USS Perch: SOF Submarine
During World War II, it did not take mission planners in the Pacific theater of operations long to discover that special operations and submarines were made for each other. In a theater covering a third of the globe, with islands scattered from the Aleutians down to the Solomons, submarines were the ideal means to covertly transport supplies to guerillas and coast watchers and carry specially trained Amphibious Scouts and Raiders (or Navy Scouts and Raiders), Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs), Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs), and other special operations units to hostile beaches to conduct reconnaissance or sabotage missions. Because they participated in the famous Makin Raid by Carlson’s Raiders in 1942, the USS Argonaut and the USS Nautilus are arguably the two most famous submarines that conducted special operations during this war. But there is a lesser-known submarine that has the distinction of conducting special operations in not just one, but three wars: World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. That submarine was the USS Perch (SS-313).
Perch was one of the longest-serving submarines in the U.S. Navy. Launched on Sept. 12, 1943, and commissioned on Jan. 7, 1944, it was finally, permanently decommissioned 27 years later, on Dec. 1, 1977, when it was struck from the Naval Register. During the course of its service, the many classifications of the submarine with pennant number 313 – submarine (SS), submarine transport (SSP), transport submarine (ASSP), submarine transport (APSS), transport submarine (LPSS), and finally, prior to being struck from the list, unclassified miscellaneous submarine (IXSS) – all-too-briefly summarize the wide range of roles of this boat.
In World War II, the Perch earned four battle stars. In the Korean War, it earned one battle star and was one of only two submarines to be awarded the Submarine Combat Insignia. In addition, its commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. R.D. Quinn, received the Bronze Star for actions during a special operations mission, the only submarine commander in that conflict to be awarded a combat decoration. During the Vietnam War, the Perch helped train special operations units, participated in a variety of search and rescue and special operations missions, and conducted what is regarded as the last surface combat action by a U.S. Navy submarine. In the late 1960s, it served as a Naval Reserve training submarine and finally as a submarine transport.
SS-313 was the second boat to carry the name Perch. The first USS Perch (SS-176) was a Porpoise-class submarine scuttled in March 1942 after being severely damaged in action off the coast of Java, Indonesia. SS-313 was one of 41 Balao-class fleet submarines built by the Electric Boat Company in Groton, Conn. The Balao class, comprising 120 boats, almost all named after fish species, was the largest submarine class in U.S. Navy history. The Balao were successors to the Gato class, and these two classes were responsible for most of the U.S. Navy’s submarine action in World War II. The Perch entered the war at the end of April 1944. On its first war patrol, the Perch damaged a tanker and was damaged by depth charges dropped from the tanker’s escort. The Perch survived and, on its second mission, scored its first success with the sinking of a trawler off Surigao Strait in the Philippines at the end of June. Later, the Perch participated in wolf-pack patrols against enemy shipping and in lifeguard duty supporting B-29 raids off the Japanese coast, among other tasks. It entered the world of special operations on its fifth war patrol on March 12, 1945, when it was tasked with delivering 11 Australian commandos on a reconnaissance mission in the Dutch East Indies. During that mission, a 300-ton coastal freighter spotted the Perch. A surface battle ensued and the Perch sank the freighter with its deck gun. A sixth war patrol found the Perch in the Java Sea. An attack on a two-ship convoy almost ended in disaster when the Japanese escort discovered the Perch and subjected it to a severe depth charging that caused major damage but did not sink it. Its final war patrol was escort duty off the coast of Japan, and during that patrol it rescued two fighter pilots. When Japan surrendered, the Perch returned to the United States, arriving at Hunter’s Point, Calif., on Sept. 8, 1945.
She was decommissioned in January 1947 and placed on reserve fleet status. The following year, in May, the Perch was redesignated a submarine transport (SSP-313), recommissioned, and placed on active duty attached to the U.S. Pacific Fleet. For six months in 1948 she was in the Mare Island Naval Shipyard where she was rebuilt to specifications according to her new role as a troop carrier. Her sleek lines were remodeled and her afterdeck was fitted with a protected hangar deck. Though the hangar deck would be invaluable in her new role, it unfortunately created a gigantic, suggestive, bulbous hump right behind the conning tower. The sight of the once-slender submarine now with a distended afterdeck caused the boat to become a laughing stock of the fleet and be labeled “The Pregnant Perch,” amongst other, unprintable, names.