The Fremantle Submarine Base
By Bart Bartholomew
On December 7, 1941, the U.S. Navy’s submarine strength was 111 in commission and seventy-three under construction. The submarines were a mixture of R, S and the newer fleet type boats. This ‘Pig-Boat’ Fleet was under the command of the Commander-in-Chiefs Atlantic, Pacific and Asiatic Fleets, the latter based at Manila in the Philippines.
Admiral Thomas C. Hart in Manila had three cruisers, thirteen over-aged four stack destroyers, a few river gun boats, thirty PBY’s and twenty-nine submarines. Twenty-three of the submarines were fleet types, the others S Boats. The submarine tenders HOLLAND, OTIS, CANOPOUS and the submarine rescue vessel, PIGEON were the support ships. The Navy Base at Cavite was the ashore supply and refit center. This small fleet was all that stood in the path of ten Japanese battleships, three heavy and light cruisers and nine aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Siam ready to pounce. Admiral Hart’s fleet had been on war footing since receiving a Chief of Naval Operations message on 27 November 1941 saying, "This dispatch is to be considered a war warning."
Admiral Hart, a veteran submariner, devised strategy for sending his submarines into immediate action on the declaration of war. With their Mark XIV torpedoes the fleet type submarines had racked up an impressive peacetime record. The majority of practice torpedoes fired ran hot, straight, normal and under the middle of battleships and other targets. Morale was high in the submarine crews, and they expected every torpedo fired to send an enemy ship to the bottom. Submarines were on patrol around the Philippines on December 8, 1941 when the War started west of the International Date Line.
Before December ended the defective Mark XIV torpedo and the Mark Six exploder were being cursed by all hands. The torpedoes ran in circles, ran deep, bounced off the hulls of enemy ships or prematurely exploded. The submarine support system was scattered and Cavite had been bombed out of existence. Morale was sagging. The Submarine Squadron’s staff was separated. Captain John Wilkes, Commander SubsAsiatic Force, had orders back to the states before war was declared but Admiral Hart held onto him.
Captain Wilkes was given command of the S-Boats, some fleet boats and ordered to use the facilities at Soerabaja, Java. Captain John Fife and HOLLAND was to establish headquarters and a repair base at Darwin, Australia. Both places proved to be unsuitable.
Soerabaja gave preference to overhauling Dutch submarines and had no spare parts or torpedoes for U.S. subs. Darwin had high tides preventing submarines from being moored alongside HOLLAND for repairs. Darwin harbor was open and could have been easily mined, and there were no shore support or recreational facilities. HOLLAND was moved to Tjilaljap, Java, which also proved unsuitable. All three of the bases, were subjected to air raids by the superior Japanese air force. Submarines under repair were forced to dive and wait on the bottom during the day and surfacing for repairs at night. When the Japanese overran Java, Exmouth Gulf on the Western Coast of Australia was considered for a submarine base. That idea was abandoned and the Asiatic Submarine Force was without a support base. Morale plunged. Only three merchant ships were sunk during December 1942 and the USS SEALION (SS195) was sunk moored to Machina Wharf at the Cavite Navy Yard. During January 1942, three enemy ships were sunk by submarines and the S-36 was lost in Makassar Strait. Admiral Hart requested to be relieved. In February two ships were sunk, a destroyer and a merchant type. A permanent base had to be established to pull the submarine force back together. This started when the USS HOLLAND (AS3) arrived in FremantIe, Western Australia on 3 March 1942.
The scattered submarine staff gathered in Fremantle. Captain John Wilkes leased two wheat loading sheds fifty feet high and 800 feet long on the pier. This was to be shop space. Machine shops, a railroad and excellent recreational facilities were available in the area. An auxiliary base was also established in Albany on the Southern coast of Australia. Captain Wilkes, long overdue for rotation, was relieved by Rear Admiral Charles Lockwood.
Admiral Lockwood had been associated with submarines all his life. He had personal knowledge about the Japanese because he had served at the American Embassy in Japan. His Fremantle submarines were to operate in the Southwest Pacific area. The Admiral was a can do type of officer. Against advice received from Washington, he leased four hotels, the King Edward, Wentworth, Ocean Beach and Majestic, for submarine crews rest camps. Listening to his submarine skippers complain about the faulty torpedoes, the Admiral tried to get the Bureau of Ordnance to conduct torpedo performance tests. The Bureau refused. They blamed the skippers and their torpedomen for not preparing and firing the torpedoes in the proper manner. Admiral Lockwood ordered his own torpedo tests.
The USS SKIPJACK (SS188) had just returned from a war patrol and was being refit alongside HOLLAND at Albany. Under the supervision of Captain Fife, a target net was anchored in the Princess Royal Harbour. SKIPJACK got into position and fired three Mark XIV torpedoes.
The first two torpedoes were set to run at ten feet. They tore holes in the net at twenty-five and eighteen feet. The third torpedo was set to run on the surface. It bounced off the bottom at sixty-five feet and went through the net at eleven feet. The Bureau of Ordnance rejected the test results and told the Admiral to conserve the torpedoes because they were in short supply. The Admiral ordered the USS SAURY (SS189) to fire five torpedoes at the net. The results were the same, all torpedoes ran deep. Admiral King, Commander-in-Chief United States Fleet, intervened. Admiral King believed Lockwood’s test results and eight months after the war started, the Bureau of Ordnance admitted the Mark XIV ran deep. The number of ships sunk increased after the Fremantle Base was established and the deep running torpedoes were fixed. January 1943 started on a tragic note. Admiral English, Commander Pacific Fleet Submarines, was killed in an air crash. Lockwood was promoted to Vice Admiral and ordered to command the Pacific Fleet Submarines at Pearl Harbor against his wishes. Rear Admiral Ralph Christie took command of the submarine force operating out of Fremantle. The Asiatic Fleet submarines were rotated to the states for overhaul and replaced by new squadrons. A large floating drydock and Submarine Repair Unit 137 arrived at Fremantle. The submarine success rate increased dramatically.
The USS BOWFIN (SS287) had the best patrol run out of Fremantle in 1943 and USS BONEFISH (SS223) had the second best. Admiral Christie didn’t like his deserving skippers having to wait until the Award Board in Washington gave out medals. He pinned Navy Crosses on the skippers of BOWFIN, BONEFISH and JACK on their return from very successful patrol runs. Four Fremantle boats were lost in 1943, USS GRENADIER (SS21O), USS GRAYLIN (SS209), USS CISCO (SS290) and USS CAPE LIN (SS289). The year ended with the eight boats stationed at Fremantle increased to thirty.
During 1944 oil tankers were officially the most important merchant ship targets. Advance fueling bases were established at Manus in the Admiralities and Mios Woendi at Biak. The greatest tonnage of tankers sunk in 1944 were the victims of Fremantle submarines. Another four boats from Fremantle were lost, USS ROBALO (SS273), USS FLIER (SS250), USS HARDER (SS257) and USS GROWLER (SS215). On December 30, 1944 Admiral Fife relieved Admiral Christie.
Fife and Christie were the only admirals who made war patrols on submarines, and they did it against the wishes of their superiors. The number of enemy ships dwindled while the number of U.S. submarines on patrol increased. The submarine support bases were moved North. Three Fremantle boats were lost in 1945, USS BARBEL (SS316), USS LAGARTO (SS371) and USS BULLHEAD (SS332). The submarines operating out of Fremantle achieved many successes. About one third of U.S. submarines operated out of Fremantle making 354 war patrols. The Fremantle boats sank a substantially higher tanker tonnage than all other submarine commands. Out of the twenty-five leading U.S. Boats by tonnage sank, nineteen had made patrol runs out of the Western Australia Base. Fremantle and Perth were rated 4.0 by all sailors. In Aussie talk it would be, "Bloody fair dinkum," meaning abso-bloody-lutely true. The best testimonial about Australia and the friendly people was given by Admiral Lockwood. "The request I received most often by Pacific Fleet submarine skippers was to be allowed to end their patrol run at Fremantle."