The Submarine Killer: USS Batfish in Muskogee, Oklahoma
The submarine rode in the water like a mechanical bull; creaking and groaning as she made her way across the southern Pacific. It had been two years since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor when the U.S.S. Batfish began her first war patrol. For the first month in active duty, heavy seas and malfunctions plagued the sub. The crew was disheartened; long days and cramped quarters didn't help. Most of the crew were young men, unused to the dampness and stench of submarine life. Still, they knew their duty and performed it without complaint.
The Batfish's first naval engagement happened on January 19, 1944. They were patrolling between Kobe, Japan and Palau to the south when they encountered a convoy consisting of three large ships, one medium size ship, and two escorts. The Batfish maneuvered into position and fired several torpedoes, sinking two of the large ships. The attack was dubbed a success, and over the next few years, the Batfish would become known as the "Sub killer".
The U.S.S. Batfish: An Overview
During World War II, submarines comprised less than two percent of the U.S. Navy. Despite the small number of active subs, they managed to sink over thirty percent of Japan’s navy, including eight aircraft carriers. While this is impressive, American submarines played a more important role in strangling the Japanese economy by sinking almost five million tons of shipping – over 60 percent of the Japanese merchant marine. Victory at sea did not come easily. The U.S. Submarine Force lost 52 boats and 3,506 men. Even with this tragic loss of life, submarines played a vital role in ending Japan's dominance of the seas and helping to assure ultimate allied victory over the Axis forces.
The U.S.S. Batfish (SS-310) played a pivotal role in winning this allied victory. Named for a fierce West Indian fish, the Batfish sank 15 Japanese war vessels, among them three submarines in just 76 hours. The latter accomplishment has not since been matched by any submarine since. To this day, the U.S.S. Batfish remains the most successful submarine killing sub in history.
War Patrols of the Batfish
The USS Batfish was commissioned in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on August 21, 1943. She had an overall length of 312 feet and displaced 1465 tons of water. The Batfish carried 10 torpedo tubes, as well as numerous deck guns. In combat, she fired 71 torpedoes. Of those 71 torpedoes, 24 were hits and 15 enemy ships were sunk.
The submarine left Pearl Harbor on its first war patrol on December 11, 1943. While patrolling just to the south of Honshu, Japan, the Batfish damaged two freighters and sank the cargo ship Hidaka Maru before returning to Midway on January 30, 1944.
After allowing the seamen some time to rest and make minor repairs to the sub, the Batfish returned to sea on February 22, 1944. Her second war patrol was less than glamorous. She patrolled for 53 days before returning with no opportunity for combat. The submarine's third patrol began a series of successful war patrols. The batfish left Pearl Harbor on May 26, 1944 and approached the coast of Japan south of the cities of Shikoku, Honshu and Kyushu. She sank a Japanese training vessel and two cargo ships with patrols before surfacing and sinking a trawler and its escort vessel with deck gun fire.
The fourth and fifth patrols followed the success of the third, including the sinking of several Japanese destroyers. It was the sixth patrol, however, that achieved lasting fame for the submarine. In 76 hours, the Batfish attacked and sank three Japanese submarines.
The Submarine Killer
On December 30, 1944, USS Batfish departed on her sixth war patrol. Nobody on board thought that they would make history, especially the Commander John K. “Jake” Fyfe. They had a job to do, and, as they always did, went about their work as if it was something as mundane as hammering nails. Of course, war was war, and the excitement in battle is unequal to anything else. Still, the majority of the time was spent in the monotonous routine tasks that kept the submarine in working order. She slowly patrolled the around the Babuyan Islands, a little north of the Philippines.
At the same time, the Japanese had dispatched four submarines to the port of Aparri on Luzon, only a few miles south of where the Batfish was already patrolling. Their mission was to evacuate key personnel and ferry ammunition ahead of MacArthur’s advancing forces. Three of the four Japanese subs would never complete their mission.
At 10:10 P.M. on February 9, 1944, the Batfish picked up a radar signature of an enemy vessel. The night was “very dark, no moon, and partially overcast.” The crew wasn’t certain of the ships make, but Commander Fyfe believed it to be a submarine. He closed to within 1800 yards of the vessel and fired four torpedoes. All four missed. The commander repositioned the Batfish ahead of the target’s projected track and waited again.
After waiting in anticipation for nearly 20 minutes, the now visible submarine reappeared on radar, unaware he had been fired upon. The commander closed to 1000 yards and fired a torpedo, but it malfunctioned in the tube. It was finally ejected as two more torpedoes sped away towards the enemy sub. Almost immediately, the crewmembers noticed a “brilliant red explosion that lit up the whole sky”. The Batfish had sunk the Japanese ship RO-55 just a few minutes after midnight.
The following day, the radar lit up once again. Another submarine was found just after sunset. The Batfish closed to 1,800 yards and prepared to fire. Just before the torpedo left the tube, the enemy submarine dove. Fyfe quickly swung his boat away to avoid attack.
For thirty minutes, the Batfish’s sound operators sat in absolute silence, waiting for the telltale noise of a surfacing sub. It finally came, and Fyfe identified the target visually. After identifying the enemy sub, he issued orders to dive to radar depth to further conceal his submarine. Having the enemy in sight, he fired four torpedoes, three of which struck and destroyed the enemy sub, the RO-112.
Less than 24 hours later, the Batfish’s radar watch picked up another radar signature similar to the previous two. They had found another submarine. Commander Fyfe closed at radar depth but once again the enemy submarine dove before torpedoes could be fired. They waited silently listening for the enemy boat to surface. Finally, after what seemed an endless wait, the Batfish regained radar contact with the target. The enemy sub had surfaced.
With only two remaining torpedoes in the forward tubes, the Batfish surfaced, conned the Batfish ahead of the enemy sub’s track and dove back to radar depth. As the unsuspecting sub approached, the Batfish turned her stern tubes to bear and fired four torpedoes. Three struck the RO-113 dead on and destroyed it.
The USS Batfish made her final World War II patrol in 1945. After shelling the coast of Japan, she rescued three downed American aviators and returned to Midway on August 22, 1945. The crew of the USS Batfish were awarded with 10 Bronze Star Medals, 9 Battle Stars, 4 Silver Stars, one Navy Cross and One Presidential Unit Citation.
Decommissioned for the final time in 1969, the Batfish was struck from the Navy List on February 28, 1972. She arrived at the Port of Muskogee on May 7, 1972, where she now rests on dry land as a permanent memorial to the American submarine fleet and the men who served beneath the waves.
"Within three days, we sank three enemy submarines. There were no survivors. Those men aboard the Japanese subs who died as a result of our actions were combatant enemies. They knowingly risked their lives in war, just as we do. We attacked and sank them in the course of our duty. Within our good fortune that we did not lose our boat or our lives, there is of course some sadness that these submariners have died, and by our hand. But the only way that could have been otherwise in this war would have been for us to die by theirs. Thank you for your excellence, and congratulations on your success."
Announcement read over USS Batfish's intercom system by Captain John K. "Jake" Fyfe shortly after the sub sank the third of three Japanese submarines within seventy-seven hours.
Visiting the USS Batfish & World War II Museum
Address: NE 48th St., Muskogee, OK
Directions: U.S.S. Batfish Military Museum in War Memorial Park. I-40 exit 286 onto Muskogee Turnpike. North to exit 33. Turn east, then a quick turn north into the Park.
Hours: M, W-Sa 9-4, Su 12-4. Closed Winter. (Call to verify)
The USS Batfish is undergoing a re-dedication and re-discovery! The Batfish is now air conditioned.
Special events are also enhanced with WWII Living History re-enactors, who serve as members of the crew. This unique group lives on the submarine 24 hrs a day for an entire weekend every August for V-J Day recognition, allowing visitors a unique glimpse into the Batfish past, as they interact with crew members in period uniform portraying life aboard a submarine.
In addition to the submarine, there is quite a bit to see and do at the Batfish Museum. The museum also houses WWII cannons, tanks, vehicles, artillery, and more.
If you've seen the Batfish - come back and see her again. You haven't seen anything yet! New wartime paint scheme soon to be restored!
The U.S.S. Batfish Museum
Chronicles of Oklahoma
Oklahoma Historical Society
World War II National Archives
© 2010 Eric Standridge