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    Monday, March 04, 2024

    Case closed: Wreck of sub built by EB is identified after disappearance during WWII

    The USS Albacore is seen during its final overhaul at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in California on April 28, 1944. The work done at Mare Island was key to identifying the wreckage of the sub over the last year. (National Archives)
    The USS Albacore is seen during its final overhaul at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in California on April 28, 1944. The work done at Mare Island was key to identifying the wreckage of the sub over the last year. (National Archives)
    Albacore’s hull takes shape at Electric Boat on Sept. 30, 1941. (Submarine Force Museum)
    Bette Porter married her husband, James Teel Porter, in 1941 when she was 18. Three years later, she was a widow. (Courtesy of Maria Theresa Porter)
    The plans for Albacore were updated to show how it looked after its its final modification at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in April 1944. (National Archives)

    On Oct. 28, 1944, a U.S. submarine made a fueling stop at Midway Atoll in the Pacific, then headed west and was never seen again.

    Ten days later, an underwater explosion occurred off Japan’s Hokkaido Island near a mine barrier.

    Those two events have long been thought related, but without physical evidence, there was no way to know for sure.

    Now, after 79 years, the story of the Groton-built USS Albacore finally has an ending. Wreckage found last year near the blast site has been identified by the Navy as the missing submarine.

    That development, announced in February, completes the biography of a vessel that had stunning success in World War II. The news also adds a detail to Electric Boat’s wartime history and brings conclusion for the families of the 85 men lost.

    For one woman, the wait has been longer than for probably anyone alive.

    Document

    Albacore (SS-218) sinks off the coast of

    Hokkaido, Japan,

    Nov. 7, 1944

    Minesweeper

    Eguchi Maru No. 3

    Submarine chaser Cha-165

    Mare Island

    Naval Shipyard

    Seoul

    Tokyo

    Merchant ship Niizuki Maru

    Los Angeles

    Midway Atoll

    Aircraft carrier Taiho

    Pearl Harbor

    Hong Kong

    Gunboat Choko Maru No. 2

    Manila

    USS Albacore

    on the prowl

    Merchant ship Taiei Maru

    Gunboat Heijo Maru

    Destroyer Sazanami

    Light cruiser Tenryu

    Albacore mistakenly

    attacked by U.S. Fifth

    Air Force war planes

    The submarine, built by Electric Boat

    in Groton, is credited with sinking more than 10 Japanese ships in the Pacific Theater during WWII, including an

    aircraft carrier and two destroyers.

    Transport ship Kenzan Maru

    Destroyer Oshio

    Perth

    Sydney

    San Francisco

    Albacore (SS-218) sinks off the coast of

    Hokkaido, Japan,

    Nov. 7, 1944

    Minesweeper

    Eguchi Maru No. 3

    Submarine chaser Cha-165

    Mare Island

    Naval Shipyard

    Seoul

    Tokyo

    Merchant ship Niizuki Maru

    Los Angeles

    Midway Atoll

    Aircraft carrier Taiho

    Pearl Harbor

    Hong Kong

    USS Albacore (SS-218)

    some text here

    Gunboat Choko Maru No. 2

    Manila

    USS Albacore

    on the prowl

    Merchant ship Taiei Maru

    Gunboat Heijo Maru

    Destroyer Sazanami

    Light cruiser Tenryu

    Albacore mistakenly

    attacked by U.S. Fifth

    Air Force war planes

    The submarine, built by Electric Boat

    in Groton, is credited with sinking more than 10 Japanese ships in the Pacific Theater during WWII, including an

    aircraft carrier and two destroyers.

    Transport ship Kenzan Maru

    Destroyer Oshio

    Perth

    Sydney

    Silent service

    Albacore sinks

    Nov. 7, 1944

    Tokyo

    Manila

    Aircraft carrier Taiho

    Destroyer

    Sazanami

    Albacore

    is hit by friendly fire

    Destroyer Oshio

    The USS Albacore (SS-218) sunk more than 10 enemy ships before meeting its fate

    Map: Scott Ritter and John Ruddy/The Day | Data: Naval History and Heritage Command; Natural Earth; ESRI

    * * *

    As the research vessels Niei Maru No. 18 and Takara Maru No. 18 plowed through the waters off Hokkaido last May, Tamaki Ura had every reason to believe he would find what he was looking for.

    A retired professor at the University of Tokyo whose specialty is underwater robotics, Ura has been searching since 2017 for shipwrecks in Japanese waters, which are not well-explored.

    “Sunken warship searches … and recovery technologies have reached levels unimaginable in the past,” he has written. “The age of regarding sunken warships as graveyards for lack of search capabilities is over.”

    As head of the Society La Plongée for Deep Sea Technology, Ura has used remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) to explore 24 scuttled Japanese submarines, identifying them individually. He also discovered the steamship Taiyo Maru, torpedoed by a U.S. submarine with great loss of civilian life.

    In a Zoom interview, Ura said he got many suggestions for what vessel he should chase next. But he has limited resources, and much of his support comes from crowdfunding.

    Albacore, well-known in Japan for its wartime exploits, presented an easy project, he said. The Nov. 7, 1944, explosion, believed to be the sub striking a mine, had witnesses: the crew of a Japanese patrol boat and those in a nearby lighthouse. The positions they reported put the search area at a manageable one square nautical mile. Ura figured he could survey it with sonar in a day.

    It didn’t even take that long. After two hours, a shape appeared on computers aboard Ura’s vessels: something long and narrow, like a submarine.

    Document

    A team led by retired University of Tokyo professor Tamaki Ura discovered Albacore in May 2022 off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan.

    This a multibeam sonar image of the American submarine in 777 feet of water.

    A team led by retired University of Tokyo professor Tamaki Ura discovered Albacore in May 2022 off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan.

    This a multibeam sonar image of the American submarine in 777 feet of water.

    Sonar image courtesy Society La Plongée for Deep Sea Technology

    * * *

    When Albacore’s keel was laid at Electric Boat on April 21, 1941, the U.S. was gearing up for involvement in World War II. EB was building six other submarines, and two more were ready for delivery to the Navy.

    A week earlier, on the other side of the country, sailor James Teel Porter, 22, married his 18-year-old fiancee. Bette Porter, now Bette Sargent, spoke via Zoom from her home in Seal Beach, Calif. She is 100.

    “The first time I saw him, I was 10 years old, and he was on a diving board,” she said, “and I told my friend that I was with, ‘I’m going to marry that boy.’ I thought he was the most gorgeous thing I ever saw.”

    After Pearl Harbor, her husband, then on a destroyer, volunteered for submarine duty because he knew he’d be sent home for training, she said. In 1942 the couple arrived in New London and lived at 59 Jay St. while James attended submarine school in Groton.

    While they were here, the newly commissioned USS Albacore (SS-218) departed for the Pacific. Porter would later join the crew.

    By early 1943 Albacore had sunk a Japanese light cruiser and a destroyer. But the sub’s career was nearly cut short by an unexpected foe: the U.S. Fifth Air Force. In two friendly-fire incidents that November, American planes inexplicably attacked the sub. One bomb exploded near the bow, knocking out auxiliary power.

    “Everything moveable changed location, other objects broke their moorings, and the ship was plunged in darkness,” Cmdr. Oscar Hagberg, Albacore’s captain, wrote in his report. For two hours, the sub bounced between depths of 30 and 400 feet at various angles while the crew struggled to regain control.

    On its next patrol, Albacore sank another destroyer. By then Porter, a motor machinist’s mate, had transferred aboard. He was there for the boat’s subsequent assignment: an overhaul at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in California.

    For Porter, Mare Island was a chance to see his wife. For her, it would mean something she couldn’t foresee. Far into the future, work done at the yard would finally make it possible for her, and everyone else, to know Albacore’s fate.

    * * *

    Aboard Niei Maru No. 18 and Takara Maru No. 18, Ura’s team quickly confirmed they had found a submarine. They got a multibeam sonar image and footage with a small ROV. But the vehicle wasn’t suited to the 777-foot depth.

    In October, Ura went back with a bigger ROV and got better images. Hatch covers, corroded metal and teak decking were visible. To an untrained eye, it didn’t look much like a submarine.

    But for those who knew what to look for, details were there to nail down the wreck’s identity.

    “It was not easy,” said David Johnston, a volunteer researcher for the Naval History and Heritage Command who reviewed the footage.

    “The wreck is fouled by fishing nets, the water currents are very strong, there’s a lot of suspended sediments and marine life in the water, a lot of fishes are swimming around … and the lighting is terrible,” he said. “The visibility is probably only about 10 feet.”

    Document

    An October 2022 photo from the remotely operated underwater vehicle Cougar shows the Albacore’s teak decking.

    An October 2022 photo from the remotely operated underwater vehicle Cougar shows the Albacore’s teak decking.

    Video still courtesy Society La Plongée for Deep Sea Technology

    The boat is in three pieces, and only the center section was found, Johnston said. One end was probably blown off by the mine, the other severed by implosion damage.

    Johnston had previously researched how Gato-class submarines like Albacore were modified during the war. As soon as Gatos were in combat, it became clear that the conning tower fairwater was too big and made the subs a target when surfaced.

    “They almost immediately came to the conclusion that it needed to be cut down and made smaller,” he said.

    By analyzing photos, Johnston established that wartime Gatos existed in four versions: their original design and three successive modifications in which plating was stripped from the fairwater, among other changes.

    When Albacore was at Mare Island from February to May 1944, its overhaul included that third modification, which left visual clues to be decoded eight decades later.

    The biggest one was a line of vent holes in the superstructure to allow faster diving, Johnston said. Crucially, the holes, which are apparent on the wreck, were known not to be on the four other U.S. submarines that sank in the vicinity.

    Based largely on that, Johnston and his fellow researchers, Steve Katona and Yutaka Iwasaki, concluded the wreck was Albacore.

    There was also circumstantial evidence. The explosion’s witnesses cataloged debris that surfaced, including books, bedding and Lucky Strike cigarettes. A winter jacket was marked “ALB-5,” and a pair of white shorts bore the initials ASK.

    The researchers found a match on the crew list: Seaman Second Class Arthur Star Kruger. It was mute testimony from one of Albacore’s lost.

    Document

    7

    6

    5

    4

    7

    6

    5

    4

    Albacore (SS-218)

    SUBMARINE: SS 218

    OUTBOARD PROFILE

    SHEET No 4

    7

    6

    5

    4

    7

    6

    5

    4

    Albacore (SS-218)

    SUBMARINE: SS 218

    OUTBOARD PROFILE

    SHEET No 4

    Scott Ritter/The Day

    * * *

    Bette Porter reunited with her husband at Mare Island, where for three months they and their 3-month-old son lived in a Quonset hut.

    “It was interesting,” Sargent said. “I felt like I suddenly was in the Navy.”

    As Porter got to know his child, he didn’t have much to say about life on a submarine despite his wife’s questions. She remembers seeing Albacore being worked on but never went aboard.

    As they socialized with other families, the days went by until it was time to say farewell. Sargent was aware of what the future might hold. On their last morning together, the couple were standing atop a long staircase at a San Francisco hotel.

    “I remember the thought going through my head,” she said. “I could push him down this and when he got to the end of the stairway … he wouldn’t be able to go back aboard his ship and leave.”

    But he did leave, and she never saw him again.

    Albacore’s biggest triumph was still ahead. On June 19, 1944, during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the sub got a clear shot at an aircraft carrier. Submariner and author Edward L. Beach later wrote that Cmdr. James Blanchard, the captain, was about to fire when a light went out on the torpedo data computer, putting the fire-control solution’s accuracy in doubt.

    “Only one thing to do, if you don’t want to let the target get away,” Beach wrote. “If you put up the periscope and feed continuous dope into the TDC, perhaps you can keep close enough to the correct solution to go ahead and shoot anyway.”

    That’s what Blanchard did. With the sub at risk from the exposed periscope, Blanchard fired six torpedos, then dived to avoid onrushing destroyers. The last shot struck the carrier, Taiho, causing minor damage. Hours later, Taiho’s crew vented gasoline fumes from a ruptured fuel tank, and a spark ignited, belatedly dooming the ship.

    It might have been Electric Boat’s biggest day of the war: A second Groton-built sub, Cavalla, also sank a carrier.

    Document

    Hokkaido Island

    Mare Island

    Tokyo

    Midway Atoll

    The U.S. Navy says the Albacore’s wreckage site will be left undisturbed.

    Pearl Harbor

    “It is the position of the Navy that the sea is a fitting and honorable resting place for its fallen soldiers.”

    Hokkaido Island

    Mare Island

    Tokyo

    Midway Atoll

    The U.S. Navy says the Albacore’s wreckage site will be left undisturbed.

    Pearl Harbor

    “It is the position of the Navy that the sea is a fitting and honorable resting place for its fallen soldiers.”

    Scott Ritter/The Day

    * * *

    Two days before Christmas 1944, Bette Porter was home in Arizona celebrating her mother’s birthday.

    “That’s when they came to the house with the telegram,” she said. Albacore was overdue and presumed lost.

    “It suddenly wasn’t a party mood anymore. Everybody’s suddenly feeling sorry for me, and at the moment I hadn't even gotten ahold of my own feelings.”

    She soon remarried, but for a while she kept mentally searching for her first husband.

    “It took me four years to get past the point that I was no longer looking for him,” she said. “I had finally decided where he was, and I could do nothing but be at peace with what I knew.”

    By February, the Navy was satisfied the Albacore evidence met its standard for identifying the wreck, said Ivor Mollema, an archaeologist with the Naval History and Heritage Command. The plan for the site is simple: Leave it alone.

    “It is the position of the Navy that the sea is a fitting and honorable resting place for its fallen sailors,” Mollema said. “The intent is to leave them … where they are and honor them … by preserving the site as best we can.”

    Albacore sank about 50,000 tons of Japanese vessels, more than most U.S. submarines. Of the 52 subs lost in the war, it’s the 11th found and the fifth among those built by EB. The others are Flier, Grayback, Grunion and Perch.

    When the identification was announced, there was no telegram for Bette Sargent, only a phone call from her daughter-in-law.

    “It was a little late for me,” she said. “... I just thought, ‘So late, so late. Everybody’s gone, and it’s so late for it to happen.’”

    j.ruddy@theday.com

    USS ALBACORE (SS-218)

    Class: Gato

    Builder: Electric Boat

    Keel laid: April 21, 1941

    Launched: Feb. 17, 1942

    Commissioned: June 1, 1942

    War patrols: 11

    Lost: Nov. 7, 1944

    Length: 311 feet 9 inches

    Beam: 27 feet 3 inches

    Draft: 17 feet

    Honors:

    Presidential Unit Citation, Patrols 2, 3, 8, 9

    Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with nine battle stars

    Captains:

    Lt. Cmdr. Richard C. Lake, Patrols 1-4

    Cmdr. Oscar E. Hagberg, Patrols 5-7

    Cmdr. James W. Blanchard, Patrols 8-10

    Lt. Cmdr. Hugh R. Rimmer, Patrol 11

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