Built by Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation, San Francisco, California. Laid down January 14, 1919. Launched July 2, 1919 sponsored by Miss Clara M. Huber. Commissioned on September 14, 1923 with Lieutenant John A. Scott (US Naval Academy class of 1928) in command.
Joined the US Navy Submarine Force, Battle Fleet. During October to December 1923, conducted maneuvers off California. During 1924, operated off the Panama Canal and Caribbean Sea for final trials, exercises and training dives and in April 1924 to Mare Island for overhaul.
Afterwards, on September 17 departed for the Philippines via Pearl Harbor and Apra Harbor arriving at Manila on November 5.
In the Philippines, assigned to Submarine Division 17 (SubDiv 17) based at Cavite Naval Baseat Manila Bay. During May 1925, she sailed for the Asiatic mainland with her division operating from Amoy and Hong Kong then operated from Tsingtao until early September then returned to Manila.
During the remainder of the prewar period, the submarine operated during the summer from Tsingtao to patrol the Chinese coast. During winters in the Philippines for training, repairs, exercises and patrols.
First War Patrol
Assigned to captain Lt. F. E. Brown. This submarine was paroling off southern Luzon when the Pacific War began on December 8, 1941. Assigned to patrol the San Bernardino Strait and survived depth charge attacks by Japanese warships escorting mine layers. On December 11, 1941 the submarine survived a day long depth charge attack. On December 13, attacked a 5,000-ton freighter but was driven away by escorts before the results of her attack could be verified. On December 21 returned to Manila.
Second War Patrol
As operations from the Philippines were untenable, the submarine was transfered to Java to join what would become the ABDA command. En route, reconnoitered Tablas Straight and Verde Island, in the Philippines, but made no successful attacks. On January 24, 1942 arrived at Soerabaja.
Third War Patrol
Departed Soerabaja and patrolled during late February to March 1942 in the South China Sea. Claimed a 5,000-ton tanker sunk. Reconnoitered Chebia Island in search of a British admiral and an air marshal who had supposedly escaped Singapore. S-39 landed a search party, but failed to locate anyone. Afterwards, departed for Australia via the Sunda Strait.
On March 4, 1942 located a 6,500 to tanker Erimo (credited as 5,000 tons), this submarine fired four Mark 10 torpedoes, scoring three hits and sinking the vessel. Two weeks later, arrived in Fremantle then departed for Brisbane arriving in late April.
Forth War Patrol
On May 10, 1942 departed Brisbane on a patrol to reconnoitered the Louisiade Archipelago and Solomon Islands, but had no contact with the enemy.
Fifth War Patrol
At the start of her fifth patrol, S-39 was forced to return to Brisbane due to a major breakdown. Her Executive Officer had been put on the sick list on August 5, and two days later his condition warned of the development of pneumonia. Captain Brown was directed to proceed to Townsville. On August 10, the sick officer was transferred ashore for further medical treatment,.
Afterwards, S-39 finally got underway and patrolled off the southeastern coast of New Ireland, then across the Coral Sea to the Louisiade Archipelago
During the night of August 13-14 1942, S-39 while operating in the eastern Louisiade Archipelago the submarine struck a submerged reef off Rossel Island (Yela). The ship took a port list of 30° to 35°, and was jolting heavily due to heavy following seas breaking over the deck. Backing the screws had little effect, even after all possible fuel and ballast tanks had been blown dry. The ship began swinging broadside to the sea and was being washed farther up on the rocks, so all fuel and ballast tanks were again flooded to hold her steady.
At high tide on the morning of 14 August the screws were backed and twisted until the low voltage limit on the batteries was reached. The ship backed about 50' but again listed about 30 degrees to port and pounded heavily on the rocks. Ballast tanks ruptured by the rocks were again flooded in an effort to ease the pounding. In the afternoon word came that HMAS Katoomba would arrive the following morning to lend aid. Throughout the day breakers 15 to 20' high broke over the ship. Efforts were made to charge the batteries, but several cells had been reversed and only the after battery could be charged.
Shortly after dawn on August 15, the torpedoes were inactivated and fired. Again Brown tried backing on the after battery, but the screws were too high and little effect. With the termination of backing efforts, the ship rapidly rolled over until the list was 60 degrees port.
Escape of the Crew
Fearing that the rough seas would roll the submarine, the Commanding Officer gave permission for anyone who desired to swim to a nearby reef, although he was not ready to abandon ship. No one ventured into the water, but Lt. C. N. G. Hendrix volunteered to swim to the reef with a line and haul the two mooring lines to the reef for the rest of the crew to use.
Due to the rough seas, Hendrix was having a difficult time with the lines, and CCStd W. L. Shoenrock swam ashore to help him. The two men secured the lines to one of the torpedoes jettisoned onto the reef. Using the line, thirty-two crewmen reached the reef and twelve remained aboard the submarine when HMAS Katoomba arrived shortly after noon.
By 10:00 on August 16, HMAS Katoomba life boats made three trips to shore and all 47 members of the crew were safely aboard the ship. The crew of S-39 arrived at Townsville on August 19, 1942 and afterwards were assigned to other submarines.
It was believed wave action would soon break up S-39, and HMAS Katoomba did not shell her. During the 1980s, the wreckage was salvaged for brass. The rest of the wreckage, heavily broken up by wave action still remains on the reef.
Pigboat 39: An American Sub Goes to War by Bobette Gugliotta
Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet USS S-39 (via Wayback Machine)
Thanks to Shane Elliott for Pigboat book reference
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February 4, 2018