The Short, Sad Career of USS Lancetfish

uss-lancetfish-emblemWho 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-launchLancetfish 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.

lancetfish-sunkTorpedo 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.

lancetfish-salvageIf 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.

13 thoughts on “The Short, Sad Career of USS Lancetfish

  1. Boat Guy

    While a sad story I would nominate CDR Richard O’Kane, the sub Skipper who was on the bridge for a night torpedo attack when one of his own torpedoes ran bad and sank the sub. The Skipper was one of the very few survivors and wound up in a Japanese POW camp.

    1. Tim, '80s Mech Guy

      Hell, that late in the war they probably had already written the orders to roll all the Hellcats off the deck on the way home.

    2. RostislavDDD

      Torpedoing themselves from the broken gyroscope, not infrequently in WWII.
      Do you call this man unlucky?

      Citation;
      Rank and organization: Commander, U.S. Navy, commanding U.S.S. Tang. Place and date: Vicinity Philippine Islands, 23 and 24 October 1944. Entered service at: New Hampshire. Born: 2 February 1911, Dover, N.H. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Tang operating against 2 enemy Japanese convoys on 23 and 24 October 1944, during her fifth and last war patrol. Boldly maneuvering on the surface into the midst of a heavily escorted convoy, Comdr. O’Kane stood in the fusillade of bullets and shells from all directions to launch smashing hits on 3 tankers, coolly swung his ship to fire at a freighter and, in a split-second decision, shot out of the path of an onrushing transport, missing it by inches. Boxed in by blazing tankers, a freighter, transport, and several destroyers, he blasted 2 of the targets with his remaining torpedoes and, with pyrotechnics bursting on all sides, cleared the area. Twenty-four hours later, he again made contact with a heavily escorted convoy steaming to support the Leyte campaign with reinforcements and supplies and with crated planes piled high on each unit. In defiance of the enemy’s relentless fire, he closed the concentration of ship and in quick succession sent 2 torpedoes each into the first and second transports and an adjacent tanker, finding his mark with each torpedo in a series of violent explosions at less than l,000-yard range. With ships bearing down from all sides, he charged the enemy at high speed, exploding the tanker in a burst of flame, smashing the transport dead in the water, and blasting the destroyer with a mighty roar which rocked the Tang from stem to stern. Expending his last 2 torpedoes into the remnants of a once powerful convoy before his own ship went down, Comdr. O’Kane, aided by his gallant command, achieved an illustrious record of heroism in combat, enhancing the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.
      —————————-
      23 Oct 1944
      Japanese army cargo ships Toun Maru (1915 GRT) and Tatsuju Maru (1944 GRT) , Japanese troop transport Wakatake Maru (1920 GRT), Japanese merchant cargo ship Kori Go (1339 GRT)

      24 Oct 1944
      Japanese tanker Matsumoto Maru (7024 GRT) , Japanese merchant cargo ship Ebara Maru (6957 GRT).

      1. Boat Guy

        Unlucky in the sense of being one of eight survivors of the ship one commanded, yes. Being sunk by one’s own torpedo seems purty unlucky to me; evan though as you note it was not uncommon.
        O’Kane had a great career during and after the way and by all accounts I’ve seen was a GOOD DUDE.

        1. RostislavDDD

          If the failure of gyroscopes 1%, sooner or later someone will catch your torpedo. If I remember correctly, this intsindent not only in the US Navy.
          The Germans, Prien died because of an accident. There are many of those.
          Actually, it is a pity Commander. “White Lady” loves such jokes.

  2. Bob Ross

    Since it was a commissioned submarine, why isn”t it listed in the roster of naval losses at navsource.org?

    1. Hognose Post author

      I do not know. Here are some links to Lancetfish’s short career. (It actually spent years in inactive storage before being scrapped, but it was duly commissioned and duly decommissioned on the dates in the article). To start with, Navsource has a ton of images and a few documents:
      http://www.navsource.org/archives/08/08296.htm
      https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151259545531230.445414.101385216229&type=3
      http://uboat.net/allies/warships/ship/3042.html
      http://ussnautilus.org/blog/the-loss-of-uss-lancetfish-ss-296/

      Burt Orr is mentioned a few times in a book on USS Rasher. I do not know if he stayed in the Navy after the war and got another command. The Internet is pretty good on wartime skippers but peacetime is a great void unless the boats were unusually celebrated — and the Silent Service isn’t prone to that kind of grandstanding.

  3. Glenn 555

    Reminds us about Guitarro, SSN 665, which sank alongside in Vallejo, CA. 15 May 1969. Though she was salved, I for one never wanted to ride her.

    1. Blackshoe

      While reading this, I kept thinking about all the SRAs/DSRAs I’ve done, and how axes and quick disconnects were sprinkled about the ship in fire zones to support this. I think GUITARRO was once mentioned as the source of this requirement.

  4. KevsBlogBrother

    Interesting! As you know, the Squalus was sunk in deeper water, but was salvaged and recommissioned. Evidently this is because the Squalus had new design features and the Navy wanted to make sure none of them had been responsible for the sinking. Of course that also provided an opportunity to recover those who had been killed in the sinking.

    You are three degrees from a Squalus casualty – the BlogSIL’s aunt’s father John Battick.

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