Who was the unluckiest guy in the US Navy in World War II? You could make a pretty good case for Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, who was holding the bag when the Imperial Japanese Navy recycle-binned the surface fighting power of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Naval tradition was served, and Kimmel’s head rolled (career-wise, that is; unlike among our Japanese enemies in that war, in American English that was just an expression).
But we’d like to nominate Commander Ellis B. “Burt” Orr, the first, and only, captain of the submarine USS Lancetfish, SS-296. Orr had been the commissioning-crew engineering officer on the successful USS Rasher, SS-269. For a submarine officer, there can be no greater moment in a career than taking command.
But for Orr, a moment is all it was.
Lancetfish was, in her design and construction, a typical World War II fleet submarine of the Balao class. A submarine was a long-lead-time project; Lancetfish was launched eight months to the day after her keel was laid down at Cramp Shipbuilding Company in Philadelphia.
Nine months later, the submarine, still a pre-commissioning unit, left Philadelphia under tow to be completed in Boston. Finally commissioned on 12 Feb 45 in the usual ceremony at the Boston Navy Yard, it was having the last things taken care of when, a little over a month later, a dockworker screwed up.
Torpedo tubes have two sets of doors, inners and outers, and you will immediately recognize which is which from their formal names: breech door and muzzle door. Subs of the period were supposed to have an interlock that kept them both from being open at the same time. Perhaps that was one of the things being installed in Boston, but somehow, a worker managed to open the inner (breech) door of #10 torpedo tube, unaware that the muzzle door was already open. He couldn’t shut the door against the rush of water, and scrambled out of the after torpedo room. He might have mitigated the damage by closing the watertight door to the aft torpedo room, but… well, he didn’t. No lives were lost, but Lancetfish settled on the bottom 42 feet below the surface at Pier #8 on 15 Mar 45.
Orr was not aboard; the sub was still in the hands of shipyard personnel; the Navy had yet to fill out her crew. He lost his ship without ever having taken her to sea. Indeed, she never moved as much as a yard under her own power.
If you’re going to sink, of course, there’s few better places to sink than shallow water, pierside, in a Navy yard. But even so, it took eight days to refloat Lancetfish. Eight days in which seawater did its worst with the ship’s electrical, mechanical and hydraulic systems. The Navy being the Navy, both the sinking and the salvage operations were attended by photographers’ mates, and documented to a fare-thee-well.
Meanwhile, Navy finance personnel had been estimating her salvage costs, and they came up with $460,000 (about $6.2 million in 2016 dollars). For the Navy, the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze, and Lancetfish was decommissioned the very next day.
Burt Orr survived the loss of Lancetfish. (His old sub, USS Rasher SS-269, actually survived 8 war patrols and the war, too, and even served off Vietnam, before going to the knackers in 1974). But Burt and his sub are likely to retain for all time the unhappy title of shortest command, and shortest commissioned service, in the submarine (and perhaps, in the American naval) service.