11,000 feet beneath the ocean's surface, Tim Taylor and his team of underwater experts are searching for treasure – but not the kind of treasure you'd expect. They're using sophisticated equipment to locate a sunken World War II-era submarine called the USS Stickleback. The American sub is at the center of a mysterious disappearance at the height of the war. And if Taylor and his team are able to find it, they'll be the first people to lay eyes on the vessel since 1958.
60 years gone
That means that the sub was missing for six entire decades. Taylor and his team found the lost sub using cutting-edge technology including remotely operated vehicles, high-tech sonar, and imaging equipment. The Stickleback had actually split into two parts. And as Taylor has pointed out, the submarine’s crewmen were incredibly lucky to have survived. Usually, when a sub sinks, the crew is trapped aboard.
That fact alone is enough to understand why Taylor had been so obsessed with tracking the sub down. But it’s not the only reason why the USS Stickleback is special. Its Navy designation was SS-415, one of the 120 Balao-class vessels built during WWII. Yet only the Stickleback would go on to play such a storied part in history.
Given the craftsmanship that went into the Balao subs, it’s perhaps not surprising that they were classics of warfare. The first of this class – the USS Balao – was launched in October 1942. It massively improved on the previous Gato class of submarines. And yes, all the Balaos were named after species of fish. But that didn’t stop the Stickleback from having a massive impact.
What made the Stickleback so effective? The Balao subs had thick high-tensile steel alloy hulls so they could dive to depths of 400 feet. And actually, the submarines’ hulls wouldn’t fail until they reached 900 feet. That’s a pretty important number when you understand how the Stickleback ended up in its watery grave.
Because when you think about Stickleback’s construction, it’s almost inconceivable that it would sink. It started out in March 1944 at the Mare Island Navy Yard in Vallejo, California. Like all of her Balao kin, she was a diesel-electric vessel powered by four ten-cylinder engines and four high-speed electric motors. The diesel engines drove the twin propellers. Impressive, right?
Fast and powerful
The submarine also measured a touch under 312 feet from stem to stern and was just over 27 feet across the beam at her widest point. Traveling underwater, Stickleback could attain a maximum speed of nearly nine knots. On the surface, she could cruise at a top speed of a little over 20 knots. So it was powerful and fast – a deadly combination. But that’s not all.
Stickleback had a range of 11,000 nautical miles at a steady speed of ten knots. She could also stay out on patrol for up to 75 days. The sub could even stay underwater for up to 48 hours cruising at a gentle two knots. And the vessel was designed for a crew of ten officers and 71 seamen. Seriously, it’s a miracle that anyone could sink this ship!
It was loaded with weaponry too. The submarine had ten 21-inch torpedo launching tubes, with six of those set toward Stickleback’s prow and the remainder at the boat’s stern. The sub also had weapons for use on the surface in defense or attack. There was one five-inch deck gun plus two cannons, a Bofors 40mm and an Oerlikon 20mm. These guns came in handy as well.
Stickleback launched on the first day of 1945 and then formally became part of the U.S. Navy in late March. Work on the sub’s final fitting out was completed towards the end of May. Her first skipper was Commander Lawrence G. Bernard – but even he couldn’t save the Stickleback from its fate.
Heading for Pearl Harbor
In late June 1945, Stickleback set sail for Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, arriving there after a six-day journey. There was now time for some more training runs before the submarine was ordered to depart for Apra Harbor on the Pacific island of Guam. The Americans had seized the island from the Japanese after bitter fighting in August 1944.
Stickleback next embarked from Apra on August 6, 1945, for her first wartime cruise in the Sea of Japan. However, the Americans dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on that very day, with a second detonated over Nagasaki just three days later. Japanese resistance collapsed, the country surrendered, and a ceasefire was declared on August 15. It also impacted the Stickleback.
On the day of the surrender, Stickleback received orders to cease attacks against enemy vessels but to remain in her patrol area. So the submarine and her men never did see any combat action in WWII. However, she was involved in one incident of note arising from hostilities in the now-finished war.
Still in the Sea of Japan six days after the surrender, Stickleback’s lookout spotted two bamboo rafts drifting in the water. Aboard were 19 men and how glad they must have been to spot this submarine. Although they may have wondered what treatment they could expect at the hands of American sailors.
Teihoku Maru survivors
The mariners aboard the rafts were in fact the survivors from a Japanese cargo ship, the Teihoku Maru. An American sub, another Balao-class vessel, USS Jallao, torpedoed and sunk the freighter on August 11 just four days before the ceasefire. The 19 men who’d made it onto the makeshift rafts were the lucky ones. Twenty-seven of their fellow crew members had lost their lives in the sinking.
Stickleback rescued the merchant sailors, giving them food and medical attention. After an 18-hour journey, the shipwrecked mariners were set back on their rafts just off the Korean island of Ulleungdo where they would be able to land safely. Having delivered its human cargo, Stickleback now headed back to Guam and then on to San Francisco. And then it’s ultimate fate.
Arriving in San Francisco on September 9, 1945, Stickleback now participated in victory celebrations and then cruised north up the east coast as far as British Columbia, Canada. Next came a trip to Pearl Harbor in early 1946 followed by the submarine’s decommissioning in June at the Mare Island Yard in California. The crew weren’t to know of the troubles ahead for the sub.
Back into service
This decommissioning was far from the end of Stickleback’s story. Five years later, in June 1950, hostilities broke out on the Korean peninsula. The Korean War was a Cold War-era conflict between the U.S. and her United Nations allies on one side and Communist North Korea, backed by China and the Soviets, on the other. The bitterly fought war was far from “cold”, and it brought Stickleback out of the Naval Reserve and back into service.
The Navy recommissioned Stickleback in September 1951 with a new skipper, Lieutenant Commander Roy J. Robinson, at the helm. The sub now took part in training off the coast of California until she was decommissioned again in November 1952. This time, she was withdrawn from service because she was due for a radical overhaul. But it would be too little too late.
New and improved
Stickleback was converted under the U.S. Navy’s Greater Underwater Propulsion Power Program, known as GUPPY. This was a concerted effort to update WWII-era submarines to bring them up to standard for operation in the 1950s. Stickleback’s conversion would stretch over ten months and included the fitting of a snorkel, an improved battery and a sonar system.
Her upgrade complete, in January 1954, Stickleback sailed to the city of Yokosuka in Japan, her new homeport. The Cold War trundled on. And the submarine would now be involved in reconnaissance missions, keeping an eye on Soviet shipping. That would prove to be its downfall.
Spying on the Soviets
Stickleback embarked on her first Cold War mission in late March 1954 on a cruise that would last four weeks. She sailed from the Pacific through the Tsugaru Strait into waters between Japan and the Korean Peninsula. Her task was essentially surveillance. She recorded and photographed various Soviet vessels in the waters off Korea. Things were looking good.
In fact, things looked good for the next couple of missions. She successfully surveyed Soviet shipping in the Bering Sea, between the coasts of Russia and Alaska. And she also completed further patrolling before her crew was allowed a welcome six days of rest and recreation. If the rest of the Cold War carried on like that, this would have been a very different story.
A change in luck
By the end of her fourth mission on October 10, Stickleback had recorded the movements of 119 Soviet vessels. That’s not bad! Of course, all of this sneaking around is not exactly what the Stickleback was originally built to do. But the Cold War was very different from WWII. And the Stickleback was going to find out how different on her fifth and final mission.
This came in June 1957 when she embarked from Pearl Harbor and sailed to waters off the coast of Siberia. By July 26, the sub was back in Hawaii. The next significant moment in Stickleback’s story came in May, 1958, when the submarine was involved in what should have been a routine training exercise — one that turned out to be anything but.
On May 28, 1958, Stickleback was participating in antisubmarine warfare training with the U.S. Navy destroyer, USS Silverstein. The exercise took place around the Hawaiian islands and involved a third vessel, a torpedo retriever. The training involved the submarine making dummy torpedo runs at the destroyer, and it continued into the following day.
During the afternoon of the second day, Stickleback made one more simulated torpedo attack on Silverstein. The vessels were at this point some 20 miles off the island of Oahu. At the end of the run, the submarine submerged as planned but then something went badly wrong. The submarine lost propulsion and went into an uncontrolled dive, rapidly reaching a depth of 800 feet.
To put it mildly, reaching a depth of 800 feet was not good. Remember, Balao-class submarines had a test depth of only 400 feet. And their collapse depth was 900 feet. Once the submarine was that far beneath the waves, her hull would be subject to such high pressures that her hull would collapse like an empty soda can clenched in a vise.
Fortunately for the crew, Stickleback was able to deploy her emergency ballast tanks, and she quickly rose through the water, up to the surface and safety. The submarine and the crew were safe for now but the danger was far from over. Stickleback surfaced just 600 feet from the prow of Silverstein and directly in her path.
U.S. Navy destroyers cannot perform sudden emergency stops, certainly not within 600 feet. Although Silverstein’s crew did what they could, reversing the engines and setting the rudder full left, the destroyer ploughed into the submarine’s port side, inflicting a large gash in its hull. Remarkably, the collision did not cause any casualties, but the submarine was clearly badly damaged.
Blowing the ballast tanks
Trainee submariner Pat Barron was on board Stickleback when the accident happened and he remembered his experience in an interview published on the SubmarineSailor.com website in 2002. Barron said, “I remember it was right before noon meal, we were submerged and we lost power and took a tremendous down angle and started going down. Emergency lights went on and shortly after that I heard them start blowing main ballast tanks.”
Barron continued, “Once we got the down angle off and our descent stopped the next thing that happened was we started going to the surface in a hurry.” And the young seaman remembered what happened next, “Then we hit the surface and within like about 30 seconds we were rammed by the Silverstein on the port side…There was a hell of a CRASH and shock from the collision. It shoved the boat to starboard and knocked all of us down.”
Barron also recalled, “You know how they say your life passes before your eyes at times like this, well it happened to me. I can remember to this day picturing my girlfriend from high school.” And the next thing the submariner heard was the call to, “Abandon ship.” Those are two words that any seaman hopes he’ll never hear.
Fortunately for Stickleback’s crew, a salvage vessel, USS Greenlet soon appeared on the scene and the submariners were able to transfer aboard her without mishap. But the submarine was not so lucky. Despite repeated efforts by various vessels which were now in the vicinity, she could not be saved from her fate.
Going down fast
Barron recalled the moment when the submarine was lost “the boat continued to sink lower and lower by the bow until water started lapping up the front of the sail. That’s when the skipper finally left the boat and came aboard the Greenlet. The boat continued to sink lower and lower and finally she went over and the stern went up with the screws, rudder, and stern planes sticking out and then she was gone.”
So USS Stickleback sunk in some 11,000 feet – that’s about two miles – of ocean around 20 miles off the coast of Oahu. But the precise location of the submarine’s watery grave would remain a mystery for more than six decades. Then Tim Taylor and the researchers from the Lost 52 Project turned their attention to hunting for the wreck.
Taylor’s Lost 52 Project is dedicated to locating the wrecks of lost submarines and takes its name from the fact that 52 disappeared during World War II. However, Taylor and his team also extend their mission to hunt for submarines that sank during the Cold War. It was during this conflict between America, her allies, and the Soviet Union that USS Stickleback sank beneath the waves.
Filling out history
According to the Lost 52 Project’s website, Taylor’s team wants to “provide the fullest possible documentation and accounting of these locations for our missing WWII Navy sailors, their families and the nation.” The project collates comprehensive data records for each vessel that they discover with an eye to creating a valuable education resource.
Honoring our servicemen
Speaking to the Atlas Obscura website in March 2020 Dr. Bob Neyland of the Naval History and Heritage Command, highlighted the significance of this and other finds. He said, “Each discovery…provides an opportunity to remember and honor the service of our sailors and marines.” And the Lost 52 Project has had the honor of finding a total of six lost U.S. submarines from WWII and the Cold War in the last nine years.