In July 1908 Ensign Chester W. Nimitz ran USS DECATUR aground near the mouth of the Batangas River in the Philip-pines. A general court martial convened on USS DENVER at Cavite found him guilty of neglect of duty as Commanding Officer of DECATUR. ” The court limited his sentence to a “public reprimand” but relieved him of his command. On his return to the United States his duty assignment was to the submarine service.
Although young Nimitz initially regarded submarine duty with reluctance; he quickly recognized the future potential of undersea warfare and over the next four years became one of the most experienced and knowledgeable submarine officers in the fleet. He also became an important advocate of the submarine. Nimitz’s experiences as a submarine commander have received only passing attention by his biographers but this aspect of his early naval service deserves further examination if only to consider what bearing it may have had on his future military career and on his role in the submarine campaign against Japan in World War II.
Nimitz reported for instruction in submarine duty at Newport, Rhode Island, in January 1909. When he first stepped aboard USS PLUNGER (SS 2) as her Commanding Officer on May 3, that gasoline powered monster purported! y struck him as a cross between a Jules Verne fantasy and a humpbacked whale. In the aftermath of his unfortunate experience at Batangas he no doubt thought that some senior officer had decreed “give PLUNGER to Nimitz”. At that time pigboat duty was considered a hardship that scarcely served to advance one’s career. Submarines of that day undoubtedly posed a greater danger to their own crews than they did to a potential enemy. It may have been of some consolation to Nimitz that he was also designated Commander of the First Submarine Torpedo Flotilla. Flying the burgee of Submarine Flotilla Commander, PLUNGER was in fact Nimitz’s first flagship; although the only other unit of the flotilla was the old, iron-screw steamer, USS NINA, which served as tender and tug.
PLUNGER was built by the Crescent Shipyard, Elizabethport, New Jersey, sub-contractor for the Holland Torpedo Boat Company. She was the first of seven submarines commissioned in 1903 of which HOLLAND (SS 1) was the prototype. PLUNGER had a length of 64 feet, displaced 107 tons when not sub-merged and was designed to dive to a depth of 150 feet. On the surface her gasoline engines gave her a top speed of about 8 knots. Her speed was considerably less when submerged and running on electric motors powered by a bank of Ex ide batteries. PLUNGER was equipped with one 18 inch torpedo tube and could carry five torpedoes. Living space, as in the other boats of that day and age, was exceedingly cramped, usually wet, poorly ventilated and always stank of gasoline.
PLUNGER had been recently repaired at the Norfolk Navy Yard because the deck around her hatch was leaking badly. The boat arrived at Newport under tow by NINA on the very day that Nimitz assumed command. (Submarines, as a rule, at that time were towed when they had to venture out to sea for any distance.) PLUNGER’s crew of ten petty officers under the command of Ensign Prentiss P. Bassett welcomed Nimitz aboard . Another Ensign, Alfred H . Miles, remained with PLUNGER to help familiarize the new commanding officer with the vessel.
Next day, May 4, Nimitz, underway for the first time with his new command, headed out to sea and ordered a dive. The cruising bridge was secured, the ballast tanks trimmed and eventually PLUNGER submerged. The boat completed a seven-mile run at a depth of 15 to 30 feet in 1 hour 30 minutes. Satisfied with this performance Nimitz returned to the Newport Torpedo Station.
A few days later, while moored at the Torpedo Station, PLUNGER was rocked by an explosion of gases in the Forward Battery Compartment. The explosion demolished the deck torpedo skid and damaged one of the torpedoes, but no one was hurt and PLUNGER remained afloat. In a series of dives which followed necessary repairs, the longest was a submerged run of 13 miles in 2 hours 10 minutes.
On May 28 PLUNGER proceeded to the torpedo range in Narragansett Bay. The first torpedo PLUNGER fired promptly sank to the bottom but was readily located and retrieved by a diver. Of two torpedoes fired in June 1, one performed well, the other was lost.
On June 27, Miles was detached, leaving Nimitz on his own. The installation of a signal bell on PLUNGER’s deck during the ensuring week led to a further mishap which could have been quite serious. Submarine bells were sounded by boats cruising in formation while submerged to avoid colliding with one another. After testing the bell, Nimitz ordered PLUNGER to the surface and ran afoul of a tow line between a tug and its barges. The tow line carried away PLUNGER’s periscope. Nimitz nevertheless was able to bring the boat to the surface. There was no other damage and the periscope was soon repaired .
In September PLUNGER was towed to Oyster Bay, Long Island, and from there proceeded under her own power to the North River. She moored at the 79th Street wharf after taking part with the Second Submarine Flotilla in the Hudson~Fulton celebration (appropriately enough since Fulton had once designed and built a primitive submarine). The Second Flotilla consisted of VIPER (SS 10), CUITLEFISH (SS 11), and TARANTULA (SS 12), the only other submarines operating on the east coast at that time. These three B-Class boats were much newer and of more advanced construction than PLUNGER, which as the oldest of the A-Class, was in fact the most antiquated submarine still on_active duty with the Navy. Early in October PLUNGER, accompanied by CUITLEFISH, cruised upriver as far as Poughkeepsie. Upon their return to the New York Navy Yard the boats prepared to depart for Charleston, South Carolina.
On October 22 TARANTULA, VIPER and PLUNGER were all taken in tow in a column astern by USS CASTINE, an old gunboat recently recommissioned as submarine tender. On the following day this procession encountered heavy seas. The tow line parted between TARANTULA and VIPER, whereupon VIPER attempted to tow PLUNGER. When VIPER’s engines failed, PLUNGER, with engines reversed, towed VIPER by the stern throughout the night. Early next morning CASTINE took VIPER and PLUNGER in tow once again and brought the two boats to a safe anchorage in Hampton Roads. In November PLUNGER was placed in reserve at the Charleston Navy Yard . Soon thereafter Nimitz received a new command .
In November 1909 five new submarines had been added to the fleet: STINGRAY (SS 13). TARPON (SS 14), BONITA (SS 15), NARWHAL (SS 17 and GRAYLING (SS 18). A sixth, SNAP~ PER (SS 16) was nearing completion. These boats became the Third Submarine Division, under Lieutenant Donald C. Bingham as Division Commander.
Nimitz assumed command of USS SNAPPER at Boston on February 2, 1910 and put this boat into commission as her first commanding officer. To Nimitz, now a full Lieutenant, subma-rine duty must have looked much brighter. SNAPPER, the Navy”s newest submarine, was almost twice the size of PLUNG-ER. Having a much greater fuel capacity, she was able to cruise greater distances under her own power. But the gasoline engines, which in 1910 still powered all of the Navy’s submarines, continued to create many problems. Nimitz described the hazards which became particularly troublesome during rough weather when it was necessary to make surface runs with hatches battened down. There were numerous instances in which men on watch in the engine room lost consciousness from inhaling gasoline fumes. On other occasions a victim of gasoline jags developed unpredictably violent behavior and had to be forcibly restrained by other crewmen.
Soon after Nimitz assumed command of SNAPPER the tender NINA was lost in a gale. An old three-masted bark, USS SEVERN, was then refitted and brought into service as tender for the Third Submarine Division. SEVERN, not having power for independent movement, had to be towed about from port to port or from anchorage to anchorage by CASTINE. The tenders operated out of Newport in the summer months and during the winter accompanied the submarines to Chesapeake Bay.
In June 1910 SEVERN was towed from Boston across Massachusetts Bay to an anchorage just off Provincetown where SNAPPER rendezvoused with her sister ships. There during simulated torpedo attacks by SNAPPER and BONITA, BONITA rammed CASTINE amidships. While BONITA was apparently not damaged, CASTINE had to be beached on Cape Cod to keep her from sinking. Fortunately for him, Nimitz was not directly involved. Bingham dispatched SNAPPER to Boston to transport a higher ranking officer to Provincetown to conduct an investigation of the collision. Nimitz referred to the ramming as an example of the capability of submarines to inflict serious damage on an enemy ship even after expending all torpedoes.
As winter approached, the submarines headed for Chesapeake Bay in division column, SEVERN under tow by the refloated and repaired CASTINE. Unlike PLUNGER, the new boats of the Third Division could cruise on the surface in the open ocean under their own power.
On October 14 SEVERN anchored in Hampton Roads. SNAPPER, BONITA, TARPON and STINGRAY soon moored alongside. Early on the morning of October 18 SNAPPER got underway. The events of that day were entered in the Jog as follows:
Weather fair: At 8 50 A.M. while proceeding up the Elizabeth River to gasoline dock ran aground on sand bank at edge of channel. At time of going aground was running soundings, and at dead slow speed; tide was high and still flooding. No damage resulted from grounding. Floated by Navy yard tug at 7 45 P.M., proceeded to gasoline dock and moored alongside at 8 30 P.M.
No doubt Nimitz remained as imperturbable as usual during the long hours that SNAPPER was stranded while he waited for the next flood tide. But certainly he relived his experience three years earlier with USS DECATUR. Would he now face a second court martial? Would he again be relieved of his command? Would this new embarrassment put an end to his career? Apparently no investigation was ever made. Perhaps the submarine was still considered so cumbersome and inherently unsafe that a grounding was no reason to question the competence of her commanding officer. In fact, a few months later Nimitz was given command of an even more modern submarine, USS NARWHAL (SS 17).
Although she was put into commission somewhat in advance of SNAPPER, NARWHAL was the first of the D-Class submarines, somewhat larger than SNAPPER and with an even greater cruising radius. The Third Submarine Division had also been enlarged recently when the newly commissioned USS SALMON (SS 19) was added to Bingham’s command.
During the winter months the Third Division remained in Chesapeake Bay. At the Norfolk Navy Yard, the crew of NARWHAL was kept busy overhauling engines, pumps, valves, etc. With the customary spring migration in 1911, NARWHAL headed north again with the other boats, SEVERN under tow by CASTINE.
On the torpedo firing range in Narragansett Bay that summer, NARWHAL’s performance was highly proficient. The Division’s submarine bells also passed their tests, NARWHAL exchanging underwater signals with SALMON and GRAYLING. Maneuvers off Provincetown were conducted without incident.
At Newport Torpedo Station on October 10, 1911 Nimitz assumed command of the Third Submarine Division relieving Lieutenant Bingham. The Division pennant was transferred from GRAYLING to NARWHAL.
During the southbound cruise in November, Nimitz on the cruising bridge of NARWHAL, leading the Division, proudly passed in review with units of the Atlantic Fleet before President Taft on the deck of USS MAYFLOWER in the North River.
Following his arrival at the Norfolk Navy Yard later that month Lieutenant Nimitz was ordered to report to the Fore River Shipbuilding Company, Quincy, Massachusetts for duty in connection with the fitting out of the Navy’s newest submarine, USS SKIPJACK (SS 24). SKIPJACK, renamed E 1, and STURGEON, renamed E 2, were both commissioned at Boston on February 14, 1912. [Editor’s Note: On 17 November 19ll, the names of all U.S. submarines, active or under construction, were changed to alpha-numerics by class.] Nimitz assumed command of E 1 and Ensign Clarence N. Hinkamp assumed command of E 2 . These were the first American submarines to be powered by diesel engines. This significant technical advance doubled the cruising radius of the submarine. Diesel fuel oil was far less volatile, Jess toxic, less expensive and much easier to handle.
Diesel powered submarines in the Royal Navy were already in service at that time. The Germans had experimented with diesel power for years, but it was not until 1913 that the diesel powered U 19 was added to the Kaiser’s Navy. Prior to that time German submarine engines had used paraffin oil, a fuel somewhat similar to kerosene.
On February 20, 1912 E 1 and E 2 departed Boston for Hampton Roads, there to join up with the reorganized Atlantic Submarine Flotilla. Nimitz was given command of the Second Group, which included the two E-Class boats, D 1 (ex-NARWHAL), D 2 (ex-GRAYLING) and D 3 (ex-SALMON). USS TONOPAH, a converted coast defense monitor, was added to the group as submarine tender.
An incident several weeks later led Nimitz to jump into the frigid water of Chesapeake Bay. The official account of the incident on March 20, 1912 deserves to be quoted:
While this ship (USS TONOPAH) was at anchor in Hamp-ton Roads, Virginia, W .1. Walsh, Fireman Second Class, was accidentally knocked overboard while hooking on the steam launch, preparatory to hoisting. A strong tide was running and Walsh, who could not swim, was being rapidly carried away from the ship. Lieutenant C.W. Nimitz, U.S. Navy, who was standing on the quarterdeck at the time, immediately jumped overboard and went to Walsh·s assistance, but had considerable difficulty in supporting him on account of Walsh’s struggling and interfering with his movements. L.G. Kaufman, Machinist’s Mate Second Class, was standing in the starboard gangway at the time Walsh fell overboard. He immediately ran for a life buoy which he carried all the way aft and threw to the men in the water. The tide had already carried them so far that they were unable to reach the buoy, so Kaufman jumped over-board and swam with the buoy to Lieutenant Nimitz’s assistance. With this assistance Walsh was kept afloat until all were picked up by the USS NORTH CAROLINA’s steam launch which was passing at the time. When picked up, Lieutenant Nimitz and Walsh were exhausted, and if it had not been for Kaufman’s assistance would probably not have been able to keep afloat.
On May 17, 1912 Nimitz was given command of the entire Atlantic Submarine Flotilla consisting of four C-Ciass, three D-Class and the two E-Class boats with the tenders CASTINE, SEVERN and TONOPAH. He turned over command of E 1 to Lieutenant (jg) Claudius Hyatt and made USS CASTINE his flagship. As flotilla commander Nimitz directed the installation of a Sperry gyrocompass in E 1. The magnetic compass with which submarines had been equipped up to that time had been completely unreliable in submerged cruising. With the introduction of the gyroscopic compass Nimitz became a pioneer in underwater navigation. He also experimented with submerged radio transmis-sion.
With the introduction of the diesel engine and the gyroscopic compass, the submarine became capable for the first time of sustained blue water operations. Nimitz was one of the first to see and publicize the significance of this development. In an article, 1 Nimitz argued that submarines were no longer limited to harbor and coast defense. The author foresaw the military value of “sea-keeping” diesel powered submarines operating in isolation or in groups independently of surface ships. He argued that submarines and surface vessels each had a separate and distinct value in naval operations. Anticipating the necessity of crash dives, he decried the delays attendant in unrigging the cruising bridges to “trim down” prior to submerging and recommended removal of this feature. He also urged establishing submarine bases in Hawaii and Guam.
On March 29, 1913 Nimitz inspected this flotilla for the last time. It was a sad day. He was leaving the submarine service of which he had grown exceptionally proud. But looking forward to marriage and shore duty, he was to be detached on the following day. After a period of leave and because of his knowledge of diesel power be was ordered to report for duty in the Bureau of Steam Engineering in Washington, DC. But his association with the submarine service was by no means at an end.
During World War I Nimitz served as a Lieutenant Command-er in USS CHICAGO as Aide and later as Chief of Staff to Captain Samuel S. Robison, Commander, Atlantic Submarine Force. As a Commander, Nimitz served as senior member on the Board of Submarine Design from October 1918 to May 1919. In 1920 he established the Submarine Base at Pearl Harbor and served as its first Commanding Officer. As Captain he command-ed Submarine Division 20 in 1929.
By good fortune the submarine base which Nimitz had commissioned was practically undamaged by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Millions of gallons of diesel oil were undisturbed and a number of torpedoes remained intact. There at the base aboard USS GRAYLING (SS 209), the second submarine of that name, Admiral Nimitz on December 31, 1941 raised his flag and assumed command of what was to become the largest naval force ever assembled, the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Nimitz was aJso to preside over the U.S. submarine campaign against Japan, the most successful in naval history.
There is little doubt that Ensign Nimitz was displeased, even chagrined, when he was ordered to pigboat duty in 1909. His reluctance obviously stemmed from the reputation submarines had at the time as hardship duty. He was also just emerging from the shadow of a court martial conviction and had every reason to consider submarine duty as part of his punishment. He continued to be plagued with mishaps to ships he commanded, first with PLUNGER, then with SNAPPER. These mishaps certainly did not enhance his image as a promising young naval officer destined for high command. Wisely, he did not manifest his displeasure but accepted the challenges, overcame a discouraging and almost comical string of accidents and by his zeal and talent won the confidence of his superiors as an innovator and leader as well as the admiration of his men for his courage and devotion to their welfare. Within the course of four years he rose from a disgraced destroyer commander to the commanding officer of a flotilla of nine submarines. His early career is an object lesson in how a young naval officer can rededicate himself to overcome the shadow of early mistakes. Had a more stringent policy been applied to the shortcomings of this junior officer, his naval career might well have been prematurely ended. Young Nimitz began to see his assignment to submarines not as punishment but as an opportunity. Technical improvements soon gave submarines the capability for independent operations in mid-ocean and Nimitz early saw the significance of this development for future naval operations . He became a recognized authority on submarines and a prophet of the future.