American submarines have some impressive tales of taking down enemy ships – from the big one that didn’t get away to a classic revenge tale. But one of the most interesting tales involves perhaps the most decisive battle of the Pacific Theater, two Japanese cruisers, and an American submarine that damaged them both without firing a shot.
As the Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu was in her final throes in the early morning June 5, 1942, a force of Japanese cruisers — the Kumano, Suzuya, Mikuma, and Mogami — were headed towards Midway with two destroyers. These were powerful ships, nowhere near compliant with the London Naval Treaty that had been in force when they were designed and built.
CombinedFleet.com reports that they each carried ten 8-inch guns, and had 12 24-inch torpedo tubes carrying the Type 93 “Long Lance,” probably the best surface-launched torpedo in the war. The ships also carried reloads for the torpedo tubes.
As the ships were retreating from Midway, the submarine USS Tambor (SS 198) came across them. At 4:12 AM, the Japanese sighted Tambor, and the commander of the force, Takeo Kurita, ordered a turn. The Kumano and Suzuya made the turn correctly, but a mixup in signals caused a collision involving the Mikuma and Mogami.
Mogami’s bow was damaged, while the Mikuma began to trail oil.
The Tambor shadowed the damaged ships briefly before losing track, but not before a contact report was sent. Kurita left the destroyers with the damaged cruisers, but within four hours of the collision, dive bombers from Midway arrived. None of the planes scored anything more than a near-miss, but when the SB2U Vindicator flown by Marine Capt. Richard Fleming was hit, Japanese witnesses report that Fleming crashed his plane into Mikuma. Fleming became the only Medal of Honor recipient for the Battle of Midway.
On June 6, 1942, Task Force 16 launched three waves of dive-bombers. The Mikuma took five hits, while Mogami took six. Both cruisers were set ablaze. The Mikuma’s torpedo reloads exploded, causing her to sink. Mogami’s crew was able to get their reloads off the ship before that happened – and the cruiser ended up spending a lot of time being rebuilt.
The Tambor saw 12 war patrols during World War II, sinking 11 Japanese vessels. She was decommissioned in December, 1945, and sold for scrap 14 years later.
Her wartime heroics are many, but she may best be known for the shots she didn’t fire.