Incompetent US Navy Procurement Officials Get American Sailors Killed
The Mark 14 Torpedo was American submarines‘ standard torpedo when the US joined World War II in 1941. Designed in 1931, it differed from earlier torpedoes which detonated on impact with a target’s hull. Instead, the Mark 14 incorporated an innovative magnetic detonator that was supposed to set off the torpedo’s explosive charge directly beneath the enemy ship’s keel, thus breaking its back.
It meant that just one Mark 14 Torpedo would theoretically suffice to sink any targeted ship, regardless of its size. That was a vast improvement over earlier torpedoes, which usually required multiple torpedo hits to hole an enemy’s hull in various spots to sink it. However, secrecy and frugality led the US Navy to live test only two Mark 14 torpedoes – and one of them failed. Despite a 50% test failure rate, the US Navy went ahead and approved the weapon. The Mark 14 was put into mass production, and issued to the US submarine fleet as its standard weapon in 1938.
It was only after the war broke out that the torpedo’s flaws became apparent. Within the first month of hostilities submarine commanders correctly reported that the Mark 14 had a problem maintaining accurate depth to pass within the correct distance beneath an enemy ship’s keel before detonating. The detonation was another problem in of itself, as the magnetic detonator often detonated prematurely, or failed to detonate at all. Even the backup detonator – the contact detonator which was supposed to set off the explosive when the torpedo struck a target’s hull – usually failed. Even when a Mark 14 struck an enemy’s hull at a perfect angle, with a loud clang that was clearly audible in the firing submarine. Worst of all, the Mark 14 had a tendency to boomerang: it could miss its target, then continue running in a wide circle, to come back and strike the firing submarine.
The US Navy ignored a detailed report detailing those flaws, as well as reports from numerous submarine commanders complaining about the Mark 14. In one incident, a submarine commander fired a dozen torpedoes at a large Japanese whaler, but only managed to cripple it. Then, with the enemy ship dead in the water, he maneuvered his submarine and carefully positioned it so that his torpedoes would have a perfect angle of impact, before firing off nine more Mark 14s. All nine struck, but not a single one detonated.
Despite a flood of such reports, it took the US Navy two years to even acknowledge the possibility that a problem might exist. Then, grudgingly, it conducted tests to find out what, if anything, was wrong. The tests verified what American submariners had been complaining about for the past two years. Corrective measures and remedial steps to address Mark 14’s many problems were finally begun – two years later than should have been the case. One could only imagine the congressional hearings if something like that happened today.