Naval Submarine League Symposium
June 16, 2000
It is true I dabbled in diplomatic waters for a few years. One of the pleasures was speaking to British audiences. Their ever-present sense of humor was a bonus. They don’t mind kidding themselves. But they can give as well as take. I was introduced at one dinner by a speaker who compared camels and diplomats. He went on to say that camels can work for a week without drinking, whereas he had known diplomats who could drink for a week without working.
I was privileged to represent our republic in Great Britain. It capped over 50 years in government posts. I still hold the belief that public service is a high calling.
Retirement requires adjustments, as many in this audience know. There are compensations. A friend of mine insists that with the passage of time I will have increasingly vivid memories of events that never happened at all.
This evening it is most appropriate to recall our memories both real and imaginary. We are celebrating the centenary of our beloved submarine service. It’s a moving event for many of us, as we honor all those personnel and their families, both past and present, who have participated in the molding of the world’s leading underseas fleet. As the younger people say “tonight we should let it all hang out.”
In this year-long observance, the nation will have an opportunity to reflect on the Submarine Force, it’s sacrifices, and hard earned triumphs over the last century.
I am convinced that the general public will, during this one year, gain more appreciation for the capabilities and possibilities of the submarine than in the last 100.
Earlier, Bill Smith paid our respects to the World War II submariners. I found it a gripping moment. My generation came into the boats just as the golden age ended. We worshiped those men who had brought the submarine into the frontline. They fashioned new and suitable strategies and tactics for the underseas forces and proved that it could harass an enemy thousands of miles from our own shores.
Their remarkable war record is well known to this audience and it certainly speaks for itself. By 1945 dolphin-wearers had carved out a significant and permanent role in the U.S. fleet. Above all, they gave us a warrior tradition of perseverance, courage and victory upon which all our future efforts could build.
In the post-war period submarine personnel continued the march. Some of the most dramatic technical advances in our nation’s history were pioneered by the submarine community. Deep water exploration, precise navigation and ballistic missiles married to a true submersible. This is world class stuff and wrote some of the U.S. Navy’s most glorious chapters.
The full Cold War role of our submarines has yet to be written, but it has been exceptional in every respect and as the symposium has made crystal clear, it is still evolving. I can add very little to the rich history that the active force is constantly compiling. They are worthy sons of their sires.
Speaking of sires, as I prepared my remarks, it kept coming back to me that we are celebrating 100 years of history. Yet most of the material I found was devoted to the last 60 years of the century. So if you will bear with me for a few moments I would like to focus on the early days of our service-the 40 years before Pearl Harbor. It is not a well-known story but it is an amazing one.
For centuries men had dreamed of probing the undersea world and some had in mind military weapons. The most well known in our country was the attack of CSS HUNLEY on USS HOUSATONIC anchored in Charleston Harbor. In the process the first rule of submarining was violated. Both ships were sunk.
During the late 1800s several European nations experimented with weaponizing a submersible with some success. The U.S. Navy, while mildly interested was stand-offish … “money was tight and emphasis was given to building capital ships”. That might sound familiar to some in this group.
In the United States two brilliant inventors, following different paths, designed military submarines-J.P. Holland and Simon Lake. The Navy in its wisdom, insisted on a series of competitions primarily devised to put off making a serious decision. Holland ultimately prevailed and in April 1900 delivered to the U.S. government its first ready-made submarine. It was given the imaginative name of USS HOLLAND and not surprisingly an accompanying number of SS-1.
She was 53 feet in length, 10 feet in diameter, displaced 63 tons. Her operating depth was 75 feet. On the surface she was powered by a 45hp gasoline engine.
Perhaps more importantly, a word should be said about the general climate. The New York Times reported that “HOLLAND may or may not play an important part in the navies of the world in the years to come.” The N. Y. Times was no better then at predicting than it is today. Within the Navy the bulk of the Officer Corps took little notice. They considered the whole concept as a nuisance or at best a novelty.
Fortunately, a small group did believe that the submersible had promise. One of these individuals was of high rank and rather well known, Admiral George Dewey who was also head of the General Board. He threw his weight behind the initial HOLLAND purchase.
Incidentally, the first CO of HOLLAND was Lieutenant H.B. Caldwell who had been an aide of Dewey’s. I often wondered if he was a volunteer. Caldwell’s son incidentally graduated from the Naval Academy, class of 1944 and served on submarines in WWII and the Cold War. He retired a Captain and today lives in Niantic, Connecticut.
When you think about it the U.S. Navy in 1900 had just finished 50 years of unprecedented change: wood to armor, sail to steam, etc., and had just prevailed in a major war at sea-the Spanish/American War. Now came two groups of upstarts (whippersnappers) demanding recognition. They had even more radical proposals-seaborne aircraft and submersibles. It was tough medicine for a service that was deeply rooted in Mahan and traditional surface-to-surface actions.
It’s interesting to note that USS HOLLAND preceded the first naval airplane by 11 years. But the romanticism of aviation exploits and the lack of a commercial usage for submarines stifled comparative progress.
Nevertheless, the civilian inventors and later the associated builders were aggressive crusaders. They saw submersibles as a niche market and a viable maritime weapon. They carried their case to both the Administration and Congress. For its part the Navy played a subsidiary role both in the design and in generating the necessary support. I have often thought the obvious difference in the amount of visual imagery between air and undersea combat capabilities also had an effect on general recognition of submarine potential.
We should give great credit to those civilians who were the prime drivers moving the Navy in this new direction. Not only Holland and Lake, but also Mr. Frank Cable, Holland’s confidant and economic advisor. I would especially include Mr. L.Y. Spear. He had spent 10 years as a naval constructor and left the Navy when a Lieutenant to join J.P. Holland’s submarine building company which later became Electric Boat. He spent the next 40 years overseeing Electric Boat construction. He died in 1942.
Given the lack of submarine expertise at the higher levels and the absence of any central authority for developing a mission or support structure, it is rather astonishing how many boats were built in the first few years. They were not ships but boats, since they could be carried on ships. Ultimately, the slang term was expanded to pig boats. I guess that was progress of sorts.
The first six submarines were characterized as A-boats. From 1903 to the early 30s the classes were designated alphabetically as A, B, C, D, E, etc. The letters were followed by numbers for administrative purposes. Each class, of course, was designed to increase modestly in size, speed, depth, crews and equipment carried.
The fundamental challenge was to expand and refine the Navy’s knowledge of submerged operations and to steadily improve the pig boats and associated equipment to prove they could be a viable weapons system. The technical problems were formidable: unsafe structures, unreliable engines, inefficient storage batteries, poor communications, inadequate optics, primitive metallurgy, poor construction techniques, and on and on.
The early boats were fickle mistresses. Breakdowns and accidents were a way of life. Major casualties were always in the back of everyone’s mind. Improvements didn’t spring full grown onto the scene. Most solutions came after hundreds of hours of trial and error-and there were lots of errors.
Added to this were rather trying living conditions. Space was severely cramped. Gasoline and later oil fumes were constant. Berthing compartments were unventilated and normally wet. Privacy was almost non-existent and the one commode was a fullview model indelicately dubbed the throne. Admiral Lockwood commented “that sanitation arrangements at best were meager and defied description.” That was a kind way of putting it. The boats were best known for their constant odors and smells. There was a great story about a skunk. It seems after one liberty-port evening, a sailor returned to the boat leading a skunk on a leash. The duty officer told him he could not bring the skunk aboard the submarine and the sailor asked “Why not, if other ships have mascots?” “It’s the smell” was the officer’s explanation. The sailor replied, “Oh, he’ll get used to it same as I did.” Then there was the canned food and Navy gasoline-coffee, black as a harlot’s heart, hot as hell, and strong as a cannon.
Complicating the picture-funds were always short. There were no senior officers with direct sub experience and no overarching organization to coordinate, prioritize, and fight for the needs of the boats.
Still, the real story was people. It took time to build a corps of people who were knowledgeable and dedicated advocates. It’s exciting to trace how that eventually came to pass.
Fortunately, the pig boats with all their faults, from the outset attracted a stream of young officers and enlisted with adventurous spirits. They were fascinated by the newness of the concept, by the technical challenges, by the ever-present dangers, by the camaraderie of small ships, and the opportunities for early responsibility.
They didn’t fully understand the future potential of their boats but they were enthusiastic believers. In essence they were a special breed just as they are today.
If you peruse the list of COs and wardrooms you can see that some healthy seeds were being planted. Ensign Nimitz took command of the C-5 in 1910. This was the first of his five submarine commands. Charles Lockwood’s name appears often-he ultimately commanded some eight different boats, including a captured German U-boat. These were only two out of a large number that reached flag rank and/or were later prominent in the submarine hierarchy, e.g., Nelson, Bingham, Whiting, McWhorter, Gygax, Munroe, Daubin, Fraler, English, Withers, Quigley, David Taylor, Lewis, Denfield, Whiley, Wilkes, Seyer, Murray, Will, Crawford, and Low.
Occasionally an individual or an unexpected event would intervene and assist in one way or another. In 1907 President T. Roosevelt rode an A-boat in Long Island Sound for a few hours, against the advice of his Secret Service. Shortly thereafter he recommended and succeeded in getting the first submarine pay bill. It called for $1 for each dive to a limit of 15/month. It applied only to enlisted men and spawned the phrase “a dollar a dive and six months pay if you don’t come up.”
The most important event of the early years was World War I. It provided the kind of cold water shock the Force and the Navy needed. There was little direct participation. Twenty boats were sent to Ireland and the Azores to assist the RN in harbor defense, hardly prestigious. But Germany’s U-boat exploits combined with some amazing British feats were a tonic for the whole community.
Money began to flow into the business. The O and R class boats were expedited and this fiscal spun ultimately led to the S class which was the top of the line until the middle 1930s. In 1917 the Secretary of the Navy (after the sinking of the F-4 acknowledged the need for more sophisticated training) authorized the establishment of a submarine school in New London-thus On-The-Job Training became the follow-on practical phase rather than the sole method of indoctrination.
U.S. officers eagerly read everything published on the German and British operations. More significantly, after the Armistice, Great Britain gave us six of the captured U-boats for study.
Above all, the war highlighted the need for central direction or a total submarine approach. Captain Thomas Hart (later Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet in WWII) who had no previous experience in the boats had been placed in command of those units sent to Europe. He returned a dedicated advocate for submarining.
In 1918 he was given responsibility for overseeing a total submarine program. This was a watershed step. The Force was coming out of the doldrums. Soon a broader and more meaningful vision of the future began to emerge within the community led by Hart. As he advanced in rank he remained interested and involved and influential in future submarine programs.
By the 1920s operating submarine officers were becoming more and more involved in specifying ship requirements and in every aspect of construction. For example, one of the most pressing challenges was to develop reliable diesel engines to meet the demands of long patrols without mother ship support. The Force began training its own diesel experts, even sending officers overseas to become knowledgeable on foreign developments.
In 1925, government yards commenced designing and building boats. Predictably, they were more responsive to the views of the operators than the civilian yards. This, in tum, precipitated a genuine schism between Electric Boat and the Navy which lasted for almost a decade. In that period the long-running problem of the diesel engine was worked out with General Motors and Fairbanks Morse. The dream of a long range boat at last became practical.
Another fortunate intervention, in 1925 Captain E.J. King was ordered to command the Sub Base at New London. He gained considerable publicity in subsequent salvage operations. In the process he became a staunch supporter of the undersea community -which was to last all his life. In 1927 he recommended a special device be designed to be worn by qualified submariners. Hence the Dolphins we wear so proudly. Aviators-eat your heart out.
You can readily see where the strong support for the boats by the leadership in WWII came from.
One other aspect of early submarine life deserves special mention. Submarines were not a top agenda item in the press or the public mind. except when a sinking focused all eyes on the underseas community. There were a disturbing number of these tragedies.
Such crises highlighted the risks of working below the surface and more importantly the character and resourcefulness of the men engaged.
Before 1915 there had been accidents, even deaths, but no sinkings. The age of innocence ended that year. F-4 was lost off Hawaii with all hands. By 1927 the U.S. Navy held second place in the submarine funeral cortege of navies with 146 casualties and 13 major accidents. The list of sinkings is chilling.
- F-1 rammed by F-3 off coast of California in 1915. Five men survived.
- H-3 stranded off California coast in 1916. No loss of life.
- S-5 in September 1920 off the Delaware Capes sunk in 170 feet of water. Remarkably, all hands escaped.
- S-48 on builder’s trials off Bridgeport. Connecticut in 1921 sank in 70 feet of water. After half of the boat flooded. Crew escaped through a forward torpedo tube.
- S-51 was struck by the SS CITY OF ROME on 05 Jun 1926 and sank off Block Island in 132 feet of water. Only five survived.
- S-4 was struck by USCG PAULDING in 1927 off Provincetown. Cape Cod in 300 feet of water. All 40 hands were lost. although some remained alive for almost 72 hours.
- USS SQUALUS off Portsmouth, New Hampshire on 23 May 1939 in 240 feet of water. Twenty-six men lost; 33 were saved.
Every one of these incidents high drama. Time prohibits reviewing them, but I found the S-5 rescue a miraculous story of great determination and resourcefulness by the crew.
She sank when the forward torpedo room was accidentally flooded preventing a successful surfacing. In a desperate move all the main ballast tanks were blown to bring the stem out of the water. The result was a 70 degree down angle with the nose stuck in the mud; 17 feet of the stem extended out of the water. The crew was literally walking on the bulkheads; the decks had become bulkheads. There were 34 men aboard, crowded into the after compartments. All kinds of problems were overcome but they were still trapped with no electricity other than flashlights. The CO, Lieutenant Commander Savvy Cooke, crawled into the tiller room with two chiefs. With a breast hand drill after 8 hours of exhausting effort they drilled a 3/4 inch hole through the pressure hull (3/4 inch). Several more holes were drilled and connected with hand saws and chisels. The effort produced a hole of 1-112 inches by 4 inches. It was large enough to push a stick with the captain’s shirt on it out of the hole. By then the main problem was putrid air and a lack of fresh water. After a painful wait, SS ALANTHUS, Captain Johnson, was attracted by the odd sight. The ship’s captain approached this small tower of Pisa in a row boat. Using the small opening the following conversation took place:
Johnson: “What ship is this?”
Cooke: S-5 U.S. Navy.”
Johnson: “Who is speaking?”
Cooke: “Lieutenant Commander Charles Cooke, commanding.”
Johnson: “Where is your destination?”
(Can you believe this??)
Cooke with disgust: “Hell by compass.”
Whereupon both laughed.
ALANTHUS, using hoses, managed to get pure air into the boat, and some fresh water. Also to remove some of the foul air. As other units arrived on the scene the small hole was gradually enlarged. The entire crew escaped through that small window after S 1 hours of ordeal.
It’s hard to overestimate the impact of these events on our history. First, every incident was an intense learning experience. A host of mechanical improvements followed every crisis.
Most obvious were the advances in submarine rescue and salvage operations. In 1915 there were no pre-planned procedures or equipment to deal with a boat on the bottom.
By 1939 when SQUALUS went down, specialized submarine rescue vessels were part of the Force. Admiral Momsen’s famous lung was standard equipment on every boat. All crews were trained in escape techniques. Escape training towers bad been erected at New London and Pearl Harbor. Extensive efforts were made to develop a rescue chamber. This effort was ramrodded by a Captain Mccann aided by A.I. McKee, an EDO, later to be associated with E.B. for years.
Incidentally, it is not well known, but over the inter war period seven enlisted divers were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor for their work on rescue and salvage operations. In fact a host of records for individual divers were set (depth, etc.). By 1940 the U.S. Navy led the world in deep water search and exploration. We have never relinquished that position.
Similarly, these events drew attention to the need for special bases and logistic tenders to support the operating boats.
Admiral Lockwood in his book Hell at 50 Fathoms discusses these disasters at length. One of his general comments is priceless: “Submarining, like other engineering progress, is a matter of trial and error, of learning by mistakes, mechanical as well as human. If we had waited for ultimate perfection to come from the drawing boards the fleet submarine that helped win WWII and the ballistic missile super sub that may prevent WWII would never had dipped keel into water. ”
One footnote should be included. The lost CO of S-4 was Lieutenant Commander Roy Jones. Mrs. Jones, who had stood by remarkably cairn throughout the ordeal, told the press that when her six year old son grows up she hoped he too would choose the Navy. Roy K. Jones, Jr. did; both the Naval Academy and submarines. Aren’t submarine wives the greatest?
Just as significant, these tragedies were media events and, in a bizarre way, inspired the admiration of the public for those who man submarines as well as considerable criticism of the Navy for neglecting these problems. It also brought home the risks and the fact that special people are required to do this dangerous work. Congress reacted similarly and became more receptive to handling submarine appropriation requests (although such sympathy was short lived-just as it often is today).
Taking a step backwards and looking at the period of 1900 to 1940 as a whole, it’s people that stand out.
It was not the golden age of submarining that was to come later. But although demanding, it was a necessary era. Those engaged directly didn’t always have a clear vision of the submarine possibilities and by 1940 many significant challenges still remained. e.g. untrustworthy torpedoes and a well thought out strategy.
Nevertheless, the flaws of those pioneers were strongly out-weighed by the virtues. From the outset capable people stepped up. Men of unbelievable determination and perseverance. In retrospect it’s incredible how many stayed the course-we were the beneficiaries. They were willing to take the high risks associated with this pioneering effort and no matter what the obstacles to build a viable structure for the Force. They were willing to devote their souls and talents to realizing their dreams no matter how blurred.
By 1940 there was a special command structure, an extensive logistics infrastructure. An all embracing training program, and a number of knowledgeable submariners ready to ascend to high positions. By 1940 the fleet boats, the best submarines in the world at the time, were coming out of the yards.
They gave us the one consistent thread that runs throughout the history of the community. The most priceless legacy those men left was a set of values for those who probe the depths that is still with us today. We should always pay homage to those men, e.g. Spear, Hart, Nimitz, King, Lockwood, Fyfe. Momsen, McKee, Mccann, Styer, Yarnell, and many besides naval officers. It can be truly said that our subsequent achievements rested on the shoulders of giants.
Put simply, over the last century, America’s submariners have risked, served, fought and on occasion died so that Americans might have a safer and freer life. In the process, they have given a full measure to the Navy, the nation, and the free world. I can think of no higher price.