Oct 26

On the Edge

Monday, October 26, 2015 4:17 PM


Pictured in 1940, the tender Holland and submarine Sargo (far right) were among the U.S. Navy vessels to reach Fremantle in March 1942.

Pictured in 1940, the tender USS Holland and submarine Sargo (far right) were among the U.S. Navy vessels to reach Fremantle in March 1942.


An adapted excerpt from the new Naval Institute Press book Fremantle’s Submarines: How Allied Submarines and Western Australians Helped to Win the War in the Pacific.


It was against this backdrop of fear and anticipation that the first American submarines arrived at Fremantle. By 10 March 1942, ten U.S. submarines had reached the port, each carrying crews with their own stories of near-disaster. Among the most demoralized was Lieutenant Commander Tyrell Dwight Jacobs, commander of the USS Sargo (SS-188). Shortly after he arrived at Fremantle on 5 March, Jacobs told a senior officer, “I’ve had it. I want to be relieved.”1 It had been barely a year since Jacobs assumed command of the Sargo . Based at Manila when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Jacobs departed the following day for his first war patrol in the area off Cam Ranh Bay, a deep-water port on the coast of Indochina (today Vietnam) used by the Japanese fleet. The Sargo crew fired 13 torpedoes at enemy ships, but all missed, and Jacobs had no explanation for this other than a belief that the torpedoes ran deeper than set or that the magnetic exploders were faulty. With a master’s degree in ordnance engineering, Jacobs understood torpedoes well, and his suspicions that the weapons were faulty would eventually be confirmed. At the time, however, Jacobs received only criticism for his lack of success.2

With the destruction of the American submarine base in the Philippines on 10 December 1941, the Sargo and her crew retreated to the Dutch naval base at Surabaya on the island of Java. Making her second war patrol from the Dutch East Indies, the Sargo delivered a million rounds of .30-caliber ammunition to beleaguered Army troops on the Philippine island of Mindanao. During the patrol the Sargo crew picked up 24 members of the U.S. Army 14th Bombardment Squadron who had escaped from the island of Luzon. The extra men on board made the return voyage to Surabaya uncomfortable, especially after a refrigerating compressor broke down and temperatures in the submarine hovered at over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.3

An article published in the London Times on 27 February 1942 boasted of American submarine successes in the vicinity of Java, claiming that the adjacent waters were “ideal for submarine warfare, and this is one of the most potent arguments in favour of holding Java as an allied base, whatever the cost may be.”4 The reality was quite different. Japanese air raids soon forced the abandonment of Surabaya, and the Sargo ’s next patrol included evacuating 31 Navy personnel to Australia. As the Sargo approached Fremantle, cruising on the surface, lookouts spotted a plane about five miles away. Flying just under a heavy bank of cloud, the twin-engine aircraft appeared to be heading straight for them. Although supposedly in friendly skies, Jacobs ordered the submarine to dive. In heavy seas the Sargo struggled to submerge, however, and while still partially surfaced a bomb rolled the submarine on her side and simultaneously lifted the stern out of the water. As the Sargo reached a depth of 50 feet, a second bomb detonated with what Jacobs described as “terrific” force.5

Many of the men on board reported seeing the submarine’s steel hull bend in from the explosion. Concussion from the bomb damaged the conning tower hatch, burst light bulbs, broke depth gauges, and jammed the stern planes, plunging the Sargo into a runaway dive toward the bottom of the sea. The crew managed to regain control of the dive, but an assessment of damage found the conning tower flooded, the periscopes wrecked, and three heads (toilets) destroyed.6

The Spearfish, which delivered the commander of Asiatic Fleet Submarines, Captain John Wilkes, and his staff to Fremantle, set out from there on her fourth war patrol on 27 March.

The USS Spearfish, which delivered the commander of Asiatic Fleet Submarines, Captain John Wilkes, and his staff to Fremantle, set out from there on her fourth war patrol on 27 March.

Such a beating from an enemy plane might have been palatable, but the Sargo had been almost destroyed by an ally, a Royal Australian Air Force Lockheed Hudson. It was the first attack made on a submarine by the RAAF Western Area. Alerted to the likely presence of a Japanese sub in the area by the destroyer USS Whipple (DD-217), the Hudson’s aircrew made a near-fatal assumption. No one had briefed them on U.S. submarines heading toward Fremantle.7 Indeed, throughout the war Allied submarines remained vulnerable to “friendly fire.” By the end of hostilities, British submariner Mervyn Wingfield had been attacked not only by Italian and Japanese aircraft but also by Norwegian, French, British, and American planes.8 When the Sargo crew docked at Fremantle, the Australian aviators who bombed them were there to apologize, but Jacobs remained adamant that he wanted to be relieved. He told his division commander, Commander Stuart “Sunshine” Murray, that he had lost all confidence in the torpedoes and that his nerves were shot.9

Another submariner to be relieved of command at Fremantle was Lieutenant Commander Theodore C. “Ted” Aylward, skipper of the Searaven (SS-196). The submarine had been undergoing an overhaul at the Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines when Japanese bomb shrapnel punctured her superstructure and wrecked part of the deck. After making emergency repairs, the Searaven crew departed on 13 December 1941, only to be depth-charged by destroyers at the entrance to Manila Bay. They were attacked again when patrolling off Cam Ranh Bay. While traveling south to Fremantle, they played cat and mouse with another submarine thought to be Japanese. Only after reaching port did the crew discover that the other submarine was the Swordfish (SS-193), which had been ordered to Fremantle while en route back to Surabaya. When the Searaven limped into Fremantle, the crew’s food supplies were nearly exhausted, and Aylward, suffering high blood pressure and other symptoms of stress, was replaced.10

Captain John Wilkes, who commanded American submarines in the Philippines and then in Java, departed for Australia in the Spearfish (SS-190) along with other senior officers and top-secret code equipment. The Spearfish had already been depth-charged off Celebes and then took another pounding as a Japanese invasion force approached Java. The submarine’s skipper, Lieutenant Roland Fremont Pryce, sent a message that he was worn out, and he was relieved by Lieutenant James Charles Dempsey. When the Spearfish sailed for Fremantle, Pryce traveled as a passenger on board his former command.11

Getting the Spearfish to Fremantle proved problematic. While the crew knew the latitude and longitude of Fremantle from a Dutch sailing table, they lacked detailed charts of the Western Australian coast and had to make do with an old map from a National Geographic magazine that one of the officers had acquired in Manila. When they were 50 or 60 miles out of Fremantle, they were met by a Royal Australian Navy destroyer that transferred some detailed charts on how to enter the harbor. At Fremantle they found the port crowded with ships; perhaps a hundred merchant vessels were tied up flying various national flags, along with destroyers and other warships that had survived the retreat from the Philippines. The most welcome sight was the submarine tender USS Holland (AS-3). The Spearfish pulled alongside the mother ship, and the crew boarded the tender to find out the latest news.12


  1. James Fife, The Reminiscences of James Fife, Oral History Research Office, Columbia University, 250.
  2. USS Sargo First War Patrol Report, Attacks, disc 6, Submarine Memorabilia (hereafter SM). Anthony Newpower, Iron Men and Tin Fish: The Race to Build a Better Torpedo during World War II (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2006), 62, 64–65. Robert C. Stern, U.S. Subs in Action (Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publications, 1983), 5–6.
  3. USS Sargo Second War Patrol Report, Major Defects, General Remarks, disc 6, SM.
  4. The London Times, 27 February 1942.
  5. USS Sargo Third War Patrol Report, 4 March 1942, disc 6, SM.
  6. Doug Rhymes, “The Saga of Bob Rose and Sargo’s Welcome to Australia,” Polaris, August 1982, 14. Doug Rhymes, in Edward Monroe-Jones and Michael Green, eds., The Silent Service in World War II: The Story of the U.S. Navy Submarine Force in the Words of the Men who Lived It (Philadelphia: Casemate, 2012), 60–62.
  7. Report of Attack on U.S. Submarine by Hudson Aircraft A16-122 on 4th March 1942, Series A1196, Control Symbol 60/501/97, National Archives of Australia (Canberra). USS Sargo Third War Patrol Report, 4 March 1942, Aircraft Sighted, Major Defects and Casualties. Theodore Roscoe, United States Submarine Operations in World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1949), 80–81. Clay Blair Jr., Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War against Japan (1975; repr. ed., Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001), 140–41, 169–70. Stevens, A Critical Vulnerability, 186.
  8. Mervyn Wingfield, Wingfield at War (Dunbeath, Scotland: Whittles Publishing, 2012), 71.
  9. Stuart Murray, interview, box 98, Clay Blair Collection, American Heritage Center, Laramie, WY (hereafter CBC). Stuart S. Murray, Reminiscences of Admiral Stuart S. Murray (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1975), 151. Rhymes, “Saga of Bob Rose,” 15.
  10. Chester Smith, interview, box 99, CBC. Roscoe, Submarine Operations, 193. A. J. Killin, in Monroe-Jones and Green, The Silent Service in World War II U.S. Navy Submarine Force in the Words of the Men who Lived (Philadelphia: Casemate, 2012), 28–30. Maxwell Hawkins, Torpedoes Away Sir! Our Submarine Navy in the Pacific (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1946), 67–68. Blair, Silent Victory, 190.
  11. Stuart Murray, interview, CBC; Murray, Reminiscences, 174, 176.
  12. Murray, Reminiscences, 177–79.


For more information about Fremantle’s Submarines go to: http://www.usni.org/store/books/history/fremantle%E2%80%99s-submarines