Although the aircraft carriers of the United States’ Pacific Fleet garnered most of the glory, it was the U.S. submarine fleet that may have made the greatest contribution to victory in the Pacific by sinking the bulk of Emperor Hirohito’s merchant navy. The destruction of the Marus crippled Japan’s wartime industry, which was heavily dependent on foreign-based raw materials. While American warships seemed to roll off the ways in an endless stream, Japan’s shipyards had to focus on building merchant ships and transports rather than reinforcements for the imperial navy.
During the war, U.S. submarines accounted for 55 percent of Japanese tonnage sunk. The so-called “silent service” was responsible for sinking nearly 1,200 Japanese merchant ships, as well as 214 warships and submarines, totaling 5.6 million tons. The submariners paid an awfully high price to accomplish this, however. Of the 300 or so American subs that patrolled the waters of the Pacific, and to a lesser degree the Atlantic, 52 were lost. In addition, 22 percent of American submariners were killed during the war, one of the highest loss rates of servicemen in any of the nation’s military branches.
Sailors tend to refer to lost submarines as being on “eternal patrol,” their final resting place and the moments surrounding their destruction usually unknown. One of those eternal patrols from World War II, however, has finally come to an end. In June 2006, after searching for six days in the Gulf of Thailand, U.S. Navy divers identified the remains of USS Lagarto, SS-371, which went missing in the final months of the war. Jamie MacLeod, a British recreational diver, had first discovered the wreck in May 2005.
Commander Tony San Jose, diving officer of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, reported that in searching the wreck his divers had identified two 5-inch gun mounts both forward and aft, a feature believed unique to the lost submarine. Serial numbers and the word “Manitowoc” on the sub’s propeller were also noted. Lagarto was the 21st of 28 subs built at Wisconsin’s Manitowoc Shipyards during World War II. Four of those subs, including Lagarto, were lost at sea.
The ill-fated Lagarto was laid down on January 12, 1944, and commissioned 10 months later. The Balao-class submarine had a surface speed of 20 knots and a submerged speed of almost 9. It was armed with 10 21-inch torpedo tubes—six forward and four aft.
Lagarto was on its second wartime patrol when it disappeared on May 3, 1945. The last radio transmission received from the sub’s crew reported that it was about to attack an enemy convoy. Japanese wartime records confirm that the minelayer Hatsutaka reported sinking an American submarine at roughly the same time and in the same location where Lagarto was discovered 60 years later.
The vessel’s long-lost remains sit upright in 230 feet of water. The operation to locate the sub was conducted from the rescue and salvage ship USS Salvor, ARS-52, with divers from Pearl Harbor–based Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 1 conducting the underwater search. The mine countermeasures ship USS Patriot, MCM-7, pinpointed the exact location of the wreck through a remotely operated vehicle and SQQ-32 sonar.
Although much of the submarine’s teak deck has disappeared and some of the superstructure has been stripped away by Thai fishing nets, Lagarto is in a near-perfect state of preservation. In a memorial ceremony, Navy salvage divers affixed a brass plaque to the sub’s aft capstan. An American flag, supplied by the families of Lagarto sailors, has also been attached to the conning tower.
According to the Internet site www. navsource.org, Lagarto suffered massive damage to its port-side bow area. The sub’s outer plating is missing, and there is a hole blown inward to the forward battery room, wardroom and fuel tank No. 1. Lagarto might have been making a surface attack around midnight when it was attacked by Hatsutaka. Two holes in the sub’s conning tower indicate it could have been hit by the Japanese warship’s guns before submerging, after which the submarine fell victim to a lethal depth-charge attack.
Nancy Kenney was only 2 years old in June 1945 when her family received the telegram stating that her father, Signalman 1st Class William Tucker Mabin, was missing in action. A second telegram a year later stated that her father was “presumed dead.”
Kenney learned of the discovery of her father’s final resting place from her son John. “I was shocked and confused; elated, of course. My first reaction was to confirm it, because I never thought Lagarto would be found. I went through an intense grieving process for about a week. Since I was only 2 when my father died, I had never really mourned him. I’d just grown up missing him all my life.”
Kenney said the discovery of the submarine ignited a desire to make contact with the families of the other lost Lagarto sailors. “Finding the other familiepeopls has been a priority with me. We have now found 60 [families] of the 86 crewmembers. I have spoken with most of them. Almost to a person, they are shocked, thrilled and relieved.”
She added: “If there’s any good this story can do, other than the obvious healing for the families, it’s reminding the American people that those who give their lives in a war should always be remembered and honored. We wouldn’t be living the kind of lives we are now if it weren’t for them.”
Originally published in the October 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.