An American sub at the Battle of Midway finds that luck can be a powerful weapon.
By the time the USS Tambor departed from Pearl Harbor on May 21, 1942, to battle the Japanese, Robert R. Hunt, torpedo- man second class, had already concluded he would not survive the war. In the first hours after the December 7 surprise attack, his submarine had been jolted by a bomb off Wake Island and had limped home to Pearl—and to a shocking view of the devastation there—with water leaking in around a gasket near Hunt’s bunk in the forward torpedo room. While at Pearl, Hunt wrote a letter to his brother. Its language was jaunty and indirect (and the spelling inventive), but its purpose was clear:
“By the way—if I should get a heart attack and kroke one of these days I want you to get half my dust…. Take half my insurance and my savings account is in the bank at home,” the 23-year-old Iowan wrote, assigning the other half to his sister. “All this is just in case my heart goes bad or if I stub my toe and get poisoned or something—maybe my red head will shoot me when she sees me again.”
“I didn’t figure I was going to make it,” he explained, decades later. “I was a poker player. I knew the odds.” Having given up his life in advance, he volunteered for 12 consecutive war patrols, all on the Tambor. By the end of the war, to his surprise, not only was he still around, but the poker winnings he’d sent home to his dad were sufficient to buy an 80-acre Iowa farm.
Perhaps it was this kind of good fortune that Adm. Chester W. Nimitz hoped for when he positioned his carriers to the northeast of the Midway Islands at a spot he designated “Point Luck.” As the U.S. Navy moved to halt the massive Japanese fleet steaming eastward, Rear Adm. Robert H. English, commander of submarines in the Pacific, deployed every sub within reach of Midway or Hawaii—a total of 26— in a series of screens to detect and attack the invading forces. The plan looked sound enough on paper, but it failed miserably, with only three American subs actually making contact with the enemy. Given the vast reaches of sea involved in what turned out to be a carrier battle, only planes were fast enough to reach the action, and the subs’ responses were hindered by vague and late-arriving action orders.
Ever since then, the conventional wisdom has held that American submarines played a negligible role in the Battle of Midway. But the June 1942 battle that reversed Japan’s fortunes and assured its defeat would have unfolded quite differently were it not for the adventures of the Tambor and another American sub in incidents that, by strange fortune, helped to shape two decisive moments at and around Point Luck—and perhaps the very outcome of the Battle of Midway itself.
The first lucky break for the Americans came the morning of June 4, the most decisive day of the battle, thanks to an old V-class sub, the USS Nautilus. Although the unwieldy, outmoded sub failed to damage any enemy ships with the few torpedoes it squeezed off, it fatefully attracted the attention of one Japanese destroyer. While forcing the Nautilus down with eight depth charges, the Arashi became detached from the Japanese striking force. When the ship sped north to catch up, it passed below two squadrons of dive-bombers from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, inadvertently pointing the way to the striking force and its aircraft carriers. That allowed the airmen to arrive at the same time as 17 dive-bombers from the USS Yorktown—achieving, without coordination, a perfectly coordinated strike, and leaving three Japanese carriers, the Kaga, Akagi, and Soryu, ablaze and doomed. (A fourth carrier, the Hiryu, was destroyed late that afternoon, but not before its aircraft had severely damaged the Yorktown.)
The contribution made by the Tambor was as important, and stranger still. With the submarine positioned approximately 150 miles southwest of Midway (see map, below), its crew could only follow the day’s events by monitoring radio transmissions. The men were cheered by reports of the damaged Japanese carriers—but frustrated that they couldn’t reach the fight. Overnight that situation changed.
At 11:15 the night of June 4, the screening subs received new orders. All subs of Task Group 7.1 were to redeploy in a tightened protective arc to the west of Midway, 100 miles out, with “all units to arrive on station and dive before dawn” to guard against the possible advance of an invasion force. Further instructions specified caution: “Encounters with friendly surface forces during night possible.”
As the Tambor patrolled on the surface in the predawn quiet, Bob Hunt stood at his port bow position, leaning against the rail of the lookout platform, scanning the sea with binoculars. It was early the morning of June 5, the Tambor was 89 miles from Midway, and the sky was clear, the weather calm. But the atmosphere aboard the sub was tense, with the precise locations and strengths of the Japanese task groups uncertain, and the enemy’s intentions unknown. If an invasion was forthcoming, a naval bombardment of the base was likely and would come that night.
At 2:15 a.m. Hunt scanned his lookout quadrant with powerful binoculars. There was a particular way to do it, systematically, covering the sea and sky in his area. “What you look for,” he explained, “is any change in the shape of the horizon line and anything else that looks just a little different than normal. I thought I saw a small, dark bump on the horizon, but couldn’t be sure and asked the lookout aft of me to check it out. He thought he could make out something, too, so I reported the sighting to the officer of the deck, and everyone on the lookouts and bridge confirmed that there was something out there. Then we sighted more bumps. We couldn’t make out what they were, but there were several of them, so the captain was called to the bridge.”
Soon it was clear that there were several ships—possibly four—distributed across the Tambor’s bow, slightly to port. But whose were they? Since the Tambor had been warned about the possibility of friendly surface craft operating in the area that night, its captain, Lt. Comdr. John W. Murphy Jr., ordered a change of course to stay in contact with the mystery ships until he could identify them.
Murphy was the submarine’s first commander, and had skippered it through its sea trials and crew training out from New London, Connecticut, in the summer of 1940. In photographs taken at the Tambor’s commissioning on June 3, he stands in front of the conning tower with the other officers, stiff and upright in his dress blue uniform. With his face held in a rigid mask, he looks like a man who feels the weight of responsibility. And well he should have. The Tambor was the first of the new fleet of Tambor-class boats: a major new weapon in the U.S. Navy arsenal, and a prized command.
Only minutes after the mystery ships were first sighted, they vanished, and Murphy ordered the sub maneuvered to relocate them. This time, to the lookouts’ surprise, the ships appeared to the starboard side and had changed course. The Tambor turned to run ahead of the ships on a parallel course, Hunt keeping watch through his binoculars. Still unable to make a positive identification, Murphy ordered a turn due west, crossing the ships’ bows in an attempt to catch them in the moon stream and identify them by silhouette. But at just after 3 a.m., the lookouts again lost contact. Murphy took that opportunity to radio an uncharacteristically brief contact report to Midway, reporting “many unidentified ships,” though not their type, number, course, or speed.
He received confirmation for the report at 3:06, and five minutes later Hunt and his lookout mates spotted the ships again. The Tambor paralleled them, but almost immediately the ships disappeared again, and remained out of sight for a full half-hour. Who were they and what were they doing? Although everyone was eager to get into the fight, Hunt and his shipmates fully supported their captain’s caution. They’d spoken to submariners on other boats who had been bombed by American planes, and weren’t eager to dish out friendly fire.
Murphy’s immediate problem was to decide which way to maneuver to find the ships again. Since the first sighting, the Tambor had made a series of turns to port, so it began another port turn, feeling its way. At 3:42 a.m., the guess was rewarded when Hunt and the other lookouts reported ships to the east, traveling now to the southwest. With only a few minutes of darkness left, the Tambor made best speed—about 17 knots—to set up for a possible attack near dawn.
In the improved visibility at 4 a.m., the ships were no longer mere blobs on the horizon. Their general shape was now clear, but Hunt still could not make out the gun placements that would cinch their identity. Murphy ordered a signalman topside. Harold Moore appeared carrying a heavy signal light—the size of a large snare drum—and Hunt helped him bolt it to the lookout railing. The captain then ordered an identifying signal, and the light’s shutters clattered loudly as Moore spelled out the code in short and long flashes. Then they all saw a light flashing on the lead ship.
“What did he send?” Murphy asked.
“Damned if I know, Captain,” answered Moore.
That told Murphy all he needed to know. “Dive— dive—dive!” he yelled. “Take her down and rig for depth charge attack!”
“I dropped from the lookout station to the bridge,” Hunt recalled, “then did my usual no-step slides down the ladders, first into the conning tower and then to the control room. I may have used a couple of steps on the way down, but on a crash dive it was mostly a free drop.” In the control room he set the bow planes for a hard dive, and in minutes the sub was submerged.
After half an hour they had heard nothing—no screws, no splashes, no explosions—so they came up to periscope depth to take a look. As Hunt sat with his hands on the bow plane controls, Murphy stood peering through the scope immediately behind him. What he saw shocked him: there were only two ships in sight now, and what he had initially taken for destroyers were in fact two larger, deadlier Japanese Mogami-class heavy cruisers, maneuvering away from the Tambor and signaling each other with brilliant all-directional lights. Then Murphy received a bigger surprise. As he looked closer, he realized that about 40 feet of the bow of the far cruiser had been sheared away. “That’s slowing her down,” he exclaimed. “One of our planes must have found her!”
Murphy ordered a change of course and full power to chase the targets. “The daylight was starting to come out now, so we had to stay down or they would blow us to pieces with their guns,” Hunt said. Submerged, the Tambor made only 9 knots at best; Murphy estimated that the cruisers were making 17, despite the damaged bow on one of them. “So we had to let them go,” Hunt said. “When they got out of sight we surfaced and sent headquarters their course, position, and speed, so our planes would know where to find them.” This second, more complete contact report was acknowledged by both Midway and Honolulu at 6:17 a.m.
After shadowing the Japanese ships for half the night, losing them was a bitter disappointment. The big cruisers were prized targets, and the men cursed their luck.
What none of the men realized, however, was that they were responsible for the damage Murphy had seen.
As the Americans had feared, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, from his flagship Yamato, had indeed ordered a naval bombardment of Midway—if not to prepare for an invasion, then at least to ground American land-based planes. The four fastest ships in the Japanese navy had been racing there at 32 knots to make it so. They were the heavy cruisers Kumano, Suzuya, Mikuma, and Mogami, each armed with ten 8-inch guns, and they were accompanied by two destroyers. But Yamamoto’s staff had determined that the cruisers, unable to complete their mission before dawn’s light, would be vulnerable to air attack, so he canceled the mission and recalled the ships. By 2:38 a.m. on June 5, the four cruisers had set course on a line at a swift clip of 28 knots, sailing to join the Japanese main body, the two slower destroyers trailing somewhere behind.
About 30 minutes later, the lead ship, the Kumano, spotted the Tambor crossing its bow as Murphy attempted to catch the ships in the moon stream. The Kumano immediately signaled the ship behind it to take evasive action while turning sharply away from the enemy vessel. The Suzuya followed suit, also turning hard to port and signaling to the cruiser behind it, and so on down the line.
But traveling at high speed without lights made a sudden echelon turn a dicey maneuver, and the Mogami, bringing up the rear, plowed into the Mikuma ahead of it. The Mikuma was not seriously damaged; the Mogami fared far worse. Its bow up to the first gun turret was compressed and jammed to the side, now nearly perpendicular to the rest of the ship.
Vice Adm. Takeo Kurita, aboard his flagship Kumano, stopped the group, assessed the situation, and gave orders. The two lead vessels would proceed back to the main body to join up with Yamamoto, while the damaged ships were to stick together for mutual protection on their way to the Japanese base on Wake Island.
Without firing a torpedo the Tambor had, unwittingly, heavily damaged two of the enemy’s heavy cruisers.
The next day, June 6—using the Tambor’s report and following the oil slick trailing the Mikuma—American planes tracked down the fleeing ships. Dive-bombers from the Enterprise and the Hornet, as well as marine planes from Midway, carried out waves of attacks on the two damaged cruisers and the accompanying destroyers, the Arashio and Asashio. Both destroyers were hit by single bombs but were able to continue navigation. Between them, they lost 59 men and claimed two American planes shot down.
The Mogami, due largely to excellent damage control, not only survived its ravaged bow but also absorbed six bomb hits and eventually limped home to Japan, having lost 9 officers and 81 crewmen. In the process, its antiaircraft gunners claimed 10 American planes. The Mikuma, however, was consumed by fire and explosions after many bomb strikes, and sank around dusk. Aside from the four carriers destroyed earlier in the battle, it was the largest Japanese ship sunk since the beginning of the war.
The influence of the Tambor’s encounter didn’t end there. Occurring midbattle, it affected crucial decisions made by Rear Adm. Raymond A. Spruance, who had accepted overall command from Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher when Fletcher had to depart the stricken Yorktown. With the sinking of the Japanese carriers on June 4, the Americans had already won a decisive victory—but how hard should the American forces press their advantage?
The answer depended, in part, on Japanese intentions. Was the apparent withdrawal westward a temporary movement to regroup or a full retreat? Had Yamamoto called off the landing on Midway, or not? In the darkness on the night of June 4–5, there were considerable potential dangers, and much that Spruance did not know, including the locations and movements of many Japanese elements.
Confirmation that the carrier Hiryu had been sunk, for instance, was not received until days later, when American searchers recovered a boatload of survivors from its engine rooms.
“During the Battle of Midway the ‘fog of war’ was fairly thick,” Spruance wrote after the war. In this context, the Tambor’s encounter with the Japanese bombardment task group and Murphy’s initial contact report of “many unidentified ships” were extremely significant. For three hours—from 3:06 a.m. to 6:17 a.m. on June 5—it was possible to believe that an invasion force was nearing Midway.
Even Murphy’s more specific report of two damaged cruisers limping away from the islands could be consistent with an invasion.
Given these circumstances, Spruance acted cautiously. Mindful of Nimitz’s instructions to apply “the principle of calculated risk,” he did not charge to the west in hot pursuit of a wounded enemy, but gave priority to his basic mission: the protection of Midway. By placing his carrier group 100 miles northeast of the base that night he positioned it to strike a Japanese invasion force. That placement also kept the two remaining American carriers, the Enterprise and the Hornet, out of harm’s way.
This was more important than even Spruance knew. He was unaware, for instance, that to the west lay the super-battleship Yamato, with 18.1-inch guns capable of throwing shells the weight of Packards more than 15 miles. Years later, Spruance wrote, “The fact that Admiral Yamamoto with seven battleships, one [light] carrier, cruisers, and destroyers was operating to the northwestward of Midway was not known to us for several months after the battle…. Had we continued on to the westward during the night of 6–7 June, we would probably have run foul of…his superior Japanese forces the next morning.” The same could be said for the night of June 4–5.
Although some officers in Spruance’s carrier task force were disappointed that he was not more aggressive, the admiral displayed all-out aggression and prudent caution at just the right moments. He sent everything he had at the enemy as early as he could: for example, he launched his Torpedo Squadron Six at 153 miles from the enemy, not at 130 miles as they had requested. None of the torpedo planes returned. But after knocking out the Japanese carriers, he refused to chase blindly and put the victory at risk.
Spruance did order a pursuit of retreating Japanese ships— but not until 11 a.m. on June 5, after planes out of Midway had found no trace of an invasion force. Meanwhile, between 3 and 11 that morning, the distance between his Task Force 16 and the remaining Japanese elements grew by some 200 miles.
In the immediate aftermath of the battle, it was hard to see this as anything other than a missed opportunity. Murphy’s initial contact report had been maddeningly incomplete, and a furious Admiral Nimitz relieved Murphy of his command after the battle. Murphy later wrote, meekly, “We should have made an opportunity…to amplify our initial report, but we didn’t.”
Yet by adding an important element of confusion to an already murky situation, his inadequate report helped to keep Spruance from blundering into range of the Yamato’s big guns. Had the superbattleship sunk the lightly armored Enterprise and Hornet, Yamamoto would have salvaged a draw from defeat. In this context, the Tambor’s nighttime encounter and Murphy’s vague contact report gave the Americans at Midway a final point of luck.
On the morning of June 7, a bomb shook the Tambor. Bob Hunt leapt out of bed to check the torpedo tubes for damage, running in his bare feet across a carpet of glass from light bulbs that had shattered overhead. Fortunately, the bomber had been first detected on radar, and the sub had dived in time to escape fatal damage. Unfortunately, the bomber was likely an American B-17, such as the one that had targeted the Tambor’s sister sub, the Grayling. Following postbattle analyses, a navy spotter was placed on each bomber to assist with ship identification.
On that ignominious note, the Tambor’s latest war patrol came to an end. On June 9 the submarine task group was ordered back to Pearl Harbor, and the damaged Tambor limped home. Hunt had kept a forbidden war diary tucked in his locker in the forward torpedo room, but, uncharacteristically, had not made a single entry in it during the battle, an indication this was no ordinary patrol.
He didn’t learn how extraordinary the patrol had been until after the war, when the February 18, 1946, issue of Life magazine arrived at his home. It contained a recreation of the Battle of Midway and, to his astonishment, devoted a two-page spread to the Tambor’s role in the drama, which was depicted in dioramas constructed and photographed by visionary industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes.
“This is the first time I knew we caused the damage to the cruisers,” Hunt said. “We didn’t know anything about the collision during the war. It was a big surprise.”
When Hunt finally did make his next diary entry, two weeks after his return to Pearl, he had time to sketch only a brief summary of the drama. It read:
War Patrol No. 3 cruised with Jap force—was bombed with very large bomb—very close—dove on radar & got to about 80 feet—both periscopes out—broken air compressor pot base—battery blower casings smashed—lots of broken glass—scared hell out of the crew.
Two days liberty—the rest working—off to sea again— what a life.
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.