Key point: On hundreds of special missions throughout World War II, American submarines performed myriad tasks, always at enormous risk to the crews and their boats.
Sunsets over Manila Bay are nothing less than spectacular. Once the sun dips below the horizon there is a lingering illumination known as “blue hour” as the sky gradually shifts from pale azure to deep indigo before fading completely into the black tropical night. But for the men of USS Seawolfthere was no blue hour that warm January evening in 1942. Their submarine rested on the inky bottom of the bay awaiting nightfall, when it would be safe to surface.
At 7:30 pm, Lt. Cmdr. Frederick “Fearless Freddie” Warder, gave the command. The submarine broke the calm waters off the besieged island of Corregidor, sailing cautiously toward South Dock. When Seawolf was securely moored, the crew began transferring her cargo: 36 tons of antiaircraft shells destined for the island’s desperate garrison.
Though Pearl Harbor was barely a month past, this was already Seawolf’s third war patrol. And it was to become a landmark, for it was the first of nearly 300 “special missions” undertaken by American submarines during World War II.
After unloading her cargo, Seawolf embarked 25 passengers for transport to Surabaya on Java’s eastern coast. It must have galled Freddie Warder that his warship had been used as a truck and was about to become a bus. But most of his refugees were VIPs—Very Important Pilots—men who had lost their planes in the first days of the war. It was Seawolf’s mission to deliver those flyers to new aircraft to rejoin the fight.
In those first, dispiriting months of the war, Asiatic Fleet submarines were kept busy on similar missions—so many that the chief, Admiral Thomas Hart, complained bitterly in a report to Washington: “This Command has been continuously attempting to satisfy numerous demands for use of submarines for various evacuation and ferrying trips.” Those trips included transporting high-ranking officials, more pilots, members of a top-secret radio intelligence unit, and 20 tons of gold and silver from the Philippine treasury. They also carried in as much ammunition and foodstuffs as the boats could fit. Hart noted that these special missions detracted from offensive operations, but Washington seemed to pay no heed.