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USS Silversides Submarine (SS-236)

The History of SS-236

USS Silversides with full banners
(Photo courtesy of United States Navy)

The USS Silversides was a prominent submarine in the Pacific Ocean over the course of World War II. She was manufactured in Mare Island Navy yard in California and was commissioned on December 15, 1941 just 8 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.(Historic Naval Ships Association, pg.1) The ship was designed for raiding the supply lines of the enemy, most notably attacking tankers and resource shipping to cripple the war effort of Japan. It would go on a total of 14 war patrols, the second highest of any US submarine during WW2, with the most being 16. The Silversides was launched with a small fleet of other Gato class submarines shortly after the war started for the United States. According to the ships logs on its first war patrol the Silversides encountered a Japanese trawler. Although the Silversides was able to use its deck gun to ignite the enemy ship of fire which would eventually sink it, the second loader was struck by an enemy round and killed(ISSUU,Pg.1). Despite this bittersweet result the ship would go on to record a significant amount of kills and sink many thousands of tons of Japanese ships.

The Silversides was a very effective ship and preyed mostly on Japanese tanker and transport ships. Many of the ships the Silversides sunk would burst into flame from the submarines shots as can be seen in a video taken by one of the soldiers on the Silversides called Torpedoed by USS Silversides (SS-236) (United States Navy). Many of the ships hit by the Silversides would be left to sink once caught on fire. This was because fire is very difficult to deal with at sea. In the event logs the commander talks about multiple times where one ship would be critically damaged and would be left to sink while the Silversides would fire at a new target. These kills were confirmed not through the sighting of the ship sinking but instead of the explosion that would inevitably happen once the fire reached the fuel. The Silversides, in getting all these successes also encountered a significant amount of resistance in the form of depth charges. There are multiple entries in the ships records of depth charges going off not far from the ship and luckily none critically damaged its fighting capabilities. The USS Silversides became famous through its many succesful sinkings and this can easily be seen in the Official Chronology of the US Navy of World War 2. Out of the 44 entries for submarines in the records 28 of them were for the USS Silversides(The Official Chronology).

The ability of the Silversides to survive in the dangerous waters while still being able to sink a significant number of enemy ships is what created its reputation and helped create its fame. The Japanese had a multitude of methods for eliminating the United States submarines. One powerful method was using planes to bomb the submarines while they are surfaced before they can react. It is dificult for a submarine to protect against this as it is hard to react and dive quick enough to not get hit by any bombs that may be dropped. Another Japanese method for submarine destruction is the use of mine fields. These large arrays of explosives would devastate a submarine and likely sink it due to flooding. A combination of mines and plane bombing is what eventually sunk the USS Silversides sibling ship the USS Wahoo inside the sea of Japan. The Japanese could also use their submarines against the United States Submarines but it would be risky as they could fight back much easier and it would be hard to hit a submerged submarine from a different depth. This was risky and in the end Japan focused on the 4th and most effective method for eliminating submarines, depth charges. Depth charges are essentially mines, usually dropped by a destroyer, that are set to detonate when they reach a certain depth. These are very dangerous for submarines as the pressure from these explosions is multiplied greatly by the water and focused into any air pockets, which happen to be the submarine itself. As such a depth charge did not even need to hit a sub in order to destroy it and could sink a submarine by detonating anywhere near them.

The Silversides is also the site of a famous emergency surgery.  During the 3rd war patrol it became clear that George Platter needed an appendectomy, a complicated process of removing the appendix, but the problem was they did not have any doctors nor were they in range of any ports they could safely stop at. They eventually decided to do the surgery right there on a stainsless steel table with the essentially paramedics taking charge. In order to help the surgery have a more stable environment the crew cleaned the room thuroughly and the Silversides submerged for less rocking.  Despite some difficulties with the anesthetic the surgery was a success and news about it spread quickly one the Silversides had reached port.

The Silversides Disadvantages

Although the Silversides was a strong vessel Japan had the most diverse and powerful submarine fleet in the world and as such would prove to be a worthy contendor for the who had the best submarines. The Silversides had many advantages and disadvantages in comparison to is Japanese counterparts.

One disadvantage for the Silversides was it did not have Kaiten torpedoes. The Type C1 Japanese submarines occasionally equiped Kaiten torpedoes. Kaiten torpedoes are large manned torpedoes that were piloted to their target by a single man sacrificing himself. According to the Kaiten class torpedoes were, “described by Theodore Cook as ‘not so much a ship as an insertion of a human being into a very large torpedo.'”(,pg.1) These torpedoes were armed as normal but the man was able to redirect the torpedo and significantly increase the chance of hitting its targets. These torpedoes were essentially kamikaze pilots underwater, killing themselves in order to make a hit much more likely. The Kaiten torpedoes effectively sank multiple US ships and were brutally effective. Despite the ethical concerns of putting a man in a torpedo they were effective and the Silversides was at a disadvantage due to its lack of these self targeting torpedoes.

The Japanese crew was also very dedicated to their cause. Honor was very important in the Japanese society historically and it showed itself greatly in world war 2. The crew would generally be willing to do anything so long as it was for their honor. This is why the Kaiten were so powerful as the men entering them believed it to be a great honor to give their life for the Japanese Empire.

A last disadvantage for the Silversides submarine is the range. While the C1 class submarines boasted a considerable range of 14000 nautical miles, the USS silversides could only travel around 11000 nautical miles without needing to be restocked. The increases range is very helpful as the less time the submarine spends near ports the harder it can be for enemy ships to know the submarines location. A ship at sea for long periods of time are a big threat as they could be anywhere whereas a ship with a shorter range could not travel as far and the locations could likely be guessed after one spotting due to not being able to travel as far in total. Thus despite the effectiveness of the USS Silversides it also had some shortcomings in comparison to the Japanese C1 Submarine series.

The Silversides Advantages

One significant advantage for the Silversides is its displacement under water. According to the Naval History and Heritage Command the ship had an underwater displacement of 2,424 tons. (,pg.1) This is significantly less than a comparable Japanese submarine the C1 with a displacement of 3561 tons.(, pg.1)  This was an advantage for the Silversides as it means the Silversides took up less space underwater. In being smaller the Silversides is much harder to hit with mines and torpedoes. The Japanese ships were large and would be easy targets if detected. The Japanese ships being larger also makes them easier to detect in two different ways. First of all the larger hull makes sonar able to locate them much easier than a smaller sub that does not reflect sound as well.

The second disadvantage for the C1 class submarines is that they, in being much larger, have to put out much more horsepower to go the same speed. Both the Silversides and the C1 class submarines had a submerged speed of about 8 knots, but the Silversides was much smaller and thus had to put out less torque to reach this speed. The Japanese ships had to put out high amounts of torque to go this same speed as seen in the Silversides only needing 11800 HP to reach 8 knots while the Japanese C1’s used 12400 (Bauer, pp.274). This increased horsepower made much more noise, both from the motors working harder and the propellers needing to spin faster and causing capitation. As a result of the differing sizes of these submarines the Silversides had a slight advantage over its Japanese Type C1 counterparts due to being harder to detect and hit.

There are also some records in the USS Silversides logs of sinking ships using their own mines. Mines are a very powerful tool for denying the enemy access to an area due to fear of encountering a mine. While it is recorded that the USS Silversides had mines the C1 class Japanese submarines do not have this ability. Although this would not help much in a one on one battle the ability to lay mines ahead of time in key shipping areas is an advantage for the USS Silversides due to the added versatility and ability to adapt to the situation.

USS Silversides
USS Silversides

One cannot effectively compare two ships without taking the crew into consideration. The Silversides had a crew that were careful and precise and the ship did not miss many of the torpedo shots it took. In the Japanese’s ships there was a very strong sense of honor and not surrendering no matter what. This led to the Japanese submarines occasionally making poor decisions that could lead to the ship being sunk. The American crew would tend to be more careful and as such be able to conduct more missions due to not taking risks while the more aggressive Japanese crews could be sunk going for one high priority target instead of playing safe. The Japanese honor also compelled them to follow orders no matter what and either miss good opportunities or put themselves in harms way for the sake of following orders.

Overall the Silversides had advantages in the area of stealth and safety, while the Type C1 Japanese Submarines had the advantage in firepower and sinking power. The strengths and weaknesses of each ship made the comparison fairly close and in a fight it would be difficult to determine a decisive victor. It would likely end up as luck or who was able to fire a torpedo first

After the War

After its time in service the Silversides would go on to become a training ship for submarine crew in the navy for a few years. Eventually it was decommissioned and made into a privately owned museum in Chicago for over 40 years after which it was moved to Muskegon MI where it still resides today. When it arrived in Muskegon there was a significant amount of people to welcome the famous warship to its new residing place and a large banner was held up according to the Chicago Tribune Newpaper(Silversides gets Hero’s Welcome). Today the Silversides is a popular vacation destination and is visited by local boy scout groups who get to learn what the life was like for its sailors and the history of the navy and, as a special event, once a year they start up the motors to prove the ship could still run even after being removed from service over 70 years ago. The USS Silversides is truly a beautiful sight to see as well as a strong reminder of the history of the United States Navy.

Primary Sources

  1. Cressman, Robert J. The official chronology of the US Navy in World War II. Naval Institute Press, 2000.
  2. Davis, Robert. “Silversides Gets Hero`s Welcome.” Chicago Tribune, 9 Aug. 1987,
  3. Hnsa. “SS-236_SILVERSIDES.” Issuu,
  4. “Torpedoed By USS Silversides (SS-236).” United States Military Archive,

Secondary Sources

  1. Bauer, Karl J., and Stephen S. Roberts. Register of ships of the US Navy: 1775-1990: major combatants. Greenwood Press, 1991.
  3. Silversides I (SS-236). (n.d.).
  4. Type C1. (n.d.)
  5. USS SILVERSIDES (SS-236). (n.d.).

Further Reading

  1. USS Silversides (SS-236). (2017, October 19)