Billfish I (SS-286)
Any fish of many species (such as the sauty, gar, spearfish, and sailfish) which have long, narrow jaws that resemble a bird's bill.
The first Billfish (SS-286) was laid down by the Portsmouth (N.H.) Navy Yard on 23 July 1942; launched on 12 November 1942; sponsored by Mrs. Zelda L. Parks; and commissioned on 20 April 1943, Lt. Comdr. Frederic C. Lucas, Jr., in command.
Following shakedown training off the east coast, the new submarine sailed via the Panama Canal for the southwest Pacific. She reached Brisbane, Australia, on 1 August but departed that port on the 12th for her first war patrol that took her, via Darwin, to the waters of the Netherlands East Indies. Shortly after midnight on 29 August, she chased an unescorted tanker near Balobac Strait but that target's zigzag course enabled her to escape into the darkness before the submarine could reach a suitable attack position. That evening, Billfish encountered another ship, which she took to be the large tanker that had eluded her earlier, and fired a spread of torpedoes at this target. The "fish" passed under the stranger that then turned and revealed herself to be a small combatant rather than the expected deep-draft vessel for which the torpedoes had been set.
On the morning of 8 September, she sighted a group of five ships steaming along the Indochinese coast and chased them until late afternoon when she closed her quarry to within torpedo range and launched a spread of torpedoes. The crew heard an explosion, but Billfish was forced to go deep by the first of 15 depth charges. As a result, she was unable to assess any damage that her attack may have done to the enemy. Early on 25 September, the submarine sighted a convoy of five ships escorted by a torpedo boat, but could not reach a suitable attack position. However, she reported the contact to Bowfin (SS-287) that managed to sink the 8,120-ton passenger-cargo ship Kirishima Maru. Billfish then continued her hunt for enemy shipping until ending her maiden patrol at Fremantle on 10 October.
After refit, the submarine put to sea again on 1 November and headed through the Netherlands East Indies, via the Makassar Strait and waters north of Borneo, toward the coast of Indochina. While transiting Sibutu Passage, she slipped by a Japanese antisubmarine-warfare ship without harm and entered the South China Sea on the 16th. From time to time during the patrol, she again teamed up with Bowfin. In the predawn darkness of the 28th, Billfish picked up an escorted five-ship convoy and reported the find to her consort. In a surface attack, Bowfin got off a spread of torpedoes all four of which hit and quickly sank the 2,866-ton tanker Tonan Maru. Only moments later, Bowfin fired two bow torpedoes, which struck a second huge ship leaving its bow awash. At this point, a third vessel headed for Bowfin at high speed, guns blazing. One shell hit the submarine, causing considerable damage; but, undaunted, she got off two stern torpedoes which sent the 5,425-ton passenger-cargo ship Sydney Maru to the bottom. A short time later, Bowfin, out of torpedoes, headed for Australia. Meanwhile, Billfish got into position to fire four stern-tube torpedoes at one of the Japanese vessels still afloat. Though she soon heard explosions, Billfish was unable to observe the results of the attack.
A week later while heading through the Celebes Sea to Australia, Billfish survived an attack of 15 depth charges. Unscathed, she reached Fremantle on Christmas Eve 1943. Refit lasted until 19 January when she headed back to the South China Sea for her third war patrol. The submarine transited Sibutu Passage on the evening of 1 February and, about half an hour before midnight, opened fire with her 4-inch gun on two sea trucks. The enemy vessels responded with erratic fire and scored a few hits on the submarine's deck aft. Unharmed, Billfish set one of the small ships afire and left the second listing dangerously. On the 13th, a comparatively small enemy warship surprised Billfish on the surface and bracketed her with 4.7-inch gunfire, forcing the submarine to go deep. A depth-charge attack ensued but did her no damage as she slipped away to safety. After a final brush with an enemy convoy on 1 March, she returned to Fremantle on the 24th.
Underway again on 18 April, Billfish proceeded to waters between and around the Marianas and the Carolines for her fourth war patrol. On 2 May, she almost closed within range of a freighter escorted by a destroyer and a minesweeper. However, a sudden and radical change of course by the enemy prevented her from launching any torpedoes at these targets. While running submerged on 21 May, she found herself in the path of a four-ship Japanese convoy escorted by as many submarine chasers. Billfish worked into position to attack and fired six torpedoes at the two largest targets. According to the report, three torpedoes sent one ship to the bottom and one hit the second, severely damaging her, as depth charges forced the submarine deep. However, postwar analysis of Japanese records failed to confirm the kill.
The following day, the submarine sighted Japanese submarine I-43 and stalked her for six hours before reaching attack position. She then fired four bow torpedoes at this enemy; but three missed because the target made a last minute zig in its course. The fourth hung up in the tube and had to be jarred loose with a second, much heavier, blast of compressed air. Not surprisingly, I-43 submerged and escaped. Billfish spotted another enemy submarine on 26 May but failed to gain a favorable attack position. Later, after surviving two air attacks, Billfish headed for Hawaii on 5 June and reached Pearl Harbor on the 13th.
Following a hasty overhaul, Billfish, carrying Comdr. Stanley P. Moseley, the commander of a coordinated attack group which also included Greenling (SS-213) and Sailfish (SS-192), departed Pearl Harbor and headed, via Midway, for Luzon Strait. On 7 August, after Sailfish reported a convoy, Billfish launched a spread of four torpedoes at a 300-foot freighter from 2,000 yards. However, the target spotted the wakes trailing these "fish" and managed to evade them. An immediate depth-charge attack by an escort forced the submarine to go deep and prevented her from having another go at this target. Later in the patrol, several Japanese aircraft attacked the submarine; but she escaped without harm. For several weeks, she continued to search for enemy shipping until finally leaving her patrol area early in September and proceeding via Saipan to Majuro Atoll in the Marshalls where she arrived on 13 September.
After refitting at the new advanced submarine base there, Billfish got underway on 6 October for the Volcano Islands where she performed lifeguard duty in support of raids on the Japanese home islands by Army B-29 bombers based in the Marianas. On the 21st, she shifted to the Ryukyus where she sighted a convoy of 10 ships on the night of 4 and 5 November. However, shoal water thwarted her efforts to approach the enemy ships for an attack. Shortly after dawn on the 7th, she spotted a group of five merchantmen escorted by four escorts and tracked them until just past 2200 that night when she fired three bow torpedoes and hit two ships. Even before hearing the explosions, the submarine turned around and launched four more "fish" from her stern tubes. The report stated that two of these exploded against the largest vessel in the group, but it was impossible for her to observe the results of the attack since the escorts struck back with depth-charges and forced her down nearly to maximum depth. Postwar analysis of Japanese records failed to credit her with any sinkings on that day. Yet one or more ships in the convoy may have been severely damaged.
That night, Billfish fired four more torpedoes at a 2,500- to 3,000-ton, two-masted, vessel; but she answered with machinegun fire before escaping unharmed. Five days later, the submarine sank a 40-ton, diesel-powered sampan with gunfire. She ended the patrol at Pearl Harbor on 27 November; but, four days later, pushed on toward the west coast and arrived at San Francisco on 9 December for an overhaul.
The submarine departed San Francisco Bay on 12 March and proceeded to Pearl Harbor. Following refresher training in Hawaiian waters, she sailed for the western Pacific and proceeded via the Marianas to the East China Sea to provide lifeguard service for Army Air Force B-29 bombers during raids on Honshu. Late in the month, she shifted to the Tsushima Strait area where, on 26 May, one of her torpedoes sank the 991-ton freighter Kotobuki Maru No. 7. Following an unsuccessful torpedo attack upon a small coastal cargo ship two days later, Billfish scored again when two of her torpedoes sank the 2,220-ton freighter Taiu Maru on 4 June in the Yellow Sea about a mile off the Korean coast. A short time later, she surfaced and destroyed three coastal steamers by gunfire. During the action, rifle fire from the third and last schooner killed Quartermaster 1st Class Robert V. Oliver and wounded another Billfish crewman. At noon on the 5th, the submarine launched a salvo of four torpedoes at a medium-sized freighter; but the target's simultaneous, radical course change caused all to miss. As Billfish left her patrol area, a Japanese plane dove out of the sun and dropped two well-aimed depth bombs that burst close aboard, violently shaking the submarine without doing her any serious harm. She arrived safely at Midway on 17 June for refitting.
Billfish got underway again on 12 July for her eighth and final war patrol. This mission took her back to Japan's home waters. Even there, Japanese shipping had become a rare commodity, and Billfish only achieved two significant successes during the entire patrol. On 5 August, near the coast of Manchuria, three torpedoes from a salvo of four hit and sank the 1,091-ton freighter Kori Maru. Two days later, in practically the same area, she sent a considerably smaller cargo ship to the bottom with a single torpedo. She then escaped her victim's escort by skillful maneuvering in water scarcely deep enough to permit her to operate submerged. That night, while proceeding on the surface at high speed, Billfish collided with and sank a small fishing junk. She then took up a lifeguard station off the coast of Kyushu. On 15 August, while carrying out this duty, she received word of Japan's capitulation and orders back to Hawaii. The submarine ended her wartime career with her arrival at Pearl Harbor on 27 August.
There, more orders sent her on to the Atlantic. After transiting the Panama Canal, the submarine reached New Orleans on 19 September and began several months of maneuvers and training in the Gulf of Mexico and in waters adjacent to the Canal Zone. At New London, Conn., by late spring of 1946, Billfish moved to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in June for her inactivation overhaul. Towed back to New London by ATR-64 early that autumn, she was decommissioned there on 1 November 1946. While in reserve, she was reclassified AGSS-286 on 6 November 1962. Her name was struck from the Navy list on 1 April 1968, and she was scrapped.
Billfish (SS-286) received seven battle stars for her World War II service.
James L. Mooney
6 February 2006