Editor’s Note: Captain Dick Laning was long one of the Submarine Force’s leading innovators. He was the first Commanding Officer of SEAWOLF (SSN 575), the Navy’s second nuclear submarine. His career was marked by diversity and his technical expertise was recognized by all.
In 1951, I was delighted to be ordered to command USS TRUTTA in New London.
After leaving PILOTFISH on the bottom of Bikini Atoll following Operation Crossroads, I had had a fascinating job in the staff of The Commandant of The First Naval District in Boston. My job was to organize The Submarine Reserve for the District. It was Saturdays, Sundays, and nights selling and organizing. It was very successful. After nine months I was further delighted to be ordered to a three year Post Graduate Course in the Sciences which I had recommended after reaching a consensus among a group of scientists I had met during Crossroads. On completion of that course I was assigned to the Staff of Joint Task Force One in Washington. The function of the Task Force was to plan and execute the tests on nuclear and thermonuclear weapons. Those were dynamic times. My job was to plan for the radioactive safety of the operations. Once that had been done, the job became boring and when Lieutenant General Quesada, USAF, brought in an old golfing buddy of his, an Army medical major general, I felt free to request return to submarines.
TRUTTA was a beautifully preserved boat in the Reserve Fleet, and my Executive Officer was Lieutenant Commander W.R. Anderson who had been Chief Engineer as she was preserved! He was so remarkable that I missed no opportunity to forward his career. He was made Exec of one of the fast attack boats and was the first Captain who took NAUTILUS on the first trip to the North Pole! He then became Aide to The Secretary of the Navy, and later Congressman.
TRUTTA was a school boat for the Submarine School, pretty routine operations. I suggested that since WWII troubles had been caused by inadequate testing of torpedoes; we test them in the present condition. Some Bureau people objected but I was relieved that COMSUBLANT put the pressure on. Black Thursday occurred when the Mk 14 failed to detonate on hitting an island. It turned out that the filling of the warhead with Torpex had been done at a different angle! I then suggested that all the other weapons be tested. This was interesting to do; they all worked. Since a study of the effectiveness of mines in WWII showed, surprisingly, they were about as effective as torpedoes, I suggested that we see what we could learn from some practice plants. We made about 20 field plants and became good at it. It’s hard dangerous work. The main thing coming out of this was an idea further developed by Vitro Corporation which would enable a submarine to plant 300 instead of 30 mines.
The waters around New London are often covered by thick fogs. During these, school boat activity was suspended. This seemed to me a mistake. We had fine radars adequate to navigate in fog. So TR UTT A ignored fog. I felt it was important to tactical ability. The nuclear boats would Fly Blind.
There were a few fleet exercises; the carriers usually being kept well clear of the submarine. What many considered boring exercises were acting as ASW targets for destroyers in Guantanamo, Cuba. Usually two or three destroyers acting as a team would try to hold down a submarine while making simulated depth charge, or other kinds, of attacks. We knew this was an important service we were rendering. It had become routine. Bill Anderson and I noticed that the destroyers did not consider themselves threatened. If two or three could pass over the submarine frequently enough, the sub would not have enough time to come to periscope depth for a periscope attack. So we decided to see what we could do using sonar only. We had a JT sonar, accurate enough in bearing, providing no range information. We had a JK-QB sonar to provide range without adequate bearing accuracy.
We had the Mk 4 torpedo data computer into which the proper range and bearing and target course information could produce a firing solution. It did not have the rate control type of computation which I had used in the Mk 38 anti-aircraft director in carriers. In those, feeding in new information led automatically to correct solutions. Bill and I thought we might be able to use what we had for sonar-only torpedo shots. We spent hours practicing the calculations while evading attacks in various ways. We became sure that we could do it and asked COMSUBLANT for permission to use 10 practice Mk 14 torpedoes. He approved. The next day was a planning meeting with the Destroyer Squadron Conunanders; I told them I thought we could improve our service to them by shooting; I did not tell them how. All were dubious. I said that I realized that recovery of the torpedoes was disruptive, and therefore, that I was asking to use only two the first day. I asked further, that one of my crew be allowed to ride each of the DDs so we could learn better how to serve them.
The next day’s exercise started about 0900. About 1030, there were two DDs working hold down tactics when the perfect solution was achieved. Within one minute a torpedo had passed under the smoke stack of each attacker. There had been a squadron commander on each destroyer, and on the way back to port we were invited to the Officer’s Club bar and not allowed to pay. The rest of the torpedoes provided the same successes. I wrote this up as a suggested routine submarine exercise I wrote letters to BuShips and Buord suggesting that the next torpedo data computer include the rate control solution feature. I recommended that the next sonar include the scanning in all direction feature, like a radar PPI.
In 1952 my next command was HARDER (SS 568), one of the new fast attack submarines which were an effort to apply the lessons of WWII. With snorkel, much faster and more maneuverable and deeper diving, HARDER had the much improved Mk 10 torpedo data computer with rate control; the BQS-10 sonar was a scanning type but of limited range. So dog fighting improvement was marginal. There were so many problems with engines that tactical development suffered. Some interesting barrier tactics were tried. The original plan for the Mk 10 TDC was that the amplifiers would be sent back to the factory for repair. When that system bogged down I had our fire control technicians taught how to repair them and ordered dental tools for them to work with. I received an emergency warning from the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery about UNAUTHORIZED DENTAL WORK!
One remarkable capability HARDER had would have been war-winning in WWII. In that war, U.S. submarines spent weeks of each patrol searching for targets. No air search was available. Fortunately, Hitler’s stupidity meant that the Luftwaffe was prevented from helping the German boats. In the control room of HARDER, near the TDC and periscope, was a pair of radar consoles with PPI scopes two feet in diameter. On one of these, A, could be shown the output of the submarine’s SV radar or the output of the other console, B, which showed the output of a searching aircraft radar transmitted to a mast mounted antenna on HARDER. When a signal reached HARDER from the A/C, a pulse could be released from HARDER so that the position of HARDER could be shown in the A/C radar picture. This was not mandatory but did allow the picture on B to be seen on A as though HARDER’s radar had taken it.
On one exercise, HARDER was about 100 miles east of New Jersey and I could see the positions of about 50 ships along the coastal route as transmitted to us by a P-2V. What magic this would have been in WWII! When SEAWOLF came along in 1956, surface convoys were no longer considered the main objective and the device was not included. If the U.S. Navy in the future is faced with an enemy whose objective is to sink merchant ships, it would do well to consider this possibility.
After HARDER I was made OP365 in the Pentagon. This was an astonishing job; so early in nuclear weapon development, in fields so highly classified that I as a Commander had power far beyond my rank, and probably my wisdom. But that is a separate story. Next I got the dream job; to commission the second nuclear submarine, USS SEAWOLF (SSN 575). Much attention had to be put into the complex engineering of the power plant and the environmental controls. With a powerful new long range passive sonar and enormous mobility, I envisioned great dog fighting capability; but we would need a powerful scanning active sonar. The SQS-4 was the latest destroyer sonar and ideally suited to the job. So I requested that one be installed upside down on the bow of SEAWOLF. This was approved even though some old submariners were saying that a submarine that pinged was no longer a submarine.
Realizing that the pressures faced by the seals were much greater, some tests were run which proved improved seals would be required. At a large meeting on this subject, I mentioned that I had just read that Dr. Piccard in his bathyscaphe had solved the problem to thousands of feet and that maybe we should learn from him. The people from the Office of Naval Research latched on to the idea, bought the vessel and set a permanent world record depth in the Mariannas Trench piloted by Don Walsh and young Piccard. Work on the seals proceeded to success and as the completion of construction approached it was delayed by work on the nuclear systems.
This gave us more time to develop tactical expertise.
There was an excellent attack teacher at the Submarine Base; a facility in which submarine attack teams could realistically practice many forms of attack. Over a couple of months we used the facility more than all the rest of the Atlantic Submarine Force combined. I have mentioned how fortunate I was to have Bill Anderson as Exec in TRUTIA. I was similarly fortunate to have Jim Calvert and George Steele in HARDER; both went on to take submarines to the North Pole and retire as Vice Admirals. In SEA WOLF we were similarly fortunate in having Commander Robert Y. (Yogi) Kaufman, a tactical genius. He made sure that the attack teacher was well used most hours of the day. Instead of using many people, we used a sonar operator, TDC operator, diving officer, and acting commander.
Some months before, I had learned that the Navy’s newest super destroyer would be commanded by Commander Sheldon Kinney, a couple of years junior to me, who in WWII had commanded a DE which destroyed four German submarines in one afternoon. It occurred to me that interesting dog fights might result from a duel. My bosses agreed and arranged for it with his bosses. The duel had to be delayed a number of months, however, as our nuclear power plant was modified. During this period, SEA WOLF was in service rather than in commission. This allowed us to conduct sea trials and gain a lot of operational experience. We learned how to easily maneuver at full speed using 30 degree angles, how to reload torpedoes while so maneuvering, to determine range from bearings only solutions, and to use the active sonar not only to range but to determine course of target if within about 5000 yards. So when construction was complete and SEA WOLF was commissioned, we were ready.
By this time, the whole nature of the duel had changed; it was no longer just between SEAWOLF and the newest destroyer. It was SEA WOLF against 15 destroyers! I felt COMDESLANT had been very wise to maximize the participation of his force. I spoke to Captain Tom Henry, our wonderful boss who was N2/3 on COMSUBLANT staff, and sμggested that SEAWOLF use enough exercise torpedoes to simulate the sinking of every ship in the opposition. Admiral Warder approved. We loaded the fish and briefed the Admiral and the staffers who would ride.
I had decided for the first 100 simulated attacks we would not use the periscope but sonar only. The exercise was scheduled to start at 0700 about 100 miles south of Newport, RI. At exactly 0700 I announced by UQC (underwater telephone) our presence directly under the destroyer force flag ship, and ready to surface to board observers. This accomplished, the opposing forces separated by 10 miles before the scheduled start. This separation was useful to us in that it gave the sonar operators time to learn the so4nds of each target ship so we could be sure we had hit each one.
As the destroyers closed, each using his SQS-4, SEAWOLF ran deep to reduce opposition effectiveness. We used passive only to within about 3000 yards and then speed up to full speed in a climbing rum up to 100 feet which was the maximum depth at which a Mk 14 could be fired. In a period of about 20 minutes a torpedo wake was observed to pass under the stack of 10 DDs. In the confusion of all those SQS-4 sonars, it is not known whether SEA WOLF was detected at all.
My hunch that Sheldon Kinney would pull off some kind of surprise was confirmed when our sonar operators heard a helicopter in the operation. About mid day we were told to surface to change observers. We got rid of the next 10 fish the same way, making sure by sonar signature that we had gotten each ship. When we were headed back to New London, Admiral Warder seemed impressed that the periscope had been used only in surfacing.
In my writeup of the operation, I emphasized that further quieting of SEA WOLF would have increased our sonar effectiveness, and that a terminal homing torpedo of a 10 mile range would have made for a much easier slaughter. In this direction, SEA-WOLF did later participate in the evaluation and development of the Mk 37 wire guided torpedo. Before NAUTILUS or SEA WOLF had been completed, I had emphasized that stealth would be the most important characteristic of nuclear boats. “You don’t go deer hunting on a motorcycle.” Rickover hated to hear this, saying that quieting was as complicated as nuclear power itself. Other PCOs were emphasizing speed. Both were improved.
A couple of weeks after the operation, I was invited to lunch with Commander, Destroyers, Atlantic aboard his flag ship, the destroyer tender DIXIE in Newport, RI. With his staff assembled, Admiral Whitey Taylor said that destroyers were clearly faced with a serious challenge and he wondered whether I had any suggestions to make. I replied that I long admired the destroyer persistence and can do spirit which I observed as a carrier officer, gunnery school student, and submarine officer. I said that perhaps it was time to be a little less can do and seek various kinds of help. I mentioned SubDev Group, New London as an organization which had been a powerful tool in bringing various technologies to bear in submarines and suggested establishment of DesDev Group, Newport.
I further noted that for many years it seemed to be thought that any officer could just report aboard and function. I suggested that what might have been true in the old 4 pipers was not now, and that shore based schools be established for department heads and prospective commanding officers. These were simply what the Submarine Forces were now using. I suggested that certain negative policies could be beneficially changed. When I had completed my command tour in HARDER in 1953, I had heard that numbers of officers were reluctant to command destroyers because they felt they would be vulnerable to nitpicking criticism. I had asked the submarine detail desk for permission to command a destroyer, and it was granted. As I approached the destroyers detail desk, what I had heard about reluctance had been confirmed. My request was refused with the statement that I had already had more than my share of command. Accentuate the positive!
I suggested that just as qualified aviators wore wings and submariners wore dolphins, qualified surface warriors should wear an emblem. Just as pay differentials had proved useful in aviation and submarines, they might be useful in developing and keeping some skills, including command. I mentioned the importance of the attack teacher in submarine tactical development; a similar investment in surface tactics would be valuable. It could be made mobile in a van parked on a pier next to the using ship. Or one could be build into each ship. I’ll never know what the real effects of my efforts were, but I was pleased to learn how quickly the ideas were adopted.
Most of the tactical operations of SEA WOLF were not at pinging high speed but in conditions of maximum stealth in detection, tracking, trailing, and simulated firing at submarines followed by evasion. There were a number of fleet exercises in which we created havoc. The Laws of Lanchester define concentration as the characteristic of a military force which makes its power vary as the square of the number, not just the number. This is achieved with the necessary mobility and weapon range. I became convinced that nuclear submarines needed only some weapon improvement to achieve this. One might envision a WWII convoy of 200 ships with 20 escorts being attacked by 10 concentrating submarines. The escorts would all be killed in the first 20 minutes and the slaughter completed shortly thereafter.
Some interesting pinging operations were connected to my earlier service in carriers. During the Battle of Midway, I was radar officer of USS HORNET (CV-8) and officer of the deck when my old ship USS YORKTOWN (CV-5) was hit 17,000 yards astern. Shortly, her fighter planes landed on HORNET. I noticed a sense of excitement and then the 1MC loudly announced that Jimmy Thach was aboard! I knew nothing about him until an aviator told me that Thach had invented the Thach Weave which enabled the Grumman F-4F to defeat the Japanese Zero fighter. Respect for him among the flyers was close to worship. At dinner that night in the wardroom I was enormously impressed. He was a tall easy moving, extremely handsome man with a great low voice. A born leader.
While I had SEA WOLF, Rear Admiral Thach commanded Task Group Alpha, an experimental ASW task force containing a carrier, destroyers, diesel submarines, and a tanker. When I heard that he had requested a nuclear submarine, I requested the assignment. It was bitterly opposed by a submarine vice admiral but proved to be most interesting. A mast mounted radio-direction finder had been installed in SEAWOLF. Commander Task Group Alpha was surprised at how much we knew about his force by simple radio traffic analysis, without code breaking. This vulnerability, caused by the necessity to communicate by non-directional radio, was one I repeatedly tried to point out. A cruise missile could simply ride a radio bearing to target. We tried to use SEAWOLF as the pinging escort for the carrier. We proved that self noise at those speeds made us ineffective. Sonar improvements and communications problems would have to be solved.
We practiced passive and active trailing of submarines, passing off trail to other units. In one operation, Task Group Alpha was defending the U.S. from a snorkeling simulated Russian missile submarine headed for Norfolk. We were well positioned and fortunate to make early detection at about 20 miles. The intruder snorkeled about half the time which made care on our part important. I guessed that his cycle would have him passing our longitude during a silent running phase. I made a lucky guess as to when to start a pinging search with the SQS-4. We picked him up at 4000 yards. There were so many destroyer SQS-4s, he did not realize that we had him. I notified Thach that we had him at 4000 yards and that I would continue to track at periscope depth. He picked up on this immediately and sent every kind of plane he had to pass over us and to drop a hand-grenade-sized explosive. We could spot the bubbles up or down and right or left. Thach loved this! Later I caught hell from his Chief of Staff; we had grossly exceeded the fuel allowance for the operation.
I was a licensed private pilot when I was 15 years old. I had met Lindbergh, Ulm, and other famous flyers and was fascinated. About half way through the Naval Academy, I had almost joined the RAF for the Battle of Britain. Aboard YORKTOWN and HOR-NET I greatly admired the aviators. Yet, when I saw them, I saw 15 or 20 constantly under some boss. I think that when I learned that the submarine skipper with his 80 people went to sea, I was amazed to realize his boss had but a remote connection. He was the boss! So at the completion of The Battle of Britain, I had chosen submarines over aviation. The isolation proved to be true and much appreciated. It’s also true that at times as we waddled across the Pacific at 13 knots, I envied those aviators already back at the bar. When I retired in 1963 at age 45 I was exhausted and did not realize it. Because of my fascination and involvement in each and every technology, I had had a total of one month leave in the last 20 years of service. I still would have been delighted to start all over again to do aviation.