This U.S. Navy Escort Group Changed the Course of World War II in the Pacific
At dawn, watchstanders aboard George sighted an oil slick and some wood fragments adrift in the vicinity of England’s attack. This was sufficient confirmation of Ro-106’s demise, so the tiny flotilla of sub killers turned toward a rendezvous with its next target: Ro-104, Lieutenant Hiroshi Izobuchi commanding.
By sundown, the hunter-killers of Escort Division 39 had closed in on their unsuspecting prey. Nightfall called for a new tactic, and the trio of DEs opened its interval to 16,000 yards between ships to better detect a surfaced submarine. It worked—at 0600 hours on May 23, Raby reported: “We have a radar contact bearing 085 degrees, range 8,000 yards.” The fight was on.
Warned by its electronic emissions receiver, Ro-104 dived in time to avoid Raby’s deck guns but could not stop the aggressive DE from lashing it with sonar pulses. Rapidly changing speed, direction, and depth, the cagy Izobuchi avoided three of Raby’s Hedgehog attacks as well as another four from George. Ro-104 even used its own sonar to ping on the Americans’ frequency, spreading confusion above as the submarine made good its escape.
It was now 0819 hours. Weary of this futile two-hour battle, Hains told Raby and George to sheer off. “Give way to the England,” he ordered with a note of annoyance in his voice, and once more this deadly little warship moved in for the kill. With Lt. Cmdr. Pendleton at the conn, England fired a salvo to starboard that missed. Again, the captain yielded tactical control to his good-luck XO for a second run.
Under Williamson’s direction, England launched a full pattern of Hedgehog rounds at 0834 hours. Fourteen seconds later her soundmen reported at least a dozen hits followed by the now familiar deep-water crash of a dying submarine and the 58 souls aboard it. At Hains’s request, England then dropped 13 depth charges to finish the job.
Within a few hours, telltale debris from Ro-104 along with a spreading oil slick began to surface. England’s whaleboat crew recovered pieces of deck planking and cork stoppers as well as small pieces of wood with Japanese characters imprinted on them. Ravenous sharks also made their appearance, casting a somber mood over England’s company. Jubilation over their recent victories was muted by the knowledge that dozens of human beings were perishing in each attack.
Lieutenant Williamson learned of the crew’s new mood later that day when a young seaman encountered him on his way to the wardroom. After requesting permission to speak, the bluejacket asked how many enemy sailors were on those submarines England had been sinking.
“It depends on the type of sub,” Williamson replied. “Probably somewhere between 40 and 80.”
“Sir,”’ the youth then questioned, “how do you feel about killing all those men?”
The XO could only say that war is about killing, and the more ships they sank the sooner it all would be over. This seemed to reassure the fresh-faced rating but continued to trouble Williamson for the rest of his days. Already England had taken the lives of more men than she had aboard.
Putting aside for the moment such thoughts, England’s company continued its run down the NA Line with the other warships of Escort Division 39. At 0122 hours on May 24, George’s radar detected another surface contact dead ahead at a range of 14,000 yards. This was Ro-116, skippered by Lt. Cmdr. Takeshi Okabe, which crash dived the moment its warning sensors identified George’s distinctive radar emanations.
Okabe fought his boat masterfully. As the trio of DEs passed overhead he kicked his vessel’s rudder into a fishtail maneuver that disrupted the Americans’ firing runs, all the while counterpinging to distract sonar sensors. Okabe also employed rapid up and down movements to further confound the hunter-killers on his trail.
Recognizing he was up against an unusually skilled opponent, Lt. Cmdr. Pendleton wasted no time in putting his executive officer at the helm. Also tracking Ro-116 was lead soundman John Prock, who together with Roger Bernhardt had helped England find and fix three earlier targets. Now Prock suggested a ruse that might keep this bothersome submarine still long enough to enable a Hedgehog attack. During a firing run, the sound crew would normally increase their rate of sonar pulses to more accurately fix a sub’s location. This tactic alerted the enemy below that England was about to attack; Prock recommended keeping a steady ping rate on the next approach.
They gave it a try. At 0214 hours, Lieutenant Williamson yelled, “Fire!” and a flurry of Hedgehogs reached out for the elusive Japanese submarine. A few seconds later, three to five charges exploded at a depth of 180 feet. This time there was no resounding crash to mark Ro-116’s death, but dawn revealed conclusive evidence of its doom in the form of insulating cork, decking, and patches of fuel oil floating around nearby. Scavenging sharks were also sighted. Later, Navy intelligence confirmed that Ro-116 had gone down with all 56 hands.
At this point, Commander Hains needed to make a major decision. His DEs had been fighting hard for six days. Supplies of fuel and especially ammunition were now down to critical levels. Moreover, they were about to enter General MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific Area, a zone labeled “off-limits” to Third Fleet vessels unless in active pursuit of an enemy sub. Should his flotilla continue on, head for the nearest friendly port, or return to Purvis Bay for resupply?