A small, slender fish of the halfbeak family, so termed because of its unusually long lower jaw and short upper jaw. The fish is found in the West Indies from Key West, Fla., to Bahia, Brazil.
Balao (SS-285) was laid down on 26 June 1942 by the Portsmouth (N.H.) Navy Yard; launched on 27 October 1942; sponsored by Mrs. Theodore C. Aylward; and commissioned on 4 February 1943, Lt. Comdr. Richard H. Crane in command.
After a six week training period in New London, Conn., the submarine sailed for the Pacific theater of operations and joined the 7th Fleet at Brisbane, Australia, on 10 July 1943. At the end of a brief refit alongside submarine tender Fulton (AS-11), Balao got underway on 25 July to begin her first war patrol. She topped off her fuel tanks from submarine rescue vessel Coucal (ASR-8) on 29 July and, on 7 August, took station in the scouting line in the sealanes between Truk and the Bismarck Archipelago. However, she made only five enemy contacts and was unable to launch a single attack. The scouting line was discontinued on 26 August, and Balao shifted to patrol the Palau-Rabaul shipping route where she fared no better. The submarine trained in emergency dives, and her crew frequently went to battle stations upon the sighting of enemy aircraft; but the patrol was not enlivened by action with surface ships before the boat moored alongside Fulton in Brisbane on 13 September for refit.
Her second war patrol began on 4 October when Balao sailed in company with Silversides (SS-236) for Tulagi. After refueling there on 11 October, the submarine got underway for her assigned area north of the Bismarck Archipelago and again covered the Palau-Rabaul routes. Balao sighted a convoy on 17 October, but it escaped her salvo of six torpedoes by making a radical zig-zag maneuver and increasing speed to open the range. The convoy's escorts counterattacked with depth charges, but Balao came away unscathed. Her targets moved out of range at high speed, preventing her from regaining contact.
Balao joined Silversides in a coordinated attack on a seven ship convoy on 23 October, firing 10 torpedoes at three ships that presented an overlapping target. She scored six hits. One ship was seen down by the bow, with her stern in the air; another listed heavily; and a third was riding low in the water. While Balao was maneuvering into position for a second attack, the convoy's escorts fired on her, forcing the submarine to dive. Balao lost contact with the convoy and failed in her attempts to reach Silversides to exchange information. She later learned, however, that her consort sank three of the seven ships.
Balao stopped at Tulagi to refuel and to load torpedoes. On 28 October, she was assigned to a scouting line south of Truk. On 4 November, the submarine made a submerged approach to a two ship convoy, but the six torpedoes that she fired missed their marks. Balao then shifted to the Truk-New Hanover route where she conducted an uneventful patrol until 7 November, when she headed for Milne Bay, New Guinea, for refit alongside Fulton.
Underway again on 6 December, Balao spent two days in training exercises and practice approaches with Coucal as her target. On 13 December, the submarine conducted communication and identification tests with friendly search planes and then began her patrol. No surface contacts came during the first two weeks, but her luck changed on 27 December when two Mogami class cruisers and two Asashio class destroyers crossed her track. The four warships maneuvered in a radical zigzag plan at a speed of 20 knots, passing the submarine so rapidly that she only managed a shot at the second cruiser. Balao fired four torpedoes which overran their target. While rigging for depth charges, she heard three explosions, but upon surfacing, could see no sign of damage. The warships were long gone at their high speed.
Balao began the year 1944 with a contact that turned out to be a very large steamer and two escorts. The weather impeded her efforts to close the convoy, but also offered protection when a rain squall covered Balao while she fired six torpedoes. The submarine counted three explosions and then went deep to wait out the inevitable depth-charge attack by the escorts. When Balao surfaced the next morning, the convoy had disappeared. Certain that the freighter had been sunk, Balao resumed her patrol of the shipping lanes. She later sighted a convoy of a damaged freighter and two escorts and moved in for an attack only to discover that the freighter was her target of 1 January. The escorts drove Balao off; and, on the 7th, she was ordered back to Brisbane, still without a confirmed kill under her belt.
Balao arrived in Brisbane on 15 January for a normal two week refit and a brief training period. On 6 February, she was underway via Tulagi for her patrol area north of New Guinea, which she entered on the 13th. Her first opportunity to attack came just after midnight on the 23d when she closed a convoy of two freighters and one small escort. Balao fired six torpedoes at the larger of the two freighters, scoring three hits. The escort maneuvered to attack, but never came close to the submarine. Rather than risk a repetition of her disappointment during her last patrol, Balao returned to the scene to verify that the ship had sank. A survivor was taken on board, who stated that his vessel, the 5,857 ton passenger cargo ship Nikki Maru, had gone down rapidly after being hit.
A convoy located on 26 February did not offer a chance of attack because Gato (SS-212) had first fired on it causing its escorts to chase Balao from the scene. Two days later, Balao sighted smoke on the horizon and commenced tracking three ships and an escort. Shortly after midnight, Balao went to battle stations and closed for attack. After firing her six bow tubes at the lead ship, the submarine swung her stern toward the wing ships in the formation and fired her stern tubes. Balao heard several explosions at the expected times, as torpedo after torpedo struck home. One of the damaged ships trained a 3 inch gun on Balao, but a heavy internal explosion silenced the gun before Balao could be hit. The submarine could see nothing except heavy smoke in the target area, but radar watched as two "pips" disappeared from the screen. Balao lured the escort out of the target area in order to double back to look for the third freighter. Radar and lookouts failed to locate the merchantman, so Balao returned to patrol the shipping lanes after a very successful attack. Postwar study of Japanese shipping records identified her victims as the 2,723 ton freighter Shoho Maru and the 6,803 ton passenger cargoship Akiuro Maru.
On 3 March, Balao fired four torpedoes at a small freighter and escort from a distance that proved to be too great. All four fish passed under their targets. Later that morning, Balao sighted a convoy of four small cargo ships, described as "the dregs of the worst of harbors." The convoy changed course and pulled away from the submarine before she could close for attack.
The next day, Balao investigated smoke on the horizon; found two cargo ships; tracked them through a rain squall; and, as she passed into clear weather, found the convoy in perfect position for her torpedoes. She fired four stern tubes at the leading ship, but heard no explosions. The torpedoes were duds or had again passed underneath. As the escorts actively pursued the submarine, Balao submerged to wait out the inevitable depth charges. When the submarine surfaced again, all trace of the convoy was gone; and she set course for Langemak Bay, New Guinea, with all her torpedoes expended. On 7 March, Balao moored alongside Coucal and took on fuel and provisions. She got underway again on the following morning, bound for Pearl Harbor where she arrived for refit on 19 March.
Balao completed refit and training on 24 April and the next day began her voyage back to action. After stopping for a few hours at Midway to refuel, she continued to her patrol area around the Palau Islands. She contacted a small convoy on 14 May but was unable to close for attack because of the diligence of the Japanese escorts. The submarine returned to patrolling the Yap-Palau shipping lanes. Her next contacts were unfavorable for attack, and problems with her surface search radar hampered her efforts to seek out enemy shipping.
On 1 June, the situation brightened. Balao made radar contact with a four ship convoy and tracked it to an excellent position for attack. Just after midnight on the 2d, she fired six bow fish at one of the largest passenger cargo ships, and scored two hits. Although pursued by the escorts, Balao again managed to close the convoy, now with only two ships visible. Only minutes before Balao reached firing position, one of the escorts unwittingly moved to a spot on Balao's beam and stayed there, thwarting the submarine's second attempt. She was prevented from carrying out a dawn attack by Japanese air cover and was forced to allow the convoy to escape without further damage. A fuel shortage forced Balao to enter Majuro Atoll on 12 June to begin refit alongside submarine tender Sperry (AS 12).
Balao began her sixth war patrol on 5 July when she departed Majuro for the Palau area. The submarine made a few contacts, but none worthy of pursuit. On 26 July, Balao joined in the bombardment of Angaur Island in the Palaus by firing on a lighthouse and loading docks, scoring several direct hits. The same day, she witnessed a fighter plane from the carrier Bunker Hill (CV-17) splash into the water dead ahead and quickly managed to rescue the pilot. After transferring him to Dortch (DD-670), Balao returned to lifeguard duties off Peleliu Island where she picked up two more downed aviators on 27 July.
On 29 July, Balao joined Drum (SS-228) in a coordinated attack on two sampans, engaging them with gunfire until the Japanese abandoned ship and the sampans were destroyed. She then resumed patrol duty and continued the task until 12 August, when she rendezvoused with Conyngham (DD-371) and headed for Tanapag Harbor, Saipan. Balao was then ordered back to the United States where she entered the Mare Island Navy Yard on 20 August for a complete overhaul. Upon the completion of that work, she returned to Pearl Harbor on 15 November and prepared to return to the war in the Pacific.
Balao stood out of Pearl Harbor on 4 December and rendezvoused with Spot (SS-413) and Icefish (SS-367) en route Tanapag Harbor. The trio of submarines reached port on 15 December and moored in a nest alongside Fulton. After topping off fuel, water, and provisions on the 17th, they got underway to patrol the Yellow Sea in a coordinated attack group. Until 2 January 1945, their only contacts were fishing craft and floating mines. On that day, however, Balao sighted the masts of a sailing vessel. She closed the three masted schooner and surfaced to attack. Her first two torpedoes missed the target, but the third hit squarely amidships and sank the vessel. That day proved to be lucky for Balao because, later that night, she picked up a larger ship on radar and successfully moved into position. Early on the 8th, she fired six torpedoes, three of which scored; but the stubborn tanker remained afloat despite being dead in the water. Balao fired seven more torpedoes for three more direct hits, but the target still refused to sink. The submarine closed in on the badly damaged tanker and fired another trio of fish, one of which struck the final blow. However, Japanese records examined after the war indicate that Balao’s victim on this occasion was not a tanker, but the 5,244 ton freighter Daigo Maru. After that, Balao patrolled independently until 19 January when she pulled into Apra Harbor, Guam, for refit alongside Apollo (AS-25).
Balao began her eighth war patrol on 27 February as part of another attack group along with Tench (SS-417), Guardfish (SS 217), and Sea Devil (SS 400) on patrol in the East China and Yellow Seas. Her first opportunity for action came on 9 March, when she sighted a small tanker with two escorts steaming along the coastline. Although not in an ideal attack position, the submarine fired four torpedoes at the tanker, all of which missed. The target’s escorts struck back at Balao with depth charges, but the submarine escaped damage and resumed patrol duty later that day. Although she sighted many vessels during the next eight days, none were worthy targets for Balao’s torpedoes. On 18 March, Balao caught a 188 ton trawler alone, sank it with gunfire, and then rescued three survivors in the debris. Early the next morning, she attacked a convoy of four transports guarded by four escorts. Firing 10 torpedoes at three of the targets, Balao heard four hits and the explosion on one of the transports nearly blinded her lookouts. The early morning darkness made it impossible to assess the damage, but Balao received credit for sinking Hakozaki Maru, a 10,413 ton transport. The submarine then escaped to deep water to continue her patrol. Later that same afternoon, Balao surfaced to attack a group of small trawlers. She sank one trawler and left three others burning fiercely.
Shortly before dawn on 21 March, Balao began tracking a convoy of two ships closely guarded by four escorts. The effectiveness with which the escorts countered her several approaches convinced Balao that she had been detected. As dawn broke, the submarine made one last approach, moving to 1,400 yards where she fired four torpedoes. A menacing escort picked up the submarine’s trail, and Balao ran for deep water under a smoke screen without waiting to observe results. On 26 March, Balao encountered the 880 ton cargo ship, Shinto Maru No. 1, and sank her with gunfire until. A small Japanese patrol vessel made a feeble attempt to counterattack, but Balao slipped below the surface and headed for Guam to replenish her fuel, provisions, and torpedoes. On 2 April, Balao submerged rapidly to avoid detection by a large, low flying enemy plane and took on several feet of water in her conning tower, grounding out her radar and other electrical gear. Despite these problems, she arrived safely at Guam on 8 April for refit.
The submarine began her ninth patrol on 3 May when she headed for the Yellow Sea to patrol in a wolfpack with Dragonet (SS-293), Shad (SS-235), and Spikefish (SS-404). Targets were scarce and mechanical difficulties plagued Balao. On 19 May, the submarine attacked a small freighter, but all three of the torpedoes that she fired missed the target. Nevertheless, she did win a consolation prize when one of her torpedoes struck and sank a nearby 30 ton junk. On 23 May, Balao’s earlier mechanical difficulties rendered her stern planes totally inoperable, and she received orders to Pearl Harbor for refit. En route, she embarked a sailor from Torsk (SS-423) suffering from appendicitis case and an injured Sand Lance (SS-381) crewman. Later that evening, although the radar scope was clear and no other submarines were known to be in the vicinity, Balao was suddenly attacked by torpedoes. The quick reactions of the officer of the deck caused two to pass to port and two to starboard. The submarine continued on to Midway where she arrived on 3 June, discharged her passengers, and set a course for Pearl Harbor where she arrived four days later.
A month in port was readied her for sea once more, and Balao got underway on 7 July for the Nanpo Shoto area and waters east of Honshu. Her primary duty during this 10th and final war patrol was to provide lifeguard services for Allied aircrew during strikes on the Japanese home islands. Balao operated with air cover while on station and rescued four aviators during the patrol. Japan had been so weakened by the final weeks of the war that surface contacts were scarce. She was able to sink one picket boat and damage another with gunfire on 14 August. Word of Japan’s capitulation came on 15 August along with orders to cease fire. Balao rendezvoused with Peto (SS-265) the next day to transfer the rescued aviators, then proceeded on to Pearl Harbor, where she arrived on 25 August.
The submarine departed Pearl Harbor on 31 August for Staten Island, N.Y., where her crew enjoyed a well deserved rest period and she underwent an overhaul. Balao was decommissioned on 20 August 1946, and she was berthed in New London, Conn., as part of the Atlantic Reserve Fleet.
Balao was recommissioned on 4 March 1952 at the U.S. Naval Submarine Base, New London, Connecticut, Lieutenant Commander S. V. Hadley in command, and assigned to the Atlantic Fleet’s Submarine Squadron (SubRon) 4. After shakedown training, the submarine was reassigned to SubRon 12 in Key West, Fla. There, she served primarily as a training ship for antisubmarine and Special Development Forces in the Key West and Guantanamo Bay operating areas.
After making several goodwill visits to ports in the southern United States, Balao joined the ships of Destroyer Squadron (DesRon) 24 in a combined antisubmarine warfare training and goodwill cruise to South America that began on 6 January 1957. After joint exercises with the navies of several South American countries, the ship made liberty calls to principal ports such as Caracas, Venezuela; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Montevideo, Uruguay; Mar del Plata and Buenos Aires, Argentina. The submarine returned to Key West on 22 March.
Balao deployed to Guantanamo Bay four times in the next year, spending one month each time training surface ships in “refresher training.” The submarine departed Key West on 19 July 1958 for an overhaul at the Charleston Naval Shipyard. Upon its completion on 13 November, Balao conducted refresher training at New London, Conn., and Newport, Rhode Island. After Balao’s return to Key West on 30 November, she and Archer-Fish (SS-311) spent 12 days of December in hunter killer training.
In 1959, Balao starred as the “pink submarine” in the movie Operation Petticoat, co starring with Cary Grant. After her fame and stardom had subsided in 1960, Balao returned to local training operations. On 1 April, she was reclassified as an auxiliary submarine, AGSS-285, but continued to serve as a training ship. On 3 March 1961, Balao simulated a disabled submarine for the testing of a new device for individual escape. The mechanism, known as the “Steinke hood,” enabled Comdr. W. F. Mazzone and Lt. H. E. Steinke, the hood’s inventor, to ascend from a depth of 318 feet to the surface in 55 seconds, setting a new record.
From 28 June to 4 November, the submarine underwent overhaul and battery renewal. She returned to Key West and resumed services in training. In April 1962, Balao deployed to the Mediterranean Sea where she joined the 6th Fleet for four months of exercises with other NATO navies. Balao also deployed to the western Atlantic during the Cuban missile crisis in October and November, but returned to routine training duty when the trouble died down.
In 1963, the Board of Inspection and Survey determined Balao to be unfit for further service. The submarine was decommissioned on 1 August 1963, and her name was struck from the Navy list that same day. Her hulk was sunk off the coast of northern Florida on 6 September as a target to destruction. Before this occurred, her fairwater was removed; and it is now on display on the waterfront of the Washington Navy Yard.
Balao earned nine battle stars for her World War II service.
Mary Pat Walker
14 December 2005