U.S.S. Bowfin (SS-287)
Bowfin was a Balao-class submarine built during WWII. She served with distinction in the Pacific Theater.
She was laid down at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on 23 July 1942. Launched exactly one year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, shipyard workers nicknamed her “Pearl Harbor Avenger”. The sub commissioned on 1 May 1943.
Bowfin arrived at Brisbane, Australia in August and prepared for her first war patrol. She sailed on the 19th and headed for the Philippines. There, she rendezvoused with her sister Billfish. The two subs made a coordinated attack on a Japanese convoy on 25 September, and Bowfin claimed a cargo ship and a tanker as her first two “kills”. She sank two small ships and a schooner with her deck guns before returning to Australia. On her way back, the sub stopped at a guerilla camp on the Philippine island of Mindanao, where she sent radios, ammunition, and supplies ashore and embarked nine guerillas, including two escaped U.S. POWs. Bowfin was awarded the Philippine Presidential Unit Citation after the war for this action.
The sub sailed from Fremantle, Australia on 1 November for her second patrol. During this month, she sank four schooners and two coastal vessels with her deck guns. Bowfin nearly rammed a tanker on 26 November after surfacing in the middle of a Japanese convoy. She submerged again and sank a Vichy French cargo ship later that day. She met with Billfish again on 28 November and attacked another convoy. Bowfin was hit by a 5-inch shell while making a torpedo run on the surface, but managed to sink her attacker and another ship before escaping. She sank another coastal vessel with her deck guns while en route to Fremantle for repairs. She received another Presidential Unit Citation, this time from her own president, after this patrol.
With repairs completed, Bowfin set out on her third patrol on 8 January 1944. In the first half of January, the sub sank a schooner, a freighter, and an escort vessel. She briefly made port at Darwin, Australia for ammunition. While there, she embarked Rear Admiral Christie, commander of U.S. submarine forces in the southwest Pacific. The admiral wanted a hands-on look at how his subs were operating, and Bowfin didn’t disappoint. She sank a transport, a freighter, and an escort vessel and damaged another cargo ship and a tanker. The sub also laid a minefield that would later sink two Japanese ships and damage another. She rounded off her tally with two more schooners before returning to port on 5 February.
Bowfin suffered from malfunctioning torpedoes on her fourth patrol. She made a run on a convoy on 10 March, but after firing repeatedly at the enemy, only one ship was damaged. The angered convoy escorts came after her, and Bowfin suffered heavy attack by depth charge. Her torpedoes redeemed themselves the next day, when she finished off her previous target and damaged another. This resulted in another depth charging, however, as well as an unusual attempt at forcing her to surface. An escort ship dragged a chain across her hull, trying to grapple her and tow her to the surface. Fortunately, the vessel failed and Bowfin escaped. She reloaded at Darwin on 14 March and made another unsuccessful attack on a convoy four days later. Again she was attacked and again she escaped. The sub finally caught a break on 24 March, when she sank two cargo ships and damaged another. After touching at Fremantle, Bowfin sailed for Pearl Harbor for repair and refit.
Her only action during her fifth patrol was a convoy on 14 May. She sank a freighter and was in turn depth charged, but she once again escaped unharmed. Following this, she took up search-and-rescue duties for the first U.S. airstrikes on the Japanese-held island of Palau. She returned to Pearl Harbor on 21 June.
Bowfin sailed from Pearl Harbor for Japanese waters on 16 July. She reached the Nansei Shoto islands, one of which is Okinawa, late that month. There, she found a convoy and followed it to its port. In one of the more unique attacks of the war, Bowfin sank two ships and destroyed a dock, a crane, and a bus that was carrying Japanese sailors. She had an even greater success on 22 August when she sank an entire three-ship convoy with its two escorts. Six days later, she sank an armed trawler with her deck gun and headed back for port. En route, she ran into another convoy and set one of the merchant ships alight with her deck gun. The ship was abandoned and Bowfin took aboard two survivors. Her remarkable sixth patrol earned her a Naval Unit Commendation. Bowfin became one of four other vessels, including Enterprise and San Francisco, to receive both this award and a Presidential Unit Citation. The submarine had suffered heavy damage during these six patrols, and after her return to Pearl Harbor, she sailed for Mare Island Shipyard for repair and overhaul.
She spent the remainder of 1944 in refit and training. The sub sailed on her seventh war patrol from Pearl Harbor on 25 January 1945. Loaded in her torpedo rooms were experimental Mark 27 acoustic homing torpedoes, which were used sparingly against enemy ships to test their feasibility in the sub fleet at large. She rendezvoused with a wolf pack of four other submarines near Saipan and the group set out on 8 February. Bowfin sank a destroyer on the 17th and was depth charged again. She reached her designated patrol area in March, and spent most of her time there on search-and-rescue duty for B-29 crews returning from raids on Japan. On 2 March, she sank a large vessel with just one torpedo, and her deck gun claimed a picket boat two days later. The boat and her consort returned fire, and one of Bowfin’s gunners was wounded. She put in to Guam on 25 March.
Her eighth patrol involved a particularly dangerous mission. She was originally scheduled to patrol the straights of Tsushima, but orders came for her to patrol the main Japanese island of Honshu for minefields. Bowfin relied on her FM sonar to guide her through the deadly mines during this operation. The device was nicknamed “Hells Bells” by her crew because of its haunting sound, but it saw her through the mines safely. Though this patrol was brief, lasting only from 23 April to 15 May, Bowfin did sink two cargo vessels. She headed out on her last war patrol on 29 May. The sub got 2 cargo ships, one on 11 June and another two days later. These would be the last two ships she sank in her career. Bowfin returned to Pearl Harbor on Independence Day 1945.
She was en route to a tenth patrol when word reached Pearl Harbor that Japan had surrendered. Reassigned to the Atlantic Fleet, Bowfin arrived at New York 21 September. She remained in service until 12 February 1947, when she was decommissioned at New London, CT. She was briefly reactivated on 27 July 1951 and sent back to the Pacific. She spent two years as a training boat out of San Diego before her final decommissioning on 22 April 1954. While still in reserve, she was sent to Seattle as a dockside-training sub.
Bowfin was acquired by the Pacific Fleet Submarine Memorial Association on 3 August 1979 and towed to Pearl Harbor, where she currently serves as a museum ship and memorial to the U.S. submarines lost during WWII.
Risk of Asbestos Exposure
U.S. naval construction was at its peak during WWII. Years earlier, in 1934, the navy passed regulations that required the use of asbestos throughout steam-powered ships as an insulator. Fortunately for Bowfin and her crews, her diesel-electric power plant meant that she did not need this extensive insulation. She did, however, carry some steam-powered torpedoes that may have contained asbestos.
Asbestos insulation can easily break into tiny fibers when damaged or under stress. These fibers are proven to cause mesothelioma, a malignant cancer of the lungs. While there is no cure, treatments such as chemotherapy can be used to fight mesothelioma.
If you or someone you know served aboard Bowfin or worked on her in a shipyard and has contracted mesothelioma, you may be entitled to compensation. Please fill out the form at the bottom of this page to receive free information regarding your legal options.
A Note About Museum Ships
U.S.-based museum ships undergo rigorous safety and health inspections by numerous state and federal agencies before receiving approval for donation. The restoration process is closely monitored and conducted with safety and removal/containment of hazardous materials being of most concern. Where possible, asbestos is removed from a ship, and in areas where this is not possible, asbestos insulation is carefully sealed in several layers of a strong, durable, plaster-based coating. If you are planning a visit to Bowfin or any other museum ship in the U.S., please do not be discouraged by this article. If this information is not enough to reassure you about visiting her, please contact her museum association directly. Her restoration or ship maintenance department can answer any specific questions you have.
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