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Submarine History - 20th Century

In the year 2000 the American submarine force celebrated the first century of service by highly skilled people in some of the most technologically advanced vessels ever built. The previous 100 years 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 Navy to acquired 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 was commissioned as USS Holland, or SS-1, on 12 October of the same year.

For his sixth submarine, Holland introduced a new method of propulsion using a gasoline engine. Holland designed a small, lightweight gasoline engine that turned a propeller while the boat cruised on the surface. The engine ran a generator, a machine that produces electricity, to charge batteries necessary to run an electric motor during underwater operations. Although the gasoline engine worked well on paper, the engine had flaws. Gasoline is highly flammable and unstable. Using this fuel in a confined environment, such as the submarine, endangered the crew. Another danger were the batteries that ran the electric motor during underwater travel. They were heavy, bulky, terribly inefficient, and potentially explosive. Finding a safer means of propulsion was needed if the submarine was ever to submerge for long periods of time. Around the same time Holland was creating his submarines, German scientist Rudolf Diesel developed an excellent substitute for the gasoline engine. Diesel's engine used a fuel that was more stable than gasoline and could be stored safely. The engine also did not need an electric spark to ignite the fuel, adding another element of safety. These advantages, plus improved fuel economy, granted submarines with Diesel engines longer and safer cruises on the surface. While underwater, batteries were still necessary to provide power.

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. After 1909, Diesel engines would be used in American submarines for nearly 50 years.

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:

At the outbreak of hostilities with Japan on December 7, 1941, the United States had a number of small diesel-powered submersible ships (known, somewhat improperly, as "submarines) in the United States Navy. The lessons taught by successful German U-Boat campaigns in the Atlantic and the necessities of war in the Pacific dictated the need for large fast vessels that could run fast on the surface, bombard shore-based and surface targets with deck guns, conduct effective anti-aircraft defense, and remain in service during prolonged cruises with as many as 24 torpedoes, 40 mines, and fuel and food for 90 days.

Upon entering the war, the United States began turning out subs as fast as possible, and continued to do so on through WWII. The purpose of a submarine during WWI and WWII was simply to sink other ships. These "Fleet Boats" worked in concert with the surface fleet to track down and eliminate threats, often well into enemy controlled seas. Fleet boats, aesthetically, are little different from their surface counterparts - they had a flat deck, a pointed prow or nose, a conning tower, and surface armament in the form of several anti-aircraft machine guns and a larger deck gun for use against lightly-armored surface vessels. The batteries of these older subs did not store enough electricity to allow the ship to stay under for very long. Because of this, the ships were designed for maximum surface handling characteristics, where they spent the majority of their time.

These early submarines only submerged to escape detection. The U.S. Balao class, for instance, had a battery endurance of 48 hours at a meager two knots. Battery power was drained more quickly if the sub tried to travel faster. On the surface the fleet boats kept up with surface ships, maintaining a speed of about 21 knots. When submerged, most fleet boats could only dive to a maximum of around 400 feet. This is shallow compared to modern subs, which can dive to more than twice that depth.

The American submarines in WWII included three separate types or classes, Gato, Balao, and the later Tench, which were all virtually identical. Some 311 feet long with a beam of 27 feet, these fleet ships were made to knife through the water on the surface. Gato and Balao were heavily armed with ten torpedo tubes, six forward, four aft. They carried a large store of torpedoes, but were also armed with more conventional weapons as well. Balao, the most numerous class of American fleet subs, was armed with a forward facing five-inch deck gun, and four machine guns, which was a typical arrangement at the time. Each sub carried a limited store of torpedoes, no matter how long their patrol might be. Often commanders would opt to save a torpedo and sink a stricken enemy vessel with surface weapons, unless the target was heavily armored.

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.

In the conflict against Japan in World War II, the role and importance of the submarine forces of the United States cannot be overestimated. American submarines sank more than 600,000 tons of enemy warships and more than 5,000,000 tons of merchant shipping, thus destroying much of Japan's ocean commerce. This was accomplished by a force that never numbered more than two percent of naval personnel engaged in the war. The American submarine war against Japan created a blockade that denied her the oil, iron ore, food, and other raw materials she needed to continue to fight. By 1945 this submarine war made it impossible for any Japanese ship to sail the ocean. Without this commerce and the raw materials it supplied to her war effort, Japan found it impossible to continue the war outside of the homeland. No other WWII submarine remains that sank more ships than the USS Silversides.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 12:55:48 ZULU