On this day in 1944, the submarine USS Archerfish lingers near wreckage of the Japanese aircraft carrier Shinano. The American crew soon spotted a trawler and a sub chaser. “Probably looking for survivors,” the ship’s log noted, “which is our intent.”
Archerfish had sunk the Japanese carrier just one day earlier, on November 29.
Shinano had been brand new, commissioned less than two weeks earlier. The ship wasn’t even completely fitted out. When Archerfish first spotted her, she was en route to the Inland Sea to complete some final items.
The Japanese had pinned many of their hopes for securing the Pacific on Shinano. The massive ship had been constructed in absolute secrecy. Indeed, when the American commander torpedoed the carrier, he wasn’t even sure what he was hitting.
Shortly before he launched his torpedoes, Captain Joseph Enright reportedly took a quick look at the Japanese ship through his periscope, making a sketch of the ship for future reference. Shinano didn’t look like any of the known Japanese vessels in the area, and no one really knew what he’d sunk until after the war.
Many things had gone wrong for the Japanese that night—and many things were going right for Enright. The American commander had missed a chance to take down a Japanese ship earlier in the war. He’d actually resigned his post over the incident, but he’d been given a second chance on Archerfish.
The sinking of Shinano proved to be Enright’s redemption.
Shinano had left Tokyo Bay on November 28. Unfortunately for the Japanese, the big ship left with watertight doors that were not yet finished. Other items, such as pumps, were missing in critical locations. The crew was a bit inexperienced. Worse, the Japanese commander, Toshio Abe, had made some bad assumptions about how many American submarines were pursuing him. He thought he was being tracked by a pack of submarines and that Archerfish was just a decoy. But it turned out that Archerfish was the only submarine in the area. Ultimately, when Abe engaged in standard zig-zagging tactics, he zig-zagged his way straight into Archerfish—a submarine that he could have outrun if he’d just continued on a straight path.
The mistakes gave Enright the opening that he needed. He could tell that he was chasing something huge, even if he didn’t know exactly what it was. He’d decided to launch his torpedoes a bit higher than normal. Anything that big, he’d decided, might need to be attacked further up its hull if it was to be taken down. Enright was deviating from protocol, but his gut instinct proved correct.
In the end, Enright hit Shinano with at least four of the six torpedoes he launched. The ship went down in a matter of hours, taking more than 1400 crew with it. The Japanese commander went down with his ship.
To this day, Shinano remains the largest ship ever sunk by a submarine.
“It is fitting,” Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz later concluded, “that an American submarine should climax the undersea campaign against Japanese warships by sending down the new queen of the Imperial Navy before she had an opportunity to come into action.”
If Enright needed redemption for his earlier failures, he’d certainly earned it.
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Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Captain John F. O’Connell, Submarine Operational Effectiveness In The 20th Century: Part Two (1939 – 1945) (2011)
Don Keith & Ken Henry, Gallant Lady: A Biography of the USS Archerfish (Kindle edition; 2006)
Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz & E.B. Potter, Triumph in the Pacific: The Navy’s Struggle Against Japan (Kindle version; 2016)
Joseph F. Enright & James W. Ryan, Shinano: The Sinking of Japan’s Secret Supership (1987)
Michael E. Haskew, Aircraft Carriers: The Illustrated History of the World’s Most Important Warships (2016)
Patrol Report of U.S.S. Archer-Fish (SS-311) (War Patrol 5)