Witness to History: The Sinking of the Shinano

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson June 15, 2012 17:26

Don Deiss at home ~ photo by Phil Schermeister

By Chace Anderson

“‘FIRE ONE came the call from the conning tower. Then the whole sub bucked,” recalls Tuolumne County resident and World War II submariner Don Deiss, now 87. “I was with 10 other guys in the forward torpedo room waiting the next order,” Deiss continues. “Eight seconds went by and FIRE TWO came the call.”

Another buck, and the second torpedo shot toward the target, propelled by a huge blast of compressed air.

“Then every eight seconds we fired another torpedo until all six forward tubes were empty,” he remembers. “We used a 150 percent spread, hoping at least four of the torpedoes would hit their mark.”

Inside the submarine USS Archer-Fish, Deiss and 81 shipmates held their collective breath and listened. Over the next several minutes, those men heard six distinct explosions.

“We knew we sank it; we just didn’t know what we sank.”

Exactly what Archer-Fish had sunk outside Tokyo Bay on that dark autumn night in 1944 turned out to be not only a secret Japanese ship but what was then the largest carrier ever built.

The only problem: The U.S. Navy didn’t recognize the sub’s kill because it didn’t know the ship even existed.

Pearl Harbor

A 16-year-old senior at Salinas High when Pearl Harbor was bombed, Don Deiss went to work after his high school graduation and waited to be drafted.

“Pearl Harbor was a dirty trick, an insult,” he remembers. “I wanted to go to war and get the thing over with so all our families could be happy again.”

But Deiss’s mother wouldn’t give her 17-year-old son the required permission to enter the service early, so he went to work as a machinist for Farmer’s Mercantile in Salinas, building doors for submarines.

One year later, drafted and given the choice of services, Deiss joined the Navy and decided to become a submariner himself.

“I had seen too many blind or disabled veterans,” Deiss recalls soberly.  “I wanted to come back in one piece or not at all.  So I joined the submarine service. Nobody survives the sinking of a sub.”

From basic training in Idaho, Deiss was sent to submarine school in San Diego and then headed to Pearl Harbor in January 1944. Although experienced as a machinist, he was told he would get to sea sooner as a radioman.

After Navy radio school in Hawaii, Deiss was told he would likely be assigned to the USS Albacore, but when the shipping list for Albacore came out, his name wasn’t on it.

Deeply disappointed, Deiss waited another week before he found his name on the shipping list for the USS Archer-Fish, a submarine commissioned in 1943 that already had four war patrols under its belt.

The Archer-Fish left Pearl Harbor in the fall of 1944, bound for Tokyo Bay, where the crew would, in November, do 30 days of lifeguard duty, patrolling for American crewmen who bailed out of damaged bombers.

Deiss’s disappointment at missing the Albacore turned to heart-checking relief six months later when he and the other sailors aboard Archer-Fish pulled into Guam, expecting to tie up next to the Albacore.

“Albacore wasn’t there,” Deiss whispers.  “I learned it had been sunk.  And my heart sank right then, too. She hit a mine… all hands were lost.”

Life aboard a submarine

“What was it like on board Archer-Fish?” Deiss echoes the question.  “Close. And quiet. Very quiet. Most of the time you could hear a pin drop.”

“Usually we were at duty stations four hours on and eight hours off,” he says. “People think it would be cold in a sub, but it’s just the opposite. Most of the time we only wore cutoff dungarees and T-shirts.”

“The air you trap when you go down…that’s what you’re stuck with,” Deiss explains.  “After 10 hours, a match wouldn’t burn.  Then we had another three hours, maybe four before it got really bad.”

There weren’t many luxuries “but the food was pretty good,” Deiss says. “We had two cooks and a baker, lots of steaks and chops and chicken in the freezer. And we got to shower once a week.”

“When we weren’t on duty, we’d play cribbage or0020pinochle, or study for exams to get qualified and advance,” he continues. “I had to learn everything about the sub before I was promoted from seaman to radioman.”

Deiss is the bearded sailor at right.

Secret supership

By the fall of 1944, the U.S. was bombing Japan with B-29 Superfortresses, and the Archer-Fish on Nov. 11 joined other subs patrolling for downed bomber crews. That happened to be the same day a Japanese civilian aboard a harbor tug in Tokyo Bay snapped a picture of the Imperial Navy’s brand-new supership, the carrier Shinano.

Six months after Pearl Harbor and about the time Don Deiss was graduating from Salinas High, the U.S. won its first major victory of the war at the Battle of Midway. Not only did the Americans secure the island, but they sank four Japanese aircraft carriers. Those losses led to the creation of Shinano.

The Shinano, named after a province in Japan, was originally designed to be one of three super battleships, sister ship to the Yamato and Musashi. Her keel was laid down at the Yokosuka Naval Shipyard on Nov. 4, 1940. But after Midway, the Japanese changed direction and made Shinano into a supercarrier.

Everything about the ship was cloaked in secrecy. A steel fence was built around three sides of the shipyard; on the fourth side, a steep cliff. The dockyard workers were required to live in Yokosuka, so the secret police could watch them. And no cameras were allowed anywhere near the shipyard.

Shinano displaced 72,000 tons, was 872 feet long, and her flight deck rode 48 feet above the ocean’s surface. By comparison, the largest Japanese carrier sunk at Midway, Akagi, displaced 36,000 tons.

As the war progressed and the American Navy advanced toward Japan, U.S. subs sent more and more tonnage to the bottom of the Pacific.  Hoping to turn the tide, many in the Imperial Japanese Navy looked to Shinano as “The Savior of the Empire.”And so she was rushed to completion.

Outside Tokyo Bay, Archer-Fish continued uneventful lifeguard duty, with no rescues required. As Thanksgiving Day 1944 neared, overcast weather kept the B-29s from their bomb runs for a couple days. Captain Joseph Enright and the Archer-Fish were given the freedom to hunt Japanese tonnage.

Rushed to war

The Captain of Shinano, Toshio Abe, knew the carrier was not ready for war duty. Many of her watertight compartment doors had yet to be installed, compartment air tests had not been completed, and many holes for electrical pipes, wire and ventilation ducts had not been sealed. Most of her crew had no previous experience at sea, and the captain lobbied to give them more training.

But the Japanese Naval Command ordered Shinano to sea, scheduling her maiden voyage for Nov. 28, a trip that would take her out Tokyo Bay and down to Japan’s Inland Sea. With no air support available, the ship would sail under the cover of darkness with only three Japanese destroyers in escort.

Against Captain Abe’s better judgment, the largest carrier in the world left Yokosuka at 6 p.m. and sailed out of Tokyo Bay with 2,515 men on board.

Enemy sighted

“The only time a guy on a submarine sees the sky or breathes fresh air is when he’s a lookout topside,” Don Deiss recalls. “Three guys would stand lookout for an hour at a time, rotating to a different spot on the conning tower every 20 minutes.”

At 9 p.m., three hours after Shinano set sail, Deiss was a lookout while Archer-Fish patrolled off the Japanese coast.

“It was dark and hard to see, but one of the other lookouts thought he saw something way off in the distance, maybe 10,000 or 12,000 yards away,” Deiss recalls. “They called ‘Battle stations, surface,’ and the diving officer told the radar man to get on the ball and tell us what was out there.” Captain Enright looked through his binoculars and examined charts.  The maps showed an island called Inamba Jima near the entrance to Tokyo Bay, and the skipper assumed that is what the lookout had seen.

Just then the radar officer said, “Captain, your island is moving.”

On the night horizon was a huge ship escorted by three destroyers. Captain Enright turned to his “Recognition Manual” and the line drawings it contained, but no silhouette matched what he was seeing.

As the sub drew nearer, it became clear that the ship was an aircraft carrier, and was huge. Captain Enright sketched a silhouette of what he saw through the periscope and showed it to one of his officers, who told him, “The Japanese don’t have anything like that.”

“The hell they don’t,” Enright replied. “I’m looking at it.”

“Submariners are a quiet bunch,” Deiss says. “We don’t get excited about many things, but there was a buzz that went through the sub when we realized a target was out there in the night.”

“We could do about 18 knots, maybe 19 tops,” he adds.  “The carrier had a top speed of 27 knots and could easily do 22 or 23. No way we could catch it normally.”

When Captain Abe on Shinano picked up Archer-Fish’s radar signal, he concluded the sub was acting as a decoy, most likely part of a wolf pack of American subs out to attack the carrier. Little did he know the submarine was all by itself.

Pattern of evasion

Instead of sending one of his three destroyer escorts after Archer-Fish or attempting to outrun the sub, Captain Abe began an evasive pattern of zigzagging down the coast of Japan, hoping to make the Inland Sea.“Captain Enright calculated that in three or four hours, we could intercept the target if it continued the same pattern of zigs and zags,” Deiss remembers.

“About 10 that night I reported to the forward torpedo room with nine other seamen and the torpedo man,” he recalls. “We had practiced this plenty of times and knew we’d be ready.”

“We had six tubes forward and four tubes aft, each loaded with a 2,000-pound Mark 14 steam torpedo,” Deiss says with pride. “They each had over 600 pounds of Torpex, four times more powerful than dynamite.”

He adds, “Captain Enright knew the Mark 14s had a tendency to travel a little deeper than they were set. So instead of the normal 30 to 35 feet, he had us set them to run at a 10-foot depth.”

 The chase

A five-hour game of cat and mouse ensued, Shinano continuing to zig and Archer-Fish continuing her end-run.At 3:10 a.m., Shinano was within 1,400 yards. The carrier zagged just as Captain Enright had predicted, presenting her starboard side to Archer-Fish.

“The Captain called ‘Battle stations, submerged,’ and gave the order to dive,” remembers Deiss. “In the forward torpedo room, we set the bow planes down and prepared for the order to fire.”

“At about 62 feet the captain leveled off and we waited,” Deiss whispers, ever the quiet submariner. “Yeah, you could hear a pin drop.”

“Finally, we got the order to fire and sent all six forward torpedoes on their way.”

Captain Enright, through the periscope, saw the first two fireballs as torpedoes hit their mark. He also saw one of the destroyer escorts turn toward the Archer-Fish, and knew depth charges would be coming.

“The captain gave the order to dive to 400 feet to avoid the depth charges,” says Deiss, “so no one saw the other torpedoes hit. But we counted explosions, and I know I heard six.”

He also heard the explosions from the depth charges, 14 by his count. “But at 400 feet, they couldn’t do any damage,” he says.

Archer-Fish remained at 400 feet for about three hours, and then went up to periscope depth to look around. No trace of the ship, escorts or survivors was visible. Captain Enright took the sub back down to 100 feet and stayed there until nightfall, venturing up to periscope depth about once an hour to look around.

“We knew we had sunk the carrier,” Deiss emphasizes. “We clearly heard the breakup noises, those crushing sounds when the pressure of the ocean collapses compartments on a ship as it sinks to the bottom.”

On board the stricken carrier

What Deiss and the other crewmembers of Archer-Fish couldn’t know was what it was like onboard the stricken Shinano.

Survivors’ accounts eventually revealed what took place on board the Japanese carrier and how a single American submarine, with a displacement of just 2,000 tons, could send the 72,000-ton unsinkable supership to the bottom of the ocean.

Although the crew heard six torpedoes explode, only four of them struck the Shinano. The two misses were set to explode at a predetermined depth, so the crew heard them too.

The Shinano had been built with what were thought to be torpedo-proof blisters of armor on each side of the ship. Much of the ship had four-inch steel plating reinforced with three feet of concrete. But because Captain Enright set the torpedoes to run at 10 feet rather than deeper, they hit above the protective armor.

Captain Abe and his officers first thought Shinano could easily make it to port for repairs. But as the ocean rushed in through gaping wounds, the carrier began to list to starboard. An attempt to correct the list by flooding the port side failed because the tank valves on that side were above water. The damage had been seriously underestimated.

By 7:45 a.m. the carrier lost all power. By 8:50 a.m. an attempt by the destroyer escorts to tow Shinano proved futile. The order to abandon ship was given at 10:15, and the ship sank at 10:57. The escorts picked up as many survivors as they could.

Only 17 hours into her maiden voyage, the secret “Savior of the Empire” had been sunk by Don Deiss and the other crewmembers of Archer-Fish. Captain Abe went down with his ship, one of 1,435 Japanese who died when the Shinano sank.

“Well, we felt pretty good when we heard the ship breaking up. We knew we had sunk a big one. But there was some sadness too,” Deiss says. “We knew a lot of people had just died.”

Record tonnage

“We finished our 30-day patrol, and on December 15 arrived in Guam for R&R and refitting.”

“In Guam, Captain Enright was told Naval Intelligence wouldn’t support his claim that we had sunk a carrier,” Deiss explains. “They said there wasn’t any carrier in Tokyo Bay, so how could we have sunk one. They asked the captain if he would settle for sinking a cruiser. His answer was ‘Hell no.’ ”

After showing the sketches he had drawn of the ship, Naval Intelligence gave Archer-Fish credit for sinking a light carrier, listing the tonnage at a mere 28,000.

Don Deiss and Archer-Fish completed two more patrols. During the first, 30 days of lifeguard duty in the Philippines, the crew sank a Japanese submarine. During the second, Archer-Fish was again outside Tokyo Bay when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“We were one of 12 U.S. submarines tied up next to the sub tender Proteus during the Japanese surrender,” Deiss recalls. “We were about a mile from the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay when the actual documents were signed on Sept. 2, 1945.”

When asked what he saw on that day, he replies, “Not much. Too foggy. But we did go below where it was warm and listened to a PA broadcast from the Missouri.”

Radioman Deiss was on duty three days later as the 12 subs sailed together toward Pearl Harbor. A radio message from COMSUBPAC (Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet) to Archer-Fish stated that the Japanese had acknowledged the sinking of the carrier Shinano on Nov. 29, 1944, listing the ship at 69,000 tons.

“I must have made about a dozen copies of that message and passed them out,” Deiss recalls.

U.S. experts in 1946 revised that figure to 70,755 tons.

For pursuing and sinking Shinano, Captain Enright was awarded the Navy Cross. The accompanying citation listed the tonnage at 72,000 tons, making it the largest warship ever sunk by a submarine. In fact, of the 1,588 U.S. submarine patrols during World War II, Don Deiss’s first with Archer-Fish holds the record for the most tonnage sunk by a submarine during a single patrol.

A Presidential Unit Citation went to the Archer-Fish and its crew for “extraordinary heroism” during the events of Nov. 28-29, 1944. The sub itself, a diesel-powered relic in the new nuclear sub era, was sunk by torpedos in a training exercise off San Diego in 1968.

Life at 87

Today Deiss lives quietly with Vesta, his wife of 65 years. “I met her two months after my discharge in 1946, and I married her six months later,” he says, a bit of a sparkle in his eye.

After the war, Deiss continued his work as a machinist in Salinas, first for Gavilan Iron and Machine, and then Spreckels Sugar Company. He and Vesta raised daughters Donna and Kathy, and in 1988, when he found himself retired and miles from a new granddaughter, Kalissa, he and Vesta moved to Sonora to be nearby.

“The Navy taught me to get by on my own,” Deiss muses. “Before I went in the service I had never been farther from Salinas than San Francisco. I had never ridden in a taxi or a streetcar, never been on a train or a plane. I was really green.

“In the service I met thousands of people and sure traveled a lot farther from home than San Francisco.”

Over the years he attended three reunions for Archer-Fish crewmembers, the last in 1992. Today, he knows of only three others still living.

When asked if helping sink the Shinano is the highlight of his life, Deiss answers, “Oh no.” And then he points to Vesta.

“It’s her,” he says. “I’m more proud of my marriage than anything else.”

Then he adds, with that same sparkle, “I’ll tell you, anybody who can put up with me for 65 years really deserves the Navy Cross.”

In addition to a series of interviews with Mr. Deiss, sources for this story include U.S. Naval records; the books “Gallant Lady: A Biography of the USS Archerfish,” and “Shinano! The Sinking of Japan’s Secret Supership”; and Japanese warship damage reports gathered by the 1946 U.S. Naval Technical Mission to Japan.

© 2012 Friends and Neighbors Magazine


Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson June 15, 2012 17:26