Excerpt from "United States Submarine Operations in World War II" by Theodore Roscoe.
Loss of the Seawolf (A Tragedy of Errors)
No submarine in the Pacific had fought harder in the war than SEAWOLF, pioneer veteran of the Asiatic fleet. Fourteen patrols and 56 torpedo battles had gone into her record since that long-ago day when Lieutenant Commander Warder took her around to Davao Gulf and poked her periscope into the vortex of the Tojo-Yamamoto offensive. Among the first submarines to run from Australia to the Philippines on special mission, she was also one of the last. On her fourteenth patrol, made in August 1944, she transported six agents and 10 tons of supplies to Tongehatan Point, Tawi Tawi, and went on from there to land agents and supplies at Pirata Head, Palawan. While captained by "Freddie" Warder in 1942, she had downed six Japanese ships. In 1943 and the first months of 1944, under captaincy of Commander R. L. Gross, she sank a dozen marus. By the autumn of 1944 she had sunk 71,609 tons of enemy shipping. Few submarines had downed as many ships and as much tonnage.
On September 21, 1944, SEAWOLF left Brisbane to begin her fifteenth patrol. She was captained by Lieutenant Commander A. L. Bontier. Eight days later she arrived at Manus in the Admiralties. At this base she received a special mission assignment, she was to carry Army stores and Army personnel to the east coast of Samar in the central Philippines. Stores and passengers were soon on board, and the submarine left Manus a few hours after making port.
SEAWOLF was en route to Samar, MacArthurs' forces were driving at the island of Morotai, the stepping-stone just north of Halmahera. A new submarine safety lane, wherein submarines would presumably be free from attack by friendly forces, had been established in the area directly north of Morotai. SEAWOLF made her passage in this lane.
On October 2, the SEAWOLF notified ComTaskForce72 that she was bucking heavy seas and running a day behind schedule. This information was promptly relayed to Commander Seventh Fleet.
At 0756 on October 3, NARWHAL sighted SEAWOLF and the submarines exchanged recognition signals. Not long after that a Japanese submarine attacked a Seventh Fleet task group which included the escort carriers FANSHAW BAY and MIDWAY and the destroyer escorts EVERSOLE, EDMONDS, ROWELL and SHELTON. A torpedo struck and mortally injured SHELTON.
ROWELL was directed to stand by the sinking DE and search for the undersea enemy. While ROWELL was circling SHELTON, the damaged vessel reported "sound contact" with a submarine. Although ROWELL did not pick up this contact, depth charges were immediately dropped upon the supposedly detected jap.
Meantime, the American task group commander dispatched a "hunter-killer" group to search out the Japanese submarine. At 1130 two TBM planes were launched from the large carrier MIDWAY. One of these planes sighted a submarine. The submarine dived and the plane dropped two 325-pound bombs as the submersible went down. The plane had sighted no recognition signals, but this submarine was within the limits of the safety lane. However, the aircraft pilot did not know he was within an attack-restriction area at the time-his information on this detail had been faulty.
Upon receiving a report of this bombing, ROWELL raced to the position given (which had been marked with dye by the plane) and made sound contact on a submarine at 1310. ROWELL delivered six attacks, five with "hedgehogs" (ahead-thrown projectiles) and one with depth charges. After the first "hedgehole' attack, ROWELL heard the submarine send signals by sound gear. The stuttering transmission bore no resemblance to the proper recognition signal, and ROWELL considered it an attempt to "jam" her own sound gear. So she blasted the water with another "hedgehog" pattern. Following this second attack, four or five underwater explosions were heard. Debris was blown to the surface, and ROWELL'S crew glimpsed what looked like a section of periscope. A Japanese periscope? Or was it American?
SEAWOLF was never heard from after her exchange with NARWHAL. She did not reach the Philippines, and as Submarine Headquarters assembled the facts, grim evidence of tragedy was revealed.
Four American submarines were in the Morotai area when SHELTON was torpedoed. STINGRAY was in a position estimated as 70 miles distant from the SHELTON torpedoing. NARWHAL was 128 miles away. DARTER was 260 miles from the scene. And the position which the task group at Morotai had for SEAWOLF was 128 miles distant. However, the position given by SEAWOLF in the message reporting herself a day behind schedule, was within 32 miles of the torpedoing. The U.S. anti-submarine forces at Morotai never received this information. As had been noted, the pilot of the carrier plane which attacked the diving submarine was not even informed that he was in a submarine safety lane and therefore prohibited from attacking any submarine.
After the war it was learned that the Japanese submarine RO-41 was responsible for the SHELTON torpedoing off Morotai. RO-41 was not counter-attacked, and she eventually returned to Japan. The A/S attacks made by ROWELL were 18 miles from the point where SHELTON was hit, and they did not trouble. RO-41. As a rule, neither Japanese nor American submarines attempted to "jam" an attacker's sound gear with sound signals. Undoubtedly the signals heard by ROWELL were from SEAWOLF, and the American submarine was desperately trying to establish herself as a friendly unit, in accordance with instructions prescribed.
In view of all the evidence, submarine authorities were practically certain SEAWOLF was sunk by American forces, either by ROWELL'S "hedgehog" and depth-charge barrage, or by the bombing from the carrier plane whose pilot was uninformed about the submarine safety lane. Majority opinion of the Board of Investigation: Several individuals were guilty of errors in judgment, but only the commanding officer of destroyer escort ROWELL was subject to censure. Although aware that his DE was operating in a submarine safety lane, he made no exacting effort to identify the undersea target after sound transmissions were heard emanating from the submarine. But the majority of the Board was also of the opinion no disciplinary action should be taken. The officer's errors in judgment were considered "due to over-zealousness to destroy an enemy."
Commander of the task unit and all commanding officers of the ships involved in the "hunter-killer" operation knew they were in a submarine safety lane. They disregarded the provisions governing such a lane because of seemingly compelling circumstances. Three enemy submarine contacts had been reported in the Morotai area during the preceding two weeks. SHELTON had been critically damaged by torpedoes at 0807 on the day in question. Immediately after the attack on SHELTON a submarine sound contact had been made very close to the damaged DE's position. According to the latest Daily Submarine Position Report for the area, the nearest friendly submarine was no closer than 70 miles from the position of A/S attack that was made by the carrier plane and ROWELL.
However, had SEAWOLF'S position been promptly reported to all concerned, the "hunter-killer" group would have known their contact was within 35 miles of a friendly submarine. In which case, they would have proceeded with more caution. But no correction to the October 3 Submarine Position report was issued-the correction was incorporated in the Report promulgated the following day. Commander Seventh Fleet had been promptly informed of SEAWOLF'S off-schedule run in the Morotai area, but apparently he saw no reason to relay this information further. At that time the Submarine Position Reports were not required by any specific orders of higher authority, but were promulgated on initiative of ComTaskForce 72. Their promulgation became mandatory two days after the unfortunate action off Morotai.
The SEAWOLF tragedy bears evidence to the jeopardy which threatened every submarine operating in a battle zone, particularly when enemy submarines were in the vicinity. Not only was the submersible imperiled by its undersea foe, but it risked accidental attack by friendly "hunter-killers" who had failed to "get the word" or were otherwise unable to determine the submarine's identity. Yet, such sinkings by friendly forces were remarkably rare on the American side. So far as is known, the possible destruction of DORADO by friendly aircraft in the Caribbean and the probable destruction of SEAWOLF by ROWELL are the only cases of the kind.
Against the magnitude and complexity of War II, this record stands as a monument to those who planned and coordinated American offensive operations and developed the techniques of recognition.