If you know anything about naval torpedoes, you’ll understand instantly why a circular run is A Bad Thing. US torpedoes in World War II were prone to circular runs — and that was not even one of our tin-fishes’ top three problems.
Since Whitehead’s invention and/or popularization of the self-propelled torpedo in the 19th Century, every sea power on Earth worked on these weapons, and by the outbreak of World War II each maritime power thought their torpedoes were the best.
The Japanese, dismissed by racialists in America and Europe as bucktoothed, nearsighted monkeys copying Western design, had come up with both maritime and aerial torpedoes that were miles ahead of any other nation’s. These were principal armament on cruisers and destroyers, outranging the cruiser’s guns and able to sink a capital ship with a single hit (try that with a 5-8″ gun. Not happening). They also armed Japanese subs, and lightweight versions armed world-class torpedo planes. American and British battleships and carriers would feel the lash of these devices in the opening months and years of the war.
The British, Italians and Germans entered the war with effective torpedoes that they had justifiable confidence in, and could launch from warships, patrol boats, or aircraft. (So did the French, but in naval terms they were a footnote to the war).
The US was, in American fashion, the most confident in its torpedoes, but the actual devices were not world class, they were not reliable, had a short range exposing launch platforms to enemy fire, were not accurate, and the most serious problem of all, they tended not to detonate. Weapons safety is all well and good, but it’s not supposed to be safe any more when you manage by industry and luck to overcome all its other flaws and bang it on the side of an enemy warship. And our torpedoes were safe, and our ordnance officers dismissed complaints about it well into the war.
A generation raised on movie westerns went to war as the good guy in the white hat, but with an empty revolver. So the black hats won a few.
The three problems with the US Mk. 14 torpedo at the start of the war were:
- Depth control that didn’t;
- A contact exploder that didn’t;
- A magnetic exploder that didn’t, which was replaced by an “improved” version that did, about fifty yards before it got to the enemy target.
In one lucky, harrowing attack, USS Tunny under John A. Scott, which had had a miserably failed war patrol due o non-firing contact exploders, found itself on 9 April 1943 in the middle, literally, of a two-carrier Japanese task force. Scott daringly placed the boat midway between the two columns of the Japanese force, firing his six bow tubes at one carrier and its escort and four stern tubes at the other, at very short range. The carriers escaped, Ultra/Purple intercepts later revealed (although they were not declassified until decades after the war), because the torpedoes blew up short of the target.
The Battle Flag of USS Tang — a panther breaking through a Rising Sun. From The Last Torpedo.
As far as circular runs go, there are 24 known incidents1. (It is possible some of the subs on Eternal Patrol also fell victim to circular runs, although the circumstances of most sub losses have been corroborated by Japanese records). In 22 incidents, the launching vessel evaded the torpedo. In two, we know it sunk a submarine because USS Tullibee and USS Tang had one and eight survivors respectively from their crews of approximately eighty officers and men. Here’s what it seemed like to a sub crew:
On the bridge, Bill Leibold scanned the waters with his binoculars. He stood next to O’Kane. Suddenly, he saw the last torpedo, Number 24, broach and then begin to porpoise, phosphorescence trailing it. A few seconds later, it made a sharp turn to port and then, unbelievably, began to come about.
“There goes that one! Erratic!” shouted O’Kane.
The last torpedo was now heading like a boomerang, back to its firing point…back toward the Tang. Something had gone terribly wrong. Perhaps its rudder had jammed or the gyroscope in its steering engine had malfunctioned.
“Emergency speed!” cried O’Kane.
Below, twenty-year-old Motor Machinist’s Mate Jesse DaSilva had just left his post in the engine room, having decided to get a cup of coffee. He was standing with one foot in the mess. Over the intercom, he could hear the bridge crew react as the torpedo headed back toward the Tang.
“Captain, that’s a circular run!” he heard Leibold say.
“All ahead emergency!” shouted O’Kane. “Right full rudder!”
“Bend them on,” added O’Kane. “Control, just bend them on.”
In the engine room, Chief Electrician’s Mate James Culp did his best to comply, knowing the Tang needed all the power she could get if there was to be a chance of saving lives.
The torpedo was now making straight for the 300-foot submarine. The men on the bridge stood, transfixed, their eyes “popping out of their sockets.” The Tang was moving at about 6 knots, 20 less than her final torpedo.
“Left full rudder!” ordered O’Kane.
Bill Leibold watched in stricken silence as the torpedo headed right at them, coming dead-on toward the Tang. Then he lost sight of it as it continued down the port side.
Maybe it will miss. Maybe it will veer away and begin another erratic circle. Maybe the Tang will evade just in time….
In the conning tower, Floyd Caverly waited like the other men for the inevitable.
Surely there is enough time to get out of the way—to get thehell out of here? Surely?
Speed. Speed is all we need…just enough to get out of the way. If only the Tang would just set by the stern and set off like a speedboat.
But the Tang was not a speedboat. She could not avoid the charging torpedo. It hit the Tang ’s stern with a massive explosion somewhere between the maneuvering room and the after torpedo room, killing as many as half the crew instantly and flooding all aft compartments as far forward as the crew’s quarters, midway along the boat.
Caverly was standing looking at a radarscope when it happened. He…thought that the Tang had been snapped in two. The waves of concussion from the explosion made him feel as if he were experiencing a massive earthquake. He did not know which way to step to catch his balance. The deck plates rattled and shook. Lightbulbs went out.
In the conning tower, there was chaos.
“We’ve been hit!” cried Executive Officer Frank Springer.2
USS Tang sank in minutes; a few of the men in the conning tower, and a few of the 45 who made their way to the forward torpedo room to attempt to use the forward escape trunk, were the only survivors. (The after trunk was destroyed by the torpedo). The next day, angry Japanese convoy escorts picked up nine survivors from the submarine that had devastated the convoy they were guarding.
Damage analysis, originally classified Confidential, of Tang wreck. From War Damage Report Nº. 58, 1 Jan 49, hosted at HyperWar.
It turns out the cause of the circular runs was a combination of failed design and human error (although Newpower discounts the design problem). If a torpedo was assembled with the gyro in wrong, or was launched without the gyro installed, it would circle. That problem was not discovered until a sub, USS Sargo, survived a circular run only to have an embarrassed torpedoman find the fish’s gyro still in a case aboard the boat. It did not even occur to anyone at the Navy’s insular, smug torpedo establishment that a torpedo that could kill everyone aboard if one junior rating made one simple error just might be a design problem.
It is an essential principle of machine design that something that can be assembled wrong, will be assembled wrong.
The US Navy did not have working torpedoes until late in the war, when torpedoes designed by private industry came online. The torpedoes designed and built at the Navy’s Torpedo Station in Newport, RI never worked entirely right. But even as submariners and PT crewmen knew the things were no good, the ordnance men were certain they were the best in the world, and weren’t interested in listening to complaints from the field.
- That’s Newpower’s number, 24. The original list at Ed Howard’s submarine history site Subsowespac.org comprised 21 possible circular runs, which after adding 8 more provided by Charles R. Hinman of the sub memorial site OnEternalPatrol.com, comes to 29.
Howard, Ed. Instances of Circular Running Torpedoes Reported by U. S. Submarines during World War II. SubSoWesPac.org. Retrieved from: http://www.subsowespac.org/the-patrol-zone/circular-torpedo-runs.shtml
Kershaw, Alex. Escape from the Deep: A True Story of Courage and Survival During World War II. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2008.
Kershaw, Alex. The Last Torpedo. America in WWII, June, 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.americainwwii.com/articles/the-last-torpedo/ (note: this is an excerpt from Escape From the Deep).
Newpower, Anthony. Iron Men and Tin Fish: The Race to Build a Better Torpedo during World War II. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2006.
Thomas, Russell. The History of the Torpedo and the Relevance to Today’s U.S. Navy. History.Navy.Mil. Retrieved from: http://www.history.navy.mil/museums/keyport/History_of_the_Torpedo_and_the_Relevance_to_Todays_Navy.pdf
US Navy. War Damage Report Nº. 58. Submarine Report. Section X: USS Tang (SS-306). Retrieved from: http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/rep/WDR/WDR58/WDR58-10.html