Why Imperial Japan Really, Really Hated This American Submarine
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Key point: This submarine did a lot of damage and would accomplish many missions. Here is her story.
On October 9, 1943 at 12:30 p.m., Commander Edward S. Hutchinson discovered his first goals as a submarine commander. His boat, the USS Rasher, was on her first war cruise in Brisbane, Australia, and every man in her was excited about his first taste of blood.
They were in front of Ambon when they saw a pair of freighters zigzagging in submarine protection, which deliberately made stalking difficult and lengthy, but Hutchinson was persistent. Throughout the night he followed the running goals and slowly brought his boat into the torpedo area. When he could start his attack, it was morning. He fixed the targets in his periscope sight and fired a six-torpedo spread. Four missed, but the other two tore open Kogane Maru. The 3,132-ton freighter sank quickly as her sister ship blindly launched deep attacks that did not kill anyone other than unfortunate seamen who had jumped out of Kogane Maru. When the surviving ship rushed to shallow water and her crew was undoubtedly broadcasting news of the attack and its location, Hutchinson turned his submarine back to the open sea.
A choppy sector for the rookie crew
On December 20, 1942, workers had broken the ice at the end of a greased fir tree ramp that led from dry dock into the Manitowoc River outside of Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The boat, which was launched below zero that day, was the submarine of the US Gato-class Navy USS Rasher. Her hull number was 269 and she weighed 1,806 tons. Construction began on May 4th and was the first of 28 dive warships built by the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company during World War II. There were six 21-inch torpedo tubes that opened from the front torpedo room, and the post-torpedo room swung four such tubes. Rasher carried 20 torpedoes during each of her combat patrols.
The 39-year-old Hutchinson, Rasher and their first crew were delivered to the Navy on June 7, 1943. At the end of August, all training and loading was completed and the submarine went to Brisbane for a brief overhaul and combat detachment. After these final preparations, her next date was with the enemy.
New boats with rookie crews were usually sent to calm sectors, but this rule was overlooked for Rasher and her highly trained, state-of-the-art crew. Hutchinson and his command would enter the Makassar Celebes sector, which was full of Japanese supply ships and warships. The final preparations were completed on September 24, and America's future leading submarine gathered north of Brisbane to start hunting.
Dodge two destroyers
On October 13, Rasher's patrol group brought them back to Ambon, and at 1:00 p.m. four Japanese ships chugged out of the harbor while a seaplane hunted beneath them. Two of the ships were destroyers, escorting to two freighters, and when one of the six torpedoes Hutchinson had fired at them proved defective and detonated seconds later, the destroyers were made aware of the presence of the submarine long before their crew had expected this.
Hutchinson shouted for his dive officer to go down, and also ordered full speed to speed up the process. When the Americans crossed the 90-foot mark, they were thrilled with four reverberant reports as their torpedoes popped into the 3217-ton Kenkoku Maru and submerged it in 11,000 feet of water.
The destroyers started with deep charge, but Rasher reached the thermal barrier, where vastly different temperatures in water layers lead to inaccurate sonar values. Chief Pete Sasgen counted 24 hollow explosions that disappeared westward as the frustrated under-hunters couldn't smell their quarry. The Americans appeared two hours later and found the area deserted.
Hutchinson suspected that the destroyers and the surviving transport had withdrawn to the port, and stayed there for the next 24 hours. His prey never reappeared, and the following night he received an intelligence report that took him to the shipping lanes around the Talaud chain 550 miles north. An enemy convoy was due to drive through the area around October 17, and the Allied command gave it high priority.
Take out a tanker
Despite breakdowns in two of the boat's four diesel engines, the submarines came to the Talauds on time, but found only small sailing boats and various fishing vessels. If the fifth column activists had been right about a convoy in the area, he must have taken a different route. The hunt became very bad.
It was 2:30 a.m. on the afternoon of October 31 when Hutchinson's viewpoints spied a tanker's masts that towered above the horizon near the coast of Celebes off Watcher Island. It was an old ship, but so loaded with crude oil that its decks were almost flooded. Another worrying seaplane buzzed overhead, leaving the fighters about seven miles behind their quarry for 51/2 hours before the plane had to take off to refuel.
The ship was obviously on its way to Manado's Japanese-held port, and before circling the Minahassa Peninsula, Hutchinson set up its rear tubes and fired three torpedoes at 10:04 p.m. Two minutes and 29 seconds later, two of the warheads hit and blew the rusty oiler into a spectacular petroleum fire. The ship turned out to be much smaller than the skipper had estimated. The late Koryo Maru had only weighed 589 tons, but had been loaded with the most valuable cargo on the water.
The hunters now drove north to just over the equator and the shipping routes Balikpapan-Truk-Palau. On the afternoon of November 8, Hutchinson was in the tower making a normal periscope sweep when he noticed a column of smoke and a tall mast on the horizon. He barked orders at his men and kept an eye on the target as he positioned his boat for a severe attack. An observer on the tanker's deck pointed his binoculars directly at the approaching periscope, but somehow overlooked it. An escorting patrol boat moved about 2,000 meters to the port side of the oiler, but Hutchinson hardly thought about it as he aimed his ship and launched three torpedoes from 13,000 meters away. Two of the fish hit and blew the stern of the old tanker. It was the 2,046-ton Tango Maru. Unfortunately for the hunters, this victim had been empty and there was no blazing campfire to interrupt their passage. The submarines would not have had time to watch anyway.
The patrol boat was only 1,000 yards from the submarine when the torpedoes exploded, and this time the periscope was visible. The ship pressed on the attacker at full speed and began to discharge deep charges before the Americans could reach the temperature gradient. Although some of the bombs went close enough to rattle the submarine, none were close enough to damage them. At 6:39 a.m., Hutchinson felt safe enough to show up. He thought the seascape was empty.
Late that night, the submarines saw three more ships in Makassar Street and immediately set out, but on the 9th at 1 a.m. another ship appeared on a course that was approaching and approaching the other three Rasher ran together. Hutchinson had swept around to attack the broadside of the target, but continuing on that course would take the newcomer by his side. If he torpedoed the new arrival, his main prey would be warned and escaped. He decided to cancel his finals and change course to approach the original targets with a risky high-speed surface charge.
Rasher turned and headed straight for the unsuspecting traders in the bright moonlight as their husbands prepared their last six torpedoes. When the attackers arrived, the victims accidentally eased the attack by turning 45 degrees to the left, positioning themselves on both sides of the submarine, while allowing easy bow and stern shots. At 1:22 a.m., the submarine spat four rockets from its front tubes and two from the stern. Seconds later, the right cargo ship fired a signal torch to alert the escorting destroyer that something was going on. Someone had seen either the torpedo or the periscope and the destroyer turned to counterattack. A handful of randomly dropped deep charges went far from Rasher. It was a fair exchange - all six torpedoes were missing. It was time for Hutchinson to head for the harbor.
Willard R. Laughon takes command
After his productive cruise on Rasher, Hutchinson was promoted to commander of submarine season 22. Willard R. Laughon took Hutchinson's place. Thirty-nine-year-old Laughon was fresh from submarine patrols off Bermuda.
After extensive drilling to help Laughon and his crew, many of whom were newcomers, form a smoothly functioning unit, Rasher anchored on December 19 and ordered a minefield in the shipping lanes off Indochina's Mekong Delta lay. After this assignment, she should start a normal hunting patrol.
Late on the night of January 3, 1944, Laughon pushed his boat into the shallows off the Indochinese coastal island of Poulo Condore and put on 11 magnetic mines. When the Americans went back towards the deep water, they received a message from the cryptographic department.
Counterintelligence had learned of a convoy that was traveling north from Singapore. It was expected to happen on the 4th around 6:00 p.m. Rasher's current patrol area. Laughon was ordered to meet up with sister submarine Bluefish and wait for the approaching tankers. The submarines were found without much difficulty, and Laughon and Bluefish Skipper, Commander George Porter, planned to attack the convoy from both sides at the same time.
The sea hunters found their quarry exactly where they expected them to be, and Laughon immediately dug in from the right and fired three torpedoes at the third ship in line. Rasher was shaken seconds later when one of the fish exploded only 400 meters ahead of schedule. Japanese sailors immediately opened a wild barrage with deck guns. When Laughon whirled his boat around to carry his stern tubes, he heard explosions behind him as Porter attacked another ship from the port side.
Another kill for Rasher
In the emerging darkness, it was difficult to pull a pearl onto the wildly maneuvering targets. Unable to get a firing angle for his rear tubes, Laughon turned to his intended and charged one. At that point, one of the oil-filled ships exploded in terrible splendor. It was the one Bluefish had shot, and it seemed as if at least one of Rasher's first volleys had hit.
When Laughon positioned himself to do the cripple, the probably undamaged 10,000 ton Kiyo Maru suddenly cut off in front of him. In confusion, the helmsman of this ship prepared his ship for destruction. Rasher launched half a dozen torpedoes at the fat target and was rocked again when two more faulty warheads detonated within seconds. Two minutes and 27 seconds later, one of the four operational torpedoes slammed into the tanker.
When Laughon appeared, he saw a tanker racing south at full speed. He screamed for all-ahead and started to pull in front of the oiler, turn around and shoot from the broadside in the classic end-around attack strategy.
Rasher passed the blazing Hakko Maru that had been hit by Bluefish minutes earlier. She reached her desired position and turned to align her rear tubes. After the submarines fired four torpedoes from 11/2 miles, they listened attentively. Seconds later, two of these spreads exploded prematurely, but less than two minutes later, the other pair hit exactly. The unfortunate tanker rose like a Roman candle and hurled burning crude oil and scraps of hull hundreds of yards in all directions. Twenty minutes later there was nothing on the surface but a burning oil slick.
It turned out that this ship was the same Kiyo Maru that Rasher had just met. The damaged ship that Laughon had almost torpedoed had been Porter's sinking kill, Hakko Maru, which Laughon thought was Kiyo Maru in the dark. A third tanker in this strangely unaccompanied convoy escaped after firing Rasher's first shot.
After a brief conference in which they compared notes and confirmed the killings of the other (Porters Hakko Maru was 6,046 tons), the skippers declared the chaotic, profitable commitment ended.
Rasher's next tour
Late on the night of January 11th, Laughon missed with a four-shot that was fired at a small freighter convoy off Phan Rang. One of the fish exploded so soon after leaving the tube that the concussion broke lightbulbs in the submarine and threw paint chips from the superstructure.
Because the mines had taken up so much space, Rasher had been unable to keep a full inventory of torpedoes on this patrol and had only one left. When the skipper informed COMSUBPAC (Pacific Submarine Command) of the situation, he was ordered back to Fremantle, Australia. In the Buton Passage on the evening of the 17th, Laughon fired his last shot at a 10,500-ton Aikoku-class cargo ship, and this torpedo exploded just 20 seconds after the shot. On January 24, Rasher moored in Fremantle Harbor.
While his crew was resting and his boat was being serviced, Laughon learned that his next tour was for the Surabaya Ambon streets north of Bali. After patrolling there, Rasher should direct her attention to the Celebes Islands north of the Talaud Range and return across the seas of Molukka, Ceram and Banda. Submarines returning from these sectors reported few unaccompanied targets and that Japanese destroyers were better at handling submarine attacks. The number of air patrols had also risen noticeably.
This dangerous situation was one that Laughon had to expose his crew to more than usual, because he was instructed to also photograph convoys, their escorts and coastal fortifications. On February 19, Rasher set off for her third war cruise with new, improved Mark 14 torpedoes.
"Hogging the Show"
On the 24th, Laughon was instructed to meet with the Raton submarine, which Lt. Cmdr. James W. Davis and search Raas Street for two supply ships that were expected there on the evening of February 25th. Rasher and Raton met early in the morning. After making plans to work together, they started hunting shortly before 5 p.m.
At 5:30 a.m., lookout points on board Rasher discovered the masts of the cargo ships. While working in front of the ships, Laughon Davis radioed to inform him of the convoy's position. Shortly after 7 p.m., Rasher shot four upgraded torpedoes at the main target for a moment before turning right to reach the second mark. When her killer was on this new heading, the 6,200-ton target had been torn open. It sank four minutes later. Like a previous victim of this submarine, it was called Tango Maru.
In the meantime, Laughon received a message from Raton informing him that Davis was ready to help in any way that was necessary. Rasher and her men needed no help when they stood on the 4,797-ton Ryusi Maru passenger freighter and fired four more fish. One arrived amidships, a second under the stack, and a third the stern. Ryusi Maru was heavily overloaded, her Plimsoll line well under water. As weighty and wild as it was, it is surprising that it took six minutes to sink.
A few small patrol boats had escorted the freighters, and now they were looking for survivors on the heavy seas instead of trying to attack the Americans. The submarines did not disrupt life-saving operations and headed in different directions after Laughon Davis happily apologized for "shitting the show".
The next morning Rasher arrived outside Cape Mandar and drove leisurely through Makassar Street. There was little to see for almost a week, but on the evening of March 2nd, the submarine that appeared showed a flotilla of small fishing boats, the crews of which they apparently reported to the Japanese.
The next morning bombers showed up. Rasher didn't see the first when her radar man warned enough to get to safety before the fighter plane showed up, but the next slipped under the radar beam at 9:54 a.m., scanning the waves at 300 mph.
Within 30 seconds the submarine was under and crashed. Two bombs detonated far above her when she passed 120 feet. Laughon wondered if the planes could cover ship movements. About an hour after the second bomber's passport, Rasher appeared and her men broke out binoculars.
Seaman First Class with keen eyes Robert Cashel discovered a thin column of smoke on the western horizon at 11:50 a.m. Freighters drove southeast, presumably to deliver weapons, ammunition and various supplies to the Japanese garrison on the Minahassa Peninsula. Laughon submerged his boat and ordered full speed in the hope of cutting off the convoy with three companions. The end worked, and the Americans caught up two rows of freighters with a torpedo boat on each side and a tugboat. Above them was a twin-engine Mitsubishi Ki-21 "Sally" bomber.
"Take it deep!"
Laughon approached the harbor and dutifully took photos through his periscope when the targets suddenly turned south. He later wrote in his report that he suspected the enemy had received news of Rasher's sighting of the aircraft earlier in the day. The submarine was still 8,000 meters from the ships and was unlikely to have been discovered.
Laughon turned south and waited for darkness as the bomber left to refuel. The hunters showed up and made their way to the convoy at 17 knots, but were discovered by gunners on one of the transporters and clung to a hail of grenades from the port escort as it detached itself from the attack. The boat chased Rasher 10 miles before turning back. Rasher was right behind her. Laughon's radar malfunctioned and he decided to go straight into the fleet in a surprise attack.
Covered by darkness, the Americans cheekily stormed at 1,500 meters from the next ship, fired three torpedoes, turned right and fired three more at the following ship. When the first spread hit home, Laughon swung his boat to aim her tail booms at a third target, but she was too close. The ship in question was a troop carrier with masses of panicked soldiers running over their railings, and the ship that Laughon had hoped to drill next came at full steam. It was only 600 meters away and closed. Worse, one of the escorts was out and her searchlight was playing wildly over the dark, churned seascape.
The second torpedo salvo had been missed, but there was no time to worry about it as the cumbersome transport ended up on the submarine. "Take it deep! 300 feet! Flood negative! "croaked Laughon. The massive steamer crew rolled deep attacks from their decks and the escort joined the barrage. The bombs started to explode when Rasher passed 180 feet, rattling but doing little damage. Moments later she was under the heat barrier and the angry Japanese dropped their charges on sonar spirits, and the body of the 6,484-ton Nittai Maru passed Rasher on the way down.
At midnight everything was clear upstairs and Laughon appeared on his boat. The submarines drove through a flotilla of lifeboats filled with drenched Japanese infantrymen, whose comrades had been too panicked to save them, and to the shipping lanes off Balikpapan, where Laughon believed the convoy might be tied.
The Americans found the convoy exactly where they expected it to be and fired two missiles at the nearest ship at 3:02 a.m. on March 5. There were still bugs in the works, and both torpedoes ran too deep and fell beneath the target. The freighter crews still didn't know they were under attack, so Laughon turned his back and fired four properly functioning missiles from the re-tubes. At least two fish struck and triggered the same pandemonium as the night before.
Rasher plowed through the blazing chaos of explosions, screaming men and hammering deck guns, moved freely, and loaded her last four rounds back into the combat area, where it was opened by two escorts. Laughon hastily pulled a pearl onto a third ship, fired the last rocket quartet from a great distance, and roared after a retreat. A full four minutes later, the Americans heard four different warhead detonations.
At 6:30 a.m., Rasher was free of pursuers and received a radio message to return to Darwin to take care of her again and quickly return to her hunting areas. While in port, the crew was angry to learn that they would not receive kill credits for this engagement because they had not actually seen their victims of the March 5 attacks decrease.
Two kills, one loan
On March 9th the submarine was out again. She had just passed the barrier islands adjacent to Timor when an important radio message came in. Naval code-breakers in Hawaii suspected that Admiral Mineichi Koga assembled an operational group of aircraft carriers, battleships, heavy cruisers, and destroyers in Surabaya, Java. US Admiral Ralph Christie was concerned that this new anchorage, just 1,000 miles from mainland Australia, was the last stop before a possible attack on Fremantle-Darwin.
Christie ordered Lt. Cmdr. Chester Nimitz Jr., son of the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, patrols the approach of the Lombok Strait in his submarine Haddo, looking for a major outage. Nimitz's radar picked up several large ships from a great distance, but Haddo could not see within sight.
Laughon was ordered to turn west and take a position above the Lombok Strait should Koga's fleet come this way. If so, Rasher should fire a few shots and then raise the alarm. On March 12, Laughon and his submarine were in their posts.
They spent the next two weeks evading swarming submarine air and sea patrols, and on the 19th they uncorked a four-torpedo that spread on a Japanese submarine. All four missed and both boats hastily left the area before it became difficult.
There were still no signs of Koga's armada, but on the morning of March 27, the sonar spotted a distant row of ships. It was not the expected task force, but a four-ship cargo convoy accompanied by four minesweepers. Laughon pushed the zigzag targets between Rasher and Panerungan Besar Island, approached with his determined aggression and fired six torpedoes at the first two ships on the line. A rocket hit the first ship, the 2,750-ton Nichinian Maru, just behind its stack. Thirteen seconds later, three more torpedoes mortally wounded the second target. At that point, Nichinian Marus' ammunition charge ignited and blew it to pieces. The other ship sank about an hour later.
After the escorts were unsuccessful, Laughon crept closer to attack the remaining pair of freighters, but suddenly three bombers appeared and the submarines cautiously retreated and escaped through the Lombok Strait.
Despite seemingly undeniable evidence from photos taken through the periscope that Rasher had scored two kills in this encounter, Laughon and his crew became only one ship, the Nichinian Maru, in this battle in post-war research based on intercepted Japanese radio communications sunk.
The battle of Buru
On March 29, the hunters were happy to be ordered back to Fremantle. The Koga crisis never happened. When the Allies attacked the Marshall Islands, Koga gave up all plans to attack Australia and ordered his forces to leave their bases on Truk and move west.
Before the next patrol began, Laughon was instructed to bring his boat to Darwin for the final preparations. On May 8th, she weighed her anchor and steamed north into her favorite hunting area.
Two days later, Laughon skillfully pushed his boat into the middle of a convoy off Buru. He drilled two torpedoes into a tanker and one into her escort, set the oiler on fire and crippled her guardian. Still, so many of Rasher's torpedoes were missing from the shootout that they weren't there when it was over. Although the tanker, 1,074 tons of Choi Maru, did not go under, her vital cargo of crude oil burned to the last drop.
After what his crew called the Battle of Buru, Laughon received wireless instructions to open sealed orders. It should take a position in the Java Sea off Surabaya. USS Saratoga and HMS Illustrious fighter planes would launch an attack on Surabaya on the 17th, and Rasher was one of eight submarines ready to receive crashed planes.
No planes went under in Rasher's area, and after the raid, she was ordered to return to Darwin to get fuel and ammunition. She arrived on May 21 and made her way back through the Moluccan Passage the same day.
Turn your back on the Japanese from Biak
On the evening of the 29th, Rasher received critical news immediately after the spectacular jump of the 2,601-ton, gas-laden freighter Anshu Maru. Sister submarines Bluefin and Cabrilla had discovered a large Japanese task force heading for the island of Biak, which General Douglas MacArthur's forces were desperately trying to wrest from the Japanese. If the Allies could take Biak, they would have a valuable bomber base just 600 miles from the Palaus chain. Laughon set course for the Talaud Islands, which were on the fleet's last reported course, but found nothing. He was ordered to Davao Golf on June 2 and came across part of the flotilla late at night.
The Japanese were moving too fast for Rasher to come within range, but Laughon's wireless report made the tension over the whereabouts of the fleet disappear. Then the rest of the Biak-linked attack group appeared. Laughon raised the alarm again and was spotted by the warships. When the Japanese realized that the essential element of the surprise was gone, they gave up the operation and returned to Mindanao. Rasher's mere presence had helped Biak secure victory.
The submarine returned to the Celebes Sea. In the afternoon of June 8, the crew celebrated the first anniversary of the commissioning of their submarine by sinking the 4,000-ton Shioya Maru tanker.
On the 14th, Rasher sprayed torpedoes into another Celebes convoy and sank the 3,183-ton van Koan Maru. The next day, at noon, Laughon deployed his last two missiles into what he believed to be 5,072-ton Kizan Maru outside of Ambon Bay, and then escaped the two sub-hunters who accompanied them. Just before the deep charges started, the Americans heard a protracted, rumbling explosion that made them think they'd sanded another victim, but when they showed up later, they were confused to find nothing on the rain-swept surface.
Although the entire crew heard the torpedoes explode, followed by a magazine or an explosive, Laughon decided not to call for a kill in this latest engagement. Rasher arrived in Fremantle on June 23.
Almost lost at sea
Christie wasn't ready to risk his esteemed hunter on another patrol, so he released Willard Laughon from Rasher's complement and assigned him to the 7th Fleet Submarine Command.
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