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Bowfin (SS-287)

(SS-287: dp. 1,525 (surf.), 2,415 (subm.); l. 311'8"; b. 27'3"; dr. 15'5"; s. 20.25 k. (surf.), 8.75 k. (subm.); cpl. 66; a. 10 21" tt., 1 4", 2 20mm.; cl. Balao)

A voracious, predatory fish native to the Great Lakes, the Mississippi valley, and nearby waters. This dull green, but irridescent fish is little used for food or sport.

Bowfin (SS-287) was laid down by the Portsmouth CN.H.) Navy Yard on 23 July 1942; launched on 7 December 1942; sponsored by Mrs. James Orville Gawne; and commissioned on 1 May 1943, Comdr. Joseph H. Willingham in command.

Following fitting out, the submarine proceeded via Newport, R.I., to New London, Conn., her base for shakedown training. Early in July, she got underway for the Pacific war zone and, after transiting the Panama Canal and crossing the Pacific, reached Australia. Post-voyage repairs at Brisbane preceded her getting underway on 19 August to move north and west along the Australian coast to Darwin. She topped off her fuel tanks at that port and sailed on the morning of the 25th for her first war patrol.

The warship reached the Mindanao Sea on 2 September, but plied its waters for more than three weeks without encountering any worthy targets. On the 24th, she rendezvoused with Billfish (SS 286) to conduct coordinated operations. The next day, the two submarines began tracking a six-ship convoy and continued the chase for some five hours before Bowfin finally attained a suitable attack position. She then launched her six bow torpedoes—four at a freighter and two at a trailing transport. Three exploded against the side of the first ship and both of those fired at the second struck home. The submarine immediately turned her fantail toward the convoy and emptied her stern tubes, sending four torpedoes in the direction of a tanker. Gunfire at her periscope forced Bowfin to go deep and so prevented her from observing the progress of her last salvo, but her crew heard its torpedoes explode. When the submarine rose to periscope depth about an hour later, the 8,120-ton passenger-cargo ship Kirishima Maru was slowly sinking, the tanker was on fire, and the transport seemed to be settling by the stern. However, the two latter ships apparently were able to limp back to port, for the sinking of neither was confirmed by postwar study of Japanese records. Later in the day, members of Bowfin’s crew heard distant explosions and inferred that Billfish was going after the remnants of the convoy, a conclusion which proved to be correct, for their sister ship managed to damage two Japanese ships totaling about 12,000 tons. Although the still unsatiated submarines continued to pursue the remaining enemy vessels as they fled during the night, the battered group of Japanese ships finally managed ta slip away in the darkness.

The following morning, after Bowfin’s radar had picked up an enemy plane also equipped with radar, the submarine was forced to submerge to avoid detection. Two days later, she came across a 1,400-ton interisland steamer and shadowed her until reaching a firing position about three hours later. She then launched three torpedoes. One stopped before reaching the target, and the other two missed.

On the 30th, as she left the Mindanao Sea, Bowfin chanced upon a diesel-propelled barge carrying over 100 Japanese soldiers and opened fire on it with her 4 inch gun. When the target responded with machinegun fire, the submarine’s 20 millimeter guns entered the fray. The battle came to an abrupt end when a 4 inch round struck the enemy’s magazine and blew apart the already sinking barge.

On 2 October, as the submarine continued her retirement through Makassar Strait toward Australia, she sighted a schooner off Balikpapan. Willingham fired two shots across the stranger’s bow but failed to bring her to, so he had her sunk with gunfire.

Bowfin arrived at Fremantle on 10 October, ending a highly successful patrol. Rear Admiral Ralph W. Christie, who commanded American submarines in the area, was lavish in his praise of the submarine’s performance; and he rewarded her commanding officer with the Navy Cross and the opportunity of heading a submarine division. To free him for the new role, Lt. Comdr. Walter Thomas Griffith relieved Willingham in command of Bowfin on 26 October.

Upon completion of refitting, Bowfin got underway on 1 November and headed for the South China Sea. From time to time during this patrol, she again cooperated with Billfish. On the 8th, Bowfin picked up the trail of a group of five schooners. When she pulled within range of them, she opened fire with her 4 inch gun and sank three before bombs from a Japanese plane forced the submarine to dive and thus allowed the two surviving vessels to slip away. After staying down until the return of darkness, Bowfin surfaced and resumed patrolling. Ere long, she discovered and opened fire upon a large sailing ship which went down after suffering hits by two 4 inch shells. Two days later, she found her next victims, a pair of small steamers heading for Tawi Tawi Bay, and set both afire with gunfire.

Her luck was even better on the morning of the 26th while she was approaching the coast of Indochina during a blinding rainstorm. Without prior knowledge that any other vessels were near, she unexpectedly found herself surrounded by Japanese shipping. After barely avoiding a collision with a tanker by backing all engines, she torpedoed and sank the 5,069-ton tanker Ogurasan Maru and then dispatched the 5,407-ton freighter Tainan Maru. A few hours later, her torpedoes ended the career of Van Vollenhoven, a 691-ton coastal cargo ship which the Japanese had taken from her French owners when they overran Indochina almost two years before. On the 28th, after having sent a small passenger-cargo ship to the bottom with a single torpedo, Bowfin joined Billfish in attacking a convoy and quickly sank Sydney Maru, a 5,425-ton freighter and Tonon Maru, a 9,866-ton tanker.

Meanwhile, one of the Japanese ships fired on Bowfin and scored hits which opened leaks in her starboard induction line which, while serious, did not prevent the submarine from getting off her last two torpedoes. Repair efforts upon the return of daylight slowed but did not completely stop the flooding, and Bowfin began her voyage back to Australia. En route to her base on 2 December, she came across a “two masted yacht…which…,” in Griffith’s words, “…looked like it might have been some planter’s yacht taken over by the Japs.” The submarine’s deck gun promptly destroyed this stranger; and, thereafter, Bowfin enjoyed an uneventful passage which brought her to Fremantle a week later. There, Rear Admiral Christie praised her performance as the “classic of all submarine patrols.”

The submarine got underway on 8 January 1944 for her third war patrol. She proceeded through the Java, Banda, and Flores Seas to Makassar Strait where—on the 16th—she encountered a small schooner; surfaced, and sank the sailing vessel with her deck gun. The following day, she came across a cargo ship and two escorts; but her attacks on these targets were frustrated by malfunctioning torpedoes. One from her first spread of four bow torpedoes hit and stopped the freighter, but the other three missed and two shots from her bow tubes detonated before reaching the target. After reloading her tubes, she returned to the convoy the following day and finished off the crippled cargo ship with four well-aimed torpedoes which sent the 4,408-ton Shoyu Maru to the bottom. She also managed to hit one of the escorts with two “fish,” but did not sink her.

Out of torpedoes, Bowfin returned to Darwin for more and, while in port, picked up Rear Admiral Christie who remained on board the submarine for the rest of the patrol to check on torpedo performance, first hand, and to learn the secret of Bowfin’s remarkable success. The day after she returned to sea, the submarine put three torpedoes into a small cargo ship. Lt. Comdr. Griffith claimed that the target sank and his distinguished passenger confirmed the kill, but the sinking was not borne out by postwar examination of Japanese records—possibly because Bowfin’s alleged victim was too small to be listed. About daybreak on the 28th, Bowfin began trailing a large tanker; and she continued the chase until reaching striking range that evening. She then fired all six bow torpedoes; but, since the target simultaneously changed course, none struck home. After a rapid reload, she sent six more toward the tanker and, this time, two exploded against the side of the Japanese ship, sending towers of fire and smoke skyward. Nevertheless, the tanker remained afloat; and, as Bowfin closed to administer the coup de grace, the enemy ship began fighting back with her main battery and machinegun fire. Undaunted, the submarine kept up the attack and during the ensuing 20 minutes fired six more torpedoes: two misses, followed by a pair of hits, then a miss, and finally another hit. At this point the tanker’s fire was becoming more accurate and forced the submarine to dive. When she came up, the Japanese vessel was retiring from the scene and by dawn had disappeared over the horizon.

The next day, Bowfin laid a minefield in Makassar Strait before beginning the voyage back to Australia. On the 30th, she came across a pair of small schooners which she destroyed with her 4-inch gun. The submarine moored at Fremantle on 5 February and began preparations for her next mission.

Underway on 28 February 1944, the submarine headed for the Celebes Sea. On 10 March, she sighted a convoy of four ships screened by a couple of escorts. Bowfin fired six bow tubes, but four of the torpedoes exploded prematurely. Japanese planes forced Griffith to dive and thus prevented anyone on board from observing the fate of the two other torpedoes. During the ensuing action in which the escorts searched for the submarine and she in turn strove to hide at some 350 feet below the surface, a chain dragged by one of the Japanese hunters scraped across Bowfin’s hull. Meanwhile, depth charge explosions—more than twoscore—shook the submarine severely but did no debilitating damage. When Griffith dared to rise to the surface, he saw a freighter down by the stern being taken under tow. Despite the efforts of the enemy escorts and of five circling Japanese aircraft, Bowfin attacked the convoy but could not follow the progress of her torpedoes because one of them had boomeranged and threatened her by running in a circular pattern. She dived to escape the danger and did not come up again until the next day. She attacked the freighter again, but the Japanese escorts drove her down once more. Later that day, she rose to periscope depth, found the damaged ship alone, and finished the 4,470-ton Tsukikawa Maru off with four well-aimed torpedoes.

The submarine then began looking for the rest of the convoy, caught up with it well after dark, and fired her remaining torpedoes, but none scored. She then headed back to Darwin for more, and stood out to sea again on 15 March with a fresh supply. Three days later, she emptied her bow tubes while attacking a small convoy, but all six either ran under their targets or missed wide of their marks. The inevitable depth charge barrage followed, but proved to be equally ineffective. When Bowfin attacked again later that day she fired four torpedoes—all of which were wasted.

She did better on the night of the 24th when, at the end of a long chase, she attacked a five-ship convoy in the Celebes Sea, sinking two freighters—5,139-ton Shinkyo Maru and 5,395-ton Bengal Maru. She also damaged a third ship but could not finish her off for want of torpedoes. As a result, she headed back to Darwin where she arrived on 1 April.

There, Comdr. John H. Corbus relieved Lt. Comdr. Griffith in command of the submarine which got underway again on 24 April and headed for the Palaus. Although this sixth patrol proved to be her longest in both time and distance, she only managed to put two torpedoes into a freighter on 14 May, and it refused to sink. She performed lifeguard duty before heading via Midway for Pearl Harbor where she arrived on 21 June.

On 16 July, Bowfin left Hawaii and headed for the Ryukyu Islands. She encountered no worthwhile targets until 9 August when she sighted four ships heading for the harbor at Minami Daito. She trailed them into port and, after they had moored, fired her bow torpedoes, blowing up two and damaging a third. A stray torpedo hit a dock, sending a bus careering into the water. However, no sinkings were confirmed by Japanese records—again possibly because of the small size of the alleged victims. An authenticated kill came off the Tokara Islands on the 22d when she attacked a convoy, hit several ships, claimed several kills including two destroyers, but apparently only sank the 6,754-ton transport Tsushima Maru. On the 28th, she set a little trawler afire with her 4-inch gun. However, since she had futilely fired her last four torpedoes at this target before surfacing, the submarine headed via Midway and Pearl Harbor for the west coast of the United States. She reached San Francisco, Calif., on 21 September and entered the Mare Island Navy Yard for overhaul.

At the end of the yard work, Comdr. Alexander K. Tyree relieved Comdr. Corbus on 16 December 1944; and, later that day, the submarine got underway westward back across the Pacific. Following training in Hawaiian waters, she headed for a station near the Japanese home islands south of Honshu where she performed lifeguard services for American planes—both naval and Army—raiding strategic enemy targets in Japan. On 17 February, Bowfin attacked two Japanese subchasers and sank the 750-ton Coast Defense Vessel No. 56 with torpedoes and then survived a 26-depth-charge attack by her victim’s consort which had herself barely escaped destruction when some of Bowfin’s torpedoes exploded prematurely. The submarine later sank a Japanese sea truck with one torpedo. On 19 March about 15 miles south of Shikoku, she rescued the pilot and gunner of a downed torpedo bomber. The submarine soon set a course for the Marianas and ended the patrol upon her arrival at Guam on 25 March.

Underway on 23 April for her eighth war patrol, the submarine plied the waters north of Honshu and Hokkaido. Her first kill came on 1 May when two of her torpedoes sank the 2,719-ton transport Chowa Maru. A week later, she overtook, torpedoed, and destroyed an 880-ton freighter Daito Maru No. 3; but, that proved to be the last score of the patrol. After a fortnight of futile searching for targets, she arrived at Apra Harbor, Guam, for refit.

While training for her ninth and final patrol of the war, Bowfin rescued a Marine Corps pilot whose fighter had crashed. She got underway on 29 May and pointed her bow back toward the enemy homeland. One of nine submarines protected by newly developed mine-detecting sonar and sent into the Sea of Japan, she carefully threaded her way through the dangerous minefields of Tsushima Strait which guarded this previously sacrosanct maritime heart of the Japanese Empire, but found little enemy shipping. Nevertheless, she wasted neither of her two attackable contacts: the first, the 1,898-ton transport Shinyo Maru took four torpedoes before sinking on 11 June; and the second, the 887-ton freighter Akiura Maru met a similar fate on the 13th.

The submarine left the Sea of Japan by La Perouse Strait (Soya Misaki) and headed for Hawaii. She reached Pearl Harbor on the Independence Day and began preparations to return to action. Early in August, Bowfin sailed for the Marianas, her staging point for her 10th war patrol. However, while en route, she received word of Japan’s capitulation. As a result, she reversed course and returned to Hawaii and, then, headed for the Panama Canal on her way to the east coast of the United States. Bowfin arrived at Tompkinsville, Staten Island, N.Y., on 21 September 1945. She served in the Atlantic Fleet until decommissioned at New London on 12 February 1947 and placed in reserve.

Reactivated because of the Navy’s need to expand the fleet to support the United Nations’ struggle to repel communist aggression in Korea, the submarine was recommissioned on 27 July 1951 and, following shakedown training, sailed for the Pacific. After arriving at San Diego on 6 October, she worked from that port for the next two years, devoting her time to training operations and local exercises. The nominal ending of hostilities in Korea in the summer of 1953 reduced the Navy’s need for active submarines and prompted Bowfin’s second inactivation. She arrived at San Francisco on 8 October 1953 and was placed out of commission, in reserve, at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard on 22 April 1954. The warship remained there until moving to Seattle, Wash., on 1 May 1960 to replace Puffer (SS-268) as the Naval Reserve training submarine there and to begin a bit over a decade’s service. Her name was finally struck from the Navy list on 1 December 1971, and she was taken back to Pearl Harbor, where she now serves as a memorial.

James L. Mooney

15 December 2005

Published: Thu Apr 21 02:18:35 EDT 2016