In November 21, 1944, the US submarine USS Sealion came up a group of Japanese warships in the Taiwan Strait.
Over several hours early that morning, Sealion attacked the Japanese ships, sinking the battleship Kongo.
Sealion was the only allied sub to sink an enemy battleship during the war, and its crew caught it all on tape.
Twenty minutes after midnight on November 21, 1944, the US Navy submarine USS Sealion made radar contact with a group of Japanese warships in the Taiwan Strait.
The ships weren’t zigzagging to avoid submarines, and Sealion’s commander ordered the sub to investigate whether it could attack.
By 1:48 a.m., Sealion’s crew believed that they were tailing two battleships and two cruisers escorted by three destroyers. They had actually stumbled on three battleships: Yamato (one of the largest and most powerful battleships ever built), Kongō, and Nagato, as well as the cruiser Yahagi and three destroyers.
It was too good an opportunity to pass up, and Sealion’s skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Eli Thomas Reich, ordered the crew to battle stations to prepare to attack.
USS Sealion was a Balao-class submarine commissioned in March 1944. The sub and its crew quickly became battle-tested.
Its first war patrol began on June 8, 1944. While operating around Japan, Korea, and northeastern China, it survived repeated depth-charge attacks and sank at least five ships, one of them with its deck gun.
Sealion’s second war patrol began on August 17, 1944, and saw it operate in the waters of the South China Sea along with two other American submarines, USS Growler and USS Pampanito. The subs attacked a Japanese convoy on August 31, during which Sealion survived a hail of gunfire to heavily damage a tanker and sink a minelayer.
On September 12, the three submarines attacked another Japanese convoy in the Taiwan Strait, sinking four ships and two escorts. Sealion again took fire from the deck guns of the Japanese ships.
One of those ships was transporting British and Australian prisoners. Days later, upon learning there were survivors in the water, Sealion returned and picked up 54 of the prisoners, four of whom died before reaching a US Army hospital in Saipan.
But Sealion’s third war patrol was its most memorable.
After the Japanese battlegroup had been detected and Reich ordered the crew to battle stations, one submariner set up a film recorder that a CBS war correspondent had left aboard the sub, placing a microphone near an intercom speaker in the conning tower.
The audio from the event offers rare insight into what a World War II submarine attack sounded like.
Believing the lead and rear ships in the column were cruisers and the second and third vessels were battleships, the US sub decided to attack the battleships. Two of the three destroyers were also close to the middle vessels, increasing the likelihood a torpedo would hit them if it missed the main targets.
At 2:56 a.m., Sealion fired six torpedoes from its forward torpedo tubes at the first target. Three minutes later, it fired three more torpedoes from its aft torpedo tubes at the second target.
Sealion’s crew reported three of the torpedoes from the first salvo hitting the first target, which turned out to be the battleship Kongō. One sailor can be heard saying “three hits to the Japanese ‘B.’ That’ll put them in drydock at least.”
The second salvo missed the battleship Nagato, but one of the torpedoes struck the destroyer Urakaze, which then exploded and sank with all hands. A Sealion crew member can be heard shouting “woo!” in celebration.
Thinking it had only dented the Kongō’s armor, as the battleship was still moving, Sealion momentarily withdrew to reload its torpedo tubes. The Japanese ships continued sailing, dropping depth charges in the wrong area as they went — much to the relief of Sealion’s crew.
Kongō slowed, and it and the remaining destroyers eventually broke away from the other ships. Sealion was preparing to attack the wounded battleship when one of the crew noticed something, saying, “wait a minute! Something’s happening over there!”
Kongō was more damaged than initially thought. At 5:24 a.m., it exploded, which drew cheers from Sealion’s crew. Some 1,200 of Kongō’s crew went down with the ship, including its captain and the commander of the Third Battleship Division.
Changing roles and a lasting legacy
With the sinking of Kongō, Sealion became the only allied submarine to sink an enemy battleship during World War II.
By the end of its third war patrol, Sealion had sunk at least 13 ships: six tankers, five freighters, one destroyer, and one battleship. It conducted three more patrols before the war ended but didn’t repeat its crowning achievement.
Sealion ended the war with five battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation. It was decommissioned in 1946 but was brought back into service in 1948 and converted into a troop carrier.
The sub could carry 123 troops and support a helicopter on its deck, and it conducted multiple exercises and patrols on both US coasts — including training with US Marines and the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams — until it was decommissioned again in 1960.
It was brought back into service again, however, in 1961. It supported the blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and continued to help train US special-operations forces, including Navy SEALs, during the 1960s.
In 1970, the legendary submarine was decommissioned for a final time. Eight years later, it was sunk as a target off of Rhode Island.
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