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Mr. Merrill is a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW and is a published author of several books 011 the history of undersea technology. He is a retired engineer with lengthy experience at the New London Lab of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. He currently lives in Waterford, CT.

U.S. Navy and 20th CENTURY OCEANOGRAPHY: SUMMARY 1900-1960, Part 1 appeared in THE SUBMARINE REVIEW. January 2007.

17 Months before Pearl Harbor

In Months before Pearl Harbor In May 1940, Vannevar Bush, former dean of the MIT School of Engineering and then president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, proposed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt the concept of a National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) to coordinate, supervise, and conduct scientific research for war purposes except for flight. On June 15, 1940, the day after the fall of France, President Roosevelt signed the letter of appointment of the twelve members of the Committee and selected Bush as chairman. The NDRC was established June 27, 1940 under the National Defense Act of 1916. This was seventeen months before Pearl Harbor.

During the summer of 1940, director of WHOI (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute), Columbus Iselin and President of Bell Laboratories. F. B. Jewett, a member ofNAS (National Academy of Sciences), and a director of the newly formed NDRC, concluded that a way of predicting the performance of echo sounders (sonar) was essential and that oceanographers were best suited to work on the problem. NDRC initiated contracts with Woods Hole. Within a year the staff grew from 60 to about 300 with the budget increasing from $135,000 to almost $1,000,000.33 Iselin ‘s pre-war initiatives included collaborative efforts with U.S. Coast Guard oceanographers..

NDRC awarded one of its first contracts to WHOI to investigate transmission of sound in the sea. By October the Institute’s first year-round staff was brought together to work on that project and others. In February 1941, Iselin and Ewing completed the study and report, “Sound Transmission in Sea Water.”

It was “a treatise on a new and unexplored subject-submarine acoustics. Not only did it set down what was then known about the transmission of sound underwater (and this was later incorporated into manuals for sonar operators), it also pointed out what remained to be leamed.”34 At this time San Diego destroyer personnel were questioning the interpretation of how oceanographic conditions affected sonar performance.35 In addition to the sound transmission study, in September the Navy sponsored a two-year program at WHOI to broadly investigate underwater sound and its propagation over a wide band of detection frequencies.

A second NDRC contract with Woods Hole in 1940 involved the development of undersea instrumentation. Maurice Ewing, at Woods Hole from 1940-44, with others took over BT development and made it an improved and more efficient instrument.

Columbia, Harvard and California University Underwater Sound Laboratories

On June 27, 1940, the day the NDRC was established, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox asked the NAS to appoint a committee to advise him on the scientific aspects of defense against submarines and the adequacy of the Navy’s preparations. In late March 1941, the advice of the NAS committee’s findings, Colpitts Report, was brought to the General Board of the Navy. The findings quickly established the urgent need for broad scientific and engineering investigations to develop equipment and methods essential in submarine and subsurface warfare. An April 10, 1941 letter to Vannevar Bush asked the NDRC to undertake an investigation of submarine detection.

Woods Hole Institute of Oceanography WWII

Bathythermograph development for use aboard submarines

Investigation and development of Ewing’s “Sound Channel”

Studies to predict sea and surf conditions for amphibious operations

Studies of low level meteorological phenomena related to
aircraft carrier operations and laying smoke screens

Study of anti fouling paints and fouling organisms for the…

By July 1941, Columbia, California, and Harvard universities were under NDRC contract to immediately establish civilian laboratories “to function as centers for research on underwater acoustics and the design and construction of underwater sound equipment. The Navy had responsibility for all testing and development of such equipments and weapons.”37 The initial NDRC contracts and the follow-on negotiations covered the following four years of war.

At the end of WWII, in addition to the wartime technical contributions to ASW of the three university laboratories, some of the laboratory personnel became a core group of scientists and engineers that addressed the submarine problem (pro and anti) viewpoint at government, academic, and industrial activities. Pennsylvania, Washington, and Texas State Universities were some of the locations that continued pursuing the submarine problem. The New London and San Diego laboratory facilities provided the starting point for continuing civilian-led Navy R&D.

The Columbia University Division of War Research (CUDWR) primary site was a laboratory in proximity to the Navy’s Submarine Base on U. S. Coast Guard property at Fort Trumbull in New London, Connecticut. By 1944, the civilian scientific and non-scientific staff peaked at 330. In addition, 36 officers and 295 enlisted personnel were assigned to the laboratory primarily to man the assigned Navy test vessels. All the university laboratories had ships available to conduct sea tests.

Columbia University’s civilian scientific staff at Fort Trumbull grew tol30 by 1944. Engineers were predominant with physicists comprising about ten percent. About one-third came from colleges and universities and represented 25 states.

University of Cali fomia’ s (U CDWR) contract eventually brought a staff of about 550 to the Navy installation at Point Loma in San Diego, California to pursue antisubmarine research and development including projects on cavitation, attenuation, and underwater noise. Scripps Institution of Oceanograph (SIO), located fifteen miles north of Point Loma, provided several oceanographers to the new laboratory and the proximity allowed further cooperative efforts with UCDWR.

NDRC contracted with Harvard on June 5, 1942 and the Harvard Underwater Sound Laboratory (HUSL) began with the primary activity in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The staff peaked in August 1944 with a total of 462 and additional facilities including a field-testing station in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. F. V. Hunt, director of the Harvard Underwater Sound Laboratory 1941-46, originated the word sonar in 1942.

WWII Oceanographic Interests

Prewar oceanography encouraged work in all fields. WWII, with emphasis on subsurface and amphibious warfare emphasized physical, chemical and geological oceanography. Defensive and offensive warfare looked to oceanography for answers and direction. Navy support for WHOI and SIO escalated to resolve significant oceanographic problems. The normal summertime staff at WHOI at 60 increased to a year-round staff of 335; at Scripps and UCDWR the number increased by several hundred.

Sea Mines

Navies of the world were alerted to the value of sea mines beginning in 1904 with Japan’s successful use of fields of mines during the short Russo-Japanese War. In the much longer WWI, mines were broadly used in incredibly large numbers and in different ways. Gennany successfully mined and blocked the Bosporus during the Gallipoli campaign. WWI demonstrated mine ASW capability. During WWII, the mine was again an essential weapon.

Mines are a dual challenge. Planting them as a defensive measure and detecting and destroying mines as a protective one brings about a need for answers to oceanographic questions. Ocean bottom sediment knowledge is addressed when planting mines or when detecting or destroying mines. In the case of harbor protection, detecting their presence is the challenge. Information was needed to understand the bottom penetration of mines dropped by planes and surface ships. Further, what would be the impact of underwater currents and surface wave action on the movement of the mine? Could sediment coloration camouflage enhance mine performance? Oceanographers addressed and answered these questions along with others.

Harbor protection focused on passive detection of ships, subma-rines and weapons including mines. Detecting mines in shallow water required bottom sedimentary information. In support of Pacific operations in late 1943, Hydrographic Office vessels U.S.S. BOWDITCH and U.S.S. CAPE JOHNSON carried out dredging, soundings and BT profiles at all islands and atolls.

Antifouling Project

Improved marine paint from the antifouling paint research sponsored by the Bureau of Ships at WHOI cited above provided a great number of benefits during the war years. Fouled paint slows ships and increases fuel consumption. Fouling reduction reduces shipyard time. In addition to ship’s hulls, buoys, anchors, chains, amphibious aircraft, and ships saltwater piping systems also benefit. Later in reporting on the antifouling investigation the Navy noted …. project increased the overall efficiency of their ships 10% during the war years.”

Sonar Charts

At the beginning of the war, BTs were not available in great numbers and needed improvements, including a submarine version. To counter this shortage, WHOI and SIO created charts to aid ship’s officers and sonar operators in strategic locations. At SIO, extensive existing Japanese data regarding temperature and salinity of the near islands of Japan were used. At SIO and CUD WR sediment charts of eastern and SE continental shelves of Asia were created from 400,000 bottom notations based on Japanese lead line and bottom sampling data. At WHOI, around 60,000 bathythennograph records of shallow water profiles obtained in the North Atlantic were reduced to monthly charts of temperature to a depth of 200 meters.

Bathythermograph Development

During the war, the BT became standard equipment on all U.S. Navy submarines and vessels involved in ASW. Improvements made the BT capable of being deployed and retrieved from a surface ship moving at fifteen to twenty knots. Independently, Ewing at WHOI and Revelle at CUDWR at Point Loma developed slide rules for speed computing of echo ranges and making echo range predictions from BT data.

The BT for use on a submarine provided sound transmission and ballasting data. Initial production of BTs, BT winches and SBTs (submarine BT) took place at WHOI along with BT training for USN ensigns.43 Submarine Signal Company of Boston became involved in the production of the BT needed on destroyers, destroyer escorts, and some navy transports in addition to submarines. Oceanographers and physicists worked aboard ships and submarines in the training of Navy operators on BTs, sonar and other new systems and instruments.

Wave Prediction

U.S. military planning for amphibious attacks required oceano-graphic infonnation on wave and surf forecasting, beaches, shore-lines and coasts. In 1942, SIO was asked to study the problem of predicting surf conditions. The work supported Operation Torch, the trans-Atlantic invasion of Vichy French North Africa planned for October of that year.

At Scripps the useful concept of significant wave height and periods evolved. Oceanographers started by creating wind maps and observing the connection between wind patterns and swell size. By 1945, oceanographic and geophysics personnel had been consulted regarding the kind of landing craft and surf conditions best for making landings and securing beachheads.44 “If during the war, the greatest number of oceanographers worked to solve problems related to submarine warfare, then certainly the next greatest number were concerned with amphibious warfare.”

The Navy’s Hydrographic Office in 1943 was tasked to furnish relevant oceanographic information to military services in all parts of the world. In preparation for the 1944 invasion of Normandy, a network of 51 wave-reporting stations was established along the south and southeast coast of England. Similar steps were taken for the invasions of Burma and Indonesia.

A Sound Pipeline

At WHOI in 1942, Maurice Ewing with J. L. Worzel resumed work on deep sound channel signal propagation proposed by Ewing in 1937. Ewing correctly theorized that low-frequency waves, which are less vulnerable than higher frequencies to scattering and absorption, should be able to travel great distances if the sound source is placed correctly. Ewing theorized that low-frequency waves should be able to travel great distances, if the sound source is placed correctly. In analyzing the results of this test, they discovered a kind of sound pipeline, which they called Sound Fixing and Ranging (SOF AR), channel, also known as the deep sound channel.

An additional test was conducted in the spring of 1944 aboard the research vessel RIV Saluda operating in the vicinity of Eleuthera in the Bahamas. A deep receiving hydrophone was hung from RIV Saluda. A Navy ship dropped 4-pound explosive charges set to explode at 4000 feet in the ocean at distances up to 900 miles from the RIV Sa/uda’s hydrophone. The Navy ship’s operations were limited to this distance. Receivers located in Dakar on the west coast of Africa easily detected the underwater explosions at a range of the order of 3,200 km (2000 miles). Ewing and Worzel heard, for the first time, the characteristic sound of a SOF AR transmission, consisting of a series of pulses building up to its climax.

During the war, an application of Ewing’s deep sound channel involved setting up coastal hydrophones to listen for the sound bursts from small explosives set off by pilots downed at sea to provide bearings for their location and retrieval. It was not until 1947 that permanent listing stations were ready for use.48 Ewing’s deep-water channel discovery provided a basis for the mid-century Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) widely used during the Cold War.

Navigation System

A NOAA summary of electronics ( 1923-1945) asserts: “Perhaps the most important innovation to come out of the war, however, was the evolution of electronic navigation systems as an outgrowth of radar development. These navigation systems were used for precision aerial bombing navigation, but by the end of the war, both the British and U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey were using them to conduct hydrographic surveys.”49 It should be noted that the Loran radio navigation system developed at MIT during the war has also been cited as providing a significant navigational tool for the oceanographic community.

The oceanographic work at Woods Hole, the University of California Laboratory at Point Loma, Scripps at La Jolla, and Columbia University at New London, Connecticut heavily contrib-uted directly to naval warfare and also advanced the basic under-standing of the ocean environment. In addition, the participation of colleges, universities and industry should not be overlooked.

After WWII

Peace in 1945 did not end the Navy’s requirements for further information about the seas. Shortly after several years of an uneasy peace, international politics and technological innovations applicable to ships, submarines, aircraft, and weapons collectively brought additional high priority Navy oceanographic needs. Encouragement to continue advancing ASW tactics and systems was stimulated when the details of German submarine developments near the end of the war were recognized. Increased underwater submarine speed and the schnorkel provided new challenges with oceanographic implications. Interest in submarine operating depths of 1000 feet became a consideration.

The arrival of the nuclear submarine in 1954 followed by the Polaris submarines brought additional oceanographic questions to be addressed such as the global topography of the ocean’s bottoms, seamounts, maps of the sea floor, earth’s magnetic field, gravity, and bottom contours. By 1980, the Navy was spending most of $20 million on oceanography, an extremely expensive science as noted in FORTUNE of November 1980. The nuclear submarine’s operating depths and long underwater capability and a potential enemy with a long coastline on the Arctic Ocean made under-ice operations a reality with major oceanographic significance and additional oceanographic needs.

Research Support

With the end of the war, many marine scientists returned to prewar status at universities and private industry. Private science and government science boundaries reappeared. Fiscal support for oceanography or related research government support was encour-aged at oceanographic institutions. At this time, NRC, the active arm of the NAS, perceived a need to encourage continuation of wartime anti and pro submarine research by establishing a Committee on Undersea Warfare.

In the evolution of the place and direction of United States science research in post WWII, respected and successful wartime head of the NDRC and Office of Research and Development, Vannevar Bush, strongly advocated, “Civilian scientists should work in parallel with the military, but not within the Services.” Washing-ton took note of his discussions and writings. The two new government agencies discussed below in some ways reflect Bush’s views in their organization and goals.

The new Office ofNaval Research (ONR) established in August 1946 and the National Science Foundation (NSF) created in 1950 by an Act of Congress provided a national environment for the support of science in the United States. In t 949 prior to the advent of NSF, ONR was the principal supporter of fundamental research by U.S. scientists. This was in addition to its military research employing 1000 scientists at three naval laboratories.s• The successes of federally-sponsored oceanographic research and U.S. leadership that followed was due in part to government-university-industry relation-ships engendered by ONR and NSF. By 1969, federal interest and substantial support brought new oceanographic vessels, new laboratories, and universities and colleges having courses in oceanography.

Office of Naval Research (ONR)

Initially ONR broadly supported science. NSF’s creation in 1950 with extensive funds to support a variety of scientific endeavors caused ONR to focus more heavily on supporting oceanographic research. Three of the country’s leading oceanographic institutions (WHOI, SJO and Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory, founded in 1956) depended heavily on ONR support. ONR turned out to be an exemplary military patron of marine science research.

ONR addressed fundamental problems, basic and applied, particularly in physical oceanography and geochemistry. Support by ONR included academic research ships and development of new tools and instruments. Between 1946 and 1965, the Navy provided 80 to 90 percent of the funding for American research in oceanogra-phy. The breadth of ONR’s contractors’ autonomy is seen in an ONR 1959 contract with SIO that promised, “to pennit investigation of all phases ofoceanography.”

National Science Foundation (NSF)

Looking to the future, success in WWII from wartime scientific research indicated that continuing support for scientific research was essential to national defense and welfare. With the National Science Foundation Act of 1950, Congress established the Foundation as the role of advisor to the government to promote the advancement of science in all its branches regardless of its applications. It is the only federal agency whose mandate includes science and engineering research and education at all levels and across all fields. NSF organization was modeled after the successful ONR.

NSF has direct access to Congress for funds. The researching organizations contracting with NSF meet the criterion of not being subject to control or direction from any operating organizations whose responsibilities are not exclusively those of research.

The NSF assumed major federal responsibility for developing academic and institutional capability in ocean science research in the sixties. Ocean science programs were established at John Hopkins University, Texas A. & M., Oregon State, University of Miami, Rhode Island, and others. In the 1970s, the Navy in-house program had no fewer than 34 ships in its ocean science program with 18 academic and private institutions engaged in Navy-sponsored work.

Sputnik October 4, 1957

The success of Soviet technology’s Sputnik marked the starting point of a technology race for space with overtones for oceanogra-phy in the United States. NSF’S budget, growing slowly from its establishment in 1950, doubled two years after Sputnik. Two significant documents appeared during the two years post-Sputnik: the Navy’s oceanographic needs and goals were made known in TEN YEARS IN OCEANOGRAPHY and the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Oceanography landmark report OCEANOGRAPHY1960-1970. The NAS document assented to basic research, applied research and surveys. “The key to the growth of oceanography in the United States lies in basic research-research that is done for its own sake without the thought of practical application … ” Oceanography would be supported in the years ahead.

Submarines and Gravity

With ONR’s support between 1947-55, scientists participated in conducting regional gravity surveys aboard Navy submarines in a variety of ocean locations. Columbia University’s Lamont Labora-tory personnel rode more than twenty boats over the nine-year period on two dozen separate gravity cruises. Submarines involved included SEADOG (SS-401 ), BERG ALL (SS-320), ARCHERFISH (SS-311 ), BALAO (SS-285), CONGER (SS-477), CORSAIR (SS-435), DIABLO (S-479) and TORO (S-422).

A 1960 quote from director Maurice Ewing of the Lamont Laboratory ties the need for the gravity surveys to the newly-operational Navy submarine fired nuclear missile Regulus,” … These data are necessary for the precise direction of guided missiles. “56 Between the years 1952 and 1958 Regulus moved from experimental status to a fully operational weapon system. Regulus was installed on five missile submarines and eleven guidance submarines. During the Cold War years, the Regulus equipped submarines made more than 40 strategic deterrent patrols. With the advent of Fleet Ballistic Missile submarines in the 1960s, the Regulus submarines stopped operations 14 July 1964.

In 1995, the Navy declassified data concerning the earth’s gravity that had been held secret. The Navy launched Geosat in 1985, on a near-polar orbit at 500 miles, to survey the altitude of the sea surface all over the world. This data provides infonnation relative to sonar shadows and more importantly identifies gravity variations infonna-tion essential to the submarine’s staying on course while underwater and sailing blind. Most significantly, gravity information assists in setting an underwater-fired missile on the correct path to its target.


The first half the 20’h century gradually brought the Navy from a modest interest in marine science to a role in the last half as the primary supporterof oceanography in its broadest sense. The Navy’s surface and subsurface constituencies required oceanographic support to be successful operationally.

The U-boat’s success in WWI and WWII and its guerre de cours strategy contributed to the need for knowledge of the sea, the environment of submarines. WWII operations on all the oceans evoked attention to a variety of challenges in addition to those of special interest to submarines.

The 20’h century with its overabundance of maritime wars and technology explosions that never ceased brought attention, focus, and fiscal support to marine science. Oceanography brought together two somewhat disparate professional groups, naval officers and marine scientists. Navy interest was invariably practical and looked for answers to ship operation questions. Marine scientists aimed at a careful search for new scientific knowledge about the sea. Common understanding had to be found. Navy officers whose career paths included strong oceanographic interests aided the search.

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