Low Cost Submarines

By 1939, the state of the US Navy’s readiness was in question. The treaties of the past twenty years and the economic conditions had stunted the growth of the force that was realizing the threat of a two ocean war. The war in Europe had not reached its peak yet but the shadows of the First World War loomed large over the fields where millions had died. China was being pummeled by the Japanese Imperial Army and the lack of resources was forcing planners to look with great anticipation on their neighbors to the south.

The US Navy would be the force that would have to defend the far reaches of both fronts if the Allies somehow lost their fleets. In 1939, the French Fleet was still a powerful part of the allies and the Royal Navy was a global force that was being stretched thin.

But like any unknown, the Congress was worried that money was being spent on the right things. This is an interesting part of the testimony by Admiral Robinson and Senator Holman. Robinson was the Admiral in charge of the Bureau of Engineering. Even in the face of the declared emergency, the House had arbitrarily cut ten percent from the President’s budget.

Two items of interest: on page 75, the mention of a cheap Japanese submarine and the potential effect on battleships. Later in the same discussion, the role battleships would ultimately play in any future war.








Printed for the use of the Committee on Appropriations




THURSDAY, MAY 11 , 1939

Page 75


Senator HOLMAN. I understand , merely from some reading I have done — I do not know  whether it is authentic or not – that Japan is developing some submarines at the cost of about the price of an automobile, $ 1 ,000 or so, that go much deeper than ours, and carry two torpedoes, and so on. Is it possible that a torpedo from one of those low-priced submarines would wreck one of the big battleships?

Admiral ROBINSON. No, sir; one of them would not do it. Further than that, Senator, Germany is building a lot of those same submarines , but she is building them to operate in inner waters like the English Channel, the North Sea, the Baltic, and places like that. We shall not fight battles there; at least, I hope we shall not. I assume that we are going to fight them thousands of miles off our coast; and that type of submarine is no good to us. We have to have a seagoing submarine.

Senator HOLMAN. One more question: A previous commander of the Navy, so I was told by one Senator whose name I cannot recall at the moment, said that we should take our battleships and tow them up the Mississippi River out of harm’s way, and so forth. You probably know to what I refer.

Admiral ROBINSON. I have heard that statement a good many times.

Senator HOLMAN. Is that a correct statement?

Admiral ROBINSON. No, sir.

Senator HOLMAN. Or is it fiction?


Admiral ROBINSON. It is absolutely fiction. The thing that stands between us and a foreign foe right now is our battle fleet, sir. Some day we may find a different kind of battleship; I do not know; but at the moment there is absolutely nothing to take its place. It is the only thing that gives us complete security; and we shall make a great mistake, I think, if we ever let down on the construction of them.

Senator BYRNES. Is there any difference in the opinion of the Navy on that subject?

Admiral ROBINSON. I do not think so.

Senator BYRNES. On the part of responsible officials in the Navy Department?

Admiral ROBINSON. I do not think there is any difference of opinion at all, sir. There is a difference of opinion as to what kind of battleships to build, and what kind of destroyers; but as to the relative value of the battleship, I doubt if there is a single responsible official in the Navy Department who has a different opinion.

Senator BYRNES. Have you known any time in the past 20 years when, with a change in control in the Navy Department, there has been any serious difference of opinion among responsible officials?

Admiral ROBINSON. No. That has been a continuous policy.

Senator HALE. Even the air people agree to that.

Admiral ROBINSON. Even the air people will support that policy. Admiral Towers will support it just as strongly as I do.

Senator HOLMAN. The thought occurred to me that if the new bomb sight is effective

Admiral ROBINSON. It is effective.

Senator HOLMAN. And if the new explosive about which I heard the other day in the Military Affairs Committee is effective and safe for the handlers f it, that might change the situation .

Admiral ROBINSON. The point is, Senator, that there is always an answer to all those things. In the last war, of course, the submarine scared everybody to death, and it was not until that war was over that an effective antidote for the submarine was really discovered. If nobody had any aircraft except the enemy, that would be different. However, the other fellow has aircraft, too, and the result is that when the smoke of battle clears away most of the aircraft are destroyed. They destroy each other, and you have left your capital ships in control of the sea. It is the same way in the Army. You have to have your infantry. You cannot supplant it with anything else.

December 7, 1941

On December 7th, the Japanese attempted to use these low cost submarines. Over 20 submarines were part of the attack. Five of them – I-16, I-18, I-20, I-22, and I-24 – carried a Type A mini submarine on their decks. Shortly after midnight on December 7, when the subs were just 10 miles off of Oahu, they launched their mini submarines.

All of them were headed to a grim fate.

At 3:50 a.m., one of the subs was spotted by the minesweeper USS Condor, which then alerted the destroyer USS Ward. Ward fired on the sub a few hours later, hitting its conning tower and sending it to the bottom in the first combat action of the US’s yet-to-be-declared war.

At least one Type A managed to make it into the harbor. It attempted to torpedo the seaplane tender USS Curtiss during the air attack, but its torpedo missed. It was soon fired on by multiple ships and then rammed and sunk by the destroyer USS Monaghan after another unsuccessful torpedo launch.

Two Type As disappeared, and their actions during the attack remain unclear. The Japanese received a message that one of their subs had hit a US ship, and US ships at Pearl Harbor reported torpedoes being fired at them, but whether any of the submarines successfully attacked the US fleet remains uncertain.

Most of the battleships laying in the bottom of the harbor of Pearl would be salvaged. But that fateful day changed the course of Navy planning for all time. It is interesting to observe the technological advances being made in underwater warfare now. It will be interesting to see how those advances shift the way nations fight at sea in the future.

Mister Mac



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