The reader is reminded that recorded history can mislead. This is not to deny that many published sources are essentially accurate. On the other hand how many of us in making reports have not omitted happenings that seemed historically unimportant or would have damaged individuals?
Many historically important military incidents remain truthfully recorded only within the memories of certain seniors. Thus, oral histories can be important, although with age goes a flawed memory of a recalled event. Despite possible flaws, oral histories offer many benefits:
-The relater is apt to be more frank than he was while in the service.
-More time becomes available for recollection, consequent discussion and eventual verification, and
-The political aspect of what is related is usually not current.
In my case, my oral history would include some submarine related items which may be of interest to this readership.
In 1937 I decided on trying for a submarine career. This decision was made while on TAD at the Naval Academy. It was made at the dinner table of the Superintendent of the Academy, a former Fleet Commander and past member of the General Board. The Admiral stated that aviation, while challenging and financially attractive, would be a short-lived career because on reaching 40 one would be too old to fly . Submarines, on the other hand, he said were an increasingly innovative and challenging field. The new Fleet Submarine, he assured me, would provide an important advance screen for our battleship force. Submarines would remain at periscope depth all day making 3 knots– conducting a periscope search for the enemy. At night the submarine would make 21 knots on the surface. This routine was possible because the battleship’s speed would be 12 knots. But I never had the opportunity to observe this role of the submarine.
Post WWII days were dull because there was no obvious potential enemy. The Russian submarine seemed to be the only threat but the U.S. submarine had little ASW capability. An example of the general attitude towards the importance of submarines was that a submarine was allowed only 2 weeks per quarter of its operating time for type training. The rest of its operational time was scheduled for “services.” Imaginative tasks were sought. Anything. One submarine for example was sent to the South Pacific and ordered to conduct a submerged covert photographic surveillance of the harbor of a small island. The C.O., a highly regarded WWII skipper but having little interest in his mission, conducted the periscope photography on the surface. When the film was developed, the picture showed the submarine’s foe’s’ le and included a view of the C.O. looking over the side up forward. Another dreamed-up task had four submarines sent to the Arctic to investigate the icecap. Upon arrival they found that a strong southern wind kept the large ice chunks, which varied in size from that of an automobile to a small house, packed solidly. On the submarines’ return the following day to take a more lengthy exploratory run beneath the icepack, the wind had reversed. The ice floes were then widely scattered and were too dangerous to penetrate at periscope depth. It was another unprofitable operation.
How then did ASW become an attack submarine’s primary mission? Actually, only two factors were considered. First, the snorkelling submarine, developed by Germany near the end of the war, provided an easily detected and classified contact. Second, post-war inspection and trial of the passive sonar system aboard the German cruiser Prince Eugen had disclosed a low-frequency array of large transducers which provided a far better passive detection capability than previously known and had given the Prince Eugen the capability to dodge several enemy air-launched torpedoes.
The big question for me as an average submariner was, “Why did our experts have to learn this from the enemy? And not until after the war?”
Later, a large array of low frequency transducers was wrapped around the conning tower of the u.s.s. Flying Fish– a member of SUBDEVGRP 2 at New London. Tests and evaluations were begun and success resulted. Immediate steps were taken to install similar sonar systems on the bows of the newest submarines. Active sonar modes were included.
The SSK was born at that time. Immediately, ASW became the primary mission for the attack submarine.
Innovative tactics were introduced. One, which depended on secure underwater communications– hopefully to be developed– was “coordinated attack.” Two submarines were given a patrol area greater than twice the size of usual areas for a signal submarine to operate in. The two subs then conducted coordinated search across probable enemy tracks. When one sub made a detection the information was passed to the other submarine. A barrier consisting of the two attack submarines was then established, oriented to a true bearing line from the target. The barrier line could be changed as the attack situation developed.Use of these tactics resulted in greater effectiveness for each submarine. Successful attack then depended upon the submarine target’s maneuvers and his snorkel cycle. Unfortunately a covert communications capability was never realized and coordinated attack tactics were dropped.
Another ASW tactic, highly popular with COMSUBPAC, was the SSK-AIR concept . Initial detection by an SSK (“the Killer Submarine” ) in a barrier of SSKs, would frequently be at ranges too great to enable an attack to be made during the target’s snorkeling period. Accordingly, a VP aircraft, assigned to a patrol area parallel to the submarine area, would be contacted by radio and given a true bearing and estimated range to target from the detecting sub. The VP rendezvoused overhead with the submarine and then proceeded to the contact, using the bearing and range given. A sonobuoy search was conducted and if successful, attack was simulated. This concept seemed highly attractive when presented to interested seniors. Consequently, COMSUBPAC’s Training Officer, uncertain of the concept, managed to get several submarines to conserve their type training time (only 2 weeks per quarter in the mid-1950’s). Then he scheduled a 10-day exercise in the Hawaii area. Local shallow areas were supposed to simulate the Kuril Island exits. Submarine and adjacent VP patrol areas were designated. Two target submarines then made continuous transits through the SSK area, simulating Soviet SS in and out of the Okhotsk Sea. Attack opportunities were plentiful. Unfortunately, the results were dismal. More false targets were attacked than real targets. And the SSK-AIR concept was dropped in the Pacific. It was later picked up for a short time by the Atlantic forces.
Submariners had worked hard during WWII and had learned a lot. There were some failures. So looking back there was a lot to be learned:
-Too much blind faith had been put in weapons which didn’t deserve such faith– due to lack of realistic tests and evaluation.
-There was a lack of imagination with regard to tactics, e.g., night surface attack tactics were developed piecemeal.
-There was a failure to develop sensors that had available technology, e.g., low frequency passive sonars.
-There was an unrealistic appreciation of demands on personnel, e.g., 3 section watches on a continuous basis.
-There was an acceptance of inadequate equipments, e.g., unreliable engines and air compressors, inadequate air conditioning systems, etc. One wonders if such mistakes have to be repetitious.