Designed during World War I, the first several members of the S class were commissioned in 1919 and 1920. Eventually, 51 were built in a number of variants by four different shipyards: Fore River Shipbuilding, the Lake Torpedo Boat Corporation, the Portsmouth Navy Yard, and the Union Iron Works. The last to be commissioned was S-47 (SS-158) in September 1925. (She was also one of the last to be de-commissioned, in October 1945.)
Navy Department planning for submarine operations reflected 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, with the assistance of the Electric Boat and Lake Torpedo Boat Companies, produced the faster 15-knot, 800-ton, S-class submarine in 1916.
Planned as a compromise between a coastal defense boat and a full-fledged fleet submarine, the S-class were powered by twin diesel engines and electric motors on two shafts. Over many re-enginings during the life of the class, per-diesel output ranged from 500 to 1,000 horsepower. Most were fitted with four 21-inch bow torpedo tubes, but several were later re-designed to add one or two stern tubes. During World War II, the S-boats carried a 4-inch deck gun and occasionally a 20-millimeter anti-aircraft gun.
In response to growing interest in "Fleet-type" ocean-going submarines, the Navy in 1917 funded the design and construction of three competing prototypes for the significantly larger S-class at Electric Boat (for S-1, SS-105); at the Lake Torpedo Boat Company (for S-2, SS-106); and at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (for S-3, SS-107).
At that time, individual constructors were allowed wide latitude in their designs, as long as all the boats of a class met common specifications and performance requirements defined by the Navy's General Board. Thus, submarines of the same class could vary substantially from builder to builder. Of the three resulting designs, Lake's S-2 emerged as the best sea boat surfaced but was the least impressive overall, largely because her configuration required a number of awkward work-arounds to avoid infringing on John Holland's original patents, which had been assigned to Electric Boat years before. Thus, no further S-boats were built to Lake's plans.
Nonetheless, for the first buy of 38 S-class submarines - in fiscal year 1918 - Lake agreed to build four (S-14 through S-17) at Bridgeport to the Navy's S-3 design, and in fiscal year 1919, he was assigned four more (S-48 through S-51), plus four additional boats canceled after the end of the war. Lake's nine S-boats were ultimately commissioned between May 1920 and June 1922, and five of them survived long enough to serve in World War II, although not as combatants. The last to be decommissioned - in June 1946 - was S-15 (SS-120).
In December 1921, ten new diesel-powered S-class boats - Submarine Divisions 12 and 18 - arrived in Cavite, having sailed across the Pacific from the West Coast in company with the submarine tender USS Rainbow (AS-7). Also pressed into service as a Manila Bay tender at that same time was the minesweeper USS Finch (AM-9), herself newly arrived from California. Of interest is the apparent attempt, even then, to maintain homogeneity of design within each division: SUBDIV 12 (S-4, S-6, S-7, S-8, and S-9) consisted entirely of boats commissioned at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard between late 1919 and early 1921, whereas the submarines of SUBDIV 18 (S-2, S-14, S-15, S-16, and S-17) were all Lake Torpedo Boat Company progeny commissioned in 1920 and 1921.
In October 1924, SUBDIVs 12 and 18 returned to the United States and were relieved a month later by the six S-boats of SUBDIV 17 and their tender USS Canopus (AS-9). This new division - S-36 through S-41 - was also a homogeneous group: All had been built by the Union Iron Works in San Francisco. They were joined in July 1925 by another six San Francisco-built boats - SUBDIV 16, consisting of S-30 through S-35 and their tender USS Beaver (AS-5). The two new divisions entered quickly into the routine of wintering in the Philippines and "showing the flag" along the China coast during the summer.
In retrospect, one can only speculate on the operational or tactical role expected of the Asiatic submarine force in the 1920s and early 1930s. Originally intended for harbor defense at Manila, the earlier boats - with their strictly limited capabilities - had little potential for substantive tactical integration with the Asiatic Fleet's cruisers and destroyers, particularly since the latter were engaged largely in maintaining "presence" in the Far East and responding to contingencies in China.
With the Japanese conquest of Manchuria in 1937, defense of the northeast Pacific region assumed new importance, and seaplane bases were established first at Sitka, southwest of Juneau - and later on Kodiak Island (south of the Alaskan Peninsula) and at Dutch Harbor on Unalaska in the eastern Aleutians. The last two of these were also provided with the support facilities for basing six submarines each, and by late 1941, they were ready for operation under a newly-formed Alaskan Naval Sector, part of the 13th Naval District headquartered in Seattle.
After Pearl Harbor - and in accordance with the Rainbow Five war plan - COMSUBPAC RADM Thomas Withers sent two older submarines, S-18 (SS-123) and S-23 (SS-128) to Alaska from the U.S. West Coast, and they arrived at Dutch Harbor on 27 January 1942. Within two weeks, they had departed on their first war patrols, defensive sweeps south of the Aleutian chain and easterly toward Kodiak Island. Although no contact was made with the enemy, the two S-boats were the first to experience the full rigor of the weather and ocean conditions that characterized Alaskan submarine operations for two miserable years.
After their relatively brief patrols, S-18 and S-23 returned to San Diego for an overhaul that included superstructure modifications and additional internal heating in accordance with the "lessons-learned" from their first Alaskan experience. Simultaneously, a division of six additional S-boats - originally intended for Brisbane, Australia - was redirected to Dutch Harbor. These submarines - S-30 through S-35 (SS-135 through 140) - arrived in the theater between April and August 1942, to be augmented by S-27 (SS-132) and S-28 (SS-133), which headed north from San Diego in late May. Thus, when S-18 and S-23 completed their overhauls and returned to the theater at that same time, a total of ten S-boats had been assigned to Alaskan waters. In April, on the first Dutch Harbor war patrols into Japanese territory, both S-34 and S-35 penetrated as far as Paramushiro, but despite several attacks on merchant ships, they scored no successes.
In a total of 14 war patrols from Dutch Harbor targeted on Japanese shipping in the western Aleutians between July and September, no enemy sinkings were credited. Moreover, S-27 was lost to grounding on a reconnaissance mission to Amchitka Island, when an undetected current carried her onto the rocks while she was charging batteries on the surface during the night of 19 June. S-27's Commanding Officer, Herbert Jukes, managed to get his entire crew ashore in rubber boats, and after being stranded for six days, they were discovered by a PBY and brought back to Dutch Harbor.
Built to a World War I design based on early submarine technology, the S-boats assigned to the Aleutians were 20 years old, largely worn out, and clearly regarded as "second-line" submarines. Powered by only two 600-horsepower diesel engines, they could make only 12-14 knots on the surface - perhaps 10 submerged on battery - and with a test depth of 200 feet, there was little margin for error. Moreover, their surface displacement of somewhat less than 1,000 tons and their low freeboard made operating in the stormy, northern waters of the Aleutians and the Bering Sea a grueling, daily challenge. Despite the electric heaters that had been installed for the northern climate, life below decks was dispiriting, cold, and wet, not only from seawater sloshing down through the conning tower, but also from the condensation of atmospheric moisture on all the metal surfaces inside.
Engine breakdowns, battery trouble, and electrical "shorts" were continuing problems, exacerbated by the age and condition of the machinery. S-35 was nearly lost in December 1942 to a chain of events that began when she took several massive waves over the bridge during a storm near Amchitka, sending tons of water into the control room and injuring her captain, LT Henry Monroe, who was forced to go below. Shortly thereafter, electrical fires broke out in both the control room and forward battery and began to spread, filling the boat with acrid smoke and forcing the engines to be shut down and the control room sealed off. The crew fought back with every trick they could think of, including bucket brigades to lower the water level, eventually restarting the engines under local control, and the boat retreated toward Dutch Harbor, fighting recurrent fires so serious that twice the crew was driven up to the bridge. After three days, they reached Adak, where assistance was available, and finally, on 29 December, under escort, S-35 made it back to Dutch Harbor and eventually to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, where she was completely overhauled - only to return to the Aleutians again six months later.
In preparation for the retaking of Attu and Kiska, seven more S-boats (S-40, S-41, S-42, S-44, S-45, S-46, S-47) had been ordered north in the spring of 1943 and trickled into Dutch Harbor between May and December. Until August, the Dutch Harbor boats concentrated on the supply lines between Japan and the western Aleutians, but after the re-conquest of Attu and Kiska, the emphasis shifted to more general hunting expeditions in the northern Kuriles. Again, little was achieved. The 24 war patrols mounted from Dutch Harbor between May 1943 and the end of the year - generally about a month long but as much as 40 days - produced only four enemy victims totaling some 13,000 tons, all Japanese merchant ships sunk near Paramushiro. S-28, S-30, S-35, and S-41 (SS-146) were the lucky boats, but S-44 (SS-155), caught on the surface by a Japanese destroyer on 7 October during her first Alaskan patrol, was lost with all hands save two crewmembers, who survived to became prisoners of war for the duration.
At the end of 1943 with the end of a credible Japanese threat to the Aleutians, COMSUBPAC RADM Charles Lockwood finally acknowledged the futility of sending the Dutch Harbor submarines into harm's way for so little return, and he ordered the remaining S-boats withdrawn from Alaska.
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