Stories about and by Submariners:
The Alaska Front, 1938-1942

The Alaska Front, 1938-1942

(Edited from U.S. SUBMARINE OPERATIONS, WW-II, U.S. NAVAL INSTITUTE)

Russia offered to sell Alaska to the United States in 1867 for $7,200,000. Congress dilly-dallied. Eventually Secretary of State Seward, negotiated and purchased the area. He was ridiculed and the action was called an extravagant folly. Alaska was called "Seward's Ice Box."

Few foresaw the future value of this immense country. As late as 1920 the public mind was picturing Alaska as a yowling wilderness of snow populated by esquimaux, a few Sourdoughs and Dangerous Dan McGrew. Nome was the end of the world, and the Aleutian Islands seemed as remote as the Pleiades.

The U.S. Navy was somewhat better informed. Its early sailing ships had visited Alaska's icy waters and explored the Bering Sea. But by 1920 the Aleutian Chain, a U.S. possession for over sixty years, was still unrecognized as a strategic bastian of the North American Continent. Militarily Alaska and her outer islands remained neglected. With the exception of a few radio and radio direction finder stations set up for weather observation and navigational information, the Navy, as late as the middle 1930s had not established any posts in the Aleutians.

The Japanese conquest of Manchuria, however, and the increasingly warlike attitude of Tokyo brought home the importance of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. Late in 1937, in conjunction with a plan for bases at Sitka and Kodiak, Unalaska Island was investigated by the Navy.

The sole naval activity on Unalaska at that date was a radio and weather station located at Dutch Harbor. Although 100 square miles of land had been pegged for a naval reservation, the site had not been exploited. Similarly under dveloped was a coaling station on the Anaknak side.

Fleet maneuvers were scheduled for northern Pacific waters early in 1938. This gave several units an opportunity to reconnoiter the Unalaska coast to determine the best harbor sites for a naval base. As part of the fleet problem, the necessary reconnaissance was carried out by Submarine Squadron Six, acting with a unit of the Air Scouting Force. HOLLAND tended these exploring submarines.

April 1939, Submarines Squadron Six completed its mission. The submariners recommended Akutan Harbor and Anderson Bay as best suited for the basing of submarines. Dutch Harbor and Iliuliuk Bay sere named as second choices. Other harbors in the area were reported as too hazardous for consistent navigation - icy and treacherous when flailed by the vicious Williwaws which stormed across the northern islands. The submarine patrols also disclosed the need for accurate charts of the area. Existing charts were deficient, and the waters would have to be carefully surveyed before any large naval force could savely operate in the Aleutian Chain.

Acting on this information, the Chief of Naval Operations proceeded to establish operational bases at Kodiak and Dutch Harbor. But work on the proposed submarine bases was not begun until after the war's outbreak.

Repair facilities installed at Kodiak were to equal those of a submarine tender, and the shops and living quarters erected at this base were designed to accommodate one squadron of S-boats. Dutch Harbor was also set up to provide normal base facilities for a squadron of six S-class submarines. As the war went forward, action eventually centered around Attu and Kiska, and Kodiak's importance as a submarine base diminished. Dutch Harbor became the chief submarine base in the Aleutians.

However, at the beginning of World War II, Dutch Harbor bore a close resemblance to those frosty gold-rush towns featured in wolf-and-dog-team movies. Arriving at this bleak port on January 27, 1942, the submarines S-18 (Lt W. J. Millican) and S-23 (Lt J. R. Pierce) were to be the first to conduct pioneer war patrols in the area.

It was a rugged area for pioneering - a wilderness of gray, blizzard-swept seas studded by islands as inhospitable as rocks. The days were brief and the nights bitter black, deafened by wind-howl and the thunder of surf. Across the archipelago unpredictable storms raged in sudden tantrums. Worse were the fogs which curdled over the reefs like the blinding vapors of ammonia.

In the boreal water the submarines shivered. A business of constant dunking was necessary to de-ice the scope and scour the frozen snow-bergs from bridge and decks. In the tropical Pacific the S-boaters had prayed for air-conditioning. Now, in this artic limbo, their prayers were for steam heat.

Aboard S-23, beginning her first Aleutian patrol on February 7, Lt Pierce and crew slept in their clothing to keep warm. Compartments in the boat were as cold and dank as duck-blinds in a marsh. At the same time there was enough "body-warmth" in the submarine's hull to cause a heavy condensation of atmospheric moisture when the vessel submerged under icy waves. Cold sweat dripped in a constant rain from the bulkheads, wetting everything in the submarine's interior.

And if conditions below decks were as evil as influenza, those encountred on the bridge were as wicked as pneumonia. On their maiden pioneer patrols, S-18 and S-23 made no verifiable contact with the enemy. The submariners standing bridge watch saw little more than ice-glaze and reeling water. Much of the time they could see no farther than the bow of the boat. When the islands were not imbedded in wintry fog they were whipped by the polar Williwaws which scourged the area. Even when the weather cleared, which was seldom, the hours of daylight were short and the horizon was engloomed. Snow-capped breakers showered the conning tower with brine that stung like shot salt, and the wind stabbed into a man's lungs like an icicle. In anything like a gale the bridge was almost untenable. Entry in S-23's log, dated 13 February, 1942:

"Shipped heavy sea over bridge. All hands on bridge bruised and battered. Officer of Deck suffered broken nose. Solid stream of water down hatch for 65 seconds. Put high pressure pump on control room bilges; dry after two hours... Barometer 29.60; thirty-knot wind from northwest..."

Submarine navigation in this area demanded skill with a capitol-S. Off Unalaska, Kiska and Attu the water lies in strata of varying density - a phenomenon which made every dive a problem in unpredictables. Radio reception was eccentric and sonar sometimes behaved queerly. On her first patrol S-23 encountered a continuous series of barometric lows, at one- to three-day intervals, accompanied by foul weather, moving rapidly from west to east. Typical Aleutian weather. Shooting the sun was a feat comparable to shooting a sea lion in a blizzard - when the sun did appear it loomed in the oceanic mist as dim and opaque as a cataract-blinded eye. Celestial navigation at night was practically impossible.

Other operational problems were introduced by the S-boats themselves - engine breakdowns, battery trouble, malfunctioning gear. S-23 had seen two decades of undersea service, and age was in her frame. But S-23, and the other old-timers that pioneered after her from Dutch Harbor on war patrol, kept on plugging.

S-23's patrol was far from fruitless, however. In company with S-18 (Lt Millican), her companion Aleutian explorer, she brought back valuable information. Information concerning winds and tide-rips - navigational difficulties - the need for arctic clothing for all hands, parkas and ski masks for the protection of bridge personnel. Not the least of this information concerned the condition of the S-boats - the fact that they and the submariners in them could meet the worst and take it.

Meantime, construction work was in high gear at the Dutch Harbor base. Despite the fact that Japanese naval scouts, first detected in the area shortly after the Pearl Harbor raid, seemed to have withdrawn, the Navy prepared to counter an Aleutian-Alaska thrust. By mid-April 1942 the base at Dutch and the one a Kodiak were ready for full-time operations. S-boat refits could be handled at Dutch Harbor, and when overhaul was demanded, the submarines could be sent south to the Destroyer Base, San Diego.

In early April, S-34 (Lt T. L. Wogan) and S-35 (Lt J.E. Stevens) arrived at Dutch Harbor to strengthen the undersea defense. These S-boats were soon followed by S-27 (Lt H. L. Jukes) and S-28 (LCDR J. D. Crowley).

The pioneer war patrols of these S-boats were meager in result when it comes to targets, but mountainous in effort. In addition to scouting in the North Pacific, they opened a campaign to whittle down the enemy's food supply by depriving his fishing fleet of runs in those waters. They sunk few fisherman, and during their early patrols made no contact with enemy men-of-war. But their mere presence in the area forced the Japanese to delay penetration. And fighting fog, sleet, high seas, blizzards and some of the wildest storms in the book, they won the opening battle against the Aleutian weather - a victory that made an important contribution to the ultimate defeat of the Japs in that strategic theater.