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Willis Ashford Lent (ca. 1904 – August 28 1959), nicknamed "Pilly", was a rear admiral in the United States Navy. Serving as commanding officer of the Tambor class submarine USS Triton during the Second World War, Lent made the first torpedo attack against the Japanesemarker of the war.

Early life

Lent was born in West Roxbury, Massachusettsmarker, and graduated from the United States Naval Academymarker in 1925. On 15 August 1940, he assumed command of Triton (SS-201) as she was commissioned.

First patrol

Upon the outbreak of World War II, Lieutenant Commander Lent and Triton were assigned to Submarine Division 62. Triton made a training cruise to Midwaymarker from 30 August to 15 September, then participated in local and fleet operations in the Hawaiian area. On 19 November, Lent headed west to conduct a practice war patrol and arrived off Wake Islandmarker on 26 November. On 8 December, he saw columns of smoke rising over the island but assumed it was caused by construction work being done ashore. That night, when he surfaced to charge batteries, he was informed by radio Wake and Pearl Harbor had been bombed and was ordered to stay out of range of Wake's guns. The next morning, Lent observed the Japanese bombing the island. On the night of 10 December, he was surfaced, charging batteries, when flashes of light from Wake revealed a destroyer or light cruiser on a parallel course. The submarine was silhouetted against the moon, and the enemy ship turned towards. Lent went deep and began evasive action.

When the Japanese ship slowed astern, Lent came to and fired four Mark XIV torpedoes – all his stern tube, the first American submarine torpedo shots of World War II – on sonar bearings (in keeping with prewar doctrine). He heard a dull explosion 58 seconds later and believed one torpedo had hit, then went to and cleared the area. (No sinking was recorded, and Lent was not credited with one.) After their initial repulse on 11 December, the Japanese returned with two aircraft carriers, Hiryū and Sōryūmarker; thanks in part to the confusion at Peal Harbor, Lent was not informed, and Triton made no attacks on them, so any chance to delay or prevent the invasion was lost, as was a chance (always exceedingly rare) of sinking or damaging a Japanese aircraft carrier. Neither did he make any effort to evacuate the 350 Marines. On 21 December, he was ordered to return to Hawaiimarker, arriving at Pearl Harbor on 31 December.

Second patrol

Lent, with exec John Hollingsworth, was sent by Admiral Withers, COMSUBPAC, to the East China Seamarker in January 1942, where he met filthy winter weather patrolling between Nagasaki, Shanghai, Dairen, and Koreamarker. Lent made fourteen contacts, firing twelve torpedoes, earning credit for sinking two ships totalling 12,000 tons (reduced to 5982 tons JANAC postwar) Withers was praiseful, but nitpicked Lent's "squandering" torpedoes (as critical as he had been with Joe Grenfell and Dave White before), because production from Newport Torpedo Station was running drastically behind use. He also criticised Lent's failure to follow up attacks and undue caution around Japanese aircraft. This was following prewar doctrine, however.

Third patrol

After his return, Lent was transferred to command of the Tambor class submarine Grenadier (SS-210), departing for the East China Sea in April 1942. He found a convoy of seven ships, including the "magnificent passenger freighter" Taiyo Maru (14,500 tons). Lent fired four torpedoes, two for influence, two for contact; the influence feature failed to function, but the other two sank Taiyo Maru, sending over a thousand oil field technicians with her. Lent then went to , where he suffered 36 depth charges over the next four hours, so he did not observe the sinking, and on his return to Pearl Harbor, joined the chorus of complaints about the Mark XIV torpedo and its Mark VI exploder. He was echoed by his division commander, Marmaduke O'Leary; Admiral English, COMSUBPAC (replacing Withers), "[s]tubbornly following the policy of his predecessors -and the Gun Club line", instead blamed his skippers and crews.

Lent's biggest opportunity was Shōkaku, which he was detailed to intercept in the Bungo Suidomarker. Like Gar (SS-206), Ed Hutchinson's Grampus (SS-207), Chet Bruton's Greenling (SS-213), Joe Willingham's Tautog (SS-199), Spike Hottel's Cuttlefish (SS-171), Bob Rice's Drummarker (SS-228), Stan Moseley's Pollack (SS-180), and Triton (now under C. C. Kirkpatrick), Lent never sighted her.

Battle of Midway

En route home, with the decryption of the Japanese plan to invade Midway, Lent was reassigned to the second of three submarine patrol lines defending the island. His was one of eighteen boats around the island, which (except for Nautilus) accomplished nothing of consequence during the battlemarker. Operating south of Nautilus, Lent picked up an 06.15 contact report of a force already out of reach. At 08.37, he surfaced and headed for Midway in hope of intercepting Japanese in retreat, but was forced to dive by American aircraft (still likely to attack, as Grayling learned), and quickly surfaced again to continue.

Subsequent wartime career

Lent went on to command the troubled HOR-engined Haddo (SS-255) with SubRon 12 in England (which made dozens of patrols but did no recorded damage) and then SubRon 16, relieving Tex McLean, who went to the Submarine School. Lent's wartime score totalled 20,482 tons.

Postwar

In 1955, having been decorated with both two Navy Crosses and the Legion of Merit, Lent retired and under the tombstone promotion law was made rear admiral. He later worked with the Electric Boat Division of the General Dynamics Corporation.

Notes

References

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