The Submarines That Sank Themselves During World War II

Being a submariner during the Second World War wasn't an easy job. It was dark, cramped, and death could be at any moment – even at the hands of your own torpedoes.
Trevor English
The USS Tang during WWII.U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

Submarines played a vital role in the Second World War, and it took a lot of hard work and dedication from their crews. It was a perilous job that left people submerged for hours to days in enemy waters.

Torpedoes were the main weapons of these submarines and they proved vital in winning the war for the allies. These massive weapons systems weren't free of problems though, as they had many issues that would render them useless in the water. They also had other issues too though, like the uncanny ability to accidentally circle back on the submarine that fired them.

After about the first World War, engineers designed torpedoes to be able to correct their course towards a target. This was done using a mechanically set gyro angle, which was set before the torpedo was launched, while still in the submarine. After the torpedo was fired, it would travel straight for a given distance, until the gyro steering mechanism would begin helping correct and stabilize the course to turn the warhead. After it turned the given angle, the torpedo would straighten out again and hopefully hit its target.

But here's the thing, some torpedoes' gyro mechanisms failed during that turning process and the torpedoes themselves would never stop turning. This would cause the torpedoes to run in circles, which obviously would cause some precarious situations for the attacking submarine.

There are 30 documented cases of this happening during the war. Luckily, only 2 were fatal.

The first fatal circular run incident

One of those fatal circular run mishaps was that of the USS Tullibee on July 29th, 1944. The submarine was on her fourth war patrol in the Palau Islands when she registered an enemy convoy on her radar. The crew fired 2 torpedoes, and 2 minutes later, it was rocked by a violent explosion. There was a lone survivor of the 60-man crew, Gunner's Mate C.W. Kuykendall, who was thrown from the bridge, into the water, and later picked up as a prisoner of war by a Japanese destroyer. He survived the war and was released on V-J day.

Other than the USS Tullibee, there was another, perhaps more notable sinking. It was the USS Tang.

The sinking of the USS Tang

The Tang was the most successful of all the American submarines deployed during the big war, sinking 33 vessels in her time. On her fifth war patrol, just one year after she was launched, the USS Tang encountered a large enemy convoy. It was the night of October 23th, 1944, and the Tang began firing torpedoes at the ship convoy, slowly amassing enemy casualties. Every ship in that convoy encountered that night was burning or sunk after the Tang attacked.

Surviving that attack, on the next night of October 24th, the Tang encountered another Japanese convoy carrying planes. The USS Tang unleashed a number of torpedoes at the transports and started making its getaway as two escort ships began chasing her. She was able to sink all the vessels in the convoy, other than one transport that was dead in the water.

The crew of the Tang maneuvered the ship to finish the job, having only two of her 24 torpedoes left to fire.

The crew fired two torpedoes, the first running straight, but the last curving sharply to the left, circling around until it hit the Tang on the stern.

The Submarines That Sank Themselves During World War II
Source: Public Domain/Wikimedia

The explosion rocked the vessel and its aft end bottomed out on the seafloor at 180 feet of depth. The crew that had survived crowded into the torpedo room hoping to get out the forward escape hatch. The patrol boat they were chasing started to drop depth charges which only worsened the damage to the ship. 13 men were able to escape out of the forward hatch, and 4 others escaped from the bridge. Of the 13 that got out the forward hatch, 8 reached the surface, and only 5 were eventually rescued. In total, 78 men lost their lives in the accident and 9 survived.

In the final fateful patrol of the USS Tang, 24 torpedoes were fired. 22 found their mark on the enemy ship, 13 ships were sunk. 1 of the 24 torpedoes missed, and the final sank the Tang. The commanding officer of the vessel, Officer Richard O'Kane, was awarded the Medal of Honor after the war. The ship was awarded four battle stars and the Presidential Unit Citation twice.

And that's the story of two unfortunate submarines during WWII that ended up sinking themselves thanks to malfunctioning torpedoes. It's the unfortunate truth of war.

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