1918 – Born in the shops of the devil, Designed by the brains of a fiend; Filled with acid and crude oil, And christened “A Submarine.”

(Submarine # 40) In Bantry Bay, Ireland, with crew members standing in formation on her foredeck, 1918. Note identification code painted on her fairwater, with AL-1 standing for American submarine L-1 to distinguish her from the British submarine L-1. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

The small American submarine force was being sent to Europe to aid in the fight against the German U boat menace.

Before the war, submarines were still viewed as a novelty.   Germany changed this perception.  During the war, the U.S. Navy had 72 submarines in service.  The Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels granted a friend of his special access to submarines as well as the other afloat units that went to the war. He chronicled his observations in a book titled Full Speed Ahead (written in 1918).

The passages on submarines were especially interesting since it captured what it was like on these small boats as they made their way across the Atlantic to go to work. At the end of their story is a piece of submarine lore that still happens today: submarine poetry. Only from the mind of a submariner cold this poem emerge. I credit the air we breathe, the oil we are surrounded by, and the long hours of boredom surrounded by small moments of sheer terror.

From the book:


Tales From The Log of a Correspondent with Our Navy

By Henry B. Beston


These tales are memories of several months spent as a special correspondent attached to the forces of the American Navy on foreign service. Many of the little stories are personal experiences, though some are “written up” from the records and others set down after interviews. In writing them, I have not sought the laurels of an official historian, but been content to chronicle the interesting incidents of the daily life as well as the achievements and heroisms of the friends who keep the highways of the sea.

To my hosts of the United States Navy one and all, I am under deep obligation for the courtesy and hospitality everywhere ex tended to me on my visit. But surely the greatest of my obligations is that owed to Secretary Daniels for the personal permission which made possible my journey, and for the good will with which he saw me on my way. And no acknowledgment, no matter how studied or courtly its phrasing, can express what I owe to Admiral Sims for the friendliness of my reception, for his care that I be shown all the Navy’s activities, and for his constant and kindly effort to advance my work in every possible way. To Admiral Hugh Rodman of the battleship squadron, his sometime guest here renders thanks for the opportunity given him to spend some ten days aboard the American flagship and for the welcome which makes his stay aboard so pleasant a memory.



LONDON day of soft and smoky skies darkened every now and then by capricious and intrusive little showers was drawing to a close in a twilight of gold and grey. Our table stood in a bay of plate glass windows over-looking the embankment close by Cleopatra’s needle; we watched the little, double-decked tram cars gliding by, the opposing, interthreading streams of pedestrians, and a fleet of coal barges coming up the river solemn as a cloud. Behind us lay, splendid and somewhat theatric, the mottled marble, stiff, white napery, and bright silver of a fashionable dining hall. Only a few guests were at hand. At our little table sat the captain of a submarine who was then in London for a few days on richly merited leave, a distinguished young officer of the “mother ship” accompanying our under water craft, and myself. It is impossible to be long with submarine folk without realizing that they are a people apart, differing from the rest of the naval personnel even as their vessels differ.

A man must have something individual to his character to volunteer for the service, and every officer is a volunteer. An extraordinary power of quick decision, a certain keen, resolute look, a certain carriage; sub marine folk are such men as all of us pray to have by our side in any great trial or crisis of our life.

Guests began to come by twos and threes, girls in pretty shimmering dresses, young army officers with wound stripes and clumsy limps; a faint murmur of conversation rose, faint and continuous as the murmur of a distant stream.

Because I requested him, the captain told me of the crossing of the submarines. It was the epic of an heroic journey.

“After each boat had been examined in detail, we began to fill them with supplies for the voyage. The crew spent days maneuvering cases of condensed milk, cans of butter, meat, and chocolate down the hatchways, food which the boat swallowed up as if she had been a kind of steel stomach. Until we had it all neatly and tightly stowed away, the Z looked like a corner grocery store. Then early one December morning we pulled out of the harbour. It wasn’t very cold, merely raw and damp, and it was misty dark. I remember looking at the winter stars riding high just over the meridian. The port behind us was still and dead, but a handful of navy folk had come to one of the wharves to see us off. Yes, there was something of a stir, you know the kind of stir that’s made when boats go to sea, shouted orders, the splash of dropped cables, vagrant noises. It didn’t take a great time to get under way; we were ready, waiting for the word to go. The flotilla, mother-ship, tugs and all, was out to sea long before the dawn. You would have liked the picture, the immense stretch of the greyish, winter-stricken sea, the little covey of submarines running awash, the grey mother-ship going ahead casually as an excursion steamer into the featureless dawn. The weather was wonderful for two days, a touch of Indian summer on December’s ocean, then on the night of the third day we ran into a blow, the worst I ever saw in my life. A storm. . . . Oh boy!

”He paused for an instant to flick the ashes from his cigarette with a neat, deliberate gesture. One, could see memories living in the fine, resolute eyes. The broken noises of the restaurant which had seemingly died away while he spoke crept back again to one’s ears. A waiter dropped a clanging fork.

“A storm. Never remember anything like it. A perfect terror. Everybody realized that any attempt to keep together would be hopeless. And night was coming on. One by one the submarines disappeared into that fury of wind and driving water; the mother ship, because she was the largest vessel in the flotilla, being the last we saw. We snatched her last signal out of the teeth of the gale, and then she was gone, swallowed up in the storm. So we were alone.

“We got through the night somehow or other. The next morning the ocean was a dirty brown-grey, and knots and wisps of cloud were tearing by close over the water. Every once in a while a great, hollow-bellied wave would come rolling out of the hullaballoo and break thundering over us. On all the boats the lookout on the bridge had to be lashed in place, and every once in a while a couple of tons of water would come tumbling past him. Nobody at the job stayed dry for more than three minutes; a bathing suit would have been more to the point than oilers. Shaken, you ask? No, not very bad, a few assorted bruises and a wrenched thumb, though poor Jonesie on the Z3 had a wave knock him up against the rail and smash in a couple of ribs. But no being sick for him, he kept to his feet and carried on in spite of the pain, in spite of being in a boat which registered a roll of seventy degrees.

“I used to watch the old hooker rolling under me. You’ve never been on a submarine when she’s rolling—talk about rolling—oh boy! We all say seventy degrees because that’s as far as our instruments register. There were times when I almost thought she was on her way to make a complete revolution. You can imagine what it was like inside. To begin with, the oily air was none too sweet, because every time we opened a hatch we shipped enough water to make the old hooker look like a start at a swimming tank, and then she was lurching so continuously and violently that to move six feet was an expedition.

“But the men were wonderful, wonderful! Each man at his allotted task, and—what’s that English word, . . . carrying on. Our little cook couldn’t do a thing with the stove, might as well have tried to cook on a miniature earthquake, but he saw that all of us had something to eat, doing his bit, game as could be.

“He paused again. The embankment was fading in the dark. A waiter appeared, and drew down the thick, light-proof curtains.

“Yes, the men were wonderful—wonderful. And there wasn’t very much sickness. Let’s see, how far had I got—since it was impossible to make any headway we lay to for forty eight hours. The deck began to go the second morning, some of the plates being ripped right off. And blow—well as I told you in the beginning, I never saw anything like it. The disk of the sea was just one great, ragged mass of foam all being hurled through space by a wind screaming by with the voice and force of a million express trains. Perhaps you are wondering why we didn’t submerge. Simply couldn’t use up our electricity. It takes oil running on the surface to create the electric power, and we had a long, long journey ahead. Then ice began to form on the superstructure, and we had to get out a crew to chop it off. It was something of a job; there wasn’t much to hang on to, and the waves were still breaking over us. But we freed her of the danger, and she went OIl.

“We used to wonder where the other boys were in the midst of all the racket. One was drifting towards the New England coast, her compass smashed to flinders; others had run for Bermuda, others were still at sea.

“Then we had three days of good easterly wind. By jingo, but the good weather was great, were we glad to have it—oh boy! We had just got things ship-shape again when we had another blow but this second one was by no means as bad as the first. And after that we had another spell of decent weather. The crew used to start the phonograph and keep it going all day long.

“The weather was so good that I decided to keep right on to the harbour which was to be our base over here. I had enough oil, plenty of water, the only possible danger was a shortage of provisions. So I put us all on a ration, arranging to have the last grand meal on Christmas day. Can you imagine Christmas on a little, storm-bumped sub marine some hundred miles off the coast? A day or two more and we ran calmly into . . . Shall we say deleted harbour?

“Hungry, dirty, oh so dirty, we hadn’t had any sort of bath or wash for about three weeks; we all were green looking from having been cooped up so long, and our unshaven, grease-streaked faces would have upset a dinosaur. The authorities were wonderfully kind and looked after us and our men in the very best style. I thought we could never stop eating and a real sleep,

“Oh boy!”

“Did you fly the flag as you came in?” I asked.

“You bet we did!” answered the captain, his keen, handsome face lighting at the memory. “You see,” he continued in a practical spirit, “they would probably have pumped us full of holes if we hadn’t.”

And that is the way that the American submarines crossed the Atlantic to do their share for the Great Cause.


“Sometime after this article had appeared, the captain of an American submarine gave me a copy of the following verses written by a submarine sailor. Poems of this sort, typewritten by some accommodating yeo man, are always being handed round in the Navy; I have seen dozens of them. Would that I knew the author of this picturesque and flavorous ditty, for I would gladly give him the credit he deserves.


Born in the shops of the devil,

Designed by the brains of a fiend;

Filled with acid and crude oil,

And christened “A Submarine.”

The posts send in their ditties

Of battleships spick and clean;

But never a word in their columns

Do you see of a submarine?

So I’ll endeavour to depict our story

In a very laconic way;

So please have patience to listen

Until I have finished my say.

We eat where’er we can find it,

And sleep hanging up on hooks;

Conditions under which we’re existing

Are never published in books.

Life on these boats is obnoxious

And this is using mild terms;

We are never bothered by sickness,

There isn’t any room for germs.

We are never troubled with varmints,

There are things even a cockroach can’t stand;

And any self-respecting rodent

Quick as possible beats it for land.

And that little one dollar per diem

We receive to submerge out of sight,

Is often earned more than double

By charging batteries all night.

And that extra compensation

We receive on boats like these,

We never really get at all.

It’s spent on soap and dungarees.

Machinists get soaked in fuel oil,

Electricians in H2SO4,

Gunner’s mates with 600 W,

And torpedo slush galore.

When we come into the Navy Yard

We are looked upon with disgrace;

And they make out some new regulation

To fit our particular case.

Now all you battleship sailors,

When you are feeling disgruntled and mean,

Just pack your bag and hammock

And go to a submarine.


Going to Work

Once the American submarines arrived in the war zone, they found that the work was as dangerous to them as it was to the German submarines that might venture into the operating area. By 1918, improved methods of detection were developed as well as better patrolling methods.

This article from the Washington Times describes the men who were called submariners. Reading through the article, I can feel myself inside one of the boats as it got underway for a mission. I can also see the deeply held traditions of the current day submarine force being built brick by brick in those early days.

From the article:

1918 – Life in a Floating Steel Cigar – Life on an American Submarine at War

Now the submarine is like nothing else in the Navy. Since U. S. S. X-17 and her sisters of this flotilla have been on the base there has been no enemy submarine in these waters. But she’s just as likely to get shot up by one of her frenzied friends. So that her first rule at sea is: When in doubt, duck. Play diver.

She has always had her own peculiar little worries. When she makes a quick dive she may leave a hatch open, or when she makes a quick porpoise she may lift a hatch; and in either case if the sea gets to her storage batteries she gets their gases. Or her diving rudders may jam. Or she may leak, and the deeper she goes the worse it gets. Or gas may accumulate in her crank pits.

But on top of all these little worries she has to open valves and alter course at the first sight of anything bigger than a pulling boat. And when she sees one of these new American hydroplanes, no matter how far off, take it from her captain, she goes down to “nine hundred feet, and on a dark night we get away with it.”

She is a war craft without guns. True, some submarines have guns, but her captain says guns don’t belong on submarines. Give him only a sub marine that will dive in nothing flat, a short-range, high-velocity torpedo, a bottom at fifty fathoms and an enemy.


And the submarine’s crew is like no other crew of the Navy. During the first four or five days of a patrol, they sleep all the time off watch. After that, when they’re completely slept out, there’s nothing to do but to hang on. They can’t sit down, because they’ll fall off. They can’t play the music machine, because they’ll wake up somebody. They can’t smoke, because they may set off an explosion. If they want to smoke, they have to go up topside and the more men up topside, the more time is lost when time is most valuable in securing hatches to submerge. For this reason, only two men beside the officer of the deck and a lookout are permitted up topside at once, and these only long enough for one smoke. So, ordinarily, she spends all day on a periscope patrol, with everybody below but the helmsman at the eye ports in the conning tower, and at night she does a dive just to get her trim (“something happens every time you go down”). Then she blows 2,000, comes streaming up into the moon light and lays to under a slow slogging motion to discharge her ballast and charge her batteries, with all the crew off watch waiting their turn at the cruising hatch ladder in the after battery compartment below to go for a smoke on the conning tower fairwater.


She is full of stale air, fuel oil arid battery gas. She is so small that at the base they have to station a boat watch up topside all night to keep tall surface craft from stepping on her. She has only five rooms, with steel bulkhead between them and steel doors which can be dogged down so that if one room becomes filled with the sea four may remain. From bow to stern, the five are the torpedo compartment, the forward battery compartment, the central operating compartment, the after battery compartment and the engine room. The officers hang out in the torpedo compartment. The crew hangs out in the forward battery compartment. And they all mess together in the after battery compartment, where the cook hangs out.

It ought to be mentioned, however, that her captain says the air is usually good from the conning tower aft. There may be an inch or two of pressure, although “we try to keep the pressure down.”

Yet the total effect of it is that the heat and sleep they undergo make submarine men fatter than other Navy men. Although they are given waterproofs and “submarine clothes” for protection against extremes of heat and cold, they all wear dungarees, except the captain, who wears dungarees and dancing pumps. For a submarine is as cold blooded as a fish and would take the temperature of the sea, except for the heat generated by the human bodies, storage batteries and gas engines in her. And they all lead the outlaw life their ship leads. They know that the gunner’s mate on a destroyer with whom they drink on the beach tonight will do his conscientious best to kill them if he meets them at sea tomorrow.

They are also older than other Navy men. They average twenty-five, which makes them the oldest crowd in the Navy. They have also been shipmates longer than other Navy men and there are no more intimate shipmates than submarine shipmates. Before the war, when the Navy manned its submarines with petty officers exclusively. It was unusual to find a submarine’s crew which had not been shipmates two years. Today, however, the submarines take recruits, but weed them out for “ineptitude” in a long and hard schooling. And practically all of them are regulars, professional Navy men, men who can drown without crying about it. They know their captain can sacrifice any one or more of them to save the submarine and the rest of them. And their only answer is, “More power to you.”

U.S.S. X-17 carries two officers and twenty-four men. Her senior two-striper is her captain. Her junior is her second, combining the functions of executive officer, chief engineer, navigator and torpedoist. Ten of her crew are her black gang, seven are gunners’ mates and five are electricians. The rest are her listener and her cook.

Her captain is a herring choker from Maine, who takes butter on his potatoes, and you can see the cold nerve -“sticking out all over him. You gather the impression that if you were to-walk up to him with a revolver and begin shooting at him it wouldn’t necessarily annoy him, unless you kept it up too long, in which case he might ask you whether you were having a birthday, or what? He used to be division officer on a battleship and chaperon to a broadside of six-inch guns, but he quit it for the special torpedo school on the old Montana. He went from there to the submarine school at New London and in his fitness report he put down submarines as his first choice, with destroyers as his second. So a beneficent government finally accommodated him with U. S. S. X-17, and the only fault he has to find with her is that just now she has cockroaches.

For me, she is a stuffy, gassy, jumpy contraption, likely to go crazy and kill herself if she doesn’t like the way you wear your hat. But for him, she’s as tame as a puppy.

Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 04 Aug. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1918-08-04/ed-1/seq-35/

The war ended on November 11, 1918

At the completion of hostilities, there were many lessons to be learned. Secretary Danial’s asked for and amended a special report for the President about the conduct of the Navy and any particular lessons that needed attention.

The following excerpts from the report would have long lasting implications on shipbuilding, shore facilities, strength of the peace time nay and particularly about the usefulness of submarines in the future. It would make the struggle to develop a submarine capacity that much harder in the following two decades. Once more, the battleship proponents seemed to be holding the pen that wrote the report.



“NAVAL scientists learned much as a result of this war, but contrary to popular theory the events of the four and a half years strengthened belief in the battleship as the deciding element in sea power. The submarine was frightful, and did a vast amount of harm, but not so much as one might think. Against surface fighters it was not remarkably effective; indeed the war proved that the submarine’ s only good chance against a battleship or cruiser was to lurk along some lane which the big surface craft was known to be following, and strike her quickly in the dark. Within effective torpedo range a periscope, day or night, is visible to keen – eyed watchers, and all told not a dozen British and American sea fighters , of whatever class , were sunk as a result of submarine attack.

“In the battle of Heligoland Bight early in the war, as a matter of fact, a squadron of British battleships passed right through a nest of sub marines and were not harmed. The most spectacular submarine success, the sinking of the three fine cruisers, Aboukir and Cressy and Hawke, was the result of an attack delivered upon unsuspecting craft, which were lying at anchor, or at all events under deliberate headway . The American Navy, as already pointed out, lost the Jacob Jones, a destroyer, the coast cutter Tampa, and the Alcedo, together with one or two smaller craft, but that is all.

It will surprise many when the statement is made that, of all the Atlantic convoys, east or west bound, in the four years of the war, aggregating a gross tonnage of some eighty odd millions, only 654,288 tons were lost through submarine attack, considerably less than 1 per cent of the total tonnage crossing the war zone during the war – 0 .83 per cent, to be exact.”

“It really boils down to the fact that the greatest feat of the submarine was in its success in slowing up oversea freight traffic and in keeping neutral freighters in port. In this respect the submarine most certainly was dangerously pernicious. But as a positive agency, as said, the undersea craft was not a decisive factor in the war.

“All of which, most naturally, is a graphic commentary upon the inadequacy of the submarine as a check to the manifestations of sea power. In truth, there is a vast deal of popular misconception about the submarine, a name which is really a misnomer. The French are more precise in their term, a submersible; for, as a matter of fact, the submarine , or submersible, is in essence a surface craft which is able to descend beneath the water, proceeding thus for a limited time .

“The amount of time which a submersible may run beneath the waves depends upon her speed. The best of the German undersea boats, it has been estimated, could not remain under more than three hours at high speed. They then had to come up, as the navy saying has it, for “more juice.” To be more explicit, a submersible has a mechanical process, a combination motor and dynamo between the engine, which drives the boat when it is on the surface, and the thrust block through which the shaft runs to the propeller. This motor – dynamo, serving as a motor, drives the boat when she is beneath the water. When the electric power is exhausted the boat comes to the surface, the motor is disconnected from the shaft and is run as a dynamo generating power. Twelve hours are required in which to produce the amount of electricity required for use when the vessel next submerges. Thus, a great proportion of the time the submarine is a surface craft.”

The report goes on to attempt to fully diminish the potential for submarines as they existed in that time period.

However, there was a recognition of the desire on many nation’s part to eliminate submarines altogether.

“The Peace Conference at this writing is talking of the advisability of eliminating the submarine as a weapon of war. Whether by the time this is read such action will have been taken, the fact remains that before the sub marine could hope to approach in formidability the surface fighter, she will have to experience a development which at the present time has not been attained. The vital need seems to be a single propulsive agency for progress on the surface and when submerged.”

The treaty being discussed was the precursor to the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty. All through the next three four years, various voices around the globe would argue for elimination of the treacherous little bastards called submarines.

The Victors and the Vanquished

One of the most famous World War I submarines was the German U-boat. There were 29 U-boats when the war started, although Germany built 360 of them during the war.

Over 5,000 Allied ships were sunk by German submarines during World War I. Over 1.4 million tons of shipping was lost during just the first few months of the war.

At the completion of the war, a number of submarines were handed over to the British to be destroyed. The Americans received a small number of these boats intact which were going to be used as floating fund-raisers at various American ports. The funds raised were to be applied to the treasury to help pay for the war’s tremendous costs. But history records that despite the prohibition on engineering analysis of the former German units, naval engineers surreptitiously conducted extensive tests and learned a great deal from the better engineered U-Boats.


Fortunately for the country, submarine enthusiasts were persistent in gaining a credible submarine force that would be ready for the next conflict. Probably one of the most important steps was the insistence of actual submarine experienced officers in the planning and design of the next generations of submarines. These men who had bought and paid for the precious knowledge through their personal sacrifices recognized the power of having a submarine force that was broken free from the narrow minded vision of coastal defense.

Like the Germans, they recognized one of the oldest axioms of warfare:

the best defense is a powerful and deadly offense.

That would be proven once more in the Second World War.

Mister Mac

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