Posts Tagged ‘Dutch Harbor’

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