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USS Triton (SS-201)

USS Triton (SS-201) patch


The USS Triton (SS-201) was a Tambor-class World War II era submarine.

The namesake of the USS Triton was a Greek sea demigod, the son of Poseidon and Amphitrite, depicted as having the upper body parts of a man with a fish's tail and holding a trumpet made from a conch shell, which he used to summon storms and to still the sea.

The radio call sign of the USS Triton was NAN-ABLE-VICTOR-FOX.

On February 16, 1943, the Triton, captained by Lieutenant Commander George K. MacKenzie, Jr., left Brisbane for her sixth and final war patrol. Her orders were to search for and destroy enemy shipping in the area between the Shortland Islands and Rabaul. On March 6, 1943, the Triton reported a battle with a Japanese convoy of five ships escorted by a destroyer during which she sank the 3,057-ton freighter Kiriha Maru. During this encounter one of her torpedoes made a circular run that had forced her to go deep to evade it. Two days later she reported she had fired eight torpedoes at another convoy and that an escorting destroyer had forced her to go deep, so she had not been able to observe the results. She also reported damaging another freighter. The Triton's last message reached Brisbane on March 11, 1943, and it said, "Two groups of smokes, 5 or more ships each, plus escorts...Am chasing." She was never heard from again. 1

On April 10, 1943, the Triton was reported overdue from patrol and presumed lost. The formal announcement of her loss was made on July 22, 1943:

Navy Department Communiqué No. 447, July 22, 1943

1. The U. S. Submarine Triton has failed to return from patrol operations and must be presumed to be lost. The next of kin of personnel in the Triton have been so informed.

After the war, U. S. naval authorities made an intensive examination of Japanese records to determine the causes for the loss of USS Grampus (SS-207), USS Amberjack (SS-219), and the Triton, three Brisbane-based boats on patrol in February 1943 which never returned. They took with them their skippers and 214 other officers and crewmen. 2

According to the U. S. Navy, the Japanese records provided a degree of certitude as to the time and place of the Triton's last battle. Their official report said the Triton went down fighting just north of the Admiralty Islands, on March 15, 1943. She was lost in combat against three Japanese destroyers that had been reported in her area. Here's what happened, according to the Navy:

"On the morning of 13 March Triton was told that three enemy destroyers had been sighted at 02° 00' S, 145° 44' E on a northerly course. She was informed that they were probably on a submarine hunt or were a convoy cover and had missed contact."

* * *

"Information available now that the war is over shows that Triton was, without a doubt, sunk by the enemy destroyers of which she was given information on 13 March. Enemy reports show that these ships made an attack on 15 March at 00° 09' N, 144° 55' E. This position was slightly north and west of Triton's area, but she undoubtedly left her area to attack the destroyers or the convoy they were escorting. The report of the attack [by] the destroyers leaves little doubt as to whether a kill was made, since they saw "a great quantity of oil, pieces of wood, corks and manufactured goods bearing the mark 'Made in U.S. A'." In addition, Trigger, in whose area this attack occurred, reported that on 15 March she made two attacks on a convoy of five freighters with two escorts at 0°N, 145°E. At this time she was depth charged, but not seriously, and she heard distant depth charging for an hour after the escorts had stopped attacking her. Since she was only about ten miles from the reported Japanese attack cited above, it is presumed that she heard the attack which sank Triton. Apparently by this time the destroyers had joined their convoy." 3

Trigger's patrol report entry for March 15, 1943 confirmed she had been depth-charged by a convoy's escorts. After these attacks were over, she heard the sound of distant explosions for about an hour:

March 15
1035

(8th contact) (3rd and 4th attacks)
Lat. 0-00 N. Long. 145-00 E.

Convoy of five freighters with 2 escorts. One 7000 ton freighter probably sunk. One 7000 ton freighter damaged.

Picked up smoke on the horizon bearing 103. Commenced approach. Turned out to be a convoy of two columns, 2 freighters in the right hand column and three in the left. There was an escort, small destroyer or other type, on each outboard bow. The convoy was zigzagging with escorts patrolling station. We worked into position ahead in order to get between the columns. Maneuvers were successful.

1215 (K)
Fired three stern tubes at the leading ship in the right hand column at 1600 yards 90 port track. Two hits. While these torpedoes were on the way got set up on the leading ship of the left hand column. The last zig had placed the columns in echelon so that the angle on the bow of our new target was 10 degrees starboard, relative bearing 300 and at a range of 2000 yards. The first firing, due to smooth sea, disclosed our position. Our new target headed for us. There was not time for us to turn.

1217 (K)
Fired three bow tubes at zero angle on the bow range 700 yards, gyro angles about 45 degrees. Used normal dispersion as the spread. Two hits. Went deep on firing to avoid the target. The escorts were after us with depth charges instantly, alternating listening and dropping. The sea was smooth and sound conditions excellent so could not at the time come up to take a look. During the quiet periods the sounds associated with the breaking up and sinking of a ship were heard in the direction of our first target.

1420 (K)
Nothing in sound. Came to periscope depth. Nothing in sight.

1437 (K)
Depth charges at a distance. Nothing in sight. Assumed they were from planes. These distant explosions continued for the next hour.

1515 (K)
Sighted smoke on the horizon. Started approach. Its bearing remains constant.

1705 (K)
Could now see a ship's masts. Continued the approach submerged. The new target was a ship which looked like our earlier second target, the one which we have fired and hit twice at 700 yards zero angle on the bow. Alongside of her on the far side and sticking out astern was the smaller ship resembling the freighter which had been third ship in the left hand column. This smaller ship was furnishing buoyancy and propulsion; speed about 2 knots, course 190. The pair was being protected by two small destroyers or corvettes. Continued the approach.

2142 (K)
Fired three bow tubes at 700 yards 90 port track to run at 15 foot. Apparently the torpedoes did not get up to the targets' keels in time. Sound tracked them straight on the targets' bearing. Immediately escorts started running around but apparently did not know where to look. It was bright moonlight. We reversed course and took position for stern shots. Possibly we had been too close but we turned and reversed course at one-third speed without crossing the target's track so it is believed that the range at firing was sufficient. The torpedoes, in any event, did not get up to the target's keel depth.

2201 (K)
Fired three stern shots at 1100 yards 100 port track to run at 15 feet. The only one sound heard ran circles; ran right over our engine room. The commanding officer's confidence in himself and his weapons was so shaken that he considered further action by this vessel against these targets futile. After the escorts gave up, surfaced and sent contact report. We were not able to get any station to respond to our calls and therefore sent it blind on two frequencies.

The ship which probably sunk had the appearance of the KORYU MARU (page 162) Of 6668-7072 tons. The ship damaged, the one at which 6 more torpedoes were fired, was similar to the LONDON MARU (page 204) of 7191 tons. Our reasons for believing that the first one sank is that she was hit with two torpedoes, the usual crackling sounds associated with a ship sinking were heard very distinctly, she was not in sight when we got a look, both escorts stayed with the other ship. This latter fact is rather impressive. 4

Clay Blair, Jr. was not convinced by the Navy's findings. He wrote, "After the war, U. S. naval authorities made an intensive hunt in Japanese records to determine the causes for each loss [i.e., Triton, Grampus, and Amberjack]. There were clues, giving rise to various speculations, but nothing positive was ever learned about any of them." 5 An article published at CombinedFleet.com presented a thorough analysis of the movements of the thirty-five Japanese destroyers on duty in the South Pacific on March 15, 1943, but could not identify the three destroyers credited with Triton's sinking. 6 Submarine Chaser 22 and Submarine Chaser 24 had reportedly made several depth-charge attacks, one of which may have been against Triton. However, the identity of the sub chasers' target has never been determined absolutely. 7

The Navy report had its proponents. Theodore Roscoe wrote, "Information made available after the war's end leaves little doubt as to the time and place of Triton's last battle. Just north of the Admiralty Islands she went down fighting on March 15, in combat with three destroyers which had been reported in her area." 8 Naval historian and U. S. Navy intelligence officer Wilfred J. Holmes wrote, "These three destroyers were responsible for the loss of Triton." 9 For the most part, both writers included a verbatim account of the Navy's report in their respective books.

The only thing that can be said with certitude is that Triton was never heard from again after March 11, 1943. At that time, she reported being in pursuit of two groups of enemy vessels, each having five or more ships with escorts. We know that the Navy was under a lot of pressure after the war to find explanations for the losses of the Amberjack, the Grampus, and the Triton. The final report they published on the Triton's loss in 1946 does not bring final closure to the issue. Research published since its publication casts doubt on most of the explanations presented in the Navy's report and renders it speculative, at best. The Triton's loss remains an unsolved mystery. 10


Loss Possibilities

1. There were two documented cases of fatal circular torpedo runs in World War II: the USS Tullibee and the USS Tang. One or more men from each boat survived their sinking and POW camps. A Mark 14 torpedo sank Tullibee; a Mark 18-1 took out Tang. On September 25, 1942, during her fifth war patrol, USS Sargo (SS-188) fired a Mark 14 at a Japanese cargo ship; the torpedo made a circular run and exploded off Sargo's stern. The circular run occurred because the torpedo's gyro had not been installed. One of her torpedomen found it still in its storage can after the torpedo had been fired. It was learned that installing the torpedo gyro backwards or not at all could produce a circular run. Anthony Newpower wrote that in addition to the circular runs experienced by Tullibee, Tang, and Sargo, "...various sources report another 22 cases of circular-running torpedoes." 11 Both Triton and Trigger experienced circular torpedo runs in March 1943. In the report excerpt for Trigger included above, her captain wrote, "Fired three stern shots at 1100 yards 100 port track to run at 15 feet. The only one sound heard ran circles; ran right over our engine room. The commanding officer's confidence in himself and his weapons was so shaken that he considered further action by this vessel against these targets futile." Triton reported that one torpedo fired on March 6, 1943, during her final patrol, made a circular run that had forced her to go deep to evade it. On November 3, 1942, during her seventh war patrol, Seawolf fired three Mark 9 steam torpedoes at an enemy merchant and had to go deep to avoid a circular run by one of them. 12 Grouper had a similar narrow escape on July 13, 1943. 13 Norman Friedman wrote that during testing in 1941 of the Mark 14 torpedo with the Mark 6 magnetic pistol exploder, "In at least one case (possibly as many as five), it ran circular and sank the firing submarine." 14

The Navy's report said that the Triton's last message reached Brisbane on March 11, 1943. The time period these events occurred in is notable for Captain James Fife's micromanagement of the operations of the Brisbane-based submarines under his supervision. The title of the pertinent chapter in Clay Blair's book is Playing Checkers With Submarines, so named because Fife believed the submarines under his command needed to be controlled tightly and moved around frequently as information on possible targets became known. He told his staff he needed to be directly involved in "playing checkers" with submarines and he demanded a steady flow of information to and from the boats on patrol in his areas. Ralph Christie concluded "...Fife, like Doenitz, had been talking too much to his boats and requiring them to talk back too much and shifting them around too much." 15 The Navy's report shows that the Triton was in frequent radio contact with Brisbane during her last patrol. If Triton did not communicate with Brisbane after her March 11th message, something must have happened to her, probably within twenty-four hours after she sent it. She reported one circular run during her final patrol. Could there have been a second one she was unable to evade?

2. The Triton could have been sunk by an antisubmarine attack from Japanese surface vessels or aircraft. However, there is no evidence to support this possibility in extant records. All that can be done is to speculate what happened to the Triton based on the few facts available. Loss due to an unreported enemy attack is a definite possibility.

3. The chance of an operational loss is always a consideration.


A list of the personnel lost with Triton is maintained at On Eternal Patrol.

The Triton received five battle stars for her World War II service. She was scored by JANAC for sinking 31,788 tons of enemy shipping in eleven vessels, including the Japanese submarine I-164. Her Alden-McDonald score is twelve vessels sunk for 31,059 tons and three vessels damaged for 17,309 tons. The SORG score for the Triton is fourteen vessels sunk for 64,600 tons and four vessels damaged for 29,200 tons. 16

Patrol Data & Tonnage Scores

USS Triton (SS-201) Fifth Patrol

Footnotes:

1. United States Submarine Losses World War II, p. 40.

2. Blair, Clay Jr., Silent Victory: The U. S. Submarine War Against Japan, p. 375.

3. op. cit., United States Submarine Losses World War II.

4. Submarine war patrol reports on CD, USS Trigger (SS-237), Report of Fourth War Patrol.

5. Blair, op. cit., p. 375.

6. Nevitt, Allyn D., "Who Sank the Triton?" Published online at http://combinedfleet.com/triton.htm, 1998 (accessed on April 12, 2011).

7. Hackett, Bob, Sander Kingsepp and Peter Cundall, "IJN Subchaser CH-24: Tabular Record of Movement," published online at Combined Fleet. Also, "IJN Subchaser CH-22: Tabular Record of Movement," published online at Combined Fleet.

8. Roscoe, Theodore, United States Submarine Operations in World War II, p. 219.

9. Holmes, Wilfred J., Undersea Victory: The Influence of Submarine Operations on the War in the Pacific, p. 215.

10. op. cit., United States Submarine Losses World War II.

11. Newpower, Anthony, Iron Men and Tin Fish: The Race to Build a Better Torpedo During World War II, p. xii.

12. Roscoe, op. cit., p. 165.

13. Jones, David and Peter Nunan, U. S. Subs Down Under: Brisbane 1942-1945, p. 116.

14. Friedman, Norman, U. S. Submarines Through 1945: An Illustrated Design History, p. 243.

15. Blair, op. cit., p. 371-379.

16. 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 Triton (SS-201), Attack Nos. 2, 64, 65, 71, 78, 126, 135, 144, 145, 156, 157, 167, 220, 277, 482, 496, 536, 541, 542, 648, 649, 650, 655, and 656; Submarine war patrol reports on CD, USS Triton (SS-201), 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 Triton (SS-201); Miller, Vernon J., Japanese Submarine Losses to Allied Submarines in World War II, p. 15. Sources which identify this submarine as I-164 are erroneous. Renumbering occurred on May 20, 1942, before the loss became known to the Japanese.