The Buzz

This U.S. Navy Escort Group Changed the Course of World War II in the Pacific

Shortly before dusk on May 18, 1944, the three DEs of Escort Division 39 set out to find and sink I-16. Along with Lt. Cmdr. Pendleton aboard England, Lt. Cmdr. Fred H. Just commanded George, while Lt. Cmdr. James Scott II skippered Raby. Commander Hamilton Hains, acting as Officer in Tactical Command, controlled division operations aboard George.

By noon the next day, England, George, and Raby were northwest of Bougainville, steaming in a line 4,000 yards apart with sonars actively sweeping the ocean. At 1325 hours the England’s junior soundman, Roger Bernhardt, suddenly reported, “Contact!” In disbelief, the officer of the deck concluded that Bernhardt must instead have heard some fish—I-16 was supposed to be miles away.

But the young sonar operator stood his ground. “Echoes sharp and clear, sir,” Bernhardt replied. “Sound is good!” With that, the crew of the England sprung into their well-practiced action drill, only this time it was for real. Pendleton and Williamson made for the bridge while all over the ship crewmen rigged for battle.

George and Raby stood by while England pursued the target. A dry run convinced her skipper that this was indeed a submarine; on the next approach Lt. Cmdr. Pendleton launched a salvo of Hedgehog projectiles. Soundman Bernhardt did not hear them detonate but doggedly maintained sonar contact with the wildly maneuvering I-16.

A second volley of Hedgehogs discharged at 1350 hours yielded one muffled explosion. They had hit the sub but not fatally. Two more attacks proved fruitless; in frustration, Pendleton turned the conn over to Lieutenant Williamson. The ship’s captain would observe while his battle-tested XO maneuvered England around for her fifth run against the wily Japanese supply boat. When he judged the time right, Williamson ordered “Fire!”

At 1433 five or six Hedgehogs struck I-16, resulting in a series of rapid thuds. Two minutes later a giant underwater blast shook England, lifting her fantail completely out of the water while knocking sailors to their knees. “At first,” Williamson remembered, “we thought we had been torpedoed.”

In fact, it was the end of Lt. Cmdr. Takeuchi and the 106 other submariners aboard I-16. Soon, proof of its destruction began rising to the surface. Search parties from George and Raby discovered bits of cork, a chopstick, and other wooden debris, while the sudden appearance of a dozen thrashing sharks served as a grim reminder of war’s human cost.

The recovery of a 75-pound bag of rice convinced Commander Hains that his DEs had indeed killed a Japanese supply submarine. England, George, and Raby held station well into the night while all around them grew a massive oil slick, some three miles wide and six miles long, marking the last position of I-16.

Escort Division 39 was not the only Allied force sent out in search of I-16. American patrol planes also scoured the region, flying well into the zone where Admiral Owada had sited the seven Ro-class subs of his NA Line. On May 17, one of these aircraft spotted Ro-104 toward the northern edge of that track and radioed a contact report.

While nowhere near as capable as their adversaries, Japanese signal intelligence operatives could easily intercept and translate plain voice transmissions such as this radio call. The sighting convinced Owada that his picket force had been compromised, so he sent out coded instructions directing the boats of Submarine Squadron Seven to shift their positions 60 miles westward.

FRUPac heard every word. A team of cryptanalysists at Pearl Harbor immediately began work to decipher Owada’s message; within 48 hours they had plotted the exact latitude and longitude of each sub on the relocated NA Line. A courier then delivered this white hot intelligence to Admiral Halsey’s staff for immediate action.

Escort Division 39 was perfectly positioned to intercept Owada’s boats. Late on the afternoon of May 20, Third Fleet sent Commander Hains an exhilarating order: “Seven Japanese submarines are believed to be preparing to form a scouting line in a position between Manus and Truk. Subs 30 miles apart on line. Seek out —attack—and destroy.”

As his destroyer escorts got underway, Hains considered how they would roll up the enemy patrol track. His plan was simple: find the northernmost submarine, sink it, and then swing southwest to snare the remaining boats one after the other. This meant crossing the boundary between Admiral Chester Nimitz’s Pacific Ocean Area and General Douglas MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific Area, but Hains was authorized to do so if he found himself in hot pursuit of fleeing enemy vessels.

In the early morning murk of May 22, one of George’s radar operators detected a surface contact 14,000 yards off her starboard bow. It appeared to be a submarine, and all three DEs raced forward at flank speed to catch their vulnerable quarry on top. George managed to illuminate the conning tower of Ro-106, commanded by Lieutenant Shigehira Uda, but the submarine crash dived before she could bring her torpedoes or deck guns to bear.

England and Raby circled while their sister ship acquired the target on sonar. George let go one salvo of Hedgehogs at 0414 hours but then mournfully reported that she had lost contact. England’s soundmen heard Ro-106 just fine, though, and Lt. Cmdr. Pendleton soon received permission to take over. Their first run, at 0433, yielded no hits. Either exasperated or superstitious, Pendleton abruptly gave the bridge to Williamson, who had led England to success on her first kill.

Overtaking Ro-106 from its stern, England loosed a Hedgehog volley at 0444 hours. Eighteen seconds later three 24-pound warheads detonated 275 feet below. As before, a huge deep-water explosion marked the final moments of Lieutenant Uda’s boat and its 49 crewmen. England had scored again.

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