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DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY -- NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER
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Pilotfish

 

An herbivorous fish of the family Kyphosidae, known as "rudderfish" or "pilotfish," "...a hardy customer [with]...great endurance," found along the Atlantic coast of the Americas from the West Indies to Cape cod, whose outstanding behavior is the habit of following ships, and which are sometimes seen in company of sharks.

 

(SS–386: displacement 1,525 (surface), 2,391 (submerged); length 311'8"; beam 27'3"; draft 15'3"; speed 20 knots (surface), 9 knots (submerged); complement 66; armament 1 4", 2 20 millimeter, 10 21" torpedo tubes; class Balao)

 

Pilotfish (SS–386) was laid down on 15 May 1943 by the Portsmouth (N. H.) Navy Yard; launched on 30 August 1943; sponsored by Mrs. Martha S. Scheutz, wife of Congressman Leonard W. Scheutz of Illinois, a member of the House Naval Affairs Committee; and commissioned on 16 December 1943, Lt. Comdr. Robert H. Close in command.

 

Following underway trials, training, and shakedown in the Portsmouth area, Pilotfish conducted experimental torpedo firings at Newport, R.I. (22 January-14 March 1944). She fired 250 Mark 23s, 73 Mark 18s, and 32 dummy torpedoes at depths ranging from surface to 190 feet, using various impulse pressures and employing a firing cut-off valve, in the effort to eliminate impulse bubbles and obtain maximum effectiveness of torpedoes. She then operated in the vicinity of New London (15-29 March) where workmen completely overhauled her torpedo tubes, packed the tail shafts with sand, and installed IFF (identification, friend or foe) gear, and the boat completed all scheduled tests, at the end of which time she fired three Mk.23 and one Mk.14 exercise torpedoes in practice approaches. She departed New London on 29 March, transited the Panama Canal on 7 April, and on 10 April reported for duty to the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, for duty, assigned to Submarine Division (SubDiv) 202, Submarine Squadron (SubRon) 20.

 

Pilotfish arrived at Pearl Harbor on 26 April 1944 to begin final training (27 April-15 May) in periscope, radar, and night surface approaches, radar tracking, and battle surface and coordinated convoy attacks, firing eight exercise torpedoes in practice runs, experiencing two depth charges dropped close aboard for indoctrination, and exercising her 4-inch and 20-millimeter batteries against a sled target towed by the old tug Seagull (ATO-141). She capped her training by searching for, and conducting a practice attack against, an inbound four-ship convoy, in concert with Pintado (SS-387) and Shark (SS-314) as part of a coordinated attack group (Capt. Leon N. Blair).

 

Following that period of “progressive, complete and well balanced” training, Pilotfish departed on 16 May 1944 on her first war patrol as part of Task Group (TG) 17.12 (Capt. Blair) in company with Pintado and Shark, escorted out of local waters by submarine chaser PC-571. The boats proceeded to Midway, rendezvousing with submarine Herring (SS-233) and a pair of Douglas SBD Dauntlesses flying inner air patrol from the atoll on the morning of 20 May. After fueling to capacity, Pilotfish departed Midway the next morning. En route to her assigned operating area, she conducted training, then joined Shark and Pintado, and received final instructions from the TG commander on 22 May. Ultimately, their courses took them to intercept Japanese Convoy No. 3530, that had sailed from Yokohama on 29 May 1944, its ten transports/cargo ships carrying soldiers and equipment of the Japanese Army’s 43rd Infantry Division slated to reinforce the defenses of Saipan, and escorted by the torpedo boat Ōtori and three submarine chasers. On 4 June, the coordinated attack group made contact with the convoy, and although success did not crown Pilotfish’s work, Shark and Pintado managed to obtain favorable attack positions and wreak havoc: Shark sank army transport Katsukawa Maru on 4 June and transport Tamahime Maru and army transport Takaoka Maru the following day. On 6 June, Pintado sank cargo ship Kashimasan Maru and army transport Havre Maru. On 7 June, the remnants of Convoy 3530 reached their destination, hurriedly unloading; because of the work of Shark and Pintado, however, the 43rd Regiment arrived at its destination at half-strength, its weapons and equipment at the bottom of the ocean. Pilotfish then patrolled across probable routes of reinforcement or retirement of the Japanese force engaged in the Battle of the Philippine Sea (19-20 June), and then shaped a course for the Marshall Islands, rendezvousing with submarine rescue vessel Florikan (ASR-9) on 3 July and mooring in Majuro lagoon alongside submarine tender Bushnell (AS-15) on the morning of 4 July. While Commander, Submarine Force, Pacific Fleet (ComSubsPac), Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, subsequently considered the boat’s maiden war patrol as “not successful,” Commander SubDiv 142, however, wrote charitably: “Although Pilotfish made no direct attacks, as a member of the wolf pack, she was in some extent instrumental in mutually assisting the other two submarines in successfully completing their attacks.”

 

Pilotfish departed on her second war patrol on 27 July 1944 following a refit by a SubDiv 142 relief crew and Bushnell. Within an hour of the end of the first watch on 20 August, three days after a Mitsubishi G4M Type 0 land attack plane [Betty] shook up the boat with a near miss, Pilotfish encountered what she reported later to be a 150-ton freighter, and fired two Mk.23 torpedoes that, in retrospect, either ran beneath of target or missed close aboard. Subsequently, on 1 September, she encountered a small dispersed Japanese convoy, en route from Tokyo Bay to Chichi Jima, the auxiliaries Ina Maru (Nippon Yusen Kaisha line) and Shibazono Maru, shepherded by a trio of escorts that, when warned of the likelihood of an air raid on the port toward which they were heading, reversed course, outdistancing their charges. Then ordered to retire toward Hachijo Jima, the two plodding auxiliaries gradually drew apart, Ina Maru falling behind and radioing for an escort. Late in the mid watch on 1 September, Pilotfish obtained a night radar contact on the 853-ton Ina Maru and fired a spread of four torpedoes (Mk.23) from the bow tubes, then swung right and loosed four (Mk. 18) from the stern tubes. Although Lt. Comdr. Close modestly reported no destruction of his target, a spread of Mk.23s or Mk. 18s had struck home and dealt fatal damage to Ina Maru; she went down with all hands (30 souls all told). During the forenoon watch the same day, Pilotfish fired four torpedoes at Shibazono Maru about 55 kilometers east of Tori Jima, but the enemy vessel avoided the Mk. 18s fired at her and reached a harbor of refuge at Hachijo Jima. Running low on fuel, Pilotfish put in to Midway on 9 September, having devoted the previous three days to training junior officers and replacement watchstanders. Departing Midway in company with Pintado and Bluefish (SS-222), Pilotfish arrived at Pearl Harbor, on 14 September to commence a refit.

 

Commencing her third war patrol, Pilotfish sailed from Pearl on 14 October 1944, and reached Midway on the 18th where she received voyage repairs from the submarine tender Proteus (AS-19). Topping off her fuel tanks, the boat sailed for the Bonins. After altering course for a time on 27 October “to stand west beyond [patrol] area for possible contact with enemy combatant ships damaged during the recent sea battle [Leyte Gulf],” she then fell in with Sargo (SS-188) during the morning watch on the 29th, exchanging “pleasantries” with the older fleet boat before continuing on. Two days later, on 31 October she encountered what she reported as a “Taian Maru-type” cargo ship escorted by what appeared to be two Chidori-class torpedo boats. After three hours of tracking the target, she carried out a dawn periscope attack, firing a spread of four Mk. 18s (the second broaching and veering to the left). Although she claimed damage, no confirming evidence proved forthcoming from Japanese records. Loss of depth and a depth-charging by the escorts left little opportunity for further observation. On 2 November, Pilotfish proceeded to the Nansei Shoto area for the balance of the patrol. She returned to Midway, arriving on 10 December. Although she had thoroughly covered her assigned areas, she encountered few targets worthy of the expenditure of torpedoes.

 

Following a refit at Midway carried out by submarine tender Aegir (AS-23) and SubDiv 42, Pilotfish conducted post-repair training. Excessive noise in both shafts required attention, however, delaying her “ready for sea” date until 17 January 1945. Three days later, the boat departed on her fourth war patrol, in company with Finback (SS-230) and Rasher (SS-269), Pilotfish’s commanding officer, Comdr. Allan G. Schnable, “pack” commander (who had relieved Lt. Comdr. Close on 1 October 1944) heading for Saipan. After conducting intensive diving and fire control training and exercising at tracking, pack communication and tactics (25-27 January), the group reached its destination on 28 January where Pilotfish received emergency voyage repairs alongside the submarine tender Fulton (AS-11). Following a conference of the commanding officers of the three boats, the trio sailed for the East China Sea. Over the ensuing weeks, Pilotfish encountered the hospital ship Takasago Maru (“…well lighted, steering steady course, apparently complying [with] all requirements of Hospital Ships”) on 9 February, and a host of fishing boats (including a veritable fleet of 25 to 30 Chinese fishing vessels on 8 March) or guardboats [picket boats]. She suffered slight damage when bombed by an unidentified plane on 26 February. Fortunately, neither that shaking-up (“that hit the jackpot on the slot machine”) nor the small explosion and fire that occurred in the after engine room during the mid watch on 4 February proved enough to prevent the ship from continuing her patrol. She rendezvoused with Finback on 14 March, and ultimately reached Midway on 21 March to received voyage repairs from SubRon 32 and submarine tender Pelias (AS-14). She departed Midway later the same day, made rendezvous with submarine chaser PC-1078 an hour before the end of the morning watch on 25 March, and moored at Pearl Harbor later that day.

 

Refitted by the workmen at the Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor and a SubDiv 44 relief crew, Pilotfish emerged with a 5-inch gun in place of her 4-inch gun among other alterations.  Her departure delayed by a noisy port shaft, constant trouble with both air compressors, and leaking periscopes that required six dockings and the replacement of all bearings, renewal of the port shaft and both propellers, as well as a complete realignment of the machinery on the port side, Pilotfish finally sailed for her fifth patrol on 21 May 1945.  She moored at Midway four days later to receive voyage repairs from SubDiv 121 and submarine tender Griffin (AS-13). Underway for her patrol area the next morning, the boat spent 33 of the next 50 days on station in the vicinity of Marcus Island and the Nanpo Shoto areas, plagued by excessive reduction gear noise; despite providing thorough coverage for her assigned station she neither had opportunities to inflict damage upon the enemy or conduct lifeguard duty. Punctuating this patrol with a brief period of voyage repairs by SubDiv 162 and submarine tender Orion (AS-18) at Tanapag harbor, Saipan (12-20 June 1945), escorted in by PC-1598 and out by infantry landing craft LCI-122, she joined the “Lifeguard League” on 25 June. After making contact with a succession of submarines, Sea Robin (SS-407) and Quillback (SS-424) on 5 July and Springer (SS-414) the following day, Pilotfish began developing heavy vibration aft that defied identification on 9 July. Completing her lifeguard duty the following day, she undertook an investigation, and while “an obliging B-24” provided cover, Lt. Harold J. Marty (DE) USNR, assistant engineering officer, went over the side and inspected the screws, rudder, and stern planes, emerging from his watery work having found no “visible or apparent defects.” Proceeding thence to Guam, the boat reached her destination on 14 June.

  

At Guam, Pilotfish received a two-week refit by submarine tender Sperry (AS-12) and a SubDiv 361relief crew.  She departed on her sixth patrol on 9 August 1945, again slated for lifeguard duty. Proceeding to sea in company with Sea Devil (SS-400) and escorted out by submarine chaser PC-784, Pilotfish and Sea Devil proceeded to their assigned stations, conducting daily training dives and fire control drills. Sea Devil departed for her area on 12 August, and Pilotfish reached hers the following morning. In the middle of the forenoon watch on 15 August 1945, however, Pilotfish received a “Cease Attack” order from ComSubsPac that announced the cessation of hostilities with Japan. Originally routed to Midway the following afternoon, she received orders an hour before the end of the mid watch the following day to proceed elsewhere, joined en route by Hake (SS-256) on 29 August. Falling in with destroyer Wren (DD-568) the falling day and passing to the operational control of Commander, Third Fleet, Pilotfish rendezvoused with the submarine Runner (SS-476), Archer-Fish (SS-311), Muskallunge (SS-262), Cavalla (SS-244), Gato (SS-212), Tigrone (SS-419), Razorback (SS-394), Haddo (SS-255) and Sea Cat (SS-399) at 0535 on 31 August, entered Sagami Wan at 0757 and Tokyo Bay proper at 0932 “to participate in the initial occupation of Japan and the formal surrender ceremonies.” She moored in a nest alongside Proteus (which flew Vice Admiral Lockwood’s flag) at Yokosuka, and was thus present when, at 1045 on 2 September 1945, she received word of the “formal surrender signed on board U.S.S. Missouri [(BB-63)] by the representatives of all interested nations.”

                        

The following morning (3 September 1945), in company with the same boats with which she had arrived, Pilotfish, having completed her operations with the Third Fleet and with operational control resumed by ComSubsPac and Commander Task Force 17, got underway for Pearl Harbor with 26 passengers embarked. Pausing at Pearl (12-14 September), she ultimately reached San Francisco on 21 September, earmarked to be placed in reserve. She remained at San Francisco for the remainder of the year 1945, but got underway on 2 January 1946, and returned to Hawaiian waters soon thereafter. Earmarked on 25 January for use as an “atom bomb target,” the boat stayed at Pearl Harbor into late May, a period punctuated by a liberty and recreation visit to Kahului, Maui (6-11 May). Assigned to temporary duty with SubRon 11 on 15 May for the duration of her time with Joint Task Force 1, Pilotfish departed Pearl for the last time on 22 May, and reached Bikini atoll on 30 May to serve as a target during Operation Crossroads, as part of Task Unit 1.2.4 (Submarine Unit).

 

Her crew having evacuated to the attack transport Bottineau (APA-235) during the forenoon watch on 30 June 1946, Pilotfish rode out Test Able on 1 July, 2,506 yards northeast of the actual blast but suffered “no damage of consequence.” Net tender Etlah (AN-79) placed a boarding team on board during the afternoon watch the day of the Able explosion for about 18 minutes, declaring the boat radiologically clear for boarding over an hour later. Damage control parties boarded the submarine the following day, completing a material inspection; the crew re-boarded her by 3 July, and moved her alongside Fulton that afternoon. Pilotfish’s crew returned to Bottineau on the morning of 24 July and the boat was submerged in advance of Test Baker on 25 July. In the wake of the underwater blast that occurred on that day only 260 yards from Pilotfish, however, the submarine rescue vessel Coucal (ASR-8) reported being able to locate only two buoys marking the boat’s location. Efforts to bring her to the surface proved unsuccessful on 28 July, and those evolutions ceased at 1704 on 30 July. Her officers and men embarked in the attack transport Fillmore (APA-83) on the morning of 9 August. Three days later, apparently in response to questions concerning her future, Commander TG 1.2 reported that “recommendations for [Pilotfish’s] disposal will depend upon conditions discovered if and when raised.”


While efforts to raise Pilotfish had indeed ceased, salvage operations continued on 16 August 1946, finding the boat listing 30-40º to starboard, while the superstructure aft of frame 100 appeared to be displaced about an inch to starboard. Silt and chunks of coral covered the deck, in some places to a depth of 18 inches. Consequently, on 21 August 1946, Pilotfish “was declared lost as a result of [Test] Baker.” Formally decommissioned on 29 August 1946, Pilotfish was stricken from the Naval Register on 25 February 1947. Subsequent dives confirmed the serious damage received in the Baker blast.

 

Pilotfish received five battle stars for World War II service.

 ___________________________________________

Robert J. Cressman

29 August 2006