WWII Submariner's Dolphins Still on Active Duty

From American Submariner Magazine

By Darrell D. Ames

While operating in the area southeast of New Britain during her third patrol, USS Argonaut (SS 166), led by Lt. Cmdr. Jack R. Pierce, intercepted a Japanese convoy returning to Rabaul from Lae, on January 10, 1943. Submarine Squadron Two Commander, Commodore James Fife, believed the submarine was capable of combat missions, despite General MacArthur’s desire to use her for special missions only. By happenstance, a U.S. Army plane, out of bombs, was flying overhead and witnessed the battle, Argonaut’s first and last.

After a severe depth charge attack, Argonaut was forced to surface. The crew of the aircraft saw Argonaut’s huge bow suddenly break water at a steep angle, hanging. One of the depth charges had obviously inflicted severe damage. The Japanese destroyers circled like sharks, pumping shells into Argonaut’s hull. She slipped below the waves, never to be heard from again. One hundred and five officers and men went down with her.

Perishing onboard Argonaut, with his 104 shipmates, was Chief Quartermaster George S. Jenkins. Although Chief Jenkins went down with the submarine, a set of his ‘dolphins’ (submarine warfare insignia) survived the war. In fact they are still in service 57 years later. Chief Jenkins’ grandson, Master Chief Electronics Technician (SS) Roland Jenkins, is the Command Master Chief for Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet (COMSUBPAC) and wears his grandfather’s dolphins with pride.

“I’m very proud of my grandfather’s accomplishments and the fact that he died for his country and died for what he believed in,” said Jenkins. “I think about him every day I put on my uniform with his dolphins attached and I try to live up to the high standards he established,” Jenkins added.

Many years later a former Argonaut crewmember, Lt. Cmdr. James “Red” Gill, USN (Ret), talked about Chief Jenkins. “I knew him well,” said Gill. “It was Chief Jenkins who ushered us into the war,” he added.

Gill was referring to an event that occurred on a Sunday in December, 1941. While Pearl Harbor and the rest of Americans were experiencing their ‘day of infamy,’ the submarine, unaware of the hostilities, was on routine patrol south of Midway Island.

“We were dead in the water that morning, just sitting on the surface charging our batteries, when two Japanese destroyers started firing at us. It was still dark out, but because Chief Jenkins had turned the navigational lights on, they were able to spot us. We always teased him about bringing us into the war,” Gill added.

Argonaut utilized their endless training and lived to fight in the war by diving and escaping the enemy battle group that morning. It wasn’t until later that evening they received a message informing them of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Argonaut’s first patrol near Midway had resulted in no damage to enemy ships, but her second was a most successful one. It was conducted following a complete modernization at Mare Island. Her mission had been to cooperate with USS Nautilus in transporting 252 Marine officers and men to Makin Island for a diversionary raid against enemy shore installations. In the early morning of August 17, 1942, the raiders were debarked in boats. After nearly two days ashore, the Marines returned, and the submarines transported them back to Pearl Harbor, Argonaut arriving on August 26.

On the basis of the report given by the Army flier who witnessed the attack in which Argonaut perished, the ship was credited with having damaged one Japanese destroyer on her last patrol.

Lt. Cmdr. Pierce had a younger brother serving in the Navy, George E. Pierce. During peacetime, George had also been a submariner, but he transferred to lighter-than-air craft (dirigibles). When his brother Jack was lost on Argonaut, George was serving in Georgia. Upon receiving word of his brother’s death, George immediately volunteered for submarines. Later he said he thought the decision to order Argonaut to attack was justified. “I do not blame Commodore Fife for my brother’s death,” said Pierce years later.

Argonaut’s loss, a sad event in its own right, caused some controversy for Squadron Two in Australia. The submarine had been sent there to carry out special missions - for General MacArthur and his intelligence operations. Her loss meant that regular fleet boats would continue to be diverted from normal patrol for many of these time-consuming (and hazardous) chores, meaning fewer torpedo tubes on the firing line.

Argonaut’s loss was a hard blow to the entire submarine force, and indicative of the desperate fighting to come. In the ensuing year the U.S. Navy’s submarine force was to suffer the severest casualties it had yet endured during the war.

Argonaut’s loss also meant the loss of a father to 12 children in Pearl City, Hawaii. “My grandfather had 10 daughters and two sons,” said Jenkins. “And in those days if a service member was missing in action, the spouse didn’t get a paycheck,” he added. All was not lost for the Jenkins clan, however, as an unknown supply corps officer, stationed at the submarine base, came to the rescue. “This officer would bring groceries to my grandmother every Friday afternoon,” said Jenkins. “My father and his siblings never went hungry because of this man. It was that Navy teamwork and spirit working. The Jenkins household was a part of the Navy family back then...and still is,” he added while gazing at his grandfather’s dolphins.