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Death By Friendly Fire

Over the course of the war in the Pacific, numerous United States submarines documented attacks by American aircraft and other submarines were fired on by American surface vessels. As the war evolved, there were more American aircraft in the air and fewer Japanese vessels for targets in the sea. Unfortunately, American submarines often bore the consequences of pilot frustration and aggression. In one case, a long-serving submarine became the victim of a careless American destroyer escort commander and was lost.

The USS Seawolf (SS-187) sailed from Brisbane on September 21, 1944, for her fifteenth war patrol. Aboard was a seventeen-man army reconnaissance party and ten tons of supplies to be to landed on Samar Island in the Philippines. To get there she would have to pass through a designated safety lane in which U. S. surface forces were prohibited from attacking any submarine unless it was positively identified as an enemy. Earlier in the day a Japanese submarine had sunk the destroyer escort USS Shelton (DE-407) with torpedoes. Later an American carrier aircraft had sighted a submarine in the safety lane and dropped two bombs as it submerged. The sea’s surface was fraught with tension. Soon the destroyer escort USS Rowell (DE-403) detected the Seawolf on sonar and began receiving signals consisting of long dots and dashes from the submarine. The Rowell’s commander dismissed these signals as an attempt to jam his sonar and ordered the firing of hedgehog mortars. Following a second barrage, bubbles filled with debris appeared on the surface. Four American submarines, including the Seawolf, were known to be in the safety lane at the time of this attack. A call went out to each of them to report their position. All except the Seawolf responded. She and the 100 souls aboard her had dived into eternity.

Ned Beach said the Seawolf tragedy was due to “…a lack of the rudiments of common sense.” The Rowell’s captain was censured for making insufficient efforts to identify his target, for dismissing the sound signals, and for attacking the Seawolf. Who can imagine what unrest this brought to him during his lifetime. The old Wolf had paid back well for the investment and trust her countrymen had placed in her. Over fourteen patrols she sank 71,609 tons of Japanese shipping in eighteen vessels, by JANAC’s score. She and the souls she bore suffered greatly. But now they worry no more and know the perfection of true peace.

Attacks Against United States Submarines by Friendly Forces During World War II

USS Seawolf

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