In addition to being a Commander in the Naval Reserve CDR Grover is a Chief Mate in the Merchant Marines. He is the author of.five books of Naval/Maritime history and many articles in related journals. He makes his home in Napa, CA.
One of the little known aspects of early submarine history is the way in which the U.S. Navy’s primitive and diminutive undersea craft managed to travel to distant operating areas. Vessels of the A series, only 63 feet long, and those of the B series, a mere 82 feet in length, served as early as 1908 in the Asiatic Fleet, the Navy’s principal operating unit on the China Coast and in the Philippines.
Six of the seven-boat A series and the entire three-boat B series were assigned to serve in Manila Bay or Subic Bay as coastal defense, or, more accurately, harbor defense submarines. How they reached those distant locations is an interesting story, particularly in the way that the newly emerging technology of the submarine was nurtured at this critical point by another type of vessel of much lower technology whose prospects of survival had begun a downward spiral toward oblivion.
All of the A series submarines were built by subcontractors of the original John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company of New York. That company’s HOLLAND was the archetype, the first submarine in the U. S. Navy. Numbering and naming systems for submarines were pioneered within the A class, all of which were completed in 1903, with the A-1 being designated PLUNGER; the A-2 becoming the ADDER, etc. These submarines were built by the Crescent Shipyard of Elizabethport, New Jersey, followed by the A-4, the MOCCASlN; the A-6, the PORPOISE; and the A-7, the SHARK.
The intervening numbers, A-3, the GRAMPUS, and A-5, the PIKE, were built by Union Iron Works in San Francisco, California. Thus, the submarine construction program, although beginning on the northeast coast of the United States, was soon functioning on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
With this early construction program a sequential numbering system was also put in place along with the numbering within each type. The HOLLAND was SS-1, followed by the A-I as SS-2, A-2 as SS-3, etc. That system soon became skewed when, between the A type and B type, the 105-foot C 1 of 1908 was inserted with the number SS-9, so that system was never again a perfectly accurate measure of the seniority within the submarine fleet.
The B series came along in 1907. All three of the boats in this group were built by the Fore River Shipbuilding Company in Quincy, Massachusetts. The B-1 was named VIPER, the B-2 became the CUTTLEFISH, and the B-3 bore the name TARANTULA. The assigned successive numbers were SS 10 through SS-12.
It is interesting to observe that the naming system, as well as the numbering system, had irregularities at this early date. Although most boats were named after fish or seagoing mammals, three of the first generation submarines were named after snakes and another was named for a large spider.
When the Navy was ready to send the first submarines to the Philippines it cast around for a suitable type of vessel that might be used in transporting the submarines as deck cargo. As submarines, the vessels were tiny; as deck cargo, they were immense. The A type weighed in at 107 displacement tons, and the B type at 145 tons. No ship had heavy-lift gear that could accommodate that weight, nor did shore side or floating cranes exist in the Philippines which could lift that weight. So, a compromise was reached. The Navy would look within its fleet for a ship with ample deck space, upon which a wooden frame for the submarine could be built and from which the boat could be launched by gravity into the Philippine bays adjacent to the naval stations.
The type of vessel that best met this need turned out to be the collier. During the Spanish-American War the Navy acquired a large number of freighters to serve as coal-carrying replenishment ships to support the fleet, and many of these ships were still in service. Even though by 1908 the first signs of the superiority of oil-burning ships were evident, there was still enough demand for colliers that the Navy was planning the construction of 11 such ships in three basic types and sizes up to 550 feet in length. This group of ships would tum out to be the first and last ever built by the Navy for this purpose.
However, the new ships were several years away yet, so the Navy turned to its older colliers for a candidate for the first voyage to the Philippines with submarines aboard. The ship that was selected was USS CAESAR. This ship had been built in England in 1896 as the KJNGTOR, and had been acquired during the Spanish-American War. Eventually, when numbers were assigned to many of the colliers, she would become AC-16, CAESAR. During her early Navy service she proved to be a particularly sturdy and reliable vessel, making a number of trips to the Far East including one as a member of one of the great tandem towing jobs of all time, that of the Dewey Drydock which was taken out to Manila in 1906. There the drydock remained as a cornerstone of the Navy’s ship repair efforts until she was scuttled in l 941 to keep her out of Japanese hands.
In 1908 the first two of the submarines destined for the Philip-pines, the A-6 and A-7, were loaded onto the after well-deck of the CAESAR by means of a shore crane at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Contemporary photographs even show one of the bullet-shaped boats being lowered down onto four curved wooden chocks on the starboard side of the deck by heavy wire-rope slings, while the other boat already sits secure in its chocks on the other side of the ship, with the ship’s after mast separating the two.
Going by way of the Suez Canal, CAESAR and her unusual cargo reached Manila after an uneventful trip. The submarines were launched in early July of 1908. Photographs of the launching show the submarine in mid-air with the wooden cradle still attached, an indication of how the launch was carried out from a greased slide, utilizing strong horizontal and downward forces but no lifting.
A year later CAESAR returned with two more submarines, the A-2 and the A-4 which had been loaded at the Norfolk Naval Station. The four submarines now at Cavite on Manila Bay comprised the First Submarine Division of the Asiatic Torpedo Fleet. They were essentially day boats, with the crews living aboard other larger naval vessels. It would have been virtually impossible to live aboard because of the primitive facilities on these tiny boats.
In 1909 a Navy doctor on the East Coast spoke of the problems of trying to keep crews aboard these vessels: “One officer and a crew of 10 or 12 men had been living, that is, sleeping, cooking, eating and answering the calls of nature aboard each of these boats in addition to performing their duty navigating them. Being small, they pitch and roll considerably in a smooth sea, and about half the crew became seasick, due largely to the foul air in the boats; when the sea is moderately rough, practically the whole crew is seasick.” He went on to recommend that cruises be limited to 36 hours and that when not underway the crews should live on a mother ship.
The next group of submarines did not come out to the Philippines until 1913. In that year the B-2 and B-3 were transported on the foredeck of the collier AJAX, AC-14. This ship was another of the vessels acquired during the Spanish-American War. Built in Scotland in 1890 as SCINDIA, she was, at 375 feet, somewhat larger than CAESAR, but had a considerably smaller fuel capacity so she must have made numerous stops en route. Inasmuch as the Panama Canal was not yet open, the long voyage was again made by the Suez Canal.
The final group of submarines were taken to the Philippines in 1915. By this time, one of the new built-for-the-purpose colliers was available, the USS HECTOR, AC-7. After loading the B-1 at Norfolk, she apparently went through the newly-opened Panama Canal, and stopped at the Puget Sound Navy Yard where she loaded the two A type submarines which had been built on the West Coast, the A-3 and A-5. Apparently, these two boats had been stranded on the West Coast by a lack of a suitable collier to take them across the Pacific. The three submarines were subsequently launched from the HECTOR at Subic Bay in northern Luzon in March of 1915, and a second submarine division was constituted within the Asiatic Fleet.
With the Philippine squadron of nine submarines now assembled at Cavite and Subic, it is appropriate to look at the rest of the Navy’s boats to see what kind of progress they were making toward becoming true oceangoing vessels. The C-1 had ventured as far south as Guantanamo Bay in 1913, and eventually on to Panama during World War I. Two F-boats reached Hawaii in 1914-15, and E-boats and K-boats reached the Azores in 1917-18. L-boats, which were 167 feet long, were the first to cross the Atlantic during World War I, reaching the Azores, and then Ireland and England.
In the Pacific, K-boats were followed by the R-boats in reaching Hawaii and Midway during the war, but it was not until the S-boats well after World War I, that submarines finally reached the Philip-pines under their own power. Two submarine divisions made up of that type of boat went out in 1921 and returned to Hawaii and the West Coast in 1924. During that three year period the old A and B boats were decommissioned and used for targets, without ever coming home.
Thus, the story of the strange sea lift of submarines had come to an end. By this time the Navy was busily engaged in disposing of its colliers whose usefulness had ended in the post-war rush to oil as the fuel of choice. CAESAR became the merchant ship MOGUL in 1923, AJAX, which had become AG-15, was sold in 1925, becoming the merchant ship CONSUELO, while HECTOR had long since grounded and sunk off the East Coast in 1916 while still in the Navy.
The story has a happy ending in that the Navy had recognized that the submarine was an evolving vessel that needed constant updating and new challenges. It also recognized that the collier had special capabilities which had immediate use in developing the full potential of the submarine, even though these ships would soon be useless to the Navy in their original role. Before that happened, however, they were tried in one other sealift, this time carrying aircraft. They proved to be even better in this new talent than they had been at carrying submarines, and before long several of them had been designated as seaplane tenders. One of them, JUPITER, even graduated to an exciting new designation as the Navy converted her to its first aircraft carrier, LANGLEY. But that’s another story …
This cross-sectional diagram shows how the early submarines were mounted rigidly to a set of supporting wooden blocks which, when released, gravitated down a greased wooden launching ways inclined from the hatch coaming to and beyond the edge of the deck. Inasmuch as the colliers carrying the submarines had a full load of coal, the free board of the ship was only eight or ten feet, the distance that the submarine would drop in reaching the water. The bulwark around the main deck has been removed, and a supporting bracket added to the ways outboard of the side of the ship.