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Mr. Messner served in DIODON in the fifties. He stays in touch as a Life Member of both the Naval Submarine League and US Sub Vets, Inc. He is an associate member of WWII Sub Vets.

What was the real ready status of the U.S. Submarine Force on 7 Dec 1941? Asked that question, a good guess would be an unequivocal retort in the negative-too few and too many obsolete boats would probably be the most common responses. That’s how I would have answered a few years back, but since then I have come to realize there were some very positive things happening to the submarine ready status which would mitigate my response today.

For a look as to what was evolving in the way of submarine technology prior to the onset of WWII, I chose the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 as the starting point. This treaty essentially was an arms limitation document between the United States, the British Commonwealth, Japan France and Italy. Its stated purpose included the wording “desiring to contribute to the maintenance of the general peace, and to reduce the burdens of competition in armament,” was drafted and ratified in an effort to curtail the naval arms race which was underway. The U.S., Britain and Japan all were engaged in major shipbuilding programs focusing primarily on battleships and battlecruisers.

The treaty established limits for each of the five participating countries on total tonnage for capital ships, and aircraft carriers. Capital ships were defined as a vessels of war whose displacement exceeds 10,000 tons, and carriers were ball-parked in the not to exceed 21 ,000 ton category. No other class of ship was specifically targeted or even mentioned. The treaty defined specific capital ships which were to be retained, e.g., 18 battleships for the U.S., specific rules for scrapping other vessels, replacement procedures and expected lifetimes of current inventory (mostly battleships) and to maintain the status quo on certain fortifications and naval bases. The treaty was silent with regard to submarines in all the afore mentioned categories, and was to remain in force until 31 December 1936. It was subsequently modified by the Treaty of London of 1930, and this time Submarine Forces were included. But before reviewing the Treaty of London and its effect on our Submarine Force, a review of the submarine status prior to 1930 helps set the base line.

R boats and S boats formed the bulk of the Submarine Force into the 1930s. Previous classes are not considered here as none saw combat service in WWII, however some 0 boats were retained for use as training platforms. The R boats were all commissioned prior to 1920. There were two classes of R boats, R 1 and R2 l. All 7 of the R-21 class were decommissioned in the mid twenties, but not scrapped. The remaining 20 R boats were in the active fleet in 1930. R boats were considered coastal boats because they didn’t have the range/endurance to transit the ocean and remain on station for any meaningful duration. Some R boat specifications which will be used for comparison purposes include: surface displacement, 500 -575 tons; length, approximately 180 feet; test depth, 200 feet; four 21″ torpedo tubes forward with 4 reloads. Three shipbuilders built all the R boats. Fore River and Union Iron Works used an EB (Electric Boat) design and Lake used a Lake design. The R boat procurement history is summarized in Table 1.

The R boat evolved into the S boat whose specifications were developed during WWI with the objective of having a submarine with longer range/endurance than the coastal R boats. What evolved was the S boat design with a surface displacement of 800 to 900 tons, length of approximately 225 feet, test depth of 200 feet and 4 torpedo tubes forward with 8 reloads. When all was said and done, however, the S boat was still considered a coastal boat. Six shipbuilders participated in building 51 S boats, all of which were commissioned by 1925. Of these, two were lost and three were decommissioned prior to 1930 leaving the fleet with 46 S boats going into 1930. The first three S boats utilized three competing designs. Fore River used an EB design, Lake used a Lake design and Portsmouth used a Navy design. Subsequently Lake and Portsmouth used the Navy design and all the other builders used the EB design. Table 2 summarizes the procurement history of the S boats.

World War I and the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 had a profound effect on the design of the next class of submarines, the V class. The treaty, as mentioned above, focused mainly on battleships, battlecruisers and aircraft carriers. But with the reduction/elimination of battlecruisers, the Navy foresaw a need for a replacement to cover the mission of forward tactical scouting. The answer was a long range fleet submarine with greater range/endurance than the S boats, i.e., ocean crossing capability. To accomplish this mission, the V boats were conceived.

Although there were only 9 V boats, they were divided into 5 uniquely different classes. The first was the VI class, better known as BARRACUDA, BASS and BONITA, SS-163 through 165 respectively. They were all Portsmouth built boats (boats is a term used interchangeably with submarine, a long established tradition) commissioned by 1926, and had the following characteristics: surface displacement, 2000 tons; length 340 feet; test depth 200 feet; 4 x 2 torpedo tube arrangement with 6 reloads; partial double riveted hull and a range of I 0,000 nm (nautical miles) utilizing the MBTs (Main Ballast Tanks) for fuel.

The next class was a one of a kind, the V4 class better known as ARGONAUT (SS-166), another Portsmouth boat which joined the fleet in 1928. ARGONAUT was specifically built as a mine layer and had the following characteristics: surface displacement, 2700 tons; length 380 feet; test depth 300 feet; 4 torpedo tubes forward with 12 reloads (4 external) and 2 mine tubes aft with 60 total mines; double riveted hull and a range of 18,000 nm utilizing the MBTs for fuel.

The third class, VS, joined the fleet in 1930, the year of the Treaty of London, and consisted of the NARWHAL (SS-167) built by Portsmouth and NAUTILUS (SS-168) built by Mare Island. Their characteristics included: surface displacement 2700 tons; length 3 70 feet; test depth 300 feet; 4 x 2 torpedo tube arrangement with 38 to 40 torpedoes (some stored externally); double riveted hull and a range of 25,000 nm with the MB Ts used for fuel.

Now, back to the Treaty of London of 1930. The treaty basically extended the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty with regard to battleships and aircraft carriers with the provision that no new capital ships would be laid down until 1937. It established a new I 0: 10:7 tonnage ratio between the U .S./Great Britain/Japan for destroyers and cruisers while granting parity in submarines for all three countries.

Specifically, with regard to submarine provisions, it established the following:

  • set maximum surface displacement on new builds at 2000 tons
  • allowed retention or construction of 3 submarines not to exceed 2800 tons (aimed at the Argonaut, Narwhal and Nautilus)
  • allowed retention of existing submarines not exceeding 2000 tons (limit was set high enough to allow retention of V l class, Bass, Bonita and Barracuda)
  • set maximum limit of deck guns at 5.1 inch caliber
  • set replacement age of submarines at 13 years
  • continued rules for disposal/scrapping of vessels
  • allowed retention of a number of submarines for targets, experimental and training purposes
  • set maximum tonnage of submarine fleet by 1936 at 52, 700 tons
  • restated international Jaw rules concerning submarine warfare and merchant/passenger ships

Now the Treaty of London, once it was ratified, forced the U.S. Submarine Force to address two major issues. The first was the establishment of a building/replacement program for aging submarines, e.g., the R boats and S boats, and the second was to initiate a scrapping program with which to bring total submarine fleet tonnage in compliance with the 52,700 tons limit. Drawing attention to Table 4 and the Commissioned/Active column, a rough calculation shows the fleet to already be at approximately 66,000 tons with the aging R boats and early S boats reaching replacement age.

To comply with the arms limitalio11 requirement, the U.S. embarked immediately on a program to scrap the decommissioned/obsolete submarines listed in Table 4. A total of 38 submarines were earmarked for scrapping. The T class, R2 I class and all but one of the 011 class were scrapped in 1930. The N class, K class and some H class were scrapped in 193 I, and finally in 1933 the balance of the H class and all of the L class were scrapped. The 0 I boats and the last 011 boat were identified as trainers and were not part of the tonnage limitation.

With regard to a building/replacement program, Congress was not swift to step up to the plate. No new construction was autho-rized in FY 1931 with only one currently on the ways (V7 -Dolphin). In 1932, the final V class boats, CHACALOT and CUTTLEFISH, were authorized. These hit the water in 1933 and 1934 respectively. Finally in 1934, a limited fiscal year building program was initiated authorizing funding for a maximum of six new builds a year. Most naval architects and decision makers agreed that the V boats were too big and cumbersome to be considered for the desired Fleet Boat design, but that was not even an arguable point as the treaty disallowed construction of any vessel over 2000 tons. So beginning in FY 34, the baseline design for what was to become known as the Fleet Boat was that of the Porpoise Class, SS-172.

From 1930 to the time the Treaty of London expired on 31 Dec. 1936, the U.S. had added the last three V boats, two Porpoise class, two Shark class and two Perch class for an additional tonnage of almost 12,000 tons. While these submarines were joining the fleet, eight S boats and one R boat were scrapped amounting to almost 8,000 tons. It appears the U.S. never got close to the 52, 700 ton limit set by the treaty, or perhaps they used some creative book keeping to show otherwise .

Table 5 summarizes the evolution of the Fleet Boat from the Porpoise class to the Gato class. Keep in mind that the authorization year established by Congress was one year prior to the fiscal year. This is important when looking at FY 41. Congress authorized 73 Gato Boats for FY 41. The authorization actually hap-pened in 1940 after France capitulated with the Nazis in June of that year. Congress finally got the wake up call thanks mainly to Congressman Carl M. Vinson who gave funding legislation a kick start in 1934 with the passage of the Vinson-Trammell Act and followed it with the Naval Expansion Act of 1938 allowing additional tonnage over and above the Treaty of London limits. This was followed by two significant building expansion programs in 1940 with the passage of the Naval Expansion Acts of June and July of that year. Vinson became known as Father of the two ocean Navy as a result of his efforts to bring the Navy up to a first rate force. (Now we know why a Nimitz class carrier was named USS CARL M. VINSON, CVN-70-in honor of a true visionary).

A glance at the extreme right column in Table 5 reveals a positive trend as a result of abiding by the conditions of the London Naval Treaty. The austere building program and its associated funding set forth in FY 1934 forced the Submarine Force to make the best of the hand they were dealt. It forced them to plan ahead and this resulted in planned upgrades and improvements every year with the benefit of not committing large financial expenditures to any one class until proven fleet worthy. A similar analogy occurred in the evolution of the nuclear submarine design during the fifties and sixties, i.e., the early classes were limited in the number of each class with known improvements incorporated in each subsequent class.

By 7 December 1941, the submarine inventory, in addition to the R, S and V boats mentioned above in Table 4, stood at 10 boats of the Porpoise/Shark/Perch class, 16 of the Salmon/Sargo/Seadragon class, 12 of the Tambor/Gar class, two of the Marlin class (coastal/training/experimental boats) and one Gato class boat, Drum (SS-228) built by Portsmouth Navy Yard. The status as of 7 December is summarized in Table 6 below. Before the year was out, three more Gato class boats joined the fleet; an EB boat -Gato (SS-212), a Portsmouth boat -Flying Fish (SS-229), and a Mare Island boat, Silversides (SS-236). 33 more Gato class boats would join the inventory in 1942 with Manitowoc delivering her first one, Peto (SS-265). The 0 boats listed were used as training boats and are included in the table for completeness.

Back to the original question, “What was the real ready status of the US Submarine Force on Pearl Harbor Day, 7 December 1941 ?” To fully answer that question, one last aspect of the Submarine Force status needs to be examined, and that is, how and where were the 112 active duty submarines deployed? Table 7 shows this deployment

The Atlantic Fleet submarines, mainly obsolete 0, R and S boats, were based out of New London and Key West with a few at Bermuda. The new construction boats, SS-207, 208, 210 & 228, were still attached to Portsmouth NSY and all destined for the Pacific. This left the Atlantic Fleet with only two new construction boats, MACKEREL (SS-204) and MARLIN (SS-205), both special purpose vessels. This dramatically and clearly indicated from where the expected threat to the U.S. was expected to emerge, i.e., the Pacific-which could only translate as Japan. In spite of the imminent threat of war with Germany, and top priority already given the Atlantic theater when and if that happened, naval and political strategists demonstrated by their action that submarine warfare in the Atlantic would be defensive, i.e., destroyers with ashcans and hedgehogs and ASW aircraft with search lights and bombs. Thus the offensive war utilizing the Fleet Boat would be in the Pacific.

Now looking at the Pacific and Asiatic Fleet deployment in Table 7, the five boats at Mare Island were there for overhaul, two from San Diego and three from Pearl. The main fleet had left San Diego in May of 1940 and by Presidential decree in July 1941 was to remain in Pearl Harbor. This left San Diego with only a few old S boats suitable for coastal patrol. All the newly constructed submarines were earmarked for Pearl Harbor or the Philippines, again, surely indicating where the expected need would be.

In light of the political climate and Japan’s aggressive territorial acquisitions in China and showing overtures toward French Indo China, CNO Admiral Harold R. Stark in October 1939 reinforced the Asiatic Fleet in the Philippines. He assigned seven Porpoise/Shark/Perch class boats to Cavite/Manila to augment the S boats currently there but depicting the sub fleet at San Diego and Pearl in the process. A year later in November 1940, Stark assigned four Seadragon class boats at the request of Admiral Thomas C. Hart, Commander Asiatic Fleet, again to the detriment of the fleet at Pearl Harbor. Finally in October 1941, Stark directed two Pearl Harbor divisions to be transferred to the Philippines. These divisions consisted of the six Salmon and six Sargo class boats recently added to the fleet. This brought the Asiatic submarine fleet up to six S boats and twenty-three new fleet boats for a total of 29-more than twice that of Pearl Harbor on that fateful day. As the CNO reported directly to the Secretary of Navy, Frank Knox, it clearly demonstrated the leaders of our country. both political and military, perceived Japan would most likely make her aggressive moves in Southeast Asia, not against Pearl Harbor.

With regard to Pearl Harbor, the total of submarines at Pearl shown in Table 7 may be a little deceiving. In addition to the 13 shown in the table, three Pearl boats were at Mare Island for overhaul, two were in transit from Panama via San Diego, and four were still at Portsmouth undergoing post commissioning shake-down cruises. This brings Pearl’s compliment up to twenty-two. The sub base at Pearl must have felt like they were the supply depot for the Asiatic Fleet, and from a parochial point of view, they were not happy about that role. But, be as it may, that was the situation of the Submarine Force on 7 December 1941.

Finally, in response to the question, “What was the real ready status of the U.S. Submarine Force on 7 December 1941?”, l think most would agree that we were not prepared in that we had insufficient quantities of modem fleet boats to cover all theaters, but what many don’t realize was that the modem submarines we did have in the fleet were positioned where the threat was highest, i.e., Southeast Asia. Finally, the frosting on the cake was we were prepared with the best possible design -that of the Gato class boat -and the good news was that the Gato design was in the pipeline and being produced by four shipyards. In spite of the restrictions imposed by the Treaty of London, someone in the Navy, Carl Vinson and other visionaries, had their head screwed 011 right and had the foresight to take advantage of the conditions of the treaty to develop the best possible design of the day-bar none. Bravo Zulu.


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