Submarines lying close off San Diego beaches, including the amazing S-37

Lie down in darkness

There are 13 subs beneath local waters: S-37, Slapjack, Searaven, Tuna, Moray, Sabalo, Skate, Aspro, Archerfish, Burrfish, Red-fish, Sea Devil, and Trepang.
  • There are 13 subs beneath local waters: S-37, Slapjack, Searaven, Tuna, Moray, Sabalo, Skate, Aspro, Archerfish, Burrfish, Red-fish, Sea Devil, and Trepang.
  • Image by J. Abel

The night sea off the coast of La Jolla was smothered in fog on December 18, 1917, and in those pre-sonar days the American submarine F-1 had no way of knowing that she was on a collision course with her sister ship, the F-3. At about 5:30 p.m., the F-3 punched a wide hole in the hull of her fleetmate; the F-1 sank in ten seconds, taking 19 of the crew with her. Only the captain and four others were rescued. The corpse of the old sub is still there, in 600 feet of water some six miles off Bird Rock.

The F-1 is the only manned submarine ever sunk accidentally in the coastal waters of Southern California, but there are more than a dozen such boats (it’s okay to call a submarine a “boat”) resting on the ocean’s bottom between San Clemente and Imperial Beach. All these ships were scuttled after being selected to be used for target practice.

Except for the ill-fated F-1, the others had all seen action in World War II. Four were deliberately sunk shortly after the end of the war, the rest in the late 1960s. Because most of these boats were bombed during classified Navy experiments, the location of all but one are presently known only to the government.

What to some may simply be forgotten hulks rusting away in the deep are living history to Robert von Maier, 32, a Rancho Bernardo resident and the publisher and editor of the WWII Naval Journal, which, according to its cover,, is “dedicated to the preservation of World War Two Naval History.” While there are hundreds of Navy war machines resting under the white-caps off San Diego — including many aircraft, from bi-planes to Tomcats — submarines hold a particular interest for von Maier, who has published two books on deep-sea diving and is a columnist for Discover Diving, a locally published magazine for recreational divers.

About six months ago, von Maier launched Project Subsearch, which intends to locate all the World War II submarines that were sunk off San Diego. He also plans to produce a film and a book about them. “I got this idea a couple of years ago, so as to preserve the history of these subs and maybe to bring up some artifacts that could be donated to maritime museums. It’s the 50th anniversary of many of the battles these boats took part in, so there’s a lot of interest in these things right now.” Those participating in the project include von Maier and several members of his editorial board, as well as a deep-sea diving technician and several Navy officers, the latter acting in an unofficial capacity.

All the sunken vessels saw action in the Pacific, and all sank some kind of Japanese shipping, says von Maier. He and his group have obtained the names of 13 such subs beneath local waters: S-37, Slapjack, Searaven, Tuna, Moray, Sabalo, Skate, Aspro, Archerfish, Burrfish, Red-fish, Sea Devil, and Trepang. (Because of the Navy’s practice of recycling ships' names, several of the above names were also carried by some of the early nuclear-powered submarines; San Diego’s sunken subs were all diesel-powered craft of an earlier time.)

One member of Project Subscarch is Karl Zingheim, an officer at the Amphibious Base in Coronado and an enthusiastic amateur historian of U.S. warships. “We have all this notable history just offshore," he says. “There is a lot of public curiosity, a public hunger about these kinds of things. This is a major new source of historical study, and we’re happy to be in the lead, even though we’re still really in the scholarship phase of it. We owe a lot to the crew that located the Titanic 20 years ago, because that started it all, this underwater location thing. Now there’s enough technology around that small, private groups like us can take on these tasks.” Zingheim refers to such projects as “underwater archaeology.”

Because most of the subs are located in deep water — 800 feet or more — von Maier’s project appears to be an expensive and time-consuming one. He estimates it will take two to six years to locate and document all the known sunken subs. Costly equipment will also be required, such as sidescan sonar, which projects a silhouette of a submerged vessel onto a computer screen to permit identification of the type of craft. Von Maier is trying to interest dive equipment firms and cable TV companies in sponsoring the project.

Several of the boats that were ignominiously used as targets had their historic moment in the rising sun while serving in the Pacific. The 300-foot USS Archerfish sank the Japanese supercarrier Shinano, which was the largest warship, in terms of tonnage, ever sent to the bottom by a submarine.

The 250 foot USS Skate was moored nearby during a test of the atomic bomb in the Bikini Atoll; later it was sent to San Diego for target practice. Von Maier is interested in determining if the sub is still radioactive, and if so what effect that may be having on nearby marine life.

While the Navy has yet to release the exact locations of these ships, von Maier says that Project Subsearch has the “unofficial blessing" of the National Parks Service Submerged Cultural Resources Unit, the agency that oversees historical underwater sites such as the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.

Of the group of World War II submarines that lie below our coastal waters, perhaps the most interesting is both the oldest and the only one that was not deliberately sunk. It is also the only one whose exact site is known.

This is the S-37 (no name, just the number), one of a class of submarines built during World War I and through the early 1920s. S-37 was commissioned in 1923 at Mare Island in Northern California, and a year later she was deployed to her home port in Manila Bay to join what at that time was called the “Asiatic Fleet." For 17 more or less uneventful years — until Pearl Harbor — S-37 patrolled the waters of the Pacific.

Retired Captain Robert “Tex" Lander, 79, a San Diego resident, was just a few years out of the Naval Academy when he joined the crew of S-37. “Most of the personnel aboard," he later observed for the magazine Shipmate, “were authentic ‘Asiatic’ sailors. They knew every bar from Subic to Tsingtao. They were tough, fearless, loyal, and skilled. Their only problem was that they had just missed too many transports home. They were accustomed to the best in liberty ports. In China they hired coolies to scrape paint and shine bright work, while they counted their money and contemplated the next shore leave, where the American dollar bought 20 times more than in the U.S."

S-37 was about 200 feet long with a top speed of under nine knots. Her crew numbered about 35. By the standards of the submarines that began to come on line shortly after the outbreak of war, she was old, tired, and obsolete. There was no air-conditioning. When submerged, the heat was “almost unbearable," says Lander. “Your usual duty uniform was your skivvies, a towel around your head, and a bucket to wring out the sweat from the towel."

Another Annapolis graduate who served aboard S-37 as executive officer just before and after Pearl Harbor was San Diegan Bill Hazzard, 80, also a retired captain. “I remember writing to my wife," he says, “that the heat inside the submarine was so intense that I never knew if it was sweat or cockroaches crawling down my back.” The roaches were a constant problem; no matter how many times the ship was fumigated, they would return en masse, often falling from the ceilings and onto the crew while sleeping or at mess.

S-37 was at the port of Cavite in Manila Bay when Pearl Harbor was bombed. “We pretty much knew war was coming," says Hazzard, adding that a high-ranking officer had told him nine days before Pearl Harbor that “we can expect the Japanese to commence war at any time."

By the time the Japanese got around to Cavite, on December 8, S-37 was already under Manila Bay on her first war patrol on a heading for Java. The boat stopped off at the island of Mindoro, where Lander traded their deck anchor and mooring lines to the natives for a supply of pigs, chickens, and coconuts.

On February 2 of 1942, S-37 sailed through Makassar Strait (off what is now Indonesia) and into history, becoming the first American submarine to sink a Japanese destroyer. The strike was made while on the surface. S-37 spotted a division of enemy destroyers, and as Lander related, Bill Hazzard, “with his night vision, used his seaman’s eye for a lead angle, and I, as Torpedo Officer, pushed the plunger to fire the four torpedos, one at each of the four destroyers. Luckily, one of them hit." After the destroyer exploded, S-37 submerged quickly to 200 feet with depth charges following her down.

Later, S-37 had an engine room hatch destroyed during the battle of the Java Sea and still later stumbled unaware into the Battle of Lombok Strait, where she suffered a ruptured fuel tank. They returned to Java to repair the damage and managed to put out to sea just one day before the Japanese occupied that island.

S-37 then sailed to Freemantle, Australia, where the crew was treated like heroes by the locals and where the submarine received a needed overhaul. Their last patrol was near Guadalcanal, where Japanese destroyers were shelling the dug-in Marines. They got off some torpedos, but with what Lander had called the “primeval equipment” of S-37, “a torpedo hit would have been nothing short of a miracle." In between sailing through a gauntlet of depth charges, they did manage to sink a seaplane tender.

S-37 was ordered back to San Diego in 1943. About 200 miles west of the city, an American cargo ship sailed into view. The submarine flashed the proper recognition signal and hoisted an American flag, but the freighter captain was either nervous or suspicious of treachery, for he opened fire on S-37. The sub had “dry tanks" at the time — not expecting an attack — so it seemed to the crew to take an eternity to submerge, with the freighter bearing down on them with deck guns blazing. However, they escaped without damage.

There was some surprise when S-37 sailed into port, as the cargo ship had reported they had sunk an enemy submarine (the Navy knew that S-37 was in that vicinity and had guessed about the error). Nevertheless, their return from the dead did not prevent the grizzled and tired crew from being presented with a long list of regulations dealing with liberty hours, proper uniforms, and conduct ashore. And their captain had been put on report by a young Marine for leaving the ship early. The old “Asiatic sailors" knew they were home.

In 1944, S-37 saw duty in the Aleutians, along with some of the other old S-class subs. In 1945, it was back in San Diego, and the Navy decided it would he pressed into service one last time, as a target. Sometime in the spring of '45 (Navy records are not specific as to date) the old submarine was being towed from the 32nd Street Naval Base out to open sea, when, not far off the shores of Imperial Beach, the towline broke and the battered old boat listed and sank. Someone had left open the hatches.

Nothing more was heard of S-37 until July of 1958, when local papers carried the story of a “mystery hulk” that had the Navy “embarrassed" and “puzzled." The Navy did not have any local records on hand regarding a sunken submarine in those waters.

The submarine had been discovered by two San Diego State students who were financing their educations by salvaging objects they found while scuba diving. They had located S-37 about 300 yards off the coast and in some 25 feet of water, approximately on a line with the Naval Radio Station in Imperial Beach. The students had been tipped off about a possible sunken ship by the owner of a bait barge who over the years had lost three nets to the wreck.

With the Navy scratching its head over the origin of the wreck, an employee of the San Diego District Attorney's office stepped forward with the information that he had been on the submarine when she was being towed. He said that when the line parted, the sub sank so fast he had to be rescued by the Coast Guard. Then, a retired Navy chief, Jay Plainer, offered a positive identification. He had been in charge of the plotting operation in 1945 when he marked the final location of S-37. It was not something Plainer would easily forget; he had been aboard her when she was commissioned in 1923 and served on the crew for several years. “I thought it was quite a nice victory when the S-37 broke away from her tow and scuttled herself rather than be bombed," he told local reporters.

The official record of the demise of S-37 is in the Naval Historical Center in Washington. The report says that she “was sunk as a target by aerial bombing between April and June of 1945." The witnesses to her actual sinking, and the improbable scenario that the Navy would be bombing a target so close to shore, make it seem likely that whoever wrote up the official 1945 report simply decided to cover up an embarrassing incident.

Witnesses stated that S-37 went down about 700 yards off the coast in 100 feet of water, so it is possible that an earlier, unreported attempt was made to salvage her. (Salvagers will often move a wreck closer to shore to make operations easier.) The State students put in for salvage rights, but nothing came of their effort. In 1963, a local company, Western Marine Service, was awarded the salvage rights by the Navy. “We are going to get it; it’s just a matter of time," said the owner of Western Marine. He estimated its salvage worth at about $80,000.

S-37 was buried deep in the sand. The salvage company made a number of attempts to raise her, using both floating derricks and pontoons. Bad weather turned them back on several occasions, but even when they were able to lift her somewhat, she immediately sank again. After a year and a half, the effort was abandoned.

Once the location of the old submarine was public knowledge, she became a “must see” for local recreational divers, many of whom took home as souvenirs whatever they could easily pry loose. The periscope apparently went early, but the periscope shears are still there and can be seen above the water line during very low tides. (A few years ago the hatches were welded shut; Captain Hazzard thinks the Navy did it as a safety precaution so that divers would not get trapped inside the vessel.)

Mike Moore is a scuba diver with a vivid recollection of S-37. He now resides in Baltimore, but in 1970 he was living in San Diego, an out-of-work, 24-year-old research physicist. He’d been unemployed for over a year, “flat broke in the Nixon recession," he says, and Christmas was approaching. “My wife had terminal cancer, and we both knew it, and we knew that this would probably be our last Christmas together, so I wanted to buy her something really nice. I had in mind a nice robe for her. Me and a friend went out and anchored up on the wreck, and using hooker rig we went down with hacksaws and started cutting up the conning tower fair-water (a part of the tower), which is made out of brass. It was continuous bottom work, and we were freezing our galoshes off, and I remember saying to myself that this is the absolute pits, the very bottom.”

After five hours of sawing, Moore and his friend liberated their brass prize, almost 300 pounds of it, which they sold for 43 cents per. He bought his wife not only the robe but several other gifts. Moore later changed careers: today he is an oceanographer, still with an active — if less mercenary — interest in sunken military ships.

As part of Project Subsearch, von Maier, Zingheim, and their associates will be recording the recollections of Captains Lander, Hazzard, and the other old sailors still around who served on the sunken subs. Lander, like Platner years earlier, enjoys the fact that S-37 refused to be a target. “She just wouldn’t be sunk,” he says proudly. In a voice breaking a bit with memory and emotion, he adds, “I have a lot of strong feeling for that old submarine. After doing what she did [in the Pacific], after almost being sunk by an American freighter not far from our coast, and then going down on her own, I think the City of San Diego should declare her an official memorial.”

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