The Swordfish started her life by setting an inadvertent record. The color photograph taken of her launch on 1 April 1939, is the oldest color photograph in the Navy’s collection that can be definitively dated. Swordfish was a Sargo-class submarine, one of the last two classes designed before the war began. Designed to dive 250 feet, with a crew of (generally) 54 men and 5 officers, Swordfish had just over a year’s experience before going to war.
On 3 November 1941, Swordfish, along with her sisters Salmon, Sturgeon and Skipjack, escorted their tender USS Holland to Manila for a new assignment. The Navy was bolstering the defenses of Manila, where, they believed, an attack from Japan was most likely to occur. (Some believed the target was actually Pearl, few imagined that the target was Pearl AND Manila AND Midway AND Wake AND Guam and a number of other places). On the morning of 8 December 1941 (Day of Pearl Harbor attack, due to the International Date Line,) she set sail on patrol and therefore missed the attack on Manila.
On December 9, she fired two torpedoes at a steamer, but had to dive to avoid a gun counter-attack, and never knew the results. On 11 December she sighted another freighter, but the torpedoes either both missed, or were duds (a sadly common occurrence for the next two years).
Swordfish kept busy, and in these, the opening days of the war, and with unrestricted warfare on the menu, there was no shortage of targets provided by the world’s second largest Navy and arguably largest civilian fleet. She fired again on the 14th but wasn’t able to see any damage or destruction by the night’s light.
Finally, on the 16th, Swordfish sighted rich pickings: six freighters accompanied by two destroyers. The lead freighter was the ATSUTASAN MARU, and Swordfish sent three torpedoes sailing her way.
“Hit amidships, ATSUTASAN MARU eruped in a cloud of smoke, flame and escaping steam as she settled by the stern at (18°-06’N; 109°-44’E).” –Official Navy History of USS Swordfish, SS-193
ATSUTASAN MARU ended up being the first confirmed sinking of a US Submarine after the start of the war.
Shortly after this, on 22 December, Swordfish was ordered to return to Manila. The Japanese invasion was too strong, and the military and government, in an effort to minimize civilian casualties and unnecessary destruction of the city, abandoned Manila and declared it an “Open City” on December 24. (In essence, allowing the Japanese to come in freely in the hopes that no civilians would be harmed or have their property damaged. This type of tactic was common, and happened several times in the European theater for both the Nazis and the Allies). The Filipino government and military were not tucking tail, but reinforcing Corregidor Island and the more sparsly populated and defensible peninsula of Bataan. But in the process of doing all this, the US lost Cavite Naval Base and the Nichols Air Base, and there was no space for submarines. They were being moved to the Dutch Naval Base in Java. Swordfish’s return order was to pick up Captain John Wilkes and his staff and taxi everyone to the new base. She safely arrived there on 7 January, which is considered the end of her first war patrol.
Two weeks later, she was out again, and quickly re-routed back to Manila…again. This time, her guests were Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon and his family, leading the Philippine Government in exile. Quezon, his wife, their two daughers and son were joined by the Vice President Osmena, Chief Justice Santos, General Valdes, Colonol Nieto and their chaplain Captain Oritz. The political party were headed to Australia and eventually America where they were re-set up the Philippine government in D.C., but Swordfish was needed for only two days, dropping them off at San Jose on the Philippine Island of Panay. Sent straight back to Manila, she now picked up the Philippine High Commissioner, his wife, and nine more governmental officials. Enroute to the Dutch Submarine Base in Java, Swordfish was re-routed to Fremantle. The Japanese were already taking Java, and the Dutch Base was abandoned for Australia.
Corrigedor fell, and the Philippines completely taken before Swordfish could return with the supplies she had for the men trapped there. Still, she went on to finish ten more patrols, sinking at least 12 vessels, and earning an impressive eight battle stars. Her age, however, was showing. Now an old boat among the increasing crowd of new boats rolling off the ways at the rate of nearly two a week, Swordfish’s aging and battered hull and equipment sometimes forced her to terminate her patrols early for repairs. But she and her crew kept going, getting some impressive scores. They avenged the invasion of the Philippines by sinking the Japanese destroyer Matsukaze, which landed troops on Luzon.
On 22 December 1944, Swordfish departed Pearl Harbor for her thirteenth patrol. Besides the normal “if it flies the Japanese flag, sink it” general order, she had a special mission: photographic reconnaissance of Okinawa in preparation for the Okinawa campagain.
She stopped by Midway, and regueled on 26 December, and was ordered to delay her reconnaissance work until 11 January. Swordfish acknowledged this change in orders on 3 January. It was the last anyone heard of her.
After not responding to repeated radio calls, she was presumed lost by 15 Februrary.
So why is her loss date listed as 12 January? Another submarine, USS Kete, was on her first (and, as it turned out, only complete war patrol) in the area. On 12 January, she noted the following in her war patrol report:
0508 (hours) Friendly intereference -282°T
0759 Submerged off passes-Received part of message while going down telling of PUFFER’s patrol craft contact between OKINOYTERNBU and YORON SHII-nothing in sight in our immediate vicinity
0949 Heard about 15 distinct depth charges-Patrol craft were still around.
That “friendly intereference” at 5 am was supposed by the Navy to be the Swordfish, and her fate possibly also recorded by Kete, around 9:50 that morning. The rest of the day, Kete reported seeing far more patrol planes than they had recently. It’s possible that Swordfish was sunk by aerial attack, but Japanese records don’t mention anyone attacking any submarine on the morning of 12 January near Okinawa. There were a number of mines planted around Okinawa, in anticipation of an attack, which may have taken Swordfish, or she could have sunk somewhere en route to Japan from Midway Island.
Until she is discovered, these questions will remain unanswered, but the Navy selected 12 January as the date of Swordfish’s loss.
Swordfish was honored with a younger sister, Swordfish (II) SSN-579in 1957.
The memorial for USS Swordfish stands at the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory in St. Paul Minnesota.