1919 – Setting a new standard for submarine training

1919 – Setting a new standard for submarine training

The post for today is an excerpt from my upcoming book about Captain Cassin Young. The book captures his journey based on historical records and research into how the US Navy grew and developed its submarine force during the early years.

This excerpt comes from Chapter 8. The world was still recovering from the ravages of the First World War and there were certainly challenges for the men who would remain on active duty in a shrinking post war military. (This section is unedited by my professional editor so the final version may have some small changes. The edited version should be back in my hands in a few weeks and then the final steps in publishing will be completed – Mac)

A New World

When the armistice was signed and the guns of Europe fell silent for a time, so many things had changed in the world. Every form of technology was touched by the dreadful war that had just completed. Advances in communication were on the verge of a new era that would include radio as a broadcasting media for the masses. Mighty ships that had been vaunted as the saviors of each nation’s power and prestige were silent monuments to the futility of shipbuilding. Aeroplanes of all kinds including multiple engine models were extending the destructive reach of armies while also offering a peacetime way of traveling beyond the old limits created by oceans and land masses.

The countries around the world were also tired of the casualty lists. Since the start of the war, millions of lives were lost in some of the most desperate campaigns ever waged by man. Germany had come close to starvation because of the blockades and at one point even mighty England had been close to being destitute because of the underhanded and uncivil tactics of the German submarine fleet. From the moment the ink started drying on all of the treaties, each country started to take stock of their existing forces. The United States was no exception. Even though they had not built as many battleships as the planners had imagined in the years before the war, the ones that had been built were bigger and more powerful than their predecessors. Around the globe, countries became aware that if they were to be a world power in the future, they would need the naval forces to match.

But wars are expensive propositions with costs that are measured beyond the loss and suffering of the combatants. Maintaining and building large fleets would be a drain on any country regardless of how much they participated in the last war. A battleship race would be both expensive and potentially destructive in the future. The leadership of many of the nations saw the dangers ahead and started having discussions to try and contain the shipbuilding monster before it consumed them all. These discussions would ultimately lead to a Naval Treaty signed in Washington DC in 1922 that would limit the scope and size of the remaining naval powers in the world.

Buried in the wish lists of those who wanted to limit naval power was the proposal to banish submarines. The English particularly were in favor of completely outlawing the small craft since they had been affected the most in the late war. The Admiralty dubbed the fiendish vessels as pirate boats with which no civil nation would ever fight another war. The loss of lives for women and children were taunted as principle moral reasons but the main reason was that these little ships had negated the most powerful navy ever to set sail on the ocean.

Yet for all of their bluster, the British were secretly eyeing the captured German submarines and looking at the technology that had made them so devastating. The American had a few boats of their own that had travelled the Atlantic for the purpose of helping with a War Bonds drive in the summer of 1919. But the truth was that American builders also wanted to look inside the little boats that had caused so much havoc on the open oceans. The technology that they found would impact design and operations for the coming generations. The German engineering was a game changing element for the submarine communities.

In the summer of 1919, a new submarine school was begun in New London aboard the USS Fulton (a submarine tender). This was not the first official officer’s class, but it was the beginning of a formal officer training program that would help to build the knowledge and skills of submariners for generations to come. From an article printed in the Norwich Bulletin. (Norwich, Conn.), 29 July 1919:

“The experimental work will be conducted at the base in connection with the US navy submarine school which was opened July 1. The course of instruction affords a splendid opportunity for training in this specialized service for which only graduates of Naval Academy classes of 1916 or later are eligible.


The first class was limited to forty. This course covers a period of three months and the next class will enter Oct. 1. The Navy department is making an effort to encourage officers to volunteer for submarine duty. The service is attractive because it entails the duties of a commanding officer. During the war there were instances of midshipmen commanding submarines.”

It is by no coincidence that the volunteers being sought were from the Naval Academy Class of 1916 and later.

The work done to improve the training and curriculum during the years 1912 – 1916 made these officers more qualified to adapt to the higher technical and electrical knowledge that would be required to operate the boats. The submarine force had made a number of strides since being created in 1900 and the lessons learned on many of the ensuing boats indicated that the officers and men that manned them would have to be above average and able to understand how to make them operate under the worst conditions.

The learning had come at a cost. From the primitive boats that were powered by gasoline engines to the more capable diesel powered boats, accidents and incidents were still too common. Unexpected sinking’s, miraculous escapes and unexpected explosions still made up too much of the submarine’s story. Having capable men to learn how to successfully operate the boats was the only way forward, even in the face of peacetime budget cuts. Plus, as the pressure to shrink the fleet would grow ever louder, having a pathway to promotion for the young officers made the most sense. Many had recently experienced life in the larger confines of the battleships and cruisers and felt the chafing that comes from being too confined by tradition and standing in line behind so many others who had come before. It was not uncommon in peacetime navies to see forty year old lieutenants who were useful for a purpose but unable to promote to apposition of better standing and pay.

Even in the early days of American submarine history, submarine duty was a volunteer occupation. Cassin Young and his classmates must have been facing many hard decisions as the Navy looked at its future. But his decision was one that probably was influence by an officer he served with on the Connecticut. His first fleet assignment was on board the recently recommissioned battleship Connecticut. He was assigned to the Connecticut at the same time as an officer named Frederick L. Oliver. Oliver was a Lieutenant Commander who had recently transferred from the United States Pacific Fleet staff under Commander in Chief Rear Admiral Thomas B. Howard. Interestingly enough, Oliver served as the Fleet Engineer at the same time as two of the navy’s future Admirals who would affect Cassin Young’s life. Lieutenant Husband Kimmel was the Fleet Gunnery Officer and Lieutenant Isaac C. Kidd served as the Flag Secretary for the Pacific Fleet. All three men were part of Admiral Howard’s personal staff in 1915. The three men would all have a profound influence on Young that would be felt at a future intersection called Pearl Harbor.

During the war, the battleship Connecticut would be used to train the men who would ultimately man the ships that were sent to support the war efforts overseas. While it was important work, the ship itself would not go “over there” until the Armistice had been signed and the men of the US Army needed a way to come home.

Young and Oliver may have felt like they had missed an opportunity to be involved in the war that each had prepared for their whole careers. But the battle for the peace time Navy was about to begin. Just as the nation welcomed home their soldiers and sailors, they also were looking at ways to create a sustainable peace. The League of Nations that President Wilson proposed carried a great promise that might keep men and women from having to go back into a war situation again. The recent war was already being called the “War to End All Wars” and the devastating machines that had emerged frightened even the most battle hardened veterans. The navies of the remaining great powers were easy targets for the peace brigades. Some felt that the mere existence of battle fleets presupposed that at some point there would be a great battle in the future. The size of the oceans had not changed and the need for commerce on the open seas were highlighted by the recent events of submarine warfare and blockades.

By the summer of 1919, the American Navy had already had its size and purposes called into question by Congress and the executive branch. Ships started in the yards and docks around the country during the lead-up and execution of the war were stopped in their progress and in many cases put into short term storage. This included many of the submarines of the “S” Class which were being built on both coasts. Money was just no longer available to complete the boats. Some would in a suspended state for three or more years while the country tried to find its way towards a future. The future for the officers of the Class of 1916 looked fairly bleak as well. Promotions would revert to peace time status. That typically meant that rising through the ranks would be stifled regardless of ability and performance and that many would choose to leave the navy and return to a more prosperous future in the Roaring Twenties.

Cassin Young’s fate was sealed when he chose to follow Commander (now Captain) Oliver to New London and become a member of that first class of July 1919. His submarine journey would take him many places around the world and allow him to have a lasting impact on American Navy history.

But there was some risk involved in that decision. The Navy still considered the battleship the main path forward. From the 1920 Secretary of the Navy annual report:


“The capital ship of the present day is the lineal descendent of and development from the “ship of the line” of a century ago. New types have arisen, as when the armor-clad came into existence, but the battleship or its equivalent has always survived. There have always been those searching for something simpler, and more especially cheaper, and with the development of every new weapon enthusiasts have claimed that the battleship has been rendered obsolete. It was so with the torpedo boat; it was so with the submarine; it is now so with the development of aircraft. History has shown, however, that for every new weapon against the battleship a defense has developed either by modification of the battleship itself or by adopting a new weapon or new type of vessel to work with the battleship. At the Battle of Jutland, for instance, both British and Germans had an enormous number of torpedo craft. Had either side been without these auxiliaries there is no doubt that its battleships would have suffered severely. As a matter of fact, the damage done the battle ships by torpedoes was very slight. The torpedo craft of each side largely protected its battleships from those of its opponent, and even at night the battleships themselves, particularly those of the Germans, showed surprising ability to defend themselves against attacks of the swarms of small torpedo vessels present. Developments of the past year have confirmed the conclusions of the department that battleships were still the backbone of the fighting fleet, and this is no time for their abandonment.”

It was no small risk that men like Young would take in volunteering for a role in the fledgling submarine community. But like everything else in his life, Cassin Young took the risk.

The book is titled “Every Moment Mattered, the Career of Captain Cassin Young.” He was a Medal of Honor awardee and a submariner. While his award was not as a result of submarine service, he spent a significant portion of his career serving on and commanding submarines as well as providing leadership at a Squadron and Fleet level.

The book will be available this summer.

Mister Mac

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