SUBMARINE UNDER SAIL

by

Edward Monroe-Jones Submarine Research Center

On March 20, 1943 USS Grenadier (SS-210) got underway from Fremantle, Australia. She headed north into the Malacca Strait to patrol between Malay and Sumatra. The Japanese were running raw materials from Singapore and Rangoon to their home islands. John A. Fitzgerald commanded with George H. Whiting as executive officer. It was to be Grenadier's fifth patrol and Fitzgeralds's second as her skipper. On her fourth patrol Fitzgerald had been given the task of laying mines off Haiphong, Indochina, then he made an attack on a merchant ship without success. He was again frustrated by sighting a Ryujo class aircraft carrier but was unable to close. On this patrol he was determined to sink enemy ships in spite of the area's shallow depths and confined waters.

On April 6 Grenadier found a small freighter off Phuket Island. She sank the ship, but the boat remained on the surface for the rest of the patrol as her lookouts searched in vain for tnrgets. Fitzgerald had been on Gar (SS-206) under command of Don McGregor and had witnessed aggressive tactics. This patrol was frustrating. Without targets no amount of aggressive action could bring results.

He brought the boat into close proximity of Penang harbor on the west coast of Malay. At last he sighted a two ship convoy and gave chase on the surface. When it looked as thougjh he was getting into a favorable position a lookout reported an aircraft on the quarter. Grenadier immediately dove to 130 feet.

As the captain and crew relaxed when reaching what they thought was a safe depth, a shattering explosion above the maneuvering room drove the boat deeper. Out of control it plummeted to 267 feet where in struck bottom. The Grenadier's interior was dark, while the electricians in maneuvering struggled to put out an electrical fire in the AC panel.

The fire was extinguished and a careful inspection of the boat revealed its fatal condition. The blast had twisted her stem out of shape. The pressure hull was dished in between frames in the after torpedo room. Torpedo tubes and propulsion shafts were bent out of alignment. The shafts were frozen and the boat was therefore powerless. The after engine room and after torpedo room hatches were sprung. Severe leaks in the after part of submarine were handled by a bucket brigade and the trim and drain system, however it became clear to the captain and executive officer that Grenadier was doomed.

The decision was made to rest on the bottom until next morning. Hunched over the chart in control the skipper and exec agreed that if they could drive the boat closer to the coast which lay about three miles from their estimated position, they could slip into the jungle and be helped by natives. A detail of torpedomen assembled blankets, mattress covers and curtains. They began went to work stitching the pieces into a sail. They would rig the makeshift sail to the periscope and sail the boat toward shore. When close, the plan was to scuttle the boat, then each man was to swim ashore. It was a desperate plan, but the crew's only chance for survival.

On the morning of April 23, 1943 preparations were made to surface. The crew was to man the deck guns while others would handle every portable weapon on board. When all was set the ballast tanks were blown. The boat came to the surface and men scrambled through the hatches. When the captain came onto the bridge his hopes for a jury-rig sail were dashed by a dead calm and a glass sea. He tried to think of an alternative as a Japanese plane came in to bomb the stricken submarine. The men put up a hail of fire and managed to hit the plane which dropped its bomb harmlessly some distance from the boat.

Fitzgerald ordered the 1DC, sonar, radar, radio and code machine destroyed. The code books were burned and every crew member donned a life jacket. The boat sank from under their feet and the skipper was the last man off the bridge.

In less than an hour a Japanese merchant man hauled aboard the entire crew and took them to Penang.

Apart from Grenadier's calamitous outcome, a question arises as to the viability of a submarine being propelled by sail. Had a wind of ten to twenty knots from Grenadier's quarter been encountered upon surfacing would the make-shift sail have been enough to drive the boat as expected?

The answer may be found by going back twenty two years to May 1921 in the seas surrounding the Hawaiian Islands. The R-14 had been launched in 1919 from Quincy Shipyard. Her displacement was only 569 tons as compared to the Grenadier's surface displacement of 1475 tons, but in other respects her hull was similarly shaped. In mid 1920 she entered the Pearl Harbor squadron and thereafter for a period of years conducted operations in the Hawaiian area.

The US S Conestoga was also in the Hawaiian area that spring of 1921. She was due at Pearl, but failed to report. The Navy conducted an all out search for the small vessel. This included putting the R-14 into the search. The submarine's lookouts scanned the horizon, but failed to spot anything but dolphins Then the boat lost all propulsive power. History is not clear on what caused the failure. Some sources say it was fuel starvation, but that wouldn't explain the simultaneous electrical failure. Additionally, radio communication was lost. Whatever the reason the boat was adrift some one hundred miles off the big Island of Hawaii.

Boats of the era carried canvas awnings to cover the bridge during daylight hours. Various rates went to work constructing a sail. In addition to the topside canvas, bunks were made of canvas stretched across a frame. There was ample material and a large sail was supported by the deck gun's cleaning rod and several boat hooks. The result was a rather sea-worthy spinnaker-type sail which was mounted to the periscope and bridge. R-14 sailed at an SOA of two knots over one hundred miles into Hilo, Hawaii. The boat had been given up for lost and all hands were jubilant at their successful sailing venture.

For those of you who are sloop sailors an additional subject of interest is the best type of sail for a submarine. An in-line sail would probably work well, since the length of the hull provides a built-in keel. Of course, it would require a substantial boom and that might be a problem. While a spinnaker type sail or square rigged sail might be more efficient it would only work with a wind from abaft the beam. All these salty considerations make for interesting after battery conversation, however, it is unlikely that any modem nuclear submarine could be navigated under sail, no matter how big the canvas.

The Grenadier story didn't end with the capture of its crew. Though it is beyond the scope of this article to recount the saga of the Grenadier crew's captive years, it deserves to be read by all submariners.

Sources: Edward Crawfoot of R-11, John Baker, World War Two Submarine Veteran, The Devil's Triangle to the Devil's Jaw, Richard Winer, Bantam Books, New York, 1977, Silent Victory, Clay Blair Jr., J. B. Lippincott, New York, 1979, Navy Times Book of Submarines, Brayton Harris, Army Times Publishing Company, 1997, Photo courtesy of Sid Harrison and Brayton Harris.

Photo was taken looking aft from the foredeck. The R-14 sail was rigged to the radio mast aft of the periscopes. The spinnaker pole was rigged from the deck gun cleaning rod which was supported by a bridle and pole lift. In turn it supported the sail's tack. The clew was free running and controlled by sheet blocked to the deck.

1923 was based in the Philippines at the beginning of the war and scored one of the earliest victories when it sunk a Japanese transport on News Year's Day in 1942. The story of the S-boat and Fleet Type submarine in the Second World War is narrated by the men who fought in the underwater campaign.

The Silent Service in World War II can be purchased from Casemate or from any bookstore.