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Silent Below: A Cursory Review of Histories of U.S. Submarine Warfare in World War Two


Few subjects in history have garnered as much scholarly attention as the events of the second World War. Of these events, few are more fascinating than the subject of submarine warfare. At the outset, when writing about submarine warfare, there are many questions which might be addressed by historians. How did these awesome vessels come into service, and how did they develop in design and capability in the years leading up to the war? What role did submarines play in shaping the events of that war? How did the lessons of war contribute to the evolution of submarine warfare? How does service aboard a submarine differ from traditional naval service? This brief historiography will attempt to evaluate how these questions were answered by five different historians. Edward Beach tells his story of service on several ships, including the USS Trigger, the USS Seawolf, and the USS Wahoo. James DeRose explains how submarines changed the naval officer corps. Hughston Lowder chronicles the service of the infamous USS Batfish. Rear Admiral Corwin Mendenhall recounts his tours aboard the USS Sculpin and the USS Pintado. Finally, Gregory Mincho documents the tragic history of the USS Pampanito.

Submarine service is a unique experience in peacetime, even more so at war. Beach says “In no other type of ship is it so critical that all hands know their jobs and be constantly alert. A Submarine operates in three dimensions, and her ability to float, submerge, or surface is an expression of the will and effort of her crew” (Ch 1). As such, the challenges confronted by sailors and skippers conducting undersea warfare in World War II are perhaps unmatched in history, but there was no way to really plan for those new experiences in peacetime. DeRose says “All of the early skippers, typically thirty-six to thirty-eight years old, were trained for a war against combat vessels, not commerce raiding” (4). This training, in the event of war, proved to be largely misguided. “They were expected to stay at deep submergence and fire at warships on sound bearings alone. The idea of a night surface attack was unknown; the concept of an ‘end-around’ to gain position in front of an oncoming target was only a dream” (4). Therefore, one of the first major changes to the naval service brought about by the war occurred within the leadership, as skippers rewrote the book on undersea combat, using lessons based on experience instead of theory.

Other authors examined for this work agree on this point. Mendenhall observed that “many of the skippers were found wanting...their evaluation in peacetime as capable COs was based more on administrative skills than on proficient, aggressive torpedo attacks” (viii). Mincho echoes this position, saying “Other obstacles that limited successful submarine operations early in the war included inadequate, unrealistic peacetime training, with an undue emphasis on remaining hidden” (45). DeRose says “There were two glaring weaknesses in U.S. submarines: torpedo performance and over cautious commanding officers” (3). These skippers had to learn from scratch how to conduct the war. They were forced to rethink the role of submarines in warfare on the fly, often making it up as they went along, feeding on instinct in the heat of battle.

Submarine commanders engaged in a process of experimentation early on, pulling off daring feats of ingenuity and courage. One of the best examples of this innovative leadership in the works examined is the story of Dudley W. Morton, aboard the Wahoo. DeRose tells us that the exploits of Morton and his crew established many of the new tactics which “made the U.S. submarine so formidable a weapon” (4). According to DeRose, Morton pioneered many new tactics which were either unheard of, or directly contravened established doctrine. These included “slashing, repeated attacks by day or night,” and Derose continues “High-speed night surface attacks became a specialty, along with skilled use of radar to keep in touch with targets during end-arounds and exploitation of the [Torpedo Data Computer] TDC for out-of-position shooting...Surprize gun attacks were conducted on smaller targets. Support for air corps and naval air action-- ‘lifeguard duty’ was perfected” (4). Beach describes one of Morton’s plans as “indeed unprecedented in submarine warfare” (Ch. 4). Morton developed a strategy to “remain at periscope depth in order to bait an enemy destroyer... as he rushes to make this apparently easy kill, Wahoo’s bow will be kept pointed toward him, and at the last possible minute, so that he will not have a chance to avoid it, a torpedo will be fired right down his throat...So it was that Wahoo gave the submarine force her first lesson on one way to dispose of enemy destroyers” (Ch. 4). Morton also defied targeting doctrine, preferring to “shoot only one torpedo at each ship and accept occasional misses” instead of firing several in a spread (Ch. 4). All of the authors emphasize this innovative style of submarine commanders as a factor in overcoming early disadvantages and winning the war, but DeRose and Beach’s examples are the most specific.

Among the many challenges these skippers faced, the submarine itself was perhaps the most comprehensive. Ultramodern, untested equipment; speculative operational restrictions such as range and diving depth; and general quality of life were all conditions which skippers and sailors had to adjust to, most often alone and well beyond the reach of aid. Beach notes the awe-inspiring capability of the sub itself, “sixty seconds, and a ship displacing 1800 tons, more than 300 feet long, rushing across the waves at a speed of 20 knots, has completely submerged” (Ch. 1). Many of those challenges existed well before the skipper and crew ever saw their boats for the first time. DeRose says that submarine design was inhibited in interwar years by the “Washington Treaty (1922) which outlawed submarine blockades, the Geneva Disarmament Conference, and the London Treaty (1930) [which] held down both submarine construction and physical size” (1). Mincho describes other problems existed in the construction process as well, which skippers and sailors were mostly unaware of, involving “management and union conflicts, overtime and pay scale concerns, skilled labor shortages, and strikes” (13). Once aboard their subs, the crews still faced plenty of external threats that did not originate with the enemy. Beach describes “cases of United States planes attacking friendly submarines during the war...the whole problem of submarine recognition had long been a perplexing one. Elaborate systems for safe-guarding our submarines had been built up, and those lapses which did from time to time occur could be explained, usually… a few times, however, what appeared to be a lack of the rudiments of common sense had tragic consequences” (Ch. 6).

According to MIncho, the nation’s first government-built submarine was built at Kittery Point, in 1917. “The Gato class, precursor to Balao, was built for 300 feet...The Balaos were given seven-eighths inch high-tensile steel hulls...with a test depth of 400 feet” (11). This improvement may not seem like much, but it often meant the difference between life or death in combat at sea. Mincho stresses this point, and asserts that “according to submarine commander Admiral I. J. ‘Pete’ Galantin, the depth increase from three hundred feet to 400 feet was the single most important improvement made in our submarines during the war” (11). The Sculpin was one of a class of six ships which Mendenhall says “fell short,” in that “they had an operating depth of 250 feet. Submarines are visible from the air at depths of up to 125 feet, and therefore in theory, the Sculpin and her sisters had very little room to maneuver between sight depth and crush depth.

The U.S. wasn’t the only nation racing to produce the most lethal boats. Germany was making significant progress on this front, towards the end of the war especially. Beach says “a new type of submarine was developed in the closing days of World War II by the Germans. True, they did not invent anything extraordinary, but they put together several known but unused ideas to develop the high-speed snorkel submarine, and it may safely be said that this vessel revolutionized previous concepts of anti-submarine warfare” (Ch. 16). The Germans were rapidly applying the lessons learned at sea to their manufacturing process in pursuit of a more lethal construct. Beach says of the snorkel boat that “it is virtually immune to the countermeasures we used so successfully against the German and Japanese submersibles, and its efficiency in attack is trebled” (Ch. 16). It is useful to note the many differences between the two enemies at war. While both the Germans and Japanese occupied huge areas of operation, the Germans were technological innovators with significantly less space to patrol, while the Japanese tended to be resource-strapped and limited in their innovative tendencies, while trying to manage one of the largest spheres of influence in human history. This is a vast simplification of the real paradigm, but the point is that submarine commanders, crews, and the boats themselves had profoundly different sets of advantages and disadvantages based on their respective theaters of operation.

During the early days of the war, the U.S. saw the writing on the wall when it came to the need for rapid submarine manufacture. DeRose elaborates, saying “with the fall of France in May 1940, it was determined that 120 new fleet submarines would be needed if Britain also went under. Fleet boat production was immediately frozen on the Gato design...This class of submarines and its modestly redesigned sisters, the high-tensile steel, deep-diving Balao and Tench boats, would fight and win the Pacific submarine war...Nearly 240 were commissioned between June 1940 and August 1945” (2). These subs and their crews were marvels of modern industrial capacity, but they suffered from many kinds of problems at sea, mostly equipment failure, but also brought on by inherent limitations of the systems themselves. Admiral Galantin, referenced above, wrote the introduction to Mendenahall’s work. In his introduction, Galantin discussed the radar systems and other systems which evolved through the course of the war. “The only radar our boats had at the start of the war was the SD air defense radar. It was not much good, and never relied upon. The SJ surface-search radar that became available in some boats in August 1942 was excellent, and when the PPI (Plan Position Indicator) scope was later added, it was a marvelous tool for night surface torpedo attacks against Japanese convoys and their escorts” (x).

Galantin offers two other bits of useful information also. “We didn’t adopt the German snorkel” because “it would have been a costly, time-consuming mistake to install it.” The German improvement, as mentioned above, came late in the war, too late for redesign and refitting the fleet at war. Galantin says “there were numerous lesser improvements in technology: the bathy-thermograph, evasion devices, better sonars, small homing torpedoes for use against escorts, depth charge indicators, electric torpedoes, [and] heavier gun armament” (x). Mendenhall described many issues during his service. These included the challenge of accounting for displacement after supply runs, a broken fathometer, radio jamming by the Japanese, depressurization after dives, air conditioning failures, and “weeks without anything to shoot at” (7-20). Mendenhall also mentions electrical fires, grounded circuits and broken gauges, and at one point after a battle at sea, a period when “the entire torpedo firing system and the battle-order transmitter were out of commission” (38-40).

The two most commonly referenced subjects in the works examined were the engines and the torpedoes. DeRose and Mendenhall (by way of Galantin) discuss the engines briefly, whereas Mincho goes into great detail. DeRose notes that Congress “blocked the use of foreign engines” in submarines, and “In 1932 an agreement was reached with Charles Kettering of General Motors for the use of fast locomotive diesel engines” (1). In Mendenhall’s work, Galantin elaborates to some degree, “we had evolved two excellent engines, one produced by General Motors, the other by Fairbanks-Morse...they made it possible to go the great distances of the Pacific, to make high-speed runs to close a target, or to evade counter-attack” (ix). Mincho has a great deal more to say on the matter of submarine engines.

“Properly functioning engines were essential on a submarine. Lacking the space of a surface ship, a submarine needed a small but powerful engine with a minimum weight for the power produced. At first, gasoline engines were tried, but they were not safe in a submarine...The alternative was the diesel engine...Diesels did not directly drive the propeller shafts in most boats. Even on the surface they drove a generator, which could be used either to charge the battery or drive the electric motor. Diesel-electric drive may have been the most important interwar American design innovation… In 1932, the Bureau of Engineering invited all U.S. diesel engine makers to bid on a new generation of lightweight engines suited for mass production” (58-9).

The three companies selected were Winston Engine Corp [of GM], Fairbanks-Morse [FM], and Hooven, Owens, Rentschler [HOR]. Mincho says that “the brittle steel in the HOR caused many breakdowns...Problems occurred with excessive cylinder-head wear,, broken piston rods, ring troubles, carbon deposits, and engine block wear...Sailors called them ‘whores,’ [and the process of replacing them with GMs or FMs “was called a horectomy”] (59). The other engines were objectively more dependable, but still susceptible to problems. There is at least one account (by Mincho) of broken water-pumps which caused the FMs to overheat (60).

The most commonly referenced problem among all these works and others is the torpedo. The whole point of a submarine is to destroy enemy ships at sea. But all the training in the world, the most advanced boats, and all the better instincts of the best skippers amounted to nought at the end of the day if the torpedoes didn’t work. Every author examined describes these problems in extensive detail. Beginning with Beach, “the effectiveness of our submarine fleet was approximately 15 percent of what it should have been in the early days of the war...It was not long before the submariners knew the answer. Faulty torpedoes!” (Ch. 2). Before discussing the specific problems, it is necessary to point out an ongoing conflict between the skippers and their crews, and Naval Ordinance, concerning these issues. Put simply, skippers would complain, and Naval Ordinance would make excuses or blame the captains or downplay the significance of these faults. The incompetence of bureaucrats in a crisis is perhaps one of the very few things that has not changed since the war.

Beach says that “lack of trust in Naval Ordinance made ‘perfectionists’ of sailors whose survival depended on careful scrutiny of torpedoes received, to identify and fix problems before getting underway” (Ch. 2). These problems surrounded torpedoes which were “not running where they were aimed; were not exploding when they got there; were going off before they arrived; or were running in circles, with consequent danger to the firing ship” (Ch. 2). Sailors and skippers adapted to these challenges in two ways. In the first, “many [old-time skippers] simply set the torpedo running depth to zero” in contravention of established procedures, and this “gave the best chance of hitting deep-riding ships” (Ch. 2). In the second, “skippers learned to take photos through periscope to document torpedo failures...because crews were blamed for failures caused by faulty equipment” (Ch. 2).

Torpedoes are already difficult to use, as Beach points out: “Depending on range, of course, the torpedoes must travel about a minute before they reach a target, and during that minute a target making 15 knots goes 500 yards” (Ch. 1). But the flaws in the early designs produced anxiety and uncertainty among the submariners, for whom accuracy and effectiveness of the torpedoes meant the difference between life and death. DeRose goes into more detail on this matter than Beach. “Almost to a man, the submarine captains had begun to distrust their torpedoes. Some skippers began to secretly deactivate the [magnetic exploders] once on patrol… The Germans and British had abandoned their magnetic exploders” (39). Mendenhall provided a more comprehensive analysis of the difference between U.S, torpedoes and those of Japan: “Our MK-14 torpedo compared to the Japanese Type 95 as follows,

"For the US- a 500 lb warhead propelled by a smoky, wake-producing turbine to a range of 4,500 yds. at 46 knots, or 9000 yds. at 31 knots.
For Japan- a 900 lb warhead propelled at 49 knots to 6,000 yds. by a wakeless, oxygen-fueled engine” (ix)."

Galantin, in Mendenhall, says that the MK-14 “had three defects: running too deep, premature explosion, and a faulty contact exploder. Each of these defects hid the existence of the others. It took almost two years of combat before our submarines went to war with effective torpedoes” (ix). If a torpedo missed its target because it ran too deep, or exploded prematurely, a faulty contact exploder could not be observed. If a torpedo had a faulty contact exploder, it would have been tremendously unlikely that sailors could know whether it actually hit the target or ran beneath. And so on. The main reason for this situation, Mendenhall says, was because “we never conducted realistic ‘warshot’ tests that would culminate in the explosion of a warhead” (ix). On returning to port after several dangerous incidents of failed torpedoes on a patrol, Mendenhall says “I overheard the captain forcefully giving…[Admiral Lockwood] his thoughts about our torpedoes” (68). One can imagine the colorful language used in that exchange!

Mincho echoes all of these sentiments regarding the torpedo failures, and offers a little more technical insight into the problems: “The Mark 10 torpedo ran deeper than set, and the newer Mark 14 was not tested adequately, for it either ran too deep or its magnetic exploder failed” (43).

“The typical Mark 14 steam torpedo was about twenty-one inches in diameter, and twenty-one feet long, weighed about one and a half tons, and had an extreme range of nine thousand yards at thirty-one knots or forty-five hundred yards at forty-six knots. It packed about 500 pounds of TNT, and later, about 600 pounds of the more powerful torpex” (43).

Mincho laments, “It was a remarkable weapon. All too often, it failed to work” (43). According to Mincho, Admiral Lockwood “finally ordered all the magnetic exploders inactivated in June, 1943” (44). However, the problems continued, and “direct hits bent the firing pin so that it would not bury itself in the primer cap” (44). It wasn’t until 1942 that the Navy finally did something about these problems. The solution came from the Westinghouse Company in 1942, in the form of the Mark 18, “which was essentially a copy of a captured German model. It’s chief feature was that it was wakeless; the battery-run propulsion system did not leave the bubble trail of the steam torpedo” (Mincho, 44). The drawback, Mincho explains, is that it was slow. He explains that the new torpex, referenced above, “was a combination of standard TNT and RDX, which was made from an evaporated aqueous solution of ammonia and formaldehyde.”

Lowder offers more information about the Mark 14, but does not mention the Mark 10 or the Mark 18 in any significant detail. He explains that the “Mark XIV, driven by a steam turbine that burned compressed air and alcohol, left a telltale wake of air bubbles that often warned its target of its approach in time to avoid” (24). Lowder confirms Mincho’s technical claims about the torpedo’s range, saying “We carried the Mark XIV torpedoes which could be set at either of two speeds, capable of forty-six knots for a 4500-yard range; and at low power, at thirty-one knots for a maximum accuracy of 9,000 yards” (24). Lowder also echoes the claims of the other authors examined here about how long the Navy dealt with these problems: “For two full years after the Pearl Harbor attack, our torpedoes continued to run too deep, and too many would not detonate” (44).

One frustrating aspect about dealing with these problems for so long, and perhaps one contributing reason for why the problems went so long unaddressed, was that the skippers had no one to complain to outside of the chain of command and the bureaucracy that put them in this position in the first place. They were preemptively denied any access to the court of public opinion by classification and confidentiality protocols. They could not appeal to the public sense of indignation for support. Their successes and failures, regardless of cause, belonged to them alone. Beach describes the level of secrecy inherent in wartime naval operations: “From December 7 1941, until the end of the war, our underseas fleet operated in strictest secrecy...Concealment of results of submarine operations was intended to keep from the enemy knowledge of what we were doing, how it was accomplished, and who was responsible” (Ch. 2). If a submarine downed an enemy destroyer or led a successful attack on a convoy, it might make the news, but only in the strictest sense of propaganda. If they failed in an attack because of a defective torpedo, no one outside of the chain of command would ever know about it during the war, and if they died as a result of the impotence of their weapons systems, no one would know that either.

Nevertheless, these many kinds of challenges informed skippers, crews, and manufacturers and led to improvements in strategy and design. The Silent Service learned and evolved, though painfully slow in the early period, to the point of being the most lethal fighting force in history. After a few years of growing pains, sailors were moving into action aboard some of the most advanced vessels modern industry could produce, and many of them were putting up spectacular records that would not be broken after the war.

Beach tells the story of the USS Harder, under Sam Dealy. “Her total tonnage record of enemy ships [destroyed] exceeded 100,000 tons” (Ch. 8). Beach recounts that boat’s famous fifth patrol in May of 1944, departing from Fremantle Australia, in which the Harder sank five destroyers in four days off Tawi Tawi. For this, Dealey was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and his ship received the Presidential Unit Citation. Sadly, Beach says, “Neither survived their next patrol” (Ch. 8). Beach also tells the story of the Archerfish, which sank the Shanano while the Japanese emperor himself was onboard (Ch. 10). The emperor survived (ha was quickly transferred to another ship), but the event demonstrated to the Japanese government just how capable lethal the U.S. submarine forces were. The Tang, under Dick O’kane in 1944, ”reached the top of the Submarine Force Roll of Honor, and the most outstanding record of damage and destruction to enemy shipping ever credited to one submarine” (Ch. 12). Beach says that the official record for the Tang was twenty-four Japanese vessels sank, but suggests that the true number was closer to thirty, as the Japanese often deflated their own losses on paper. The Trigger sank the Yasukuni Maru with “Admiral Lockwood’s opposite number in the Japanese Submarine, ComJapSubPac '' onboard (Ch. 13). In June of 1944, Beach described the First Battle of the Philipine Sea as “one of the most successful collaborations between our submarine forces and the surface fleets'' (Ch. 14). During this battle, Beach says the Albacore sank the Taiho carrier and the Cavalla sank the Shokaku carrier. Considering the emphasis placed on carriers and air warfare by scholars and historians in the telling of this war, the value of the role of submarines in those successes cannot be understated.

Of all these brilliant accomplishments, perhaps none are as impressive as those of the Batfish, however, which “destroyed 25 Japanese subs between January 1942 and August 1945” (Beach, Ch. 16). Commanded by Jake Fyfe, the Batfish achieved “the most outstanding record of enemy subs sunk” (Ch. 16). The last story Beach tells is of Operation Barney, in which “nine American submarines passed through the mined straits of Tsushima...Twenty-eight ships they sank in twelve days...and Japan knew that her last lines of physical contact with the rest of the world were doomed” (Ch. 16).

In Galantin’s introduction to Menenhall, he notes that “By V-J day, some 2,117 Japanese Navy and merchant marine vessels totalling over nine million tons, had been sunk by American forces” (xiii). Fifty-five percent of these were done by U.S. submarines, whose hit regs “also accounted for more enemy warships sunk than any other naval arm” (xiii). With these kinds of numbers, it is clear that the U.S. submarine forces were an absolutely critical component of America’s fight against the Japanese menace in the Pacific theater. The Japanese underestimated the U.S. at every turn during the war, and thanks to the submarines, they were proven wrong at every turn. Part of this outcome is related to the secrecy which plagued the skippers over the torpedo problems early on. Lowder explains the aspect of the conflict most effectively:

“Japan’s underestimation of the United States Submarine Fleet was apparently based upon stale intelligence gathered when World War II first erupted in Europe...The intrinsic secretiveness of the submarine service precluded accurate intelligence of their growing numbers and deployment of 111 commissioned submarines” (12). The only truly reliable intel the Japanese could depend on was the visible difference between the number of ships and sailors they sent out, and the number of those which returned safely. By 1943, Lowder says, the U.S. submarines were feeling their rhythm and beginning to demonstrate just how effective they were. Lowder says that in 1943, 335 ships totalling 1.5 million tons were sunk, compared to the loss of fifteen U.S. submarines in the Pacific that same year (44).)

The questions posed at the beginning of this work were effectively answered by the authors examined. Submarines developed and evolved before the war began, but the most important changes were adaptations resulting from lessons learned in real time application. Hull strength, diving capacity, and electronic systems improved. Torpedo performance was abysmal throughout much of the war, but skippers and sailors improvised and did the best they could with what they had to work with. Skippers themselves learned to appreciate innovation and risk taking, and their performance in the war changed the way the Navy and the world thought about the role of submarines in combat. The impact of the successes of those submarines was an extraordinary record of damage and destruction of enemy Japanese submarines and surface ships. The sinking of Japanese carriers was directly material to the U.S. victory in the pacific, and the sinking of so many Japanese submarines deprived the enemy of parity in this advantage.

Of the works examined, Lowder’s was perhaps the least useful in answering these questions, though ironically it is probably the most interesting read of the five. Mincho’s work was the most informative overall, offering the most detailed answers to the questions posed. Beach’s work was most useful in understanding the contributions of the submarine force to winning the war. DeRose’s work provided the most comprehensive explanation of how submarine warfare in practise contributed to the growth and development of naval leadership and warfighting theory. Mendenhall’s work did not exceed any of these other works in any particular category, but his work was still useful, especially when complimented by the authority and expertise of Admiral Galantin.

The reasons why these works, and many others like them, are sometimes difficult to mine for useful information, is that they are mostly written in narrative style, and are focused on the patrols themselves, which is how they are actually organized. These patrols are described in first and second person, with more emphasis on in-the-moment dialogue in real-time confrontations with enemy forces. The details that emerge about system failures and malfunctioning equipment are related in the context of those engagements, as afterthoughts, rather than subjects of specific research. This narrative style makes for page-turning excitement, but is less suitable for more academic inquiry. On the other hand, the ranks and resumes of the authors themselves lend impeccable credibility to their thoughts and opinions on the subjects discussed, so there is a trade off. All told, the selected works were reliable, well written, informative, and authoritative. Further research on the evolution of the Japanese and German submarines and fleets would improve the reader’s understanding of the American and Allied experiences in undersea warfare during World War II.

The works examined would not be useful for studying the war in any greater historical context. The authors relied heavily on the reader’s experience with the other major themes of the war, including political leadership, alliances, actors, pretext, and impact. The real-time narrative style does seem as though it would be very useful to military strategists and naval commanders. The life-and-death decisions of skippers in specific combat situations are relayed with great specificity, alongside information about relative positions and numbers of enemy ships; evasion, dive, and attack patterns; and emergency field measures to repair damaged or defective equipment, or strategies for getting by while doing without. This particular aspect is a dominant theme among all the works examined. These details may be limited by natural factors, such as memory, or structural factors, such as classification, but on the whole there is value in understanding the circumstances, choices, and consequences of those skippers in real time application.


Works Cited

Beach, Edward L. Submarine!. Naval Institute Press, 2003.

DeRose, James F. Unrestricted Warfare: How a New Breed of Officers Led the Submarine Force to Victory in World War II. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2000.

Lowder, Hughston E., and Jack Scott. Batfish: The Champion ‘Submarine-Killer’ Submarine of World War II. Prentice-Hall, 1980.

Mendenhall, Corwin, RADM. Submarine Diary: The Silent Stalking of Japan. Algonquin, 1991.

Mincho, Gregory F. USS Pampanito: Killer Angel. University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

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