Submarine at Seawolf Park played important role in response to Pearl Harbor attacks
The 75th anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor will be observed this year at Galveston’s Seawolf Park at the eastern tip of Pelican Island. It’s a fitting place to reflect on the attack on Dec. 7, 1941, forever known as “a date which will live in infamy.” Seawolf Park is the home of the American Undersea Warfare Center, featuring two World War II-era vessels: the submarine USS Cavalla and the destroyer escort USS Stewart, both open to visitors in their land berths overlooking the harbor.
Cavalla wasn’t launched until 1943, but she had an important part to play in the American response to the Japanese attack: On her first operational cruise, Cavalla sank the Shokaku, one of the Japanese aircraft carriers that had brought the bombers and fighters across the Pacific to destroy the fleet at Pearl Harbor.
Cavalla also was in Tokyo Bay to witness the surrender of the Japanese.
“A visit to the submarine is eye-opening,” said Kerry Crooks, president and CEO of the American Undersea Warfare Center. “It gives an insight to our relationship with the machines that we make.”
Certainly for some people who have never served in submarines, as Crooks has, it’s unsettling to try to imagine what such service would be like, confined to the claustrophobic, complex series of small spaces as the boat runs deep, blind but not deaf, while people on the surface do their best to send it to the bottom forever.
“For humans to do that … it’s an amazing thing,” Crooks said. “It inspires a sense of wonderment.”
The demands imposed by the pressures involved at depth, the constraints on space, and the complexity of the mission mean “the tolerances of all the parts have to be just right,” Crooks said.
“Everything on the boat has a purpose; every space is used,” Crooks said. “You look around and say ‘I see why that’s there.’”
Cavalla is 311 feet in length. Her diesel-electric engines drove her at 21 knots on the surface, but only at 19 knots when submerged. The carrier Shokaku traveled at up to 34 knots, so it was never a matter of the submarine chasing down her prey; the strategy was to station the vessel at the right place and time, lie hidden at periscope depth, and get off as many “fish” as possible as the big ship went by.
Of the six torpedoes she fired at the Shokaku, three, or perhaps four, were successful hits, piercing the hull and setting off catastrophic fires fed by aviation fuel. The carrier sank with the loss of 1,272 Japanese sailors and airmen.
When the torpedoes struck, Cavalla immediately switched from predator to the prey of the destroyers escorting the carrier. Deeply submerged, she managed to escape the destroyers’ depth-charge attacks with minimal damage.
This duel to the death between submarines and destroyers proved to be a decisive matchup in the Pacific war, which makes the destroyer escort Stewart an appropriate companion to Cavalla at Seawolf Park.
“The only time Cavalla and Stewart sailed together was during Hurricane Ike,” Crooks said. The storm surge lifted them from their berths. They were on the same side, but they represent two types of vessels that had interlocking roles to play in the deadly game of war at sea.
The strategic role of each class of vessel would be reconsidered as technology advanced, and the vessels at Seawolf Park embody some of those changes in their post-war modifications.
“After the war, Cavalla was modified to hunt other subs, with better sensory equipment and wire-controlled torpedoes,” Crooks said.
She served as a transitional platform as generations of larger submarines developed into strategic weapons critical to the “nuclear triad” of airborne, land-based and submarine-launched nuclear missiles. The logic, or illogic, of mass destruction replaced the cat-and-mouse games played on and beneath the surface of the sea that Cavalla was originally designed for.
Today, as historic artifacts at the American Undersea Warfare Center, the submarine and the destroyer bring two primary lessons: “One part is our ingenuity, and the other part is the internal drive and dedication required of her people,” Crooks said. “Our purpose is first to restore and preserve the vessels, and second to promote the center as a resource for our community.”
The success of the restoration of the Cavalla was recognized in October with the presentation of a Sally B. Wallace Preservation Award from the Galveston Historical Foundation.
It is as a community resource that the center will host December’s commemoration of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war the following day. For a posting of events on Dec. 7 and 8, visit www.americanunderseawarfarecenter.com.