The USS Cisco (SS-290) was a Balao-class World War II era submarine.
The namesake of the USS Cisco is any of several whitefishes of the genus Coregonus, of the Great Lakes and smaller lakes of eastern North America.
On September 18, 1943, the Cisco, captained by Commander James W. Coe, departed Port Darwin for her first and final war patrol. After a return to that base the same day for repairs to her hydraulic system, she got underway again on September 20, 1943, and headed for her assigned patrol area in the South China Sea between Luzon Island and the coast of French Indochina. 1
Commander James Wiggins Coe was born on June 13, 1909, in Richmond, Indiana. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy in June 1930, commissioned as an ensign. He served aboard the battleship USS Nevada (BB-36) through January 1931. He was then ordered to report to the Navy Yard at Mare Island, California, to assist in the outfitting of the heavy cruiser USS Chicago (CA-29). He served aboard her until May 1933. Over the next six months he attended the Submarine School at New London, Connecticut. In December 1933, he completed the school successfully and then reported for duty aboard the submarine USS S-29 (SS-134), on which he served until he transferred to the USS S-33 (SS-138) in May 1937. From September 1937 to May 1939, he served as an instructor at the Naval Academy. Following that, he was assigned to Submarine Squadron Five. In January 1940, he assumed command of the USS S-39 (SS-144). In March 1942, Coe assumed command of the USS Skipjack (SS-184). He was promoted to the rank of commander on October 15, 1942. In January 1943, he reported to the Portsmouth Navy Yard at Kittery, Maine to oversee the outfitting of the new Balao-class submarine USS Cisco. Upon her commissioning on May 10, 1943, Commander Coe assumed command of the new submarine. He is widely remembered as being the author of the famous "Toilet Paper" memo, which was submitted as a result of his frustration over dealing with an irrational Navy bureaucracy that seemed to thrive on creating red tape and inordinate delays. 2
Following her second departure from Port Darwin on September 20, 1943, the Cisco was never heard from again. She failed to reply to radio signals sent to her on November 4th and 5th, and was posted overdue and presumed lost. On February 8, 1944, she was pronounced overdue from patrol and presumed lost. 3
Navy Department Communiqué No. 504, February 8, 1944
1. The U. S. Submarine Cisco and the U. S. Submarine S-44 are overdue from patrol and must be presumed to be lost.
2. The next of kin of personnel in the Cisco and the S-44 have been so informed.
Japanese records reviewed after the war documented an antisubmarine attack made on September 28, 1943, at coordinates 09° 47' N, 121° 44' E, slightly north and east of Cisco's expected position on that date. The report of the attack stated, "Found a sub trailing oil. Bombing. Ships cooperated with us. The oil continued to gush out even on tenth of October." The Cisco was the only U. S. submarine operating in the area at that time. No other submarine reported having been attacked on that date at that position. 4
Other records corroborate that Cisco was attacked by Type 97 "Kate" attack bombers of the 954 Naval Air Squadron and the riverboat Karatsu, which was originally the U. S. gunboat, USS Luzon (PR-7):
28 September 1943:
Sulu Sea, off Panay Island, 41 nm W of Iloilo Island. In the morning, KARATSU's lookouts spot a suspicious oil slick and she conducts a depth-charge attack. At 0915, two Nakajima B5N2 Kates of 954th Naval Air Group (NAG) from Cebu arrive to the scene. Thirty minutes later, KARATSU establishes sound contact with a submarine, but loses it before launching another attack. After 1120, one of the aircraft returns to Cebu to refuel.
At 1205, the remaining Kate detects a submarine and attacks it ten minutes later, dropping a heavy depth charge. Following another attack 44 minutes later, a widening oil slick appears. After the return of the first Kate, KARATSU attacks the submarine until more oil is sighted. She remains in the area until 1715. As a result of the attacks, Cdr James W. Coe's USS CISCO (SS-290) is lost with all 76 hands. 5
The Capelin (SS-289) and the Cisco (SS-290) were consecutive products of the Portsmouth Navy Yard. The Capelin had sailed from Darwin on November 17, 1943, and disappeared sometime after December 2, 1943. The next ship off the same production line was the USS Crevalle (SS-291). Significant construction problems that could have been fatal were found by one of her officers before she was launched. The problems related to weaknesses in two vent pipes that could have caused the Crevalle to sink if she was depth-charged. The crews of other boats from this same shipyard production series began to wonder if construction flaws had played a role in the losses of the Capelin and the Cisco. 6
In the case of Cisco, there was evidence to suggest that a construction defect relating to a chronic lubricating oil leak may have contributed to her loss. During trials and testing, a chronic oil leak was evident. Coe wrote, "Oil slick caused by lubricating oil discharge with exhaust at all speeds and loads. This is considered a serious liability in wartime operations. Unsuccessful efforts of operating personnel and contractor's representatives to correct these conditions indicate that they may be a fault of design, materials, or workmanship." 7
Commander James W. Coe was a very capable skipper. He was highly respected and regarded by his peers and crews. His previous commands included the S-39 and the Skipjack. He had established the Asiatic Fleet's record for confirmed sinkings during a single patrol. He had also contributed significantly to resolving the problem of torpedoes that ran too deeply, and he pioneered the "down-the-throat" torpedo shot. 8 Yet on September 18, 1943, Coe allowed the Cisco to sail from Darwin after the latest repair to the intractable oil leak. They had to return to Darwin the same day to have it repaired again. Clearly he knew the danger this serious construction flaw posed. Why did he allow the Cisco to get underway with this critical problem?
David Jones and Peter Noonan address this question:
With Cisco on the verge of her first war patrol, Commander Coe found himself in a quandary. On one hand was the intractable oil leak, and on the other was the clean bill of health Cisco received after each repair job, nurturing hopes that maybe this time it would hold. Overshadowing all this was the task force commanders' demand for captains to achieve results. Given the newness of his boat and the expectations of his superiors, plus the number of older or damaged boats needing repair, Coe had no choice but to sail. If the leak recurred, he would have to deal with it at sea. 9
A list of the personnel lost with Cisco is maintained at On Eternal Patrol.
1. United States Submarine Losses World War II, USS Cisco, p. 57.
2. Naval History and Heritage Command, Biographies in Naval History, Commander James Wiggins Coe.
3. Jones, David and Peter Noonan, U. S. Subs Down Under: Brisbane, 1942-1945, p. 188.
4. United States Submarine Losses World War II, p. 57.
5. Hackett, Bob, Sander Kingsepp and Peter Cundall, "IJN Gunboat KARATSU: Tabular Record of Movement," published online at Combined Fleet.
6. U. S. Subs Down Under: Brisbane, 1942-1945, p. 188.
7. Ibid., p. 188-189.
8. Ibid., p. 188.