The Sinking That Never Happened by an Airplane That Never Flew
By Ptero John ‘Bear’ Moseley, Aviator 743, CGAA Historian
At the 2010 Jacksonville CGAA Roost, I had the pleasure of meeting Ptero Jack, P-3166, and Merle Sutherlin. Jack was an Aviation Radioman (ARM-2) during WWII and was stationed at San Diego from July 1943 until the end of WWII. During this time, San Diego transitioned to an Air Sea Rescue unit molded on the British model. He had his flight log with him and a number of relevant pictures, some of which had the names of the persons depicted. Jack also provided historical information that would have been lost without his input. The PBY-5As were assigned to Air Sea Rescue Tactical Units (ASRTU) at MCAS Goleta (Santa Barbara), NAAS San Nicolas, NAS Los Alamitos, and at CGAS San Diego. The pilots and crew stood Port and Starboard Ready SAR Crew Watches and were usually assigned for a month at a time. Aircraft #2485, Rescue 1, arrived in December 1943 and by mid 1945 there were 9 PBY-5As and 6 crash boats assigned.
Jack also told me that there were four J4Fs and in early 1944 they acquired three PBM-3s.
He enumerated the duties and missions of these aircraft and also spoke of the SB2C that was initially acquired for shooting down Japanese balloons-bombs. This never materialized as far south as San Diego, so they equipped the aircraft to drop a life raft and used it for rapid SAR response. All of this was/is very much appreciated and has been added to the CGAA repository of CG Aviation History. Jack also related an incident that grabbed my attention and I became very interested in following up on it.
J4F-1 in Pre World War II Livery
On Christmas day 1943, Jack and Aviation Pilot 1/C Glenn Ferrin were the designated ready crew and, a little after noon, just as they were sitting down to eat their tray of Christmas food, the General Quarters alarm was sounded followed by “this is not a drill, ready crew report on the double”. When arriving at the hangar, the Operations Duty Officer handed Glenn a piece of paper with the position of naval units who had made a submarine contact off Point Loma. When they reached the plane, a J4F, the ground crew was loading an aerial depth charge on it. They got in, started the engines, called the tower and received priority clearance to runway 27 with a clearance for take-off at their discretion. They took off and arrived over Point Loma west bound. It did not take them long to see two aircraft carriers, a destroyer, and two PC boats. They also saw a third PC coming up and a blimp. The carriers were moving east bound at a rapid speed.
They elected to take up a racetrack pattern on the starboard side of the carriers and began orbits. This was done because, at that time of day, a submarine on the starboard side of the carrier would have a silhouette to shoot at. Jack said he was not sure of the time but that it was somewhere around 1300-1330 and they could see depth charges being dropped off the stern of the PC on the starboard side of the aft aircraft carrier. They were also using K guns and the forward PC fired “mouse traps” and the ships appeared to be zigzagging. They noticed a blimp on scene and, about 30 minutes after they had arrived on scene, a formation of TBMs and a second blimp arrived. As they circled, coming back toward the ships for a westbound leg, Jack saw the bow of the submarine break water. It never did fully surface, but the wake and the white water could easily be seen. Jack pointed it out to Glenn who also saw it. Glenn told him to arm the charge and standby to drop, which he did immediately and the charge was dropped in front of the submarine. Glenn banked left to see if the charge went off, which it did, and Jack looked up and screamed “turn right- turn right” which Glenn immediately did. They had almost hit the lead PC. The PCs ceased dropping depth charges. They (CG J4F) stayed on scene for a period until they saw the tug open up the submarine nets and the first carrier go through, at which time they returned to base as directed. The total time in Jack’s log book is 3.0 hours.
Upon return, they were debriefed by naval personnel. The senior interrogator was a Navy Captain. LTJG Ehrich, the CGAS Operations Duty Officer, was not present for the debrief. Jack was told, after the debrief of Ferrin, (the pilot), that his debrief was not needed. It could not have been more than 30-45 minutes from the time they dropped the depth charge to the time they landed back at San Diego and yet, on Christmas day, a Navy Captain had already arrived at the Coast Guard Air Station.
The next day, 26 December, Jack was home with his wife Merle. Merle stated that CPO Melvin DeLay, her uncle, had preceded Jack’s arrival and that, when Jack arrived, CPO DeLay asked Jack if he had been in that small CG plane that dropped the depth charge. Jack responded in the affirmative to which CPO De-Lay said there was considerable excitement at the Naval Operating Base and that he had spoken with the SONAR operators on the PCs and they were sure it was a submarine. He further told Jack that they had tracked the submarine to the bottom and they thought the submarine was sunk by the aircraft, but that the Navy would not give credit for it.
Jack said the air station ground crews discussed the attack as did he and Glenn but there was a silence within the command. It was like it never happened. Jack said he did not even know the names of the ships involved until he started his research. He often wondered if the sub had been sunk or if the submarine Captain had skillfully managed to get away. In January 2008, he decided he had the time and would search for the answer. Not knowing where to start, he called his local Congressional Office and spoke with Mr. Gregg Haas who, finding little, suggested he contact the USCG Historian’s Office in Washing-ton, DC and the Archives at Laguna Nigel. Jack contacted the CG Historian’s Office and was responded to by Scott Price who gave him an outline of where to look, some possible reference sources and suggested he contact the Naval Attaché at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, DC. There was no germane information obtained from Laguna Nigel. Jack then traveled to Washington, DC and College Park, MD to search the archives. The results were limited.
Jack did locate the San Diego Air Station Log but there were no operational activities mentioned in it for December 25, 1943, even though there were normal patrols and a medivac. These activities were entered for other dates.
Note: After returning to base from the attack on the submarine Jack and Glenn Ferrin were later directed to proceed to San Clemente Island to medivac an enlisted man with appendicitis. They returned to Lindberg Field, taxied to the Coast Guard ramp and were met by an ambulance from the Naval Hospital. There was a corpsman in the airplane who accompanied them from San Clemente Island. None of this was in the station log either. However, it is in Sutherlin’s log book and signed off as correct by Burton who was CO at the time as was the attack flight.)
No record of the attack is contained in the 11th Naval District records. Jack made contact with CDR Moto-taka Hogaki, at the Japanese Embassy, who was cooperative but unable to provide information on lost submarines. He stated that many records were destroyed at the end of the war but that most of the naval action was in the Gilbert Islands area during this period.
While at the Archives, Jack worked with Mr. Nathaniel “Nate” Patch, archives specialist, who became interested in the project and continued the search for information. Jack received a letter from Mr. Patch dated November 26, 2008. Mr. Patch wrote that he had located the December war diary for the San Diego Naval Operating Base. In it was noted the arrival of the USS Solomons CVE 67 on the afternoon of December 25, 1943. He further wrote that he had located the Solomons deck log and a war diary which confirmed a submarine attack on the 25th. From there he went to the Western Sea Frontier war diary for the 25th, which included three perspectives of the ASW operation: a general report, a report from the southern surface patrols, and a report from the southern air patrols. Nate went to Record Group 38 and made a list of all carriers at San Diego. There were seven; five in port, the USS Midway CVE 63 which was delivering aircraft to Hawaii and the USS Wake Island CVE 65 which was at sea that day doing carrier flight training. Thus, Mr. Patch deduced that possibly the second carrier Jack saw was the Wake Island. Mr. Patch located the deck log but no war diary for the Wake Island. The Wake Island’s ASW screen was the USS McFarland APD/DD 237.
Following is a breakdown and comments of events based upon and taken from the information supplied by Mr. Patch and other records found at the Archives by Mr. Sutherlin.
1. (Quoted from the Western Sea Frontier War Diary entries 25 December 1943)
“A sound contact was made at 1120 by USS PC-785 in position 32-30 N 117-30 W (this is about 20 miles southwest of San Diego). The PC-785 continued to get contacts throughout the afternoon and attacked with a total of 44 depth charges, all of which exploded, 58 Mousetraps, 10 impulse charges, 30 rounds of .30 cal and nine rounds of .38 cal. The USS PC-819 was dispatched to assist in the search at 1200 and the USS PC-815 was ordered to proceed to offer further assistance at 1300. Blimps K-59, K-111 and K-43 and two Coast Guard planes also assisted in developing contact, but only one depth charge was dropped from the air. The PC-785 stood in to replace depth Charges at 1752. However, the search was discontinued at 1851 when all efforts failed to produce positive evidence of a submarine in the area. Authorities believe the contact to have been a sunken hull, inasmuch as the area borders on a submarine sanctuary.”
1.The War Diary of the USS Solomons CVE 67, inbound to San Diego from San Francisco states: “1403 off Point Loma sounded Torpedo Defense and set material condition Able below deck as blimp and PC vessels picked up possible enemy submarine contact. PC vessels on starboard beam and quarter dropped several depth charges.” (Note: both PCs and a Blimp picked up the contact) The deck log of PC 785 listed the attack and the ammunition expended. It matched the Sea Frontier final tally. The deck logs of PC 815 and PC 819 confirmed the operation but do not list any ammunition expenditures.
It is 16 miles from the position given as the initial sonar contact to the position off Point Loma. A sunken hulk is stationary. Both Jack Sutherlin and the Solomons confirm that PC 785 had made sonar contact and was dropping depth charges off Point Loma. This casts serious doubt on the conclusion of the operation as stated in the Western Sea Frontiers War Diary entry. The War Diary confirms that a depth charge was dropped from the air by a CG aircraft. Given the lack of sophistication of equipment in 1943, the aircraft would have to have some visual indication of where the submarine was. The position given in the Western Sea Frontier report for the attack on the “hulk” is off the Coronado Canyon and the water depth ranges between 1300 and 4000 feet. A sunken hulk could not be seen from the air at this depth.
The USS Solomons went through the outer submarine net at 1531. There were three PCs, a Destroyer and a blimp involved in the operation at this time. The Western Sea Frontier diary entry states that further search was discontinued at 1851 when all efforts failed to produce positive evidence of a submarine in the area. The conclusion by the Western Sea Frontier was that the attack was made on a “hulk.” If this would have been valid, it is difficult to understand why three PCs and a blimp could not re-locate a stationary target within a period of three hours.
Chief Delay relayed to Jack, on the day after the attack, that the SONAR crews stated they had followed the submarine to the bottom. A search was made to verify WWII SONAR capabilities of PC vessels. Through the services of Mr. Harry Davis, President of the Patrol Craft Sailors Association, contact was made with retired CPO Mark Matayas who had served as a SONAR operator on PCs during WWII. Chief Matayas stated that using the equipment of the time, a descending submarine contact could be traced until it was lost in ground return and thus ascertained to be on the bottom. The depth of the area where the CG J4F dropped the depth charge is 50 fathoms. This depth is within the capabilities of WWII Japanese submarines. It is possible that the ground clutter precluded further efforts in their attempt to produce positive evidence of a submarine in the area as related in the Western Sea Frontier report.
Jack subsequently made a sport fishing trip on the F/V Independence. Jack told the Captain, Jeff DeBuys, of the 1943 submarine attack he had made. The Captain verified a depth of 4000 ft at the Latitude/Longitude position given in the Western Sea Frontier diary. The Captain further stated that he had been fishing out of San Diego for 20 years and did not know of any sunken hulls in that position. Jack also contacted Captain Norman Kagawa of the fishing F/V Shogun and got the same response.
The Solomons log indicates the blimp flying cover was K-99. This number did not appear in the Sea Frontier narrative. It does appear later in the day’s activities section. The Frontier narrative also lists two CG aircraft. (No number or type) There was only one involved in the ASW operation. The Diary did list in a day’s activity entry that a J4F departed at 0917 on the Mexican Coast Patrol and returned at 1350. This was normally flown by a PBM-3. This could have been the second CG plane referenced in the War Diary. Jack states, however, that he does not remember a Mexican Patrol flown that day. There is no mention whatsoever of any aircraft carrier in the Western Sea Frontier diary for the 25th.
2. It is important to note that Jack told his story to Mr. Patch prior to Mr. Patch locating records to confirm Jack’s story. At the time Jack related his story to Mr. Patch, Jack did not even know the names of the ships involved – just the number, types and date.
3. Mr. Patch states that he could not locate any war diaries for any of the PCs for the 25th. The Deck logs were found. The deck log for the PC-785 detailed the operation and confirmed the ammunition count as listed in the Western Sea Frontier account. The deck logs of the PC-815 and PC-819 did not list ammunition expended, but they did confirm they responded to the submarine contact. The Solomons diary stated that K-99 had reported in for air coverage duty at 0910 that morning. Mr. Patch stated that neither a War Diary nor Action Report for the K-99 or Blimp Squadron ZP31 (K-99s squadron) covering the month of December 1943 was located.
4. USS Wake Island CVE65: Jack had told Mr. Patch that there were two carriers; two PCs with another arriving; a blimp and an older type destroyer on scene. During 1943, there were 51 CVE (Escort Carriers) produced by the West Coast Kaiser Yards. Except for those going directly to Great Britain, the newly commissioned CVEs would do sea trials and pass through San Diego where they would pick up VC squadrons or transport replacement aircraft as they proceeded to a permanent assignment. This placed a group of CVEs in San Diego at any one time. Mr. Patch obtained the names and War Diaries for all attached to San Diego on the 25th. There were seven; five in port, the USS Mid-way CVE 63 which was delivering air-craft to Hawaii and the USS Wake Island CVE 65 which was at sea that day doing carrier flight training and the USS Solomons that arrived at San Diego that day. Mr. Patch obtained a copy of the Wake Island’s ships log for the 25th but no copy of the War Diary. The log states that the Solomons had been seen that morning and that the USS McFarland APD/DD237 was acting as ASW escort. From 0740 in the morning until 1150 there are very detailed entries of launching and recovering aircraft as well as a series of speed and course changes ranging between 315 degrees true and 325 degrees true with speed changes between 8 and 12 knots. The 12 to 1800 entries state only “steaming as before” until 1725 when a course change to 300 degrees true is indicated followed at 1758 by an exercise at General Quarters which secured at 1855. Records show the Wake Island returned to San Diego the following day. It appears that the Wake Island is the only CVE that could fit Jacks description of events. The Wake Island fits in all aspects, including the type of ASW escort, except for the lack of entries in the ship’s log. We are continuing to research this.
We may never know if Glenn Ferris and Jack Sutherland sank a Japanese submarine on December 25th, 1943, but what we do know is that the assertion, as stated in the Western Sea Frontier War Diary, that the ASW action was made against a stationary sunken hull is incorrect. As one reviews the available facts, one is struck with the seeming widespread lack of records and or lack of entries. The record keeping within the Western Sea Frontier that day was either extremely sloppy or was a deliberate attempt to avoid recognizing a Japanese presence off the West Coast. It is quite possible that it was both.
My next step was to check for Japanese submarines sunk during WWII up through the end of January 1944 as listed in the Joint Army Navy Assessments Group Paper. I compared this with the Tabulated Records of Movement (TROM) of Japanese submarines to see if I could find a Japanese submarine that did not report in –was sunk — or could have been off San Diego on 25 Dec 1943. The listed sinkings in Joint Army Navy Assessments Group Paper were in the TROM. There were additional presumed lost and stricken entries in the TROM that were not listed in the Assessment Group Paper… This was most probably due to the requirement of confirmation of sinking by Allied Forces as opposed to the Japanese procedure that if a submarine did not answer inquiries within a specific period of time it was presumed sunk. – Most of the Japanese submarines were listed as being in the Gilberts or running supplies to stranded personnel on islands around the Solomon Islands during December of 1943. There were also some operations in the Indian Ocean. I did not see any holes in the sequence of numbers in the TROM listing, although the Japanese renumbered several of their I boats when the newer ones came out. The TROM is a tabulation of movement and command assignments. Detailed operations in the TROM are normally referenced from messages received from Japanese submarines or Allied engagement records. The operation information records of the Japanese submarine force were not nearly as good as that of the Germans during WWII.
The only unaccounted “sinkings” I saw during the period leading up to the 25th December 1943 was for the I-40. The I-40 was part of an 8 (possibly 9) sub detail that was ordered against the American support ships during the Invasion of Tarawa and Makin –20-24 November 1943. The American force consisted of 13 Battleships and 11 Carriers plus destroyers, transports, and other support ships. The performance of the Japanese subs as listed in the TROM was one of complete ineptness. Of the eight (possibly nine) Japanese submarines involved; five were sunk; three made it back to Truk; and only one American ship was sunk (USS Liscombe Bay CVE 56).
There is a possibility of error, however. There are reports that say the I-40 was sunk by the USS Bradford DD 446 off Makin on 25 November 1943. There are others that say the Japanese submarine sunk by the Bradford that date was the I-19. If it was the I-40 that was sunk –then what was the I-19 doing? The TROM says that I-19 had been out of Kwajalein and launched a float plane for a reconnaissance of Pearl Harbor on 17 Nov/43. Aircraft returned and reported one battleship and one carrier. The I-19 reported the results on 18th. On 20 November 1943, the Invasion of the Gilberts began —Vice Admiral Takagi Takeo, Commander, Sixth Fleet (Submarines) ordered the I-19, I-21, I-35, I-39, I-40, I-169, I-174 and I-175 and RO-38 to proceed to Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. LCDR Kobayashi, CO of the I-19, failed to acknowledge the receipt of the message from the Sixth Fleet. It is quite possible that the I-19 did not return to the Gilberts during this period and that it was the I-40 that was sunk. The I-19 is not shown as answering any message during the Gilbert Campaign. No further entries are made in the TROM for the I-19 until 2 February 1944 listing that she is listed as presumed sunk. It is possible that the I-19 remained in the Kwajalein area and was later sent to the San Diego area in late December, but there are no known facts in support of this.
If the submarine that Ferrin and Sutherlin dropped the depth charge on was not sunk, then there are multiple possibilities. The RO model submarines began coming on line in the beginning of 1943 and as a result some of the I boats were transferred to Kure as training submarines and Home Guard. There were also a number of submarines that came through the various Japanese bases for repairs and overhauls of three to four months during this time frame. In addition – there were RO boats that were on shakedown cruises and crew training. There were 22 submarines listed in the TROM that fit into these categories. Given the speed and range of Japanese submarines, it is not inconceivable that one could have been sent to West Coast on a special mission. Entries in the TROM for training and home guard submarines give no information other than changes of command. There is also no information on those passing through Kure or Sasebo other than time in and time out.
There were no verified submarine activities off the West Coast during 1943 and there is no official recording of a Japanese submarine being sunk off the West Coast during WWII. It is also a verified fact that there was strict censorship of all military activities imposed. The reason given for this was that they did not wish to inform the enemy or to cause panic among the American population. As examples: There was the “Los Angeles Air Raid’ in 1942. There were no aircraft but anti-aircraft ammunition shot up in the air at nothing fell and hurt a few people. Chaos was the order of the day. There were no reports made on the two attempts by submarine launched aircraft to start forest fires in September of 1942. In November of 1944, the first of approximately 9000 Japanese Balloon Bombs, designed to Bomb the US West Coast, was launched. It is estimated that about 10 % reached US soil. However, it was not until a mother and five children were killed by one of these bombs in May of 1945 that the censorship was lifted and the acknowledgment of these balloons took place. There was a genuine fear of Japanese attack on the West Coast and this may have resulted in the censorship that took place.
Why an attempted submarine attack on December 25, 1943, and why San Diego? I do not know but a hypothesis is as follows:
It is well recorded that the Japanese doctrine was to mainly employ their submarines against warships. Even with the early success they had, they would have been much more effective if they had been used against merchant shipping as was done by the Germans. What also becomes evident when reading the operational history of the Japanese submarine forces was a desire to create a psychological impact on both the enemy and Japanese civilian populations. The shelling of The Elwood oil fields, the shelling of the Estefan lighthouse, the shelling of Fort Stevens and the Japanese Sea Plane attack on Hawaii in March of 1942 are examples of this. The I-25 on September 9 and again on September 29, off the coast of Oregon, launched an E14Y-1 Glenn seaplane which dropped incendiary bombs on the mainland to start forest fires. It was unsuccessful in starting forest fires but it had a very large impact on the Japanese civilian population that had just suffered the Doolittle Raid and the devastating results of the Battle of Midway. The I-34 and I 35 were to be equipped to launch balloon raids on the West Coast, but the project was canceled in early 1943
During 1943, there were 51 CVE escort carriers built and commissioned by the Kaiser shipyards in Washington State and Oregon. Except for those given to the British, all would do shakedown cruises and then pass through San Diego where they would obtain and train a VC squadron composed of TBM/TBFs and FMs (an upgraded version of the Grumman F4F). The USAAF had stopped ASW patrols in 1943 and Navy patrols were greatly reduced. There was almost always a CVE doing flight training off the coast and usually had one Destroyer as a forward ASW screen. It is conceivable that the submarine that Jack Sutherlin and Glenn Ferrin attacked on the 25th of December was attempting to sink the aircraft carrier – but, if so – why not stay further out at sea where there was only one escort rather than seven miles off Point Loma? What if the intent had been to follow close in and under a returning CVE carrier and thus get through the anti-submarine nets at San Diego? A suicide mission to be sure, but it would have raised havoc at North Island and would have had a tremendous psychological impact on Japanese morale –both military and civilian.
Available evidence strongly supports that AP1 Glenn Ferrin and ARM2 Jack Sutherlin attacked a Japanese submarine on the afternoon of 25 December 1943 and either sunk it or drove it off. At a minimum, they saved an aircraft carrier from being torpedoed. The event was finally officially recognized in March 2011 via a letter of commendation to Jack from VADM John P. Currier, Vice-Commandant United States Coast Guard.
Jack flew West on April 22, 2017. Merle had gone before. I am glad that he was commended for “ his skill and judgment and devotion to duty” prior to departure.
Jack and Merle at the Pterodactyl Roost
Jack Sutherlin in SB2C 1944