The Mark 14 Torpedo Scandal
Rear Adm. Charles Lockwood, the problems with the Mark 14, and the Bureau of Ordnance
In 1942, submarines in the three regional Pacific Ocean commands had fired 1,442 torpedoes and sunk only 211 ships totaling almost 1.3 million tons (post-war analysis of Japanese records reduced these figures to 109 ships and 41,871 tons). The new Commander, Submarines, Pacific Fleet, Rear Adm. Charles Lockwood looked at the tally sheet for March 1943. The results continued to be disappointingly low. The problem: duds and premature explosions of torpedoes. In 1942, Lockwood had forced the powerful Bureau of Ordnance (BuOrd) to admit to and fix faults in the Mark 14 torpedo’s depth gauge, the cause of torpedoes running too deep. Now he braced himself for another bruising battle with BuOrd, this time over the magnetic “exploder,” also called a pistol, which was meant to detonate the torpedo beneath the keel of enemy ships.
Lockwood’s association with submarines began in 1914 with the A-2, the Navy’s second submarine. During that war he commanded Submarine Division 1, Asiatic. He held a variety of submarine commands in the interwar years. In February 1941, he served as the naval attaché in London, where he debriefed Ensign Eugene Smith, the Navy pilot secretly instrumental in helping sink the Bismarck. In May 1942, he became Commander, Submarines, Southwest Pacific Area, based in Fremantle, Australia, where he found himself neck-deep in the Mark 14 controversy.
Designed in 1930, the Mark 14 had the misfortune of being developed in the Great Depression when there was little or no money available for painting barracks, let alone funding new (and expensive) weapon systems. The Mark 14 was put into production even though it had been inadequately tested – in fact no live-fire tests were ever conducted.
When submarine commanders went to war in the Pacific, they discovered that more often than not their torpedoes exploded prematurely, ran too deep, were duds, or, frighteningly, circled back and tried to sink their own submarines! As Theodore Roscoe wrote in United States Submarine Operations in World War II, “The only reliable feature of the torpedo was its unreliability.”
“[We] clinked ’em with a clunk.”
—Lt. Cmdr. William John “Moke” Millican, Thresher captain, referring to a dud Mark 14 torpedo impact on a ship
Because there was such a wide array of problems, BuOrd, which had designed the Mark 14, claimed the fault was with the submarine commanders and not the Mark 14. That initially stopped complaints. Back then semi-autonomous naval bureaus like BuOrd were so powerful that not even Adm. Ernest King, who was both Commander in Chief U.S. Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations (an unprecedented consolidation of power), had direct authority over them. As one submarine commander said, “A naval officer, conditioned to believe the bureau’s word was infallible in matters of ordnance, did not lightly challenge it.” But, as he had proved in 1942, Rear Adm. Lockwood was not afraid to fight for his men.
Lockwood left his headquarters at Pearl Harbor for Washington to push for a solution to the magnetic exploder problem.
Lockwood met Adm. King and his chief of staff Rear Adm. Richard Edwards. Later, at the Submarine Officer’s Conference, Lockwood said, “If the Bureau of Ordnance can’t provide us with torpedoes that will hit and explode . . . then for God’s sake, get the Bureau of Ships to design a boat hook with which we can rip the plates off a target’s side.”
When Lockwood finally met his old friend Bureau of Ordnance chief Rear Adm. William “Spike” Blandy in the latter’s office, the furious Blandy said, “I don’t know whether it’s part of your mission to discredit the Bureau of Ordnance, but you seem to be doing a pretty good job of it.”
Lockwood replied, “Well, Spike, if anything I have said will get the Bureau off its duff and get some action, I will feel that my trip has not been wasted.”
Lockwood returned to Pearl Harbor, the situation with the magnetic exploder “under study.” Finally, in July 1943, he officially ordered what many of his commanders were already doing: deactivate the magnetic exploder and only use the contact pistol, which would detonate the torpedo when it actually contacted the side of an enemy ship.
Yet even that didn’t completely solve the dud and premature explosion problem. In July 1943, Lt. Cmdr. Lawrence Daspit of the Tinosa fired eleven torpedoes under near perfect conditions that were duds. In August, Lockwood ordered field tests in which torpedoes with warshots were fired at an undersea cliff and the duds retrieved for study, and torpedoes containing dummy warheads were dropped from a cherry picker onto a steel plate set at different angles. The tests revealed defects in the contact pistol as well. This information was passed onto BuOrd which eventually redesigned the contact pistol.
In his book, Silent Victory, historian Clay Blair Jr. wrote, “After twenty-one months of war, the three major defects of the Mark 14 torpedo had at last been isolated. . . . Each defect had been discovered and fixed in the field – always over the stubborn opposition of the Bureau of Ordnance.”