By Kevin Denlay
“It’s a submarine, try to identify it”. Those few words shouted by Vidar Skoglie as he momentarily broke decompression to alert the dive team electrified the dive deck. What was transpiring as just another dive to check out just another mark suddenly became an exciting dive of discovery! Yet how could a submarine be here, so far from the nearest reported sinking position of any submarine lost during WW11 in the Java Sea? We had initially thought from the sonar trace that ‘maybe’ we had found an upside-down destroyer (the old USS Pope) as the length and beam appeared ‘about’ right. Surprise, surprise, what had we accidentally stumbled on: a submarine! Craig Challen was soon in the water, followed respectively by myself, Mike Gadd and Dieter Kops. As it turned out, identifying this submarine would not be quite as easy as finding it had been, yet in the end the evidence would prove incontrovertible. It was November 23rd, 2006, Thanksgiving Day in the USA, and we would soon have reason to be thankful too.

Left: USS Perch going down the ways on May 9th 1936 at the Electric Boat Company, Groton, Connecticut. Photo Groton Submarine Museum.

A prewar photo of USS Perch SS-176. Her rear gun and the circular RDF antenna just forward of the conning tower are clearly visible.
Photo US Naval Historical Center
Over the past five days we had made our way down from Singapore aboard MV Empress and were in the Java Sea searching for WW11 shipwrecks. With only a dedicated few onboard we could devote as much time to side-scan searching as we liked, we did not have to keep to a daily dive schedule as is so often the case on most live-aboard dive charters. Still, we certainly never expected to find a submarine in this location and so early in the trip. As I had often learnt in the past though, just because a certain ship is reported lost at a certain location doesn’t mean that’s where it actually sank! Over the years MV Empress had found many wrecks quite some distance from where they were reported sunk and this wreck would eventually prove to be no exception.

Descending down through exceptional visibility and a thick cloud of jellyfish to 100ft/30m, it was disappointing to find that the visibility soon deteriorated below the thermocline - as is often the case on many Java Sea wrecks - until on the bottom at approximately 190ft/58m visibility was only about 16ft/5m or less. Vidar had done exceptionally well on his first dive though, tying the downline to the top of the conning tower, right opposite the periscope shears on a perfectly upright wreck. From here divers could spread out fore and aft to explore and try to find something that would positively identify the wreck. It was a ghostly sight and an eerie feeling, fellow divers appeared as mere fleeting shadows in the low visibility and one could not help but wonder if what we had found was a tomb for the entire crew, a steel sarcophagus, as is the case with most submarines lost in action.

The first few dives proved inconsequential with regards identification though; a main gun aft of the fairwater (conning tower), a Radio Direction Finder antenna on the deck just forward of the fairwater and a flush deck (that is, level) from bow to stern were the predominate features, with lots of abandoned fishing trawler net ubiquitously snagged in several places. Now normally MV Empress’s library is well stocked with photographic and historical reference material, but all of these books had been removed during a recent overhaul and had inadvertently not been placed back aboard prior to our departure, so we had to find something on the wreck itself for positive identification. From previous Java Sea search expeditions we knew that the nearest geographical position in the historical record for an undiscovered sunken submarine was a German sub (U-183, one of the so-called Monsoon Boats) sunk approximately 90 miles to the east, with a US submarine, USS Perch, sunk - seemingly – up to 75 miles to the south.

On the next dive Vidar, Empress’s redoubtable owner/skipper, used a line to measure the overall length of the submarine while Mike took as many photos as he could from bow to stern in the low visibility conditions. Vidar’s measurement was 297ft (90.5m) and from prior research we knew this was substantially longer than the German submarine, so that ruled her out (U-183 was a Type IXC/40 boat at 252ft/77m overall), leaving it seemed only USS Perch. She was 300.6ft/91.5m overall, so allowing for a bend in the line due to the strong current on that dive, this was very close to what Vidar had measured. But what was the American submarine doing so far north when she was thought lost much nearer to the Java coast? The dive team had by now ascertained that the sub was basically intact, that is there was no discernable damage or catastrophic penetration to the pressure hull, and the only hatch found to be open was the one atop the conning tower, so how had she sunk? Unfortunately, although this was early days in the expedition – usually it seems that wrecks are found on the last day or so – our search mission in the Java Sea was for much bigger game than a submarine, so we had to move on. Hence the next couple of days were spent searching for our prime targets, but we were all tormented by not having been able to positively identify the sunken sub. So, of course, we decided to return to the site and try one more time! What else could we do?

Having flooded one of my digital camera strobes on the previous dive after only a few shots, I decided to use video on the next dive and document the wreck from bow to stern for historical reference, in the hope that if we couldn’t positively identify it then some historian could. Alighting next to the stern gun I first swam aft, around the net encased stern and then back forward past the conning tower to the bow, videoing as I went. They say silence is golden and I would have to agree!

Being alone and in complete silence in the gloomy darkness - I was diving a closed circuit rebreather, as were several other members of the dive team – it almost felt as if I were viewing what was in front of me in a detached sense. However, upon reaching the bow the current suddenly picked up and I struggled somewhat to hold the camera steady as I worked my way back along the wreck past the foredeck hatch and the RDF antenna forward of the conning tower. Looking up at the face of the fairwater itself I could see a freshly ‘cleaned’ area. Swimming up close to it I could hardly believe my eyes.

There in front of me was the builder’s plaque! Across the top in bold letters were the words ‘USS Perch’, the second line stating ‘submarine’ and the following lines revealing details relevant to her launching by the Electric Boat Company of Groton, Connecticut. Unbeknownst to me, whilst I was videoing the rest of the wreck, our intrepid skipper Vidar Skoglie had located and cleaned the plaque for all to see. Positive identification? I would think so! While some wrecks can take years to positively identify we had been fortunate enough to do so in just several days of diving. With time for just one more dive I again took in my still camera to document the plaque and other pertinent objects, but as luck - or lack-there-of would have it – once more after only a few shots my remaining strobe shorted out and that was the end of my photographic endeavors. As the old adage goes, and proves correct time and time again “If you can’t take a joke, don’t take up underwater photography”.

Right: Looking like he could be going for a moonwalk, with full face mask and a ‘Boris’ CCR on his back, Mike Gadd prepares for another dive on USS Perch. Photo Kevin Denlay

Nevertheless, MV Empress had done it again and amended the historical record, adding Perch to the hundreds of virgin wrecks she has discovered in the past ten years. A submarine that had been thought lost well to the south of where we had found her was now positively identified and documented. Disappointingly however, although spending another five days specifically side-scanning other areas, the ‘bigger game’ our expedition originally set out to find when we unexpectedly discovered USS Perch remained illusive. Never mind, Perch was a welcome consolation.

On return to shore information, images and video regarding the discovery were forwarded to the US Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C., and the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (See more images at As it transpired USS Perch was only the second US submarine lost to surface action during WW11 (three others having been lost up to that date due to other circumstances) and although her crew safely abandoned ship they were all taken prisoner by the Japanese and sent to their brutal Prisoner Of War camps. When eighty five year old Perch survivor Robert Lents was contacted in his Arkansas home, he expressed great interest in the discovery and was looking forward to seeing what his boat looked like after all these years. “There are only five of us survivors left now.” he said, and then added, “I left $35 in my locker on the boat. It’s probably still there.”

The last fateful days of USS Perch SS-176

Launched May 9th 1936 by the Electric Boat Company of Groton, Connecticut, USS Perch was one of a new breed of American submarines, the precursor to the ‘fleet’ boat of WW11. She had many modifications over the old S Class subs, or ‘Pig boats’ as they were affectionately known, being the first submarine to incorporate an early form of air conditioning, a big plus given that many of the boats would soon be operating in the tropics. When war with the Japanese commenced in December 1941 USS Perch was under the command of Lieutenant Commander David Hurt and operating as part of the US Asiatic Fleet based out of Manila, the capital of the Philippines. After her first war patrol, with one ship sunk to her credit, and the subsequent loss of Manila to the Japanese, Perch was directed to Darwin - Australia - for repairs. She left there on her second, and as it turned out last war patrol in early February 1942. Towards the end of February, while patrolling in the eastern Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) she was directed to immediately leave her patrol area and attack an unopposed Japanese invasion force then approaching the coast of Java, north west of Surabaya. At the time Perch was one of less than a handful of allied vessels - all submarines - remaining in the entire Java Sea, as all allied surface forces had been thoroughly decimated in several naval engagements over the last few days of February and the morning of March 1st.

Above Left: Vidar Skoglie, wreck finder extraordinaire, steps in with the downline for the very first visit to USS Perch in over sixty four years! Photo Kevin Denlay
Above: A close up of the builder’s plaque clearly shows the name USS Perch. Photo Kevin Denlay
Maneuvering to attack this invasion force on the night of March 1st, Perch was detected by two Japanese destroyers - Amatsukaze and Hatsukaze - and subsequently subjected to a series of depth charge attacks. Attempting to escape by diving deeper, disaster nearly struck as Perch grounded on the bottom due to faulty navigational charts! However, after some time and with the area smelling heavily of fuel oil, the destroyer’s retired thinking they had sunk the sub. Perch however, although badly shaken, had survived and surfaced in the early hours of March 2nd hoping to continue her convoy attack. Suddenly another Japanese destroyer, Ushio, appeared and forced Perch to ‘crash dive’! This opponent proved tenacious and delivered what would prove to be a devastating series of depth charge attacks, repeated again and again over several hours while Perch once more lay immobile on the bottom. Fortunately yet again the tell-tale smell of escaping fuel oil eventually deceived the Japanese into thinking they had sunk the sub and the destroyer left the area sometime after dawn.

However Perch was not finished, but now gravely wounded, and this time, no matter what the crew tried, remained stuck fast on the bottom for the rest of the day. Using this time to affect what repairs they could whilst submerged, the crew eventually managed to surface the sub after dark that night. Damage was severe; her deck gun was jammed and inoperable, several torpedoes had made ‘hot runs’ and were jammed in the tubes, studs holding down one of the main engines had snapped, many batteries had shorted, the steering gear was badly damaged and rudder stuck fast, ballast tanks were leaking air, oil was profusely leaking into the water column and much of her pressure hull was dimpled in from the near misses of the numerous depth charge attacks. Even toilet bowls had been completely shattered! Worst of all two of her main hatches were buckled beyond repair and would not reseal properly and her maximum surface speed would prove to be only five knots.

Lt Cmdr Hurt decided that his only option now was to exit the area and put as much distance between Perch and the Japanese as possible, all the while attempting running repairs while surfaced. Sometime before dawn on March 3rd the crew attempted a trim dive that almost proved fatal. Water quickly flooded the sub through the warped hatches and by the time the diving officer had regained control and surfaced the boat water in the engine room bilges was up to the generators. After eventually ‘stabilizing’ on the surface it was found that only the front half of the sub could be exposed above the waves while the stern remained well underwater, and Perch could now only struggle forward like a wounded whale. As the crew tried desperately to rectify the damage, if this wasn’t enough to contend with, Ushio again suddenly materialized out of the darkness, accompanied this time by another destroyer, Sazanami, and started shelling Perch.

With a crippled boat and no prospect for retaliation and realizing that discretion was the better part of valor with regards saving his crew, Lt Cmdr Hurt ordered “Abandon ship, scuttle the boat.” Fortunately all the crew managed to safely abandon ship and all were picked up by the circling Japanese destroyers. However six men were later to die in the merciless Japanese POW Camps, while Cmdr Hurt died tragically in a hunting accident only a couple of months after being repatriated to the USA at the end of the war. Perch of course slowly descended, unmanned, one last time beneath the waves of the Java Sea, where we found her proudly sitting upright some sixty four years later. One of fifty two US submarines lost during WW11, she remains forever ‘on eternal patrol’.

The Last Patrol by Harry Holmes
The Fleet the Gods Forgot by W G Winslow
US Submarine Operations in WW11 by Theodore
Roscoe Japanese Destroyer Captain by
Capt Tameichi Hara
The author ( is a regular visitor to the Java and South China Sea wrecks aboard MV Empress ( and when using Singapore as his stepping off point travels there on Singapore Airlines. (
Right: Explorer Mike Gadd in full flight with his Ouroboros CCR.
Photo Kevin Denlay

Below: The Radio Direction Finder antenna on the foredeck of USS Perch is now encrusted with soft coral. Photo Kevin Denlay