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The USS Swordfish

The World War II Patrols of the First American Submarine to Sink a Japanese Ship

George J. Billy

McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2019, 234 pages

Book Review published on: September 4, 2020

During January 1944, U.S. Navy submarine USS Swordfish was on its tenth war patrol, searching the sea lanes outside of Tokyo Bay, Japan. The skipper was Capt. Carl G. Hensel, which was unusual for a senior Navy officer to be in command of a single submarine, but he requested the assignment as he had not yet been in combat. A former instructor at the Navy’s submarine school, Hensel was determined to prove himself in battle. He got his chance in the early morning hours of 14 January after detecting an enemy convoy. Closing within three thousand yards of several enemy ships, Hensel scored his first victory by torpedoing an armed freighter. The enemy’s escorts counterattacked swiftly, subjecting the USS Swordfish to a depth charge attack that lasted over two hours. Hensel and his crew managed to distance themselves from the enemy ships, but sometime after six o’clock in the morning, the boat lost power, requiring an emergency surface. The USS Swordfish was “dead in the water” with daybreak approaching.

George J. Billy recounts Hensel’s patrol and others in The USS Swordfish: The World War II Patrols of the First American Submarine to Sink a Japanese Ship. He provides a thorough but concise narrative of the boat’s service from its first patrols out of the Philippines in 1941 to its final mission where it disappeared near Okinawa during January 1945. Billy has a personal attachment to the USS Swordfish, recalling an early memory of his Uncle Michael who was on board the boat for its twelfth and thirteenth patrols. The author’s research is exhaustive with numerous sources and interviews referenced, including personal visits to sites where the submarine was based.

Details of the war patrols are described vividly by Billy. The USS Swordfish’s crews underwent considerable stress operating deep in enemy waters. Hensel and the other skippers of the boat were impressive warfighters, in particular Chester Carl Smith (who scored the first U.S. submarine victory just days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor). After several chapters, it becomes apparent that the submarine service required sailors with considerable nerve and endurance to serve as submariners. Hensel and his crew demonstrated this quality when they remained calm and restored partial power to get underway as an enemy ship closed within six thousand yards. Despite the damage inflicted on the boat from the depth charge attack, they continued their patrol for fourteen more days, sinking two enemy ships before returning to Hawaii.

Overall, the book is a superb account of the USS Swordfish that operated with distinction during World War II. The author delivers fascinating details on the boat’s patrols and the tactics employed by the skippers. It is an admirable tribute to the crews that served on the USS Swordfish and to the U.S. Navy’s submarine service that led the way in the Pacific War.

Book Review written by: Dirk C. Blackdeer, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas