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The Russian Ship

Sinking Club


The Russian Ship Sinking Club is a small fraternity of World War II American submarine skippers who, in the fog of war, mistakenly fired their weapons at and sank one or more ships owned by the Soviet Union. Russia was an ally during the war, albeit only against the Germans. It did not declare war against Japan until August 9, 1945, after the the United States had brought the Land of the Rising Sun to its knees. Russian ships sailing to or from ports such as Seattle, Vladivostok, and Petropavlovsk were supposed to sail within a safe conduct lane allocated to the Soviets and to bear distinctive markings. Often the vessels did not abide by either requirement. As a result, despite their best efforts to identify a target before shooting, some American skippers sank Russian ships, killing crew and passengers and destroying cargo.

On February 17, 1943, at 0700, the USS Sawfish (SS-276), captained by Lieutenant Commander Eugene T. Sands, torpedoed and sank a cargo ship at 30°-36' N, 136°-30' E, southeast of Kyushu, Japan. Captain Sands believed it was a Japanese Q-ship. The vessel was the 2,369-ton Soviet freighter Ilmen. It was not on the standard commerce route with the United States and no Soviet identification was seen. Russian sources indicated it was en route from Vladivostok to the United States. The normal route for this traffic was through the La Perouse Strait to the north of Japan. However, that route had become icebound so the Soviets re-routed traffic through the Sea of Japan and the Tsushima Strait to the south of Japan, despite the fact the Russian liaison office had informed the United States it would continue usuing the La Perouse Strait until March 3, 1943. The Ilmen was hit by two torpedoes on its port side and sank in two minutes. Seven crewmen were killed. Thirty-five sailors in lifeboats were picked up by the Soviet ship Kashirstroy the same day. 1

On the same day, at 2200, the Sawfish attacked and sank the 2,654-ton Soviet cargo ship Kola at 30°-50' N, 135°-35' E. Captain Sands believed it was a Japanese freighter. It was hit by two torpedoes in its port side. The ship managed to send an SOS, but sank in two to three minutes. Forty-nine crewmen, ten soldiers, and sixteen passengers with children were aboard. Forty-four men were killed. Thirty-one survivors in two lifeboats and some float-boats attempted to reach the shore, but after fifteen days only four of them were still alive when rescued by a Japanese patrol boat. They were eventually returned to the USSR. The Soviets said the Kola was also en route from Vladivostok to the United States. 2

Once back at Pearl Harbor, Sands received a glowing endorsement to his patrol report from Admiral Charles Lockwood and was credited for sinking three Japanese freighters. Shortly thereafter, the Soviets lodged a strong protest and Sands was hauled on the carpet. Fortunately for Sands, because of the unusual circumstances of the sinkings, he was not reprimanded and he retained command of the Sawfish. The Soviets pledged to improve on their recognition markings and to furnish better information on traffic routing and ship movements. 3

On July 9, 1943, at 1500, the USS Permit (SS-178), captained by Lieutenant Commander Wilfred "Moon" G. Chapple, sank the 55-ton Soviet fishing trawler Seiner No. 20 with her deck gun, at 45°-95' N, 140°-39' E. The trawler was set afire by six or seven four-inch gun hits. One crewman was killed and left on board the trawler. All of the survivors were were picked up by the Permit. The trawler was manned by a crew that included five women, several of whom had been wounded by shrapnel. One man died aboard the submarine and was buried at sea. The twelve survivors were taken to Dutch Harbor, Alaska and were returned to the Soviet Union. The women had become very fond of Chapple and did not want to get off the Permit at Dutch Harbor. Captain Moon got a good tongue lashing from Admiral Charles Lockwood for sinking the fishing trawler. The Russian captain of the trawler stood up for Chapple. In his official report, the Russian captain indicated that he had been attacked by a Japanese submarine and that the Permit had come to the trawler's rescue by chasing off the the Jap submarine and rescuing the trawler's crew. Chapple was relieved of command of the Permit and was assigned to new construction of the USS Bream (243). He would serve as her skipper from January 24, 1944 to December 7, 1944. 4

On March 3, 1944, at 0600, the USS Sandlance (SS-381), captained by Commander Macolm E. Garrison, sank the 2,900-ton Soviet freighter Belorussia with torpedoes, at 46°-28' N, 149°-18' E. Captain Garrison believed the vessel was a Japanese ship of the Florida Maru type. In addition, it had no markings and was not within the safe conduct lane allocated to the Russians. During the days following this incident, Garrison scored big against the Japanese, sinking a light cruiser and three freighters. The Belorussia was en route from the United States to Vladivostok with Lend-Lease cargo when torpedoed. It sank in four minutes. Fifteen crew members were killed. Twenty-eight survivors in a lifeboat tried to reach the shore, but only two were still alive when they were captured by Japanese coastal-defense units. They were beaten and held in a Japanese prison for three months before being returned to the USSR. 5

On June 13, 1945, at 0200, the USS Spadefish (SS-411), captained by Commander William J. Germershausen, Jr., sank the 11,439-ton Russian freighter Transbalt with torpedoes, at 45°-42' N, 140°-41' E. Garrison said the ship showed no lights and was not in the designated safe conduct lane allocated to the Russians. He fired torpedoes at it using radar bearings; he did not visually identify the ship. The Transbalt had sailed from Seattle with Lend-Lease cargo and was en route to Vladivostok. It was hit in the stern by two torpedoes, broke in two, and sank in eight to ten minutes. Five crewmen were killed and ninety-four survivors in four lifeboats reached Japan after seventeen days. They were evacuated from Japan by the Soviet ship Khabarovsk. Admiral Charles Lockwood did not want to disclose that American submarines were again hunting in the Sea of Japan. Therefore, the Navy blamed the incident on a Japanese submarine. But the Russians were not fooled easily. According to Germershausen, they blamed the sinking on a reactionary U. S. submarine captain. This was the second time Germershausen had shot at a Russian vessel. The first time he was the Tambor's commanding officer, but the shot missed. 6

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Footnotes:

1.  Alden, John D., and Craig R. McDonald, United States and Allied Submarine Successes in the Pacific and Far East During World War II, Fourth Edition, see USS Sawfish (SS-276), Attack Nos. 619 and 620; Submarine war patrol reports on CD, USS Sawfish (SS-276), data collected by the Submarine Operations Research Group (SORG) in the report "Results of U. S. Submarine War Patrols Listed Alphabetically by Name of Submarine"; Japanese Naval And Merchant Shipping Losses During World War II By All Causes, Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee, USS Sawfish (SS-276), published online at http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/Japan/IJN/JANAC-Losses/JANAC-Losses-6.html#sawfish (accessed September 29, 2011); Blair, Clay, Jr., Silent Victory: The U. S. Submarine War Against Japan, p. 405; and Holmes, Wilfred J., Undersea Victory: The Influence of Submarine Operations on the War in the Pacific, p. 210-211.

2.  Ibid.

3.  Blair, op. cit., p. 405.

4.  Blair, op. cit., p. 467-468 and Alden, John D., and Craig R. McDonald, op. cit., see USS Permit (SS-178), Attack No. 961.

5.  Blair, op. cit., p. 594-595 and Alden, John D., and Craig R. McDonald, op. cit., see USS Sandlance (SS-381), Attack No. 1718.

6.  Blair, op. cit., p. 863-864 and Alden, John D., and Craig R. McDonald, op. cit., see USS Spadefish (SS-411), Attack No. 4100.