I spent a number of years in my youth living and sailing out of Pearl Harbor. The last time we were there was in 2003 and the changes even then were astonishing. Many of the old buildings were still there but a modern bridge attached Ford Island to the mainland. The Chapel at Sub base was closed at that time and the Enlisted Men’s club was on limited hours as well.
But no matter how long you are away, some memories come back and overwhelm you. The smell of the many flowers as you arrive at the airport. The breeze of the trade winds that mask the heat of the bright sun. And the feeling of an unstated collection of long ago spirits that traveled through these islands on their war to long ago wars. As you stand by the finger piers looking across at the shipyards, you can hear the hammering and welding of broken warships being readied for another battle. The sound of the liberty boat fills your imagination of so many trips across the harbor, stopping only for the raising of the flag each morning and the lowering each night.
The day you get orders to Pearl Harbor for the first time, your life is changed forever. You are about to become part of a legend. No matter where you travel in life, you will always carry that memory inside of you.
Pearl Harbor was originally an extensive shallow embayment called Wai Momi (meaning, “Waters of Pearl”) or Puʻuloa (meaning, “long hill”) by the Hawaiians. Puʻuloa was regarded as the home of the shark goddess, Kaʻahupahau, and her brother (or son), Kahiʻuka, in Hawaiian legends. According to tradition, Keaunui, the head of the powerful Ewa chiefs, is credited with cutting a navigable channel near the present Puʻuloa saltworks, by which he made the estuary, known as “Pearl River,” accessible to navigation. Making due allowance for legendary amplification, the estuary already had an outlet for its waters where the present gap is; but Keaunui is typically given the credit for widening and deepening it.
Naval Station, Honolulu” was established on 17 November 1899. On 2 February 1900, this title was changed to “Naval Station, Hawaii”. In the years that followed, dredging and building continued and eventually the idea of stationing submarines in Pearl Harbor was broached.
This is the story of the submarine base up until 1945.
Pearl Harbor Submarine Base: 1918-1945
From the Official US Navy Records:
Shortly after the Armistice of World War I in 1918, the submarines R-15 to R-20 were ordered to the Hawaiian Area, arriving early in 1919 to establish the Submarine Base at Pearl Harbor. Previous to this, there had been other submarines operating in the Hawaiian Area, for in 1912 four “F” class submarines operated from the site of the old Naval Station, Pier 5, Honolulu.
Their activities, however, were concluded when the F-4 sank off Honolulu. After this tragedy in 1915, the remaining “F” boats were towed back to the mainland. Shortly after these submarines left, four “K” type submarines and the Alert arrived, staying until after World War I started.
The R-11 to R-20 were ordered to Pearl Harbor in 1920 and the R-1 to R-10 followed in 1923. When the “R” boats, under the Divisional Command of Lieutenant Commander F.X. Gygax, arrived at Pearl Harbor, he found only one finger pier at the present site of the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base, and to this the R-18 was secured. This was the first submarine to moor at todays most modern and most complete Pacific submarine home activity.
The area chosen in 1919 for a submarine base was covered with cactus plants and algaroba trees, which had to be cut down before any buildings could be erected. When the land along the waterfront had been cleared, concrete slabs were poured into the region to support portable structures which had been obtained by Commander Chester W. Nimitz (now Fleet Admiral Nimitz), who was the first Commanding Officer of the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base. These structures consisted of old aviation cantonment buildings that had seen service in France. Meanwhile, tents had been pitched, and the base personnel used these meager furnishings for their living and messing needs. Two months after the arrival of the first submarine division, the base had a temporary mess hall; administration building; machine, carpenter, electric, gyro-compass, optical and battery overhaul shops. For general stores, a floating barge was procured from the Navy Yard, housed over and pressed into service.
In 1923, the first permanent building, still in use as a battery overhaul shop, was constructed with approximately 85% of the work being done by submarine base personnel. Living quarters for submarine personnel were improvised by utilizing the cruiser Chicago, later renamed the Alton, which was brought in and moored where the present day base’s largest pier, S1, now stands. A causeway was built out to her, and the cruiser’s topside was housed over to provide bunk rooms for submarine officers, while the lower deck was given to the officers and men attached to the base. Also, in 1920, another finger pier was constructed.
In the years that followed, peace time years, the temporary buildings were gradually torn down and replaced by larger and more commodious structures, some of which provided excellent usage during World War II. In 1925, the base had approximately 25 buildings erected and the Navy had already begun to reclaim marsh and swamp land in order that further expansion could be possible. During the same period, two more finger piers were built. In 1928, the largest building on the present day site, the main “U” shaped barracks building, was spacious enough to accommodate all submarine and base personnel and, as late as 1940, was still utilized for this purpose, other barracks not being necessary until shortly before hostilities began in 1941. By 1933, berths 10 to 14 on a long quay wall had been completed and a thirty ton crane had been constructed on the outboard end of finger pier number four. Also by this year, the submarine rescue and training tank, the enlisted men’s pool, the theater (built entirely by submarine base personnel), and the main repair buildings had been completed.
The Administration Building, housing the base torpedo shop in the main deck of one wing and the Supply Department on both decks of the other wing had been completed. Above the torpedo shop, was located the Base Commanding Officer’s and Executive officer’s offices. Shortly after the completion of this building, an officer’s quarters was built close to the Administration Building. Since there was now housing and messing facilities for both officers and enlisted men, the Alton was no longer needed.
From 1935 until the outbreak of hostilities, many other buildings were added to the base proper, the majority of them small in size and nature. In addition, with the planting of coconut trees, palms and other shrubberies, the Submarine Base became not only a place military in nature, but also pleasant in appearance.
December 7th, 1941
Fortunately for America, and conversely, unfortunately for Japan, the enemy neglected to strike at Pearl Harbor Submarine Base on 7 December 1941. Quite possibly this could have been by design since the Japs conceivably paid little attention to the comparatively small submarine force the United States had operating in the Pacific, the majority of which, incidentally, was operating in the Far East.
For whatever reason, no damage was done to the base and for this oversight the Japs were to pay dearly since it was the submarine force in the Pacific that, almost alone, carried the war into the enemy’s waters in the first two years of the war, a feat that would have been improbable, if not impossible, had it not been for the excellent repair and supply facilities afforded by the Pearl harbor Submarine Base before other advanced bases could be established.
On 30 June 1940, there were 359 enlisted men stationed at the Submarine Base with this number slowly increasing to 700 on 15 August 1941 and to 1,081 in July 1942. Rapid expansion of the base reached its peak in July 1944, when there were 6,633 enlisted men serving on the Submarine Base proper. These were the men for whom there was no glory but who, nevertheless, worked excessive hours no matter what their job in order that our submersibles might roam the Pacific in excellent fighting condition.
As an indication of the tremendous amount of work accomplished by the Pearl Harbor base, four hundred submarines were overhauled, refitted, or repaired during the period from May 1944 until July 1945. (This should not be construed as 400 individual submarines, but rather as a certain number of subs overhauled numerous times). This meant four hundred submarines prowling the seas, destroying Japanese shipping relentlessly through the sole medium of repair and supply furnished by one base. Truly, the enemy missed a military objective by blindly overlooking the Submarine Base on the day of the “blitz”.
It is not a debatable question as to which departmental function was the most important at the Submarine Base, since without one the other would have been negligible. To all go the credit for the tremendous successes achieved as the result of basing submarines at Pearl.
Under the Supply Department during a three month period ending 1 September 1944, the Commissary Department furnished $410,000 worth of provisions aboard roving submarines; and for the entire war, the value of provision stowed aboard operating subs totaled the tremendous sum of $3,680,296, a good reason as to why submarine personnel are the best fed men in the world. The Disbursing officer paid $33,363,305.23 in salaries to submarine personnel in the last two and a half years of the war in 1,144 individual pay days to submarine crews. Clothing and Small Stores, another function of the Supply Department, issued $916,519 worth of clothing to submarine personnel in the last year and a half of the war. Supply was, without a doubt, a major issue of the war.
The Ordnance Department, from the outbreak of war until the cessation of hostilities, overhauled 15,644 torpedoes of which 5,185 were fired by combat submarines with 1,860 torpedoes resulting in successful hits. A remarkable record and one which can well be shared by the shore based personnel of the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base.
The Engineering and Repair Department consisting of technicians and specialists of every description commenced their work on submarines days before the boat ever berthed at the Base. For as much as a week prior to each submarine’s arrival, plans were drawn up for the work to be accomplished on the boat. On the day of arrival, the submarine furnished the E&R department a complete list of “ailments” and on the following day an arrival conference between Base officers and Ships’ officers was held. At this time, a detailed plan of repair action was made while, even at that moment, work crews from the various shops were ripping apart faulty equipment for overhaul and repair. In the short two week period that the submarine remained at the Base, every department observed every derangement, large or small, and made corrections and repairs as necessary or else replaced faulty equipment. Engineering was a factor of no small importance in the winning of the war because submarines, returning from patrol, ofttimes had almost unrepairable damage. In the month of September 1944 alone, the Engineering and Repair Department refitted twelve submarines and made voyage repairs to twenty-five others, a feat not only never before performed but not even dreamed of in the past.
The Medical Department achieved miracles in the treatment and prevention of ills and diseases. Upon the completion of a war patrol, each submarine crew was thoroughly examined by especially trained and unusually competent Medical, Dental and Psychiatric Officers. Should it develop that a man had an ailment, no matter how trivial, he was replaced, treated and, in most cases, restored to duty on board operating submarines. Many a story has been told of medical corpsmen on submarines who have performed such feats as appendectomies and the diagnosis of diseases like spinal meningitis while on a combat war patrol. Many of these men were trained and gathered experience at a well-equipped and efficient Dispensary of the Submarine Base at Pearl Harbor. In addition, it was the Base Medical Department’s responsibility that all medicinal supplies and drugs were furnished each submarine prior to its departure on war patrol.
And there were other departments, the First Lieutenant’s men worked day and night loading or unloading submarines, maintaining buildings and equipment, patrolling the base during the war’s most security conscious moments, and furnishing transportation for men and equipment.
There was the Rest and Recuperation Annex to the Submarine Base, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel with its 425 rooms and housing capacity of 935 guests. When this entire space was not required by the Submarine Force, it was made available to aviation activities, small craft returning from advance bases, forward advance Marine units, and in some isolated cases, to battleships and cruisers.
Then there was the Chaplain and his assistants who offered counsel and guidance to war-weary and nerve-torn veterans of the war patrols. There was the Ship’s Service Department which offered everything necessary to life and comfort from phonograph records to the latest books and novelties.
The Pearl Harbor Submarine Base was not a base erected during the heat of battle. Its permanent foundations were laid down in 1919 and through the years of peace it became stronger and healthier. At the outbreak of hostilities, it was incapable of accommodating the ultimate number of submarines that were to operate in the Pacific, but never once did this Base lag in its accomplishments of sundry duties. At times, the output of work far exceeded that expected or thought of, but always the submarines based temporarily at Pearl Harbor between moments of combat had their slightest needs fulfilled.
Upon the establishment of the Submarine Base at Pearl Harbor, Commander C.W. Nimitz was the Commanding Officer, a duty he held until 1922. He was succeeded in command by the following officers:
Commander L.F. Welch 1922-1925
Commander F.C. Martin 1925-1928
Captain A. Bronson 1928-1929
Captain W.K. Wortman 1929-1930
In 1930, Submarine Squadron FOUR commenced operating in the Hawaiian Area, and the two commands were united with the following officers pursuing duties as Commander, Submarine Squadron FOUR and Commanding Officer, U.S. Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor, T.H.:
Captain W.K. Wortman 1930-1932
Captain H.W. Osterhas 1932-1934
Captain R.A. Kock 1934-1936
Captain R.S. Culp 1936-1938
Captain F.W. Scanland 1938-1940
Captain W.R. Carter 1940-1941
Captain F.A. Daubin 1941-1942
Captain R.H. English March 1942-May 1942
Captain J.H. Brown, Jr. May 1942-January 1943
On 13 January 1943, the two commands were separated, due to the tremendous work load required of each command by war time operations. As a result, Captain C.D. Edmunds relieved Captain J.H. Brown, Jr., as Commanding Officer of the Submarine Base, with Captain Brown retaining the command of SubRon FOUR. In turn, Captain Edmunds was relieved by Captain C.E. Aldrich, who served in that capacity from September 1943 until October 1944, when he was relieved by Captain E.R. Swinburne, who remained in command of the base until after the cessation of hostilities. However, the Commanding Officer of the Submarine Base continued to come under the Squadron Commander until, in October 1945, with the reorganization of the submarine force, he was placed directly under ComSubPac.