USS Amberjack: Lost around 16 February 1943

Posted by Rebekah
Feb 17 2014

The Amberjack sat on her building ways on December 7, 1941.  One of many planned submarines, she was soon finished, tested, commissioned and sent to the Pacific, where she and her sisters were, in many respects, the largest and most complete line of defense against the Japanese.

AMBERJACK just before her commissioning.

Her first patrol was extremely successful for a new crew.  AMBERJACK’s commanding officer, John Archibald Bole, had commanded the S-21 before the war, but the AMBERJACK was one of the new fleet boats, will all the luxuries the S-boats lacked: air conditioning, clothes washers, refrigerated food storage, and a bunk for (almost) every man.  Amberjack, like her sisters, was also longer, wider, deeper diving, and farther ranging than the old S-boats.  Bole was expected, especially with the new unrestricted warfare declaration for the submarine force, to go deep in Japanese territory and bring the war to the enemy before the surface fleet could even start to refloat and recover.

Her first patrol was amazingly successful.  Leaving Pearl on 20 August, 1942, AMBERJACK headed for New Ireland and the Solomon Islands.  Three days in, she fired at her first target, but the torpedoes missed.  She didn’t miss her second chance, which came the next day, and broke the troop ship SHIROGANE MARU in two, sending her to the ocean’s floor.

Three weeks and two failed attack later (including AMBERJACK’s first thorough depth charge attack,) she fired two torpedoes at a coal freighter.  One blew the bow open, but the ship doggedly cdrive herself forward, trying to escape.  AMBERJACK took up the chase, with both vessels firing deck guns at each other an hour in.  The freighter hoped to scare off her hunter, the Amberjack tried to finish the job.  Both stayed too far out of range to do any damage.

The sun set, and AMBERJACK lost sight of her target.  The freighter may have breathed a sigh of relief.  But AMBERJACK’s new Radar system pinged the freighter 8,000 yards off the starboard bow.  AMBERJACK moved closer, startling the freighter, who zigged out of the way of AMBERJACK’s first shot.  Amberjack fired again, and caught her prey, the SENKAI MARU.  She sank, many of her crew evacuating on lifeboats for nearby Kavieng.

A few days later, lurking in Kavieng Harbor, AMBERJACK fired at four vessels sitting anchored, hitting and sinking the Tonen Maru II.  A whale (slaughter) factory ship now converted tanker, it sank to the bottom of the harbor…which was too shallow to fully engulf the TONEN.  Amberjack claimed her kill, believing the TONEN MARU too damaged to be used again.

(Indeed, five days later, the Allies, who had long since cracked the Japanese military’s secret codes, intercepted this message, which AMBERJACK included in her War Patrol Report:

Excerpt from War Patrol Report, First War Patrol, USS Amberjack, SS-219, page 18. From The Japanese eventually raised the TONEN MARU (II), and put her back to work. Submarine PINTADO put a permanent end to her on 22 August, 1944.


But now AMBERJACK was running into trouble.  She decided “it was not advisable to linger around” (you think?) and headed to sea.  But the calm seas betrayed her.  AMBERJACK’s ballast tanks had started to leak under the pressure of the patrol’s many attacks and counterattack, and streams of bubbles trickled out of ballast tanks #2 adn #6.  The planes guarding Kavieng Harbor tracked her down, dropping multiple depth charges, forcing AMBERJACK to stay down.  In addition, the attack periscope was broken and nearly useless, and sonar had been knocked completely out, renderning AMBERJACK deaf (and to a submarine, half-blind as well).

Bole decided to head for the nearest safe port, Espritu Santo Island.  While her own crew tried to repair her ballast tanks to get her safely to Australia, the Navy decided, “As long as you’re here, could you swing by…” AMBERJACK would transport aviation gas (in a modified fuel tank), bombs and fifteen pilots to Pacific battlefield Guadalcanal (and halfway there the Navy woudl say, “Wait, never mind, drop them off a Tulagi instead.” [1]

She returned to triumph at Brisbane, claiming three sinkings for her first patrol, a very respectable record.

Her second patrol was more disappointing.  No torpedoes hit their targets (this was during the time the Mark XIV torpedoes were proving they had multiple problems) and AMBERJACK had several close calls.  She returned to Brisbane on January 11, 1943, claiming no kills.

There was, however, an interesting surprise on this patorl, the morning of November 29, 1942.

Just south of Shortland Island, the AMBERJACK, patrolling submerged, saw a bizarre submarine.  Before the war, all navies kept records on the silhouettes and capabilities of other navy’s ships.  The Americans knew about the Japanese K and J type submarines (the submarines that acted as mother subs for the midget subs that attacked Pearl Harbor in conjunction with the airplanes on December 7, 1941. ) and had provided photographs and silhouettes of these submarines to American submarine crews.

But heading into Shortland’s south harbor, was a Japanese submarine AMBERJACK’s CO had never seen.   She was too far away to attack, and moved so fast, AMBERJACK soon gave up the chase, but she looked so different, the CO drew a picture, complete with labels to show the unusual aspects of the submarine, and included it in the War Patrol Report.  Here it is: Ship Contact #5, the strange submarine:

Taken from the Appendix of Second War Patrol, USS AMBERJACK, 1942-1943. from You can clearly see some of the unique aspects of what will later become known to the American's as a B-type Japanese Submarine. Image is larger, and more detailed. Click for larger copy.

As it would turn out, this was one of Japan’s newest submarines, the B1 Type submarine.  They were similar to the Gato-class submarine the American Navy was using, in that they were numerous and the workhorses of the Japanese Submarine Force.  But there were some interesting differences the Japanese were experimenting with.

The B1 type submarine (the I-15 in this case), which is the class of submarine AMBERJACK saws the morning of 29 November 1942. Wikipedia Commons.


That “island” in front of the conning tower?  That’s an airplane hanger for a small scouting plane, the Yokosuka E14Y1 Glen Seaplane, which was used for scouting missions.  AMBERJACK apparently wouldn’t see the collapsable airplane crane that was lashed to the foreward deck, and of course, the launching catapult was folded flush under the deck when the plane wasn’t in use.

How does a plane fit in there?  They were modular, and the wings were removed and stowed alongside the body.  This cross section, courtesy of this blog, shows how this submarine was put together.

Cross Section of a B1-type submarine, similar to the one spotted by AMBERJACK. From this blog

The B-type Japanese submarines were a really interesting bunch, and would accomplish a number of fascinating missions, including going to Europe, lifeguarding Japanese pilots…off Hawaii’s coast, and attacking the US Mainland (successfully).

The submarine AMBERJACK spotted that morning was likely the I-31, one of several submarines that were supplying the Japanese forces on Guadalcanal and other Solomon Island strongholds, by smuggling in men and supplies from Truck (Chuuk Atoll) to Guadalcanal, to Shortland Island, and back.  I-31 was the only Japanese submarine to dock at Shortland, coming from the southerly direction of Guadalcanal, as AMBERJACK reported.  I-31 was only 6 months old when she was spotted, and only had another six months or so to live.  On 12 May, 1943, while running cargo between Japanese installations on the Alaskan Islands of Attu and Kiska, she fired a torpedo at the American Battleship, PENNSYLVANIA, survivor of Pearl Harbor.   PENNSYLVANIA’s aerial escort dropped a smoke bomb to mark the submarine’s postition, and three nearby destroyers, the USS PHELPSUSS FARRAGUT ad USS EDWARDS hunted her down.  Ten hours of relentless cat-and-mouse-and-depth-charges later, the I-31 was forced to surface–and cut down by EDWARDS’s guns.  She sank in nearly 6,000 feet of water, and has not been discovered as of this date.

But all of that was in the future, and AMBERJACK, who spotted the strange new submarine I-31 that morning, had a shorter lifespan than the sub she’d just reported.

AMBERJACK’s third patrol was her final one, and what she did was pieced together by the Navy afterward.

She left Brisbane on January 26, 1943, to once again patrol the Solomon Islands and provide support for the ongoing Guadalcanal Campaign.  The JApanese were frantically evacuating over 117,000 troops from Guadalcanal, and using submarines as cover.  AMBERJACK’s mission would have involved reconnaissance in addition to “unrestricted warfare” (i.e. “If it flies a Japanese Flag and you can get a good shot, SINK IT!” On February 3, she radioed base, reporting that she’d made contact with a Japanese submarine south of Shortland Island (again) on Feb 1 (Was likely the I-9 running between Guadalcanal and Shortland, arriving at Shortland that day), and sunk a two masted schooner on the 3rd. The next day, the 4th, she radioed home to say she had hit a freighter, which as apparently carrying a large supply of explosives, with the results one would expect from blowing apart an explosives-laden freighter.

This sinking inspired this painting "Night Battle" by E.V. Vandos. Part of the Naval History Department. From

However, in the process, A Lt. Stern was hit in the hand from gunfire from the freighter’s crew.  When Pharmacist’s Mate Arthur Beeman ran to help the Lt., he was hit and killed.

The next day, she radioed to report that after her last report, she’d been chased and forced down by two determined Japanese destroyers.  On surfacing, AMBERJACK discovered a Japanese Aviator floating in the sea.  His plane had come down, and AMBERJACK took him aboard, intending to bring him back to Brisbane.  (Apparently) in response to HQ’s question, AMBERJACK decided they did not need to replace their Pharmacist’s mate immediately, and would finish out their patrol.

It was the last message AMBERJACK ever sent.

For three week, HQ sent message after message to AMBERJACK, telling her to move here, or there, or perform reconnaissance on various islands.  AMBERJACK never responded, but this wasn’t unusual: submarine CO’s were allowed to not respond if they felt the chance the Japanese would intercept a radio message and use it to track down a submarine was higher than the value of responding to a simple “move here”, message.  But on March 5, with AMBERJACK’s scheduled patrol winding down, HQ ordered her to respond and check in.

No response.

Five more days passed, and AMBERJACK was due to arrive in port.  Submarines were supposed to radio ahead with an ETA so the various aerial and sea patrols did not attack and sink a friendly submarine returning from patrol.  AMBERJACK never showed.

The Navy decided that she must have been lost sometime after Valentine’s Day, 1943. The families would have to be told.

Then, fifteen days later, on March 25, military intelligence, still reading Japan’s “encrypted” radio messages, intercepted and decrypted a notification that proved to be AMBERJACK’s final chapter.  She’d been lost on February 16, two days after her final message.  The message, as it now appears in AMBERJACK’s file, appears below:

Taken from "Report of the Loss of AMBERJACK". From

AMBERJACK’s loss was publicly announced around 13 June, 1943, nearly four months after her loss.

In honor of AMBERJACK and her lost crew, AMBERJACK’s name was given to a new, planned TENCH-class submarine.  Completed after the war, AMBERJACK (II) had a long and successful career during the Cold War.  Eventually, she was sold to Brazil, who changed her name to the Ceara.  I cannot find any publicly available documentation about AMBERJACK (II)’s disposition, so it is possible that she is still around somewhere in Brazil’s Naval dockyards.

AMBERJACK (II) following her GUPPY conversion ca. 1947-1948.


In the 1970’s a memorial to AMBERJACK and her lost crew was erected in Charleston, South Carolina.


The Amberjack Memorial as it currently appears in Charleston, South Carolina. Image courtesy of Ted Kerwin, Creative Commons attribution license.


To date, her wreck has not been found or documented.

To the crew of the AMBERJACK, “May you rest your oars, sailor”.  And Thank You.

For more information:

On Eternal Patrol’s Page honoring AMBERJACK’s lost crew


[1] Tulagi is a small island just north of Guadalcanal, which the Marines had taken after a one-day battle the August 7, earlier that year.  It also was the base to a PT-boat contingent, including one PT-109 and it’s soon to be commander, a young John Fitzgerald Kennedy.




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