Rumors of sunken submarines: The government denies it, but ...
Pulp writer and religious figure L. Ron Hubbard figures prominently in the most spectacular story of action against Japanese submarines in Oregon waters. It's known, with a smile, as the “Battle of Cape Lookout.”
By Finn J.D. John — July 6, 2014
Somewhere on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, rusting away among the rocks by the Oregon Coast, lie the remains of at least five sunken submarines — that is, if you believe the stories.
And who believes the stories? Certainly not the U.S. Government, which places the actual number of Japanese submarine wrecks in Oregon waters at a much more boring number: zero. According to official records of both the U.S. and Japan, not a single Imperial Japanese sub was lost on or near the West Coast of the U.S.
But the stories and legends persist.
Legends of sinkings
Most of the stories are plausible, but only just barely so.
One of the Army Air Force pilots who’d participated in the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo claimed he’d bombed and sunk a Japanese submarine off the mouth of the Columbia River in his B-25, early in the war. No sign of the wreck was ever found, and according to historian Bert Webber, no Army documentation has ever been found either.
Certain fishermen and divers reported, in the early 1970s, that they’d found a sunken sub off Cape Kiwanda, and when a reporter from radio station KPNW in Eugene called the Coast Guard in Garibaldi, one of the Coasties there told him it was “more or less confirmed.”
It turned out to be “less” confirmed, rather than “more.” No one had yet found the Kiwanda sub, and nobody who’d personally seen it could be found, although Pacific City and Garibaldi were awash with old salts who knew somebody who knew somebody who had.
And historian Don Marshall writes dismissively of the most unlikely story of the bunch — a rumor in Newport that a sunken Nazi U-boat lies in the estuary mud at the bottom of Yaquina Bay.
The best, most plausible and by far the most dramatic story of a Japanese submarine sinking in Oregon coastal waters comes with a story worthy of the pen of one of the best and most prolific pulp-fiction writers of the 1930s — L. Ron Hubbard.
L. Ron Hubbard’s submarine story
In early 1943, Hubbard, a junior-grade lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve, was the skipper of a brand-new 173-foot submarine chaser, the U.S.S. PC-815, which had slid down the skids of a shipyard in Portland just six months before. Hubbard himself was fairly green; he’d commanded another sub chaser the previous year, out in Massachusetts, but his time logged in the captain’s chair was still short.
It wouldn’t get much longer, and what was about to happen was a big part of the reason for that.
Good information about L. Ron Hubbard is hard to come by, because of how much of a polarizing figure he became later in his life, after he founded the Church of Scientology. It’s easy to find accounts of his action that day that drip with contempt and scorn; it’s also pretty easy to find versions that overflow with adulation. But there are a few things that most agree on:
The Battle of Cape Lookout
Hubbard had taken command of the PC-815 at the Portland shipyard just a month before, and he and his crew had sailed the ship out over the bar and north to Bremerton, where the vessel was fitted with its weapons — depth charges and cannon. Then the little sub-chaser stood out through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, headed for San Diego.
Along the way, as Hubbard’s ship passed about 10 miles off the end of Cape Lookout, his sonar operators picked up the signature of something big under the sea — and then another. Listening on the hydrophones, they became convinced they were hearing the throb of two submarines’ drive screws.
The PC-815 charged into battle, depth-charge cans rolling off the chutes and lighting up the depths with their massive explosions.
The little sub chaser motored around, chasing sonar blips and rolling depth charges overboard, until it had used up its full complement of three dozen or so. Then Hubbard’s crew radioed for reinforcements, and the crews of four other small Navy and Coast Guard warships, stationed at Astoria, were rousted out of their homes and from various waterfront watering holes and sent hustling out to help. Two of the blimps from the Tillamook hangar also shortly arrived on the scene to help direct fire.
With the guidance of the blimps, the crew of one of the Navy ships — the 110-foot submarine chaser U.S.S. SC-536 — homed in on one of the supposed subs, and apparently it hit something.
“The blimp sent us a message saying our charge had made a direct hit and sunk it,” recalled crew member Robert Wood in an interview with journalist Lori Tobias.
Wood said the crew of the SC-536 saw an oil slick and blood in the water to confirm the kill, and said locals later reported finding debris washed ashore as if from a sunken sub.
But when the jubilant sailors tried to report their kill, the Navy told them it never happened — that there were no subs there.
A submarine-shaped whale?
As far as the government was concerned, an incompetent and overeager Hubbard and his crew had picked up a sonar signal from something, probably a whale, and had gotten excited and just started bombing it. Then they’d called for backup, and spent the next 48 hours making life miserable for the local fish before the exasperated Navy commanders ordered Hubbard to leave it alone and move on.
To be sure, the government’s claim that Hubbard was incompetent was reinforced several months later when, while stationed at San Diego, he caused an international incident by bombarding Mexico. Hubbard’s ship had, unbeknownst to its navigator, crossed the border, and when Hubbard decided to conduct some gunnery practice on a nearby island, he unknowingly committed what was technically an act of war. The Mexican consulate complained formally, and Hubbard’s days commanding Navy ships were over.
But the Navy’s doggedness in calling the Battle of Cape Lookout a 72-hour-long mistake strikes some observers as a bit too strident, in a “methinks-the-lady-doth-protest-too-much” kind of way. Woods certainly feels that way.
“It upset me that the admiral denied it when he had all the proof he needed,” he told Tobias.
So, what was the deal? Were the two sonar signatures really those of Japanese subs? Was one a sub and the other a whale, perhaps, or could both of them have been whales? And what about the possibility that it was an American sub, maybe on some kind of secret mission, getting flattened by the overzealous young crews of five surface ships and two airships, then left at the bottom of the sea and disavowed by the government for reasons unknown?
With the information we have right now, it’s impossible to say what exactly happened off Cape Lookout 70 years ago. But that may be about to change.
Dive team now searching
For the last few summers, a dive team under the direction of dive manager Kathleen Wallis has taken up the cause of proving that Woods was right. Last year, they captured some very promising images of a long, slender object nestled on the seafloor, and it’s just about the right size.
Wallis, writing on the dive team’s Facebook page, says the dive teams are going out in early August to investigate, and she believes this lifelong mystery is about to be solved.
For more details about the dive team’s quest, go to facebook.com and type “Oregon Coast Project” into the search field at the top of the page (next to the Facebook logo).
(Sources: Tobias, Lori. “Divers searching to prove story of sunken enemy sub,” Portland Oregonian, 20 Sep 2012; Buchanan, James. “Mystery surrounds elusive subs,” Bend Bulletin, 2 Aug 1972; Sables, Robert P. “PC-815: The jinxed sub-chaser,” Sea Classics, Jan. 2006; Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford, 1984)