US NAVY SUBMARINE USS TRITON (SS-201)
OPERATED OUT OF BRISBANE SUBMARINE BASE
DURING WW2

WAS IT SUNK BY FRIENDLY FIRE?

 


Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval 
Historical Center. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph # NH 99279

USS Triton in about 1940

 

US Navy submarine USS Triton (SS-201) was based at Brisbane Submarine Base during WW2. It is known to have left Brisbane for patrol duties on 16 February 1943. Official records indicate that she was sunk by Japanese depth charges north west of the Admiralty Islands on 15 March 1943 with the loss of 74 crew members. Another theory on the loss of the USS Triton suggests that it may have been sunk by "friendly fire" in the Brisbane River or somewhere near Brisbane between 27 and 29th March 1943.

The story below tells of the official record of the fate of the American submarine USS Triton. But I have heard another version. A friend of mine in Western Australia, Lindsay Peet, first advised me of the mysterious story about the fate of the USS Triton. He had been in contact back in 1997 with a lady in the USA, who is the daughter of one of those who was lost aboard USS Triton after making all six war patrols aboard her.

Based on a number of eye witness accounts of men who were waiting for Triton's arrival in Brisbane, it is believed that the USS Triton may have been sunk by "friendly fire" whilst coming into Moreton Bay near Brisbane, Queensland, Australia between 27 and 29 March 1943. Capricorn Wharf on the Brisbane River at New Farm in Brisbane was the home base for the USS Triton.

Lindsay Peet did some research into secondary sources and found that in March 1943 an Avro Anson squadron, No. 71 Squadron RAAF under the command of Squadron Leader P.L.B. Gibson was based at Lowood west of Brisbane. This squadron was carrying out anti-submarine patrols.

On 17 March 1943, a 250 -lb bomb was dropped on a suspected submarine by Sergeant R.N. Walesby and, on the 28 March 1943, Walesby and his crew of Sergeant P.K. Yates and Flight Sergeant H.W. Howes reported being fired upon by a similar vessel" (page 88 in 'Maritime and Transport units, vol. 4 of Units of the RAAF, 1995).

One of the reports that I have seen, indicates that USS Triton had been been sent a signal on 25 March 1943, which ordered her to leave the operational area north of New Guinea and return to Brisbane. The Operational orders for USS Triton had instructed her to return to Brisbane Sub Base on 2 April 1943.

The lady in the USA has been told by the crews of 5 other submarines in port at the time, that USS Triton had made contact with Brisbane military authorities at about midnight on her return into Brisbane stating that she had spotted the Moreton Light and had surfaced and was entering Moreton Bay at 12 knots with an ETA at the New Farm submarine base of 8 a.m. Based on this message, the officers and crews of the six other submarines, and the Navy Band were waiting for USS Triton to arrive at the New Farm wharf. They had mail, fresh fruit and vegetables, and ice cream to give to the crew members of USS Triton. But it failed to arrive. A pilot boat had been dispatched to meet USS Triton. They did not find her.

Amongst the large crowd waiting at Capricorn Wharf in New Farm for the USS Triton to arrive that morning, were the crews of USS Albacore, USS Grampus, USS Grouper, USS Peto, USS Grayback, and USS Growler, along with relief crews and some men waiting to reboard USS Triton.

 

moretonbay.jpg (217999 bytes)

Click on picture to enlarge

 

One man in Brisbane who was waiting to board USS Triton upon her return said that he was re-assigned to USS Albacore on the day he was told that USS Triton had been sunk by accident coming into New Farm Wharf. Albacore's Muster Rolls establish that he was assigned to USS Albacore on 29 March 1943.

So if it was true that USS Triton was about to enter Moreton Bay on 29 March 1943, why did it not make it into port? There are a number of possible reasons:-

- sunk by friendly fire from an allied aircraft
- sunk by mines that ran across the entrance to Moreton Bay
- sunk by a Japanese submarine
- sunk by a Japanese mine
- collided with another ship in the dark

The co-ordination in the recognition and understanding of signals was clearly an issue during the war. It has also been reported that many new pilots sometimes mistook proper signal flares for gun fire and that this might have been the case with USS Triton.

There was a mine field installed between Bribie Island and Moreton Island by the British Navy ship "Job Fifty-one". The mine field was connected to a firing button in the detonation room at Caloundra. There was a direct underwater line from the Bribie Forts to the Caloundra Telephone exchange. Elva Wendt was one of the operators on the telephone exchange.

In Captain William J. Ruhe's book, "War in the Boats", page 36, (Brassy's, Incorporated, with foreword by Tom Clancy), he speaks of coming to within 5 seconds of being blown up by an allied mine, on entrance to Moreton Bay, before "recognition signals were exchanged and the activated mine was turned off.

On pages 63-64 of his book, Captain Ruhe writes, "As before, we were challenged by the (Australian) shore station guarding the bay, and as before, the army used an incorrect challenging procedure. When a correct recognition signal was sent by S-37, the shore station gave the wrong reply. There was much blinking back and forth to straighten things out, and all the while the S-37 was posing as good bait for any Japanese submarine the might be lurking off the entrance to Moreton Bay."

Lindsay Peet offers the following observations:-

I am trying to compare the "Official version on the fate of USS TRITON" on your webpage and the USN webpage on the USS TRITON (...ww2boats/triton.htm) with the account on pages 40-1 in the book "United States submarine losses World War II" (Naval History Division, Washington DC, 1963 edition). The latter gives four Latitudes & Longitudes but the USN webpage omits such references which are contained in the first, fourth and fifth (2 positions) paragraphs. It seems strange that these positions are now omitted.

An interesting reference is on page 197 of Rohwer & Hummelchen's "Chronology of the war at sea 1939-1945" (Greenhill, London, 1992) where they say: "TRITON (Lt-Cdr McKenzie) sinks two ships of 10118 tons but is herself sunk on 15 Mar 1942 by a Japanese destroyer off the Admiralties". These two maritime historians are of high standing, but they may have had to rely on US sources for this one.

If the USS Triton had been sunk by "friendly fire", it is probably feasible to suggest that such an incident would have been covered up.

There is yet another theory that the USS Triton was involved in some sort of accident involving the loss of all lives and that it was recovered and sent to Fremantle for repairs in July 1943. Lindsay Peet advised as follows:-

There are some records in the State Record Office covering shipping at Fremantle, including (I seem to recollect) the use of the slipway, put in, just in time for WW2.

This slipway was large enough to have been used by USN submarines, however the USN sent a floating dry dock, ARD-10, with it arriving at Fremantle in March 1944.

 

Can anyone help me with more information on this theory?

Either to confirm or dispel the theory

 

If you were based at Fort Bribie, Fort Cowan, Fort Rous or Fort Lytton in March 1943, could you please let me know if your diary shows an details of an explosion at sea around the 28 or 29 March 1943. Better still, if you have heard of the possible accidental sinking of an American submarine in Moreton Bay in March 1943, I'd also like to hear from you.

About 6 weeks later on 14 May 1943, Japanese Submarine I-177 sunk the hospital ship Centaur just outside Moreton Bay about 23 nautical miles ENE of Point Lookout on North Stradbroke Island. 268 persons were killed in this tragic incident.

 


 

The Official version on the Fate of USS Triton

Submarine SS-201, USS Triton, commanded by Lt. Cmdr. G. K. MacKenzie, Jr., left the submarine base at Capricorn Wharf at New Farm in Brisbane on 16 February 1943 to begin her sixth patrol in the South West Pacific Area. As she headed north, she hunted for Japanese shipping between Rabaul and Shortland Basin. USS Triton started to patrol the ocean near the equator on 23 February 1943.

USS Snapper and USS Trigger were also operating in adjoining areas. On 6 March 1943, USS Triton left here area to attack a Japanese Convoy in USS Trigger's area. USS Triton reported that she had sunk two ships in the convoy and damaged another one, claiming 3 hits from 6 torpedoes. She was subsequently depth charged by the Japanese destroyer in the convoy. After reporting 2 night attacks, one dawn attack and an afternoon attack, all unsuccessful, she returned to her own operational area. But 8 hours later she reported another night attack on the convoy where she claimed the sinking of two more freighters, 5 hits from 8 torpedoes.

The following is the official story on the fate of the submarine SS-201, USS Triton:-

"Lost with a crew of 74 in the Caroline Basin, northwest of the Admiralty Islands, Southwest of Rabaul on March 15, 1943. Investigations of Japanese records recovered after the war showed that a submarine was depth-charged by three Japanese destroyers in that area on 15 March. "A great quantity of oil and debris came to the surface, including manufactured goods inscribed 'Made in USA'." Lat.: 0 degrees, 09 minutes North; Longitude: 144 degrees, 55 minutes East. USS Trigger, SS-237, in an adjoining patrol area heard the depth charge attack lasting more than an hour, on what is thought to have been USS Triton.

USS Triton was reported overdue from patrol and presumed lost on 10 April, 1943. In official Japanese records dated 1943, and obtained in 1998, the sinking of a submarine by Japanese Subchaser #23 is indicated in one report but questionable in another.

TRITON's Last Message from Lt. Cdr. George K. MacKenzie, Jr.: "Two groups of smokes, 5 or more ships each, plus escorts (11 March 1943) Am chasing"

 


 

The Department of the Navy, Naval Historical Center suggests the following fate for USS Triton:-

Triton (SS-201) sunk on 15 Mar 43, crew of  74 killed, sunk either by Japanese destroyer Satsuki or submarine chaser Ch 24, north of the Admiralty Islands.

 


Crew of SS-201, USS TRITON
all lost in action on about 15 March 1943

Aldrich, Ralph Edwin, Jr. F2
Ashton, Thomas Edward, Jr. EM3
Ballou, William Edward CEMA
Barnes, Frank Kenneth S1
Barton, Edward John CTM
Basso, Louis Dominick F1
Booth, Raymond F2
Booth, William Lewis CTM
Boyd, Stephen "S" EM2
Bruderer, Werner Larry MOMM1
Bush, Arlyn F1
Christy, Frederic Howard SC2
Clement, Virgil Clifford S1
Coley, Henry Perry MOMM1
Cooper, Jack Wendel S1
Cotton, Clarence CCSTA
Crutchfield, Jack R. LCDR
Dabney, John Davis OC3
Dotson, Leonard Dazzo EM1
Eichmann, John H. LCDR
Fedorchak, Joseph S1
Fields, Hoyt Sherlock EM3
Fielitz, Ray Daniel TM2
Ford, George TM3
George, Donald Roger TM3
Grooms, Ben Joe PHM1
Hale, Donald Eugene S1
Hall, Donovan Gilbert CMM
Harbold, Robert Leslie S1
Harmon, Floyd Ray S1
Herstich, Martin Lewis, Jr. TM1
Hobbs, Lee Henry EM3
Hogg, Jesse "T"., Jr. GM3
Holland, Clyde, Jr. MOMM2
Holquist, Donald Edmond William CMOMMA
Howie, Gilbert John, Jr. RT2
Isom Lyman Leroy F1
Jones, Marsh CQMA
Klekotka, Alexander John MOMM1
Klimosewski, Johnny Paul MOMM1
Landers, Charles Wilfred F1
Larkins, Walter Harvey EM1
Lawler, John Wylie F3
Lines, Walter Ellsworth MOMM2
Long, Percy Eugene TM2
Mackenzie, George K. LCDR
Martin, William Boyd, Jr S1
Mc Calop, Hermon Thurmon MATT1
Mc Clure, Kenneth George S1
Mc Kenzie, Lloyd Charles TM1
Meade, Jack RM2
Nixson, Russell Bedsworth S1
Olvey, Russell Bender Y2
Ottersen, Roy Ottis TM1
O'Sullivan, Cornelius LTJG
Page, Robert Eugene RM3
Parks, Edward S., Jr. LTJG
Peeler, Willie Lee F3
Petrun, John MOMM2
Poyneer, Charles Francis RM1
Ross, Burnel Cassius S1
Schlabecker, Harry Roland TM1
Schneider, Leonard Mark F2
Severance, Edwin Sr. John CMOMMA
Shannon, John Francis F2
Sheperd, Laurence F1
Sorenson, Vernon LT
Thompson, Thomas Charles EM1
Trowbridge, Raymond Edward EM2
Van Roosen, Hugh C. LTJG
Visnich, George SM2
Ward, William Allen MOMM1
White, Ferguson Burnett QM2
Wycoff, Donald Edward MOMM2

 

Seaward Defences for Moreton Bay

Fort Bribie

Fort Rous

Fort Cowan Cowan

RAN4 - The Bribie Island Indicator Loop Hut
Part of the Royal Navy's anti-submarine harbour defence for "Fortress Brisbane"

HMAS Tambar hit by "Friendly Fire" from Cowan Cowan, Moreton Island

 


 

OTHER SITES ON THE INTERNET

"USS TRITON, SS-201" Homepage
(Another site on the Internet)

USS Amberjack

Another Home Page on USS Amberjack

 

 

 

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This page first produced 11 August 2000

This page last updated 05 May 2013