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Submarine Lifeguard


"Twenty-two submarines were on Lifeguard stations on the last day of the war. Except for those in the Sea of Japan which had run through the enemy mine fields in Tsushima Strait to cut the last remaining supply lines to the Empire, submarines had practically no duties other than Lifeguarding. The seas had been swept clean and submarines formed a tight blockading ring completely around the Empire. True, we were preparing twenty-four subs to act as radar pickets for the Fleet in the forthcoming invasions, and others were charting enemy mine fields along the coasts of Japan to assist those same operations, but those operations were in effect an extension of Lifeguarding. Submarines had been almost completely metamorphosed from killers to lifesavers, and, for the first time in military or naval history, a combat team had been assigned to missions that were entirely designed to save the lives of comrades in arms.

"From its very inception, the Lifeguard League - unique and unparalleled in the annals of war - built a framework for cooperation between submarines and fighting aircraft which not only saved hundreds of lives and boosted morale but is available for infinite variations and far greater exploration in operations of the future. It was never a perfect machine, but with the improved communication facilities of today, its potential value is high indeed."

Quoted from Zoomies, Subs and Zeros: Heroic Rescues in World War II by the Submarine Lifeguard League, by Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, USN, (Ret.) and Colonel Hans Christian Adamson, USAF, (Ret.).

The concept of a Lifeguard League was the brainchild of Rear Admiral Charles Pownall. As the commanding officer of the carrier task force conducting raids against Japanese real estate in the central Pacific, he was very concerned about the rescue of his downed aviators. He argued that U.S. Navy submarines should be stationed close to targeted islands in that area so that damaged aircraft could ditch or the crew bail out close to the boats and be rescued by them. He discussed this concept with Admiral Charles Lockwood, ComSubPac, who eventually agreed to the idea, thus giving birth to the Lifeguard League. 1

The Lifeguard League system was proactive. Submarines would be stationed surfaced off locations targeted for attack by air forces. Their locations would be known by the air crews and they could communicate with the submarines via secure radio channels. Thus, the pilot and crew of a damaged aircraft could ditch and bail out close to the nearest submarine lifeguard. The USS Snook (SS-279) and the USS Steelhead (SS-280) were the first submarines tasked with lifeguarding under the new proactive guidelines. On September 1, 1943, Snook stood off Marcus Island during carrier air strikes on that isolated Japanese coral atoll in the northwestern Pacific Ocean. On September 18 and 19, 1943, Steelhead acted as a lifeguard in the Gilbert Islands during an Army Air Corps bombing of Tarawa. Both assignments proved to be dry runs. Neither submarine had to make any rescues. The next air strike would be conducted on October 6 and 7, 1943, using six big carriers, seven cruisers, and twenty-four destroyers under Rear Admiral Montgomery to give Wake Island a thorough pounding. The USS Skate (SS-305) was selected for this lifeguard job. On October 7 and 8, 1943, she made the first aviator rescues under the Lifeguard League system. She saved a total of six U. S. Navy airmen. The last Lifeguard League rescue was performed by USS Tigrone (SS-419), on August 14, 1945, when she saved a downed Army fighter pilot four miles off Tenru Kawa Light. Rear Admiral John Herbert "Babe" Brown, Jr. was responsible for the development and implementation of the Submarine Lifeguard League. In recognition of his efforts, he received the Navy Distinguished Service Medal. The citation is quoted below.

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Distinguished Service Medal to Rear Admiral John Herbert Brown, Jr. (NSN: 0-8613), United States Navy, for exceptionally meritorious and distinguished service in a position of great responsibility to the Government of the United States as Commander Training Command, Submarine Force, Pacific Fleet, from 12 November 1943 to 29 April 1945. During this period he was responsible for the command and supervision of training of submarines of the Submarine Force, Pacific Fleet. This entailed the planning and organization of a complex system for advanced training of commanding officers, officers, and men of the rapidly expanding submarine force. He was further responsible for the study of enemy tactics and anti-submarine measures and the necessary development of attack doctrines, evasive tactics and counter anti-submarine measures to successfully cope with the intensified enemy activity. He also developed Submarine Lifeguard Exercises which enabled submarines of the force to successfully carry out missions of recovering numerous friendly aviators downed in enemy waters. By his outstanding qualities of leadership, and by his intense application and intelligent handling of the manifold problems of training and equipping our submarines with newly developed weapons, he contributed greatly to the success of the submarine war effort in the Pacific. His tenacity, courage, resourcefulness, cooperation with other activities, and high devotion to duty were at all times in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

Action Date: November 12, 1943 - April 29, 1945 2

Statistics document that during the Lifeguard League's period of operation, eighty-eight American submarines made one hundred and four war patrols during which air-sea rescue operations resulting in the recovery of aviation personnel were conducted. A total of five hundred and twenty-one aviators were rescued: two hundred and forty-one from the U. S. Navy, two hundred and fifty-nine from the U. S. Army Air Forces, five from the U. S. Marine Corps, and sixteen from the Royal Navy.

The Submarine Lifeguard League Memorial at Pensacola, Florida, contains two important errors of omission. It omits a aviator rescue made on September 22, 1944, by the USS Haddo (SS-255), during her seventh war patrol. It also omits two aviator rescues made by the USS Whale (SS-239). Her patrol report documents the recovery of fifteen aviators during her eleventh war patrol. The memorial lists only thirteen. These omissions account for the difference between the total rescues reported on the memorial and in my research. My figures can be viewed at the following link.

Submarine Lifeguard League Rescue Statistics


1.  Galdorisi, George and Tom Phillips, Leave No Man Behind: The Saga of Combat Search and Rescue, p. 72.

2.  My thanks to Ric Hedman of for pointing me to the information about Babe Brown's involvement in the Submarine Lifeguard League. Thank you sir!

The citation for the Distinguished Service Medal is published online at the Military Times Hall of Valor.

To learn more about Rear Admiral John H. Brown's life and career see The Pacific War Online Encyclopedia.

There is also information about Brown at Find A Grave.