The Seacoast's Own 'David and Goliath'

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By John Hirtle

Atlantic News / Beach News, Thursday, August 12, 2004

USS Archerfish (SS 311) -- June 5, 1945
Built 1943 Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Portsmouth, N.H.

During World War Two, Japan found herself at a severe disadvantage under the sea. United States submarines were devastating Japan's merchant marine, sinking over half of the ships she relied upon to transport food and the raw materials she needed to wage war on the world. This is quite an impressive feat, when one considers that the submarine branch comprised less than two percent of the U.S. Navy's total strength. In addition to waging war, American subs would also monitor the weather, enemy radio traffic, and most importantly, rescue downed airmen such as the future President George Bush. By war's end, two hundred and sixty subs were operational, with many more on the building ways at shipyards across the country, including the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

Among the many noted submarines built in Portsmouth was the USS Archerfish, a 1,525 ton Balao-class submarine. Launched on May 28, 1943, she started a career that was typical of many American submarines. She went to war in the Pacific, and went on four average war patrols before she met destiny.

Her fifth patrol started in late October 1944 under the new command of Joseph F. Enright, a career navy officer and experienced submariner. Ordered to proceed to a lifeguard station off the main Japanese island of Honshu, she was to rescue any downed B-29 pilots, as well as monitor local weather conditions and enemy radio traffic.

At the same time as the Archerfish approached her station off Honshu, one of Japan's last carriers, the Shinano, was launched. Under construction since 1940, the mighty 70,500 ton vessel was supposed to have been a sister ship to the 'super-battleship' Yamato. The loss of four carriers at Midway changed those plans, and the Shinano was hastily converted into a carrier. Still, so secret had her construction been, that the U.S. Navy was not even aware of the existence of this one last 'super-carrier'.

Due to heavy bombing by American B-29 Superfortresses, the Imperial Navy decided to send the still incomplete Shinano from the ravaged city of Tokyo to the somewhat safer confines of the Inland Sea. Little did anyone know that as she left harbor on her fateful maiden voyage on the evening of November 28th that a canceled bomber raid on the Japanese islands would leave the Archerfish free to hunt for targets off Tokyo Bay. Like a modern David and Goliath, the paths of these two warships would soon cross.

When the huge shape Shinano was spotted at 8:34 p.m. by the Archerfish, she was initially mistaken for Inamba Shima, an island off the Japanese coast. All too soon it became apparent that they were watching a moving island doing about twenty knots, just a bit faster than the Archerfish could move on the surface. As the silhouette became clearer on that moonlit night, it became apparent that this was no tanker or freighter but an aircraft carrier under escort. Wary of lurking submarines, the Japanese ships started taking a zig-zag course in an attempt to foil any attempts to torpedo the carrier.

The crew of the Archerfish were not so easily deterred.

For the next eight hours, the tiny Archerfish stalked the mammoth carrier, trying to get the enormous warship into the sights of their torpedo tubes. As it approached the sub, the officers tried in vain to identify exactly what ship they were stalking. Captain Enright drew a sketch of the vessel, but it was nowhere to be found in the ship identification books.

Finally, at 3:17 a.m. on November 29th, the Shinano made a fateful turn that allowed the Archerfish to fire all six of her forward torpedo tubes into starboard side of the vessel. Four of the torpedoes struck home, dealing the carrier a mortal blow as the Archerfish dived to the safety of the deep blue sea.

The Shinano's escorts made some effort to sink the sub, but broke away since the carrier's captain believed his ship to be unsinkable, and continued on the voyage even as repair crews were sent below to fix the damage. Within a few hours, it became apparent that the vessel was seriously wounded, and sinking. Chaos crept into the ranks of her untrained crew and civilian workers, as she lost power around 6:00 am. Almost seven hours after the Archerfish had fired her fatal torpedoes, the Shinano finally sank, taking half her crew, including the captain, to their deaths.

The Archerfish herself had made her first periscope observations at about the same time as the Shinano lost all power, and assumed the carrier had gone to her grave, from the four explosions and after explosions they had heard while submerging. That evening as a belated Thanksgiving dinner was served up, the Archerfish sent in her weather report as usual, along with the news she had sunk a 28,000 ton Hayataka class carrier.

Two weeks later, when the Archerfish returned to Guam, her claim of sinking a carrier was brought into question, since the intelligence service had no idea that the Shinano even existed. Only Captain Enright's sketch of the carrier supported his claim, and the Archerfish gained credit for sinking a 28,000 ton carrier, later increased to 59,000 tons, before Japan finally surrendered and it was found the Shinano would have had an official full-load displacement of 70,500 tons. This made the Shinano the largest vessel ever sunk in combat in any war.

The Archerfish would be among the many vessels present at the surrender ceremonies at Tokyo Bay, before returning to the states where she was decommissioned in 1946. The Archerfish would not languish in the mothball fleet for long though. She was recommissioned in 1952, and operated in the Atlantic Ocean until 1955 when she was decommissioned for a second time. The Archerfish would be recommissioned a third and final time in 1957 for use as a scientific research submarine, a role she played well until 1968 when she was decommissioned for the final time. The following year, she would join the Shinano at the bottom of the sea when she was sunk as a target ship.

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