The keel of USS S-31 (SS-136) was laid down on 13 April 1918 by the Union Iron Works Division of the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation…a subcontractor of the Electric Boat Company of New York City, New York…at San Francisco, California. The submarine was christened by Mrs. George A. Walker and launched on 28 December 1918. The S-boat was commissioned on 11 May 1922 with Lieutenant William A. Heard in command.
When commissioned, the S-1 Class coastal and harbor defense submarine was 219’3″ in length overall; had an extreme beam of 20’8″; had a normal surface displacement of 854 tons, and, when in that condition, had a mean draft of 15’11”. Submerged displacement was 1,062 tons. The submarine was of riveted construction. The designed compliment was four officers and thirty-four enlisted men. The boat could operate safely to depths of 200 feet. The submarine was armed with four 21-inch torpedo tubes…installed in the bow. Twelve torpedoes were carried. One 4-inch/50 caliber deck gun was installed. The full load of diesel oil carried was 41,921 gallons, which fueled two 600 designed brake horsepower Model 8-EB-15NR diesel engines manufactured by the New London Ship and Engine Company at Groton, Connecticut…which could drive the boat…via a diesel direct drive propulsion system…at 14.5 knots on the surface. Power for submerged propulsion was provided by a main storage battery, divided into two sixty-cell batteries, manufactured by the Electric Storage Battery Company (EXIDE) at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania…which powered two 750 designed brake horsepower main propulsion motors manufactured by the Electro Dynamic Company at Bayonne, New Jersey…which turned propeller shafts…which turned propellers…which could drive the submarine at 11 knots for a short period of time when operating beneath the surface of the sea. Slower submerged speeds resulted in greater endurances before the batteries needed to be recharged by the engines and generators.
Commissioned as improved engines were being developed for her class, USS S-31 (SS-136) was ordered to the United States Naval Submarine Base at New London/Groton, Connecticut, toward the end of the summer of 1922 for alterations to her main propulsion machinery by the prime contractor…the Electric Boat Company. Decommissioned at Groton on 4 October 1922, the submarine remained in the company’s Groton yard through the winter and was recommissioned on 8 March 1923.
During April, the S-boat moved south; conducted exercises in the Caribbean; then transited the Panama Canal to return to California. She remained on the West Coast of the United States through 1924, conducting exercises off the California coast with her submarine division, SubDiv 16. She ranged into the Aleutians for exercises during June and July of 1923, and into the Panama Canal area and the Caribbean Sea for fleet problems during the winter of 1924.
During 1925, SubDiv 16 was transferred to the United States Asiatic Fleet; so USS S-31 departed San Francisco in April and headed for the Philippine Islands. On 12 July, the submarine arrived at Cavite, Luzon Island. For the next seven years, the S-boat conducted patrols and exercises in the Philippines during the fall and winter months and deployed to the China coast for spring and summer operations. The latter operations were primarily concerned with individual, division, and fleet training exercises.
During September of 1930, USS S-31 engaged in a full power run between Tsingtao and Chinwangtao, surfaced amidst wreakage in heavy seas in the Gulf of Chihli (now Po Hai) and sighted a Chinese junk which had been hit by a steamer. The vessel’s cargo of lumber had torn loose, endangering the submarine and hindering efforts to rescue the junk’s seven survivors. USS S-31 made an approach from the windward side; and, as the wind pushed her past the stern of the wreck, five men were taken off. Lines were thrown to the two remaining survivors, and they were hauled on board the submarine as the loose wreckage was propelled toward her hull. The submarine then cleared the area and proceeded to Chinwangtao to rejoin her division in exercises.
On 2 May 1932, USS S-31 completed her tour with the Asiatic Fleet and departed Manila for Pearl Harbor in the Territory of Hawaii, where, with her division, she was based until 1937. Then, designated for inactivation, she cleared Pearl Harbor on 14 June; arrived at the Philadelphia Navy Yard at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 27 August; and, on 7 December 1937, the submarine was decommissioned and berthed in the Back Channel of the Philadelphia Navy Yard in the Reserve Basin of League Island. Within two years, however, World War II broke out in Europe, and preparations were begun to reactivate the ships in the reserve fleet.
USS S-31 was recommissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on 18 September 1940. Assigned to SubDiv 52, the submarine operated out of the United States Naval Submarine Base at New London/Groton, Connecticut, into December, then moved south to the Panama Canal Zone.
With the end of the spring of 1941, the S-boat returned to her New London/Groton base for submarine and antisubmarine Warfare (ASW) training exercises along the New England coast. During November, she returned to the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and underwent overhaul.
On 7 December 1941, the Japanese struck targets in the Territory of Hawaii…thus forcing the United States to become an active participant in World War II.
During January of 1942, with her overhaul completed, USS S-31 rejoined her division at New London/Groton, Connecticut.
The entry of the United States into World War II had brought new orders for her division; and, during February, she headed back to the Panama Canal. The submarine arrived at Coco Solo from Bermuda at mid-month; conducted two defensive patrols in the approaches to the canal, from 10 to 31 March, and from 14 April to 13 May; then, toward the end of May, headed north to San Diego, California, to prepare for duty in the Aleutians.
By the end of June of 1942, USS S-31 was en route to Alaska; and, on 7 July, she departed the submarine base at Dutch Harbor for her first patrol on the edge of the North Pacific Ocean. Moving west from Unalaska, she reconnoitered the Adak area, then shifted north to her patrol area in the Bering Sea, just north of the Aleutian chain. On the 19th, the submarine was ordered further west; and, on the 30th, she took station to the east of Kiska to intercept Japanese ships moving toward an Allied force scheduled to bombard that enemy-held island. The bombardment took place on 7 August. The following evening, USS S-31 cleared for Dutch Harbor. On the 10th, sixty miles out of Dutch Harbor, a Mark X emergency identification flare exploded, causing serious chest injuries to the commanding officer and under-scoring the need for pharmacist’s mates on S-boats, and for better communications between Dutch Harbor and ships operating in the Northern Pacific Ocean. Use of the Mark X flare had been ordered discontinued on 13 July…but USS S-31 never received that information.
During her patrol, USS S-31 had also encountered other problems common to all S-boats operating in the Aleutian Islands; loose superstructure plates; the lack of a fathometer and radar; and poor weather.
Sporadic communication, which resulted in two attacks by American patrol planes, and inclement weather provided the greatest hazards to her fourth patrol, conducted between 26 August and 28 September in support of the occupation of Adak. For most of the period, the S-boat was buffeted by turbulent seas. Occasionally, she encountered only choppy conditions. On 30 August, chlorine gas was formed by water driven by a 40-knot wind when it entered her forward battery compartment. The poisonous gas was soon detected and eliminated.
On her fifth war patrol, from 13 October to 8 November, USS S-31 moved into the Kurils. The submarine arrived on station on 20 October. Two days later, the S-boat was off Paramushiro and patrolled in the traffic lanes in the northern Paramushiro-Shumushu area until the 24th. She then headed for Onekotan Strait. The next day, she hunted in the northeast approaches to that passage. On the morning of the 26th, she closed the Paramushiro coast; and, at 0825, she sighted a target in Otomae Wan and began her approach. At 0922, she fired two torpedoes. The target, the 2,864-ton cargoman “Keizan Maru,” sank in the anchorage. At 0923, USS S-31 went aground on a reef. She backed off and went ahead. Between 0928 and 0955, she grounded several more times at periscope depth. At 1000, she reached deep water and cleared the area unpursued. That night, the submarine transited Onekotan Strait through “monstrous seas;” and, on the 27th, she commenced hunting along the west coast of Paramushiro. With November, however, her fuel supply became the critical factor; and, on the 2nd, she turned for home…Dutch Harbor, Unalaska.
USS S-31 arrived at Dutch Harbor on 8 November. Three days later, she commenced a transit to San Diego; where she provided training services for the West Coast Sound School from 27 November 1942 to 3 January 1943. Refit followed into February. Toward the end of that month, she moved west to Hawaii. There, her 4-inch gun was replaced by a 3-inch gun, and further training exercises were conducted. On 11 March, the submarine continued west on her sixth war patrol.
From 23 to 29 March, USS S-31 reconnoitered Kwajalein Atoll and searched the sea lanes connecting that atoll with Truk and Wotje for enemy traffic. On the 29th, the submarine set a course for New Caledonia; crossed the Equator on 2 April; and arrived at Noumea on the 9th. After an eight-day refit, the S-boat provided services as a target for destroyer/ASW training exercises. From 5 to 26 July, she interrupted her training schedule for her seventh war patrol which took her into the southern New Hebrides to transport and support a reconnaisance team landed on Aneityum, and to hunt for an enemy submarine reported to be operating in the area. On her return to Noumea, she resumed training exercises and continued them until 20 August 1943.
On 22 August, USS S-31 departed for her last war patrol, conducted in the Saint George Channel area to intercept enemy traffic between Rabaul and New Guinea. From her patrol area, she proceeded to Brisbane, Australia, for overhaul; and, in early December, returned to the New Caledonia-New Hebrides area. There, she resumed ASW training duties…which were continued into July of 1944, when she was ordered back to California.
USS S-31 arrived at San Diego in early August for overhaul…which took her into November. The submarine then provided submarine and sound training services for west coast training commands.
On 2 September 1945, the Japanese signed the instruments of surrender on board battleship USS Missouri, which was anchored in Tokyo Bay, Japan, for that occasion. Those actions officially ended World War II.
During September of 1945, the World War I design submarine proceeded to San Francisco for inactivation.
USS S-31 (SS-136) was decommissioned on 19 October 1945; struck from the Navy List on 1 November 1945; and sold for scrap during May of 1946. Her hulk was delivered to the purchaser, Salco Iron and Metal Company of San Francisco the following December…and was scrapped during July of 1947.
USS S-31 (SS-136) received one battle star for her services during World War II.