How submarine commanders were trained changed radically during WWII.
Following WWI, the surrendered U-Boats the German Navy was forced to hand over to the Allies produced many drastic changes in how submarines were designed the world over. They became faster, deeper diving, stronger, and had more and better weapons installed. But as often happens when technology advances, the thinking and planning of the people who now possessed these new weapons, didn’t. Not until it was forced.
These new “fleet submarines” (so named because they were to guard the surface fleet, not because they were THAT fast) were warships in their own right, but the navies of the world still concentrated on the old big guns: Battleships, Destroyers, and Cruisers. Submarines, in addition to their traditional coastal guarding duties were now assigned to range out ahead of these big guns and report any enemy activity so the surface fleet could take care of it. Because of this thinking, Submarine Commanding Officers were taught to keep their boats hidden, be cautious at all costs, and not engage the enemy unless absolutely necessary and they were fairly well guaranteed a good enough shot to sink their prey.
Then December 7 happened, and the rules changed.
Of the Pacific Fleet, only the submarines and aircraft carriers were left untouched, and of those two, only the submarines were untouched by design. The Japanese were hoping to sink both the American Aircraft Carriers on active duty in the Pacific, but fate prevented them (The Enterprise was supposed to dock at Pearl the evening of the 6th but was caught in a storm with her fleet, delaying her. The Lexington had been hustled out of harbor to beef up defenses at Midway which was considered a more likely target of any Japanese attack. The Saratoga, the third aircraft carrier in the Pacific, was having a scheduled refit at Mare Island.) The submarines were completely ignored during the attack at Pearl, and all four submarines at Pearl (Tautog, Narwhal, Cachalot and Dolphin) were completely unscathed since the enemy planes never once shot or bombed them, even when the guns of these boats lit up and started taking down enemy planes. The Tautog is now credited with taking down the first Japanese airplane over Pearl that morning.
Suddenly, the linchpins of the Navy are burning, sunken, and so badly damaged most couldn’t safely put to sea. The Saratoga was released from her refit, but three aircraft carriers were not enough to cover the entire ocean when it quickly became obvious that the Japanese hit not only Pearl, but Midway, the Philippines, and intended to continue.
Enter the submarines, the last resort and now best hope. The four in Pearl and those near Pearl and Midway and off the coast of California were quickly mobilized, and sent to sink every ship they could find.
Suddenly, the commanders that had spent all of their time and training being quiet and cautious were caught in a quandary. Some adjusted, others were quickly removed and sent to other stations while younger, more aggressive officers were just as quickly promoted. Some of these transformed boats whose records were lackluster into boats who would become icons. (Read about Dudley “Mush” Morton and the USS Wahoo, and his famous “Wahoo is Expendable” speech if you don’t believe me).
So sixty-six years ago today, the Robalo was handed over to a new, aggressive skipper after just one patrol. His name was Manning Kimmel. He was 30 years old, a graduate of the Naval Academy (class of 1935) he served on battleships and submarines, quickly rising through the ranks of the latter. In addition to having every mark of a great submarine commander, Kimmel might have had another reason to take the war to the Japanese.
Kimmel’s father was Admiral Husband Kimmel, who was the Naval Commander of the Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In the wake of the attack, many people and congressmen wanted to know who was to blame for our base being caught so off-guard, and eventually, Kimmel and his Army counterpart, General Walter Short, were officially censured for being unprepared, were reduced in rank (Husband Kimmel’s 4-star rank was reduced to 2-stars) and forced to retire. There have been many people in the decades following who have supported these punishments and those who say both men were unfairly blamed for the attack. In fact, Admiral Chester Nimitz later said it was a blessing that the fleet had been in harbor that day, rather than put to sea looking for a possible attack as some congressmen later asserted that Kimmel should have done. (Amazing how congressmen know better than anyone how to do someone else’s job, then and now, isn’t it?) When they were sunk, the fleet was sunk in 40 feet of water a few hundred yards from dry docks and repair facilities, rather than in irretrievable in deep oceans.
In 1999, Congress passed a non-binding resolution exonerating both men and posthumously re-promoting them, but Presidents Clinton and Bush did not sign it, and there is currently no indications from President Obama whether or not he will.
But in 1944, the Kimmel name was solidly linked to the death and destruction of Pearl Harbor. Manning Kimmel would indeed prove to be an aggressive skipper, but he might have been motivated to clear or elevate the family name as much as protecting to country. That question would arise in about six months.