Between the two world wars the geographical position of the United States determined the designs of the submarines of the USN. Separated from the other major naval powers by oceans, the USN focused on large submarines with tremendous range. As a consequence there were no small coastal submarines built for the USN, whose designs were significantly larger, excluding the medium size M Class, than almost all designs of the European powers and most Japanese designs. In the 1930s the P Class, Salmon/Sargo Class and T Class boats built in small numbers shaped the parameters of the deep ocean or Fleet Boat of the USN.
However, the definite USN Fleet Boat did not arrive until just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. That design was the Gato Class. The boats were large at 311-feet 9-inches in length and displacing 1,825 tons (2,410 tons submerged). The four General Motors or Fairbanks Morse diesel engines produced 5,400 hp for 20.25 knots surfaced and the four Elliot or General Electric electric motors, producing 2,740 hp for a maximum of 8.75 knots submerged. It was the range and endurance that set these boats apart. Capable of missions up to 60 days, they had a maximum range of 11,800 miles at 10 knots surfaced. Six of the new design were included in the 1940 construction program, SS-212 through SS-217, followed shortly thereafter with another 67 boats added to the 1940 program, SS-218 through SS-284. The Gatos began to arrive just in the nick of time and the very first one to arrive was USS Drum SS-228.
USS Drumwas built by Electric Boat of Groton, Connecticut and was commissioned on November 1, 1941. Twenty Gatos were operational by June 1942 and 40 by the end of 1942. The Gato Class amounted to those first 73 boats. In 1942 a follow on design, an improved Gato was ordered and became the Balao Class. Because of their great range and endurance, the Gatos were almost exclusively employed in the Pacific.
In the first six months of World War Two, American submarine operations were generally not successful. Hampered by poor torpedoes and uncertain leadership, the Silent Service experienced significant growing pains. However, the Drum, on her first Empire patrol, provided a bright spot for the service. An Empire patrol meant operations in Japanese Home Island waters and could be categorized as high risk, high rewards operations. Her patrol started out under inauspicious circumstances. Like many other USN boats, she was attacked by trigger-happy American aircraft in home waters. Fortunately she was not damaged and set course for Japan. In April Drum was patrolling along the East Coast of Honshu.
Drumwas commanded by Bob Rice, son-in-law of Russell Wilson, who was the Chief of Staff for the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral King. One of his officers was Manning Kimmel, who was the son of Admiral Husband Kimmel, who was in command of the Pacific Fleet at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. Admiral Kimmel was relieved of his command soon after the disaster at Pearl Harbor and so Manning Kimmel. "Guided by an Ultra, shortly after midnight, Rice spotted a ship ‘with considerable top hamper’ and immediately fired two torpedoes. One hit; one missed. A destroyer charged out of the darkness. Rice crash-dived, firing a torpedo at the destroyer on the way down. It missed. Hearing no depth charges, Rice cautiously came to periscope depth. The destroyer was lying to, 1,500 yards distant, probably listening on passive sonar. Rice fired three more torpedoes at it. All missed." Silent Victory by Clay Blair, Jr. at page 204.
This ship at first thought to be a medium sized freighter was confirmed as sunk by Commander Joe Rochefort’s Hypo unit. However, it was not a medium sized freighter that was sunk, instead it was the 9,000 ton seaplane carrier, Mizuho. This was the largest Japanese warship sunk by the submarine force of the USN up to that time. One week later he sank an "unknown Maru" of approximately 4,000 tons, which went down with a "violent explosion". Four days later the 5,000 ton Shonan Maru went down from a single torpedo from Drum. Another two weeks passed and Drum sank the 2,300 ton Kitakata Maru, again with one torpedo. The last attack by Drum on this patrol happened on May 28, 1942. Five torpedoes were fired at a merchant ship or large auxiliary but all missed. Total score for the patrol, lasting 56 days, was four ships for 20,600 tons. This score, confirmed by post war records was the most successful patrol for any USN submarine up to that date.
Also during this period, Drum took part in the hunt for the "wounded bear". Wounded Bear was the code name for the carrier, Shokaku. Damaged at the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Shokaku first made for Truk and then on to the home islands. The submarines then on patrol were sent to hunt the carrier. Drum was stationed at Kii Suido, the northern entrance to the Inland Sea. The USN overestimated the damage to Shokaku and consequently under estimated her speed. The submarine intercepts missed because they arrived on station too late. Coming back home from patrol, Drum was ordered to intercept crippled Japanese warships retiring westward from the Battle of Midway. She was ordered to intercept a "burning battleship" and a "crippled cruiser" but no contact was made. Through June 1942 the USN submarines had made 21 patrols and sank a total of 22 ships. Drum was 5% of the force but was responsible for about 20% of the sinkings.
In July Drum went out on her second patrol under Bob Rice, this time to Truk. "He had a miserable patrol. He missed one freighter – perhaps due to faulty torpedo performance – and damaged another. While he was preparing a second attack on the damaged ship, Japanese aircraft delivered a bombing attack on Drum, forcing him to break off." Drum spent 54 days on patrol, with nothing to show for it. On her third patrol in the fall 1942 Drum, still commanded by Bob Rice went on another Empire patrol. During the 46 day patrol, Drum accounted for three merchant ships, which was estimated at 19,500 tons but verified post war as totaling 13,000 tons.
For the forth patrol for Drum was an Empire patrol of 56 days that left Pearl in November. Part of the mission was to lay mines. On the way to the Japanese home waters, Drum ran into the light carrier, Ryuho, on her first voyage, bound for Truk with destroyer escorts. Since two of the six bow tubes were filled with mines, the four available bow tubes were fired. As Drum turned to use her stern tubes, attacking destroyers forced him deep and aircraft kept her down after that. One of the four torpedoes hit Ryuho and she was forced to return to Japan. The mines were laid and Drum made two more attacks but no ships were sunk. At the conclusion she was sent to Brisbane, Australia to reinforce the sub force in the SouthWest Pacific, that had been thinned by heavy losses. She was now under command of Bernard McMahon and Manning Kimmel was the Executive Officer. Barney McMahon was awarded the Silver Star for his attack on the Japanese carrier.
In March 1943 Drum sailed from Brisbane on a 47 day 5th patrol. Three ships were claimed amounting to 15,900 tons but post war research confirmed only two ships for 10,000 tons. The 6th patrol left in June 1943 to patrol the Bismarck archipelago. In 49 days, the Drum failed to sink any ships. The 7th patrol in August left Brisbane for Bismarcks again. McMahon claimed three ships for 12,900 tons but only one ship of 1,334 tons was confirmed post war.
For the 8th patrol there was a new commander, Delbert Williamson. Drum left Brisbane in November. Drum was sent to the north of Tarawa to intercept expected Japanese reinforcements during the invasion of that island. Off of Truk Drum sank the Hie Maru, a large merchant ship of 11,621 tons. The counter-attack by Japanese destroyers almost sank Drum. Explosions were so close and heavy that paint was knocked off from the interior bulkheads. Later Drum attacked another convoy but was severely damaged by four subchasers. The conning tower was almost crushed and after Drum made temporary repairs and made it to Pearl, she was sent back to Mare Island to replace her conning tower.
After repairs she came back in February 1944 for a 50 day patrol of the Bonin Islands. She had no success on her 9th patrol. The June 1944 10th patrol found Drum under the command of Maurice Rindskopf, the first of the 1938 Naval Academy to command a fleet boat. The 51 day patrol around Palau did not have success. The 11th patrol in September to the Luzon Strait was successful. Four ships were claimed of 25,100 tons but again post war records only verified three ships for 18,500 tons. Frank Eddy took command for the December 1944 12th war patrol of Drum. She went back to the area of her early success, the Empire Waters, but pickings were few and far between. In 42 days no Japanese ships were sunk. The February 1945 13th patrol of 51 days, again in Empire waters, was equally fruitless. (History from Silent Victory by Clay Blair, Jr. and Submarines of World War Two by Erminio Bagnasco.)
The Gato Class was the pattern for the Fleet Boat in the Pacific submarine campaign against Japan. It is indeed a historic warship class. We are fortunate that the very first Gato Class to be commissioned, the USS Drum SS-228, is still in existence. At Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile, Alabama you can visit the first of the Gatos. Now out of the water and mounted on blocks, the USS Drum is sitting right next to USS Alabama.