Damn the Torpedoes

 by C.R. (Bart) Bartholomew

The drowsy black sky over USS SARGO (SS 188) moored in Manila Bay was pierced by flashing light signals at 0300 December 8, 1941.


This was the day SARGO and crew trained for while not believing it would ever come. SARGO'S voyage to become a unit of Admiral Hart's Asiatic Fleet started in October 1940. Leaving the Mare Island Navy Yard after a complete overhaul, her first dive was deliberately slow. All emergency drills were walked through as the crew begin thirteen months of training for war. During the next months, the pace quickened and a forty-day practice war patrol to Johnson Island and back ended in October 1941. After a short refit at Pearl Harbor, SARGO as a unit of Submarine Squadron Two steamed west to Manila, the home of the Asiatic Fleet.

The week of December 1, 1941 SARGO operated with other ships and submarines assigned to the Asiatic Fleet. In battle trim operating under wartime conditions, darken ship at night, SARGO'S crew honed their skills in emergency drills and exercises. The week ended and SARGO had made her fastest crash dive, under sixty seconds, and had fired three exercise torpedoes. The crew performed like a precision drill team and each Mark XIV torpedo ran hot straight and normal under the center of the target ship.

The Bureau of Ordnance's darling was the Mark XIV torpedo equipped with the Mark VI magnetic exploder mechanism. Even though this remarkable weapon was one of the most complete lethal instruments of destruction ever produced, it was controversial and had never been tested with a warhead. The quarter ton of TNT in the warhead was replaced with water for use in torpedo firing exercises.

Twenty-one inches in diameter, twenty feet long, the Mark XIV could speed along at forty-five knots driven by an alcohol-burning engine. The TNT filled warhead was supposed to detonate on contact or by magnetic influence as the torpedo passed through the steel ship's magnetic field. This modern weapon had evolved from the Whitehead torpedo.

Robert Whitehead, an English engineer, in 1866 developed an intricate device fourteen feet long, fourteen inches in diameter, driven by compressed air at six knots for 700 yards and it had carried eighteen pounds of gun cotton as its destructive force. This was the first true torpedo. Floating mines were what Admiral Farragut was referring to when he gave that famous order in Mobile Bay, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead."

The Mark XIV torpedo was engineered and tested without a warhead by the Potomac River Gun Club, the Bureau of Ordnance. The Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor forced the test of the torpedo with a warhead onto submarines, including SARGO.

Monday morning December 8(Sunday in Hawaii), immediately after receiving the hostilities commenced message; SARGO'S crew burst into a beehive of activities as their racing adrenal evoked strong emotions. Exercise torpedoes were exchanged for ones with death dealing TNT filled warheads, awnings were discarded, and fuel, water and supplies were loaded. That gloomy night, with Corregidor fading astern, pessimists knew the island fortress was the last land they would ever see. The optimists patted their torpedoes certain that the Japanese fleet would be sunk before Christmas. Both were wrong.

As the black velvety star-studded night cloaked SARGO like a new coat of point, the submarine and crew worked together. The Hoover-Owens- Rentschler main engines propelled SARGO through the water to the first patrol area in the South China Sea. While the ship's gyro guided her toward the first enemy encounter, the crew's psychological clocks were turned upside down.

Night became day. Breakfast was served at 1915, supper 0330; soup and cold cuts were served at 1130 and 2315. The three-section watch for the right arm ratings were discarded for a six hours on and six hours off routine. This allowed lookouts, helmsmen, plainsman and sonar operators to be relieved hourly. All day dives made daylight as precious as fresh water while diesel fumes, cooking and sweat odors permeated every part of man and submarine. The heads were secured during dives forcing men to change life long elimination habits overnight. The physical and mental changes were trying as SARGO closed the distance to her first enemy ship eager to fire the Mark XIV torpedoes.

Early December 14, the number one periscope motor quit whirling as the scope broke the water surface. Three ATAGO class Japanese cruisers popped into view. "BATTLE STATIONS SUBMERGED," echoes through the hull. Crewmembers drove by a combination of fear and excitement jostled getting to their stations. The main electric motors groaned as torpedoes were readied. It was a tortoise and hare race with the cruisers not taking a nap. The eight-knot submarine couldn't catch the twenty-knot cruisers. The test of the Gun Club's

torpedo was delayed until 1857 that evening when a four thousand-ton merchant ship worthy of only one torpedo hovered into view.

The number five stern torpedo tube was readied. Torpedo Data Computer dials spun, settled down and solved the firing problem. "Fire number five." SARGO shuddered; the crew's ears popped as the torpedo impulse air vented inboard. The Mark XIV torpedo forced a hole in the South China Sea on its way for the first TNT filled warhead test. As 120 pair of eyes looked aft, the seconds were counted. Sixteen . . . seventeen ... eighteen and the quarter ton of TNT exploded bring cheers from sixty voices.

The periscope lumbered up. "She's turning . . . she's not sinking. DAMN! The torpedo exploded prematurely" drifted down from the conning tower.

The onboard ordnance experts huddled and decided the new Mark VI magnetic exploder was at fault. The torpedomen deactivated the magnetic exploders so the torpedoes could only explode by contact. The hunt in the South China Sea continued.

Christmas Eve day at 12:38 three torpedoes were fired from the forward tubes and sped toward an enemy cargo vessel. The periscope fogged but the torpedoes ran hot, straight and normal under the target. They didn't explode. Two more torpedoes set to run shallow were fired from the stern tubes. They ran deep, The ungrateful enemy sent a pinging destroyer out from Camaranh Bay.

A Christmas Eve fight with a destroyer, the submarine's deadliest foe, wasn't the present the crew hoped for. SARGO made an approach on the AMAGIRI class destroyer but lost depth control and had to abort the attack. The destroyer returned to port and SARGO'S ordnance experts checked and rechecked the mornings approach and firing procedures. All torpedoes were pulled from the tubes and checked as the chefs in the galley prepared dinner. The pessimists and optimists continued to disagree.

Christmas dinner was served at 0330 in the morning. Some men said a silent grace while others muttered, "DAMN the torpedoes." The next test of crew and machine was on 27 December.

At 0003 two pinging destroyers were heard and SARGO dove. An attack couldn't be made. Later in the day at 1642, a pair of torpedoes was fired from the stern tubes at two merchantmen ships. The torpedoes ran deep. Another cargo ship was sighted at 1806. A diligent fifty-seven minute approach with thirty-seven periscope observations to obtain exact datum was made. Two torpedoes set to run shallow were fired and they ran deep. The onboard ordnance experts changed settings on the rudders controlling the torpedo depth.

Heavy seas prevented any torpedoes being fired during the next several days. On January 4, at 1837, a torpedo fired at a tanker ran deep. Faith in the Gun Club's torpedo waned. More and more, "DAMN the torpedoes," was heard.

Forty-nine days after leaving Manila, short on fresh water, battery water, food and fuel and having fired thirteen malfunctioning Mark XIV torpedoes, SARGO moored at Surabaya, Java. The uproarious criticism about the bum torpedoes forced the Potomac River Gun Club to authorize tests. The findings were that the only reliable feature of the Mark XIV torpedo was its unreliability. _

SARGO'S pessimists and optimists finally agreed on one thing, the Mark XIV torpedoes curse: "DAMN THE TORPEDOES."

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