S-38 (SS-143) was laid down on 15 January 1919 by the Union Iron Works, San Francisco, Calif.; launched on 17 June 1919; sponsored by Mrs. Grace M. Collins; and commissioned on 11 May 1923, Lt. Clifford H. Roper in command.
Fitted out at Mare Island, S-38 joined Submarine Division 17 (SubDiv 17) at San Pedro on 24 May and immediately began preparations for a cruise to the Aleutians. On 9 June, she moved north with Beaver, Ortolan, and three other S-boats. On the 21st, they reached Dutch Harbor, whence the boats conducted evaluation tests and exercises for the next three and a half weeks. On 16 July, the force put into Anchorage. On the 17th, S-38's motor room flooded. Temporary repairs were made; and, on the 23d, she departed Alaska for California, under tow by Ortolan.
S-38 reached Mare Island on 1 August; remained there for repairs and alterations until April 1924; then returned to San Pedro, whence she conducted local exercises into the summer. In August, she prepared for duty with the Asiatic Fleet; and, in mid-September, she headed west across the Pacific. She stood into Manila Bay on 4 November 1924 and, for the next 17 years, operated out of Cavite, with annual summer deployments to the China coast. Division operations occupied Asiatic Fleet submarines during most of the period; but, as hostilities intensified on the mainland, submarine schedules became more varied. Annual deployments and regular exercises of the boats as a division were shortened in length, while exercises and patrols of individual boats were increased in number, duration, and range. During these operations, the submarines cruised off the Philippines, along the Indo-China coast, and into the Netherlands East Indies.
In June of 1940, S-38 completed her last cruise to China; and, from then into the fall of 1941, she conducted exercises, including joint Army-Navy war games, and practice war patrols in the waters off Luzon and neighboring islands. On 8 December 1941 (7 December east of the International Date Line), the United States entered World War II, and S-38 departed Manila Bay on her first war patrol.
Initially assigned to patrol in Verde Island Passage, she shifted to the west coast of Mindoro on the 9th. On the 12th, after firing on an enemy vessel with unconfirmed results, she moved into the Cape Calavite area; and, on the night of 19 and 20 December, set a course toward the Luzon coast. The following night, she put into Camens Cove; repaired damage caused by an explosion of pressure built up in the port engine lube oil cooler; and, with dawn on the 21st, resumed her patrol.
That night, she headed for Lingayen Gulf. On the morning of the 22d, she entered the gulf; and, at 0645, she sighted an enemy convoy escorted by two destroyers. At 0710, she fired four torpedoes, all misses. As she reloaded, the enemy destroyers closed in. Three depth charges exploded close to her. At 0758, she fired two torpedoes at an anchored enemy cargoman. Less than a minute later, the 5,445-ton Hayo Mctru blew up. The enemy destroyers again closed the submarine. Depth charges went off close aboard. From 0804 to 0930, the S-boat ran silent, using evasive tactics. At 0930, she grounded at 80 feet; then coasted up the bank to 57 feet. The destroyers, joined by small boats, continued the search through the day. At 2130, the hunted submarine began efforts to clear by backing. During the maneuvering, her port propeller was damaged; but, by 2201, she was free and underway for the Hundred Islands area on the western side of the gulf.
S-38 remained there through the 23d and, on the 24th, moved to the southern section of the gulf where she closed a formation of six large auxiliaries just prior to 1130. Her presence, however, was discovered. At 1152, a depth charge exploded on her port side. She went deeper. Between 1206 and 1208, eight more exploded around her. At 1209, she stopped all motors and sank to the bottom in 180 feet of water. The depth charging continued, but the explosions were more distant. At 1230, the submarine began to move again. At 1245, the enemy hunters again located her and resumed depth charging. S-38 again settled to the bottom. The depth charging continued until after 1300. The search continued until after 1800.
At 1842, the submarine got underway, heading back to the Hundred Islands area. At 2235, she surfaced to recharge her batteries. Five minutes later, her after battery exploded. At 2304, she went ahead on her starboard engine, making her way out of Lingayen Gulf.
Soon after 0200 on the 25th, she sighted two enemy destroyers, but remained undetected. At 0346, however, she sighted a third, which sighted her. S-38 submerged. The destroyer closed the submarine's last surface position and, at 0350, commenced depth charging. From then until after 0900, the submarine evaded the destroyer, using her one quiet propeller. She then grounded on a steep bank at 85 feet. For the next two hours, the destroyer circled. S-38 slid down to 200 feet, used her motor to bring herself up; then repeated the maneuver. The destroyer moved off; and, at 1235, the S-boat got underway for Manila. An hour later, she grounded, but only briefly; and, at 2145 on the 26th, she entered the outer minefield at the entrance to Manila Bay.
Cavite had now become untenable, and S-38 was ordered to Soerabaja whence, after repairs, she was to operate with other Allied forces attempting to stem the Japanese thrust into the East Indies. On 14 January 1942, the submarine arrived at the Dutch base on the north coast of Java. On the 15th, the ABDA Command was officially established. On the 24th, the Japanese reached Balikpapan. On the 25th, S-S8, hurriedly repaired, departed Soerabaja to patrol in Makassar Strait off Balikpapan.
During the next two weeks, the World War I design submarine underwent two severe depth charge attacks. On 7 February, she penetrated close to Balikpapan to examine shipping in the harbor, activity along the coast road, and new defenses in the area. On the 8th, she resumed offensive patrol operations, but poor weather hindered success. On the 9th, the Japanese moved on Makassar City, and S-38 was ordered to patrol off Cape William on the Celebes side of the strait, where she remained until the 12th.
Then ordered back to Soerabaja, the submarine arrived at her Javanese base on the 16th. Six days later, she again put to sea. Moving east, she patrolled initially off Meinderts Reef, off the northeast coast of Java; then headed north to round the eastern end of Madoera Island en route to Bawean Island. On the 26th, she shelled Japanese facilities at Sangkapura; then patrolled between Bawean and the western approach to Soerabaja. On the 28th, she picked up 54 survivors from HMS Electra, sunk the day before; and, on 1 March, transferred the British Sailors to a surface ship in Madoera Strait. She then resumed her hunt for Japanese shipping which had put the enemy ashore at Batavia, Indramajoe and Rembang, the latter the last large oil center in the Netherlands East Indies and only 110 miles from Soerabaja.
On the morning of 2 March, S-38 damaged an enemy cruiser; then waited on the bottom as destroyers searched for her. In mid-afternoon, she moved out of the immediate area. That evening, she unsuccessfully attacked another enemy warship and, although damaged, survived another hunt by hiding in a layer of heavy water. On the 3d, she was ordered to western Australia.
S-38 transited the whirlpool and rapids area at the lower end of Lombok Strait on the 5th. On the 13th, she arrived at Fremantle; and, at the end of the month, she proceeded on to Brisbane to join other Asiatic Fleet S-boats in forming the nucleus of TF 42 and to prepare for operations in the New Guinea-Bismarck Archipelago-Solomon Islands area.
During March and April, Japanese air raids against Port Moresby intensified as the enemy prepared to move into Papua from northeast New Guinea. On 28 April, S-38 cleared Moreton Bay and headed north to patrol off the Papuan coast. In mid-May, she shifted to Jomard Passage, where she remained, unable to communicate with Brisbane, until the night of the 18th. She then set a course for the Queensland coast. On the 20th, she passed debris believed to be a result of the Battle of the Coral Sea, and that night she successfully transmitted a message to Brisbane. On the 24th, she returned to Moreton Bay.
A month-long repair and test period followed during which cells damaged in the battery explosion on her first war patrol were finally replaced. On 24 June, she again stood down the Brisbane River, cleared Moreton Bay, and entered the Coral Sea en route to the Solomons. On the 29th, she entered her assigned patrol area and headed for the passage between Russell and Guadalcanal. On the 30th, she was standing down Lunga Roads; and, on 1 July, she arrived off Tulagi where she closed her first target of the patrol. Detected as she prepared to fire, she evaded a depth charging destroyer and gradually gained sea room. The depth charging, however, aggravated problems of old age and corrosion. Depth control became difficult as leaks developed in an auxiliary tank and in the motor room bilges. The leaks in the latter worsened as she moved out of the immediate area and resulted in a stream of air bubbles which led to aerial detection two hours after she had left the destroyer behind. Thereafter, mechanical problems multiplied; and S-38, unable to remain effective on her station, set a course for Brisbane, arriving on the 7th.
For the better part of the next 20 days, S-38 underwent intensive, round-the-clock repairs at the Queensland Government Dry Dock; and, on the 28th, she again headed out across the Coral Sea. On 4 August, she entered her assigned area, New Britain-New Ireland, and commenced patrolling along the Rabaul-New Guinea traffic lanes. By 6 August, she had moved eastward along the New Britain coast, crossed the shipping lanes at the southern entrance to St. George's Channel, and closed the coast of New Ireland. On the 7th, she shifted her search for Japanese shipping further seaward and within hours sighted several targets; but distance, lack of speed and maneuverability, and mechanical breakdowns precluded successful attacks. On the 8th, however, approximately eight miles south of Cape St. George, she sighted a transport escorted by a destroyer and approaching so as to pass close ahead. At 2309, S-S8 rigged for depth charging and prepared to fire. At 2324, she fired two torpedoes at the transport. Less than a minute later, both exploded on target. The 5,628-ton Meiyo Maru went dead in the water. S-38 commenced evasive tactics. At 2330, the destroyer dropped its first depth charge. At 2332, Meiyo Maru began breaking up; and, at 2339, S-38 headed south.
The sunken transport's escort continued searching; but, by 0145 on the 9th, S-38 had moved out of the area and all sounds of the search had faded behind her. On the night of 9 and 10 August, the S-boat returned to the traffic lanes eight miles off the southwest coast of New Ireland, where she continued her hunting until the 12th. She then moved westward, returning to the southeastern coast of New Britain to attempt to intercept traffic between Rabaul and New Guinea. On the 15th, she headed for Australia and reached Brisbane a week later.
Fleet submarines were now ranging the Pacific, and the S-boats were being ordered back to the United States for modernization overhauls. On 21 September, S-38, carrying only four torpedoes to avoid depleting the supply at Brisbane, departed Australia for the United States. Ordered to reconnoiter several of the Gilbert Islands en route, she fueled and took on lube oil and provisions at Noumea on the 25th and 26th; then moved toward the Gilberts. On the 30th, she altered her course and headed for Anuda in the Santa Cruz group where she transferred an acute appendicitis case to a Navy Catalina on 1 October; then resumed her original mission. On 5 October, she was in the Gilberts and two days later was off Tarawa where she attempted to sink a tanker as it emerged from, the lagoon. The "fish," however, exploded on the reef and S-38 was forced to clear the area as the Japanese sent both aerial and surface antisubmarine forces into the action. By midnight, the submarine was patrolling the Makin-Tarawa traffic lane; and, on the 10th, she completed her reconnaissance mission at Makin and headed for Pearl Harbor.
From Hawaii, S-38 continued on to San Diego, arriving on 6 November. Overhaul followed. Her engines, motors, and all auxiliary equipment were removed and completely overhauled; the superstructure was modified to reduce her silhouette; air conditioning and new radar, sound, and radio equipment were installed; and a 4" gun replaced her 3". On 13 April 1943, she completed overhaul; and, on the 15th, she sailed west.
The next day, she began suffering mechanical breakdowns again; and, on the 29th, she arrived at Pearl Harbor. Repairs took her into June. Tests followed and, on the 26th, she again moved west to the Marshalls where she conducted her last war patrol which, although scoreless and plagued by mechanical failures, was successful in gaining photographs of Japanese activity on future target islands.
On 22 July, she set a course for the New Hebrides; and, on the 27th, she arrived at Espiritu Santo to commence antisubmarine warfare training duties. With only two interruptions, she remained in the New Hebrides-New Caledonia area on that duty into the summer of 1944. On 27 August of that year, she departed Espiritu Santo for California; and, on 7 September, she arrived at San Diego. The following month, she was ordered inactivated.
S-38 was decommissioned on 14 December 1944; struck from the Navy list on 20 January 1945; and sunk as a target by aerial bombing on 20 February 1945.
S-38 earned three battle stars during World War II.