Submariner Sam Dealey achieved the hunter-killer ideal, but success at sea cost him his life.
The pinging started in at 5:32 a.m. on August 24, 1944, a signal to two U.S. Navy submarines lying outside Dasol Bay on Luzon that enemy vessels were about to make the 130- mile run for the safety of Manila along the island’s west coast. The day before, the subs had devastated a four-ship Japanese convoy whose sole survivor had spent the night in Dasol’s shallows among other enemy vessels. At 5:54 the periscope watch on the USS Hake spotted two sets of masts near the bay’s entrance. Chimes rang as the Hake’s rookie commander, Frank Haylor, ordered “battle stations torpedo.” A few thousand yards away, the USS Harder’s veteran skipper, Sam Dealey, issued the same call. Within an hour the Hake identified both targets: the PB-102, a captured American destroyer, and CD-22, a new Imperial Navy frigate bristling with antisubmarine gear.
As Haylor was setting up for a shot, the old destroyer zigged. He broke off the attack. “Sighted Harder’s periscope dead ahead about 600-700 yards,” he recorded in his patrol report. Lookouts on the enemy frigate must have spotted the scope, too, for the CD-22 turned directly toward the subs. As Haylor noted, the frigate continued to ping and “apparently had two targets and couldn’t decide what the score was.” He changed course, took Hake deep, rigged for depth charge, and crossed his fingers.
Dealey, a bold and confident officer who had 20 enemy ships to his credit, held firm. As the frigate approached head-on, he launched three torpedoes “down the throat”—a risky gambit that sent the fish in a tight cluster, a degree or two apart, so that by the time lookouts aboard the target saw them streaking toward their ship there would be no way to evade. Dealey had already sunk two enemy destroyers using this daring tactic. But that morning he miscalculated: two torpedoes went wide to port, the other wide to starboard. A few minutes later Frank Haylor heard “15 rapid depth charges.” He didn’t realize then that the explosions marked the end of the Harder and its 79-man crew.
News of the Harder’s loss with all hands rocked the American undersea force. How could a plodding frigate have taken out Sam “Destroyer Killer” Dealey, winner of four Navy Crosses and one of the best submarine skippers of the war? Some believed he had simply run out of luck. Others thought Dealey had finally crossed the line between boldness and recklessness, and paid the ultimate price.
SAMUEL DAVID DEALEY JR.’S navy career began inauspiciously. He “bilged out” of the Naval Academy at the end of his first semester for poor grades and a stack of demerits. The ex-midshipman was the Dallas-born namesake of a well-known real estate developer and nephew of a powerful local newspaperman. When Sam Sr. died in 1912, his widow moved the family to Denver, Colorado, then Santa Monica, California, and finally back to Dallas, where Sam finished high school. In 1925 Representative Hatton Sumners (D-TX) nominated Sam to the Academy, and a year later young Dealey was back pleading for a second endorsement. The usually stern Sumners assented; after all, Sam’s uncle George Dealey had recently bought the influential Dallas Morning News. This time Dealey put his nose to the grindstone… but only just. On his way to becoming an ensign the 5’9” midshipman boxed intramurally; displayed, according to the yearbook, The Lucky Bag, a “never-failing sense of humor;” and earned notoriety as “an organizer of parties, real parties.” Just days after graduating in 1930, Sam married his longtime sweetheart, Edwina Vawter.
Following sea duty aboard the battleship USS Nevada, Dealey requested transfer in 1934 to the Submarine School at New London, Connecticut. Not only did submarine work pay a bonus, but boats rarely went on long cruises, meaning more time at home with his young family. Dealey did well at New London. “He was a quiet officer, not a colorful one,” his first skipper noted. That decorousness fit America’s 1930s-era submarine culture, which applauded caution and punished innovation and aggression. A sub’s primary role was scouting, not offense. At annual fleet exercises skippers won points for their boats’ cleanliness, not the ability to stalk and attack targets. Night exercises were banned. If a referee spotted a periscope breaking the surface, the skipper using it could be relieved instantly.
Dealey returned to surface duty aboard the battleship USS Wyoming, leaving after a year in spring 1940 to be executive officer of the destroyer USS Reuben James—probably at the request of its skipper, H. L. “Tex” Edwards, a close friend and mentor at Annapolis. The old four-stacker was on “neutrality patrol” in the Gulf of Mexico, working with British warships to waylay German U-boats and surface raiders. Dealey soon sought transfer back to subs, and in April 1941 received his first command, the vintage S-20, assigned to test experimental gear. Dealey seemed a careerist: soft-spoken, well regarded, unremarkable. Events would change that.
On October 31, 1941, a U-boat sent the Reuben James to the bottom with Tex Edwards and all but 45 of its 160-man crew. The loss devastated Dealey. Then the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. From that moment, Sam Dealey had one purpose: to get into the war. He bore down on readying the S-20 for combat, relentlessly driving his crew—and himself.
AFTER PEARL HARBOR, American submariners quickly realized their culture of caution had to change. Subs needed highly adaptive, enterprising, independent officers eager to take risks that would have deep-sixed peacetime careers. Doctrine began to evolve as skippers back from combat filed war patrol reports with superiors and peers. These 50-to-60- page accounts of lessons learned addressed plane and ship contacts, radio reception, equipment malfunctions, habitability, and, of course, details about tactics and techniques used in torpedo attacks. To these remarks senior commanders added assessments encouraging or discouraging particular methods, and skippers shipping out on war patrols were expected to absorb the documents. Over time this accumulated into a formal doctrine dedicated to aggressiveness. In the short term, the change battered many older skippers; during 1942 nearly 30 percent lost their commands. Among candidates pinpointed in the search for combat-ready replacements was Sam Dealey, still running that test-bed relic out of New London. In September 1942, hoping he would demonstrate an ability to sink enemy ships, the navy gave him command of the USS Harder, a new 1,525-ton Gato-class sub. By April 1943 Dealey was bound for Pearl Harbor and showing a perfectionist streak. His log describes diving drills, fire control drills, battle surface drills, torpedo drills, and more. On the afternoon of June 7, 1943, the Harder cleared Pearl’s Hospital Point, bullnose aimed west toward Japanese waters for its first war patrol, with orders to behave boldly and strike hard.
By late June, when Dealey reached his station south of Tokyo Bay, he had digested the patrol reports, and quickly put their lessons to work. Just after midnight on June 22, Harder encountered a two-ship convoy with a single escort. Dealey maneuvered into position and fired four torpedoes at the small tanker leading the group. The first fish exploded prematurely, but the other three plowed into the target, setting it ablaze. He went for the escort vessel but glare from the tanker spoiled his night vision. He prudently took his sub deep. Working the shallow waters along the Japanese coast, Dealey made four more attacks over the next seven days—all successful. When he had expended his 24 torpedoes, he turned Harder around. Back at Pearl, the rookie skipper handed in his patrol report, and was credited with three enemy ships sunk, four damaged. Superiors reacted ecstatically. “One of the finest first patrols made by any submarine,” the division commander wrote. “A beautiful job.” Dealey was modest about his achievements but his aggressiveness had established a pattern—and earned him a Navy Cross.
Harder’s second patrol, also in imperial waters, went much like the first. On the six-week sortie Dealey fired all 24 torpedoes. The enemy responded forcefully; in the sub’s 23 days on station Japanese warships dropped 102 depth charges on the boat, which at one point escorts forced down for 58 hours. None the worse for wear, and claiming four ships sunk, the Harder returned to Pearl on October 6, 1943, to more adulation and a second Navy Cross for its skipper.
On October 30, the Harder departed for the Mariana Islands with the Snook and the Pargo in the navy’s second-ever wolf pack, led by Captain Frederick B. “Fearless Freddie” Warder. The evolving American wolf pack doctrine called for subs to operate in groups, coordinating their attacks (see “Pack Mentality,” September 2009), but on this run each boat worked alone. Dealey sank three ships, damaged two, and, out of torpedoes, headed back to the barn nine days ahead of his pack mates. “The personnel of the Harder are ‘attack minded,’” Dealey wrote in his war patrol report, no doubt meaning him self as well as his men. “They grow restless when targets are hard to find, are eager for each attack to be pushed home, and would not be satisfied with less aggressive patrols.” He received another Navy Cross and another shower of praise.
On its fourth patrol, the Harder stood lifeguard duty in the Caroline Islands, where aviators from Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher’s Task Force 58 were to work over the 6,500 Japanese holding Woleai Atoll. During that April 1, 1944, attack, an American pilot parachuted to the atoll’s beach. Guided by other airmen circling above, Dealey grounded the Harder’s nose on the reef forming Woleai’s lagoon and sent three volunteers in a rubber boat to shore. For an hour, the sailors, amid sniper fire, struggled to reach and retrieve the injured flyer, Lieutenant (Junior Grade) John R. Galvin. Once his team returned with Galvin, Dealey backed the sub off the coral and headed to sea.
Twelve days later lookouts sighted a destroyer’s masts. The modern, powerful, and fast Ikazuchi seemed to be circling and pinging. “Sounded battle stations and headed for the destroyer at 1/3 speed keeping the bow always pointed at the target,” Dealey wrote. After two-and-a-half hours of tracking he fired four torpedoes that sank the destroyer, his first. The next night a message from Pearl Harbor declaring “open season” on Japanese destroyers prompted much hilarity in the wardroom.
Early on April 16, a 3,500-ton cargoman and two destroyers emerged from Woleai’s lagoon. The Harder stalked them until 3:35 the next morning, when Dealey attacked, sinking the maru and damaging a destroyer. His fourth patrol brought a fourth Navy Cross and a change of Harder’s base to Fremantle, on Australia’s west coast.
THE LEGEND OF DESTROYER KILLER Dealey solidified on the Harder’s fifth patrol. This time the sub’s station was the Sibutu Passage, a 30-mile corridor between the Celebes and Sulu Seas. Besides conducting a war patrol Dealey had two special missions: extracting an intelligence team stranded on Borneo and reconnoitering Tawi-Tawi, the Japanese fleet anchorage in the southern Philippines.
He threaded the Harder north through the Malay Barrier, a maze of islands, shallows, and narrow straits dense with enemy traffic, and reached the Sibutu Passage on June 6, 1944. At 7:30 p.m. radar picked up three large tankers, escorted by two destroyers. The enemy vessels were steaming south at 14 knots; the night sky was cloudy. Dealey raced ahead. The Harder had surfaced, waiting to pounce, when the moon broke through. A lookout aboard the closest destroyer saw the sub, and the hunter became the hunted. “He was headed hell-bent for Harder,” Dealey reported. “We turned tail…. At 19 knots we left a wake that looked like a broad avenue for five miles astern.” He dove and swung hard left. Bringing Harder’s stern tubes to bear, he fired three torpedoes. Two struck broadside. Within five minutes the destroyer had sunk. About an hour later another destroyer charged the Harder. Dealey emptied all six bow tubes. When every torpedo missed, he dove.
At the mouth of the Sibutu Passage the next morning, Harder and a Japanese destroyer spotted one another. The enemy captain attacked; Dealey stood fast. When the range shrank to 650 yards he fired three torpedoes down the throat, then watched through the periscope as his assailant sank stern first within a minute. That afternoon two destroyers, and then a third, came into view. Soon six Japanese destroyers were dogging him, and Dealey reluctantly slipped away. “I really believe we might have gotten one or two more,” he wrote. “The gamble would have been made at too great a risk.” Two days late for his Borneo rendezvous, he steered west. Just after midnight on June 8, Harder extracted six British and Australian intelligence agents.
By the next evening the Harder was back at the north end of the Sibutu Passage when lookouts identified two Japanese destroyers on patrol. Dealey stalked the lead ship, but as he was setting up, the enemy vessels’ courses converged. Thinking he might be able to sink both with a single volley, he fired four. Three connected. A huge explosion erupted on the first destroyer, heavily concussing the Harder. Through the periscope Dealey next saw no trace of the first ship and “the tail of the second destroyer straight in the air.”
Dealey headed for Tawi-Tawi, where on June 10 he observed the arrival of a large part of the Japanese Combined Fleet—an armada of three battleships, four or more cruisers, and six or eight destroyers. Spotting the Harder, one destroyer charged at 35 knots. This time there would be no evading. “We had to hit him—or else,” Dealey wrote later. At 1,500 yards he fired three torpedoes down the throat and dove, maintaining course. In the 55 seconds it took his first fish to hit, the sub traveled to a spot almost directly beneath its target and “all Hell broke loose.” Dealey alerted Pearl Harbor to the enemy fleet’s position. In five days he had sunk five destroyers—the Japanese thought a squadron of American subs had encircled Tawi-Tawi—but stress was high. “Fatigue of all hands approached a dangerous stage several times,” wrote Dealey, who was not immune. “Sam was showing unmistakable signs of strain,” recalled executive officer Frank Lynch, who once found his captain in a “state of mild shock, unable to make a decision.”
The Harder’s crew expected a three-week leave, but was diverted to Darwin to pickup Seventh Fleet submarine commander Rear Admiral Ralph Christie, who wanted to observe the legendary Dealey in action. He even had a target in mind: an enemy transport said to be hauling nickel ore, essential for making steel. Just 10 hours after docking, the sub was steaming back toward the Malay Barrier, its patrol extended 18 days.
Six days out, lookouts sighted an enemy cruiser with two escorts, but the trio was too far away to approach. “Why didn’t you expose your conning tower and lure the destroyers and sink them?” asked Christie. Dealey asked the admiral if he was being serious. He was. Dealey demurred. On June 30, the submariners spotted the nickel ship, but it had protection: two floatplanes aloft, plus an escort vessel. Dealey and Christie watched the freighter steam away. After the fruitless patrol extension, the Harder headed for Fremantle, arriving on July 10, 1944, to a grand reception. Christie presented his host a plaque depicting an enemy destroyer broken in two, with the legend “To Comdr. Sam Dealey—Destroyer Killer—In grateful appreciation from his fellow submarine skippers.” Kudos-laden endorsements piled up: “The most brilliant in a series of five outstanding patrols”; “An epoch making war patrol”; “It is recommended that this patrol report be studied by all submarine officers.” And from Fremantle to New London, the Harder’s fifth run was the talk of the force. “Rarely had a single war patrol received such unrestrained praise and enthusiasm,” recalled James F. Calvert, an officer on the USS Jack. “Every submariner tipped his hat to the Harder for this one.”
AS THE WAR PROGRESSED, skippers inevitably began to burn out, leading to a policy of relieving captains—particularly successful ones—after four or five patrols. To recuperate, they got shore duty or assignments to subs under construction. Such interludes were as necessary as oxygen. “You get too confident,” said submarine ace Slade Deville Cutter, second among sub captains in wartime sinkings. “When you made your fifth patrol, you became careless, you had lost your respect for the enemy.” He could have been describing Dealey, who according to Frank Lynch had become, by the end of his fifth patrol, “quite casual about Japanese antisubmarine measures.”
Commander Dealey obviously was in line for a break. Fearless Freddie Warder, poised to head the Submarine School, asked the navy to give him Dealey. The possibility excited the Texan, who insisted that before heading to New London he take the Harder out once more. Christie bowed to his star skipper’s will. On August 5, 1944, in company with the Hake, the Harder departed Fremantle, never to return.
“The most ghastly, tragic news we could possibly receive,” Christie wrote in his diary upon learning Harder’s fate. “We can’t bear this one.” Submariners hotly debated the cause of the Destroyer Killer’s demise. Most blamed Christie for letting Dealey go on that final sortie. But Dealey shared in that responsibility. He firmly believed he was fit for command, and insisted on another patrol. Given his record and the submarine culture’s celebration of risk, it would have taken a bold superior, even one wearing gold braid, to buck him. Dealey received a posthumous Medal of Honor and Silver Star to go with his four Navy Crosses, Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart, and Presidential Unit Citation—the fourth-most highly decorated serviceman in American history. Of 20.5 ships the Harder claimed, postwar analysis allowed 16; of six destroyers claimed, review confirmed four. Dealey’s record placed him fifth among American submariners in vessels sunk during the war.
How did an officer rated unremarkable before the war transform into one of the navy’s most audacious, successful submarine commanders? In assigning Dealey the Harder the admirals were gambling that he possessed a native ability to sink enemy ships. Right out of the gate he showed that ability in spades, and his legend grew in tandem with his record. He came to epitomize what the wartime navy valued most in sub skippers, as well as the kind of submariner all skippers aspired to be.
Dealey’s transformation may have begun when he recognized he liked hunting and sinking enemy ships, and that he was good at it. Perhaps in those moments when he was sweating in the conning tower waiting for a torpedo to strike or a depth charge to detonate, Sam Dealey found a sublime and addictive thrill, a feeling of invincibility that in the end carried him to and over the precipice of boldness.
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.