USS Bowfin (SS-287) Diesel-Electric Attack Submarine
The USS Bowfin became one of the more successful USN submarines of World War 2, surviving the war and becoming a floating museum.
Authored By Dan Alex; Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com
The USS Bowfin earned herself a grand reputation for her sea-going prowess in the Second World War. The vessel accounted for thousands of tons of lost Japanese shipping covering vast portions of the Pacific. She managed nine complete tours and was en route for her tenth when word came down that the Empire of Japan was no more. Thusly, she survived the war and served for a time during the Korean War to follow as a training platform for future submariners. Since then, she went on to find a home as a protected floating museum in Hawaii where she resides to this day.
It All Goes Back to Pearl
While the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan on December 7th, 1941, proved a costly loss for the Americans, the Japanese missed out on delivering a knock-out punch to the slumbering giant. The attack left the harbor facilities, fuel stores, aircraft carriers (away at sea) and lesser warships all intact - within this group of survivors was the burgeoning fleet of American submarines. Ironically, it would be the American fleet of aircraft carriers and submarines that would play a crucial role in the systematic dismantling of the Empire of Japan. By the end of it all, America would become a major world military power with a battle-tested fleet of silent killers while Japan would cease to be the mighty empire she aspired to be - now reduced to a conquered shell by her ultimate victors. Though Japan gained a tactical victory in the assault, it served as fuel to enrage and mobilize the American nation, now with nothing but vengeance on its mind.
The Balao-class Submarine is Born
In response to the attacks, the USN quickly put to order the new Balao-class of submarines. The Portsmouth Navy Yard at Kittery, Maine, was selected as the construction zone and work began on the vessels. Third in the class became the USS Bowfin (SS-287), named after the aggressive Mississippi/Great Lakes ray-finned fish, and her keel was laid down on July 23rd, 1942. Launched on December 7th, 1942 - exactly one year to the day of the infamous Japanese attack - with Mrs. Jane Gawne as her sponsor, the boat carried the unofficial name of "Pearl Harbor Avenger" throughout her distinguished tenure. The new vessel was officially commission on May 1st, 1943, with Commander Joseph H. Willingham at the helm.
USS Bowfin Walk-Around
The Bowfin was a perfect example of American submarine design of the time, full of clean lines and purposeful dimension. She maintained the typical design appearance of her counterparts featuring a flattened topside and a smooth contoured underside. The flat topside served the surface crew well and contained the sail, deck gun emplacement and anti-aircraft weapons as well as applicable surface systems. Her dive planes were held along the forward sides of the hull. When at rest on the surface the Bowfin exhibited a discernable "nose-up" stature. Her sail was held conventionally amidships and affixed atop the structure were her communications antenna and periscopes. The sail was stepped forward and aft, resulting in two platforms. Each platform mounted a trainable anti-aircraft gun mount. The deck gun was fitted a ways aft of the sail along the surface deck of the submarine. Railings were nothing more than two levels of rope strung across her design edges. The vessel was typically complemented by ten officers along with approximately 70 enlisted personnel.
Power was supplied to the vessel by 4 x General Motors Model 16-248 V16 diesel engines used to power electrical generators. There were 2 x 126-cell Sargo batteries and 4 x high-speed General Electric GE electric motors with reduction gears for undersea activity. All this power - measured to total approximately 5,400 shaft horsepower when surfaced and 2,740 shaft horsepower when submerged - was delivered to two propellers held underneath the hull at the rear. Top speed along the glassy blue was just over 20 knots while the vessel could gallop at just under 9 knots when underwater. Her range was roughly 11,000 nautical miles when on the surface, less that when submerged.
The Bowfin displaced at 1,550 tons when surfaced and 2,453 tons when submerged. She held a running length of 311 feet, 9 inches with a beam equal to 27 feet, 3 inches. Her draught was measured at 16 feet, 10 inches. Types like the Bowfin could go as deep as 400 feet in ideal conditions though, in practice, these depths were only used in extreme instances.
Armament centered around her 21-inch (533mm) torpedo tubes. As an attack boat, the Bowfin made use of ten total torpedo tubes, six facing forward in the bow and four facing aft at the stern. This is uncommon on modern submarines where the torpedoes are general launched from bow-only fittings. The stern tubes meant that the target in question be positioned off to the stern for these tubes to be effective. The officer in charge could then rotate his periscope to face the stern and call out the appropriate action. Twenty total torpedoes were carried aboard allowing for a great deal of potential damage to be delivered.
For surface work, the Bowfin was fielded with a 102mm (4-inch) /50 caliber deck gun. The deck gun could be elevated and rotated along its mount and engage targets within range and within its firing arc. Several crew manned the weapon and the system could only be accessed and fired when the vessel was (naturally) on the surface. Such a weapon was ideal in tangling with lightly-armed and armored surface ships where the danger level to the Bowfin was not overtly high. The deck gun could be fired with explosive or armor piercing projectiles and crews were trained well-enough to target specific portions of an enemy ship (waterline, bridge, etc...).
To defend against incoming aerial threats (or double the offensive power against enemy surface ships), the Bowfin crew manned a Bofors 40mm and a Oerlikon 20mm cannon system, both in single barrel mountings. The 40mm type sat at the lower rear step aft of the conning tower with the 20mm system on the step just forward. Despite the superstructures implements in the way, all gun positions enjoyed a large firing arc and the vessel could be adequately positioned to help engage a target more efficiently.
Submarines of World War 2
It deserves mention here the operation of World War 2 submarines (when compared to modern types) was a vastly different affair. Submarine vessels then were excessively limited in the amount of time they could spend submerged - usually measured in hours or days as opposed to the months a modern submarine (nuclear-powered) can stay under. This presented a certain tactical limitation particularly in the prospect of an ongoing war. A commander could relatively easily surface his boat in the dead of night and locate enemy vessels for targeting and ultimate destruction (perhaps moonlight and searchlights being his only danger here). However, during daylight operating hours, being along the surface could expose the boat to passing enemy air patrols or actively-scanning surface warships. A World War 2-era submerged submarine operated on batteries and could only recharge these components (as well as dispel the dangerous built-up CO2 gasses from within) while along the surface. When running on the surface, the crew switched over to the diesel engines and operated much like any other surface vessel. Speeds were always better along the surface of the water (though not matching cruiser or destroyer types) but going could prove quite slow when submerged, usually less than half of the listed surface speed.
If detected by an enemy warship (either visually or via sonar/radar), the submarine crew had little choice but to dive to safety or quickly engage - for they rarely held the power to speed away from danger. Once underwater, the submarine would now take evasive action and listen for the oncoming surface ship and gauge its location relative to the submarine. Depth charge attacks (dropped, fuse-timed underwater bombs) were soon to follow and could shake or simply shatter the hull of a given submarine - a submarine already held in check by the pressures of the deep - and cause irreversible flooding or a pressurized collapse of the underlying structure. If caught on the surface by an anti-ship spotting aircraft, the submarine crew could manage to let off ammunition from their anti-aircraft guns and hope to destroy the incoming plane before the enemy crew could let off its deadly payload against them.
The primary goal of any submarine outing was to target and sink enemy merchant shipping or surface warships (the latter when advantage was the submarines). Merchant shipping represented the "juicier" target for they were the vessels called to supply and resupply the onshore Japanese forces. Seeing it that Japan proper was an island all herself, most of her conquests in the Pacific were also water-bound. As such, her merchant marine fleet would prove critical to ongoing actions in the region. USN submarines were charged with disrupting the flow of both men and material and ultimately cripple Japan's war-making capacity from the outside in. It was typical for submarines to shadow an enemy convoy for hours before achieving the proper attack angle. Once the target was in sight and aligned, the submarine could fire one or more torpedoes in a "spread" and hope to time their contact precisely, targeting the critical center hull portions of passing ships. It was not uncommon for launched torpedoes to either exploded prematurely, not explode at all or missed their mark altogether. At the end of the day, however, a submarine crew's success was rated in the amount of tonnage they could send to the bottom of the drink. Once out of torpedoes, the submarine need only return to a friendly port and resupply.
Technology was advancing at a quick pace, consistent with war's past, but the onboard systems of World War 2-era submarines of the time were a far cry from today's digital environment - survival still came down to the talents and skill of the individual crew, maybe even moreso than now. Crews operated in shifts and in confined spaces for days on end. Life and death were all contained in these steel tubes on any given day. Silence was the call of the hour, be it the vessel trying to avoid detection, steaming along quietly to a rendezvous point or running alongside an enemy convoy, ready to strike. Needless to say, life aboard a wartime sub was riveting and boring all at once.
Being an American submariner in World War 2 proved a serious and extremely dangerous business where the man found the fight or the fighting inevitably found the man. Of the 288 submarines put to sea by the USN, 52 of these were lost - usually with all hands aboard - to the dark blue sea. A horrific though for anyone to be sure. This accounted for 3,505 out of 14,750 young submariners the conflict, such was the deadly business of the day. Knowing these numbers, one gains a newfound respect for a vessel such as the Bowfin - and her crew - for she remained a submarine that stood the test of what World War 2 had to offer and live to tell the tale years after.
The Legend Begins
When the Bowfin eventually set sail, her first stop was New London, Connecticut, for the standard "shakedown" training covering boat and crew alike. By July, the vessel steamed towards the Pacific Theater and ultimate war. Like most East Coast-born USN vessels, the Bowfin made her way through Caribbean waters before traversing the Panama Canal and ultimately finding the Pacific blue. After a lengthy jaunt across the ocean, Bowfin made it to Brisbane, Australia. On August 19th, she was north along the coast towards Darwin and left there on August 25th, 1943, to begin her very first combat patrol of the war.
After three uneventful weeks of searching for suitable targets, the Bowfin met up with her sister-ship, the USS Billfish (SS-286), for joint operations. A six-strong convoy was soon spotted and trailed for several hours. Once in position, the Bowfin struck first and let loose her six bow torpedo tubes, five hitting their mark. After turning herself to face the stern against the target group, Bowfin unleashed her four aft tubes but enemy fire forced the Bowfin under without recording the results. Billfish entered into the fray later and finished off some of the convoy. The remaining surface ships managed escape out of range of the submarines in the dark of night. Days later, radar revealed a contact that saw Bowfin loose three more of her torpedoes against a steamer. All three failed to hit the target.
On September 30th, 1943, Bowfin's surface guns were used against a Japanese troop barge. The barge fired back but a lucky 102mm shell hit at the barge's magazine store and did the vessel in. A schooner became the next victim to fall to the surface guns of the Bowfin. Her first patrol ended in success on October 10th. Willingham was promoted to head a submarine division thanks to the stellar success of his command, his crew and the Bowfin herself. Lieutenant Commander Walter T. Griffith now assumed command of the vessel.
A little known fact regarding the Bowfin about her first tour included two secretive outings around the Japanese-held Philippine Islands. One mission consisted of the Bowfin delivering critical supplies, financing, radios, ammunition and the like to Philippine guerillas waging an ongoing war to disrupt Japanese progress on the islands. The second involved transporting nine hand-picked Philippine guerilla fighters from the Philippine Islands to Australia.
After refit, the Bowfin was in the South China Sea on patrol. Three of five targeted schooners were credited to the Bowfin before an enemy plane forced her under. Another surface ship fell to the Bowfin thereafter, as well as a pair of steamers.
On November 26th, 1943, off of Indochina, the Bowfin traversed a heavy storm. The Bowfin then found herself in the middle of heavy Japanese shipping activity. At one point, she had to throw her engines in reverse to avoid a collision with an unknowing Japanese tanker. A tanker and a freighter were soon torpedoed. The Van Vollenhoven, a captured French cargo ship now in service with the Japanese, was targeted and sunk by the Bowfin, earning her a French flag on her sail. As days progressed, the Bowfin sank a passenger/cargo vessel and soon met with the Billfish once again for joint activities. Another convoy was targeted and resulted in the sinking of a large freighter and a tanker.
During the foray, a Japanese surface ship fired on the Bowfin and managed to hit her along her starboard induction line, causing internal flooding. While managing her getaway, the Bowfin crew still let off two torpedoes before retreating from the fight. Repairs were soon underway but the flooding could only be slowed. As such, more intense repairs at a friendly port were required and the Bowfin made her way back to Australia. Before reaching safe waters, the deck gunnery crew took down a sailing yacht presumed to be in the enemy's service.
After refitting, the Bowfin began her third tour of the Pacific seas. The deck gun made short work of another schooner. The next day, defective torpedoes kept her from adding three more enemy flags to her sail but the Bowfin managed to cripple a cargo ship. The day after, Bowfin returned and finished the vessel off for good and damaged one of the target ship's escorts. Out of torpedoes, Bowfin returned to Darwin to reload. She then set off on her fourth patrol.
In the middle of the third patrol, Rear Admiral Ralph Waldo Christie was brought aboard from Australia against the orders of his senior officers. He knew of the Bowfin's increasingly growing reputation at sea and came aboard to witness the behavior of the notorious torpedoes at her disposal. Christie proved his stay real by serving as watch officer when possible as well as "Officer of the Deck" during night shifts. The USS Bowfin therefore became the first USN submarine to carry a flag officer during a wartime patrol.
Back at sea, a cargo ship was quickly felled by three torpedoes from the Bowfin. On January 28th, 1944, Bowfin shadowed a large tanker, ultimately firing her six forward torpedo tubes against the target. At that moment, the tanker unsuspectingly changed course, forcing all torpedoes to miss their mark. The Bowfin crew reloaded the tubes and, once at the proper angle, Bowfin loosed her six again, now managing two direct hits against the tanker. Despite the blasts, the tanker refused to sink. Bowfin moved in and caught fire from the tanker's defensive guns. She sent more torpedoes at the tanker and scored a few more direct hits before submerging to protect her vitals. When the submarine surfaced some hours later, the tanker had made her getaway. Bowfin's last task was to set up a minefield at Makassar Strait, to which she completed, and made her journey back to Fremantle, Australia, but not before downing the requisite pair of schooners with her deck gun.
The Bowfin set sail once more, this time on February 28th, 1944, to the target area of Celebes Sea. On March 10th, she came across a small convoy and engaged with her six bow torpedo tubes. Enemy aircraft forced her under and enemy escort ships were soon at work, depth-charging around her last known location. Bowfin took some shock from the charges but no serious damage was noted. Bowfin surfaced once more and fired again but was forced back under by one of her own renegade torpedoes caught in a circular path. The following day, Bowfin re-surfaced and found a damaged freighter from the previous day's fighting. More torpedo attacks were called but the escorts drove her under again. Hours later, Bowfin reappeared and found the limping freighter all alone. Four torpedoes finally did the Japanese ship in. The rest of the escort was ultimately found and more torpedoes were launched though none found their mark. On empty, the Bowfin returned to Darwin to resupply.
At sea on March 15th, 1944, the Bowfin located another convoy and engaged. Escort vessels forced Bowfin on the defensive for a time and all of her launched torpedoes missed. Resurfacing to periscope depth, Bowfin tried again to no avail - the situation now all but out of reach - so the convoy moved on. On March 24th, under the cover of dark, Bowfin fared better by sinking a pair of freighters as part of a five-strong convoy. Running out of torpedoes, a third ship was only damaged and failed to sink. Back to Darwin for the Bowfin it was.
Commander Griffith was relieved by Commander John H. Corbus and the Bowfin set sail on April 24th, 1944, to the Palaus. A freighter was sighted and engaged but two torpedoes failed to sink her. Bowfin was called to serve as a recovery instrument for downed American pilots and was later sent back to Pearl through Midway Island.
On July 16th, Bowfin set out from Pearl with the target zone of the Ryukyu Islands in sight. It was nearly one month before the submarine came upon targets of opportunity and shadowed the convoy until they docked. Bow torpedoes were fired and at least two hit their mark with two USN-confirmed sinkings before Bowfin headed back out to sea. Additionally, some of the torpedoes launched in this action managed to knock out a crane, dock and IJN bus. Thusly, a crane and a bus were now featured on the Bowfin's battle flag, joining the Imperial Japanese flags and the sole French flag.
Perhaps the only stain on the Bowfin's record occurred off of the Tokara Islands on August 22nd, 1944. While engaging a convoy, Bowfin sent torpedoes into several vessels including destroyer types. In the foray, a transport vessel (the Tsushima Maru) was sunk - aboard were 1,484 civilians (including parents and teachers) and, among these, some 767 school children being displaced from the Japanese mainland in preparations for a US-led invasion there. The attack occurred sometime between 10 and 10:30PM against the unmarked Japanese ship. Fifty-nine school children survived the attack in what can only be explained at a true mark of any war - senseless loss. The sinking of the civilian ship was not revealed to the West for some time however. The Bowfin earned both the Presidential Unit Citation and the Navy Unit Commendation for sinking five enemy vessels - becoming one of only five such USN boats to earn the honor.
August 28th yielded a sole trawler, this falling to the surface guns yet again. Out of torpedoes, the Bowfin returned to Midway then Pearl and, ultimately, San Francisco on September 21st, 1944, for a complete overhaul. Commander Alexander K. Tyree took over for Corbus. The Bowfin was back at sea on December 16th, 1944 - now some three years removed from the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Bowfin returned to service through Pearl once more and ended up at Honshu, targeting Japanese vessels and rescuing downed American airmen as needed. A pair of Japanese sub-chasers closed in and Bowfin managed to sink one and survive a depth charge barrage from the other. Her patrol ended at Guam on March 25th.
Her eighth patrol began on April 23rd, 1945, and found the Bowfin again near Honshu. On May 1st, she sank a transport and, later, a freighter. She ended at Guam for refitting.
Patrol nine began on May 29th, 1945, with the Japanese mainland in sight. In "Operation Barney", and using a new mine-detecting FM sonar system, Bowfin joined a group of eight other submarines to traverse the dangerous and heavily-mined Tsushima Strait. The sonar system delivered a gong sound when the vessel was in 300-yard contact with a possible enemy mine. The target area was now open season on Japanese shipping near the mainland itself. The journey through the minefield was at a deliberately slow 2-knots with depths running about 170 feet and total distance covering some 30 miles underwater. All nine boats returned safely from their foray (though one was unfortunately lost in unrelated action). June 11th yielded an unescorted transport and June 13th netted a freighter for the Bowfin. June 20th showcased a shallow water attack on another convoy but the torpedoes did not score a single enemy vessel and another renegade Bowfin-launched torpedo threatened the boat enough for the attack to be called off. By July 4th, Bowfin was back at Pearl to ready for her tenth patrol.
Patrol Ten, Almost...
Bowfin headed from Pearl for the Marianas Islands to begin her tenth wartime patrol. While on her way, she received the news that the Empire of Japan had formally surrendered to the Allies. As such, the Bowfin and her crew all returned safely to America by way of Pearl and the Panama Canal. After rounding Florida, Her resting place became Tompkinsville of Staten Island, New York. She arrived in port on September 21st, 1945. Following the war, she served for a time with the Atlantic Fleet before being sent to New London, Connecticut for decommissioning - this taking place on February 12th, 1947.
Cold War Service
The USS Bowfin was placed on active service with the arrival of the Korean War to help strengthen American submarine presence in the war and, as such, she was recommissioned once again on July 27th, 1951. Her role found her in the Pacific once more, now fighting a second war, though she would spend most of her time based out of San Diego, California for crew training and team exercise. The Korean War finalized in a loose armistice signed in the summer of 1953 to which the Bowfin was downgraded and left inactive at San Francisco on October 8th, 1953. After some time at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Bowfin moved to her new home in Seattle, Washington to serve as a training submarine for the Naval Reserve on May 1st, 1960. After about ten years of service in that role, the US Navy officially struck her name from the Naval Register and sent her back to Pearl Harbor.
The USS Bowfin Today
On August 1st, 1979, the USS Bowfin became a floating museum ship to be forever stationed at Pearl Harbor proper - just a ways away from the resting place of the USS Arizona herself - and today sits in quiet tribute to all USN submariners having lost their lives in World War 2. The mighty submarine is part of a standing USN submarine museum that is a walk away from the USS Arizona memorial visitor center. The USS Bowfin exhibit was named a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
Today, the USS Bowfin serves as both a memorial and an educational tool as part of the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.