Posts Tagged ‘Amchitka Island’

The Concealed Loss of S-27, Part 2: Abandoned on Amchitka

Lost Subs | Posted by Rebekah
Jun 29 2016

(This is part 2 of a multi-part series.  You can read part 1 here)

Taken from the bridge of the S-27.  US Navy photo.

Taken from the bridge of the S-27. US Navy photo.

 

The rocks separating S-27 from Amchikta were tall, almost as tall as the sub’s bridge.  The shore was still a distance off, and no one knew if they could even land.

Jukes asked for volunteers to go ashore and see if the crew could safely land with their inflatable raft.  One officer and one enlisted man, both experienced swimmers, volunteered.

The two set out, their forms soon swallowed by the fog.   It was still night, but the long arctic twilight before sunrise meant that it was slowly getting brighter, even if sunrise was still, technically, three hours away.

Jukes sent another message, but the radiomen improperly coded it.  No matter who intercepted it, it would be complete nonsense. Another, properly coded message was sent:

“CANCEL MY NINETEEN SIXTEEN FORTY[1] X WEDGED SOLIDLY ST. MARKIUS REPEAT ST MARKIUS POINT AMCHITKA X PORT SCREW WORKING ON MOTOR BUT MOTOR ROOM EXPECTED TO FLOOD ANY TIME X UNABLE TO BACK OVER ROCKS X BELIEVE CAN BE PULLED CLEAR BY TUG X ALL TANKS DRY X POUNDING IS BAD X AM PREPARED TO ABANDON X HEAVY FOG.”[i]

Taken from later investigations into the grounding of S-27, this map shows the crew's reconing of S-27's grounding, and the two potential routes they took while laying to the night before.  US Navy, Invesntigation into the Loss of S-27

Taken from later investigations into the grounding of S-27, this map shows the crew’s reckoning of S-27’s grounding, and the two potential routes they took while laying to the night before. Image taken from transcript of US Navy Investigation into the Loss of S-27

But now, worrying reports came back from within S-27. Those dry tanks were now leaking.

An hour passed.  Then another half.  Jukes waited on sending a new message since no one seemed to be listening anyway.  For now, he had to organize that which no captain ever wanted to- the abandonment of his first command.

The raft returned.  It was a long journey, but once the party maneuvered past the rocks trapping the 27, it was a clear run to a rocky beach.  They’d anchored lines on the beach, and as soon as these were attached to the S-27, a stable ferry system could quickly evacuate everyone.

While Jukes still hoped s-27 could be towed off, for his crew’s safety, he ordered evacuation. While they moved provisions, clothes, supplies, and themselves into the “ferry”, Cmdr. Jukes and First Officer Lt. Frank Smith began destroying the secret components of S-27.  Though she was far too old to have the latest, greatest gadgets the submarine service would soon be known for, she was still dangerous to leave high and dry where the nearby enemy could find her.

They disassembled the ECM (Electronic Counter Measure), a Typewriter that encoded and decoded messages.  The gear wheels were broken and scattered in the deep water around S-27.  The typewriter portion itself was smashed with a hammer, and hurled as far into the sea as possible.

There were two sonars stations on S-27, one in the torpedo room and one in the conning tower.  These were also smashed with a hammer.  The main sonar head, on the keel, had been smashed between S-27’s hull and the rocks already.  At least one thing was going in their favor in this mess.

The Mark VIII Torpedo Angle Solver (a forerunner to the Torpedo Data Computer) was a small handheld device, and thrown overboard.

This Angle Solver would be nearly identical to the one S-27's officers destroyed.  The artifact is from the USS Bowfin museum in Honolulu.  If you'd like to read more about how this pre-computer computer was used, check out the original US Navy manual at: http://www.maritime.org/doc/banjo/index.htm

This Angle Solver would be nearly identical to the one S-27’s officers destroyed. The artifact is from the USS Bowfin museum in Honolulu. If you’d like to read more about how this pre-computer computer was used, check out the original US Navy manual at: http://www.maritime.org/doc/banjo/index.htm

The safes in Officers Country were opened. Reams of confidential documents, manuals, and handbooks were given to the first wave of evacuating crew with orders to use it as kindling.  All of it.

The Torpedo Data Approach Tables and Data were so sensitive however, they were burned on board.

Anything that might be classified or even possibly secret, was smashed and destroyed with hammers and tools.[ii]

 

Onshore

The shore of Amchitka Island, where the men landed, looked “like a calendar picture of a Maine Coast” according to Herold[iii]. A stony beach ran along the waterline, overshadowed by steep hills and cliffs.  The evacuated men built fires with the classified documents and tried to dry themselves and their clothes to prevent hypothermia.  It was in the low 40s, and hypothermia could as easily take a man at that temp as it could below freezing.

Taken from the investigation, this shows the rocks the S-27 was grounded upon, as well as the steep cliff (hidden in shadow) and tundra above.  That wasn't a climb for the faint hearted!  Source: US Navy Photo

Taken from the investigation, this shows the rocks the S-27 was grounded upon, as well as the steep cliff (hidden in shadow) and tundra above. That wasn’t a climb for the faint hearted! Source: US Navy Photo

The sun rose over Amchitka shortly before 8 am.[2]

With the dawn, the men on shore faced the next problem.  They figured they were on a south-eastern  point of Amchitka, and the only known settlement on Amchitka was on the northern side, the village they’d inspected the day before. But where, precisely, relative to this point?  Lt. Lawrence Young, originally from Seattle, set off with five volunteers to find the village. Based on the size of Amchitka, it should only take until early afternoon.

All morning, the rubber raft landed on the shore with a rocky crunch, carrying  only 2-3 men, plus supplies,[iv] which had to be organized and piled on the beach, before the raft, with someone on board to guide her back, was pushed back out to S-27. The raft’s pilots had to be careful tying up near their old boat, because as the swells grew, the submarine rolled more violently, and 27 could potentially roll right over the raft and crew.

Aboard the Sinking Sub

The S-27, bow down in the waves.  As you can see, the water is coming right up to the bridge.  US Navy Photo taken from the Investigation into the loss of the S-27

The S-27, bow down in the waves. As you can see, the water is coming right up to the bridge. US Navy Photo taken from the Investigation into the loss of the S-27

Within the boat, the men queued up to evacuate out, and took as many provisions as the small raft would fit along with them.  Chief Electrician’s Mate, Arthur Kesner took one last look around the boat before heading to the ferry.   “By the afternoon of the nineteenth it was quite a mess…The J.K [Sonar] and Q.C. [Sonar] had all been torn apart and everything was distributed through the control room.  Some clothing and provisions were laying around in the control room we couldn’t get off.”  [v]

With only 2-3 men able to board each trip, ferry needed around twenty round-trips to evacuate everyone.  According to 27’s Navigator and Exec, Lt. Frank Smith, the ride was rough and the men arrived on the beach likely soaked through.

The last few trips were rough.  Waves were breaking all the way across the boat, and would fill it up on the starboard side before you could get it away from the ship.” [vi]

The seas and wind grew more violent as the morning passed, and by noon, with thirty-six of the forty-two man crew onshore, evacuations stopped. In the swells,  S-27 was too unstable, twisting and turning.  The six who remained aboard were all volunteers: Jukes, Smith, a motormac named Raymond Puglsey, one radioman, and two others.

It turned out that their last transmission had been at least partially received by 27’s command in Alaska.  They had sent a reply:  “WHAT IS YOUR POSITION X USE SECRET CRYPTO CHANNEL X AMPLIFY REPORT OF SCREWS DISABLED”.[vii]

That had been nearly seven hours ago.   Now, everyone knew that it didn’t matter which of the props were working or not, 27 was sinking.  Already, her torpedo room, where Herold and Nelly had been sleeping hours before, was filling faster than it could be pumped back out.  It had been sealed and abandoned to its fate.  The flooding slowly pulled the bow down, raising the stern screws and rudders clear of the surface.  Before he’d evacuated to shore, Boatswain Kreuger climbed the rising stern deck and checked the props and rudders.  Not only had the starboard screw been damaged, the starboard dive plane had been ripped clean off.[viii]  The only thing to do was ask for rescue.

It was now 1:45 pm, local time.

“HEAVY POUNDING CONTINUES  X  HELPLESS  X  SEAMS GONE IN BALLAST TANKS  X  ALL ASHORE EXCEPT SIX  X  ALL COMPARTMENTS DRY BUT TORPEDO ROOM  X  WILL STAY UNTIL UNTENABLE  X  CRYPTO AIDS DESTROYED BUT THIS  X  WHEN ABANDONED WILL TAKE CREW TO CONSTANTINE HARBOR THIS FREE OF ENEMY ON EIGHTEENTH” [ix]

It was impossible to tell how much of that message would get through.  Despite mentioning St Markius Point and  Amchitka in the received message, command had asked for position.  Who knew how much of that missive had gotten through?  Or how much of this one would?

3p.m.:  During a short lull in the stormy conditions, three of the six men, the unnamed volunteers, and Moctormac Puglsey, went ashore with more supplies. Now, Jukes, the radioman, plus XO Smith  remained near the radio, waiting for a message.

3:30 pm: Time was up.  On Jukes’s order, the radioman sent a final message:  “DUE TO SEA CONDITIONS AM ABANDONING SHIP.   X   IF POSSIBLE WILL RETURN TOMORROW OTHERWISE CONSTANTINE” The radio was having trouble maintaining a signal by now, though from within or without was anyone’s guess. The only hope was someone would hear them, and send evacuation to Constantine Harbor.

Tying the raft up to the S-27.  US Navy Photo taken from the Investigation into the loss of the S-27.

Tying the raft up to the S-27. US Navy Photo taken from the Investigation into the loss of the S-27.

 

Lt. Smith remembered leaving S-27 vividly.  “…by that time, the waves were breaking all the way across the bow.  The last boat, the radioman and myself were in, alongside the conning tower, and the captain hauled it forward to the torpedo room right by the bow to get in the boat so we could leave the ship clear of the rocks.  At that time there was very little freeboard on the bow—there was just six to twelve inches with the stern up considerably.” [x]

S-27 was officially abandoned.  The crew huddled together in a makeshift “camp” on an unsheltered cove built at the base of a 50 foot cliff.  Ammo, supplies and clothes had been neatly stacked on the beach, above the tide.   There was good news: there were no injuries.  And some “grog” in the coffee certainly helped everyone warm up. [xi]

Onshore

8 pm:  After sixteen hours, Lt. Young and his exploration team finally returned.  Amchitka was a featureless plain of rolling tundra, and it was far too easy to get lost. In fact, two men on the expedition had done just that, less than two hours after they left.  While they’d been eventually found, the village had not [xii].  The expedition tomorrow would have to try again.

This photo, taken on Amchitka during WWII shows the rolling tundra.   While Amchitka may be treeless, the plants can still be tall.  If you see the dark square-ish patch in the lower right hand corner, that's the entrance to a dugout cave.  There is a man standing next to it, waist deep in summer foliage.   Source: Alaska Digital Archives  http://vilda.alaska.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/cdmg21/id/12797/rec/2

This photo, taken on Amchitka during WWII shows the rolling tundra. While Amchitka may be treeless, the plants can still be tall. If you see the dark square-ish patch in the lower right hand corner, that’s the entrance to a dugout cave. There is a man standing next to it, waist deep in summer foliage. Source: Alaska Digital Archives http://vilda.alaska.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/cdmg21/id/12797/rec/2

Everyone knew the Japanese were on Kiska, fifty miles away, but they had not checked the northern end of Amchitka.  As the sun began its long setting, the men decided, for safety sake despite the possible Japanese presence, the fires would be maintained all night. [xiii]  The cove was fairly sheltered from view from the north end of the island, so they would not be seen by any potential Japanese lookouts.

Still, watches had to be set, and followed.  Due to the cold, each of the enlisted men on watch would only stand for one hour.  The man on watch had to walk up to the top of the cliff for the best view.

Then rain pelted down. It was going to be a miserable night.

The one o’clock watch fell to George Herold.  He remembered that hour vividly:

“When I got to the top of the hill it was dark, and I mean DARK. You could hear the breakers down below and also the boat grinding, scraping and banging on the rocks. I called out “Horton” – but not too loud. I had visions of Jap soldiers sleeping in tents all around me. Scott [Horton] was only a few feet away but he must have seen the same movies I did and thought it was a Jap trick.  I relieved him and [he] went down by the fires and [I] stayed right there, keeping my eye on those fires until I got relieved.” [xiv]

Into the Wilderness

The next morning, the men decided the Japanese, wherever else they might be, were not on Amchitka. This allowed them to simplify the day: thirty-two headed out to the village, carrying as many supplies on their backs and in their arms as they could.  The remaining ten would stand guard over whatever couldn’t be carried.

Amchitka was pure tundra, without a tree or many landmarks at all. The ground was marshy, sucking down the men’s boots as they trudged across the land of moss and lichen. Whatever else may happen, no one was going to get lost today; the men lined themselves in single file, keeping several feet apart from the man in front and behind them.  Leaving at 4:30 in the morning, they arrived at the village by 9 am.

Taken in 1938 by a Smithsonian Archaological expedition, this shows the type of landscape the 27 crew now had to trek through.  Source: http://vilda.alaska.edu/cdm/search/searchterm/Amchitka%20/mode/all/order/nosort/page/1

Taken in 1938 by a Smithsonian Archaeological expedition, this photo was taken from the base of Constantine Harbor (on the right) with one of several small lakes on the left.  Source: Alaska Digital Archives  http://vilda.alaska.edu/cdm/search/searchterm/Amchitka%20/mode/all/order/nosort/page/1

It had been a small village even in its “heyday”.  Six small cottages surrounding an Orthodox church. The Japanese had bombed the place during the invasion.  Three of the houses had been blown apart, and several more bomb craters littered the area.  Still, there were three cabins, and a number of underground storage bunkers.  Herold and two other guys quickly claimed one of these bunkers, and “lived pretty comfortable, I guess.” Submariners are used to sharing tight quarters, three cabins to forty-two men was probably luxurious.

Also from the 1938 expedition, the small village seen from across the bay.  Half of this had been destroyed by June 1942. Source: Alaska Digital Archives http://vilda.alaska.edu/cdm/search/searchterm/Amchitka%20/mode/all/order/nosort/page/1

Also from the 1938 expedition, the small village seen from across the bay. Half of this had been destroyed by June 1942. Source: Alaska Digital Archives http://vilda.alaska.edu/cdm/search/searchterm/Amchitka%20/mode/all/order/nosort/page/1

Inside the cabins, the men discovered a world frozen in time.  Herold guessed the villagers had left in a hurry, after Pearl Harbor, for “Utensils of all sorts, kerosene stoves and drums of kerosene were left. Plus school books, all in Russian.” [3]

Same expedition from 1938, one of the cabins Herold mentioned.  http://vilda.alaska.edu/cdm/search/searchterm/Amchitka%20/mode/all/order/nosort/page/1

Same expedition from 1938, one of the cabins Herold mentioned. http://vilda.alaska.edu/cdm/search/searchterm/Amchitka%20/mode/all/order/nosort/page/1

Jukes and his officers knew that the men had to be kept busy in order to keep discipline.  Fourteen orders were written up and distributed, organizing the camp, the watch rotations, the kitchen duties.  The sentries were armed with all the small arms removed from the 27, and one was posted in the belfry of the Orthodox Church, with orders to ring the bell if he saw anything.

With camp established, Jukes and some men, headed back to the cove.  He had to inspect S-27, and see if any more supplies could be moved.

Meanwhile, back at Headquarters…

After no further messages from the S-27 were received, Taskforce 8.5, of which S-27 and her sister subs were part, took action. June’s records of TASKFORCE 8, records the following entry, at midnight, June 22:

“IMPORTANT RADIO MESSAGE FROM S-27 INTERCEPTED SINCE 16 HOURS ZED [4p.m, local time]  19TH X  SAIL TWENTY SEVEN BELIEVED TO BE AGROUND ON AMCHITKA ISLAND OR SEMISOPHOCHNOI ISLAND X INVESTIGATE AND REPORT X  S-18 AMCHITKA X S-35 SEMISOPOCHNOI X S-28 NORTH COAST TANAGA KANAGA AND ADAK ISLANDS BUT TO DO NOT ENTER UNCHARTED WATERS X”

By the next morning, the three subs were underway, but foul weather kept most of them from being able to see anything.  The S-18, in particular, arrived on the northwest tip of Amchitka Island from June 23, to June 25, (Constantine Harbor adn “Camp S-27” were on the northeast corner). Like her sisters, S-18 couldn’t see through the weather.

S-27’s revisit

more views of s 27

more views of s 27

Among the men who re-boarded the 27 on the 21st, was Boatswain Kreuger, but the submarine hadn’t improved. “I noticed air bubbles leaking out of the ballast tanks and I also know that the torpedo room was flooded because I looked through the eye port from the forward battery compartment. …right after I was up in the torpedo room the captain came aboard and found chlorine gas in the forward battery, which would indicate that the forward battery well was punctured.” [xv]

The torpedoes on S-27 were a double danger.  Though they were secured on their racks and within their tubes, per regulations, as 27 rolled and bashed herself apart, they could come loose from their racks and tubes, potentially leading to an explosion.

On the other hand, once abandoned, if the Japanese found S-27, and were able to salvage the torpedoes, they would know the capabilities of the American torpedoes.  Either way, there was little Jukes could do right now.

When 27 had first grounded, the torpedomen bled off some of the high pressure on the torpedoes.  Later, when saving herself looked impossible, they considered multiple ways to get the torpedoes off the boat, but 27’s unpredictable and violent thrashing made safe handling impossible. Even the four primed in the torpedo tubes could not be fired, in case they hit a rock too close and blew the boat herself apart. When evacuation had been ordered, the torpedo crew strapped down the tin fish in place, hoping for the best after rescue.  [xvi]

Now underwater, there was nothing to be done without a derrick, at the very least.

There was no messages, no help known coming.

Jukes decided to sleep the night on the shore camp, come back one more day, then abandon 27 completely for Constantine.

When he returned on June 22, with a couple other crewmen, 27 had disintegrated even further.  Plates could be heard rattling and striking against each other as she rolled: whole seams had popped open.  One of the crewmen noticed something ominous: the auxiliary intake valve over the battery compartment had popped open from its sealed seat.  The highly explosive chlorine gas in the punctured battery well had filled and pressurized the battery compartment and officer’s country over it. [xvii] She was an explosion waiting to happen.

The rest of the submarine, however, was still dry.  Landing was nearly impossible, since the seas freely broke across 27’s deck at the conning tower, the only place they could land.  Jukes made the call to seal each hatch and leave.

Jukes, Kreuger and the remaining men took the final supplies and headed to Constantine Harbor.

Now, it would be a waiting game.

 

Footnotes

 

[1] THE Previous, improperly coded message

[2] According to modern charts, the sunrise would have happened around 6:37 am.  However, this is by Hawaii time, the time zone Amchitka is geographically located in. The S-27 was likely using Alaska time zone for their record keeping, which may explain this discrepancy. (Sunrise and Set times, Amchitka Island, June 1944)

[3] Amchitka went through cycles of human habitation and abandonment. The village and church the 27’s came across had been founded in the 1850’s and vanished off the records after 1867.  Later, another village, the one the crew found, had been founded around 1925 to house the summer fox trapping population.   A Smithsonian expedition reached this abandoned village and took numerous photos of the archaeological expeditions around Amchikta in 1938

 

Sources Cited

[i] (US Navy Records, 1942)Appendix to Narrative: Messages Sent and Received.

[ii] Jukes, Harold; The Narrative of What Happened to s-27, pg. 4

[iii] the First and Last Patrol of S-27 (Herold, 1989)

[iv] Interview with George Herold and Harry Suomi, transcript, pg 8

[v] Testimony of Arthur Kesner, Investigation into the Loss of USS S-27, pgs. 24-25

[vi] Testimony of Lt. Frank Smith, Investigation into the Loss of USS S-27 , pg 5

[vii] Appendix to Narrative, Copies of Messages Sent and received on June 19, 1942, US Navy

[viii] Testimony of Boatswain Kreuger, Investigation into the Loss of S-27. Pgs17-22

g 17-22

[x] Testimony of Lt. Frank Smith, Investigation into the Loss of USS S-27, Pg. 5

[xi] Herold, George, the first and only patrol os SUS S-27, 1989

[xii] Deck Log, USS S0-27, 19 June, 1942

[xiii] Jukes, Herold, Narrative 1942

[xiv] Herold, George, the first and only patrol os SUS S-27, 1989

[xv] Testimony of Boatswain Kreuger, Investigation into the Loss of S-27, pgs 17-22

[xvi] Testimony of Lt Cmdr Herold Jukes, Investigation into the Loss of S-27. Pg 43

[xvii] Testimony of Boatswain Kreuger, Investigation into the Loss of S-27, pgs 17-22

The Concealed Loss of the S-27, Part 1

Lost Subs, Uncategorized | Posted by Rebekah
Jun 19 2016

June 19, 1942.

Taken before the war, the S-27 was an old 1920's boat. I particularly like the laundry hung out to dry in this photograph. By 1942, of course, that sort of thing was forbidden in enemy waters. Pic from wikipedia.

Taken before the war, the S-27 was an old 1920’s boat. I particularly like the laundry hung out to dry in this photograph. By 1942, of course, that sort of thing was forbidden in enemy waters. Pic from wikipedia.

It was foggy and overcast, further darkening the long twilight that passed for night in summertime Alaska. Little is worse than being cold and damp through.   High on the bridge of submarine S-27, Robert Shirah from Hawkinsville, Georgia, and Stanley Jorgenson from Chicago Illinois, flanked the Officer of the Deck, Theodore Kreuger[1], shivering through their lookout duties.  They didn’t bother with the usual binoculars as they strained their eyes to see through the soup.  In this haze, the lenses fogged over within moments.

S-27 was using the precious six hours of night to run on the surface and charge her batteries.  She was five miles south of the Alaskan island called Amchitka, and as soon as the sun rose, she’d be heading to the island of Kiska, just fifty miles away.  The Japanese had swept through Attu and Kiska two weeks earlier, landing with no resistance. S-27’s job was to see how many troops were invading, and where they had dug in.  Perhaps, even, discover what had happened to the villages and installations out there.

Things were running as usual for this time of day. About half of S-27’s officers were asleep, including her Captain and First Officer. And, as was also usual, the captain had left orders for the night watches. S-27 was to lay to, drifting on the open sea, while both of 27’s engines charged her batteries.  At twenty years old, the submarine had half of the engines the now-standard fleet subs did, and frequently, every minute of the arctic nights were needed to charge her batteries for the long days ahead.

But not tonight. At 12:45 am, less than an hour after reporting for the watch, Kreuger received word that the battery was nearly charged, well ahead of normal schedule.  Kreuger then followed the next set of orders: One engine was left charging, and the other engaged the props.  S-27, five miles from the nearest land, turned to course three-zero-five[2] at two-thirds speed, a whopping six knot crawl[3].[i]  By dawn, everyone expected to leave sight of Amchitka’s south-western shore, assuming the sun could burn its way through the mist in time.  As it was, S-27 slowly nosed her way through threads of grey fog floating over a nearly-black sea, under a darkly clouded sky.  No landmarks, no stars, no radio signals, no sonar…the S-27 was, for a few more moments, utterly blind.

Up above, Jorgenson saw a darker patch of fog just ahead of S-27. Seconds later, he realized it was a rock!

He called a warning to the Officer of the Deck, who hollered below “Left Full Rudder, come to course two-two-five-true[4] and report to the captain that I think I have sighted land on the starboard bow and am changing course…“ Seconds later Jorgenson called “…breakers twenty-five yards forward!” They were close enough to see waves striking the rocks, even in the haze! Krueger ordered, “Back Emergency!” and sounded the collision alarm. [ii]

My take on those last moments before she hit the rocks. Author's own work.

My take on those last moments before she hit the rocks. Author’s own work.

It was already too late.  Caught in a current they didn’t know existed, S-27 slammed into a submerged rock, lifted on a swell, and crashed down in a rocky cradle.  With each surge of water, S-27 torqued and groaned, pounding her props, and wrenching at her hull’s seams.

Bleary-eyed from the sleep he’d just been yanked out of,  S-27’s new commander, Lt. Cmdr. Harold Jukes, climbed onto the bridge.  In the past few seconds, everything had changed. Trapped on the coldest front line of the Pacific War with forty-two souls under his command, Jukes had to make a number of decisions to keep his men alive in an environment none of them had trained for.

 

The Forgotten Front Line: Alaska

 

By June 1942, the Pacific War was going well for Japan.  In the 48 hours after Pearl Harbor, they’d attacked Midway Island, Wake Island, Manila, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore.  Japan, a nation that had few of the natural resources needed to wage a modern war, now had access to rubber, copper and iron mines, oil wells, food and labor.

But the shocking expansion of the Japanese Empire (called the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”) hadn’t done what Japan had hoped: Australia and America hadn’t capitulated and sued for peace, they’d stood and gathered themselves to fight back.  In April, just four months after Pearl, the Americans had bombed Tokyo itself, shocking the Japanese people. [5]

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of Pearl Harbor, had gone to school, lived, and worked in the USA.  He knew the Americans were not yet fighting hard. He knew it took time to repair damaged ships, train the thousands of new recruits rushing to sign up, and re-orient the US economy to war rather than commerce.  There was a still small window of opportunity left before Japan’s limitations would become liabilities, and Yamamoto formed a three-pronged attack.

To the south, Japan advanced through the Solomon Islands, determined to cut Australia off from direct routes to the New World and reinforcements.  Any help coming from the Old World already had to come through U-Boat infested waters.  Isolated, with most of her military-aged men already gone fighting for King and Country in Africa, Australia would be quarantined and contained.

A little skirmish called “the Battle of the Coral Sea” put an end to this leg of the plan.  Still, Australia was somewhat isolated, and the Japanese troops had good footings on islands like Guadalcanal.  It wasn’t a complete loss…

MAp of Japan empire

In the center of the Pacific, the Japanese moved to complete their attack on Midway Island.  Pearl Harbor was too well defended and stocked now.  But Midway, small and lightly used, would push Japan’s front lines within easy reach of Pearl, locking the Americans on their side of the ocean.  Unfortunately for the Japanese, their secret codes had already been broken, and the American Aircraft Carriers would be there to meet them.

And in the north, the Japanese would pounce on Attu and Kiska Islands in the Alaskan Aleutian Chain.  Seizing these islands would secure the Northern Great Pacific Routes, the sea traffic lanes which could have allowed the Americans to send supplies to still-(technically)-neutral Russia, and from there to China, Japan’s enemy. As long as Japan held these islands, they could keep America and Canada in place and even launch attacks on west coasts of Alaska, Canada and America.

June 3 arrived, and the attacks at Midway and Alaska opened.  Carriers and troop transports waiting to attack Attu and Kiska launched an attack on Dutch Harbor, the largest western Alaskan port in the Aleutians.  This attack may have been more a distraction to keep any Alaskan-based troops in the north, rather than running south to assist the Battle for Midway as that started.

Then, to the Japanese, the unthinkable happened: in two days of heavy fighting at Midway, led by their brand new monster battleship Yamato, they…lost.  Not just lost, but lost four aircraft carriers, the pilots, maintenance crews, and all their experience along with.  It was a fatal blow, not just at Midway, but to their arena of the war, even with four more years to come.

Many modern historians believe the Aleutians Campaign was supposed to have started the same day as Midway, but for some reason, there was a delay.  On June 7, the six month anniversary of Pearl Harbor, while America celebrated the victory at Midway, the Japanese quietly landed on Kiska and Attu Islands, formally invading the United States, and taking prisoners.[6]

The news of the invasion was mostly kept from the mainland.  It would only cause panic, and it was mostly subsumed beneath the news of Midway’s victory anyway.  Still, Japanese troops on American soil would have to be dealt with.

S-27, along with several other sister subs, arrived at Dutch Harbor Alaska a week after Midway, on June 12.  These old subs had been assigned to help re-take these islands through recon and sentry duty.  Dutch Harbor was still obviously damaged from the earlier Japanese attack. 17-year-old George Harold from New Jersey, remembered the pier S-27 pulled in at:

“…the pier we tied up to had taken a direct hit with a small bomb. You had to be careful where you put your feet or into the drink you went.” [iii]

 

This photo, found at this website months ago (it appears to be removed) may have been the exact pier Harrold recalled decades later.

This photo, found at this website months ago (it appears to be removed) may have been the exact pier Harrold recalled decades later.

 

Summer in Dutch Harbor area was wet and muddy.  Herold saw “…boards for sidewalks and lots of mud…a wooden roller rink and some Aleutian kids skating on it.”[iv]

S-27 had just hours to take on supplies, fuel, and the new charts of the Aleutians she would now be patrolling before setting out again.

Seen attached to its original identifying record, this photograph shows an S-boat in Dutch Harbor taken about a month before this incident. US Navy Photo

Seen attached to its original identifying record, this photograph shows an S-boat in Dutch Harbor taken about a month before this incident. US Navy Photo

Her mission:  inspect the Aleutians, especially Amchika Island, the next island east of Kiska, to see if the Japanese had advanced there, before proceeding to recon Kiska.  The military had to know if the Japanese were consolidating their gains or advancing as fast as possible through the Alaskan islands. At Kiska, S-27 would three other sister S-submarines patrolling various sectors too.

The summer days this far north are eighteen hours long, and the S-27, working in assumed enemy territory, had to patrol submerged during the day, and charge her batteries on the surface during the short night.

S-27 reached Amchitka on 18 August and inspected the old Constantine Harbor with their periscope.  The Japanese had bombed the small evacuated community there, flattening half the structures (three) but leaving the rest, including the old Russian Orthodox Church, still standing.  There were no other signs of Japanese troops.

From here, Jukes had two routes to head west for Kiska: either go around Amchitka to the north, or the south.  Along Amchitka’s northern shore was Rat Island, Little Sitkin Island, and  Semisopochnoi Island.  Scuttlebutt said Semisopochnoi was where the Japanese were building an advance base, which would include a radio, and air patrols.  All of these would limit S-27’s movements and escape options.  So Jukes took his crew south before heading west, where in an emergency, he could head south to unobstructed deep water.[v]

 

The Fatal Fog

The charts of Amchitka and the Aleutians the crew of S-27 had were the most up to date available, as were the tide tables, but there was still insufficient information[vi].  Every night, Jukes ordered his submarine to set a course at least five miles from the nearest land whenever she surfaced for a night’s battery charge.[vii]  It was no different on this night.   S-27 started her engines, but not her props, and “Laid To” during the charge.  This meant that the S-27 was stationary (or so they thought) during the charge period, so both her engines could charge the batteries as quickly as possible.

The currents in the Aleutians are strange, and unusual.  The most experienced of Alaska’s navigators and captains know the currents change based on the tides, the moon phase, amount and movement of ice and icebergs in the water, among many other factors[viii]. With few tide tables to guide him, Jukes had manually tested the currents all the morning…they mostly registered at 1 to 2 knots, heading in various directions as they moved around Amchitka, but nothing strong, and at five miles south of Amchitka, there seemed to be no real current at all.  Jukes, confident that S-27 would be sufficiently far from land in case of the normal currents they’d encountered earlier, left orders to wake him if trouble or land was spotted.

The night watch began.

However, after the fog rolled in, S-27 drifted into a strong current, heading northwest.

In an era before GPS, ships at sea could navigate through the sun’s position or the stars.

Unless it was overcast.

They could use Direct Reckoning, calculating position based on landmarks.

Unless those landmarks are lost in fog.

They could have used sonar to map the ocean’s floor and find the shoals.

If it didn’t give away their position to the nearby enemy.

They could use radar.

If they had it.  They didn’t. [ix]

They could use the fathometer, to measure the depth of water beneath the hull to keep out of shallow waters surrounding islands.

If they had that, which they didn’t either.  They did have a lead weight on a string if they needed to measure depth.  But the waves had been washing over the deck during the night as the 27 charged her batteries, making such measurements too dangerous for any crewman. [x]

Everyone trusted their earlier measurements of little to no detectable currents, and the distance from any land to protect them, as it always had before.

But at some point, the S-27 moved into a fast current that pushed her, quickly, smoothly, five miles off course.  When the battery was charged, Kreuger gave the order to set the pre-ordered course. The fog gave only seconds of warning.  Now, the S-27 was hopelessly trapped and taking on water.

After sending a distress call to any and all US Navy vessels in the area, asking for a tow off the rocks, Jukes set his men to work doing what they could to save themselves.

For a couple of hours, they tried to back her over the rocks.  Releasing the ballast water and even most of her fuel, only made S-27   more unstable.  George Herold, in his bunk in the Forward Torpedo Room, had been jolted awake in the crash.  Now, as 27 rolled and twisted, his friend Nelly[7] said, “Are we on railroad tracks or something?” [xi]

27’s starboard prop crashed into a rock as she rolled in the surf.  It was soon smashed beyond use. The only remaining prop, on her portside, proved it could not power the boat over the rocks back to deep water.

 

3:30 am: About three hours after grounding, Jukes and his crew hadn’t heard a word from the outside world.  S-27 was still water tight, but as the foul weather and swells continued, she took tremendous, ongoing abuse.  Short of help arriving before dawn, S-27’s riveted hull probably wouldn’t make it.   With no radio interceptions at all from the outside world, they all silently faced the fact rescue was unlikely.

The crew of the S-27 was on their own.

 

Part two coming soon…

Taken from the official naval investigation of the incident, this is the S-27 trapped on Amchitka's shore.

Taken from the official naval investigation of the incident, this is the S-27 trapped on Amchitka’s shore.  From this perspective, her bow on the left, hidden behind the rock, and her stern, raised out of the water, is on the right.

Footnotes

[1] I was unable to find Kreuger’s hometown with certainty.  If anyone knows it, please let me know, I’d love to include it.   His place of last enlistment was San Diego in 1936, but many sailors, (including about a quarter of S-27’s crew) re-upped in San Diego.  If the ’36 enlistment was a re-enlistment, that’s most likely not his hometown.

[2] Approximately west north-west.

[3] Not quite 7 mph

[4] Southwest

[5] This is now known as “The Dolittle Raid”

[6] In the aftermath of the Aleutian invasion, many native Aleut populations were evacuated from the Aleutian Islands. By some accounts, people were forcibly resettled, mostly to camps on the Alaskan Panhandle. However, it was too late for the two small settlements on Attu and Kiska. A village of around 45 people on Attu, including 15 children, and the hired schoolmaster and his wife, were captured.  The schoolteacher, Charles Jones, did not survive the invasion, though whether he committed suicide to prevent capture, or was shot by soldiers is still unclear.  His wife, Etta, was separated from the others and shipped to Japan, where she would remain until repatriation in October 1945. In September 1942, as the Japanese mostly left Attu to consolidate Kiska against the incoming American invasion, the remaining Aleut Attu residents were taken to a POW or work camp in Hokkaido, where they spent the rest of the war digging pottery clay for the Japanese war effort.   Sixteen died.  When the survivors returned to the USA and Alaska, after the war, they were not allowed, due to small population, to return to Attu. Attu is uninhabited. [6]

On Kiska, ten American servicemen forming a weather detachment, were also captured.  (One managed to escape and hide for 50 days, before he surrendered, starving and cold.)  Between the Japanese and American efforts, the Aleutians were vacant from Dutch Harbor to the Russian line, allowing either military to build or reinforce the islands.  ( Merrit and Fuller, The Environment of Amchitka, pgs. 120-125)

[7] This is likely Fireman, Second Class Roe D Nelson, from Kansas City, MO

 

References:

[i] Testimony of Theodore Kreuger, Investigation into the loss of S-27, pg 14

[ii] (Jukes, 1942)pg. 3

[iii] Herold, George, the Loss of USS S-27; Commander Submarine Force, US Pacific Fleet

[iv] ibid

[v] Jukes, 1942, Pg. 1-2

[vi] Testimony of Lt. Cmdr Carl Anderson, investigation into the loss of S-27

[vii] Jukes, 1942, Pg. 1-2

[viii] Testimony of Lt. Cmdr Carl Anderson, Investigation into the loss of S-27

[ix] The above limitations of s-27’s capabilities drawn from Testimony of Lt. Frank Smith, investigation into the Loss of S-27, pgs 4 – 17

[x] Testimony of Boatswain Kreuger, Investigation into the Loss of S-27 pgs. 14- 22

[xi] Herold, George, The The Silent Service in WWII , pg 51