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
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
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,
"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.