TRITON was laid down on 29 May 1956, launched 19 August 1958, and commissioned 10 November 1959. Meanwhile SKIPJACK was laid down the same day, launched 26 May 1958, and commissioned 15 April1959. TRITON’s successful competi-tor in the role of high speed submarine was quickly overtaking her. GEORGE WASHINGTON, laid down as SCORPION on 1 November 1957, was launched 9 June 1959, and fired her first Polaris missiles in July 1960, supplanting TRITON in a major role for the very large submarine. Indeed, TRITON’s progress was slowed as resources and design staff were diverted to her competitors.
When launched, she was a strange combination of the conservative and revolutionary. She was the last American submarine built with an extensive external superstructure or casing, twin shafts and screws, conning tower and stem torpedo room. But her most unusual feature, even more than her twin reactors, were the lines of her hull.
Whereas submarines use power to overcome surface drag, or friction, and form drag, or turbulence, surface ships lose power to a third factor-wavemaking. (Where in submarines horsepower requirements rise at the rate of roughly the cube of the speed, that of surface ships rises above 30 knots at a power of seven.) To minimize this, the hull of the fast surface ship is designed according to principles very different from the streamlined pure submarine. Hence TRITON’s knifelike upper bow and tremen-dous.fineness (length to beam) ratio. At 12:1 TRITON’s is greater than that of practically any destroyer, usually between 10 and Her bulbous forefoot at the base of her stem creates a flow pattern which cancels out her bow wave.
Her official specifications are 447-112 ft. length, 37ft. beam, 24ft. draft, and a surface displacement of 5,940 tons, 6,670 tons submerged. Ned Beach suggests the latter figure is really considerably higher-at least 7,900 tons-and points out that it gives the truest indication of just how large TRITON is. The difference between surfaced and submerged displacement basically is determined by ballast tankage. The typical modem pure subma-rine has relatively little, and thus little reserve buoyancy on the surface. She is intended to submerge, and stay submerged: the last concern is how she behaves when surfaced. But TRITON required substantial reserve buoyancy to behave like a proper surface ship at destroyer speeds.
How fast was she? Usually she is described as having top speeds of 27 knots surfaced, 20 submerged. Ned Beach says it was hoped to get 30 on the surface but only 27 was achieved at first. He says that Admiral Rickover directed that shaft horsepow-er be increased by increasing the reactor’s power output. This was carefully increased in small increments until TRITON was well over 30 knots. Unfortunately this never earned her the title of fastest submarine in the world as SKIPJACK bad already exceeded this submerged. None of TRITON’s COs volunteered a figure for her top speed submerged but one suggested it was nearly as high as her surface speed and another described her as faster submerged than any other nuclear boat of her day except SKIPJACK.
There are several astoundingly beautiful photos of TRITON on her trials, clipping through the waves like an arrow, kicking up spray and training a monstrous wake. But even if one grants that it was possible to build a sub that could imitate a destroyer, was there any point to it?
Perhaps. The schizophrenic nature of defense thinking in the 1950s must be remembered. The USN projected power around the world very successfully with WWll weapons, yet the potential future threat of nuclear attack loomed as a seemingly insoluble
dilemma. Many commentators, popular and professional, speculated that the atomic bomb would sweep surface fleets from the sea; only the nuclear submarine could survive. Nuclear submersible cargo carriers, landing ships, air defense missile ships, and aircraft carriers were urged in the defense literature of the day. The Navy undertook a serious design study of a submarine aircraft carrier. How much of a role these ideas played in the building of TRITON is unknown, but in fact, she was the nearest thing to the nuclear submersible warship to become reality, and she proved that it could be done very successfully, if not cheaply.
Actually TRITON’s only real predecessors were the British steam powered K-Ciass submarines of World War I. These ships carried a long superstructure on top of a long, low submarine hull . There was a bridge and stacks projecting above that superstructure. Resembling submersible destroyers, they carried three guns, above-water torpedo tubes and even depth charge throwers. These flfStjleet submarines had a top speed of 24 knots, enabling them to accompany the Grand Fleet. Their mission was to position themselves to intercept an enemy fleet and attack it submerged, or perhaps scout for the fleet in weather too bad for destroyers.
They were dogged with numerous problems, and one of them was surface sea-keeping. At their remarkable top speeds, they dug their bows in, inundating their decks, throwing cascades of water over their upperworks, rendering them almost untenable and their impressive surface weaponry unusable. Eventually, most of the weapons were removed, the remaining guns were mounted on top of the superstructure, stacks and bridge were raised an additional level, and they were given huge raised bows to provide the buoyancy necessary to ride over waves and the flare to direct spray off decks.
TRITON was also given the hull and engines to make high surface speed, but not the sea-keeping features necessary to use it comfortably. Captain Beach says as she reached high speed on her trials, she immediately drove her bow under. “Her extremely slim bow had most of its buoyant volume well aft, at precisely the point where the maximum hollow of her bow wave occurred at high speed.” The only exposed men and equipment aboard TRITON were nearly 30 feet up at the top of her sail. But at 30 knots, this was not enough. With a foot or two of free board at her bow, she would punch through waves, which would burst with a cascade of spray against the bottom of the sail, choking and blinding her bridge watch. The immediate solution was to increase the volume of her bow buoyancy tank without changing her external lines; but Captain Beach says he recommended giving her a flared bow.
Another solution he recommended was giving her a small hydrofoil under her stem to lift her bow up at speed. He tried the experiment of rigging out her bow planes on the surface. This brought her bow right up but as speed increased, she began to lift out of the water, then crash back, threatening to damage the planes.
Around the World Submerged
Almost immediately after commissioning, however, she proved her worth as a true submarine, circumnavigating the world submerged on her shakedown cruise. This was described in detail in Ned Beach’s Around the World Submerged. This feat marked the end of the transition period beginning with NAUTILUS. Before, submarines were good for about 100 miles on battery; afterwards, the 2-3 month ballistic missile patrols became a routine reality. Where PICKEREL set a record in 1950, covering 5,194 miles in 21 days of continuous snorkeling, SEAWOLF spent 60 days submerged in 1958, covering 13,761 miles. TRITON covered 41,500 miles in 83 days, largely at a steady 21 knots.
Did this feat overcome any major psychological hurdle? The quality of her engineering was apparently very, very good if not perfect; more to the point, none of the problems that occurred was beyond the ability of her very highly qualified crew to handle.
Having made herself famous, what did TRITON do for the remainder of her service life? This was the biggest question mark, and this writer still can’t answer it completely.
First, was she ever used in the radar picket role? Yes, briefly. In 1960 and 1961 her radar picket facilities were tested and exercised off Norfolk and in the North Sea. She performed air control duty for fighter-interceptions and demonstrated her ability to operate with the fleet, sustaining its 18 knot speed of advanced for a week at a time. Captain George Morin, who relieved Ned Beach, said however that he never operated her in this fashion. He describes TRITON operating between the carriers and their target and using her air control facilities for strike control. The aircraft homed in on TRITON-operating submerged-and she then vectored them in to the target.
She lost her SSRN designation 1 March 1961, and her complement was reduced from 16 officers and 156 men to 13 and 145.
Was she actually considered and used as an attack submarine, and if so, how did she perform on that role? Captain Morin said “Yes, she was employed in regular attack boat roles until her June 1962 to March 1964 overhaul.” There are many, many conflicting opinions of her performance submerged, quietness and maneuver-ability in particular. They range from excellent to terrible. It is probable that she outclassed her ASW competition but was inferior in these respects to the other attack boats of her day. Captain Morin noted that due to her great length, a 2o down angle at periscope depth would put her stem on the surface.
Captain Beach noted two problems during her construction. In spite of her two torpedo rooms, poor design left her able to accommodate no more than 16 Mk 37 torpedoes, a very modest load. And giving her a conning tower left the captain separated from all the fire control equipment in the control room, a condi-tion the elimination of the conning tower in the TANGs and NAUTILUS was intended to solve. Beach suggested removing the big radar and extending the conning tower in 1961 but it wasn’t done.
The conning tower and great height of her sail increased her periscope depth and probably helped operating her radar sub-merged or broached. She used the later maneuver repeatedly, breaking the surface with only the top of her sail to transfer personnel during the circumnavigation. Captain Frank Wads-worth, her fourth CO, used her this way, sail breaking the surface, so he could operate with antennae extended at higher speeds than he could do completely submerged .
During her career TRITON was used to test the radio communications buoy which became standard on the SSBNs, and several versions of SINS, a breadboard version during her circumnavigation (which didn’t work) and a huge Sperry version later. A variety of possible roles suggested for her included: high speed minelayer, guided missile ship, advanced sonar scout for the surface fleet, command ship, and rescue tug for nuclear submarines disabled under the ice cap. Captain Beach describes in detail his ideas for this in his novel Cold js the Sea: a grapnel would be extended through a stem tube to book the disabled sub’s anchor chain. TRITON would have had not only the stern tubes but also twin screws for safety and maneuverability in tight quarters.
TRITON was prepared for under-ice operations during her overhaul but never used for them. The only one of these ideas actually tried was for a command ship. Although she was often described as a possible command post for the President during a nuclear war, the actual role she was tested in was as command ship for the Atlantic Submarine Force. The air control space was equipped for COMSUBLANT and his staff. Captain Morin says they tried controlling a group of subs with part of the staff aboard but it proved very awkward. The Soviets apparently believe strongly in tactical cooperation by submarines but it is an open question how well they made it work.
But was TRITON a white elephant or a valuable unit? Her last two COs, Captain Robert Rawlins and Captain Frank Wadsworth told me unequivocally that TRITON performed very important and valuable service during the years 1964 to 1968.
Plainly an essential part of her task was her former air control center. She possessed a huge CJC just like a surface ship’s. It was never really used as a CIC but provided a lot of flexibility for placement of additional electronics as other Cold War missions were found for her.
Why was the TRITON’s second refuelling scheduled for 1968 cancelled? Many reasons probably contributed; as a one-off the cost of spare parts and upgrading engineering manuals became prohibitive. Her system of loading reactor fuel elements was also unique; although designed to be refueled from a tender, this was never attempted. Ned Beach notes that FORRESTAL had just suffered a disastrous fire, and the cost of her repairs exactly matched that of TRITON’s cancelled refuelling and overhaul.
CAPT Charles C. Baldwin, USN(Ret.)
CAPT Curtis W. Bunting, USN(Ret.)
VADM F.J. Harlfinger, USN(Ret.)
CDR Forney H . Ingram, USN(Ret.)
CAPT John George Now, USN(Ret.)
RADM Richard H. O’Kane, USN(Ret.)
CAPT Richard Z. Test, USN(Ret.)