Andrew May was a member of the US House of Representatives, elected to office first in 1931. He served as a member of Congress for more than 15 years, where he became an influential politician of FDR’s New Deal era.
But he is not remembered for this today. Rather, his legacy is in the deaths of 800 sailors and loss of ten US submarines. How did a politician cause so many to die needlessly?
House Military Affairs Committee
“The May Incident” occurred when Andrew May was chair of the House Military Affairs Committee in World War Two. In this role, he had been a key ally of President Roosevelt and his New Deal policies, helping to pass both the Social Security Act and the GI Bill of Rights.
But all his good work would be overshadowed in a Press Conference held in June 1943. US submarines (traditionally referred to as “boats” regardless of their size) had to this point been highly effective against the Japanese in the Pacific theatre, seeming able to strike with impunity before slipping away into the inky depths of the ocean.
Andrew May was rightly proud of these achievements. But in this conference, he went too far in his pride, revealing exactly how the submarines were able to operate without reprisal against the enemy.
Put simply, the Japanese had calibrated their depth charges incorrectly. They had underestimated the depth at which the US submarines were able to operate, and the charges were exploding at too shallow a depth. The US submarines could simply sink below the carnage and quietly depart.
Crucially, this was not a limitation of Japanese technology. The Imperial Japanese Navy could easily adjust their depth charges to explode at greater depths, And, once they had heard May’s public statement, they did so.
Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, the commander of the US Pacific submarine fleet, estimated that the remarks led to additional losses of as many as 10 submarines, and 800 souls. He wryly noted “I hear Congressman May said the Jap depth charges are not set deep enough. He would be pleased to know that the Japs set them deeper now.”
But here is where it gets murky. A US intelligence report did conclude that the Japanese had failed to accurately determine the maximum operating depth of the US submarines they were fighting. They did indeed adjust the depth of their charges and this did lead to them becoming more effective.
However, the link between this change and the comments made by May is tangential at best. The timing fits, but there is no surviving evidence that the Japanese changed their operating procedure in direct response to May’s comments. It may be that they had figured out the problem on their own.
Nevertheless, the May Incident would tarnish the Congressman’s entire career. Many have been quick to assume that May’s actions were rash, which is surely beyond a doubt. But some have gone further, accusing him of treason for the act. That would seem harsh.
Andrew May would later be found guilty of other crimes including war profiteering and bribery, crimes which led to the end of his political career in 1946. May would serve nine months in prison at the age of 74, found guilty of involvement in the manufacturing of defective artillery shells which led to the deaths of 38 soldiers.
But were his earlier comments responsible for many more deaths? They were rash, certainly. The Japanese did adjust their depth charge fuses, certainly. But whether he was solely responsible for this change in tactics, we cannot say.
Top Image: Depth charges were often the only way to effectively attack submerged submarines, but did Andrew May’s unguarded comments lead to those of the Japanese becoming far more deadly? Source: Imperial War Museum / Public Domain.
By Joseph Green