Did only a few U.S. submarines launch torpedos in the Pacific?

I talked to a decorated WW II submariner officer several years ago and he says that his research seemed to show that 20% of the American submarines in the Pacific during WW II accounted for 80% of Japanese tonnage lost. He bitterly resented the many sub sorties that resulted in no torps fired or even any enemy ships sighted, as if the captains sailed out, toured around and returned without engaging the enemy on purpose … could this be true?


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Dear Jack,

I had not heard of there being a low percentage of torpedo firings by U.S. Navy submarines—up to now I thought the problem they most complained about was the 70 percent failure to detonate that plagued the Mark XIV torpedoes for 18 months until it was found to be in the automatic depth adjustment and to firing pins that could not handle the shock of a 90-degree hit to detonate properly. After those were remedied in 1943 the submarines were unleashed in wolf packs against Japanese merchant shipping and achieved what the German U-boats did not—the near-complete isolation of Japan from its outside resources, having accounted for 55 percent of its shipping losses, along with 39 of their arch enemies, destroyers and a great number of other warships, including more aircraft carriers than were sunk by American carrier planes. So your submariner friend objects to 2 percent of U.S. Navy personnel failing to do better than that?  Perhaps a certain percentage of the submarine patrols failed to make contact with Japanese merchant and warship formations that could not be everywhere, while spread out to ensure that they could not go anywhere without being spotted by one sub or another?  Or could it be that some sub patrols did not involve torpedoing shipping, but had them engaged in rescuing 502 downed airmen, or dropping off guerrillas in the Philippines, or raiding parties on Japanese soil itself? Given the U.S. submarine service’s disproportionate accomplishments, above and beyond all others, with an 18-month handicap in weaponry, just how much more does he expect of them?



Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
More Questions at Ask Mr. History


2 Responses

  1. Bill Pontarelli

    My Dad was a USN flight surgeon during WW 2. His combat responsibility was service aboard PBY2 Catalinas rescuing downed pilots. He usually picked up the pilots by redevous with subs.

  2. LCDR Jones, USN (RET)

    Several Websites exist whereby you can read the patrol reports of the submarine patrols from WWII. After reviewing the patrol reports it will be clear that not only did the submarines shoot a significant number of torpedoes but they accomplished many other assigned tasks. Additionally, the number of targets identified and shot depended on the patrol area, the number of Japanese ships of a size to justify a torpedo, and the capability to establish a position for a reasonable firing solution with the possibility of a successful hit.
    If you are ever in Hawaii, go to the Submarine Memorial at Pearl Harbor and learn about the submariners’ contribution to the WWII effort.


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