Wednesday, December 6, 2023

John Blackshoe Sends: Serendipity History – Swordfish and Warships (Part 2A of 3)


Sarge only raises goldfish¹ in his pond, but maybe they are related to this “Sword-Fish, Xiphias gladius- Drawing by H. L. Todd, from Specimen taken on the coast of Rhode Island [circa 1884], now stuffed and preserved in the National Museum. Length, 8 feet 4 inches.”

As noted in part I, Swordfish can dive pretty deep, up to 1,800 feet and even more, sharing the oceans with other sea creatures, including submarines.   The USS SWORDFISH (SS-193) discussed here had a test depth of 250 feet and crush depth about 450 feet.  God’s creations far surpass man’s efforts, again.


USS SWORDFISH (SS-193) Ship’s insignia.

This SARGO class sub was built at Mare Island Naval Shipyard (MINSY), Vallejo, California 1937-1939.  MINSY operated from 1853 to 1996, and built 44 submarines, including 17 nuclear powered submarines.   MINSY was closed by the 1993 BRAC as part of Clinton’s “Peace Dividend” slashing defense spending to fund his social programs.

USS SWORDFISH (SS-193) in June 1943 after refitting with 3”/50 deck gun, 20mm AA gun and better electronic gear
(Source - cropped)
USS SWORDFISH was 310 feet long, had 27 foot beam, depth of 17 feet, and could make 21 knots on the surface or 8.5 knots submerged.  Displacement was 1,470 tons surfaced or 2,390 tons submerged.  Crew was listed at 5 officers and 54 enlisted, but when lost in January 1945 there were 89 men on board.  Armament was eight 21 inch torpedo tubes with 24 torpedoes, and a 3-inch deck gun. (Source)

Launch day at Mare Island on 1 April 1939, only 17 months after construction started.  Color photography was in its infancy then, and expensive.  This photo is the earliest known official U.S. Navy color photograph.  Today virtually anyone can take a high resolution color photo and send it anywhere in the world instantaneously with their phone.   Technology has indeed changed a lot!

(Source -cropped)
Upon her commissioning 22 July 1939, her first Commanding Officer was LT Chester C. Smith, USN (USNA class of 1925), and he was promoted to LCDR the next month.  Promotions were slow then, taking 14 years of commissioned service before making LCDR. He remained in command until 3 January 1943, successfully completing SIX War Patrols.

USS SWORDFISH did the usual new construction tests and training out of Sandy Eggo, and deployed to the Pacific, arriving in Manila, in the Philippines on 22 November 1941.  Fifteen days later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the following day SWORDFISH got underway to start attacking Japanese shipping.  Her first torpedo attacks were on 9 December, and before returning to Manila on 22 December she sank several ships, and some other attacks did not result in hits.  (Damn faulty torpedo exploders?)  She then evacuated half the Asiatic Submarine Force Staff from Manila to Java as the Philippines fell. 

Nine days after arriving in Java, she departed on her Second War Patrol, boldly entering deep into a harbor to sink two Japanese cargo ships, and escaped under repeated attacks, and delivered and received attacks several more times before returning to Manila where she evacuated some top Philippine government officials to neighboring islands, and then returned to pickup top American officials whom were delivered to Freemantle, Australia.  She operated out of Freemantle for several more patrols. 

LCDR Smith was awarded the Navy Cross for SWORDFISH’s first war patrol (citation), and a second Navy Cross for the second patrol (citation).  He got a Silver Star for the Fourth and a Letter of Commendation for the Sixth.

LCDR Smith in publicity photo released at the time of his Second Navy Cross award, but it is a file photo from his records in Washington, not a recent one.

LCDR Chester C. Smith being awarded the Navy Cross by RADM Charles Lockwood aboard USS SWORDFISH (SS-193) in Freemantle, Australia, 1942. This was really as much an award for the entire crew as for the skipper, and the presentation aboard ship with the crew present was most appropriate.
The second war patrol where SWORDFISH sunk two Japanese ships deep in an enemy harbor, was dramatized in the TV show “Silent Service” in 1958, back when the entertainment industry was on our side, not the enemy’s.  It runs 26 minutes, if you have some time to kill, but frankly, it’s not all that great.  “The Swordfish Story”

Smith eventually made Rear Admiral, and his final duty assignment with over 30 years service seems to have been on a NATO staff in 1957.   He probably wished he were back being depth charged instead of suffering in a NATO staff job.

LCDR Chester C. Smith remained in command through the third, fourth, fifth and sixth patrols, for two straight years in combat.  For details of all the USS SWORDFISH patrols, you can read the 29 page typed summary here (pdf). The pink pages at the top are about the final patrol when she was lost, then the earlier patrols are on the white pages in order.  They really give a feel for the pace of submarine warfare in the Pacific and the number of depth charge attacks endured, some far away, others right on top. 

For a quicker summary, the Wikipedia entry is pretty good and only a page or two.

Here is a complete listing of the 27 ships sunk by USS SWORDFISH, and their locations,

The next skipper after LCDR Smith lasted one patrol and about five months, the next got in two patrols in about six months. The 10th patrol was under a CO whose tenure lasted barely two months. 

Her final skipper, CDR Keats Montross had a successful 11th War Patrol in March-April 1944, and again for the 12th patrol.   He remained in command for the 13th (and final) patrol leaving Pearl Harbor 22 December 1944 after photo reconnaissance equipment was installed, headed for Okinawa to gather info for the Okinawa landings which took place in March 1945.  Last heard from off Okinawa on 3 January, it is believed she was sunk by a Japanese attack on 12 January 1945, or perhaps struck a mine. 

USS SWORDFISH’s final CO, CDR Keats Montross, lost with the rest of the crew in January 1945 near Okinawa.

But, a ship’s history is not just about its CO, but rather the entire crew.  89 Americans died aboard USS SWORDFISH, and in the submarine community, they are respectfully referred to as “On eternal patrol.”

Each one of these was a loss to family or friends, and they represent a diverse cross section of America.

You can see the names, and click on each one to see (in most cases) a photo, and some biographical information at the “On Eternal Patrol” website.  Not just for this sub, but for all WW2 American submarine losses. 

The final resting spot of USS SWORDFISH (SS-193) has never been located.


The American successful submarine war came at a cost, though. In World War II, 52 US submarines were lost, with a total of 3,506 officers and enlisted men killed. The US Navy Submarine Service had the highest casualty percentage of any American forces in the War: about 20%. (Source)

Part 2B will cover USS SWORDFISH (SSN-579) and we know exactly where the remains of that ship are located.

¹ Used to be goldfish and koi. Now it's just koi. - OAFS


  1. Thanks for the work on this JB, going to have to revisit that memorial since Como Park isn't far from me.

  2. Smith has quite a moustache in the photo…

  3. Mare Island naval shipyard... Back in the early 70's I rented a room from a guy (divorced and renting rooms in his house to collage students) who was an engineer at Mare Island, he told a story of "them" sinking a submarine at the dock on Mare Is... seems one work crew needed the ship level and another needed it a couple of degrees nose down and they didn't talk... Level...nose down...level....nose down and this continued until a hatch was low enough to allow the sea water into the sub.
    Just one of those stories you hear going thru life..

  4. Thanks for the history (as always), JB. I am a little familiar with the Mare Island Shipyards but only in their declining days.

    I have heard of the USS Swordfish, but did not know all its history.

  5. JB,
    I read a lot of submarine books while in HS. Gave quite a bit of thought to joining the Navy and subs. My Dad, being the intelligent but of few words, put the kibosh on that by saying "Wouldn't it be nice to see where you're going?" And the rest, as they say, is history!
    That having been said, excellent post, keep up the good work. I've heard Sarge is thinking about giving the staff a 30% raise next year. Won't that be great?

  6. Always enjoy your stuff, JB. Those who sailed in subs in WWII had brass balls, big ones.

  7. There's a nice submarine memorial nearby at Liberty Station, which was once Naval Training Center San Diego. There's a marble stand and brass plaque listing the crew for each sub lost in WWII. And because of the details John Blackshoe wrote above, there's a lot of them.

  8. Not Demeaning Any Part' or anyone, of any service, but does 'highest casualty percentage ' include the US Merchant Marine.

    1. Between 1939 and 1945, 9,521 merchant mariners lost their lives — a higher proportion than those killed than in any military branch, according to the National World War II Museum.

      With a strength of 250,000, that puts their death rate at 3.8%.

  9. I'm going to quibble, a little. If one were to look at 8th Air Force bomber crews (and omitting the ground crews), their loss rate was probably 20% or higher.

    (I can't believe that I'm standing up for the Zoomies, here.)

    1. Not really a quibble, a point well made.

      (As to your last, yup, hard to believe. 😉)


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