The Rise of the Sailfish

Margaret Dudley

The submarine USS Squalus was commissioned on 1 March 1939 out of the Portsmouth Navy Yard in New Hampshire. Few people would have guessed the transformation she would undergo in just a few short months, or the roles she would later play in naval rescue operations in the Pacific Theater of World War Two.

"Moment of Impact". Watercolor and Ink on Paper; by John Groth (1966). From the Collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

On 23 May 1939, during test dive operations off of Portsmouth, a main induction valve failed, flooding the Squalus’ engine room and causing the submarine to sink. The sub finally settled underwater at a depth of 240 feet. Out of a crew of 59, 26 were drowned in the flooded section of the ship. The remaining 33 men sent up a marker buoy and waited for help to arrive. Squalus’ sister ship, the submarine USS Sculpin¸ arrived in the area later the same morning and spotted the marker. Other ships began to arrive quickly, but the depth of the Squalus posed difficulties for any rescue attempts of the survivors as well as salvage operations of the sub itself. Time was also running out for the crew, who had a limited supply of air left in the partially-flooded submarine, and the cold continued to set in as those on the surface puzzled out how to get to the trapped crewmen.

Photograph taken during the salvage operations of USS Squalus. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

A new technology, the McCann Submarine Rescue Chamber, had recently been developed by Lieutenant Commander Allan McCann using a design by Charles Momsen which would allow deep-sea recovery of trapped submariners. At the time, the only Submarine Rescue Chamber (SRC) on the East Coast was aboard submarine rescue ship USS Falcon, luckily at port in Connecticut, and the Falcon arrived on the scene after several hours. The SRC could only carry eight survivors at a time, so the Squalus crew was brought up in four trips over the course of 14 hours, with the fourth trip bringing up the last of the crew just after midnight on 25 May. A fifth trip confirmed that there were no more survivors in the submarine. Four of the divers from the rescue operation were awarded the Medal of Honor for their dedication to diving “under the most hazardous conditions” to save the lives of Squalus’ crew.

Divers working during the salvage of the USS Squalus. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Salvage operations of the Squalus itself proved even more difficult. Over a period of four months, salvage teams made several attempts to raise her from the water. On one raising attempt, Squalus rose uncontrolled to the surface and slipped out of the chain bridles used to raise it. One spectator made the observation that it looked like a sailfish as it struggled on the surface before slipping back below the water. Finally, in September, the USS Squalus was successfully raised and towed to the Portsmouth Navy Yard on 13 September 1939. It was formally decommissioned on 15 November and given a complete overhaul. On 9 February 1940, the USS Squalus was officially renamed the USS Sailfish and recommissioned on 15 May 1940, almost a year after the initial sinking.

The USS Sailfish departed Portsmouth and headed for the Pacific on 16 January 1941, travelling through the Panama Canal to reach Pearl Harbor in March. The submarine served with Submarines, Asiatic Fleet out of Manila until the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. That day, Sailfish set off from Manila to the west coast of Luzon, beginning her first wartime patrol, which would last ten days before she returned to Manila on 17 December. Her subsequent patrols during World War Two saw varying degrees of action, with some patrols proving fairly uneventful and some requiring efforts that would earn her multiple distinctions for her service.

A piece of the USS Squalus. From the collection of the National Museum of the Pacific War, object ID 2005.672.004

The action during Sailfish’s tenth patrol while south of Honshu earned her the Presidential Unit Citation. On 3 December 1943, just after a refueling stop at Midway, Sailfish encountered a Japanese carrier task force including the carriers Zuiho, Chuyo, and Unyo. The fleet had received a submarine warning earlier that afternoon, but had deemed themselves sufficiently out of danger to cease safety maneuvers. They were struggling through a typhoon when Sailfish, which had gone silent to avoid detection and depth charging, finally made her move. She engaged the Japanese convoy, landing two successful shots on Chuyo, which then limped behind the rest of the Japanese ships. Sailfish continued her barrage, striking the carrier with multiple successful shots before Chuyo finally sank. Unbeknownst to Sailfish, Chuyo had been carrying 21 survivors from her sister ship, USS Sculpin, which had been sunk by the Japanese destroyer Yamagumo on 19 November 1943. Only one of Sculpin’s crew survived the sinking of the Chuyo, and he was picked up with the rest of the Japanese survivors. The sinking of Chuyo marked the first of only four Japanese escort carriers to be sunk by American submarines in the Pacific War.

During her twelfth patrol, conducted between Luzon and Formosa, Sailfish participated in another rescue, this time as the hero. On 12 October 1944, in the company of two other submarines, the Pomfret and the Parche, Sailfish rescued eleven Navy aviators who had been forced to ditch their aircraft in the Philippine Seas after making air strikes against Japanese bases on Formosa. These strikes were part of the Formosa air raids that served to distract the Japanese from the Allied landing at Leyte Gulf in October 1944, which later led to success of the Leyte campaign.

The USS Sailfish, c 1943. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

During the rescue, enemy vessels approached and attempted to capture the downed aviators, and a firefight ensued. Sailfish sank one ship and damaged another with her deck gun. The next day, she rescued one more aviator, then headed for Saipan. She arrived there on 24 October 1944 and deposited her passengers at the port, made some minor repairs, and refueled before heading back out into the ocean.

Overall, USS Sailfish participated in twelve war patrols before returning stateside, arriving at Pearl Harbor on 11 December 1944. From there, she left for Connecticut to perform training services out of New London, then operated as a training ship at Guantanamo Bay until August of 1945. Finally, she returned to Portsmouth, New Hampshire for deactivation and was officially decommissioned on 27 December 1945. For her service, Sailfish earned a total of nine battle stars and the Presidential Unit Citation.

Stephen L. Moore (left) and William Dillon (right) at the National Museum of the Pacific War on 7 December 2023.

In 2023, author Stephen L. Moore released his book, “Strike of the Sailfish” which details the story of the sinking of the Chuyo. For this book, he worked closely with William J. Dillon, who served as Radioman First Class aboard the Sailfish and provided a first-hand account of the 9-hour attack. On 7 December 2023, Moore and Dillon, a spry 99 year old, participated in the Pearl Harbor Remembrance program at the National Museum of the Pacific War. As the sole surviving member of the crew that sunk Chuyo, Dillon answered many questions about his experiences serving on the Sailfish. Dillon left high school to join the Navy in April of 1942 and was assigned to serve aboard the Sailfish in January 1943, where he remained until it was decommissioned in 1945.

Click here for William J. Dillon’s oral history.

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Margaret Dudley, Content Creation Coordinator, National Museum of the Pacific War

Ruth Ann Hattori, Marketing Director of the National Museum of the Pacific War