The American Submarine Campaign in the Pacific Changed the Tides of WWII

A sinking Japanese ship photographed through the periscope of USS Seawolf in 1942. US Navy

2. The submarine campaign started poorly for the Americans

Prior to World War II, American naval planners and strategists did not envision participating in unrestricted submarine warfare. The submarine’s chief role consisted of scouting and reconnaissance for the fleet, and attacking large enemy warships. Consequently, the young officers commanding American submarines at the onset of the war found themselves in a role for which they had not received adequate training. Some bypassed merchant targets, to conserve their torpedoes for what they viewed as larger game, enemy aircraft carriers, cruisers, and battleships.

Many of the boats operating in the Pacific at the start of the war were all but obsolete. In fact, the Asiatic Fleet, which operated independently, contained more modern fleet submarines than available at Pearl Harbor. This caused a gap in areas where submarines operated on patrol. Nonetheless, by March 1, 1942, the Asiatic Fleet’s submarines had accounted for 12 Japanese ships, losing four of its own boats. Its 27 submarines participated in the attempt to thwart the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, unsuccessfully, and withdrew to Fremantle in Australia. As in most aspects of the first three months of the Pacific War, the submarine force failed to blunt the enemy’s thrust.