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Silent Defense

One Hundred Years of the American Submarine Force

Dr. Gary E. Weir

U.S. Naval Historical Center

In the year 2000 the American submarine force will celebrate the first century of service by highly skilled people in some of the most technologically advanced vessels ever built. The past 100 years have witnessed the evolution of a force that mastered submersible warfare, introduced nuclear propulsion to create the true submarine, and for decades patrolled the deep ocean front line; the hottest part of an otherwise Cold War.


The U.S. Navy's involvement with the submarine dates from 1888 when the Bureau of Construction and Repair (BUC&R) sponsored a design competition that brought John Holland a naval contract to build the experimental Plunger. As the new century dawned, prominent American naval leaders like Admiral George Dewey called the submarine a real threat to international surface forces, leading the Navy to acquire its first submarine in 1900. Overcoming competition from fellow American inventor, Simon Lake, Holland sold his newest model, Holland VI, to the Navy for $160,000 on 11 April. This 64-ton submarine, commissioned as USS Holland, or SS-1, on 12 October of the same year, was equipped with an Otto-type gasoline engine for surface running and electric motors for submerged operations.

Due to the volatility of gasoline, American submersible designs soon followed the French practice, adopting the diesel engine in 1909 with the Electric Boat Company's F class (SS-20 through 23), built at Union Iron Works in San Francisco. Combining the influence of diesel propulsion with the submersible designs of Holland and Lake, American submersibles took on a familiar configuration through American entry into the Great War. Submarines of the E, H, K, L, M, N, O, and R classes ranged in displacement from 287 to 510 tons, with the fastest boats displaying a top surface speed of barely 14 knots on diesel power.

During World War I the U.S. Navy separated these submersibles into two groups according to mission. "Boats" of the N and O classes, as well as some of the E type, patrolled American coasts and harbors following a defensive strategy.

Other submarines drew assignments that sent them to hostile European waters after 1917. Some K-, L-, O-, and E-class boats conducted offensive, open-sea operations from the Azores and Bantry Bay in Ireland. They supported the Allied effort to maintain open sea lanes along the European coast and in the approaches to the British Isles.

The Navy Department's plans for these vessels reflected the prevailing surface warfare thinking, which perceived the submersible as a type of destroyer or torpedo boat that should operate with the battle fleet. Thus the first foray into submarine design by the Bureau of Construction and Repair and the Bureau of Steam Engineering produced the faster 15-knot, 800-ton, S-class submarine in 1916 with the assistance of Electric Boat Company and Lake Torpedo Boat Company. At virtually the same time, Electric Boat received a commission to design the three boats of the 20-knot T, or AA class, with a normal displacement of 1107 tons. On paper these characteristics, adopted during the First World War, brought the Navy one step closer to the "fleet submarine," a submersible that could keep pace with the battle fleet.

Shaping an Identity:

The German U-boats of the 1914-1918 conflict gave American officers and designers reason for pause. Physically durable, powered by very reliable diesels, technically blessed with very long sea legs, they provided the paradigm for American interwar development. At the same time, the 1916-vintage American S-class proved a virtual clinic for basic design mistakes, burdened with difficult metallurgical problems and very unreliable diesels.

While Rear Admirals Harry Yarnell and Samuel Robinson, successive interwar chiefs of the Bureau of Engineering, worked to remedy the technical flaws with solutions from European and American engineering practice, the community of submarine officers struggled with a problem even more fundamental than propulsion. How should the Navy use submarines? What was their proper strategic role? During the interwar period influential officers like Captains Thomas Hart and Yates Stirling Jr., Admirals Henry Wiley and Frank Schofield, and the innovative Commander Thomas Withers debated these issues with the German paradigm in mind. Unfortunately, this model did not offer easy direction. While the German commercial warfare strategy and independent patrol tactics had great effect on the war effort of the Entente and its allies, incidents like the sinking of the passenger liner RMS Lusitania painted this style of warfare with a dark brush, suggesting immorality when submersibles operated without restriction.

Only a subtle formula could help American submariners address questions of identity and mission in such a political environment. Since the state of design and propulsion technology would not permit American industry to build a submarine durable and fast enough to keep pace with the battlefleet, operating with surface ships on a regular basis seemed unlikely. This forced submarine strategists like Withers to look more closely at independent patrols and a model that approximated the World War I German experience. In isolationist postwar America, however, this option brought with it the ethical burden of unrestricted U-boat warfare and civilian casualties, something a Navy diminished by the Washington Treaties did not care to assume. Thus, American submarine strategy could not include unrestricted submarine warfare, which might turn neutral commercial vessels and innocent civilians into victims.

American officers realized that war in all of its brutality, not peacetime politics or worthy ethical concerns, would determine the future challenges faced by the submarine force. In spite of official policy, the boats under construction in the 1930s reflected assertive, offensive strategic thinking as the country came to terms with the Depression under Franklin Roosevelt and the Bureaus of Construction and Repair and Engineering resolved the submarine engineering and propulsion dilemmas. The new Salmon-Sargo designs were intended for long-range independent patrols, with requisite food, fuel, and weapons capacity. In addition, the fleet exercises and war game scenarios during the late 1930s permitted these vessels to attack warships, convoy escort ships, and even certain convoys identified as critical to enemy logistical support. By 1940, the submarine force had answered its fundamental strategic questions and had the vessels to carry out the consequent roles and missions. Thus, when Admiral Thomas Hart proclaimed unrestricted submarine warfare against Japan on 8 December 1941, it came as no surprise. The submarine force knew what to do.

Silent Victory:

Employing the extremely reliable boats of the Gato, Balao, and Tench classes, the submarine force scored the most complete victory of any force in any theater of the war. In spite of a hesitant beginning due to the Pearl Harbor surprise and difficulties with defective torpedoes, the submarine force destroyed 1,314 enemy ships for 5.3 million tons which translated into fifty-five percent of all enemy ships lost. Out of 16,000 submariners, the force lost 375 officer and 3,131 enlisted men in fifty-two submarines, the lowest casualty rate of any combatant submarine service on any side in the 1939-1945 conflict.

While the Japanese advanced quickly after Pearl Harbor and the Navy struggled to recover from 7 December 1941, the submarine force brought the war to the enemy operating from Pearl Harbor, and Australian bases at Freemantle, and Brisbane. Submarines played a variety of roles in the war effort, demonstrating the versatility of stealth.

Among those allied warships regularly able to penetrate Japanese controlled areas, American submarines had extraordinary success against both Japanese merchantmen and warships. In the late summer of 1942, Lieutenant Commander Henry C. Bruton in command of USS Greenling on her third war patrol destroyed 32,050 tons of enemy merchant shipping and damaged a 22,000 ton converted carrier. Bruton ended the war ranked thirteenth among the submarine force's aces.

Refining their methods of attack made American submariners the worst enemy of any ship flying the Japanese flag. In early 1943, USS Wahoo put to sea on her third war patrol under the command of Lieutenant Commander Dudley W. Morton. Morton and his executive officer, Lieutenant Richard O'Kane, implemented and further refined a new method of attack suggested by Admiral James Fife, commander of the American submarines operating out of Brisbane. While O'Kane manned the periscope and made all of the observations, Morton was left free to evaluate the entire combat situation, making possible swift, informed, and effective approach and attack decisions.

The talent of Morton and O'Kane as well as their new command and control procedure enabled Wahoo to sink 31,890 tons of Japanese shipping on that patrol. Morton received the first of four Navy Crosses and his ship took home a Presidential Unit Citation. Later in the war, as commanding officer of USS Tang, Richard O'Kane received the Congressional Medal of Honor and became the Submarine Force's leading ace of the war, credited with destroying 31 ships for 227,800 tons.

In addition, Submarines played both humane and special operations roles in their campaign against Japan. In many of the hardest fought battles of the war submarine crews rescued unlucky carrier pilots who ended up in the sea, like future president George Bush. Fleet submarines also delivered troops tasked with special missions against Japanese Pacific strongholds. In August 1942, USS Nautilus [SS-169] and USS Argonaut [SS-166] delivered Marine Colonel Evans F. Carlson's "Raiders" to Makin Island. Upon completing their mission to reconnoiter the island and destroy its most important facilities, the two submarines picked up the Marines and returned to Pearl Harbor.

In the final months of the war, American submarines had difficulty finding targets because the Japanese had virtually no ships left to sink. Undaunted, submarine, submarine commanders pursued the enemy into his harbors and hiding places. Employing newly developed FM sonar sets, American submarines penetrated the minefields of closely guarded Japanese home waters to seek out warships and supply ships at anchor. There was no place to hide. The silent victory was complete.

Deep Ocean, Cold War:

Undersea warfare underwent a revolution after World War II and the American submarine force led the way. Building on the advanced submarine designs created by the Germans during World War II, the Navy anticipated submarines of the future going deeper, staying there longer, and moving much faster. Indeed, in reports submitted in 1949 and 1950, naval and civilian advisors suggested that advanced German U-boat technology exploited by the Soviets might present the most potent postwar naval threat to the United States. No warship of the time could effectively detect and track a submarine like the German Type 21 which could sustain a 17 knot submerged speed for at least thirty minutes.

Almost immediately after the war, the submarine force began experimenting with high speed, sophisticated silencing techniques, sensitive sonic detection, and deeper diving. The result took the shape of the greater underwater propulsive power, or GUPPY, conversions that changed the configuration of wartime submersibles to enhance submerged speed and hydrodynamic efficiency. The Tang class, the first truly new postwar construction, represented an initial step on a new road toward greater speed and endurance below the surface.

It also provided the basic hull form used for the first true submarine. USS Nautilus went to sea propelled by a pressurized water nuclear plant in January 1955 and set a new standard for this type of vessel. Its submerged endurance was limited only by the crews' periodic need to see both their families and the light of day. Rather than a surface ship capable of submerging when the need arose, this submarine's natural environment lay below the surface. Seawolf and the Skate class hunter-killer submarines quickly followed Nautilus and together they demonstrated the new extent of submarine effectiveness, from the deep ocean, to the shallows, to the polar regions. This was the vessel John Holland wanted to create but could not because of the limits of science and technology at the turn of the century.

Land, Sea, and Air:

The advent of nuclear submarines provided the final piece to a number of promising technical puzzles. The quest for greater submerged speed, initiated in earnest after 1945, found its way to the Navy's David Taylor Model Basin just as Admiral Hyman Rickover's nuclear propulsion project succeeded with Nautilus. The research at David Taylor provided insights into the ideal hull form for high speed submarines. With the conventionally-powered experimental Albacore, submariners reached an extraordinary submerged speed. In the fast attack submarine [SSN] USS Skipjack the endurance of nuclear propulsion and the high speed of the Albacore teardrop hull came together to form the new paradigm. Every American submarine since 1958 has followed the same basic formula. The attack submarines proved very effective during the Cold War in addressing the Soviet submarine threat in the north Atlantic and northwest Pacific through surveillance and deterrence.

The Nautilus-Albacore combination also served to extend the reach of the submarine force. While the Navy experimented with launching air breathing missiles like the Regulus from submarines during the late 1950s, the mobility, stealth, and endurance of nuclear submarines based on the Skipjack model proved the ideal platform for launching ballistic missiles. From the Polaris A-1 in 1960, through multiple generations of missiles suitable for submerged launching, the Navy's fleet ballistic missile submarines [SSBN] have provided the ultimate nuclear deterrent. As opposed to easily targeted land-based missiles, SSBNs are in constant motion.  Hiding deep in the ocean, with virtually unlimited endurance, SSBNs are capable of reaching almost any target at the direction of the President. With the current Ohio class SSBNs, the submarine force employs the most effective and survivable component of current American strategic nuclear defense.

Since the 1970s, the submarine force has also provided the Navy with a stealthy way of applying tactical firepower against land and sea targets. Fitted at first for torpedo tube launch, the Tomahawk cruise missile has enhanced the effectiveness of the attack submarine fleet. Now capable of firing these missiles from a vertical launch system in the bow, the latest flight of the submarine force's front line Los Angeles class SSNs has proven very useful in the challenging environment of modern littoral war at sea. During Desert Storm, submarine launched Tomahawks proved their extraordinary effectiveness during the first combat use of the submarine force's new capability.

With their stealth quiet manner, endurance, diverse weapons array, and ability to detect threats while effectively communicating with the fleet at great range, American submarines conduct both independent tactical and strategic patrols as well as operations in support of carrier battle groups. The effort to integrate the submarine more thoroughly with air and surface forces suggests that naval warfare of the future will require a flexible mix of assets designed for a future filled with constantly changing defense demands. Always on the cutting edge, the submarine force will help the Navy sustain the adaptability necessary to control tomorrow's battlespace.


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