Then and Now: Midway and Submarine Force

By Rear Adm. Blake Converse, Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet

“When I assumed command of the Pacific Fleet on 31 December 1941, our submarines were already operating against the enemy, the only units of the fleet that could come to grips with the Japanese for months to come. It was to the submarine force that I looked to carry the load. It is to the everlasting honor and glory of our submarine personnel that they never failed us in our days of great peril.” — Adm. Chester Nimitz, Commander, U.S. Pacific

Midway, a
feature-length film scheduled for release on November 8, tells the story of the
Sailors who fought so bravely in June 1942 to thwart the Japanese attack at
Midway.  This retelling comes at a
critical time for our Navy and our nation. Seeing the Battle of Midway on the
big screen serves as a reminder of the critical importance of a strong and
combat ready Navy to the security of our Nation. 

As you walk the
historic submarine piers of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, you see visceral reminders of
the beginning of the war and its conclusion – the memorial to USS Arizona
(BB-39), which was sunk in the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the battleship USS
Missouri (BB-61), on which the peace agreement was signed in Tokyo Harbor to
end the war. Adm. Nimitz also walked on these piers during WWII and witnessed
both the devastation of the Pearl Harbor attack and the unparalleled
industriousness of our Navy and civilian work force as they recovered from that
attack, rebuilt our Navy, and set sail to take the fight to the enemy at the
Battle of Midway.   

In May 1942, the submarine USS Nautilus (SS 168), under the command of Lt. Cmdr. William Brockman Jr., departed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, for her first war patrol. Her mission was to search for the Japanese fleet sailing for Midway, and she succeeded.  USS Nautilus assisted in leading U.S. aircraft directly to the Japanese carrier Hiryu and harassing the enemy while our aircraft ravaged the Japanese Fleet. USS Nautilus survived 42 depth charges, several of her torpedoes failed to detonate, and Japanese aircraft and ships spotted her multiple times, forcing Nautilus to dive and evade multiple times. Yet, despite these challenges, the crew’s efforts were critical to the success of the battle and resulted in Brockman receiving the Navy Cross for the Battle of Midway.  

USS Nautilus (SS-168) underway, March 1933. (U.S. National Archives photo.)

submarines would go on to take the fight to the Japanese across the Pacific,
wreaking havoc on the critical maritime supply routes that supported their
industry, and ravaging their warships. Although submarines only made up only 2%
of our entire Navy during WWII, they sank 30% of Japanese warships and 55% of
Japanese merchant ships.  

But this wartime effort was not without significant sacrifice. The U.S. submarine force experienced some of the highest casualty rates of any force in WWII. A foundational part of our training as submariners is the study of this legacy of sacrifice and commitment in the face of the enemy. In this training, we make it a point to ensure that today’s submariners recognize that even though we eventually achieved victory, we were not ready for unrestricted submarine warfare when we entered the fight after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Our weapons were erratic, our tactics unrefined, and our training inadequate to the task. Yes, we eventually overcame each of these obstacles to halt the Japanese advance and set the conditions for victory in the Pacific, but there is no guarantee that the pace of future combat operations will forgive such a lack of foresight and preparation. We have to be ready to deploy and sustain high-end combat operations with little or no warning – and today we exercise that every single day in our Submarine Force. 

USS Tang (SS 306) off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, Dec.2, 1943. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command.)

Last month, we celebrated the return of USS Olympia (SSN 717), our oldest Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine, from her final deployment. Olympia completed a circumnavigation of the earth, transiting both the Panama Canal and Suez Canal, and conducting operations in the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific Ocean. Shortly after USS Olympia’s successful return, we welcomed home one of our newest Virginia class fast attack submarines, USS Illinois (SSN 786), who returned to Pearl Harbor from her first deployment. She was the first Block II Virginia-class submarine to ever deploy to the Indo-Pacific region, during which, the crew completed a full spectrum of operations to support the highest priority tasking.

USS Illinois (SSN 786) departs Groton, Connecticut to conduct sea trials. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of
General Dynamics Electric Boat.)

We are in an
era of great power competition. Utilizing the strength, determination, and
lessons learned from those brave submariners before us, we will continue to be
first to the fight, just like at Midway. We are trained, equipped, and ready to
fight tonight because we have not forgotten our past.  

Editor’s Note: The four-part “Then and Now” NavyLive blog series is presented so
interested audience members have an idea of what’s changed, and what has not,
since the famed Battle of Midway. As the nation faces the Great Power
Competition, “Midway” is an authentic representation of the Pacific in the
opening months of WWII and can help people understand the value we provide
today, and honors the toughness, initiative, integrity and accountability that
are Sailors’ core attributes. The movie reflects the extraordinary
determination and courage of those who fought in WWII, and showcases how the
Navy team worked together then, as we do today.

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