An American sub skipper chases an elusive Japanese convoy—and finds unparalleled glory.
The commanding officer was hopping back and forth between the lookouts on the radar screen in the conning tower, and the plot table in the control room. The seamen with the binoculars saw nothing. The radar revealed no blips. And the chart on the table showed only an erratic course as the boat Parche’s bridge, the careened at full speed across the South China Sea. Still, it was exciting—the most excitement the boat’s crew had seen in 32 desultory days on station. This dashing about followed a message from the captain of wolf pack–mate Hammerhead that he had sighted a Japanese convoy 20 miles south of the Parche’s position. The dispatch came at 4:20 a.m. on July 30, 1944. With that information, Commander Lawson “Red” Ramage should have been able to guide the Parche to the enemy ships. In fact, 18 minutes after the first message, the Hammerhead radioed that it was now attacking the convoy on the port flank, and reconfirmed its position.
But Ramage, and the wolf pack’s tactical commander, Captain Lew Parks (who was aboard the Parche), began to suspect that the Hammerhead’s navigation might be faulty. Red’s plot indicated that on its present course the Parche should have passed the convoy three hours ago. Parks asked Hammerhead’s skipper, Lieutenant Commander John Martin, to verify. The reply didn’t bolster his confidence. Martin now said the convoy was actually 30 miles north of the Parche. So Ramage swung his boat around and headed back from whence he came. He was, at this point, mildly irritated.
It wasn’t long before the pack commander and Parche’s skipper realized they were going nowhere fast. Parks again asked for verification. Martin radioed back with yet another position for the convoy, this time 35 degrees to the northeast. Ramage again changed course. At 5:36, with nothing in sight, Parks queried Martin for a third time. And for a third time, Martin reported a revised position, this time 30 miles to the northwest. Now Ramage was mad. Was there really an enemy convoy out there? If so, where? He vented his frustration in a patrol report entry: “It finally dawned on us that we were victims of a snipe hunt. We never expected to be left holding the well known burlap [bag] by one of our own team-mates.” The disappointment aboard the Parche (and for that matter, on the pack’s third boat, the Steelhead) was manifest. “It was pretty discouraging,” Ramage said. At 6:21 a.m., Red took the boat deep for the day to avoid enemy antisubmarine patrols.
After finishing its attack (with little success), Hammerhead departed for Fremantle, Australia, per its original orders. No doubt Parks and Ramage, and Lieutenant Commander David L. Whelchel on the Steelhead, were glad of it.
The wolf pack, dubbed “Parks’ Pirates” after Captain Parks, had departed from the submarine base at Midway Island on June 17, 1944, headed for the South China Sea. The Hammerhead was a brand-new boat, with Martin a first-time skipper. The Steelhead was the veteran of the trio, on its sixth war patrol, all with Commander Whelchel at the helm. It was the Parche’s second patrol, both under “Red” Ramage. Blessed with a carrot top (hence the nickname), Ramage later said that he preferred to call the pack “the Head Hunters,”“because we had the Steelhead, the Hammerhead, and the redhead.”
Born in Massachusetts and raised in an upstate New York mill town, Lawson Paterson Ramage had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1931. After a tour aboard destroyers and cruisers he transferred to the submarine school at New London, Connecticut. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Ramage was there serving as radio officer on the staff of Commander Submarines, Pacific Fleet (Comsubpac). He received his first command, USS Trout, in June 1942, where he racked up only three kills during four war patrols. A year later Ramage took charge of a new Balao-class submarine—SS-384, the USS Parche.
The pack’s operation order directed the submarines to “conduct offensive patrol in the China Seas in order to attack and destroy enemy forces encountered.…Important large convoys are known to transit this area.”
The pack was headed, specifically, to the Luzon Strait. For centuries this 230-mile stretch of the Pacific Ocean, bridging the southern tip of Taiwan with the northern tip of the Philippines, had been a strategic gateway to the Orient. In the 16th century, Spanish treasure fleets sailed through its waters, laden with gold and silver. Three hundred years later, sleek American clippers sailed the passage, carrying cargos of rare teas and precious silks. And in late 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy steamed down the Luzon Strait en route to its invasion of the Philippines. Ever since, the waters had been the private domain of the Japanese—a kind of crossroads of the Empire’s shipping lanes to and from the home islands. Marus—cargo ships—loaded with men and equipment sailed south, returning north with oil and rubber.
But by mid-1944 Japanese mariners had begun to call the strait “the Devil’s Sea,” a place where myriad enemy submarines lurked, bent on sinking their marus. American submariners had a more upbeat name for the waterway—“Convoy College.” “This was the most lucrative patrol area of any in the Pacific,” Ramage later recalled. At least it was supposed to be. But in the month the Parche had been patrolling the strait, only three targets had presented themselves, none of them merchantmen.
On July 4, the Parche’s radar had picked up three warships heading southwest. Ramage began to maneuver his boat to attack. Instead, they attacked him—firing salvos that were surprisingly accurate at ranges of 10,000 to 16,000 yards. He took his boat down as a destroyer turned and bore menacingly toward the Parche at 30 knots.
Then, early on the afternoon of the 19th, lookouts spotted a lone aircraft carrier. Ramage started a high-speed submerged approach. It was, Ramage said, a “perfect dream come true.” But it was not to be. When the enemy launched patrol aircraft, Red called off the attack.
A week later a message from Pearl Harbor reported that the enemy submarine I-29, believed to be carrying a cargo of strategic materials and blueprints for advanced weapons from Germany, would be sailing through the area the following afternoon. Finding and sinking it was the pack’s top priority. A picket line of six American boats was established to intercept the Japanese sub, with the Parche fourth in the queue. Unfortunately for Ramage, the third picket sank I-29.
And then came the wild goose chase on July 30. Ramage and his crew must have wondered if the disappointments on this patrol would ever end.
An investigation later determined the Hammerhead had miscoded the convoy’s positions before transmitting them to the wolf pack. There really was a Japanese convoy out there—a big one, with 18 ships carrying 10,000 troops and thousands of tons of supplies for Japanese garrisons in the Philippines and farther south. Escorted by seven warships, convoy MI-11 was steaming through the strait at a sedate 8.5 knots.
The convoy had departed from the southern Japanese island of Kyushu on July 12. Once on the open seas, the commodore deployed his vessels in a defensive formation, and plotted a course that took them south across the East China Sea to the port of Takao on the island’s western coast, where MI-11 refueled and regrouped for the dangerous transit of the Luzon Strait.
The U.S. Navy had been aware of the convoy since July 13. Every day, Pearl Harbor’s Fleet Radio Unit, Pacific snatched dozens of enemy radio messages out of the ether, decoded them, translated them, and passed them to analysts for assessment. When the analysts finished their work, the messages were distributed to the Allied commands that might benefit most. Known as “Ultra” or “Magic,” this information proved invaluable to the submarine force in its battle against the Japanese.
When the Parche’s futile chase had ended on the morning of July 30, the sub dived, staying down for the entire day. It crept along at three knots, maintaining a constant watch on the seas through the periscope. Ramage saw smoke on the horizon a few times, but dared not surface because the Japanese maintained their own constant watch with a flotilla of aircraft. Submerged and out of radio contact, Ramage was unaware that the Steelhead had sighted MI-11 at 10:30 that morning, and was in hot (though discreet) pursuit.
All day and into the night, Whelchel kept the Steelhead doggedly on the convoy’s trail. Two minutes after surfacing at 8:14, Ramage picked up a position report from the Steelhead. At this point the convoy was more than two-thirds of the way across the Luzon Strait, and just 35 miles southwest of the Parche. Red set off at full speed.
He spent the next four hours searching for the convoy, but came up empty handed. Was this going to be another fiasco? At 12:30 a.m. on July 31 he was ready to give up, but decided to radio Whelchel one last time for an update. The response was not long in coming: the convoy had made a radical course change to the southeast, and should now be within 30 miles of the Parche’s position. Red hoped that Welchel’s navigation was better than Martin’s.
Forty-five minutes later the radar operator in the conning tower called the skipper down from the bridge. There at the bottom of the little green screen was a tiny cloud of interference. It would be another 90 minutes before the cloud resolved into a field of glowing pips: MI-11. Six minutes later, bells echoed through the Parche as Ramage called for battle stations.
The ship burst to life. The tracking party scurried to the conning tower. Torpedomen scrambled to check their deadly fish. Enginemen stood by the diesels, ready to respond instantly to orders from their captain. Ramage was on the bridge, shouting course changes down the hatch to the steersman. High in the superstructure the lookouts were scouring the dark seas for signs of the Japanese ships.
An hour after general quarters sounded, the lookouts caught their first glimpse of the convoy as the Parche crept in from behind MI-11. But Ramage decided that he had to get ahead of the enemy ships in order to attack. It wasn’t difficult; under cover of darkness the sub was steaming along on the surface at twice the speed of its quarry. Red directed his boat parallel to the convoy, working it toward the front of the starboard column, where three escorts were patrolling. At 3:42 one of them turned directly toward the Parche, at which point, Ramage later noted, his sub’s “present position was becoming untenable.” So he pulled what he called a “reverse spinner,” and swung the ship’s nose around in the opposite direction.
What happened next caught him by surprise.
Just as he had completed his spinner, all 25 ships suddenly turned 90 degrees, right into the Parche’s path. “We now found ourselves inside the escorts, with the convoy dead ahead” at 6,000 yards, Ramage said. Red picked a medium-sized cargo ship as a target, and began a surface approach. But before he knew it, the sub was almost on top of the maru—the range wasn’t 6,000 yards, it was 600 and closing. The tracking team had grossly overestimated the distance, and if he shot a torpedo now it would not have time to arm its warhead. With the enemy vessel bearing down, Red made another sharp turn to get out of the way, and repositioned his boat for the attack.
At 3:59 the tubes. They missed. Red kept the sub turning, and when the stern came around, fired one from the aft nest. It, too, missed. But Ramage did not take Parche fired two torpedoes from its bow much note; he was too busy drawing a bead on a pair of large tankers, which at first he mistook for aircraft carriers. At 4:07, still in a turn at full speed, he fired the other four forward tubes at one of these big ships, the Koei Maru. The first torpedo took off the bow. The next three holed the middle. The tanker sank almost immediately.
Ramage brought his stern to bear on the second tanker, the #1 Ogura Maru, and let loose three more fish. As one officer recalled, Red “was in his element, just calmly picking targets.” And so while they were speeding toward their mark, he already had his eye on yet another ship that was “just asking for trouble.”
By this time, just after 4 a.m., the Luzon Strait had indeed become the Devil’s Sea. MI-11 was in chaos. Marus were fleeing in mass confusion, firing flares that painted the sky an eerie red. The escorts were shooting indiscriminately at anything and everything. And on the other side of the convoy, the Steelhead had already made two attacks and hit at least one ship. Whelchel then retired from the scene to reload his 10 torpedo tubes, temporarily taking the Steelhead out of the fight: such submerging and reloading sometimes ended a sub’s chance to re-engage an alerted enemy.
The Parche’s tubes were also empty. But that’s when Red Ramage unveiled his secret weapon.
On the previous patrol his torpedo officer had suggested it might be possible to reload while the boat was maneuvering on the surface. Standard procedure was to submerge, where the water was calmer and there was less risk of an accident when handling the missiles. But on the surface? “This was something absolutely unheard of,” Ramage said after the war. “No one had ever considered reloading on the surface, charging around at 20 knots, in contact with the enemy and subject to dive without notice. Once you get those torpedoes out of the racks they’re just like a greased pig. You could lose control and they would really mash people up.” But Red had tried it and it showed promise, so on this patrol, en route to the strait, he had drilled his crew in the technique. Now those drills paid off in spades. In just a matter of minutes the forward room had two tubes ready. At 4:16 Ramage fired them at a 7,000-ton transport, the Dakar Maru. Both hit, slowing the vessel to a crawl.
The Parche then crossed the track of the already wounded #1 Ogura Maru. Just 200 yards astern of the sub, the Japanese ship opened up with everything it had. As 5-inch shells whistled overhead, Ramage cleared the bridge, sending all the lookouts and spare hands below. By then, Red’s crew had reloaded three more tubes aft. He fired them “at this menace,” and managed to slow that ship down too.
The melee was proceeding apace when an extraordinary thing happened.
While looking for yet another target, Ramage noticed that two of the escorts were concentrating their fire on his boat, and that a third, the gunboat Kazan Maru, was racing straight toward him, intending to ram. He asked his engineers to “pour on all the oil they had.” The response from the engine room was chilling: “But captain, we’re at all stop.” Somehow Ramage had managed to bring the Parche to a standstill in the middle of the battle—no one was ever sure how or why. With the gunboat closing rapidly, Ramage shouted, “All ahead flank!” The four engines roared to life, the screws bit the water, and the Parche slowly began to make headway. But it was still going to be a close run. Just as it appeared that the two ships would collide, Red put the rudder hard right, pushing the sub’s stern out of the way, quite literally in the nick of time—the vessels cleared by only 50 feet. As the Parche brushed by the gunboat, Ramage could hear the enemy sailors “screaming like a bunch of wild pigs. Mutual cheers and jeers were exchanged by all hands.”
It was now 4:26. Red saw the Yoshino Maru, a 9,000-ton transport, straight ahead. With the enemy bow on, Ramage’s only chance was to make a “down the throat” shot. He fired three from the forward tubes. Two hit. But the stubborn transport refused to sink, so he fired one more from the aft tubes. “It was a bullseye.” Just as Ramage was moving in for the coup de grâce, the former liner “suddenly disappeared from sight in one big blurb.”
Then another wholly unwelcome thing happened. The gyro aiming mechanism in the forward torpedo room jammed, putting all six tubes out of commission. With 60 percent of its offensive capability crippled, the show was over for the Parche. With dawn about to break, at 4:47 the skipper decided to withdraw, and “put a little distance between us and this hornet’s nest.”
It had been a remarkable battle, and remarkably short. In just 34 minutes the Parche had fired 19 torpedoes, 9 of which were reloaded on the surface during the furious action. It was more shooting in less time than any American submarine attack in World War II. And it was certainly the first time any American boat had wound up in the middle of a large convoy on the surface. Red had thrown away the book. His tactics during the rampage through MI-11 changed the rules for night engagements (which, according to official Subpac doctrine, had called for tracking on the surface, but attacking submerged). He certainly was not the first to try night surface attacks; U-boat commanders had been doing it for years. But he convincingly demonstrated that submarines using the technique in the Pacific War could be far more effective.
“It set a precedent,” Red said after the war. “And from then on other submarines followed the same procedure.” In his patrol report, Ramage claimed four ships sunk and one damaged— not a record, but a pretty respectable “bag” by any standard, especially for such a brief encounter. (Whelchel reported two sunk and two damaged by the Steelhead, though the official navy assessment concluded that the submarines’ combined efforts resulted in four ships sunk and two damaged.)
The next day Lew Parks gave orders to head home to Pearl Harbor.
When the Parche arrived, it was greeted by the jubilant Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet. Lockwood already knew precisely what the crew had accomplished—not because Ramage had radioed him, but because radio decrypts had kept him fully informed.
Red Ramage’s wild ride instantly became the talk of the submarine force. Lockwood’s chief of staff, veteran submariner Captain Merrill Comstock, noted that the action was “foolhardy, very dangerous, and an undue risk. You got away with it, but don’t do it again.” But the official comments on his patrol report were glowing. “With consummate skill and daring in this brilliant night surface attack, Parche took all wind out of their sails while taking the buoyancy from their largest ships,” wrote Charles F. Erck, squadron commander. Admiral Lockwood was equally fulsome: “The havoc wrought on the large convoy was a particularly outstanding and daring performance.”
There was more than praise in store for Ramage. By mid- 1944, only two submariners had been awarded the Medal of Honor, both posthumously. Lockwood had been on the lookout for a potential nominee for a third, and because of the bravery and initiative demonstrated during his rampage in the Luzon Strait, Lawson P. Ramage seemed the perfect candidate. Admiral Chester Nimitz approved the nomination, and passed it up the chain of command. On January 10, 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt clasped the Medal of Honor around Ramage’s neck in a ceremony at the White House. His citation reads: “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”
When the war was over and all the statistics for the submarine force had been compiled, Ramage was well down the list of skippers with the most confirmed sinkings to their credit, placing 52nd out of 465. Had he not been assigned shore duty after the next patrol, his totals would certainly have been higher. But Ramage’s legacy was never based on numbers: It was his bold nighttime rampage through a Japanese convoy in 1944 that would forever secure his place in U.S. naval history.
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.