Excerpt: Operation Rising Sun

The following is an excerpt from Operation Rising Sun: The Sinking of Japan’s Secret Submarine I-52 by David W. Jourdan (Potomac Books, 2020).

Prologue

Fifteen minutes of steady flying yielded nothing. Half an hour after launch, they still heard no contact. The horizon was completely dark, the radar was clear, and the sonar gear was silent. “What the heck am I going to do now?” Gordon remembered thinking. “Here I was, a killer plane, and no idea where to go!” He changed course to the west and in another five minutes saw a smoke light still burning in the water. Just then, Red Kelso spoke up.

“Ah, there’s a plane at 40 degrees and apparently heading our way.” They had found Jesse Taylor. Though he had expended his weapons, he was loitering in the area, waiting for Gordon. He dropped another smoke light in the water just as the last one burned out.

Price Fish now began picking up signals from Taylor’s buoys. He and Gordon discussed the color-coded pattern (which correlated to radio frequencies of the buoys) and tried to make sense of the sounds they were hearing.

Gordon: “Mr. Fish, ah, his pattern is laid magnetic west. Magnetic west.”

Fish: “I see. These comms are on, uh, the yellow and orange, which would be in that case, north and south. . . . The center of the pattern, rather, and north, right?”

Gordon: “That’s right, let’s see, ah . . . he says that his green buoy is, about six . . . is four miles west of here. Which of his do you pick up, anyway?”

Fish: “I pick up purple, orange, ah, blue is faint, and also pick up yellow. I did not pick up red or green.”

With his fuel running low and having turned the proceedings over to Gordon, Taylor left the scene. He and his crew headed northeast to seek the carrier and safety.

Gordon and Fish, with occasional help from Martin, continued to try to make sense of what they were hearing. The swishing beats of an underwater propeller faded in and out, with no clear pattern. They dropped additional buoys from their own supply, adding to the number of listening devices scattered about the area. Gordon tried to keep track of his position, slowing to 130 knots and sometimes skimming lower than five hundred feet above the dark sea. His only points of reference were the smoke lights, bright flares that ignited when dropped and floated for up to fifteen minutes until burning out. Without a marker light to guide him, Gordon would have to rely on his magnetic compass and estimated speed to try to navigate over a very precise location in pitch-dark skies, a near-impossible feat.

Over an hour into the flight, having listened to intermittent submarine sounds for the previous twenty minutes, Gordon decided it was time to attack.

Gordon: “We’ll make one pass around there and see what we hear. . . . If we can discern any better where he is, and then I’ll make a run if it sounds any good.”

Fish: “All right . . . Roger . . . Time is oh-one-four-one [0141 local time, 0241 Z].”

Martin: “That’s all on me to the gizmo, is that correct?”

The FIDO, which they referred to as the “gizmo,” was new to the crew. Gordon and his crew proceeded to double-check each other on its setup and operation.

Gordon: “That’s right. Bomb bay doors open.”

Martin: “Make sure your switch is on TORPEDO.”

Gordon: “Uh, that’s right. It’s on BOMBS now. That’s right.”

Without changing the weapons selector switch on his right-hand console from BOMBS to TORPEDO, Gordon would have accidentally dropped his depth bombs instead of the FIDO. It would have been an embarrassing way to waste ordnance.

Gordon: “He sounds pretty good on that one, doesn’t he?”

That was wishful thinking on Gordon’s part. The propeller swishing sounds swelled but quickly faded. Haunting howls, cracklings, gurglings, and whistles—a combination of ambient sea sounds and noise generated by the primitive electronics straining to amplify the weak signals—confused the listeners. Five more minutes of discussion between Fish and Gordon ensued. Finally, Gordon was satisfied. Gordon: “I’m gonna drop between the marker and where I believe . . . the north . . . buoy is.”

Fish: “Roger.” A few moments later, “Oh-one-four-seven [0147 local time, 0247 Z].”

As the Avenger approached the drop point, the crew worked together to ensure the unfamiliar weapon was properly armed and that all settings were correct.

Martin: “Uh, does your ARM MASTER SWITCH have to be on?”

Gordon: “Yeah, but I’m pretty far away yet. I’ll fix that all up in just a second. Be sure you check me though. I’ll tell you when I think I’m ready.”

Gordon eased the aircraft down to a mere 350 feet above the nearly invisible sea and slowed to 120 knots.

Gordon: “Here we go now. I’m over-nearing the smoke light.” A minute later, “Okay, listen now.”

Gordon dropped the Mark-24 FIDO. The weapon plunged into the sea, spun up its electric motor, and immediately began a circular search pattern, hunting for submarine sounds. Fish continued to listen intently for signs that the torpedo was running and that their quarry was nearby.

Fish: “Gordie, can you get some altitude?”

Gordon: “Uh, sounded to me like he must have turned his motors off as soon as he heard it hit the water.”

Fish: “Well, they’re still going now. You lost some performance there because of low altitude and all that stuff. . . . It’s coming through now, though.”

As Fish listened anxiously for signs of a successful attack, Gordon expertly managed his mission. Besides listening to the sonobuoy signals and discussing the sounds with Fish, the pilot was flying the Avenger, navigating, scanning for threats, and thinking ahead. They were now ninety minutes into the flight.

Gordon: “Uh, somebody remind me about my gas in about fifteen minutes if you can remember.”

Kelso: “Roger.”

Gordon: “Uh, do you think he’s moving away from that, uh, center buoy, Price, and does it sound any weaker on orange now?”

Fish: “Uh, just a minute . . . very little bit, if any.”

Gordon: “Just think he’s still about halfway between, then?”

Fish: “Way it sounds.”

As evidenced by the vintage recordings, Gordon spoke and acted with maturity and experience far beyond what one might expect from a twenty-three-year-old. His crew was behind him in every regard. After listening to the sounds of the entire flight and studying the voice transcript, former F-14 radar intercept officer and present-day Boeing test pilot Bill Mnich observed:

My biggest takeaway: those guys were working as a team and left all semblance of ego and rank back on the ship. It’s a case study in what we would today call CRM: Crew Resource Management. That acronym didn’t exist in 1944 but they clearly knew the concept and applied it. Gordon’s comment “somebody remind me about my gas in about fifteen minutes” and the discussion of arming the “gizmo” speak volumes to me. They backed each other up, asked for input, consulted each other. Gordon was clearly in charge but everybody felt empowered to speak up. . . . It was wonderful to hear.

Gordon’s crew felt comfortable speaking when they had something to say. Gordon was not threatened by questioning and even asked for help. When the time came to act, however, he was decisive, and the crew followed his lead.

Ten minutes passed as Fish listened, Martin watched the radar, and Kelso peered at the dark horizon, looking for signs of the enemy while keeping track of the smoke light. At their low altitude, waves spawned spurious radar blips that had to be discussed and evaluated. Chasing phantom contacts would divert them from the main area and possibly risk their losing sight of their reference light. Suddenly, at 0312, eighteen minutes after the weapon was dropped, a tremendous underwater explosion was heard on the sound gear. Loud roaring sounds persisted as Gordon and Fish listened intently.

Gordon: “Okay.”

Martin: “I don’t see it.”

Gordon: “Shut up!”

Gordon: “Oh, we got that son of a bitch!”

Two minutes later, sounds of propeller noise ceased.

Gordon and Avenger TBM number 17 remained on the scene for an hour until relieved by another Avenger. They landed safely aboard Bogue, ending a successful flight of three hours and twenty-six minutes. Jubilantly, they reported they had attacked and hit an enemy submarine.

What submarine had they attacked? What had they hit? And what became of it? The rest of the story would have to wait five decades to be told.

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