Editors Note: CAPT John Paulson USN (Ret.) submitted the following: While researching primary documents in the Navy Library regarding sub vs sub actions in World War I, a noteworthy article titled The Submarine Watch Officer immediately diverted my attention. The article details the foundations of many submarine practices, and the importance of documenting lessons learned from new technology, procedures, and practices. Many of the article’s lessons learned are now elements of well known directives. It also included reference to the submarine action I was researching.
The 1,894 word article is the original collection of submarine wisdom from actions in “the war” written by Lieutenant L. J. Stecher, USN and printed in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Volume 46, No. 6 of June, 1920.
It cannot be repeated too often that the object of military and naval training in peace time is to prepare for war. War is our harvest time, and whether we reap richly or poorly depends largely on the intensity and quality of the training undergone.
But no matter how thoroughly and conscientiously we may have trained for, and studied war, in peace time, its final arrival will always reveal many a new lesson. Every new battle teaches us something, and the benefits from this should be twofold. The mistakes we made should teach us how to avoid them in the future, and through publication should serve to guide others.
But there are always some weapons in the art of war which are a departure from anything used before. The men in charge of these are then pioneers in their line, and have nothing in the way of the experiences of others to guide them. During the late war the submarine, perhaps, fell into this category more than any other innovation. And on board the submarine, the latest product is the submarine watch officer.
In pre-war days, submarines were taken less seriously, and they seldom went to sea for a period longer than two or three days.Consequently, there was little necessity for any extra commissioned personnel to be used as watch officers. At the outbreak of hostilities, however, this was all changed, and many new, comparatively inexperienced, officers had to be ordered to this duty. Similar conditions will always prevail, and it is largely for the benefit of these inexperienced newcomers, that the following few remarks are set down.
The first thing that an officer must do when reporting to a ship for duty, regardless of the type of vessel, is to get acquainted both with the ship, and the officers and men. This is particularly true on board a submarine. Every officer must understand not only his own particular duty, but he must always be prepared to perform the duties of every other man on board. Unless he can do this, he is not a qualified submarine man. As an illustration of the importance of understanding what one is about, the writer will cite an incident that was very close to becoming fatal.
The U.S.S. A-5 was making a submerged run at various depths. The vessels of this class have only one main hatch, and the hatch is secured by means of a spindle clamp, which draws the hatch snugly against a large rubber gasket. The submarine changed depth from a periscope run to about 70 feet. At this submergence the great water pressure against the hatch compressed it tightly on the rubber gasket, and the spindle clamp became loose. An inexperienced reserve ensign in the boat saw the loose spindle, and, unobserved by anyone, tightened it. Then the A-5 started on her rise to the surface, the pressure on the hatch becoming less, the gasket exerted a large pressure on the spindle and stripped the thread. Water immediately rushed into the boat, and it was only by the greatest of good fortune that the vessel came safely to the surface. This serious situation was caused entirely by the lack of complete understanding of a submarine by this officer.
Among the first things any officer should master is the construction of the ship. It is well to obtain a complete set of blue prints, and to study these carefully. In this way excellent information can be obtained regarding the construction of the hull, the arrangement of tanks, the lay of the pipes, etc.
When you have carefully studied the blue prints, you should go into the boat and trace out as many of the pipe lines as you can. Be sure you are able to pump, flood, or flow any tank into any other tank, or overboard. Do not hesitate to ask questions about anything of which you are in doubt. The longer you are aboard, the more you will be expected to know, and the more embarrassing it will be to have some one discover that there are some things about your boat that you do not know.
Having mastered the construction of a submarine, it is well that you then study its propelling machinery. Every one should know in a general way the limitation of a battery and something about its care and preservation. In the Battery Instruction Book can be found some very useful information in regard to this. And as to the motors and engines, every one on board should be capable of operating both.
Then, having mastered all the foregoing, you are approaching the stage where you are becoming of some use to your commanding officer. He will assign to you some special departments, and about these you should know more than any one else in the world. A personal notebook containing memoranda of repairs necessary, etc. will be of great value.
Equally as important as a complete knowledge of your ship, is a thorough understanding of every man of the crew. An officer should know them all by name and take a personal interest in their comfort. Make them feel that you have their welfare at heart. You cannot handle every man in the same way, and unless you understand how to deal with each individual, you will have trouble.
With the foregoing knowledge well under way, you will be prepared to take a watch at sea. In the war zone, standing a watch on a submarine is a very responsible duty. This is especially true when there are hostile submarines likely to be submerged in your vicinity. As an example the following is related. The U.S.S. AL-4 was cruising on her patrol billet charging batteries, when on her starboard bow, at a distance of about 1000 yards, the officer of the watch sighted a periscope. He immediately made the crash dive signal and the submarine dived. Her hull had hardly settled below the water, when a torpedo from the hostile craft passed directly over her. Here the good eyesight, quick judgment, and proper execution of the correct procedure by the officer of the watch alone saved his vessel.
While on watch, you have under you the men on duty at the various stations. You should check the helmsman’s steering and require him to make a half hourly comparison of the steering repeater with the standard compass. The lookout must be alert and, above all, know what he is on the lookout for, and what this will look like. The men in the engine room you cannot personally supervise, but you should find out who they are, and who is in charge. Ascertain whether the radioman is on watch as required, and that he understands his duty.
Next there is the vessel itself. The submarine must always be in readiness for a crash dive. This will require a frequent compensation for oil and fuel used. You should require regular reports from the engine room, stating that this has been done.Remember which tanks have water, and how much, and which must be flooded in case of a crash dive. The torpedoes, being the submarine’s most effective weapons, should be kept in a condition most consistent with their preservation and quick use. Regular reports from the torpedo room should be made, to show that the orders of the commanding officer regarding torpedoes are being carried out.
In attending to these important duties, the watch officer must not neglect to keep in mind the correct set of recognition signals. In the late war, perhaps the greatest single danger to a submarine was the difficulty of quick and correct exchange of recognition signals between friendly ships. Many examples could be given, but the writer will relate but one that is from his own personal experience. It took place one stormy, dark night, when the visibility was very poor. While on watch on the U.S.S AL-1, cruising on the surface to her patrol station off the coast of Ireland, he sighted the outline of a submarine. To all appearances it was an enemy vessel. Immediately orders were given to get torpedoes ready and an attack was begun with full speed on the engines. Just before firing, however, a recognition signal was made, on the possibility that it might be a friendly boat. An immediate and correct reply was made by the challenged vessel and the attack was broken off. Had she delayed even so long as a minute, that minute might have caused her destruction.
A very important thing to observe is the constant readiness for a crash dive. Loose gear must never be kept on the bridge or on one’s person. The U.S.S. AL-9 was cruising on the surface in a very heavy fog, when the fog suddenly lifted, and a large German submarine raider was revealed not 500 yards away. The signal to dive was given and the vessel submerged. In going below, however, the officer on watch got his binocular strap caught under the conning tower hatch. As the hatch went under, a stream of water rushed in, and it was necessary to come to the surface again in order to clear the strap. During all this time, the German raider was dropping shells all around, and it was only by the very best of luck, and by the poor marksmanship of the Germans, that no shell found its way into the AL-9 and sent her to the bottom.
Then, when submerged, it is always well for the watch officer personally to observe any order to flood or blow being carried out. The AL-4, in the war zone, was saved only by the bottom of the sea from never seeing daylight again, simply because when the order to flood adjusting tank was given, the man, by mistake, took hold of the auxiliary tank kingston lever instead. Had the water been deeper, the AL-4 would have been lost. As it was, it took all the resource of the commanding officer and an hour’s hard work to extricate her from the mud and bring her to safety.
Every vessel has her own peculiarities in the submerged state. These you must study and understand, always endeavoring to maintain the ship at the proper trim. When running a listening patrol, frequent stops are made, during which the operator listens in. During these times care must be taken that the vessel does not acquire too much upward or downward momentum. As the depth changes the rise or fall increases and is much harder to check.
In conclusion, the writer wishes to point out to the new officers the great importance of absolute self-reliance. In a submarine the officer on watch is virtually the commanding officer, and on him directly depends the safety of the vessel and the lives of the crew. Emergencies will arise that must be handled immediately.There is no time to notify the commanding officer. There will hardly be time for thought. To prepare most efficiently for such emergencies, picture to yourself as many as you can, and decide what would be the proper procedure. If in doubt, ask your commanding officer. Do all this while off duty. Then when on duty keep always alert.