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

Reviewed by Commander James G. Zoulias, USN.

The tale of USS Swordfish provides a comprehensive look at its operational history within the context of the broader maritime campaign in the Pacific during World War II.  Because George J. Billy had an uncle who served aboard USS Swordfish, he wrote this book to document the notable actions of the boat and its crew.  George Billy retired as the chief librarian for the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in 2014 and has spent the past three decades conducting extensive research on the events related to USS Swordfish’s 13 war patrols.  Swordfish was one of ten Sargo class submarines built in the late 1930s, and the first to sink a Japanese cargo ship in the opening days of the conflict with Japan.  Ultimately lost at sea in January of 1945, Swordfish ended her service a highly decorated unit and her loss highlighted the dangerous nature in the world of undersea warfare where the cause of her sinking remains unknown. 

Billy was able to document key details by unearthing material from 11 different libraries and archives, conducting interviews with former crew members and reviewing in excess of 100 sources.  This level of detail allowed Billy to provide an intimate portrait of the sailors who served aboard Swordfish and, most notably, their commanding officers. 

As Billy chronicles USS Swordfish’s war time patrols, he puts special emphasis on the role of the commanding officer.  For today’s naval officers, this account provides an interesting example of leadership in a maritime combat environment.  Most notably is the high value placed on aggressive command at sea.  Submarine commanders were expected to assume more risk in their relentless pursuit of the enemy.  Swordfish’s commanding officers battled the environment, mechanical failures, and faulty torpedoes as they balanced the fine line between targeting enemy merchants and their escorts while avoiding counterattack from both sea and air.  The lack of sophistication in submarine systems often forced close encounters with the enemy that risked retaliation by depth charge or even ramming by the larger, more substantial prey.

By revealing the actions of the commander and crew through a daily log entry approach, Billy is able to create a real connection between the reader and Swordfish’s crew as they deal with the boat’s operational flaws and mechanical defects.  Their response to these challenges while underway allowed Billy to highlight the crew’s ingenuity and self-sufficiency, as well as their pride.  As one of the few operational submarines available in the Pacific Theater, the author also captures the sense of urgency to repair and refit as rapidly as possible once the Swordfish returned to port following a successful patrol.  In addition to the military requirements that connected the crew to their submarine and their mission, he also connects the crew to those who waited every day at home for their safe return.

The authenticity and detail obtained by George Billy genuinely captures the reality of undersea warfare in the Pacific by recounting the dangers that marked USS Swordfish’s many engagements with Japanese merchants and combatants, while also depicting the spirit of Americans at war.  This is an enjoyable read for all. 

The USS Swordfish, The World War II Patrols of the First American Submarine to Sink a Japanese Ship, by George J. Billy, McFarland, 2019.  234 pp..

Reviewed by Commander James G. Zoulias, USN (Military Faculty, Joint Forces Staff College)

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