This sub sank but came back to terrorize Japanese sailors in World War II

The USS Sailfish was a silent assassin in World War II that struck Japanese military and civilian freight ships. The submarine sent eight of them, including an escort carrier, to the bottom of the ocean. That combat record is impressive on its own and netted the crew a Presidential Unit Citation, but the really surprising thing is that all this happened after the sub sank in a 1939 accident.

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The USS Squalus is launched in this 1938 photo. Photo: Office of Naval Research

Originally christened the USS Squalus, SS-192 was a cutting-edge submarine that could dive to a depth of 250 feet and patrol for 75 days and 11,000 miles while hunting enemy ships and subs. Unfortunately, while the Squalus was undergoing a diving test in 1939 it suddenly flooded and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Twenty-six men were killed in the initial sinking but 33 were able to survive in the stern of the ship by closing the hatches. At the time, no one had successfully rescued submariners from depths of greater than 20 feet. The Squalus was sitting under 240 feet of cold Atlantic waters.

Another submarine, the USS Sculpin, raced to find the lost Squalus and the USS Falcon, a submarine tender, sailed towards the wreck with the new McCann rescue chamber. The McCann was a specialized diving bell that allowed rescuers to descend to a wrecked submarine and create an airlock around the hatch. It could then ferry survivors to the surface.

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A diver descends to the McCann Rescue Chamber after the lines are fouled during the rescue of the USS Squalus crew. Painting: US Naval Historical Center, John Groth #7.

Ultimately, the rescue was successful and all 33 people who survived the initial accident were rescued after 39 hours.

The Navy took another look at the wreck and realized that SS-192 could likely be salvaged, so they raised it from the deep, rinsed it out, and repaired it.

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The USS Squalus breaches the surface during one of the attempts to raise it. Photo: courtesy Boston Public Library

Re-christened the USS Sailfish, the submarine was sent to the Asiatic Fleet. Sailfish was operating out of Luzon in the Philippines when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor and America was dragged into the war. Sailfish began conducting wartime patrols the same day.

The sub struggled to find and engage enemy ships on the first few patrols. But, on Feb. 28, 1942, Sailfish was operating out of a Dutch base in Java when it spotted a Japanese aircraft transport escorted by four destroyers. Sailfish fired four torpedoes and landed two hits on the transport, destroying it.

Sailfish went on to destroy seven more Japanese ships over the course of the war and damage another. A few of the kills were cargo and transport ships, relieving a little of the pressure on Marines and soldiers fighting ashore.

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The USS Sailfish crew pose on the conning tower. Their Presidential Unit Citation Flag is visible flying behind the American flag. Photo: US National Archives

The crew’s greatest achievement came on their 10th wartime patrol. Just before midnight on Dec. 3, the Sailfish spotted Japanese warships in a severe storm. Four ships, including an escort carrier, were sailing together. Sailfish fired a four-torpedo spread at the carrier and scored two hits.

As the Japanese ships counterattacked, Sailfish dove for safety but didn’t leave the battle. Five hours later, Sailfish fired a three-torpedo spread at the damaged carrier and scored two more hits. Finally, at 9:40 that morning, Sailfish hit the ship with two more torpedoes and the escort carrier Chuyo sank into the Pacific.

The crew received a Presidential Unit Citation for this engagement, but they later learned that American POWs had been aboard the Chuyo. Unfortunately, 21 American submariners from the USS Sculpin, the submarine that helped rescue the crew of the Squalus, were aboard and 20 died when the Chuyo sank.

After the war, the Sailfish was decommissioned and sold for scrap.

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