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854 Tons (surfaced)
1,062 Tons (submerged)
211' x 219' 3" x 20' 9"
1 x 4" deck gun
4 x 21" torpedo tubes
August 16, 1942
Built by Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation, San Francisco, California. Laid down January 14, 1919. Launched July 2, 1919 sponsored by Miss Clara M. Huber. Commissioned on September 14, 1923 with Lieutenant John A. Scott (US Naval Academy class of 1928) in command and joined the US Navy Submarine Force, Battle Fleet.
During October to December 1923, conducted maneuvers off California. During 1924, operated off the Panama Canal and Caribbean Sea for final trials, exercises and training dives and in April 1924 to Mare Island for overhaul. Afterwards, on September 17 departed for the Philippines via Pearl Harbor and Apra Harbor arriving at Manila on November 5.
In the Philippines, assigned to Submarine Division 17 (SubDiv 17) based at Cavite Naval Base at Manila Bay. During May 1925, she sailed for the Asiatic mainland with her division operating from Amoy and Hong Kong then operated from Tsingtao until early September then returned to Manila.
During the remainder of the prewar period, the submarine operated from Tsingtao in the summer months to patrol the Chinese coast. During winters months returned to Cavite Naval Base for training, repairs, exercises and patrols.
First War Patrol
On December 8, 1941 at the start of the Pacific War under the command of captain Lt. F. E. Brown patrolling off southern Luzon. Afterwards, assigned to patrol the San Bernardino Strait and survived depth charge attacks by Japanese warships and escorting mine layers. On December 11, 1941 the submarine survived a day long depth charge attack. On December 13, attacked a 5,000-ton freighter but was driven away by escorts before the results could be verified. On December 21, 1941 returns to Manila.
Second War Patrol
As operations from the Philippines were untenable, the submarine departed bound for Java to join what would become the ABDA command. En route, reconnoitered Tablas Straight and Verde Island in the Philippines, but made no successful attacks. On January 24, 1942 arrived at Soerabaja.
Third War Patrol
During late February 1942 departed Soerabaja on a patrol of the South China Sea until March 1942. Claimed a 5,000-ton tanker sunk. Reconnoitered Chebia Island in search of a British Admiral and Air Marshal who had supposedly escaped Singapore and landed a search party, but failed to locate anyone. Afterwards, departed via the Sunda Strait bound for Australia. On March 4, 1942 spotted tanker Erimo of 6,500 tons (credited as only 5,000 tons) and fired four Mark 10 torpedoes, scoring three hits and sinking the vessel. Two weeks later, arrived in Fremantle ending the patrol. Afterwards, departed for Brisbane arriving in late April 1942.
Forth War Patrol
On May 10, 1942 departed Brisbane on a patrol to reconnoitered the Louisiade Archipelago and Solomon Islands, but made no contact with the enemy.
Fifth War Patrol
At the start of her fifth patrol, S-39 was forced to return to Brisbane due to a major breakdown. Her Executive Officer had been put on the sick list on August 5, and two days later his condition warned of the development of pneumonia. Captain Brown was directed to proceed to Townsville. On August 10, the sick officer was transferred ashore for further medical treatment. Afterwards, S-39 finally got underway and patrolled the southeastern coast of New Ireland then transited the Coral Sea to the Louisiade Archipelago.
During the night of August 13, 1942 to August 14 1942 while operating in the eastern Louisiade Archipelago struck a submerged reef off Rossel Island (Yela). The ship took a port list of 30° to 35°, and was jolting heavily due to heavy following seas breaking over the deck. Backing the screws had little effect, even after all possible fuel and ballast tanks had been blown dry. The ship began swinging broadside to the sea and was being washed farther up on the rocks, so all fuel and ballast tanks were again flooded to hold her steady.
At high tide on the morning of August 14, 1942 the screws were backed and twisted until the low voltage limit on the batteries was reached. The ship backed about 50' but again listed about 30 degrees to port and pounded heavily on the rocks. Ballast tanks ruptured by the rocks were again flooded in an effort to ease the pounding. In the afternoon word came that HMAS Katoomba would arrive the following morning to lend aid. Throughout the day breakers 15' to 20' tall broke over the ship. Efforts were made to charge the batteries, but several cells had been reversed and only the aft battery could be charged.
Shortly after dawn on August 15, 1942 the torpedoes were inactivated and fired. Again, Captain Brown tried backing on the after battery, but the screws were too high and little effect. With the termination of backing efforts, the ship rapidly rolled over until the list was 60 degrees to the port side.
Fearing that the rough seas would roll the submarine, the Commanding Officer gave permission for anyone who desired to swim to a nearby reef, although he was not ready to abandon ship. No one ventured into the water, but Lt. C. N. G. Hendrix volunteered to swim to the reef with a line then attached the two mooring lines to the reef for the rest of the crew to use.
Due to the rough seas, Hendrix was having a difficult time with the lines, and CCStd W. L. Shoenrock swam to help him. The two men secured the lines to one of the jettisoned torpedoes. Using this line, thirty-two crewmen reached the reef while only twelve remained aboard the submarine. Shortly after noon, HMAS Katoomba arrived in the vicinity but was unable to attempt a rescue until the next morning.
On August 16, 1942, life boats from HMAS Katoomba made three trips to shore and by 10:00am all 47 members of the crew were rescued and departed for Townsville arriving three days later. Afterwards, they were all were assigned to other submarines.
It was believed wave action would soon break up S-39, and HMAS Katoomba did not shell the shipwreck to destroy the vessel. During the 1970s, the wreckage was salvaged for brass and other metal. The rest of the wreckage, heavily broken up by wave action still remains on the reef.
Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) - S-39 (SS 144)
NavSource - S-36 (SS-141)
Pigboat 39: An American Sub Goes to War (2000) by Bobette Gugliotta
Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet USS S-39 via Wayback Machine April 10, 2008
The Last New Guinea Salvage Pirate (2006) pages 470
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