Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


[ A digest of a talk by VADM Nils R. Thunman, USN, delivered 17 August, 1985 at the Submarine Veterans of World War II national convention.]

Shakespeare surely was thinking of us submariners when he penned King Henry’s  stirring words, “we few, we happy few, we  band of brothers.” Our brotherhood of the deep  is truly unique and although we may be of  different generations, it binds us through our common experience and undersea heritage.

In planning the future, we take lessons from the present and past — from you, the submariners who won the war in the Pacific. You are the men of whom Admiral Nimitz wrote, “We shall never forget that it was our submarines that held the lines against an enemy while our fleets replaced losses and repaired wounds.”

It is important for us to appreciate that the Submarine Force of today is founded upon the lessons of the past — upon your successes as well as on your difficulties and how you overcame them. We are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. We respect Santayana’s dictum, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

You gentlemen remember and understand far better than I the serious problems you encountered during the first two years of the war in the Pacific. I’d like to recall a few. Six months into the war more than 800 torpedoes had been fired in combat, with discouraging results. And not a single test bad been run to investigate the skippers’ complaints. It was easier to blame the skippers. It was not until June, 1942 that Charlie Lockwood and Jimmy Fife took matters into their own hands and ran the tests that confirmed what many of you had been trying to tell BUORD since Pearl Harbor — that the Mark 14 torpedo ran 10 or 11 feet deeper than set! Also, the exploders often failed to work. Finally, in September, 1943, nearly two years into the war, you had a torpedo you could count on. Clay Blair summed it up correctly, “The torpedo scandal of the U.S. Submarine Force in World War II was the worst in the history of any kind of warfare.”

We are not going to let that happen again. Our torpedoes and our missiles are going to work. The Mk-48 torpedo is the backbone of our arsenal. It is a good torpedo. Each year we fire about 1600 exercise torpedoes in various environments. We fire on instrumented tracking ranges where we can closely monitor the torpedoes’ performance. We also fire in the open ocean and have tested the Hk-48 under ice. We try to stress the torpedo and the entire weapons system to its limit. However — drawing on your experiences — I remain skeptical about torpedo performance. In 1980 when I was COMSUBPAC, there were some disturbing trends in torpedo reliability. These trends revealed problems in both quality control and design -which were fixed. The torpedoes were updated, and a rigorous warshot testing program ensued. Each year we select at random about 10 Mk-48 warshot torpedoes already loaded on submarines and fire them in a service weapons test, designed to test the entire system from launch to explosion. A Mk48 warshot was also fired under ice to be certain it would work in that harsh environment. It didl Moreover, over the past year our success in these service weapons tests is approaching 100 percent. But I still remain skeptical. The Mk-~8 is a good weapon but it won’t meet the challenges of the next decade and beyond. So we are well along in the development of the advanced capability Mk-~8. the ADCAP. It is being subjected to the most realistic and rigorous testing we can devise. Happily, the test results to date are most encouraging.

Peacetime training is another important area where we have profited from the lessons that you learned at great cost. You can remember well that months of hard fighting, bitter disappointment, and relieved skippers were required to overcome the cautious, stereotyped and unimaginative training practices of the pre-war days. The potential enemy was little known and peacetime operations were conducted in “home waters.” Tactics were influenced by an ignorance of the capabilities of the enemy’s ships and aircraft. These are lessons we cannot fail to heed. Today’s training and operations take place literally in every ocean of the world. While, we strive to practice as we would fight, and to stress our skippers and crews to the greatest reasonable degree. We observe the Soviets’ ships and study their tactics. There is no question that the Russians are good and getting better. So we are working harder to stay ahead.

In the vital area of tactics and training, you confirmed the importance of the periscope. In pre–WW II days, the periscope approach had fallen into disfavor. Doctrine then called for deep sonar approaches on the basis that “It is bad practice and it is contrary to submarine doctrine to attack at periscope depth when aircraft are known to be in the vicinity.” Months passed after the war started before the fallacy of this doctrine was made evident. Yet, 20 years later, the THRESHER class SSN was built with only one scope. Belatedly this was recognized as a mistake and a second scope was installed in these subs. Today our SSNs all have two sophisticated periscopes with low radar cross-section, built-in cameras, infrared sensors and communications antennas. But in spite of the complex electronics packed into today’s periscopes, the operational technique has changed little from your days. Short exposures, rapid target recognition, skillful use of the telemeter — sometimes hampered by leaking hydraulic oil — these skills are all with us today.

While we have profited from many of the lessons learned by your generation, it will not surprise you that, while developing a first-rate submarine force, we still face many of your problems. In the thirties there was a bitter battle over building the fleet boats. They said they were too big, too costly, and had unnecessary range and endurance for adequate defense. Fortunately, the submariners won and the fleet boat was built. With their speed, firepower, and room for growth, they proved vital to the ultimate victory. With smaller and less capable submarines, the war in the Pacific may well have gone much differently.

Today there is a similar debate over the submarine force of the future. Our maritime strategy is a quick-striking strategy which features the SSN as its leading edge. It calls for early offensive action in forward areas where only submarines can survive. This concept requires submarines with a clear-cut acoustic advantage that can reach the battle area quickly and bring great firepower to bear both on land and sea targets. As in the thirties, submarines with these capabilities are neither small nor low-cost. We have proposed to build the SSN-21, a fast, quiet and extremely capable submarine, designed to meet the threat of the next century. With the enthusiastic support of the Secretary of the Navy, the CNO and many in the Congress, I am confident we will get that submarine of the future.

I know that we would find that the life of the submariner’s family has changed little over the years. The sacrifices made willingly by our submarine families year after year are both remarkable and praiseworthy. In Washington we work to give our submarine family all the support we can — particularly in the areas of pay and allowances and in base and housing facilities. We’ll never be able to give them all they deserve but we won’t stop trying.

I started this talk with reference to the past and to our heritage and I’d like to return to that theme. In our libraries in Pearl Harbor and New London, we have collected the declassified patrol reports of the missions that you made. I urge our commanding officers to read them. I particularly remember reading Sandy McGregor’s account of his second war patrol in USS REDFISH. After putting several torpedoes into a well escorted Japanese aircraft carrier, Sandy wrote, “Took a good sweep around. Unable to see aircraft carrier. He has sunk. Had many planes on deck.” And then shortly after, “On passing 150 feet all hell broke loose when seven well-placed depth charges exploded alongside starboard bow.” Sandy reported that the pressure hull was cracked in the forward torpedo room, that there were numerous air leaks throughout the boat, and a torpedo was making a hot run in #8 torpedo tube. Sandy brought that submarine safely back to Midway. Reading that patrol report gave me great confidence as I went to a command. And today, the accounts of REDFISH and those subs still on patrol like Mush Morton’s WAHOO, continue to inspire the skippers of the nuclear era.

In some ways the commanding officers of your generation are different from the CO’s of today’s nuclear 5Ubmarines. Today’s skipper has never served on a surface ship. Few have been to sea on a diesel boat. They are more comfortable with digital sonar and fire control systems with starwars-like video screens than analog machines and displays. But in truly important attributes, today’s CO is little different from the skippers of your day. Our CO’s are thoroughly professional, technically capable, fiercely independent, proud of his ship and crew and known occasionally to raise a little hell both at sea and ashore.

Modern technology hasn’t changed the ingredients for a good CO — good judgement, common sense, moral courage, and confidence in his ability, his ship and his crew. I’m pleased to report that we have men with these traits in abundance commanding our submarines at sea today. The future of our Submarine Force is bright. We are building four 688 class submarines a year, each more capable than the last. New TRIDENT submarines are being commissioned yearly. They are magnificent submarines. We are buying better submarine weapons than ever before. I have no doubt that the nuclear submarine is destined to be the capital ship of the future.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League