of the Chief of Naval Operations; National Archives in College Park. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/74818721

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Editor’s Note on LCDR Arnold F. Schade

https://www.history.navy.mil/our-collections/art/exhibits/conflicts-and-operations/wwii/mcclelland-barclay–heroes-of-the-south-seas/submariners/airmen-lcdr-arnold-f-schade.html.  Reviewed on April 3, 2020.

[xi] Fourth War Patrol Report, U. S. S. Growler – Report of.; USS Growler (SS 215); World War II Submarine War Patrol Reports, Entry A1 307; Record Group 38: Records of the Chief of Naval Operations; National Archives in College Park. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/74818721

[xii] U.S.S. Growler (SS215); Repair of Battle Damage; Commander, Submarine Squadron 8 (COMSUBRON 8); Action and other Operational Reports (A1 351); Record Group 38: Records of the Chief of Naval Operations; NACP.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] LCDR Arnold F. Schade

https://www.history.navy.mil/our-collections/art/exhibits/conflicts-and-operations/wwii/mcclelland-barclay–heroes-of-the-south-seas/submariners/airmen-lcdr-arnold-f-schade.html.  Reviewed on April 3, 2020.

Arnold Frederic Schade

https://valor.militarytimes.com/hero/20855 Reviewed on April 3, 2020