Under the Geneva Convention, hospital ships are immune from attack. Or, in very simple terms, shooting at them is a huge no-no.
But one American sub commander did worse – he actually sank a hospital ship. However, he managed to get promoted and retire as a two-star admiral nevertheless.
Charles E. Loughlin was the first commanding officer of the USS Queenfish (SS 393). The first three war patrols netted him a pair of Navy Crosses and a Silver Star, according to the Military Times Hall of Valor.
But it was on his fourth patrol that things went south.
CombinedFleet.com reported that in January 1945, the United States and Japan had come to an agreement to allow packages from the Red Cross to be delivered to American POWs. The Japanese selected the Awa Maru, a relatively new freighter (CombinedFleet.com reports she was completed on March 5, 1943), to carry out the delivery.
She was demilitarized, while American headquarters sent out a number of messages advising submarines that she was not a valid target.
According to “Sink ‘Em All,” the wartime memoirs of Vice Adm. Charles Lockwood, who served as Commander, Submarines Pacific, Loughlin was the victim of some mistakes from Lockwood’s staff. Lockwood, in particular, pointed to a message sent to “All Submarines” that outlined the route the ship would take and ordering submarines to let the ship pass that should have been sent to only those subs along the Awa Maru’s route.
In addition, Loughlin apparently had not been shown earlier dispatches by his communications personnel, and as a result, failed to grasp the importance of the March 30, 1945 dispatch. Two days later, in the evening hours of April 1, the USS Queenfish detected a contact on radar, going at a speed somewhere between 16 and 18 knots.
It was foggy, and with visibility down to about 200 yards. Contrary to the agreement allowing the ship free passage, the Awa Maru did not sound its fog horn. Lockwood would quote Loughlin’s patrol report noting that based on the data, the radar contact appeared to be a destroyer or destroyer escort. The Queenfish fired four torpedoes at the target at a range of 1,200 yards. All four hit, sinking the hospital ship.
After a recovered survivor revealed the identity of the vessel that was sunk, Loughlin reported the incident to Lockwood. The USS Queenfish was sent back to Pearl Harbor. Loughlin, though, would end up receiving only a letter of admonition from a general court martial – an action that, according to an NSA article on the sinking, prompted an enraged Nimitz to issue Letters of Reprimand to at least some of the court martial panel. Lockwood would report that one member of the court-martial panel would tell him that they came to the conclusion that Loughlin had never been shown the earlier dispatches, but that Loughlin had refused to throw his communications officer under the bus.
By all rights, Loughlin’s career should have been sunk, but instead, Loughlin would serve for over two more decades in the Navy.
How did this happen despite a such colossal screw-up? The reason is because intelligence information would reveal that the Awa Maru was, in the words of a Britney Spears song, “not that innocent.”
CombinedFleet.com noted that while the ship had picked up the relief packages, and was delivering them, she also carried 20 planes, 2,000 bombs, and 500 tons of other munitions. The Awa Maru dropped the planes, bombs, and ammo off in Saigon, prior to delivering the relief supplies to Singapore. When the ship was sunk, she was carrying bales of rubber and according to Lockwood, tins carrying granular material. The crew on USS Queenfish recovered some of the materials.
Lockwood would later come to believe that “Loughlin should have been awarded a commendation instead of a reprimand.” Fleet Adm. Ernest King sought to ensure that Loughlin would never hold a seagoing command again, but Navsource.org reports that Loughlin commanded the heavy cruiser USS Toledo (CA 133) and the oiler USS Mississinewa (AO 144). He rose to the rank of rear admiral, receiving the Legion of Merit for tours commanding Submarine Squadron Six and the Naval District of Washington.
In 1949, Japan quietly abandoned claims for compensation for the Awa Maru’s sinking.