Whether Americans are war hawks or doves, the whole concept and reason for deterrence can be defined by Theodore Roosevelt’s apt quote: “Walk softly but carry a big stick.” An aggressor will think more than twice before going in harm’s way, knowing the enemy has retaliatory systems which could erupt into Armageddon. In the early 60s two American diesel submarines and their new weapons of destruction opened a new chapter in the arms race. The second GROWLER and her sister ship GRAYBACK were born out of this country’s defense mandate to help insure that no present or future hostile nation would be safe should we be attacked.
Although the career paths of the first GROWLER of 1943 and the GROWLER of the early 60s are dissimilar, the cogent reasons for their existence point up our constant quest for the survival of democratic rule. The ends to which we will go to pursue and protect our way of life can be clearly seen in the cost we have paid in lives and technological expenditures for these two submarines.
On New Years Day, 1943, USS GROWLER (SS-215) left Brisbane, Australia under the command of Howard W. Gilmore for his fourth patrol. Gilmore had been in the Navy for 22 years and was awarded the Navy Cross for action during his first patrol. What would prove to be one of the most gallant actions in Naval History occurred on the night of February 7th. While traveling on the surface recharging batteries, Gilmore spotted a small Japanese provisioning ship a mile away. He ordered the crew to battle stations and began to close on the armed vessel. Neither Gilmore nor the lookouts spotted the enemy’s course change towards them until it was too late. Out of the blackness the ship appeared intent on ramming the sub. Gilmore sounded the collision alarm and called for “Left full rudder.” The swing to the left lined him up for collision. While making 17 knots, GROWLER slammed into HAY ASAKI amidships. The bow of the sub crumpled like an accordion, the impact heeling the sub over 45 degrees.
Everyone on the bridge and below decks was thrown off his feet. Almost immediately the Japanese crew sprayed the GROWLER’s bridge with a devastating fusillade of machine gun fire. Three men were killed instantly, while Gilmore was wounded. Clinging to the rail, he ordered, “Clear the bridge.” Four men, two of them hit by fire scrambled down the ladder. The Executive Officer waited for Gilmore to come down the hatch, but to no avail. The last to be heard from the captain were words which would become submarine legend, “Take her down!” Hesitating for about a minute and fearful of losing his crew and the boat, the Exec disconsolately submerged to safety. Gilmore was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the first man of seven in the submarine service to receive it.
After major repairs, GROWLER went back into action for another seven patrols. Her 11th was to be her last. Attacking a convoy while leading a wolfpack, Commander Thomas B. Oakley Jr. was lost with all hands, cause unknown. The life of GROWLER was ended, until 14 years later when her namesake slid down the ways of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
A second GROWLER (SSG 577), was commissioned August 30, 1958. She has since become indelibly etched in history as the forerunner of today’s TRIDENT fleet. Originally scheduled as attack boats, GROWLER and GRAYBACK had their hulls extended 50 feet during construction to accommodate two cylindrical hangars fitted over their bows. They were to house the older REGULUS I and newer REGULUS II missiles. After training along the East Coast and Caribbean, GROWLER proceeded to her home port at Pearl Harbor in September, 1959. America’s first Nuclear Deterrent Mission began March 12, 1960. GROWLER departed Hawaii with REGULUS surface-to-air missiles armed with nuclear warheads.
Unlike its successors POLARIS, POSEIDON and TRIDENT, the winged REGULUS was air-breathing and could only be fired on the surface. The cruise missile had other shortcomings such as its large size compared to the submarines which carried it. It also needed to be fueled and serviced before firing either on deck or in the on-board hangars. Of course the longer the sub was on the surface the more vulnerable it was to detection and attack. The largevolume hangars also presented the problem of flooding while on the surface, creating an extreme heel or even sinking the boat. Also, the bulbous bow made for noisy and unstable maneuverability both on the surface and underwater.
In 1957 development had already begun on a solid rocket fuel intermediate-range missile in the form of POLARIS. During her short career GROWLER had made nine deterrent patrols, paving the way for the new breed of missiles and the nuclear submarines that would carry them. As they came on line, GROWLER was decommissioned and placed in reserve in May 1964. Her active life as a deterrent was for only six years. For 28 years thereafter GROWLER lay idle at Puget Sound and Mare Island. She had been stricken from the active list and was slated to be a target for our new weapons technology. This was not to be, however, for a man with strong navy ties stepped in to save GROWLER and preserve her history and achievements.
In 1987 Zachary Fisher, Founder of the Intrepid Sea-AirSpace Museum in New York City requested the Navy transfer the boat to his museum. In September, 1988, at his own expense, Fisher had the boat towed from the West Coast to Tampa, Florida, where work was completed on the interior and exterior to make her ready for public exhibit. The second GROWLER made the last leg of her voyage up the East Coast into New York Harbor. Here an endless procession of visitors would pass through her hangars and compartments beginning in July, 1989. The sub’s permanent resting place is in company with two illustrious surface ships, the carrier INTREPID, and destroyer EDSON, at the foot of West 46th Street on the Hudson River. Fisher’s philosophy regarding this deterrent submarine is pragmatic; to inform and show people of all nations the weapons and the facts, to enable them to make intelligent decisions about their mutual security.
For SS 215 and SSG 577, both submarines had one poignant similarity, their means to an end. As summed up in the words of one of GROWLER’s crew, on New Years day, 1961, -while she cruised deep under the Pacific on her second deterrent patrol, — a young officer entered into the log the following: “Not our idea of fun and good cheers, but doing our job to ensure many New Years.”