The Death of Chief Photographer Sergei Mihailoff, USNR and the Soviet submarine L16
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On November 5th, 1937, the Ordzhonikidze shipyard in Leningrad, Russia laid down what would be commissioned in December of 1938 as the Soviet minelaying submarine L16. A Leninec Class Series XIII, she could carry 20 torpedos and 18 mines and was over 273 feet long. Fifty-four men crewed her for cruises lasting up to 45 days.
By 1942 the Soviets were in a war with Germany but despite tensions, there was no fight with the Japanese. Their Navy needed to bolster their forces in the Northern fleet to better fight Germany. For this reason, the six submarines of the Pacific's 1st Submarine Brigade were ordered to transfer to the Northern fleet via the Panama Canal, a journey of many months at the slow speeds the submarines traveled at.
L16, captained by Lieutenant Gusarov, and her sister submarine commanded by Captain Komarov were the first two to leave, departing on September 24th, 1942. On October 5th they reached the American Naval base at Dutch Harbor. After refueling and re-provisioning they left Dutch Harbor on a course east to Kodiak, and then south to San Francisco. Aboard L-16 was a new passenger, Sergei Andreevitch Mihailoff who held the rank of Chief Photographer, USNR. Mihailoff was along as a liaison in case any US Navy ships were encountered that might be inclined to shoot first and ask questions later when encountering a strange submarine off the West Coast of the United States.
On October 11th as both submarines were cruising on the surface, they unknowingly crossed into the sites of the Imperial Japanese Navy Submarine I-25, which was returning from a mission to fire-bomb forests in Oregon in the hopes of causing the US Navy to pull some forces back from the front lines for defense. After sinking SS Camden on October 4th and the SS Larry Doheny the next day, she was down to a solitary torpedo.
At 1115hrs, Captain Komarov and his signalman on the conning tower of the L15 suddenly heard two large explosions. I-25 had put her last torpedo into the L16 and probably set of a secondary explosion. The L16 was able to get off a partial last transmission of, "We are...." but sank before her radioman could finish her last transmission. L16 began the long slide to the ocean floor, carrying her crew and Chief Photographer Sergei Andreevitch Mihailoff with her.
The signalman had seen a periscope disappearing into the depths and L15s gun crew was immediately ordered to take the enemy periscope under fire, but I-25 had disappeared by the time the crew was at their stations and returned safely to her home port in Japan. After a brief and unsuccessful search for survivors, the L15 dove to avoid further action and resumed her journey south, arriving in San Francisco five days later.
Although Japan and the Soviet Union were not at war, this incident does not seem to have provoked any sort of outcry or official complaint. Indeed, the signalman who had seen a periscope from the attacking submarine had stated it looked like that of the US Submarine S-31, which they had seen at Dutch Harbor, and the initial suspicion on the part of the Russian crew was that it had been an American submarine that had put the fatal torpedo into L16.
L16 has never been located.
Resting Place of the L16:
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In addition to the source documents and above links, information from "Submarines of the Russian and Soviet Navies, 1718-1990" by Norman Polmar and Jurrien Noot was used.