A Tribute to the Silent Service
By Bob Kirkman
After the destruction of our fleet at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, our president ordered
our submarines to “wage unrestricted submarine warfare against the Japanese empire.”
Except for Jimmy Doolittle's B-25 raid on Tokyo from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet,
the only American warships in the Western Pacific for almost 18 months were the
submarines of the United States Navy. The scope of the interdiction and destruction of
Japan's merchant fleet by American submarines was completely out of proportion to the
size of our submarine force arrayed against her.
American submarines sank almost 5 million tons of Japanese merchant ships (more than
1,200 vessels) including 115 oil tankers, 222 passenger cargo vessels carrying troops,
military equipment and supplies to Japanese bases in the Pacific, plus hundreds of other
cargo ships carrying food and other materials to the home islands of Japan. These sinkings
amounted to more than two-thirds of all Japanese merchant ships sunk, more by far than
was achieved by all other allied forces combined during World War II.
In addition to sinking merchant ships, American submarines sank one-third of the
Japanese Navy's warships, including one battleship, eight aircraft carriers, three heavy
cruisers, nine light cruisers, 49 destroyers, 25 submarines, 40 freighters, nine submarine
chasers, 11 mine layers, 13 mine sweepers, one seaplane tender, seven large aircraft ferries,
one submarine tender, two motor torpedo boat tenders and 50 auxiliary troop transports,
whose almost 400,000 troops and equipment never reached the combat areas. Many other
lesser warships were also sunk for a total of 214 vessels. Long before the atom bomb
devastated Hiroshima, Japan's war-making potential was almost totally eliminated by the
submarines of the United States Navy. There was no fuel to power its warships, its people
were on the verge of starvation, and its industry had shut down for lack of fuel to run its
Our cost in men and submarines was high. Fifty-two submarines were sunk, and 3,623
men gave their lives. To put this loss in proper perspective, consider that our Marine
Corps lost one man in 36 during WW II. The Merchant Marines lost one in 37, the Army
one in 44, the Navy at large lost one in 188. The men who rode our submarines lost
almost one man in four, a death rate of almost 25 percent. This was the highest death rate
ever suffered by any distinct and separate military force in our nation's history.
The most amazing statistic about our “silent victory” was that the total number of United
States submariners who rode the boats was fewer than 16,000 men, a force that equaled
only 1.6 percent of the Navy's total personnel.
As Memorial Day approaches, I salute those on eternal patrol.
Bob Kirkman of Bedford served from 1942-52 in submarine service in the Navy, serving
on the USS Snapper, USS Amberjack and the USS Entembor. He is 83 years old.