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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.

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.

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.

A cross section view of the Mark XIV torpedo showing the location of interior mechanisms. The magnetic trigger caused many problems for U.S. Navy submariners during the early years of World War II. U.S. Navy diagram

A cross section view of the Mark XIV torpedo showing the location of interior mechanisms. The magnetic trigger caused many problems for U.S. Navy submariners during the early years of World War II. U.S. Navy diagram

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.

Vice Adm. Charles A. Lockwood

Vice Adm. Charles A. Lockwood, Commander, Submarines, Pacific Fleet, comes aboard the USS Missouri (BB 63) for the surrender ceremonies in Tokyo Bay, Japan, Sept. 2, 1945. As a rear admiral, Lockwood waged a battle with the Bureau of Ordnance to have the problems with the Mark XIV torpedoes corrected. U.S. Navy photo

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.

“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.”

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.”

This story was originally published on March 4, 2013


DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-149227">
    Matt Hayball

    While awaiting BuOrd action on the contact exploder, the Torpedo Shop at Sub Base Pearl Harbor
    designed and installed a modification to the exploders in the fleet which resolved the problem by making new stronger, lighter firing pins out of scrapped aircraft propellors. Prior to that, the more direct the hit, the more likely the existing firing pin would crush from the deceleration force on it when it hit the target ships hull, rendering the torpedo a “dud”.

    In essence, the better shot the submarine fired, the less likely it would explode. Most kills came from torpedoes that almost missed. Maddening. The war could have been a year shorter in the Pacific, and (among other things) USS Nautilus would have nailed a Japanese carrier at the battle of Midway. She hit one with at least one dud.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-149268">
    Dwight Zimmerman

    Matt, you’re absolutely right. These articles have a word count ceiling, so I couldn’t get into the details you describe. The subject of the US Navy torpedo failure has occupied large sections of books recently published, and it’s a fascinating, and infuriating, story. The emphasis here was on Lockwood’s determination to fix things, be damned bureaucracy. To his credit, he succeeded.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-149305">
    Matt Hayball

    Admirals get called “Uncle” and their first name when their subordinates respect them because he listens to them. “Uncle Charlie” listened and then took action, sometimes at what too many of the current crop of Flag Officers would consider high risk.

    The problem was a nested set of malfunctions; the torpedo ran deeper than set – further away from the hull than intended for the magnetic influence feature and clean under it for the contact exploder. When Uncle Charley lost patience and went rogue (as the current crowd would likely see it) and started doing his own troubleshooting, the first thing done was to shoot through a fishing net to check for running at correct depth. Navy Torpedo Station Newport could and should have done that the first day they received the first message, but didn’t. Months lost. The firing pin design flaw was troubleshot pretty much the way the John Wayne-Patricia Neal romance and submarine war movie depicts. For once, Hollywood got something right.

    Capt “Swede” Momsen was heavily involved in the effort from what I’ve read. He himself is part of the submarine pantheon for the Squalus rescue in 1939, but that is another story.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-steven-hoarn odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-149490">

    You’re are right about Capt. Momsen’s role in the Squalus rescue, which has been written about on our website by Robert F. Dorr:

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-149519">

    The United States wasn’t the only country with torpedo problems. The Kriegsmarine had problems with its torpedoes early in the war, also with depth-keeping and the magnetic pistol, but the Germans solved those problems comparatively quickly. Interestingly, the magnetic pistol problem apparently coincided with operations during the Norwegian campaign, when the magnetic properties of the fjords as well as being further north caused torpedoes to prematurely explode. Likewise, the Japanese “Long Lance” torpedoes had a long and dangerous (for the testers) development period because of the highly inflammable pure oxygen oxidizer used in the engine. The U.S. Navy, for one, had rejected oxygen as too dangerous for use aboard ship. The Japanese, however, tested, developed, and tested again until they got it mostly right. On the other hand, the Type 93 torpedoes were much more likely to explode from shock or a hit by enemy weapons, the sympathetic detonation of the Long Lances usually crippling or sinking the ship.