1917 – Submarines have many adventures (and so do Submariners)


“We need a bigger fleet”

“You’re going to need a lot more sailors.”

The war that had started in Europe in 1914 had ended up being a stalemate on land. The Germans were never able to get past their early gains without being pushed back. The Allies were also kept to minimal gains with maximum cost.

Even at sea, the powerful sea battles were limited to Jutland and some smaller sorties. Both sides decided that the best way to shorten the war was to starve the other side out. The British fleet was powerful enough to intercept and capture the shipping of neutral nations to such an extent that Germany and Austria were facing massive starvation.

The Germans had discovered early in the war that the idea of bigger and more capable submarines was a decided advantage in interrupting shipping. While that made capturing and retaining prizes nearly impossible as the war progressed, it added an element of fear and uncertainty. The rules were followed for a while until the British developed ships that were disguised as merchant but were actually raiders for the destruction of submarines. For that reason and for expediency in combat, unrestricted submarine warfare became a powerful weapon.

The problem with USW was that it enraged the United States. President Wilson had campaigned on the idea that he had kept the nation out of war in 1914. Despite that, American ships came under the gun when it came to operating in the war zones around the belligerent nations.

Letters of protest and threats of entering the war put USW on hold for a short time. But in February 1917, a decision in Germany had to be made. If unrestricted Submarine warfare was unleashed again, could the blockade force Britain to surrender before the US was able to declare war and send massive amounts of fresh and ready American troops to tip the balance? It was an incredibly risky plan, but German militarists firmly believed that they could starve Britain within six months, and the US wouldn’t make it in time. Ludendorff, practical ruler of Germany, made the decision, and in February 1917 unrestricted submarine warfare began.

The results were initially devastating. But the pivot to convoy systems was already starting and once in place, reduced the efficiency of lone wolf attacks. The infusion of American destroyers and escort ships also made a significant impact. The gamble was not allowed be unanswered.

April 6, 1917:

Two days after the U.S. Senate voted 82 to 6 to declare war against Germany, the U.S. House of Representatives endorses the declaration by a vote of 373 to 50, and America formally enters World War I.

America had not begun to mobilize before that time and despite the initial rush of volunteers, a draft was put in place to fill the ranks of the expeditionary force that did not yet exist. As it had after every conflict, America had allowed her military to shrink and atrophy. So, building such a huge force, including an expanded naval force would require time and effort.

At this point, submarine service was voluntary. It required men with technical skills or the ability to learn them in order to operate the increasingly complex machines. A quick expansion in the number, type and size of submarines added to the complexity. The introduction of diesel engines changed the knowledge and skill requirements for mechanics. Gasoline engines are very different from diesel engines so the older men needed some training and experience.

Since both the army and navy were being expanded at the same time, the pool of available men was going to have limits. Even though America had already progressed well into the industrial revolution where new machines were taking the place of manual labor. The country was still largely agrarian once you left the coasts. This meant that a lot of under educated boys from farms and small towns would have to be rapidly prepared for operating in a completely alien environment.

This was an article form the Washington Times that was probably written as a recruitment tool.

Destroyers Also Furnish Thrills for Sailors.


Machinists and Electricians Form Basis of Crews

The two types of navy craft which are absorbing popular attention are the submarines and their terrible missiles sped from ambush and the most potent foe of this type, the destroyers:

“Stripped hulls slinking through the gloom. Half guessed and gone again.”

And now that our own destroyers have joined those of our allies it is more than likely that much dramatic history, which will have its own deep interest for us, will soon be rapidly written on or about the waters of the North Sea and those of the English Channel.

The following story is an adventure of a submarine “somewhere in salt water. The vessel, which was at sea, picked up the smoke of enemy vessels on the horizon at 9 o’clock and at once headed for them. When he bad approached to a suitable distance the submarine dived and, by means of her periscope, soon was able to see that the enemy vessels comprised a squadron of ten ships of the line and torpedo boats. To prevent the enemy seeing the periscope the commander of the submarine decided to steer to the port aide of the squadron, where he would be between the enemy and the light.

Decides on Frontal Attack.

At the same time, knowing the enemy torpedo boats train special explosive contrivances for the destruction of submarines, the commander decided to make a frontal attack on the squadron and steered a corresponding course. Keeping her periscope above water, the submarine approached the torpedo boat leading the right column and passed at its port side at a distance of between forty-five and sixty yards, still keeping her periscope six inches above water. The torpedo boat either did not perceive the submarine or perceived her too late, for it stood on Its course.

Wishing to operate outside the line of torpedo boats, the submarine drew to the left, under the prow of the second torpedo boat, and in order to avoid a collision sank to a depth of fifty feet. At this depth the crew of the submarine distinctly heard the noise made by the screws of the warship. At a depth of thirty-five feet the submarine raised her periscope, to sight on her starboard beam the ram of the leading warship, which was cutting across the course of the submarine at a distance of not more than sixty yards.

The commander ordered the submarine to dive, but before the vessel could submerge there came a terrible crash, the submarine reeling from the shock until she had been forced on her beam ends and in that position she was held as the long keel of the warship scraped along her side. The collision broke every electric bulb, plunging the submarine in utter darkness, and as the vessel went over on her side the crew were hurled from their feet and dashed against the side with a violence that stunned many into unconsciousness.

Cleared At Last

The keel of the battleship at last scraped clear of the submarine and the stricken vessel slowly righted. Then the commander, groping in the blackness for his diving gear, began to submerge the vessel to a greater depth. Suddenly came a loud explosion, one that caused the commander to suppose that the shell of the submarine, having been damaged by the collision, could not stand the pressure of the water and was collapsing. He therefore rose to sixty feet, but the sound of the approaching screw of a large vessel compelled him to dive again to depth of eighty feet. Repeated attempts to rise were In vain, because each time the submarine rose to fifty feet they heard the screws of the battleships and torpedo boats of the enemy squadron, which had broken line and were cruising backward and forward searching for the submarine.

It was found that the periscope had been wrecked and it was discovered that the submarine was taking in water so fast as to lose her buoyancy. To blow out the supplementary tank would inevitably disclose her presence, but there was no other recourse and the order was given. Fortunately for the submarine the darkness and the much churning of the water by propellers hid the uprush of air and its bubbles, and toward midnight the submersible rose to the surface, expecting to be shot to pieces at once, she found an opening in the enemy line, and, picking her way through it finally got clear after having been submerged for more than five hours.

The Sporting Chance.

Many stricture hedge about service in our own submarines. Those who are accepted for this service must be of the type who are willing to take a sporting chance.

There is no record of any sickness or ailment due to the sense of being confined in a submarine. This is not likely, however to occur with men of the type indicated. Members of a submarine crew cannot tell, after the conning tower hatches close, whether the boat remains on the surface or goes down 200 feet, except by looking at the depth indicator.

The selection for this service is very close. Everyone who serves on a submarine must be a highly technical and a highly trained man. Every man must be either a machinist or electrician, or a gunner’s mate for gun and torpedo work. There must also be a radio operator, in case the vessel carries wireless.

(Original Story from New York Herald)

The Washington times. (Washington [D.C.]), 16 June 1917.


Sailors don’t just grow on trees

I can only imagine growing up in the Midwest on a farm and finding myself in uniform surrounded by men from all over the country. Then having to learn a completely different language (military speak) and giving up the freedom that I had been given as a kid. What impression would they have of life on one of these exotic new submarines? How hard would it be to find the right men to man the boats?

In 1917, there was no television, broadcast radio to any large extent and certainly no other means of reporting the news other than newspapers. Movies were still in their infancy and the reading of books was a national pastime for those with an education.

The thousands of newspapers up until that point had published untold thousands of stories about the growth of submarines since 1900. So the public perception of submarines for those who had never actually been on one, probably had a Jules Verne quality. Not only had Verne’s book been widely read, but large circulation of parts of his book filled newspapers with syndications.

Submarines have many adventures

As I read the first part of the article, I was thinking about the reality of submarines encountering surface ships. One particular event came to mind because of the anniversary of such a meeting in April of 1981.

On 9 April 1981, George Washington surfaced underneath the 2,350 long tons (2,390 t) Japanese commercial cargo ship Nissho Maru in the East China Sea about 110 nmi (130 mi; 200 km) south-southwest of Sasebo, Japan. Nissho Maru sank in about 15 minutes. Two Japanese crewmen were lost; 13 were rescued. The submarine suffered minor damage to her sail.

Six years before that collision, I had been in the control room of the George Washington on a very stormy night in an area not far from there when the boat was pulled to the surface in the middle of a typhoon. It was the most dangerous situation I had been in up to that point and the thought of it being an adventure was the furthest thing from my mind. I am sure that if you asked any of the men on board during the collision, they would probably agree.

Yet I returned to submarines again and again after that trip. Since leaving the boats for another life, I can honestly say that I miss them greatly. I don’t miss the interrupted sleep or the irregular sailing schedules. I don’t miss field days and drills that came when I really would have preferred another few hours of rest. I don’t miss loading stores for a three month deployment in the torrential rain of Guam. And I really don’t miss working for days on a broken piece of equipment.

But I do miss the people. On the whole, they were the best and finest men I ever shared misery with while we were searching for those adventures. We were, after all, all in the same boat. We ate side by side in the closest of spaces. Our bunks looked more like coffins. Considering how many of us had to sleep next to torpedoes for part of our upbringing as newbies, those coffins were a real treat. It occurred to me one time as I looked at the coffin I was about to climb into how much I hoped the end came quickly if anything ever did happen to the boat. I used to dream about drowning or being in a burning compartment with no place to escape to. Then I would wake up and still be there.

The adventures we had at sea will largely remain secret as they should be. Younger men and women are out there now doing their own missions and discovering the same secrets we found out. The adventures they will have in the next port will also be added to their set of memories. Those will truly be part of the things they miss the most when they too get shoved, all too soon, back on to land. Submarines are for the young, after all.

Ask most submariners to describe the life and you might hear words like stress, pressure, loneliness, separation, anxiety, boredom mixed with terror, and on and on. But adventure?

There was a saying fifty years ago that Navy Recruiting used quite liberally. In fact, I had the bumper sticker in my collection for many years until it was lost in a move. It said these fateful words:

Navy: It’s not just a job, It’s an adventure.

Maybe at the fifty year mark, I am looking too far into the rear view mirror. After all objects do appear closer than they really are. But as a submariner, I can assure you that this is the honest truth!

Mister Mac


Submarine Qualified Until I Die


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