Sinking the Awa Maru: Captain Loughlin's Disastrous Mistake

Article excerpt

Making a radar-guided attack in pea soup fog, an American submarine commander was called to account for accidentally sinking a Japanese freighter granted immunity from attack

The night was pitch black. A thick fog reduced visibility to less than 200-yds. Groping its way north towards home in the East China Sea that night was the 11,600-ton Japanese passenger ship Awa Mara, one of the largest merchantmen the fast-sinking Empire of the Rising Sun still possessed. Yet the captain had every reason to feel secure. His safety was assured. Or so he thought.

At 2300 hours that night, his ship was suddenly rocked by four torpedo explosions. It sank like the proverbial rock. Of the alleged 2009 people aboard, 2008 perished. It should have been one of the most publicized sinkings of the Pacific war. The target was a major prize. The loss of life vastly exceeded that of the fabled Titanic. Yet to this day the incident is spoken of only in hushed tones.

It was appropriate that the day was April Fool's Day for the United States Navy had just made the biggest blunder it ever would in World War II.

As students of Naval history are aware, nothing raised the wrath of the American people quite like the "heinous" German U-boats which inflicted such slaughter in the Atlantic in two world conflicts, sometimes igniting funeral pyres of ships easily observable from America's east coast. What is now forgotten is that the US Submarine Force, Pacific, under the skillful leadership of Adm. Charles Lockwood waged, comparatively speaking, the most successful such campaign in the history of the 20th Century. By the time they were finished, they had sunk 1178 Japanese merchant ships and 201 Naval vessels. The later included nearly a dozen aircraft carriers, a battleship and more cruisers than the US Navy would lose in both oceans from all causes combined, not to mention nearly three times as many antisubmarine escort vessels as American submarine losses. Yet statistics hardly tell the story in terms to which we can relate.

Suffice it that all by itself SubPac did twice as much damage to the Japanese Empire as it was able to do in total to the Allies. It is often said that the war in the Pacific was ended by the nuclear holocausts over southern Japan. But those 400,000 Japanese immolated or maimed in the atomic fires were unnecessary, merely a final sacrifice to Imperial truculence. The issue had already been long decided. He who had lived by the samurai sword had perished by the carrier air strike and submarine torpedo.

Late in that conflict, one of the Navy's better submersible teams was formed, both man and boat destined for a perverse immortality.

USS Queenfish (SS-393) was launched in October 1943 by the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in New Hampshire. There was little to distinguish it really from a host of others. Indeed, the Balao-class of which it was a member would become the largest type of submarine the US Navy ever put in service numerically. At a standard tonnage of 1521, Queenfish was 311.5-ft long with a beam of 27ft. It was capable of 20-kts on the surface and 10-kt submerged. At low speed, it claimed a range of action of 12,000-mi, though obviously in a combat environment where bursts of speed were mandatory, this was grossly shortened. Jammed inside the dark, cylindrical, steel shark was everything needed to maintain existence for its complement of 80+ men for up to 75-days if needed. Also therein was the reason for its existence. Ten torpedo tubes opened from its hull - six forward and four aft. Some 24 "fish" were carried in total. USS Queenfish was state of the art, as deadly a sea wolf as anything even the legendary Karl Doenitz might have been able to conjure up.

When it was ready for combat, it was commissioned under Cmdr. Charles E. Ixughlin. Better known as Elliott, Loughiin was a 1933 graduate of Annapolis where he had been an Ail-American at basketball. Yet for most of the war, he had chafed in Panama as commander of the rickety old S-14, a submarine used for local security and a challenge just to keep afloat much less inflict any damage on the enemy if it should materialize somehow. …