The Early Years
The Submarine Force Library and Museum originated at the Electric Boat Company in Groton, Co1U1ecticut in the early 1950s. Recognizing the lack of a readily available compilation of information relating to submarine history, the shipbuilder Electric Boat created the Submarine Library. Electric Boat acquired numerous books, letters, artifacts, manuscripts and other submarine paraphernalia for internal use. In 1955 the library was made available to the general public.
During the next decade the Submarine Library grew in size and stature. In 1964, Electric Boat could no longer support it and donated the Library to the U.S. Navy, whereupon it became the Submarine Force Library and Museum. The contents were then transferred to the New London Submarine Base and two class-rooms in the Submarine School’s Gilmore Hall were made available for display of the artifacts and library use. Commander I. J. Viney, the Academic Director of Submarine School, was given the additional duty as Head, Submarine Library and Museum. In early 1968 with Lieutenant Commander E. E. Williams serving, the title was changed to Director, Submarine Force Library and Museum and the position given department head status on the Submarine Base. Also in 1968, a five man Board of Advisors was created to provide the commanding officer with broad viewpoint counsel on the museum. The initial membership of the Board was Lieutenant Commander Williams, Chainnan, Admiral J. Fife; Commander H. S. Crosby; Conunander R. L . Miller; and QMCS (SS) J. Silvia. In 1969, the Library and Museum moved into more spacious quarters in Building 83 adjacent to Gilmore Hall.
In 1970, the Board of Advisors discussed the necessity for establishing a Museum Association to act as a depository for donated monies to support the Submarine Force Library and Museum. In November 1972, the Certificate of Incorporation of the Submarine Force Library and Museum Association Inc. (the Association) was signed by Admiral James Fife Jr., USN(Ret.); Vice Admiral Vernon L. Lowrance, USN(Ret.); and Robert B. Chappel. The Association is a tax exempt, non-profit organization, incorporated in the State of Connecticut. By June 1973, the Association was up and running with a set of bylaws signed by Admiral James Fife Jr., President; Rear Admiral David H. Bell, USN(Ret.), Vice President; Captain John K. Nunnelly, USN, Secretary (and CO of the Submarine School); and Captain John B. Hess, USN(Ret.), Treasurer. The principal purposes of the Association are to:
- Assist the Submarine Force Library and Museum in all its objectives and foster and perpetuate it as a medium that promotes historical knowledge of submarines.
- Stimulate among present and past submariners and the general public awareness, recognition, and pride in the role of the submarine in naval operations past, present, and future.
- Promote historical knowledge of submarines through the collection, preservation and dissemination of such knowledge.
- Assist the maintenance, development and expansion of the Submarine Force Library and Museum.
- Receive, hold, and administer gifts of any type or nature for the furtherance of the foregoing purposes.
With the Commanding Officer of the Submarine School (and subsequently the Commanding Officer, Submarine Base) always filling the Secretary position, the Association officers then provided the leadership and directed the Museum and Library Staff. Rear Admiral Bell took over the presidency in 1974 and for the next twelve years the activity was frequently referred to as Dave Bell’s Museum. The Museum Director’s position was filled by a series of very competent chief petty officers.
The world’s first nuclear submarine, USS NAUTILUS, was decommissioned in 1979, and it was decided to preserve her as a museum piece. By 1979, various groups were vying to have her homeported in different locations. There was strong representation to berth NAUTILUS at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The Navy finally decided to berth NAUTILUS at the Washington Navy Yard. Many in the Groton, Connecticut area, including the Association, wanted to bring NAUTILUS back to where she was built and close to the Submarine Force Library and Museum. Prominent in this effort was Association life member Frank Scheetz whose vigorous lobbying brought the issue to the forefront. Lieutenant Commander C. Robbie Robertson, a member of the Association Executive Board, was a close friend of Ex-Governor Jolm Dempsey and persuaded him to actively promote bringing NAUTILUS home to Connecticut. The then current governor, Ella T. Grasso, was a protege of John Dempsey and also a supporter. The NSL REVIEW editor, Jim Hay, was Commanding Officer of the Submarine Base at the time and had the pleasure of showing Governor Grasso where NAUTILUS would be berthed. Governor Grasso expended a silver bullet on President Jimmy Carter. Thus in May of 1980, the White House approved berthing Nautilus in Groton, overturning the Navy recommendation of berthing the ship at the Washington Navy Yard.
The White House stipulated that the federal government financial outlay for the project be capped at $2.8 million. Additional funds for the project would have to be raised by the state. Subsequently, the U.S. Government only authorized $1.93 million, the State of Connecticut put up $1.0 million, and the balance had be raised from private contributions. The Connecticut Nautilus Committee (CNC) with Ex-Governor John Dempsey, Chairman, and Jack Shannahan, Executive Director, was fonned to raise funds from the private sector. Fortunately, two members of the Association executive board, Rear Admiral Bell and Vice Admiral Lowrance served on the CNC executive committee. They convinced the board that the support facility for NAUTILUS should be expanded to include a new Submarine Force Library and Museum, which required about $5 million above and beyond the $2.9 million federal/state cap. The project went forward with the state loaning the CNC the money while the drive for private funds continued. The CNC raised about half of what was needed and the state legislature eventually forgave the remaining loan.
In 1986, construction was completed and the Submarine Force Library and Museum relocated to the new site, just outside the Submarine Base main gate. The Commanding Officer designated the Officer in Charge of NAUTILUS the Museum Director and the day to day direction of the museum shifted from the Association back to the Navy. To execute his responsibilities more effectively, the Officer in Charge and key assistants took over the limited administrative office space, displacing the museum and Association staff to the library. This situation coupled with the fact that 95 percent of the museum collection was in storage initiated the future requirement for more space.
The Association continued its supportive and advisory role. In order to raise more monies, it opened a small gift shop in what was designated as the Museum cloakroom. Under the supervision of Association Administrator, June Johnson, profits from the gift shop over the next decade enabled the Association to provide over half a million dollars of museum support and to significantly increase its financial reserves. With this financial support the Museum was able to access and display significant items of submarine history including a full sized replica of Bushnell’s TURTLE, the sail of USS GEORGE WASHINGTON, the mini-sub USS X-1 and the original propellers from USS NAUTILUS.
Co-locating the museum with NAUTILUS proved to be a huge success. The Museum became one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state with a visitation of about 280,000 per year.
The new museum is located on approximately 5 acres of federally owned land. It includes the Museum building, the Historic Ship NAUTILUS (SSN 571), a number of outdoor displays including midget submarines, a picnic area, and a 150 vehicle parking lot. A more complete description of the museum is provided later in this article.
After a decade of operating at the new museum site, the Association Executive Board reviewed various alternatives to aid the museum and library in meeting current and future requirements. Most significantly, a lack of adequate space permitted display of only about 5 percent of the museum collection. In addition, the library was overcrowded with administrative staff, and museum artifacts were deteriorating in storage in a dilapidated building on the base.
In 1997, the Board agreed to raise several million dollars and proceed with the museum expansion project. Executive Board member Dave Hinkle who was ably assisted by the all time great fundraiser, Vice Admiral Joe Williams, Jr., chaired the Capital Campaign steering committee. The committee met biweekly and brought on a full time Campaign Director, Jolm Demlein who skillfully administered the day to day campaign effort. Dave Hinkle persuaded Governor Rowland to provide up to $2 million of matching state funds if the Association could raise that much from private sources. The campaign raised about $1.6 million of new money, and the Association dipped into its reserves to make up the difference for the $4 million project.
Association Vice President Ray Woolrich chaired the construction committee. The Committee met weekly for about three years, planning, supervising, and shepherding the project to completion. The goals of the expansion project were to:
- Provide more artifact display space.
- Tell the submarine Cold War story.
- Create a first class research library.
- Provide climate control storage for perishable artifacts.
- Provide a real gift shop.
- Provide classrooms for educational events.
These goals were achieved. Another goal will be pursued when funding permits and that is to create a submarine experience in the museum theater for all visitors. The theater is built but the experience has not yet been developed.
Dave Boyd, the Association Executive Director, skillfully negotiated and executed the agreements between the Association, the state, and the U. S. Navy, none of whom talked the same language or operated on the same frequency.
The Museum Today
The Submarine Force Library and Museum is the Navy’s official submarine museum. The museum’s primary exhibit item is the Historic Ship NAUTILUS. The museum library serves as the repository for the records and history of the U.S. Submarine Force from its beginning to the present day. New books, photographs, and documents are being added daily. The museum is open every day most of the year. The library is open to researchers on weekdays. Both the library and museum are closed on Tuesdays during the winter months. With the expansion project complete, the museum has 9200 square feet of exhibit space, an 800 square foot gift shop, a 71-seat theater, a classroom, climate controlled storage, and a new research library.
Upon arrival to the site, the first objects visitors are likely to notice are the sail from the Navy’s first ballistic missile submarine, USS GEORGE WASHINGTON (SSBN 598), and a Polaris missile mounted just aft of the sail. Next is the anchor from a Sturgeon (SSN 637) class fast attack submarine.
There are several midget submarines, in order, from the museum entrance moving toward the river:
- Italian MAIALE, a WWil vintage swimmer delivery vehicle.
- A U.S. Navy Seal team swimmer delivery vehicle.
- USS X-1: Midget Experimental Submarine, originally designed to use hydrogen peroxide as an oxygen supply for the internal combustion engines, this submarine served in a research capacity in rigorous and extensive tests to assist the Navy to evaluate the ability to defend harbors against very small submarines.
- Japanese Type A: larger ships carried these short-range two man submarines to the areas of operation. They were generally unsuccessful.
Just prior to entering the museum, visitors will notice the two rings that represent the diameters of the U.S. Navy’s first submarine, USS HOLLAND, and the Navy’s largest submarine in operation today, USS OHIO.
Just to the left of the rings is a 5 inch/25 caliber World War II deck gun plus the hatch cover and upper portion of a Poseidon Missile tube. Finally, immediately to the left of the entry doors is a Harpoon anti-ship missile.
Suspended in the entrance foyer is a replica of Jules Verne’s NAUTILUS as depicted in the 1954 Walt Disney movie 20,()()() Leagues Under the Sea. The model was built by Dave Bishop, an early museum staff member. A mural, taken from an illustration in the first edition of the book published in Paris in 1870, graces the entrance wall.
Revolutionary War Through World War II
To the right of the main entrance the museum is principally devoted to the early history of the submarine from the Revolutionary War through WWII, although some post WWII exhibits are located in this section.
The left side of the main corridor contains three exhibit rooms. The first is a composite control room/attack center from Sturgeon class attack submarines and an early fleet ballistic missile submarine. The second is a recreated WW II submarine attack center with periscopes through which one may view NAUTILUS or the Thames River, and a short tape that describes a torpedo attack by a WW II submarine. The third room recreates a WW II submarine control room and includes a short tape that describes a submarine dive sequence.
The model wall on the right of the main hall, contains scale models of the major types and classes of submarines from USS HOLLAND (SS 1) to the present Los Angeles, Ohio and Seawolf class submarines. All models are built to the same scale, giving the visitor a real sense of the change in size and shape as the submarine has evolved.
The main exhibit floor is to the right of the model wall. It contains a variety of exhibits, including two mini-theaters, illuminated panels, large-scale display, and exhibit cases. Each mini-theater seats approximately ten people and shows a continuous program. Exhibit cases trace the world development of 18th and 19th century submarine inventors from Robert Fulton to Sweden’s 1886 NORDENFELT. An exhibit case titled “The U.S. Submarine 1900-1939” includes photos of John Holland’s earliest submarines, the sinking of USS SQUALUS, and the development of the fleet boat. Another case calls attention to the contributions of such pioneer developers as John Holland and Simon Lake, including pictures of submarines under construction and the shipyards in which they were built.
Illuminated panels depict submarine operations in the Pacific during WW II and measures used by ships to deter submarine attack. Another panel explains the role of the fleet ballistic missile submarine in providing strategic deterrence and national defense from the 1960s to the present.
Several large scale displays are provided; a full size replica of David Bushnell’s Revolutionary War TURTLE, a complete Mccann rescue chamber, submarine messenger buoy, a 20 mm deck gun, several torpedoes, a Subroc missile, and Polaris A-3 ballistic missile. Additionally several WW II submarine battle flags are on display.
The dominant displays of the second floor are a 50-foot cutaway model of the WW II submarine GA TO and a display of fifty-seven large photographs of submariners from 1900 to the present. The exhibit floor also includes the NAUTILUS room, which offers a splendid view of the Submarine Force Museum and the Thames River.
The Cold War and Beyond
The section to the left of the main entrance, added during the museum expansion from 1998 to 2000, is principally devoted to submarining in the Cold War and beyond. On the right side of the corridor the visitor will find “The City beneath the Sea” a lighted cutaway model of a Los Angeles class attack submarine built by Conunander Richard Alexander, USN(Ret). Various kiosks and displays tell the story of the submarine in the Cold War from strategic deterrence to antisubmarine warfare.
A missile tube section and missile tube locking ring from USS JAMES K. POLK (SSBN 645) are displayed near the entrance to the museum’s 71 seat theater. Exhib it cases depict the role submarines played in strategic deterrence as the most survivable leg of the strategic triad. A display case honors Vice Admiral Levering Smith and Vice Admiral William Rayburn, two pioneers of the fleet ballistic missile submarine Navy.
A large technology display rounds out the new museum section. This display depicts how submarines can now be used for a variety of missions from cruise missile launches, insertion of commando teams, intelligence gathering, and surveillance of enemy coastlines
The Historic Ship NAUTILUS
NAUTILUS is significant in submarine history for several reasons:
- It is the world’s first true submarine. Nuclear propulsion ended a submarine’s dependence on diesel engines and electric batteries.
- It is the first ship to go to the North Pole, achieving this goal in August 1958.
NAUTILUS is moored to the pier at the museum. Visitors take a self-guided tour of the ship and may use an audio wand that provides a description of major areas along the tour route. The tour route includes the torpedo room, wardroom/officers’ berthing area, attack center, crew’s mess, crew’s quarters, chief petty officer quarters, scullery and crew’s galley. Improvements are planned to the tour by adding foreign language capability to the audio presentation.
With the end of the Cold War, the Museum now has the opportunity, as well as the obligation. to showcase the extraordinary contributions of the Submarine Force during that volatile era of history. More importantly, advances in interactive multimedia education and in museum tradecraft have left the Museum’s mostly static exhibits clearly outdated in their appeal to today’s visitors. If the Museum is to remain a strong participant in America’s agenda of informed science learning, it must expand its educational experience and excite students and visitors of all ages and backgrounds about the application of technology to submarine construction and undersea operations.
The Museum staff envisions great things for educational improvements at the Museum, including many challenging and educational interactive elements. The following are examples:
1. An interactive buoyancy tank to enable a visitor to bring water in and force water out of a model submarine and change other factors that alter the submarine’s buoyancy.
2. A sonar room to illustrate how submarines detect, locate, and track other vessels and biological species.
3. What do whales sound like below the surface of the water? A school of shrimp? Another submarine? Icebergs?
4. Just how does a submarine navigate around the world for months at a time?
5. How does the ship make fresh water and oxygen?
Introducing these and similar elements is very much in keeping with the current educational goal of our country, to reestablish world leadership in science and math.
The need for creating a multiversional educational environment is also in keeping with this goal. In today’s educational environment students and Museum visitors alike have come to expect more. They need to be challenged. Interactive exhibits supplement book learning and personal experience.
What better way to learn math and science than by enjoying first-hand the submarine experience? And one can begin to appreciate just how far-reaching applications of submarine technology really are: nuclear power; precision initial, space-based and bottom contour navigation; atmosphere control; ballistic and cruise missile technology; sound quieting; smart weapons; underwater communications; and much more.
The library is probably the foremost submarine research library in the world and contains priceless documents such as the early inventors’ blueprints and World War II war patrol reports. These documents need to be preserved in modem media so they will be available for future research; therefore, the use of the library needs to be more aggressively promoted.
One of our goals is to make the community more aware of the treasure right here in their back yard. We plan to host various events for civic groups such as the Chamber of Commerce to enlighten more of our neighbors.
The Museum can add much to the weekend of a submarine veteran’s reunion. The museum staff has been most cooperative in support of social events at the museum, although the current heightened security has limited their flexibility somewhat. We encourage those planning a submarine reunion to consider the New London area. We can provide more fond memories and nostalgia than other venues.
The Submarine Force Library and Museum stands as a unique, nationally recognized institution. Today, as in the past, the Museum serves to educate young and old alike on the technology of submarine operations, on the contributions of the U. S. Submarine Service to the preservation of world peace and democracy, and on the significant contributions and skill of the men and women who made it all happen. In the future we hope to do it even better. We hope and believe that you and your friends will find a visit to the museum a truly rewarding experience.