Most long time Alaskans know about, even if it seems like the rest of the world never heard of them, the WWII battles fought between U.S. and Japanese forces in the Aleutian Islands. And some might even know about the Japanese submarine I-26 that patrolled from British Columbia to the California coast, sinking at least two ships and shelling a lighthouse and radio-direction-finding installation at Estevan Point, B.C.
But even those who pride themselves the most on knowing their WWII history in the Pacific Northwest are often surprised to find that there was enemy action and a small battle fought in southern SE Alaska off the west coast of Prince of Wales Island in July of 1942.
At this time an airfield had been established on Annette Island, 25 miles south of Ketchikan, to defend Canadian and U.S. interests along the coast. The Royal Canadian Air Force's No. 115 (Fighter) Squadron was established on the island on May 5, 1942 becoming "the first Canadian force ever based in U.S. territory to directly assist in American defense" according to M.V. Bezeau in the book "Alaska at War."
Alaskans and everyone else living along the Northwest Coast were jumpy at the thought of Japanese subs prowling about seeking a target, particularly after the I-26 sank the 386-ton freighter Coast Trader as it left the Strait of Juan de Fuca on June 7, 1942. The U.S. Government, fearing a panic, put out the word that the ship was sunk by "an internal explosion."
This official double-talk didn't calm everyone's fears. In the month following the sinking there were numerous reports of submarine sightings in southern SE Alaska, which, when investigated, turned out to be logs or whales.
Then, on July 6, a Coast Guard vessel patrolling near a small inlet on Noyes Island on the West Coast of Prince of Wales Island, heard from a group of salmon trollers in the area that they'd seen a sub's periscope in open waters half a mile off Cape Addington.
The Coast Guard passed on the information to the RCAF 115 Squadron on Annette Island. At the same time, two patrol ships armed with depth charges, the CG Cutter McLane and the Navy-requisitioned halibut schooner Foremost were dispatched. The next morning RCAF Bolingbroke bombers conducted searches of the area, but found nothing.
Both the U.S. and Canadian forces took the sighting seriously, however, and despite bad weather and limited visibility the RCAF sent out another Bolingbroke later in the day. Once over the search area, the crew reported a line of churning water and what they described as white puffs of smoke.
They dived on the target and at 500 feet they were able to see, running just beneath the surface, the dark, classic cigar shape of a submarine. The bomber released a 250-pound anti-sub bomb.
The explosion from the hit sent a 60-foot plume of water into the air. As the bomber circled above, the crew noted that while no debris surfaced an oil slick two to four hundred feet in diamter spread over the area. After circling for two hours searching for debris or survivors, the plane was forced to return to Annette Island.
Meanwhile, the two patrol vessels the McLane and the Foremost arrived on the scene to continue the search. Although there are deep waters off Cape Addington, the chart showed a shallow area where it was thought just possible that a damaged sub could come to rest and even effect repairs if the hit hadn't been too catastrophic. In the absence of any wreckage, the ships were ordered to maintain their position in the area and wait for the sub to possibly re-emerge.
Day two into the search, the McLane picked up underwater engine noises and dropped a depth charge over the position, but it was a dud and failed to explode. The rest of the day was devoted to a typical cat-and-mouse pursuit as the McLane continued to pick up the noises of a zig-zagging sub and dropped more depth charges, not duds this time.
The sub, tiring of being harassed, launched a torpedo which the crew of the McLane saw clearly as it cleaved the water toward them. As author Pat Roppel reports: "The commanding officer [of the cutter] was standing on the bow and saw the torpedo coming, recognizing the yellow head and green body and hearing it hiss. It left a feather of 125 feet as it came toward the cutter. The vessel moved astern, and the excited crewmembers watched the warhead speed by within two feet of the cutter's bow."
Immediately, the cutter and the Foremost steamed toward where the torpedo had been launched from.
The Foremost, unable to get far enough away from the range of the depth charges it dropped, was already damaged by its own blasts when, in deep water, it hit what seemed like a sandbar. As it turned out, the old schooner had struck the submarine so hard that it knocked her false keel eight inches off center. The wounded ship hurried away, dropping a smoke bomb to mark the spot. The McLane moved in and dropped two more depth charges, which produced an oil slick and shortly after that, the appearance of the sub's periscope.
The cutter, knowing its light armor was no match for the sub's deck guns if it should be allowed to surface and use them, closed in on the sub once more and dropped yet more depth charges. This time not only did more oil reach the surface, but so did chunks of what appeared to be the sub's insulation.
The ships, accompanied by flyovers by the Navy, scouted the area but found no further trace of the submarine. On October 30, 1943 the U.S. Navy Department officially announced that an enemy submarine had been sunk off Cape Addington in a combined action between the RCAF Bolingbroke bomber crew, the Coast Guard crew on the McLane, and the Navy crew aboard the YP-251 Foremost.
It's not known for certain which submarine was sunk*, or why it was in the area, though a post-war report prepared by the US and British Navies noted that morale had become low in the Imperial Japanese Navy when so few important U.S. coastal targets were taken out by subs: "It was frankly impossible to believe that submarines could spend weeks on the US west coast 'without contacts'."
It's possible the sub was hoping to achieve something worth reporting. Instead, very far from home and loved ones, in a cramped, claustrophobic, and smelly vessel of war, it's believed that the crew pointlessly met their deaths on the bottom of the ocean just off Prince of Wales Island, Alaska.
*The submarine was officially cited, after the war, as the RO-32. However, the RO-32 appeared to be still in action throughout the rest of the war. Additionally, Japanese official records do not confirm that they lost any submarine in that area. It's entirely possible that the RO-32 was damaged and ejected oil and the insulation to fool its pursuers into thinking it had been destroyed and then, after the pursuit was called off, limped away to safety.