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Blackfish (SS-221)


Named for a fish.

(SS-221: displacement 1,525 (surface), 2,415 (submerged); length 311'9"; beam 27'3"; draft 16'10"; speed 20.25 knots (surface), 8.75 knots (submerged); complement 80; armament 1 3-inch, 2 .50 caliber machine guns, 10 21-inch torpedo tubes; class Gato)

Blackfish (SS-221) was laid down on 1 July 1941 at Groton, Conn., by the Electric Boat Co.; launched on 18 April 1942; and sponsored by Mrs. Ida H. Mel, the wife of Capt. Henry F. Mel, USN.

Blackfish slides down the ways at Groton, 18 April 1942. (Naval History and Heritage Command Archive, Decommissioned Ship Histories, Prior to 2001, Box 105, Blackfish (SS-221), Electric Boat Company Photograph EB-7829)
Caption: Blackfish slides down the ways at Groton, 18 April 1942. (Naval History and Heritage Command Archive, Decommissioned Ship Histories, Prior to 2001, Box 105, Blackfish (SS-221), Electric Boat Company Photograph EB-7829)

Following her commissioning on 22 July 1942, Cmdr. Raymond W. Johnson in command, Blackfish spent three months outfitting and training. On 19 October 1942, she departed on her first war patrol, shaping a course for West Africa, where she was to conduct reconnaissance patrols off Dakar in support of Operation Torch. During her voyage the submarine mostly ran submerged during the daylight hours and on 5 November, after 17 days in transit, she arrived at her assigned station off Dakar.

The submarine conducted her first full day of reconnaissance on 6 November 1942. During the morning hours, a heavy mist prevented any “good observations” from being made, but by the early afternoon, as visibility improved, the boat managed to take some pictures of the area. The next day Blackfish reconnoitered Dakar Point, and Gorée Island—noting at Point Manuel, several buildings that were believed to be part of a naval base being constructed on reclaimed land in the area.

On 8 November 1942, the invasion of French North Africa, Operation Torch, began in earnest. Blackfish continued her patrol of the Senegalese coast, on the lookout for Vichy French reinforcements headed for Morocco. Surface traffic in the area was light and the ship’s log reported some “doubt” as to whether it was “the best patrol area,” given the fact that “A position south to southwest of Point Manuel offers the best opportunities for observing the harbor but very little chance of successful attack in case ships hug the coast.” The day concluded without enemy contact.       

The submarine’s patrol the next day proved significantly more eventful. While patrolling submerged five miles north of Pointe des Almadies, Blackfish sighted a Vichy French convoy of three cargo ships being escorted by a destroyer. Once in range she fired two torpedoes at each cargo vessel and then prepared for potential reprisal from the escort. A “loss of depth control” was attributed to the first cargo vessel getting by unharmed, while the second, a 7,110-ton merchant ship, was not as lucky. The second torpedo struck the cargo ship abaft her stack and “sound reported her screw stopped.” Meanwhile, the destroyer sped up and thereafter dropped a series of eight depth charges; Blackfish dove to 300 feet and cleared the area to the northwest running silently.

Following the action on 9 November 1942, Blackfish encountered few other particularly exciting events. On 12 November, her crew sighted a small trawler deemed too small for a torpedo attack. On the night of the 12th a peculiar flashing search light was observed on Cape Verde pointe that appeared to be making some type of signal. Nothing developed that evening, but on the 13th it was decided that the area would be patrolled again in the event that the light was meant to signal incoming convoys. Unfortunately, some bad weather developed and visibility became severely limited; in consequence Blackfish nearly collided with a previously un-detected ship, which was not ultimately identified. The submarine dove prior to making contact and narrowly avoided the collision.

On 14 November 1942, Blackfish received word that her duty with Task Force 34 was concluded and she was underway to her primary patrol sector in the vicinity of Dakar. She continued her patrol with nothing of import occurring for the remainder of her time there. On 26 November, the submarine rendezvoused with the Royal Navy Hunt-class destroyer HMS Lauderdale off Lizard Head and then steered toward Scotland. Blackfish moored to the dock at Rosneath, Scotland, on 27 November and underwent a refit. Her first war patrol had certainly been active, in addition to the support she provided during Operation Torch, she steamed some 7,673 miles and expended 74,258 gallons of fuel oil. Her crew came through the patrol no worse for wear, with the exception of a brief episode of nausea during the second week of the voyage.       

Following her refit Blackfish arrived in her assigned area of the Atlantic, off Punta de Estaca de Bares, for her second war patrol on 27 December 1942. Over the course of several weeks the submarine scoured the area in search of enemy activity. Other than friendly British forces, numerous fishing trawlers, and an occasional Spanish merchant ship, Blackfish encountered no enemy forces in the course of her patrol. Blackfish returned to Rosneath, mooring there on 18 January; and thus ending her second war patrol with little else to show for it but an account of a minor episode of laryngitis among the crew, a few pictures, and some intelligence on merchant and fishing vessels.

The submarine remained at Rosneath in upkeep status until February 1943. During that time some minor repairs were made and two leave periods were established, which afforded Blackfish’s submariners at least five days of shore leave. On 1 February, she got underway for her third war patrol, steaming towards the Bay of Biscay, near Bilbao, Spain. She departed Rosneath in company with the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Shikari and the U.S. submarine Barb (SS-220). The two ships parted company with Blackfish on the morning of the 2nd. Over the course of the next several weeks while patrolling in her assigned area, Blackfish encountered a daily flurry of Spanish fishing and cargo vessels. On several occasions Blackfish was notified of the passage of the following Vichy French ships, Winnetou, Livadia, and Nordfels, steaming from Bilbao to Bordeaux, France.  She was unable to engage any of them owing to an apparent effort by those ships to travel on select days of low visibility and exceptionally bad weather conditions.            

At 1050, on 18 February 1943, Blackfish happened upon approximately 30 small fishing boats headed for Bermeo, Spain, and according to the ship’s log they “were definitely sighted by one of these.” It may have very well been that sighting which prompted the events of the next day. At 1740, on 19 February, in the course of routine patrols in her assigned area, Blackfish observed two small vessels that appeared to be large trawlers, traveling in a column, and which did not display any Spanish colors. The commanding officer called the crew to general quarters and initiated an attack approach. The first ship’s small bow made her difficult to make out, and several suspenseful minutes passed. At last, at 1749, Blackfish clearly identified German colors and launched an attack. She fired two torpedoes from her bow tubes at the lead boat, and another two at the second. Both ships were identified as converted trawler type, submarine tender vessels, with guns mounted fore and aft.

The second of the vessels was a disguised patrol boat, Patrol Boat No. 408, which was subsequently fatally hit by one of Blackfish’s torpedoes. Following the bout, Blackfish was immediately subjected to a depth charge attack, as well as, “something, which sounded like a bomb, but that did not produce much shock.” As the submarine dove, five bombs and four depth charges were sent after her, the third of which, reportedly detonated very close, and “jarred the ship considerably.” The blast had in fact cracked the conning tower door frame, which caused some minor flooding. The boat bottomed out in 368 feet of water at which point she maintained total silence for a full hour. At 1918, she cleared the area.    

A damaged Blackfish surfaced at 2220, and made some minor repairs while inspecting the boat for additional impairment. Having taken an account of herself, Blackfish sent word of her damages and then continued on with her mission. Early the next morning on 20 February 1943, she was ordered to return from patrol. Happy to comply, given her state, she sped back to port and arrived safely in Falmouth, England, on 22 February. In addition to the action that took place on 19 February, the patrol resulted in the keen observation that “the traffic of Spanish ships east of Bilbao appears excessive considering that Pasajes is the only Spanish port. Although the ships are covered with Spanish flags and cruise very close inshore, it is almost certain that some are enemy ships, and that all of them are not going to Pasajes but are bound for some French port.” 

Shortly after her return to England, Blackfish proceeded to the Royal Naval Dockyard at Devonport, England, where she underwent repairs and testing from 5 March to 4 April 1943. At 0900, on 5 April, the submarine got underway for her fourth war patrol and headed, at least initially, for the waters of Inchmarnock, located at the northern end of the Sound of Bute in the Firth of Clyde, to perform practice approaches with the patrol yacht HMS Breda. Gale force winds, rain, and poor visibility hindered all training efforts and by 1500, Blackfish had shaped a new course, proceeding in company with the former French minesweeper HMS La Capricieuse to Muckle Flugga, in the Shetland Islands. On 7 April, the submarine parted company with La Capricieuse, and shaped a course for the waters of Norway and Iceland. 

Overall, the patrol proved considerably uneventful—with the exception of some environmental challenges. A buildup of ice on the submarine’s hull (air temperatures remained between 18 and 28 degrees Fahrenheit) presented one of the more significant challenges of the voyage. In one instance the ice slowed the boat’s diving speed by approximately two minutes whilst she endeavored to avoid an unknown plane. On 14 April 1943, Blackfish believed she sighted a periscope, roughly 1,500 yards off her port bow, but a subsequent search revealed nothing; it was the first of several sightings that were likely false as “a certain amount of wreckage has been sighted from time to time and a piece of this may have been mistaken for a periscope.” The crew also spotted some mines and observed a few planes, most of which were friendly, but ultimately, encountered no enemy ships.

Due to their position so far to the north, and given the season—the consequent continual daylight, made it possible for much of the patrol to be conducted on the surface; and the fresh air was believed to have made for better living conditions. In his reflections on the patrol Lt. Cmdr. Davidson observed that “the excessive smoking and steaming of the main engines in cold weather is a very serious military hazard and an immediate remedy is considered vital.” On 11 May 1943, the boat anchored in Lerwick, Scotland, and at 1000 the next day, again got underway. In short order she joined Barb and La Capricieuse; the lot of them headed for Rosneath. Blackfish anchored at that port on 14 May, and thus ended her fourth patrol.

From 14 May to 8 June 1943, Blackfish remained at Rosneath undergoing upkeep; during that time her crew received nine days of shore leave. On 2 June, the submarine carried out local training; during which Blackfish conducted gunnery exercises and approaches with a British S-Class boat. On 3 June, she returned to Rosneath.

Blackfish’s fifth war patrol began on 8 June 1943, with her departure from Rosneath, in company with Barb and the British clipper ship HMS Cutty Sark. Blackfish spent long hours submerged with no exercise, and limited food selection, which contributed to some illness among the crew, albeit nothing overly acute. She sighted some merchant ships on 4 July, and on 5 July she was ordered to return to the U.S. The submarine moored to pier 15 at the Submarine Base in New London, Connecticut on 26 July. Upon her arrival Blackfish underwent an availability during, which she replenished her supplies and her crew conducted training for their upcoming deployment to the Pacific.

With her availability period in New London concluded, Blackfish set out for Brisbane, Australia. Upon reaching the Canal Zone, the submarine briefly conducted some training in Panama Bay and then continued her journey. She arrived at Brisbane in September 1943 and spent three weeks undergoing a refit. On 19 October, the submarine set out on her first patrol in the Pacific headed for the waters around the New Guinea, Solomon, and Bismarck Islands.

On 20 October 1943, en route to her patrol area, Blackfish conducted multiple night radar training exercises with her escort, the submarine rescue vessel Coucal (ASR-8). The two parted company on 24 October. At 0513, on 26 October, she arrived at Tulagi, Solomon Islands, and moored to an oil barge for fueling. The next day she re-joined her escort and got underway again at 0600.

While patrolling along her scouting line on 3 November 1943, Blackfish encountered a convoy of two Marus, believed to be approximately 6,500 to 4,000 tons; the convoy also had one patrol boat as an escort. Because of the submarine’s strategic position there was some question as to whether or not an attack should be attempted. Cmdr. Davidson noted that “after reading and re-reading my orders, I decided I had no choice but to let them go by in order not to disclose the position of the scouting line.” Given such considerations, the ship dove and the convoy passed. In Davidson’s words, the incident was “pretty hard to take, after five patrols without a legitimate target.”

On 4 November 1943, Blackfish sighted a large Japanese convoy being escorted by several planes that appeared “out of nowhere.” Upon sighting the aircraft, the submarine dove and “a fairly close depth charge shook her up,” but, she managed to escape unscathed. On 6 November, she moved to a new patrol line north of Mussau Island. The next day at 1105, a floatplane attacked Blackfish and she was forced to dive. According to the ship’s log the plane was apparently “trying to get in a rain squall to work on us at his leisure.” The submarine remained submerged for several hours, over the course of which she heard 14 aircraft bombs and depth charges sound overhead. Cmdr. Davidson was later informed that a large enemy convoy had been moving through the area. On the 11th, Blackfish stalked an enemy destroyer but the submarine Drum (SS-228) attacked first. Each missed opportunity to strike the enemy hit hard at the heart of Cmdr. Davidson and the crew. After another frustrated opportunity on 14 November, Davidson lamented “a submariner’s dream almost came true. I guess I don’t live right.”

Blackfish’s luck turned when she sighted a convoy on 22 November 1943. The submarine eagerly trailed the column of ships and waited, with remarkable patience, to assume a proper attack position. At 1121, Davidson deemed the time appropriate and the boat dove in preparation for an attack. Twenty minutes passed before she suddenly heard several explosions, “believed to be depth charges,” and the enemy convoy changed its course and disappeared. It was later understood that the convoy’s escorts were firing at Drum who was nearby. Nonetheless, Blackfish re-acquired the convoy’s position and continued following them well into the night.  

At 0006, on 23 November 1943, the patience of Blackfish’s commanding officer paid off. At 2°27'N, 140°6'E, the submarine fired a spread of six torpedoes at the 4,500-ton freighter, No. 2 Yamato Maru. The attack instantly alerted the enemy submarine chasers, which converged on Blackfish. After firing the submarine quickly dove. Cmdr. Davidson felt certain that at least three of the torpedoes hit their mark—and as the Japanese freighter sank, the convoy’s escorts continued their pursuit. The chase lasted for nearly 40 minutes but in the end Blackfish outran them.

Determined, and hungry for another kill, Blackfish quickly went to reengage the convoy; the smoke of which, she sighted at approximately 1111. Cmdr. Davidson observed that there was one less ship present in the convoy, which led him to believe that they had in fact sunk one of the freighters in the previous attack. The submarine began an attack approach but was detected some 4,000-yards off and forced to withdraw. Still determined to make another assault, Blackfish continued to track the convoy well into the next day.

The tireless submarine crew finally got a second chance to attack the convoy at 2308 on 24 November 1943. Having assumed an advantageous position, the submarine launched a spread of six torpedoes at the stern of an unidentified freighter in the enemy column located at 0°56'N, 144°52'E. Five explosions could be heard “between 3 and 4 minutes after firing,” however, any observation of the resulting damage quickly became impossible, as the convoy’s escorts closed in. Blackfish was pursued for a full 30 minutes, but at length, she escaped unharmed.             

The submarine was still on the hunt on 26 November 1943, when she sighted and then shortly thereafter lost track of a Japanese convoy amid a rain squall. She reacquired the convoy a few hours later, but as she assumed an attack position, one of the convoy’s submarine chasers attempted to engage her, and she was forced to dive. Over the course of several hours Blackfish endured more than 20 depth charges executed via echo ranging. Cmdr. Davidson observed that the boat’s rudder was exceedingly loud and he believed that the enemy’s ability to locate them was directly related to the inability to keep quiet. Following a prolonged siege, the enemy broke off their attack and the submarine resumed her patrol.     

Blackfish “headed home,” on 28 November 1943. She stopped off at Tulagi for fuel on 1 December, and on 4 December, she made contact with her escort aircraft and then proceeded to Milne Bay, New Guinea. After 46 days at sea, 32 of which were spent in enemy waters, Blackfish ended her sixth war patrol in high spirits. Once at Milne she underwent a standard two-week refit.

The patrol was deemed successful and the crew was authorized to wear the Submarine Combat Insignia. It is also worth noting that the patrol had been Blackfish’s first in the Pacific theater and as such it served as a learning experience for both her commanding officer and the crew. Both of the submarine’s primary attacks on enemy convoys were attempted at excessive range, nonetheless, the commanding officer and the crew “benefited greatly from the experience and will undoubtedly inflict greater damage to the enemy on the next patrol.”  

During her refit Blackfish had a 5-inch gun installed forward, and the aforementioned “groan in her rudder” was fixed. Meanwhile, the submarine’s crew spent two weeks at a military recreation camp on the beach, enjoying some well-deserved rest and relaxation, which included, among other things, “horseshoes, volleyball, and swimming.” On the third week the submariners’ retreat ended and they began an intensive training program under the supervision of Submarine Division 82.

Rear Adm. James Fife addresses Blackfish’s crew, standing at attention, as he provided them with their Submarine Combat Insignias, 23 December 1943. Note how the sailors on board the boat moored alongside (L) display a more casual onlooker’s stan...
Caption: Rear Adm. James Fife addresses Blackfish’s crew, standing at attention, as he provided them with their Submarine Combat Insignias, 23 December 1943. Note how the sailors on board the boat moored alongside (L) display a more casual onlooker’s stance. Also note photographer readying his camera on Blackfish’s bridge. (U.S. Navy Photograph 80-G-394429, National Archives and Records Administration, Still Pictures Division, College Park, Md.)

While Cmdr. John F. Davidson looks on approvingly, Rear Adm. Fife exchanges pleasantries with a bearded member of Blackfish’s crew on the occasion of the men being awarded their Submarine Combat Insignias, 23 December 1943. Note bedding airing on...
Caption: While Cmdr. John F. Davidson looks on approvingly, Rear Adm. Fife exchanges pleasantries with a bearded member of Blackfish’s crew on the occasion of the men being awarded their Submarine Combat Insignias, 23 December 1943. Note bedding airing on the lifelines of the tender in the background. (U.S. Navy Photograph 80-G-394433, National Archives and Records Administration, Still Pictures Division, College Park, Md.)

On Christmas morning 1943, Blackfish set out from Milne Bay, on her seventh war patrol, in company with the submarines Redfin (SS-272) and Coucal. Shortly after conducting some drills on the 25th, it became apparent that the boat’s radar needed to be repaired, which forced Blackfish to return to Milne Bay on the 26th. Repairs were completed by 1915, and the submarine hurried to rejoin Redfin and Coucal at Point Mast. On 27 December, Blackfish participated in training and drills with Coucal and Redfin; then at 1359 the three submarines charted a course for Tulagi. Blackfish and the others arrived at Tulagi on 28 December, and awaited further orders. For the next several days she conducted patrols in the area, occasionally docking at Tulagi. On two separate occasions several U.S. naval officers came on board, in order to witness a series of “special radio tests.” On the 31st Blackfish escorted submarine chaser SC-728 to Point White—a task she completed without incident.

While conducting regular patrols in her area of the Solomons from the 3 to 5 January 1944, Blackfish experienced a bout of extremely foul weather, which made a noticeable impact on the submarine’s operations; prompting Cmdr. Davidson to remark that the “swells were the biggest I have seen in this area.” On the 5th, Blackfish sighted two cargo ships, but due to the weather she shortly thereafter lost contact with them. At noon, on 6 January, with the weather slightly clearing, the submarine detected a convoy and began tracking it. Approximately an hour later Blackfish received a radio call to help Balao (SS-285), but Davidson opted to maintain contact with the convoy, Balao being roughly 200 miles away. Blackfish continued to track the convoy through the night, hoping to get a clear shot by daylight.

With “smoke in sight,” at 0840, the next day, Blackfish dove and prepared to attack. Unfortunately, the convoy’s slow speed and zigzagging thwarted the submarine’s hope of getting a clear shot. As the opportunity faded Davidson remarked “our last hope was one of the patrolling destroyers, which we managed to close to 3,000 yards but without a very good set up because of the constant changes of course and speed.” Given the circumstances Blackfish pulled back. During the early morning hours of the 8th, one of the destroyers in the convoy came within sight again and Blackfish “turned toward her and put four engines on the line.” A rain squall obscured the target however, and no attack developed. As the rain passed the convoy came into clearer view, consisting of a small tanker of approximately 4,500 tons, two cargo ships of about 4,500 tons, and two destroyers. Persistent rain caused further sight and sound issues, which delayed any chances of an attack.

Believing “to have the leader of the column,” in sight, and having finally gained a good position, as the convoy emerged from the rain, Blackfish let loose six torpedoes. Anticipating a quick reprisal, the submarine then dove to 300 feet—and as expected the enemy initiated a depth charge attack. She survived the retaliatory depth charges, but was ultimately unable to determine if she had made any successful hits against the convoy. Afterwards, Blackfish resumed patrolling in her assigned area.

Between 9 and 14 January 1944, Blackfish’s patrols proved relatively uneventful, but on the evening of 15 January she detected and began tracking a convoy. Unfortunately, her radar went out and the ships disappeared. Nonetheless, Cmdr. Davidson moved to head them off the next day. At midday, on the 16th, Blackfish sighted smoke and closed in for the kill. The convoy appeared to be composed of a cargo ship of about 6,000 tons, one small tanker of about 4,500 tons, and a destroyer escort. Blackfish launched an attack but the convoy’s slow speed and zigzag forced Cmdr. Davidson to “fire down the throat of the larger Maru and then fire an angle shot from the stern.” Blackfish fired from six of her bow tubes; the second torpedo hit its target and several explosions were heard. Meanwhile, the Japanese “destroyer was seen coming in fast.” The submarine dove rapidly to escape from the area, but before she departed her crew was able to observe the 2,087 ton Kaika Maru rolling over to her starboard side; 27 of the 102 passengers on board perished in the sea. Although Cmdr. Davidson believed he sank the other merchantman as well, it was in fact only damaged.

Following her successful attack on the enemy convoy Blackfish weathered a barrage of depth charges that lasted from 1656 until 2013. In contemplating the lengthy siege, Cmdr. Davidson observed “I don’t know whether it was a coincidence or not but every time we made any noise at all the destroyer would drop one or two more on us.” The submarine and her crew endured 43 charges in total, but eventually she shook off the pursuing enemy by heading into a heavy rain squall.

Blackfish patrolled from 17 to 23 January 1944, with little to report other than some bad weather and late on the night of the 24th, she received orders to shape a course for Tulagi. She spent several days in transit and arrived at her destination on 28 January around 0545, where she moored and fueled. That same day the ship’s commanding officer then proceeded to Guadalcanal for a special duty assignment with Commander Task Force 31. After Cmdr. Davidson’s return, a party of six officers and two enlisted men with equipment, embarked and Blackfish got underway to Point White. On 30 January, the radar went out again, and the persistent problems with the radar notably shook the Davidson’s confidence in the equipment.

While in her patrol zone, in the early morning of 3 February 1944, Blackfish sighted smoke and subsequently discovered a convoy consisting of two medium Marus, two Fubuki-class destroyers, and one other unknown escort of approximately 1,000 tons. Having assumed a good position around 0949, the submarine fired a spread of six torpedoes at a distance of 1,600 yards and immediately “went deep.” Two of the enemy ships began echo ranging and dropped some 14 depth charges. Following the attack, Blackfish remained submerged throughout the night, due primarily to the proximity of nearby Japanese air bases.

Patrolling continued without any excitement through 7 February 1944. On the 8th Blackfish arrived back in Tulagi and then set out again the very next day on the last leg of her patrol. On the 13th she sighted Cape Moreton Light and shortly thereafter arrived at New Farm Wharf in Brisbane, Australia, ending her 49-day patrol, 31 days of which were spent in a combat area. Despite poor weather, a “groaning rudder,” and numerous leaks Blackfish managed to attack three convoys, as well as, perform a special mission. The patrol was deemed successful and worthy of the Submarine Combat Insignia.

After arriving in Brisbane on 13 February 1944, Blackfish underwent a two-week refit and had a new SJ radar installed. On 22 February, Lt. Cmdr. Robert F. Sellars assumed command and on 1 March, the boat put out to sea, commencing her eighth war patrol. She stopped first at Milne Bay from 6 to 9 March, where she conducted training and took on fuel and provisions. Then on the 10th she headed for her patrol area in company with Bashaw (SS-241). She arrived in her assigned area on 17 March.

On the 30th of March 1944, Blackfish encountered a convoy and her crew manned their battle stations in preparation for an attack. At 1,800 yards, the submarine fired a salvo of torpedoes from her port track, intending to sink the 6,700 ton Ryuyo Maru; unfortunately, the torpedoes passed below the keel and although Blackfish dove, expecting a depth charge attack, the convoy’s escorts did not give chase. Due to a lack of fuel Lt. Cmdr. Sellars decided to break off the attack.

Blackfish received orders on 6 April 1944, to proceed to Seeadler Harbor, Admiralty Islands. She arrived there on the 8th and moored to the port side of the tanker Mink (IX-123) and fueled. The turnaround proved quick and she put back out to sea by 2125 that same day. Once back in her designated zone she continued patrolling, spotting numerous planes but few ships. Blackfish had a close call with her eponym on 12 April, when some “suspicious looking objects were spotted 7,000 yards from the ship,” and a subsequent, investigation revealed that the objects in question were in fact “several large blackfish.”

As April rolled on the patrol continued with little excitement. On 15 April 1944, the submarine conducted reconnaissance of Merir Island. A brief investigation observed a transport plane making signals to the inhabitants of the island but nothing else came of it. Continued patrolling over the course of the next week revealed consistent plane activity but almost no ships in the area. In one briefly exciting moment on 21 April, a plane caught Blackfish somewhat off guard and dropped a small bomb on her, but she emerged unscathed. On 26 April, Blackfish received orders to report to Pearl Harbor for lifeguard duty and she departed the area.

While en route to Pearl on 27 April 1944, the submarine encountered a convoy and the crew eagerly manned their battle stations. The ensuing pursuit resulted in several hours of constant maneuvering. Lt. Cmdr. Sellars marveled that although the enemy ships “can see fairly plainly through the mist,” they did not taken notice of Blackfish’s presence during the chase. He concluded that they did not have radar, and having gained an advantageous position he gave the order to fire four torpedoes at an approximate distance of 3,170 yards. Following the launch, a large cloud of black smoke appeared over the target. The convoy’s escort and the enemy ship then faded out of view. Blackfish scoured the waters for nearly an hour but did not locate any of the ships.

Numerous plane sightings over the next several days forced Blackfish to remain submerged for long periods of time. On 2 May 1944, she slightly shifted her patrol zone and began searching the waters between Yap and Palau for possible shipping. On the 4th she shifted over to her lifeguard duties; and it was noted with some surprise that “no planes have been sighted since the first day in this area.” On 6 May, Blackfish departed the area to return to Pearl, arriving there on the 19th and thus concluded her eighth patrol.

The submarine’s eighth patrol had been unusual to say the least—it was Lt. Cmdr. Sellars’ first patrol as a commanding officer of a fleet-type submarine; and it was also one of the longest patrols made by any submarine during the war, having lasted a total of 80 days. Despite the prolonged time at sea the patrol had also produced little damage to enemy shipping. Notwithstanding the lack of robust offensive action, Blackfish had faithfully conducted her lifeguard and reconnaissance missions.

Lt. Cmdr. Sellars noted that shortly before the submarine’s return “word was received that this ship was to overhaul at NYMI and the morale of the crew took a decided jump, since most of them have been in the U.S. only 17 days of the last two years.” In his patrol report Sellars observed that “a submarine should not be left on patrol for too long a period. This was brought home to us by the fact that the efficiency of all hands decreases rapidly after the fifty-day period. The lookouts, particularly, involuntarily slacked up, as shown by the bombings from planes, which came from directly overhead,” and furthermore that “in spite of the morale boosting ‘stateside’ news, the boys were very tired.” In spite of such issues, Blackfish had seen her mission through to the end and the patrol was deemed a success; and the crew was rewarded with the honor of wearing the Submarine Combat Insignia.

After taking on provisions at Pearl, Blackfish continued on her journey stateside setting out on 21 May 1944, and arriving at Bethlehem Steel Corporation’s Submarine Repair Base at San Francisco, on 27 May. Her crew went ashore for some much needed leave while Blackfish underwent a three-month overhaul. Having been deemed seaworthy, and with twenty-four new crew members embarked, Blackfish set out from San Francisco on 31 August, shaping a course for Pearl. The boat arrived in the Hawaiian Islands on 7 September, and spent several days conducting independent exercises.

On 23 September 1944, Blackfish set out on her ninth war patrol headed for the area of Saipan. During her voyage across the Pacific, Blackfish traveled in a wolf pack, accompanied by Shark (SS-314) and Seadragon (SS-194)—the three of them composing Task Group (TG) 17.11, with Shark’s commanding officer designated as the pack commander. The submarines entered Saipan harbor on 3 October, and Blackfish moored alongside the submarine tender Holland (AS-3). Early the next morning the group set out for their patrol area but quickly encountered several problems. The first of which was a “typhoon crossing our track.” However, in addition to the weather, Shark started having electrical issues. On the 5th, the task group entered the eastern end of the Saipan safety lane and Shark resolved its electrical issues. The three submarines remained in the area that night endeavoring to wait out the storm.  

Blackfish and the others departed the Saipan safety lane on 6 October 1944, amid force 8 winds and seas. Sellars reported that the boat “took several green ones down the conning tower hatch, necessitating a bucket brigade until some inventive soul suggested a canvas water scoop which directed the water from the lower coning tower hatch to the large drain in the control room deck.” In addition to such concerns Blackfish experienced several 50-degree rolls and numerous cases of “mal de mer.” The next day saw no break in the tempest, Sellars commenting that the waves “are still mountainous, 50 to 60 feet with gale winds of 60 to 70 knots.” Despite the storm’s best efforts Blackfish steamed on, and on the morning of the 8th she reached her designated area, where, she at last found calm seas; a fact which, inspired Lt. Cmdr. Sellars to note with a good deal of appreciation that “the sea has again resumed its tranquil state.”

Even though the first few days of her patrol saw little activity on 12 October 1944, Blackfish made contact with a Minekaze-class destroyer. At 2239, dead ahead of her target, the submarine fired four torpedoes from her stern tubes. To Sellars’ astonishment all four missed their mark. Oddly, the attack also did not result in any retaliation from the destroyer. As such, Blackfish continued to stalk her prey and, just after midnight, she again fired on the destroyer. Moments later the crew “secured from battle stations, disgusted” as the second attack also failed. Given the mystery surrounding the misses, Sellars decided it prudent to refrain from “wasting” more torpedoes and Blackfish returned to her patrol area empty handed.

Five uneventful days followed the failed attack on the destroyer and on 19 October 1944, Blackfish shifted her patrol area—which she reached the following day. Despite a continued lack of enemy ship sightings, the state of Blackfish’s crew became somewhat of an acute issue. On the 21st Sellars annotated that “for the last eight days, about one half the crew has been seriously ill upon surfacing.” No cause for the condition could be determined but some speculated that it was from the air, a test of which indicated the presence of only one percent carbon dioxide. The next day Shark and Seadragon reported a significant engagement with enemy ships. Blackfish was trailing the action but upon surfacing more of the crew became sick and Sellars remarked that the “situation is assuming major proportions.” His assertion was certainly validated the next day when it was determined that 90% of the crew had been sickened, with a number of the cases being quite serious.

In addition to the sickened crew the submarine’s communications were impaired due to an inordinate amount of radio traffic coming across the frequency; a result of Task Groups: 17.14, 17.11, and 17.15 operating in the same area. By 25 October 1944, a majority of Blackfish’s crew regained their health with only a few lingering cases, and Shark and Seadragon reported that they were out of torpedoes due to the numerous attacks they had executed in the preceding weeks. In Shark’s absence, Blackfish was made the temporary TG commander.

On 27 October 1944, Blackfish experienced several instances of disappointment. Early in the morning extenuating circumstances deprived her of the opportunity to execute a strike against three enemy destroyers. The event prompted Sellars to remark “our luck must change soon.” Later in the day, at 1823, several other Japanese ships were spotted and the crew impatiently manned their battle stations, but poor positioning prevented the contact from developing into an attack. The compounded failure of both potential attacks weighed heavily on Sellars and the crew, prompting the former to comment “our ‘bum luck is still with us.”

Desirous to develop a fruitful attack Blackfish shifted her patrol area again, and headed east of the Batan Islands, where she arrived on 29 October 1944. Other than a small ship she spotted on the 30th, the submarine had no other contacts. On 1 November, she again changed her patrol area and headed west of Cape Bojeador. She sighted Bojeador Light on the 2nd and “covered a good deal of the coast by crabbing to the east,” but located nothing of interest. The next day, the sea was flat, calm, and there was a cloudless sky, but still no ships were sighted. Nonetheless, desperate to not “go home empty handed,” Sellars decided to request a five-day extension to the patrol.

The submarine passed between the Calayan and Dalupiri Islands on 6 November 1944, and while no ships were sighted she did spot some “campfires and lights in the island hills.” Patrolling continued without further development for several more days and a typhoon ravaged the area on the 10th, which effectively ended the crew’s hopes of making any attacks against the enemy before the end of the patrol. With the seas calming on the 11th, a beleaguered Blackfish departed her patrol area, requesting permission to return via Saipan to refuel. She arrived in Saipan on 17 November, and took on fuel and supplies; thence she headed for Midway where she arrived on the 24th.

Upon the boat’s return to port some evidence came to light regarding the sickness, which had so acutely afflicted Blackfish’s crew. Two empty gallon cans of carbon-tetrachloride, with loose lids, were found on board, which indicated that the sickness was likely caused by lead poisoning as a result of the exposure to the carbon-tetrachloride. Sellars noted in his final report on the patrol that “this again emphasizes the fact that carbon-tetrachloride should not be carried on board submarines.” As a whole the patrol was not judged eligible for the award of the Submarine Combat Insignia; and due to flooding, which occurred during the submarine’s return from patrol, a refit at Midway was deemed necessary. Blackfish underwent a refit until 23 December, and thereafter conducted training until 29 December.

Blackfish departed Midway on New Year’s Day 1945, for her tenth war patrol, to be conducted in the South China Sea, Luzon-Formosa area, undertaking it as a unit of Task Group (TG) 17.16; referred to as “Joe’s Jugheads,” which included Archer-fish (SS-311) and Batfish (SS-310)—with Archer-fish designated as the pack commander. On the 7th Blackfish made contact with Batfish and the two of them shaped a course for Guam; they arrived on the 9th and Blackfish moored to the port side of the submarine tender Sperry (AS-12). On 10 January, with her voyage repairs completed and the group assembled, Blackfish and the rest of the pack departed Guam for their patrol area. The submarine made landfall at Batan on 16 January, amid rough seas and low viability.

While patrolling on 17 January 1945, Sellars reported that the boat “took a big green one over the top,” which resulted in “a great deal of water down the conning tower.” Despite the flooding, the next day, Blackfish conducted lifeguard duties in the area. In the late afternoon she spotted a Japanese sampan, which Sellars planned on giving “a boost with two torpedoes,” however, due to the improbability of getting an accurate shot in, and not wanting to give away the submarine’s position in the area, he thought the better of it and restrained himself. While searching for downed aviators the next day, several other small sailing ships were also spared the torpedo as a result of similar considerations—although bad weather was also factor.

Blackfish moved through calm seas on 23 January 1945, and much to the crew’s delight “sighted a small pip,” ripe for the picking. Utilizing the submarine’s 4-inch guns and positioned 600 yards from the pip, Sellars gave the order to fire. The 4-inch guns misfired, and the boat’s other armaments had to be brought to bear, but in the end, several excellent hits were made. Following the strike Blackfish left the area at a high speed and her main motor burned out. Rough seas marked the next several days and the damaged motor was not repaired until the 25th.

The submarine cruised near Hong Kong on 28 January 1945, and spotted numerous junks and small trawlers. Sellars noted that he believed “many of these trawlers and junks may be Chinese in this particular area,” however, “the actions of these vessels do no indicate peaceful fishing. They patrol in pairs… fishing seems to be their secondary occupation. Undisputedly they are fishing for the Japs, if fishing at all. We will shoot them all if we can.” During the early morning hours of the 30th the boat made an approach on two large sampan type vessels. At 0218, Blackfish launched two torpedoes, both of which appeared to hit, but did not result in an explosion. Sellars decided that given the failure of the torpedoes they would “have to shoot these fellows.” The crew manned the gun stations and at 0435, all the ship’s guns were trained on the nearest sampan. Although the 4-inch again failed to fire, they did “riddle the target with 20 millimeter and .50-caliber fire,” and subsequently, “His sails toppled over and his masts went down.” Thus, the sampan was left in a sinking condition with her decks awash.

Blackfish shifted her attention to the second sampan, which opened all her sails in the hope of escaping. The submarine closed to 600 yards and opened fire while circling the practically helpless sampan—who, in desperation attempted to ram Blackfish. After ten minutes of firing the 50-calibers overheated and the 20 millimeter jammed and Blackfish retired from the battle to work on her guns. Several days later on 1 February 1945 she again engaged a group of similar ships. The skirmish began just after moonrise when Blackfish approached several sampans and trawlers traveling in pairs. In the ensuing firefight 20 millimeter, 50-caliber, and 4-inch fire from the submarine sank at least three ships and damaged eight others. The sampans retaliated with small arms fire, which had little to no effect. During the fire fight radar picked up three large incoming surface vessels, and Blackfish quickly vacated the area.

On 2 February 1945, the submarine reported the exploits of the previous day’s action. She was then ordered to join another wolf-pack consisting of Plaice (SS-390) and Scabbardfish (SS-397) and as of the 3rd she was headed for the Luzon Strait. On 4 February, Sellars was notified that the sampan he attacked might have been Chinese, to which, he responded that he “considered that possibility each time before shooting but with return fire, attempts to ram, regular patrol in pairs, and non-junk like hulls, the enemy indications overruled.”

Blackfish spent the remainder of her time on station patrolling and conducting lifeguard duties. She departed the area with Batfish on 17 February 1945 and shaped a course for Guam. She arrived at Apra Harbor on the 21st and moored to the port side of Proteus (AS-19), ending her patrol. Blackfish received credit for sinking the sampans she engaged by gun fire, but the Submarine Combat Insignia was not granted for the patrol. The ships final report also congratulated Cmdr. Sellars, who then had twelve war patrols to his name.

The submarine underwent a refit that lasted until 10 March 1945. During the intervening time her crew recuperated at Camp Dealey, of which, Sellars reported that the “stay was most enjoyable, all hands returning to the boat in high spirits and fine condition.” The crew commenced training on 17 March, and Blackfish emerged “loaded and ready for sea,” by 20 March. On the 21st she stood out of Apra Harbor and shaped a course for the Luzon Strait-Formosa, and the general area of the South China Sea, to conduct her eleventh war patrol. Blackfish departed again as part of a wolf pack that included Tigrone (SS-419), Bullhead (SS-332), and Seahorse (SS-304); Tigrone was designated as the pack commander.

The pack arrived in its designated area on the 26th. Writing in his rather frank manner, Sellars noted that they would “probably patrol near Batan Island for a few days, looking for a good bombardment spot, and Nip submarines, since there is nothing else for us to do.” The next day Blackfish reconnoitered Batan Island, and took photographs. During the mission the boat’s galley went up in flames as a result of a deep fryer fire, but it was fortunately contained.   

Blackfish identified a suitable land target on Batan on 29 March 1945. She surfaced at 1804 and just as the sun was setting she closed “the beach at full speed,” unleashing a barrage of fire from 2,500 yards. The crew observed several direct hits, which threw earth and debris around the enemy radio tower. Following the attack, nothing was seen or heard of the enemy on shore, but sound picked up screws at a distance and the submarine disengaged. Another day of uneventful patrolling followed the attack, but on 31 March, Blackfish’s crew observed two towers with gun emplacements on Pratas Island and decided to initiate a surface assault. 4-inch, 20 millimeter, and 50-caliber machine gun fire devastated the enemy emplacements, but as with the former attack, the enemy did not respond. The detection of nearby aircraft necessitated a speedy withdrawal.

On 2 April 1945, Blackfish was patrolling and conducting lifeguard duty near Pratas Reef. Just before noon several junks were spotted and the crew manned their battle stations. Anxiety turned to relief when the small ships were determined to be “friendly.” Sellars gave the order to move alongside one of the junks and a hospitable interaction took place. Although, the fishermen did not speak English they “Exchanged grins, some bread, and canned food, for a string of squid, which later proved a delicacy,” and the submarine departed in peace, leaving a “busy Chinese crew dividing loot.”

While patrolling in her lifeguard area Blackfish came across several mines, and attempted to the detonate them by using “Tommy Gun” [Thompson .45 caliber submachine gun] fire, which proved ineffective and eventually the 20 millimeter was used to do the job. In addition to the mines a suspicious oil slick, accompanied by a “diesel smell in the air,” left Sellars contemplating the possibility of another submarine in the area. On 3 April 1945, the boat encountered some more mines in need of disposal, one of which turned out to be “an old oil drum.”

For Blackfish, April 1945 crawled onward with routine patrolling and lifeguard duty. The long days featured little more than sightings of occasional mines, numerous junks, and a few aircraft. The crew’s mood was captured quite well with an annotation from the 10th “With nothing to keep us busy in a very dead area, we revert to the ridiculous -- starting to check title “B” cards and revising ship’s orders.” The submarine requested permission to venture to different sectors of her patrol zone to try to find some action, but all her attempts were made in vain. Sellars lamented the stagnation commenting that he found the lack of activity to be “very disappointing.” On the 22nd Blackfish received orders to end her patrol the next day. In preparing to depart the area, Sellars decided to “finish off [the boat’s] remaining 4-inch ammunition.” Thus, early, on the morning of the 24th Blackfish surfaced near Pratas Reef and shelled a radio tower on the island, making at least twenty hits, and leaving the tower “a brown pall of smoke.” She then shaped a course for Saipan.

Blackfish arrived in Tanapag Harbor, Saipan, on 27 April 1945, and took on 70,000 gallons of fuel—getting back underway by 1000, that same day. From 1 May to 10 May she steamed for Pearl, arriving there on the 10th. Despite “the 4-inch gun crew,” doing some fine shooting in the shore bombardments, the patrol was not deemed equal to the wear of the Submarine Combat Insignia; a fact, which prompted Sellars to suggest that “with two out of three ‘non-sinking’ Convoy College patrols for this vessel, it is suggested that the next run be made in an Empire Area where this deserving crew may earn the right to wear a Combat Pin.” Although, the lack of action certainly disappointed the crew, not all had been lost, after all “the quality of the food was excellent,” and a new air exhaust blower had dramatically improved the air during the patrol, “things any submariner would be grateful for.”  

On 14 June 1945, Blackfish was once again steaming through the waters of the Pacific, on her twelfth war patrol, headed for the Nanpo Shoto, East China Sea, and Yellow Sea. She had once again been given the primary mission of lifeguard duty. The submarine arrived in Guam on the 30th and after completing voyage repairs was back en route to her station on the 3rd of July. She arrived in her patrol zone on the 7th.

The veteran submarine executed her lifeguard duties, exploded rogue mines, and conducted occasional reconnaissance, but for the most part the month faded away with little to report. On 3 August, a major storm front moved in and “broke with full fury,” causing Blackfish to dive to 150 feet; Sellars noted that he doubted “if we could ride this one out on the surface.” Later that night the storms 60-80 knot winds and 40-foot waves dissipated just as quickly as they had emerged. A few days after the storm “swarms of American planes,” headed toward Kogoshima Kaiwan and Blackfish was called upon to rescue several stranded aviators. The crew was eager to get some kind of action out of their patrol and they headed to the area at flank speed. At 1604, they located and recovered 1st Lt. Everett P. Brady, 1st Lt. Ira B. Baker, 2nd Lt. Merle L. Meacham, SSgt Doyle E. Anderson, Sgt. Ted Q. Wilson and Sgt. Ralph Lawson, all “in good spirits and apparently in good health.”

Word reached Blackfish on 6 August 1945 of another downed aviator in a life raft near southeastern Yaku Shima. She searched the area on 7 August, but located only an empty boat. The next day, on the 8th, a downed plane was reported 60 miles south of Tsurikaki Light, but the wrong coordinates were initially given, which resulted in an unfruitful search. Sellars remarked that they very well could have “saved the pilot if they had been given a correct position.” The submarine steamed on, and on 9 August, rendezvoused with Whale (SS-239) and commenced a personnel transfer, taking on s17 Navy and Army Air Force personnel that remained with them for the duration. It was very much aggrieved that shortly after taking on the additional personnel the evaporators went “out of commission,” resulting in there being “No baths allowed.” Several more cramped days at sea passed, but at last Blackfish arrived in Guam on 14 August and moored to the starboard side of Fulton (AS-11), ending the patrol. Concluding thoughts from Sellars included a recommendation that submarines assigned to lifeguard duties be furnished “with a few kits of toilet articles such as the Red Cross have.”

In total the submarine’s twelfth, and final war patrol, had lasted 60 days, with 33 of them spent on station, 15 devoted to lifeguard duties, and 18 spent conducting offensive patrols. Although no attacks on enemy shipping were made Blackfish’s captain and crew were glad to have “had the honor of rescuing six army aviation personnel.” The submarine returned from the patrol clean and in “good material condition,” and the crew was authorized the wear of the Submarine Combat Insignia.

Blackfish, 1945. (Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph NH 79759)
Caption: Blackfish, 1945. (Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph NH 79759)

On 27 August 1945, with repairs made, provisions stocked, and a new captain at her helm, Blackfish headed home from the war. After transiting the Panama Canal and making brief stops in New York and Camden, the submarine at long last arrived at the submarine base in New London, Conn., in September. The ship underwent a pre-inactivation overhaul and was placed in inactive status. On 11 May 1946, while still moored at New London, Blackfish was placed out of commission in reserve, a status, which she remained in for several years thereafter.

In January 1949, the submarine was towed to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for renovation. On 5 May 1949, she reported for duty at the Naval Reserve Training Center, St. Petersburg, Florida, where she was used as a reserve training submarine. After serving in that capacity for several more years she was, on 2 February 1954, returned to her original home of New London and there underwent another inactivation overhaul. On 19 May 1955, Blackfish was decommissioned and berthed with the reserve fleet at New London.

In July 1955 she was deactivated and on 1 September 1958, Blackfish was stricken from the Naval Register. In May of the following year she was sold to Luria Brothers & Company Inc., Philadelphia, Penn., for $53,670.21, and scrapped.

Blackfish was awarded eight battle stars for her World War II service.

Commanding Officers Date Assumed Command
Cmdr. Raymond W. Johnson 22 July 1942
Lt. John F. Davidson 19 October 1942
Lt. Eliot Olsen 2 June 1943
Cmdr. John F. Davidson 19 October 1943
Lt. Cmdr. Robert F. Sellars 22 February 1944
Lt Cmdr. Robert C. Gillette 14 June 1945


Jeremiah D. Foster
6 August 2018

Published: Thu Aug 09 13:54:31 EDT 2018