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The Perplexity of Palau

The American submarine force knew the Japanese were using Palau as a base. It was believed that the enemy’s principal route through the reefs surrounding the islands was the eastern Malakal Passage. But the submarines assigned to patrol the area had not had any luck. New intelligence proved they had been guarding the wrong channel. In October 1942 a secret Japanese chart was captured on Guadalcanal. It disclosed that the enemy was using the western Toagel Mlungui Channel because it was more suitable for big ships. The USS Seawolf, captained by Freddie Warder, was dispatched to investigate. Seawolf entered Toagel Mlungui Channel on November 12, 1942. Warder’s intent was to take some photographs, but a pesky patrol boat drove them off. Later that day from periscope depth Warder observed two destroyers exit the channel and head northwest. Seawolf gave chase. Just as Warder was reckoning an attack strategy on the lead destroyer, a big carrier, possibly the 17,830-ton escort carrier Unyo, exited the channel and turned southwest. Warder ordered flank speed to catch the carrier, then at 4,000 yards. But the pursuit was hopeless. At dark Warder surfaced and began pursuit anew on four engines. He also attempted to transmit a contact report to Pearl Harbor, but got no answer. A few hours later an electrical problem ended the Wolf’s pursuit for good. Warder steered Seawolf for the barn.

Meanwhile USS Seal was on patrol 150 miles to the south between Palau and Rabaul. Her captain, Kenneth Hurd, picked up Seawolf’s message about the carrier and was keen to get in on the action. But Hurd’s enthusiasm was interrupted by a dispatch from Pearl Harbor directing him to guard Toagel Mlungui Channel. Seal assumed that station on November 15, 1942. She had two contacts that day, but could not close either of them. That night she surfaced to pursue a tanker to the southward unsuccessfully. The next afternoon at periscope depth a convoy of several ships escorted by one destroyer was sighted. Hurd had a good setup on a ship in the convoy’s far column, but did not pay enough attention to a nearer ship as he fired two torpedoes at the far one from a range of 1,100 yards. Shortly after firing, there was a loud bang and violent crash in the conning tower. Seal rose from sixty-one feet to fifty-five feet momentarily before settling at 250 feet. The conning tower had to be abandoned. What sounded like torpedo explosions were heard, but in the confusion it was impossible to be sure. The destroyer above made a prolonged depth-charge attack. After nightfall, Seal surfaced to find the No. 2 periscope bent over at a right angle, the radar antenna broken off, and the No. 1 periscope sprung and useless. There was Japanese bottom paint on the No. 2 periscope and small quantities of uncooked rice between the deck boards of the cigarette deck and the bridge. Hurd reported Seal’s blind condition and was ordered to proceed to Pearl Harbor. Later a captured document revealed one of Seal’s torpedoes had hit the 5,477-ton Japanese Army cargo ship Boston Maru. It sank one hour later at 06-10N, 135-19E. Eighteen crewmen and 228 soldiers were killed. The convoy was en route to Rabaul and carrying 700 soldiers for deployment in New Britain and the Solomon Islands. The damage to Seal was caused when another vessel in the convoy, the 10,935-ton cargo ship Fushimi Maru, rammed the submarine during the attack. The cargo ship took light damage from the collision. It was sunk on February 1, 1943 by USS Tarpon.

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