Posts Tagged ‘Manning Kimmel’

Robalo’s last known position, and Redfin’s unexpected return

Uncategorized, Where was Flier 66 years ago today? | Posted by Rebekah
Jul 02 2010

Two things occurred today that impact our story, and neither of them involve Flier. She’s still puttering her way south, in the neighborhood of Exmouth Gulf, though she’ll skip re-fueling and just head strait for Fremantle.

Also today, the condition of Torpedoman Pluta on the Redfin is serious enough that HQ ordered the Redfin to terminate her patrol early, and make for Darwin using the Sibutu Passage head SE and exit the war area east of Timor Island.  Apparently, there was no one else near enough to take him aboard, so they had to head for the nearest Allied medical facility, which happened to be 1,600 miles away, as the crow flies.  Poor Pluta.  It was going to be a hard five day run.

The Solid Green line indicates Robalo's prjected path based on the three known points at which she was seen or detected using radar, plus her last reported position. Everything from here on out will be dotted, meaning, conjectured. Some of her track will be guessed at based partially on Flier's orders and Crevalle's path through the strait. The dotted yellow line is the rough path that Redfin has just been ordered to take to get Pluta to Darwin. Good thing they'll remember it, it'll come in handy before they know it.

Most importantly, today is the last transmission from the Robalo, revealing her location.  Her orders were to take Lombok, Makkasar, to the Celebes Sea to Balabac Straits (the same route Captain Crowley would be given in a month).  She radioed her position, as you see above, just off the eastern coast of Borneo, having just spotted a 3-ship convoy made up of a battleship and two destroyers with air cover.

What happens to her from this point forward will be mostly conjecture.  Until someone finds her wreck, we may not know what happened.  For all we know, the convoy that she just reported (and I cannot find any reference saying that she intended to attack said convoy) found her and took her out right there near Borneo, though the evidence strongly suggests she at least made it to Balabac.  If she stayed on schedule, she would have reached it within 24 hours from this point.

Homeward and Outbound

Uncategorized, Where was Flier 66 years ago today? | Posted by Rebekah
Jun 30 2010

Flier is still working her way slowly homeward.  She continued through the Sulu Sea, the Sibutu Passage and is currently in the Makkassar Strait, and crossed the Equator today, officially landing her in the Southern Hemisphere.

Flier is heading for the exit of the war at Lombok Straits and about to run across a native fishing vessel.  More on that another day.

Red is Flier heading for Fremantle, Yellow is Redfin, patrolling in the Philippines, Green are the two confirmed hits on Robalo as she leaves Fremantle and heads to her patrol area.

Redfin, meanwhile, was in the midst of patrol aound the Visaya Islands in the Philippines, and  had been fairly successful, sinking two ships.  Today, a new wrinkle came up:  Torpedoman Leonard Pluta was diagnosed with acute appendicitis.  Some cases will heal themselves, and the sub Pharmacist’s Mates were under strict instructions to not attempt any more appendectomies.  Pluta was treated with Sulpha drugs and ice packs and put under observation for 24 hours to try to keep the infection under control, and wait and see for more direction.

Today, the Flier and the Robalo met for the last time.  I found two references to the Robalo on 6/28 when she was sighted by the crew of the Gunnel, returning from patrol.  Since they met on the friendly side of Lombok, the Gunnel reported that they closed with the Robalo closely enough that Captain Kimmel and Captain John McCain of the Gunnel could talk in the open air.  (And if you’re wondering, yes, that particular Captain McCain is the father of recent presidential candidate and current Arizona Senator John McCain III)

Two days later, sixty-six years ago today, the Flier made a ship’s contact, which they decided was a submarine, most likely a Robalo, though the two vessels were already far apart from each other when Flier’s radar picked up on Robalos’ presence and since they were moving in opposite directions, they soon lost each other.

These are two of the last contacts with Robalo, and strangely enough, as far as I can tell from the records, this is the last time Robalo will be seen by another US naval vessel.    The last contact will be from Robalo herself, and everything we know about her from that point forward will be a matter of conjecture.

Rounding out the Robalo for now

Where was Flier 66 years ago today? | Posted by Rebekah
Apr 26 2010

We’ll finish the story of the Robalo today, though it will play out for a few more days.

Shortly after deciding to stay on patrol for 48 more hours to see if his radio tech could fix the Sonar, Robalo sighted a convoy and chased them for several hours, but were always too far away to set up an attack.  Given Robalo’s condition, that might have been a good thing!

Almost 36 hours after deciding to stay out, Robalo’s Radio Technician fixed the Sonar, and Kimmel decided to stay out for as long as the Sonar stayed fixed.  If something happened to the Sonar or the only semi-working periscope, they were going to turn around and head for home immediately.

Robalo stayed out for the remainder of her patrol, which ended up being very dangerous, but successful, and some said, overly agressive.  When she returned to Fremantle, she submitted SIX PAGES of items that needed fixing, most as a direct or indirect result of the APril 24 airplane bombing and a depth charge attack that later occured.

According to some sources, there were other submarine commanders and Admiral Christie were concerned that Kimmel might be a bit too eager to redeem his family’s honor, or too aggressive in attacking the enemy, or risking his ship.  After all, the argument went, most submarine commanders would have returned home after surviving a bombing like that. 

But, it could not be argued that Robalo had sunk a valuable freighter, and survived. 

In addition, submarine commanders were encouraged to be aggressive and take out the enemy.  The Wahoo had been commanded by Dudly “Mush” Morton who accomplished incredible feats, sinking 20 ships (including one patrol where they sank 8, ) and sucessfully invading the Sea of Japan before Wahoo met her fate in 1943.  The Harder was commanded by Sam Dealey who had taken out an impressive talley of 12 ships in three patrols and was in the midst of a very successful fourth patrol.  Creed Burlingame and later John Coye of the Silversides had ranked up 11 and 14 ships between them, respectively, and Coye showed no signs of stopping.  None of those scores came without significant risk to men and boat, and risks that were sucessful were rewarded with medals, commendations, and promotions, for the men of the boats as much as for the officers.  There were often more complaints from a submarine’s crew about a passive skipper who let convoys pass them by than there were captains who took semi-crazy risks to attack.

But where did the line that seperates a superbly aggressive submarine commander who knows just how far he can push his boat and crew (before either push back) from an overly aggressive and dangerous one, fall?

Kimmel came close to losing his command of the Robalo, partially for his own good and the safety of his crew, but the fact that Kimmel’s own writing showed that he was aware of his boat’s weaknesses and ready to turn if anything more happened, and likely recommendations from his men, allowed him to take the Robalo out again.

But the question of his possible aggressiveness would raise questions in September, when he couldn’t defend himself.

Where was Flier 66 years ago today? | Posted by Rebekah
Apr 25 2010

Kimmel, aboard the Robalo, decided to first see how many repairs could be done at sea before deciding whether or not to head back to port.  It took nearly 24 hours and two dives to get the submarine fairly operational again, which says a lot about the ability of submarine crews to maintain their own boats in a pinch.

However, there were several things that simply were too specialized to be fixed: the periscopes, the Sonar Soundhead, the SJ Radar and the 4-inch deck gun.  These were serious problems since it left Robalo fairly blind, down a weapons system, and possibly unable to track any convoys.

Kimmel was in a tight spot, but decided to stay out a few days.  The following is an excerpt from April 25th’s entry in Robalo’s War Patrol Report:

“The SJ Radar is in the doubtful class but the technician feels he can get it working.  If he can, we will continue patrol, otherwise I think it better that we return for repairs.  Will give him a couple of days to get it working.”

Robalo’s Airplane Damage

Where was Flier 66 years ago today? | Posted by Rebekah
Apr 24 2010

By April 23, 1944, Redfin, badly shaken from her compromised rescue attempt, was making good time home through Makkasar Strait.  Flier, of course, is finishing her trials and is having photographs taken.

Robalo had entered her patrol area in the South China Sea.  She had to skirt a little south to avoid a very shallow reef known as “Dangerous Ground”, and started looking for targets.  On her first day, she sighted a submarine, but decided not to attack, since it was quite likely it was an American or Allied submarine.  Since it did not attack Robalo, they simply passed each other.

Robalo is patrolling the South China Sea, the same assigned patrol area Flier was assigned to when she went down. Redfin, somewhere in that scribble, is once again headed home through Makkassar Strait, this time with no more interruptions.

Robalo approached Southern Indo-China (now known as Vietnam).  In her war patrol reports for the day, she noted passing through an oil slick (sometimes a mark of a damaged or sunken ship or submarine) and a small sailboat.

Then, at 5:30 in the evening (1732 hours, for the purists!) the Robalo was surprised by a “Betty” that had snuck up on them by hiding in the glare of the sun.  A “Betty” was the American nickname for a Japanese Bomber.  Robalo dove quickly, hearing the first explosion before she got fully underwater. They dove so quickly in fact, that the air intake valve to the engines wasn’t closed fast enough, then jammed partially closed, allowing water to spray into the engine room.  The XO noticed on the “Christmas Tree” (the panel of lights that told the diving officer whether all of the important valves and hatches were closed) showed that valve was neither open or closed, and went back to help close that valve by hand.

If Robalo thought they had narrowly adverted a disaster, they were wrong.  At 55 feet under, before the periscopes had fully submerged, the Betty struck again, striking Robalo so close, she was thrown violently to one side, then lost dive control.

She plunged wildly, and the men scrambled to re-gain control, because if they didn’t, she would be crushed by the weight of the water.  They manged to stop the descent at 350 degrees, but the problems were only just beginning.

The “normal” damage was noted: dishes and lightbulbs smashed, blades of fans sheered off, the cork lining of the walls cracked and fallen in places.

More serious damage started to be reported:  the SJ Radar was completely out of commission, the Conning Tower hatch leaked, the JP Sound Head, the hydrophone that picked up the underwater sounds was out of commission and stiff, the hydraulic steering was badly leaking so Robalo could steer slowly, and she leaked a lot of oil.

She surface quickly, (thankfully, the seas and skies were clear), and checked the exterior.  The picture wasn’t any better.  All external running lights were smashed, the pelorus (used to take readings and bearings off of landmasses to figure the position of the submarine) was destroyed, two antennae were down, the antennae trunk was flooded due to its smashed insulator caps, causing problems in the radio room.   The Number One Periscope was shattered, flooded and useless.  The Number Two Periscope’s low power was ruined, high power had been jarred and the field covered in black spots.  Gaskets to two ballast tanks leaked, the 4-inch deck gun cap was split and cracked, the targeting sights bent beyond use, and the the auxiliary engine exhaust vents closed so exhaust couldn’t be vented outside.

A CO’s first responsibility was the care of his submarine and crew and the list of the damage Robalo sustained was enough that most CO’s probably would have turned for the nearest Submarine Base or Tender, terminating the patrol early.  Kimmel decided to give his crew the chance to do as many repairs as they could.  It would take over 24 hours.

Robalo Underway…and Farewell Thresher

Lost Subs, Where was Flier 66 years ago today? | Posted by Rebekah
Apr 11 2010

Sorry it took me so long to get back to the blog.

Saturday marked the 66th anniversary of Robalo leaving on her final complete patrol (her next one will be the fatal one) and the 47th anniversary of America’s first nuclear submarine disaster.

But first, the Robalo.  Sixty-six years ago yesterday, the Robalo pulled up anchor in Fremantle and took off for her second patrol, the first one under Commander Kimmel.  This patrol would be safe and successful, but would raise questions in September about the eventual fate of the Robalo.

The Robalo, underway in 1943

Fast forward to 1963.  While some WWII diesel boats ARE still in service, the American Navy is quickly replacing them with teardrop-shaped nuclear boats.  First the Nautilus in 1954, then the Seawolf III in 1957 (a liquid sodium cooling system that was quickly abandoned) and on an on, developing, improving, tweaking and changing, all under the intense (and some would say, terrifying) eye of Admiral Hymen G. Rickover.  Nine years of nuclear submarines and brand new technology in a dangerous and demanding environment without a massive loss.

Until April 10, 1963.  The USS Thresher, lead ship of her class, was at sea doing routine exercises.  A year earlier, she had been accidentally rammed by a tug boat during another exercise, and had been overhauled, and so was out testing all the new repairs.  She was accompanied by the Submarine Rescue Ship Skylark, just in case there were difficulties.

The Thresher, underway from the air. Notice the evolution in twenty years from a submarine like Robalo which was designed to fight and travel on the surface as well as temporarily underwater to the Thresher, which was designed to do everything underwater.

Just before 8 am, the submarine began a dive to her (officially published) test depth of 1300 feet.   She descended past a thermocline (see below) which caused her transmissions to be more garbled and difficult to hear.  Skylark kept calling Thresher, and, at 9:13 am, heard a very garbled but understandable message:  “Experiencing minor difficulty, have positive up-angle, attempting to blow.  Will keep you informed.”

The Skylark assured Thresher the sea was empty, in case she had to do an emergency surface.  Three minutes later, a garbled message was received, including the phrase “900N” the meaning of which is still unknown.   A minute after that, another garbled message, with only one intelligible phrase “…exceeding test depth…”  One minute later, the Skylark heard a low-frequency noise.  It sounded like an implosion.

That was it.  Nothing more was ever heard from the Thresher, though Skylark spent hours calling Thresher, asking her to respond via radio, smoke bomb, or any other means to show they were okay.

So 47 years ago today, the Navy announced the USS Thresher was lost at sea, with all hands, plus 19 civilian observers, a total of 129 people.

Dr. Robert Ballard, who would discover the Titanic a few weeks later (and those discoveries were connected),  discovered the remains of the Thresher in 1982.   From what was theorized in ’63 and confirmed in the imploded wreckage in ’82, the Thresher likely had a pipe burst in the engine room, flooding it.  These pipes were not welded like today’s subs (actually, the Thresher disaster is WHY modern sub pipes and hulls are welded) they were silver brazed, and it was known that there were some problems with some joints, though it was not considered a dangerous enough problem to need to fix.

This photograph is part of Thresher's hull, the white paint seen here used to say "593", the hull number of the Thresher. The Thresher was the lead ship of her class ("Thresher Class Submarines") but following her loss, many people called the class "Permit Class Submarines" after Thresher's next sister.

The water spray probably shorted out some electrical systems, prompting an automatic emergency shutdown of the nuclear reactor.  The ship tried to blow her ballast tanks, to surface, but later tests showed ice probably formed in the valves, keeping the ballast tanks water filled.  With the Engine Room flooding, the sub eventually sank, went past her crush depth and imploded. She tore herself into six main pieces.

The only mercy might be that when death finally came, it was nearly instantaneous.

Upon discovering the submarine had gone down due to mechanical failure (not Soviet interference) the US Navy instituted the SUBSAFE program, designed to rigorously and obsessively track and document the quality of construction of US Submarines (for example, welds are X-rayed to make sure there are no weak spots or air bubbles that would give way under pressure, and those X-rays are stored in case something happens to the sub) to make sure that slipshod construction never cost another crew their lives again.  Such attention to detail is one of the reasons why a submarine is, foot for foot, the most expensive naval vessels to build.

It was a sad end to 129 gallant souls the largest loss of life in a single submarine incident in American History.  May they rest in peace.

SO WHAT’S A THERMOCLINE?  The top surface of the ocean is repeatedly warmed by the sun by day and cooled at night.  The deeper the ocean goes, the cooler and more steady the temperature gets.  This does not happen at a steady rate.  A Thermocline is a layer in the ocean where the temperature falls more quickly than the layer above and below.  Thermoclines are very important for submarines, since they can be used to hide under and help deflect Sonar.  As the Thresher story shows, however, thermoclines can work against a submarine.

On Eternal Patrol’s Memorial Page for USS Thresher