A Navy at war on two fronts: The Cold War and the War against unification
The fall of 1949 was a tumultuous time for the United States Navy. Harry Truman and his Defense Secretary were focused on the unification of all of the Armed Services in a move to contain costs and gain efficiencies. On October 27, the Chief Of Naval Operations firing was on the front pages of most contemporary papers. The Navy Admirals were in revolt over the killing of a super carrier and the shrinking of the Navy by their civilian masters.
Buried on page A-22 of the Washington Evening Star was a posting submitted by the Associated Press about an event in the Pacific. The Cold War was heating up quickly and the article must have shocked even the most casual observer. A missile capable of delivering an atomic bomb was about to be tested in the Pacific.
Evening star. [volume], October 27, 1949, Page A-22, Image 22
Subs to Launch Guided Missiles in Tests off Hawaii
By the Associated Press
PEARL HARBOR, Oct. 27.—
The Navy will show November 7 how atomic bombs can be delivered by submarines. It will be-done by launching 15,000-pound guided missiles—“Loons,” which could carry atomic warheads — from the standard fleet type submarines Cusk and Carbonero.
Pacific Fleet headquarters said the “Loons,” 30-foot-long improvement on the wartime German buzz bomb, will be fired by the two undersea craft off Hawaii. The missiles, electronically guided by the subs, have a range of 100 to 200 miles.
The demonstration will be “a very significant step in the exploitation of sea power,” said Comdr. John S. McCain, Jr., who has charge of submarine guided missile development. He added:
“The submarine, with guided missiles, has become a siege bombardment weapon and can be used to deliver atom bombs. The whole idea of using submarines to launch guided missiles is a long step toward push-button warfare.”
The Navy said submarines proved in the Hawaiian war games concluded yesterday that they can carry huge high-speed, long-range guided missiles across oceans in normal undersea operations.
For more than three years experiments and training have been carried on off Point Mugu near San Diego, Calif.
“Loons” fired by the Cusk and Carbonero will streak past a 35 mile column of 70 ships at a speed of 400 to 500 miles an hour at an altitude of 4,000 feet.
Will Fire at Missiles.
The warships, which took part in the Hawaii maneuvers, will try to down the missiles with antiaircraft fire. If the ships don’t get them, fighter planes from the carriers Boxer and Valley Forge will get a chance.
The Loon is an adaptation of the jet-powered V-l which the Germans showered on Britain in 1944. The flight of those buzz bombs, however, was not controlled by radio as is the Loon’s. The Loon is powered with a pulse jet engine.
The Cusk was scheduled to fire a Loon at Kaula Rock Monday as the war games task fleet neared Hawaii. The launching was canceled because the transport General Mitchell, eastbound from the Orient, entered the range area.
I can only imagine the dismay at the White House when they read the story
In the blink of an eye, a previously unheard of capability was suddenly revealed in a way that was probably not expected. I am sure from all of my research the Harry Truman was especially sensitive to the deployment of atomic weapons of any kind. After all, he had been the man at the helm when the only two war time uses of atomic weapons were authorized.
On the very next day, a rather strong denial and retraction were found on page A-3 of the Washington Evening Star:
Evening star. [volume], October 28, 1949, Page A-3, Image 3
Navy Officer Misquoted On Sub Atomic bomb
By the Associated Press
PEARL HARBOR, Oct. 28.—
Comdr. John S. McCain, Jr. was misquoted by the Associated Press this week in a dispatch reporting submarine-launched missiles could carry on atomic bomb.
The dispatch dealt with a Navy announcement of plans to launch missiles from two submarines off Hawaii November 7.
The Associated Press reporter, confronted with Comdr. McCain’s denial, today conceded he misquoted him. The reporter said:
“When Comdr. McCain finished answering questions concerning the plan to launch missiles from two submarines, he was asked if they would contain an atom bomb war head. I thought McCain answered affirmatively. I must concede I misquoted him.”
“The fact is.” Comdr. McCain said yesterday in his denial of the AP report, “I don’t know anything about the atom bomb. In my naval experience, I’ve never had anything to do with atomic experiments.”
Comdr. McCain is in charge of submarine guided missile development. What he said was: “The submarine, with guided missiles, has become a siege bombardment weapon.”
History will be the judge of what really happened during that 24 hour period. McCain went on to a very successful career (following in his father’s footsteps) and his son later followed.
But what about the Loon and the submarines that tested it? The rest of the story concerning this unique weapon is found in the book “Forged in war: the naval-industrial complex and American submarine” … Weir, Gary E.
On 18 February 1947 the Navy launched its first Loon from a modified fleet submarine of the Balao class, Cusk (SSG 348). Unfortunately, an autopilot, or flight-control, system failure caused the missile to crash 6,000 yards from the submarine. The Loon gave a much more successful performance on 7 March. According to the commanding officer of Cusk, Commander Paul E. Summers, “At the instant of release the Cusk had a one degree port angle. The Loon successfully gained its flying altitude and answered both right and left turn signals given by the ship as directed by NAMTC shore plot. Cusk lost the target at nine miles, due to poor radar reception.”” When the P-80 pursuit airplane proved unable to shoot the missile down, an internal, preset signal programmed before launch placed the Loon into a 30-degree dive, sending it into the Pacific from an altitude of 2,700 feet. If this short, flawed flight only demonstrated the excellent behavior of the missile at launch and in short-range responsiveness, the nearly perfect test of Loon number six on 17 March proved far more satisfying. Cusk successfully controlled the missile for 75 miles, when NAMTC took over guidance for the final 20 miles of the flight.
Mare Island Naval Shipyard converted both Cusk and Carbonero (SS 337) into SSGs to serve the missile program initiated by the Loon experiments. With the Guppy and Tang programs occupying most of the available talent and yard space at EB and Portsmouth, Mare Island took the lead in their conversion and construction. Initially only Cusk had a launch ramp installed on the after portion of the deck and received the missile guidance and control equipment. Carbonero received its launch ramp later, after spending time as a control and guidance ship. The limited range of the Loon, and later the Regulus, I made additional guidance ships necessary. The launch vessel would pass control of the missile to another submarine closer to the target, extending the range and increasing the missile’s precision. Mare Island fitted each vessel with a watertight hangar aft of the sail that was large enough to accommodate two missiles. Initially the volume of the hangar presented a stability problem. If it accidentally flooded, the submarine would have a difficult time returning to the surface. Thus BUSHIPS and Mare Island took great care both to reduce atmospheric moisture in the hangar and ensure its watertight integrity.
Although the weapon was never intended for operational use, experiments with the Loon demonstrated the feasibility of the submarine launching system. Before the Navy turned its attention from the experimental Loon to the operational Regulus I, the crew of Cusk could surface, rig, and launch the Loon in a mere six minutes. At the behest of the CNO, Loon launchings continued through 1949 to refine guidance techniques and investigate the tactical applications of submarine- launched guided missiles.
In 1949 the bureaus applied all of this experience to the design and production of Regulus.
The Navy survived the attempts by Truman and Johnson to dismantle it and consolidate it with the Air Force. While testing was going on behind the scenes, another infamous program was struggling to find a path in 1949.
Hyman G. Rickover of BUSHIPS Code 390, the nuclear power branch, approached Portsmouth Naval Shipyard late in 1949 about joining the effort to design and build the first of the Navy’s nuclear submarines. The burden of diverse commitments was simply too great at the time for Portsmouth, but Rickover would spend the next few years developing the programs that would make the Loon and its follow up system Regulus look like children’s toys.
A special thanks to the submariners who pioneered missile technology.