SHIPMATE’S recent cover showing USS PICKEREL surfacing at a 72-degree angle, and a later letter to the editor by a reader who thought it might instead be my old ship, AMBERJACK, impell this follow-on. As skipper of AMBERJACK in 1948-49, when we were developing high speed and steep angle tactics, I can testify the picture was not of her but of PICKEREL a year or so later. SHIPMATE’S picture was taken in March 1950, just before she began her epochal cruise on snorkel from Hong Kong to Pearl. Paul Schratz was her skipper at the time, and both exploits made records which still stand.
AMBERJACK’S experiments with high speed and steep angles were begun in 1948. In those days combat tactics still had to be geared to the necessity of getting within close torpedo range of important targets, and this usually meant penetrating a screen of enemy ASW forces. Whether in peacetime exercise or actual war, this was always a matter of some risk. There was always the concern that the penetrating submarine might come up in just the wrong place; dead ahead and close aboard of a big ship making high speed. Because of the danger of broaching, approaching periscope depth took time, during the last phase of which the submarine would be vulnerable near the surface while still too deep to use the ‘scope. Many otherwise su·~cessful screen penetrations failed to produce attacks because the submarine skipper could not be sure, in face of the noise of many sets of propellers nearby, that it was safe to come to periscope depth to aid his torpedoes. It seemed to us, reading reports of successful screen penetrations, that most of them involved a lot of good luck.
Every submarine skipper of that time asked himself what he should do if, when almost up to periscope depth, high speed screws were suddenly heard on a steady bearing and closing. At such moments the psychological tension is high. In peacetime exercises the pressure is for caution, not unnecessary risks. In war, aggressiveness is required as well. How, then, train for combat? The dilemma had major proportions. Clearly, we should train to use all our capabilities to the feasible maximum while still maintaining the necessary edge of safety. Since many attacks failed through inability to see at critical times, while others may have been pressed too far and resulted in sometimes serious training accidents–not to mention disasters that may have occurred in war-how a skipper handled it was a direct measure of his effectiveness. The trouble was that the criteria in peace and war were opposites.
After the war, with the guppy submarine capable of 18 knots at the half-hour rate and 15 for a full hour–unheard of during the war years–we had a much more agile vessel than the great boats with which we had fought Japan. New combat tactics were needed for it, and many wardroom discussions ensued. It became a favorite topic. Rapid depth changes, to go along with our new speed submerged, seemed logical. But this was not achieved merely by recognizing its desirability. There were many unknowns in ship stability, internal security, control procedures and emergency situations that needed to be handled with assurance. BUSHIPS was already conducting experiments to determine control and stability, and it seemed only right to go on to evolve combat tactics.
It was an exhilarating time. We worked out our ideas slowly and steadily, and gradually increased the stresses we placed on our ship and ourselves. I should point out that most credit should go to AMBERJACK’s engineer and diving officer, Allen J. (“Red”) Gilmore, and his battle stations planesmen. Their confidence and abilities were infectious, and the entire crew, once briefed in what we were trying to accomplish, was with them. Our enthusiasm, parenthetically, caused us to become known in some quarters as “USS ANGLEJACK.” However, Jimmy Fife, then ComSubLant, approved of what we were doing.
With ComsubLant ‘s concurrence, 30 degrees was established as the operational limit. We never exceeded 1 t except during emergency drills. Fifteen degrees was set as the limiting angle for normal dives. Beyond that we were always at battle stations, and no actual emergencies ever occurred. Some special preventive procedures were needed; engine oil sumps were kept near their low points and checked constantly; generator oil seals were under continuous observation for the first sign of incipient leakage; special consideration was given to the cook; and a vendetta was waged against loose gear which could present a missile hazard (coffee mugs were the worst offenders, especially if not completely emptied). A few special preventers were devised, such as brackets welded to the control room deck to keep tool chest seats from sliding. Grab rails were installed, extra chains and turnbuckles were put on torpedo racks, and extra belly bands (thoroughly tested) secured the fish to the racks. Tail buffers were kept always rigorously snug on fish in tubes, as they should be anyway. The crew used to brag that AMBERJACK was “secured for sea like no boat had ever been secured before”–and this was good to hear.
The worst possible casualty was defined as a stern plane jammed at hard dive with the ship at 15 knots in a 30-degree dive. As may be imagined, this was one we worked up to with a great deal of respect for the forces we were dealing with, carefully staying at least even with the angles we were then working with. In fact, the emergency drill, initially at slow speed, always came first. Ultimately it became a thrilling demonstration. On order, with the boat at 30 degrees dive and speed 15, the stern plaqesman would put his planes on hard dive and hold them there. Conn would order full rudder, back emergency, blow forward group and blow bow buoyancy. The stern planesman had orders to reverse his planes if AMBERJACK passed 45 degrees or appeared about to exceed test depth, but the boat always stopped at exactly 47 degrees and after about 150 feet of depth increase. We would vent tanks and go ahead one third as she ballooned upward, and AMBERJACK always steadied out beautifully. A large bubble, which would not have been desirable in combat, of course resulted, but this was better than the alternative, and anyway, it gave a false sonar target, and we would be long gone by the time it surfaced.
The result of our drills was the ability to go from periscope depth to test depth in a minute or less, starting with the scope up and speed two knots. From any speed in the surfaced condition we could get under in 25 seconds and be at 400 feet in 35 more. Coming up, we could change depth from 400 feet to periscope depth, and have the scope up for a fast observation, in 90 seconds. By actual test, a full look around could be underway within 30 seconds after passing 200 feet on the way up, and if necessary we could be back at 400 feet a minute later. We were blind and vulnerable to being rammed for only about fifteen seconds. Our sonar was good enough to ensure we could hear any underway ship within a couple of miles. We felt able to tackle a first class ASW outfit–penetrating a screen or coming up near an enemy main body, and having plenty of time to attack or evade. Our only concern was the possibiU ty of a ship lying dead in the water, directly overhead, with all machinery stopped. The periscope was therefore always raised before it could break surface and a good underwater look taken for the dark shadows of big hulls dead ahead, as the boat planed upward. I have seen this once, and it is a sight never to be forgotten.
AMBERJACK was actually updating Holland’s old “porpoising” maneuver for making observations before development of the periscope. One of Holland’s major differences with Simon Lake, his chief rival in the early submarine days, was on this point. Lake held that submarines should dive and surface as nearly as possible on an even keel fore and aft. To expedite going deep he introducted a negative buoyancy tank into his design. In short, he wanted submarines to be operated rather like a blimp or dirigible, while Holland argued for tactics more like those of heavier-than-aircraft. Strangely, considering Holland’s preeminence in submarine matters, it was the Lake submarine design which the U.S. Navy took up and refined, not the Holland design. Boats of each type were built, up through the S-hoat classes. Pre-war submarines can recall the arguments over the respect! ve merits of “Holland” and “government” boats, as the two basic designs were known. Although, “Holland” boats, built by the Electric Boat company, were better liked by the operators, it was the “Government” boat which grew into the successive “T” and “V” classes and ultimately into the fleet boat with which we fought WWII.
So much for an abridged version of U.s. submarine design history. Basic to all navies between the wars was the the idea that subs were submersible surface ships whose best employment was in support of the battle fleet. Lake’s double hull design may have seemed better suited to this concept. In any case, hie tankage and machinery design concepts were favored by U.S. Navy designers, and almost automatically some of his tactical ideas were also. Before the war a three-degree diving or surfacing angle was considered normal. Anything more than ten degrees would cause general pandemonium throughout the boat, bringing skipper and cook roaring into the control room. Even in combat, when rapid depth change was sometimes clearly indicated, the “blimp” technique was all we knew. I have strong memories of an action when the old TRIGGER, in which I was serving, was nearly lost because we changed depth too slowly.
While AMBERJACK was working on this, a National Geographic photographic team in Key West, where we were based, evidently heard of what we were doing and requested an opportunity to get some pictures of us doing our stuff. I protested that our steep angle work was being done underwater, was not photographable, and should remain classified. All the same, we were directed to make a surface demonstration for the camera crew, which would be embarked in a blimp from the nearby naval air station at Boca Chica. We made steep angle surfacings beneath the blimp for a couple of days, but the pictures were from too great a distance. A much closer range effort, with the camera in our squadron submarine rescue ship, was consequently decided on. With the ASR on steady course and speed and on our Torpedo Data Computer, and ourselves on parallel course, we dove off her quarter, passed under her at 150 feet and full speed, blew tanks and went to full rise just off her bow. We broke surface at a 38-degree angle, about 200 yards broad on the ASR’s starboard bow.
AMBERJACK thereupon settled back down to some 75 feet, but of course bobbed immediately to the surface. As we did, I heard the Squadron commander’s delighted “Return to the base!” on our voice radio. One partially expended roll of film was all they had, and without even looking they decided it was enough. The shot was later published in the National Geographic and some newspapers. The Geographic sent us enlargements of the picture, and some of them are still around.
Some time later, Joe Grenfell, Chief of Staff for ComSubPac and an old friend, wrote me that the Pacific submarines had “grown tired” of having an Atlantic submarine adorning their walls, wanted to replace it with one of their own, and asked for all the information I could send him. I sent back a long letter with all the details and copies of official reports to ComSubLant. After a while a photo of PICKEREL surfacing at a 48-degree angle came back from him. I later saw the same shot on television, and it is still shown from time to time. PICKEREL’s skipper at this point was Hank Sweitzer, who had recently relieved Schratz.
Personally, I’ve always regretted the emphasis on the dramatics, for the next question is always , “What use is that?” The answer, of course, is that there is no use; steep angles are useful only for fast depth change, an ability we must have when needed. Whatever the rationale for publicizing what our submarines were doing in this regard, the long range effect was to make it seem like a stunt. We also thereby announced it to all potential enemies. In the U. S. Navy, however, I believe AMBERJACK’s experiments increased the tactical abilities of our submarine forces, for we demonstrated the tactic’s usefulness for both attack and evasion in fleet problems. But I sincerely wished we had kept it secret.
On the personal level, however, I always pay attention if a modern sub driver mentions diving angles, and am delighted to find that while today’s submarine cooks still appreciate being forewarned of expected steep angle operations, they accept ten degrees with equanimity.
EDWARD L. BEACH