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USS Dorado (SS-248): On Eternal Patrol, by Douglas E. Campbell


I read Douglas E. Campbell’s new book USS Dorado (SS-248): On Eternal Patrol during my Christmas holiday. I finished reading parts of it for a second time just recently. My copy from Lulu.com weighs in at 614 pages. Within that you get a lot of information about the Dorado, her short career, and her crew. These include some arcane and personal details you won't find in any of the official histories. You will also find the complete records of the two bodies empowered by the U. S. Navy to investigate her loss: a Board of Investigation held at Guantanamo, Cuba, immediately after her loss, and a more formal Court of Inquiry conducted at Washington, D.C., later on. There is also a copy of the 1943 U. S. Navy regulation on submarine sanctuaries ("safety lanes") and aircraft bombing attack restrictions, and a very thorough analysis of all German U-Boat activity in the Caribbean Sea and off of the eastern side of the Panama Canal during World War II. It becomes clear to the reader early on that the author has done his homework and is an expert on the USS Dorado.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Dorado, I encourage you to review my Final Patrol article so you can get familiar with her history and the possible causes for her loss.

The Dorado was a brand-new Gato-class submarine. She sailed from New London, Connecticut, in October 1943, bound for duty in the Pacific via the Panama Canal. She never made it to Panama and was never heard from again after she left New London. In most sources the most likely cause for her loss is attributed to an accidental bombing by a U. S. Navy flying boat in the Caribbean Sea. Other theories say she was sunk by mines laid by German U-Boats in the Caribbean Sea or off the eastern side of the Panama Canal. None of the possibilities offer sufficient evidence to support any definite conclusions. The fate of the Dorado and the 76 souls aboard her remains a mystery.

From the records of the Board of Investigation held at Guantanamo, Cuba, in October 1943, and of the Court of Inquiry held later at Washington, D.C., it is apparent that the crew of the Navy flying boat circled the wagons and conspired to testify uniformly. It was in their best interest if the Board of Investigation determined they had attacked a German U-Boat and not the Dorado. This fact was alluded to in the Court of Inquiry’s final report. The Guantanamo-based Board of Investigation held the same line in its final opinion, saying, “The submarine attacked …was not the Dorado, but was a German submarine of about 1600 tons displacement, in the act of diving.” As it turned out, none the flying boat's crew members could tell the difference between an American submarine and a German U-Boat, nor had they had any proper training in that area. The Court of Inquiry stated, "It is human nature to justify one's mistakes or errors in judgment. It is human nature, after an incident of this kind, for those concerned with the incident to talk over among themselves what they thought they saw. It is not known that this was done in this case, but there was time for such discussion to have taken place before testimony was received in evidence." The Court also said it could "...render an opinion as to whether the pilot of plane No. 210-P-9 [the Navy flying boat] attacked the USS Dorado by the credence it places on the testimony of the witnesses who saw the attack." These witnesses were all members of the plane's crew. It is not surprising then that the Court of Inquiry’s opinion was quite different than that of the Board of Investigation. The Court said, “…it is highly probable that USS Dorado was lost through the attack by plane No. 210-P-9, either sinking forthwith or being so injured as to be unable to communicate, unable to overcome the damage sustained and, in consequence, sinking somewhat later.” The Court of Inquiry also found, “That an extensive search was made by planes and surface vessels of the area of the attack and that no survivors or wreckage was sighted.” The Court of Inquiry pointed to one person for "...culpable inefficiency in performance of his duty." He was the surface plot officer at the Joint Operations Center, Naval Operating Base, Guantanamo. He had made a drastic course plotting error that was ultimately responsible for putting the Dorado in harm's way. I note that the author states on the book’s back cover, “Within these pages you will read the formal Court of Inquiry that concluded, incorrectly, that the aircrew probably bombed a U-boat that was known to be in the area.” A similar statement is made inside the book early on, and in a later section, as well. The author is wrong. I assume he is confusing the two bodies and that he meant to emphasize the Board of Investigation’s incorrect conclusion. It took me a while to get a handle on this discrepancy.

The author includes in the book a 1945 U. S. Navy memorandum that establishes three key facts. First, the attack made by the Navy flying boat was not on U-214 or any other German U-Boat. Second, the second sighting made by the Navy flying boat later that night was the U-214, who opened fire on the plane with her AA guns. Third, the USS Dorado was not sunk by a German U-Boat. The factual basis for this memorandum is information contained in the log books of certain German U-Boats. These logs were obtained after the war through the British. (About two hours after the accidental bombing, the same Navy flying boat sighted another surfaced submarine in the same general area. The flying boat flashed a recognition signal to the submarine with its Aldis lamp. The submarine responded with AA fire. In the past there has been uncertainty as to whether or not that submarine was the Dorado. The review of the deck logs established it was the U-214; it was also shown that no other U-Boats were in the area that night.) There were only two submarines in the area in which the Navy flying boat attacked what its crew said was a German U-Boat - the U-214 and the Dorado. The U-214's log book proves it was not attacked by the Navy flying boat that night. The significance of this memorandum is that it proves that the Dorado was the submarine bombed by the Navy flying boat. It is important to note that the memorandum was added to the Dorado's file on September 13, 1945, after the Court of Inquiry had concluded its work, on November 20, 1943. As far as I know, this is the first time this memorandum has been published.

Despite this major breakthrough in establishing the fact that the USS Dorado was attacked by a "friendly" plane, we are now confronted with even more questions. What remains unknown is whether or not the Dorado was sunk as a result of the attack. The Court of Inquiry found that not less than two of the depth charges dropped by the Navy flying boat had functioned as designed; crew on nearby surface vessels had heard and felt concussions from the blasts. But did they damage or sink the Dorado? Did the Dorado escape unharmed only to be sunk by a German or an American mine? Did she suffer critical damage and sink sometime later? None of the usual telltale signs of the death of a submarine were evident on the sea’s surface in the following days.

The author’s hypothesis is that the Dorado was probably damaged during the attack. The damages she incurred prevented her from surfacing or radioing for help. She drifted with the prevailing Caribbean currents and washed up on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. I emphasize the term "hypothesis.” The author seems to be using it as a provisional conjecture to guide his investigation into what may have become of the Dorado and her crew. He should probably also consider what would happen when the Dorado's batteries fully drained and she was left powerless. The average depth in the Caribbean Sea is 8,665 feet. How long could she maintain her depth without power? What would happen after her oxygen supplies were depleted?

The author includes a chapter on his search for the Dorado. It includes a section on his four trips to the Yucatan, the last one being “an all-out effort to locate the sub” via a remote sensing survey off the coast of Bahia de la Ascension, Mexico. The survey did not find the Dorado. Future surveys will possibly be made at Bahia del Espirtu Santo and off Banco Chinchoros. The narrative on his trips is interesting and reflects how passionate the author is about finding the Dorado.

I purchased my copy of the book from Lulu.com. At the time it was the only source selling it. I paid $41.94 with shipping. Today you can get it at Amazon for around $30 with free shipping. There is a problem on page 16, third paragraph, last sentence, in my Lulu copy. The paragraph ends with the partial sentence “It was discovered by the author that many relatives of those lost on the Dorado” and then nothing else after that. A new paragraph follows. This could just be a screw up at Lulu or an oversight by the author. Hopefully it will be fixed in future editions.

Would I recommend this book? I would if like me you are someone who thinks about the 52 lost boats just about every day and who tries to keep up with every new book that gets published about one of them. You have to remember that the Dorado never made it to the Pacific and therefore never conducted a war patrol. Douglas Campbell’s book is not like Michael Sturma’s recent book on the USS Harder or Don Keith’s latest book about Mush Morton and the Wahoo. There are no chapters about exciting war patrols or down-the-throat torpedo shots. What you will find in the book is a grand unsolved mystery which, thanks to people like Douglas Campbell, may just get solved someday soon.