Just an average Cold War Submariner.
The average Cold War Submariner :
Volunteered to serve his country… Twice.
Went to submarine school in New London. …
Trained in the old escape tower.
Spent time on the dive and drive trainer.
Had a few drinks in Groton.
Showed up on their first boat with too much in their sea bag.
Found out about sleeping next to a torpedo.
Mess cooked in between drills
Field dayed in a bilge in between drills.
Drove the boat as a helmsman and planes man.
Stood messenger watch and dodged flying shoes and hurled insults.
Tried to keep course in a typhoon.
Tried to keep depth in a hurricane.
Tried to keep lunch down during both.
The average Cold War Submariner earned his fish.
Then he was no longer average.
All Became the teachers.
Most Became the Petty Officers
Many Became the Chiefs
Some Became COBs
Some Became Chief Warrant Officers.
Some Became Limited Duty Officers
Some Became Supply and Line Officers.
But all remained submariners at heart.
The average Cold War Submariner is now losing their eyesight and gaining in their waistlines.
These steely eyed killers of the deep sometimes find themselves back on watch when they sleep. Angles and dangles and battle stations cause the covers to fly off in the middle of the night. They still sleep better listening to a fan than the stark silence of a bedroom. They like repeat backs and often find themselves saying “say again?”. Only now it’s because their ears are fading as fast as their eyes. They still laugh when they hear someone talk about shooting water slugs. And they still shed a tear when they find out about another shipmate that has gone on final patrol.
The average Cold War Submariner has a crusty shell on the outside and melts like butter when he holds his granddaughter on his knee. He swells with pride when the flags fly and sadness when he sees the new generation shirk their responsibility. He knows that he can never tell his best stories but gets a twinkle in his eye when they ask him to tell them anyway.
People ask me sometimes why I write about the life.
I don’t really have a good answer. Maybe part of it is an effort to make sense of what we did and why we did it. Today would have been the birthday of one of our shipmates that died while serving on the USS San Francisco. He was an A Ganger and was doing his routines when the boat hit the mountains. That could have been any one of us. Maybe sometimes I just feel blessed that it didn’t happen to me. And a little guilty.
Today (September 4th) would have been Joe’s 36th birthday. I am so proud to present the draft for the memorial tile for the Ohio Veterans’ Memorial Park we will have made in his memory today of all days. Please take a moment today to say a prayer for Joe and his family. As a military spouse and proud American it has been my honor to do this for Joe. Thank you to all of you who helped make this possible.
Vicki Ashley-Matics also says it is an honor for her that Joe’s classmates and friends chose to remember him this way ❤️ 🇺🇸 Happy Birthday, Joe!
SSN 590 USS Sculpin
Sculpin: A spiny, large-headed, broad-mouthed, usually scale less fish of the family Cottidae. Several species are found on the Atlantic coasts of Europe and North America.
USS Sculpin (SSN-590), a Skipjack-class nuclear-powered submarine, was the second ship of the United States Navy to be named for the sculpin.
Her keel was laid down on 3 February 1958 by Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi. She was launched on 31 March 1960 sponsored by Mrs. Fred Connaway, widow of Commander Fred Connaway, who was killed while commanding the first USS Sculpin during World War II, and commissioned on 1 June 1961 with Commander C. N. Mitchell in command.
Commander Connaway was killed by gunfire on the bridge of the first Sculpin before boat was sunk by Japanese destroyer. The ship was scuttled by her brave crew. Forty-two of Sculpin‘s crew were picked up by Yamagumo. One badly wounded sailor was thrown back in the sea because of his condition. The survivors were questioned for about ten days at the Japanese naval base at Truk, then were embarked on two aircraft carriers returning to Japan. Chuyo carried 21 of the survivors in her hold. On 2 December, the carrier was torpedoed and sunk by Sailfish and twenty of the American prisoners perished; one man, George Rocek, was saved when he was able to grab hold of a ladder on the side of a passing Japanese destroyer and hauled himself on board. (Ironically, Sailfish — at the time named Squalus — was the same submarine Sculpin had helped to locate and raise some four-and-a-half years before.) The other 21 survivors arrived at Ōfuna Camp, Japan, on 5 December and, after further questioning, were sent to the Ashio copper mines for the duration of the war.
This story is about the Attack Sub named in her honor. Typically, the stories of the Cold War submarines stay secret unless they are outed by non-submariners. Doing research on the USS Sculpin, I discovered this article which was originally published in Naval Institute Proceedings. It was written an old friend, Admiral Charles Larson who was my Commanding Officer on board USS Halibut.
I share this story in his honor.
Naval History Magazine 2008, Volume 22. Number 1
Admiral Charles R. Larsen US Navy Retired
Captain Clinton Wright, US Navy Retired
The Sculpin’s Lost Mission: A Nuclear Submarine in the Vietnam War
“One would expect that Cold War “special ops” involving U.S. nuclear-powered submarines are shrouded in secrecy. Other American sub activities during that era, however, are also hidden, one for a very strange reason.
In 1971, after he had spent two and a half years of duty in the White House as naval aide to President Richard Nixon, Commander Chuck Larson was ready to go back to sea. He was ordered to be executive officer of the attack submarine Sculpin (SSN-590), under Commander Harry Mathis. For several months the boat went through workups off the coast of southern California to prepare for a deployment to the western Pacific. That deployment included active participation in the Vietnam War.
After leaving the West Coast in January 1972, our first assignment was a classified special operation that lasted about two months. It went very well. The mission helped us hone our ship-handling and intelligence-gathering skills and made us confident in our capabilities and feel good about the way the ship was operating. Although it is still classified after all these years, it’s safe to say that it was intelligence-gathering targeted against the Soviet Union. Years later, Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew’s book, Blind Man’s Bluff (New York: Public Affairs, 1998), described Cold War submarine operations. Because of security concerns, I can’t specifically discuss the contents, but the book is a good read.
After the special operation, the Sculpin went into Yokosuka, Japan, for some liberty, and my wife, Sally, met me there. I had grown my beard while at sea and that, combined with my black hair and pale complexion after the extended period underwater, made me look—according to Sally—like Rasputin, the mad tsarist Russian.
In March, shortly after we began our second operation, patrolling the South China Sea, we were diverted for a specific mission. The U.S. government believed supply trawlers were operating out of Hainan Island, off the southern coast of the People’s Republic of China. They were running arms, ammunition, and supplies from the northern part of the Gulf of Tonkin down to the Vietcong in the IV Corps region, the southernmost portion of Vietnam. U.S. forces discovered this when ground troops caught the enemy in the act of off-loading a trawler on a South Vietnamese beach. The incident sparked a big firefight, creating the legend that the trawler crews were elite forces willing to fight to the death. It also initiated a concerted effort to stop the traffic by convincing the enemy that it could not succeed.
Each of the trawlers could carry about 100 tons of munitions. Several suspect ships were photographed, so we knew generally what they looked like, but as long as they were in international waters, we had no means to interdict them other than to turn them around by making low passes with a P-3 Orion patrol plane or a close approach by a surface ship. This was complicated by the fact that so many legitimate trawlers like them were in the area. Several gunrunners had been turned around, but this would not stop the at-sea resupply effort. To convincingly discourage the effort, it would be necessary to destroy them in the waters off South Vietnam before they could land their cargo. The plan that evolved was to use a submarine to follow one from Hainan to South Vietnam and finger it for our forces to destroy. We were selected for this mission.
The Pursuit Begins
We took up a patrol station off Hainan on 10 April. After referring to a book with images of the different types of trawlers and what we could expect, we picked up our quarry on 12 April. The wardroom was divided on whether she was a good prospect. However, the ship resembled photographs of other known suspects, and her projected track was taking her toward the west coast of the Philippines, which did not make sense for a fisherman. So we took off in trail. Not long thereafter, the trawler turned to the south, and that was the clincher for us. She had an extremely distinctive shaft rub and propeller sound, which our sonar men could easily discriminate from background noise. We relied completely on passive sonar to avoid being detected. The active sonar in the Skipjack – class submarines wouldn’t have been reliable because of the reverberations in shallow water.
The ship we followed was probably 200 feet long, a large trawler, certainly suitable for open-ocean fishing. We did, of course, identify her by periscope before we started to trail, but we weren’t able to follow her totally by periscope and maintain visual contact. We didn’t want to take the chance of having our periscope seen in the flat, calm waters of the South China Sea. Also, she was making a speed of advance through the water of about 11 knots. That meant that if we were going to do our periscope operations every now and then, get out radio messages, and do our required housekeeping evolutions, we were probably going to have to run an average of about 18 or 20 knots submerged to keep up with her. We also had to include time for ocean analysis and tactical maneuvering to make certain we were staying with the correct target.
One more challenge was that the trawler was heading south, right through the “dangerous ground.” On charts of the South China Sea, an area about 180 nautical miles wide and 300 miles long is simply labeled dangerous ground. Our charts had one track of soundings through that area—taken in 1885. We assessed that the terrain was fairly level, but the depth was 200 feet or less in most of this area. So we were in a position of running up to 20 knots in 200 feet of water, with between 30 to 80 feet under the keel at that high speed. Our ship could react very quickly to plane (control surface) movements, so we had only our most experienced officers of the deck, diving officers, and planesmen on station. Our chief petty officer diving officers controlled the ship’s depth by supervising the planesmen. They did a superb job.
As the trawler headed south, she vectored a little to the east and went into an area in the dangerous ground where we couldn’t go. Up to then, although we were in the dangerous area, we felt secure in knowing the bottom was fairly level. But now she went into an area that was littered with rocks, shoals, and shipwrecks. I wondered then if the trawler’s crew was smart enough to do what we called a “sanitization move”—go where even surface ships wouldn’t follow. She doubtlessly believed that if she went through there she would come out the other side well clear of any tailing vessel.
I was absolutely convinced that the trawler was unaware of our presence (that became clear later when we intercepted a radio message). We believed the ship’s course change was simply a safety move. While we were able to use our fathometer to plot the bottom and know the depth under our keel, the device looks only directly down; it doesn’t look ahead. We were genuinely worried about what we couldn’t see ahead—an undersea mountain, a wreck, or something else.
Lost and Found
When the trawler had entered the dangerous ground, we requested cover from an on-call P-3 Orion. Although we were under the operational control of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) in Saigon, we had the ability to call the shots on the scene. We wanted the aircraft to remain covert, so it would not scare the trawler back into port by making low passes near her. During the ship’s voyage through this very shallow, wreck-strewn portion of the dangerous ground, the plane, remaining at high altitude to minimize the chance of being seen, kept track of her by radar and visual observation. We dodged around the area by hauling off to the west, then south, and finally back to the east, to an area where we predicted the trawler would emerge, still in the dangerous ground. As the P-3 turned the contact over to us, the trawler appeared just about where we thought she would. We picked her up from the distinctive shaft rub and propeller sound and got in close enough to get a good positive periscope observation. We then went back in trail.
As we headed south in the South China Sea, we approached a new hazard. We found a large number of oil-drilling platforms near the coast of Borneo. We first became aware of this hazard through the prolonged tracking of a diesel contact, which prompted the CO, Commander Harry Mathis, to go up to periscope depth for a look. We spotted an uncharted platform. If the rigs were operating, that was no problem; we could plot the location of their noisy diesel engines. We found some charted, some not, some operating and others not. Our concern, of course, was about those uncharted and not running. We made frequent periscope observations to avoid the platforms, which forced us to run faster to maintain the quarry’s speed of advance. We continued south at higher speeds for longer periods of time, sometimes with barely 20 to 30 feet of water beneath the Sculpin’s keel.
As our target passed between the Great Natuna Islands, we made an end run around North Natuna. After that, our quarry was on a beeline for the Gulf of Thailand, passing through the busy sea-lane between Hong Kong and Singapore. The density of the large shipping traffic in this lane was incredible. Crossing it was like running across a busy freeway. It was night time, and sonar was useless amid all the traffic noise, so we crossed at periscope depth following our quarry’s stern light, maneuvering to avoid the large ships bearing down on us from both directions.
The Gulf of Thailand presented a new challenge. The water was hot, 86 degrees Fahrenheit, and shallow, averaging 110 feet deep, and the bottom was flat. The surface was a dead calm mirror with fishing buoys and nets everywhere, not to mention small fishing boats of every description. It was also very hazy and so hot that the horizon was somewhat obscure. Such were the wartime circumstances that our operation order authorized us to operate in water as shallow as six fathoms. Who says nuclear-powered submarines can’t operate in the littorals?
During this time we half-jokingly talked about “the hump.” We were trying to visualize what the Sculpin looked like on the surface, running at 20 knots, with maybe only 40 feet from the top of the sail to the surface. We visualized a hump—the water displaced above the boat’s hull—roaring through the South China Sea like a mini tidal wave, with observers wondering what it was. We assumed the ship left some sort of trail but were certain one would have to be very close to be able to see it.
An incident when I had command duty got my attention. I brought the Sculpin up to periscope depth and saw what I thought was a periscope going by. My first reaction was, “Holy smoke, there’s another submarine up here.” Then I realized it was a small water-saturated log that was floating vertically. Just for a moment I thought there were two submarines staring at each other and wondered which one was going to blink first.
As the trawler moved farther south, she made a distinct turn to the west and then to the northwest. We were absolutely sure she was a gunrunner, going in to land and off-load her ammunition. Then, two things happened. We were ordered by MACV to photograph our target and alerted to prepare to execute a provision in our operation order for us to sink our target with torpedoes.
The photographic mission meant leaving our trail position and speeding up ahead of the target to take pictures as the trawler cruised by. The risk of detection was great because of the flat calm sea and our hump as we repositioned at high speed. To avoid this, we had to go as deep as possible. Commander Mathis selected 90 feet keel depth, leaving 20 feet between the keel and the bottom. We limited periscope exposure to 6 inches for less than ten seconds. We did get good pictures and apparently were not detected, although one photograph revealed three men on deck looking in our general direction. The depth control skill of our diving officer chiefs was extraordinary.
Where’d She Go?
Immediately after the trawler made the northwest turn, and just before we communicated with higher authorities, we lost contact for about two hours. Up to that point, our target had been somewhat predictable, cruising on a straight course to the northwest near the center of the Gulf of Thailand about 100 miles off the coast of South Vietnam, with the familiar shaft rub being tracked by sonar. It was night with a full moon, and we saw her lights through the periscope. The horizon was indistinguishable. Suddenly, sonar reported she had stopped, and while the CO watched, the trawler turned off her lights. Blind and deaf, we then lit off the radar and made several sweeps that revealed nothing. This was not too surprising. When a radar hasn’t been used in months and is not tuned, taking it out and rotating it a couple of times doesn’t guarantee a high probability of picking up a small target. We were not sure whether she had stopped for the night or was moving away in a new direction at slow speed.
We reported the lost contact, which threw the operational command authority in Saigon into a panic. They had been moving South Vietnamese naval forces along the coast to maintain a blocking position based on our updates, so the whole operation threatened to unravel. Commander Mathis and I huddled and decided: “Well, we’ve got to assume that she’s making a run toward the border up there. Let’s just go down and run as fast as we can and get about 30 miles ahead of her predicted track and set up a barrier.”
So we moved up and waited for her farther up into the Gulf of Thailand. We made that sprint at 20 knots with 20 feet under the keel. At first daylight, we contacted our on station P-3 aircraft and described our quarry, particularly her white color. We requested that the Orion’s crew search the area from where we lost contact to the Vietnamese coast. They reported several widely separated contacts; only one of them was white. The CO authorized a low-altitude identification pass, and the P-3 made a positive ID. They reported to Saigon, and we closed the target. As we neared, we regained that familiar shaft rub and when we took another periscope look, it was her—positive identification, both sonar and visual.
Originally, MACV requested authorization for us to sink the target with our torpedoes, but this was not approved. For years I assumed that the National Command Authority in Washington, D.C., disapproved the request. However, several years later, Harry Mathis, who by then was a captain, was commanding officer of the Submarine Base Pearl Harbor. He regularly played tennis with retired Admiral Bernard “Chick” Clarey, who had been commander-in-chief Pacific Fleet at the time of our operation. Admiral Clarey remembered the operation very well because he and Admiral John McCain, commander-in-chief Pacific, had followed our progress closely in daily briefings. Admiral Clarey told Mathis that he had argued vehemently in favor of having us shoot, but Admiral McCain was not convinced it would work. Instead, South Vietnamese naval forces were called in to do the job on 24 April.
The surface forces—led by a South Vietnamese destroyer escort—challenged the trawler, which hoisted a Chinese flag and an international flag signal designating they were fishing. The South Vietnamese commander was hesitant to take action because he was concerned about creating an international incident. Fortunately, we established communications with the U.S. liaison officer on board the destroyer with the UQC underwater telephone. His first question was whether we could verify this ship as our trawler. We told him, “Absolutely, this is the one without a doubt.” We then went to periscope depth to observe.
The trawler tried to convince the South Vietnamese destroyer that she was an innocent fishing vessel. We spoke once again with the liaison officer and with higher authorities and said: “We are absolutely sure that this ship came out of Hainan flying a PRC [People’s Republic of China] flag. We have tracked her 2,500 miles to this position, and in our opinion she is a gunrunner making a run toward the border and certainly is not a fisherman. We can verify who she is, which should allow us to take whatever action is appropriate.”
As we later learned from the intercepted communication, the trawler at one point said, “I think there is a submarine out there.” This was the first indication that the trawler crew was aware of us as we coordinated with the destroyer. Based on our identification, the destroyer escort ordered the trawler to stop, and when she failed to comply, began making intimidating runs at her, finally opening fire from a standoff position with her 3-inch guns. The trawler was hit and began burning, running in a circle as if the rudder was jammed hard over. We watched through the periscope, and our crew gathered in their mess to watch on the TV monitor. Suddenly, with a thunderous roar, clearly audible through the Sculpin’s hull, the trawler exploded and disintegrated as its cargo detonated. Flames leaped hundreds of feet in the air, accompanied by the cheers of our crew.
At this moment, Commander Mathis asked the crew over the 1MC for a moment of silence. Enemy or not, they had perished doing their mission. Later, we were pleased to learn that 16 of the trawler crew had been rescued and they spoke Vietnamese, not Chinese. The captain and the navigator were among them and able to provide valuable intelligence about their operations. One of the few casualties was the political officer.
Our communication with command headquarters, through the loitering Orion during the urgent final search, was vital. Only later did we learn that, because of atmospheric conditions, the communications link with Saigon consisted of the P-3 aircraft on station relaying to another P-3 revving up its engines on the ground at its airbase while parked next to a phone booth. A flight crew member would run out to the phone and relay the messages between Saigon and us.
One other significant factor made the mission possible. It could only have been done by a nuclear-powered submarine. That experience gave me great admiration for the diesel-boat crews and skippers of World War II. We had more margin for error than they did because of their speed limitations owing to low battery capacity. If we made a mistake on the Sculpin, we could make it up through speed and repositioning, which couldn’t be done with a diesel boat. Certainly our speed came in handy, not only in the basic trail, trying to stay up with a ship doing 11 knots and do all the things we had to do, but also during that period when we lost them. We were able to run quickly forward, reposition up the track, and get a chance to pick them up again. But that blackout period was a low point. We had trailed the ship 2,300 miles and thought we’d lost her.
The trawler’s crew verified that their ship was a gunrunner. They had on board enough arms and ammunition to supply the Vietcong in IV Corps for at least 60 days. Her destruction thus made a significant contribution to the safety of U.S. and South Vietnamese troops in the area and set back the enemy’s military operations there.
The surviving crew were North Vietnamese. They were split up, with U.S. and South Vietnamese intelligence each interrogating half and their stories compared. It was determined that the navigator’s responses were credible because he provided interrogators with exactly the same track we plotted.
The United States learned much about the North Vietnamese at-sea resupply strategy. It also learned that the trawler crews were not elite forces that would resist until death. One engineer told of being at his station when the political officer came to the engine room hatch, told him the enemy had arrived, and ordered him to stay at his post. The engineer, no doubt considering the nature of the cargo, said, “I immediately went on deck and jumped into the water.”
It was an unusual operation. We spent more time submerged inside the 100-fathom curve than any U.S. submarine since World War II. Crew training, equipment reliability, ship control, navigation, sonar, communications, propulsion plant—everything and everyone performed superbly. We could not have asked for anything more. For that operation the Sculpin earned the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, the only U.S. submarine during the entire Vietnam War to receive that award.
The Sculpin was also nominated for the submarine combat patrol pin, and our individual awards for the combat “V.” If that had been approved, she would have been the first submarine since World War II to get the combat patrol pin. Instead, the nomination was disapproved somewhere up the chain of command. I assume it was probably rejected by a World War II submariner who thought the operation wasn’t nearly as hazardous as what he did during his war, and it didn’t measure up. I can’t argue with that, but the crew had great hope that they could proudly wear the pin for their contribution, particularly to the safety of our troops. Another consideration, however, might have been that those pins would have raised questions and possibly compromised an operation that was still classified.
We covered a huge distance in trail during that operation. Someone asked me later how I slept at night. I said, “With a pillow under my head, up against the bulkhead in case we hit something.”
Admiral Larson went on to serve on active duty for 40 years. His senior position was as commander-in-chief of all United States military forces in the Pacific. Captain Wright served 26 years on active duty. He was commanding officer of USS Puffer (SSN-652) and operations officer for Commander Submarine Group Seven. Mr. Stillwell, the former editor of Naval History and the U.S. Naval Institute Oral History Program, has written the ” Looking Back ” column since 1993.
Cold War Records
This article is the result of merging my notes and recollections with those of Clint Wright, who stood a good many watches as Sculpin ‘s officer of the deck during the pursuit of the trawler. Clint also gained access to the unclassified versions of the submarine’s deck logs. Other OODs during the operation included Lieutenants Dick Snaider, Jim Gabala, Alan Beam, and Charlie Krupnick.
Getting our joint account through security review was an interesting challenge. Clint’s original motive was to publish an article, because he wanted the Sculpin Sailors to get credit for what they did. My motive was to try and get it cleared for my oral history, so at least part of our special operations could be made public to my family and to other interested people. We jointly pursued this effort, dealing with the director of Naval Intelligence and several people who used to work for me. The first thing we discovered was that there were absolutely no records of the Sculpin’s operations. They had all been destroyed.
This highlights weaknesses in the Naval Intelligence Command’s record keeping. As far as we can determine, the Navy had its standard Cold War intelligence gathering, what we called “special operations,” which were classified and compartmentalized. Those reports appear to have been preserved. But because the Sculpin’s Vietnam operation was not in that category—it was a more conventional, although extremely unusual, operation and didn’t have the protection of that system—the reports were purged at some point when the government discarded old records. There is just no official record of this operation.
In putting this story together and sending it forward for clearance by the Navy Department, I think we did a double service. We not only got it cleared so those who served in the Sculpin during this time can receive credit, but we made this operation public and prevented it from being lost forever. At some point, an old Sculpin Sailor would have wanted to talk about it, and there would have been no way to find the records. So I’m very pleased that we were able to do that for our fine crew.”
—Admiral Charles R. Larson
Charles Robert Larson (November 20, 1936 – July 26, 2014) was a four-star Admiral of the United States Navy.
|Motto:||“Videte eos prius” – “See ’em first”|
|Fate:||Entered the Submarine Recycling Program on 1 October 2000|
|Class and type:||Skipjack-class submarine|
|Displacement:||2,830 long tons (2,880 t) surfaced|
|3,500 long tons (3,600 t) submerged|
|Length:||251 ft 9 in (76.73 m)|
|Beam:||32 ft (9.8 m)|
|Draft:||28 ft (8.5 m)|
|Propulsion:||1 × S5W reactor|
|2 × Westinghouse steam turbines, 15,000 shp (11 MW)|
|Speed:||15 knots (17 mph; 28 km/h) surfaced|
|More than 30 knots (35 mph; 56 km/h) submerged|
|Test depth:||700 ft (210 m)|
|Sensors and||BPS-12 radar|
|processing systems:||BQR-12 sonar|
|BQR-2 passive sonar|
|BQS-4 (modified) active/passive sonar|
|Armament:||6 × 21 in (530 mm) torpedo tubes|
I spent a number of years in my youth living and sailing out of Pearl Harbor. The last time we were there was in 2003 and the changes even then were astonishing. Many of the old buildings were still there but a modern bridge attached Ford Island to the mainland. The Chapel at Sub base was closed at that time and the Enlisted Men’s club was on limited hours as well.
But no matter how long you are away, some memories come back and overwhelm you. The smell of the many flowers as you arrive at the airport. The breeze of the trade winds that mask the heat of the bright sun. And the feeling of an unstated collection of long ago spirits that traveled through these islands on their war to long ago wars. As you stand by the finger piers looking across at the shipyards, you can hear the hammering and welding of broken warships being readied for another battle. The sound of the liberty boat fills your imagination of so many trips across the harbor, stopping only for the raising of the flag each morning and the lowering each night.
The day you get orders to Pearl Harbor for the first time, your life is changed forever. You are about to become part of a legend. No matter where you travel in life, you will always carry that memory inside of you.
Pearl Harbor was originally an extensive shallow embayment called Wai Momi (meaning, “Waters of Pearl”) or Puʻuloa (meaning, “long hill”) by the Hawaiians. Puʻuloa was regarded as the home of the shark goddess, Kaʻahupahau, and her brother (or son), Kahiʻuka, in Hawaiian legends. According to tradition, Keaunui, the head of the powerful Ewa chiefs, is credited with cutting a navigable channel near the present Puʻuloa saltworks, by which he made the estuary, known as “Pearl River,” accessible to navigation. Making due allowance for legendary amplification, the estuary already had an outlet for its waters where the present gap is; but Keaunui is typically given the credit for widening and deepening it.
Naval Station, Honolulu” was established on 17 November 1899. On 2 February 1900, this title was changed to “Naval Station, Hawaii”. In the years that followed, dredging and building continued and eventually the idea of stationing submarines in Pearl Harbor was broached.
This is the story of the submarine base up until 1945.
Pearl Harbor Submarine Base: 1918-1945
From the Official US Navy Records:
Shortly after the Armistice of World War I in 1918, the submarines R-15 to R-20 were ordered to the Hawaiian Area, arriving early in 1919 to establish the Submarine Base at Pearl Harbor. Previous to this, there had been other submarines operating in the Hawaiian Area, for in 1912 four “F” class submarines operated from the site of the old Naval Station, Pier 5, Honolulu.
Their activities, however, were concluded when the F-4 sank off Honolulu. After this tragedy in 1915, the remaining “F” boats were towed back to the mainland. Shortly after these submarines left, four “K” type submarines and the Alert arrived, staying until after World War I started.
The R-11 to R-20 were ordered to Pearl Harbor in 1920 and the R-1 to R-10 followed in 1923. When the “R” boats, under the Divisional Command of Lieutenant Commander F.X. Gygax, arrived at Pearl Harbor, he found only one finger pier at the present site of the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base, and to this the R-18 was secured. This was the first submarine to moor at todays most modern and most complete Pacific submarine home activity.
The area chosen in 1919 for a submarine base was covered with cactus plants and algaroba trees, which had to be cut down before any buildings could be erected. When the land along the waterfront had been cleared, concrete slabs were poured into the region to support portable structures which had been obtained by Commander Chester W. Nimitz (now Fleet Admiral Nimitz), who was the first Commanding Officer of the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base. These structures consisted of old aviation cantonment buildings that had seen service in France. Meanwhile, tents had been pitched, and the base personnel used these meager furnishings for their living and messing needs. Two months after the arrival of the first submarine division, the base had a temporary mess hall; administration building; machine, carpenter, electric, gyro-compass, optical and battery overhaul shops. For general stores, a floating barge was procured from the Navy Yard, housed over and pressed into service.
In 1923, the first permanent building, still in use as a battery overhaul shop, was constructed with approximately 85% of the work being done by submarine base personnel. Living quarters for submarine personnel were improvised by utilizing the cruiser Chicago, later renamed the Alton, which was brought in and moored where the present day base’s largest pier, S1, now stands. A causeway was built out to her, and the cruiser’s topside was housed over to provide bunk rooms for submarine officers, while the lower deck was given to the officers and men attached to the base. Also, in 1920, another finger pier was constructed.
In the years that followed, peace time years, the temporary buildings were gradually torn down and replaced by larger and more commodious structures, some of which provided excellent usage during World War II. In 1925, the base had approximately 25 buildings erected and the Navy had already begun to reclaim marsh and swamp land in order that further expansion could be possible. During the same period, two more finger piers were built. In 1928, the largest building on the present day site, the main “U” shaped barracks building, was spacious enough to accommodate all submarine and base personnel and, as late as 1940, was still utilized for this purpose, other barracks not being necessary until shortly before hostilities began in 1941. By 1933, berths 10 to 14 on a long quay wall had been completed and a thirty ton crane had been constructed on the outboard end of finger pier number four. Also by this year, the submarine rescue and training tank, the enlisted men’s pool, the theater (built entirely by submarine base personnel), and the main repair buildings had been completed.
The Administration Building, housing the base torpedo shop in the main deck of one wing and the Supply Department on both decks of the other wing had been completed. Above the torpedo shop, was located the Base Commanding Officer’s and Executive officer’s offices. Shortly after the completion of this building, an officer’s quarters was built close to the Administration Building. Since there was now housing and messing facilities for both officers and enlisted men, the Alton was no longer needed.
From 1935 until the outbreak of hostilities, many other buildings were added to the base proper, the majority of them small in size and nature. In addition, with the planting of coconut trees, palms and other shrubberies, the Submarine Base became not only a place military in nature, but also pleasant in appearance.
December 7th, 1941
Fortunately for America, and conversely, unfortunately for Japan, the enemy neglected to strike at Pearl Harbor Submarine Base on 7 December 1941. Quite possibly this could have been by design since the Japs conceivably paid little attention to the comparatively small submarine force the United States had operating in the Pacific, the majority of which, incidentally, was operating in the Far East.
For whatever reason, no damage was done to the base and for this oversight the Japs were to pay dearly since it was the submarine force in the Pacific that, almost alone, carried the war into the enemy’s waters in the first two years of the war, a feat that would have been improbable, if not impossible, had it not been for the excellent repair and supply facilities afforded by the Pearl harbor Submarine Base before other advanced bases could be established.
On 30 June 1940, there were 359 enlisted men stationed at the Submarine Base with this number slowly increasing to 700 on 15 August 1941 and to 1,081 in July 1942. Rapid expansion of the base reached its peak in July 1944, when there were 6,633 enlisted men serving on the Submarine Base proper. These were the men for whom there was no glory but who, nevertheless, worked excessive hours no matter what their job in order that our submersibles might roam the Pacific in excellent fighting condition.
As an indication of the tremendous amount of work accomplished by the Pearl Harbor base, four hundred submarines were overhauled, refitted, or repaired during the period from May 1944 until July 1945. (This should not be construed as 400 individual submarines, but rather as a certain number of subs overhauled numerous times). This meant four hundred submarines prowling the seas, destroying Japanese shipping relentlessly through the sole medium of repair and supply furnished by one base. Truly, the enemy missed a military objective by blindly overlooking the Submarine Base on the day of the “blitz”.
It is not a debatable question as to which departmental function was the most important at the Submarine Base, since without one the other would have been negligible. To all go the credit for the tremendous successes achieved as the result of basing submarines at Pearl.
Under the Supply Department during a three month period ending 1 September 1944, the Commissary Department furnished $410,000 worth of provisions aboard roving submarines; and for the entire war, the value of provision stowed aboard operating subs totaled the tremendous sum of $3,680,296, a good reason as to why submarine personnel are the best fed men in the world. The Disbursing officer paid $33,363,305.23 in salaries to submarine personnel in the last two and a half years of the war in 1,144 individual pay days to submarine crews. Clothing and Small Stores, another function of the Supply Department, issued $916,519 worth of clothing to submarine personnel in the last year and a half of the war. Supply was, without a doubt, a major issue of the war.
The Ordnance Department, from the outbreak of war until the cessation of hostilities, overhauled 15,644 torpedoes of which 5,185 were fired by combat submarines with 1,860 torpedoes resulting in successful hits. A remarkable record and one which can well be shared by the shore based personnel of the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base.
The Engineering and Repair Department consisting of technicians and specialists of every description commenced their work on submarines days before the boat ever berthed at the Base. For as much as a week prior to each submarine’s arrival, plans were drawn up for the work to be accomplished on the boat. On the day of arrival, the submarine furnished the E&R department a complete list of “ailments” and on the following day an arrival conference between Base officers and Ships’ officers was held. At this time, a detailed plan of repair action was made while, even at that moment, work crews from the various shops were ripping apart faulty equipment for overhaul and repair. In the short two week period that the submarine remained at the Base, every department observed every derangement, large or small, and made corrections and repairs as necessary or else replaced faulty equipment. Engineering was a factor of no small importance in the winning of the war because submarines, returning from patrol, ofttimes had almost unrepairable damage. In the month of September 1944 alone, the Engineering and Repair Department refitted twelve submarines and made voyage repairs to twenty-five others, a feat not only never before performed but not even dreamed of in the past.
The Medical Department achieved miracles in the treatment and prevention of ills and diseases. Upon the completion of a war patrol, each submarine crew was thoroughly examined by especially trained and unusually competent Medical, Dental and Psychiatric Officers. Should it develop that a man had an ailment, no matter how trivial, he was replaced, treated and, in most cases, restored to duty on board operating submarines. Many a story has been told of medical corpsmen on submarines who have performed such feats as appendectomies and the diagnosis of diseases like spinal meningitis while on a combat war patrol. Many of these men were trained and gathered experience at a well-equipped and efficient Dispensary of the Submarine Base at Pearl Harbor. In addition, it was the Base Medical Department’s responsibility that all medicinal supplies and drugs were furnished each submarine prior to its departure on war patrol.
And there were other departments, the First Lieutenant’s men worked day and night loading or unloading submarines, maintaining buildings and equipment, patrolling the base during the war’s most security conscious moments, and furnishing transportation for men and equipment.
There was the Rest and Recuperation Annex to the Submarine Base, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel with its 425 rooms and housing capacity of 935 guests. When this entire space was not required by the Submarine Force, it was made available to aviation activities, small craft returning from advance bases, forward advance Marine units, and in some isolated cases, to battleships and cruisers.
Then there was the Chaplain and his assistants who offered counsel and guidance to war-weary and nerve-torn veterans of the war patrols. There was the Ship’s Service Department which offered everything necessary to life and comfort from phonograph records to the latest books and novelties.
The Pearl Harbor Submarine Base was not a base erected during the heat of battle. Its permanent foundations were laid down in 1919 and through the years of peace it became stronger and healthier. At the outbreak of hostilities, it was incapable of accommodating the ultimate number of submarines that were to operate in the Pacific, but never once did this Base lag in its accomplishments of sundry duties. At times, the output of work far exceeded that expected or thought of, but always the submarines based temporarily at Pearl Harbor between moments of combat had their slightest needs fulfilled.
Upon the establishment of the Submarine Base at Pearl Harbor, Commander C.W. Nimitz was the Commanding Officer, a duty he held until 1922. He was succeeded in command by the following officers:
Commander L.F. Welch 1922-1925
Commander F.C. Martin 1925-1928
Captain A. Bronson 1928-1929
Captain W.K. Wortman 1929-1930
In 1930, Submarine Squadron FOUR commenced operating in the Hawaiian Area, and the two commands were united with the following officers pursuing duties as Commander, Submarine Squadron FOUR and Commanding Officer, U.S. Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor, T.H.:
Captain W.K. Wortman 1930-1932
Captain H.W. Osterhas 1932-1934
Captain R.A. Kock 1934-1936
Captain R.S. Culp 1936-1938
Captain F.W. Scanland 1938-1940
Captain W.R. Carter 1940-1941
Captain F.A. Daubin 1941-1942
Captain R.H. English March 1942-May 1942
Captain J.H. Brown, Jr. May 1942-January 1943
On 13 January 1943, the two commands were separated, due to the tremendous work load required of each command by war time operations. As a result, Captain C.D. Edmunds relieved Captain J.H. Brown, Jr., as Commanding Officer of the Submarine Base, with Captain Brown retaining the command of SubRon FOUR. In turn, Captain Edmunds was relieved by Captain C.E. Aldrich, who served in that capacity from September 1943 until October 1944, when he was relieved by Captain E.R. Swinburne, who remained in command of the base until after the cessation of hostilities. However, the Commanding Officer of the Submarine Base continued to come under the Squadron Commander until, in October 1945, with the reorganization of the submarine force, he was placed directly under ComSubPac.
The story of Submarine Base Pearl Harbor will continue in the near future…
The Cradle of Submarine Life in America
I was reading through a Naval History record of Building the Navy’s Bases in World War II (Volume I (Part II))
Part of the massive construction done to support the war was the story about the expansion of the Naval Submarine base at New London Connecticut. In my generation, nearly everyone destined to serve on submarines spent some time at the school and many went on to serve on boats stationed there. While the boats themselves demand a lot of attention for their missions, we can never forget the significance of having a powerful infrastructure.
Bases as a vital factor of sea power were defined by Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz.
‘Sea power,’ he declared, ‘is not a limited term. It includes many weapons and many techniques. Sea power means more than the combatant ships and aircraft, the amphibious forces and the merchant marine. It includes also the port facilities of New York and California; the bases in Guam and in Kansas; the factories which are the capital plant of war; and the farms which are the producers of supplies. All these are elements of sea power. Furthermore, sea power is not limited to materials and equipment. It includes the functioning organization which has directed its use in the war. In the Pacific we have been able to use our naval power effectively because we have been organized along sound lines. The present organization of our Navy Department has permitted decisions to be made effectively. It has allowed great flexibility. In each operation we were able to apply our force at the time and place where it would be most damaging to the enemy.’
New London Submarine Base is the United States Navy’s primary East Coast submarine base, also known as the “Home of the Submarine Force”. It is located in Groton, Connecticut
In 1868, the State of Connecticut gave the Navy 112 acres (0.5 km²) of land along the Thames River in Groton to build a Naval Station. Due to a lack of federal funding, it was not until 1872 that two brick buildings and a “T” shaped pier were constructed and officially declared a Navy Yard. In 1898, Congress approved a coaling station be built at the Yard for refueling small naval ships traveling through the waters of New England. The Navy Yard was first used for laying up inactive ships. The Congressional appropriations were small and the Navy had little need for the Yard, which was actually closed from 1898 to 1900 and its personnel reassigned. This new yard was primarily used as a coaling station by Atlantic Fleet small craft. It is located in the towns of Groton and Ledyard. By 1912, oil replaced coal in warships and again the Yard was scheduled for closure and the land relinquished by the Navy.
The Navy Yard was spared permanent closure in 1912 by an impassioned plea from local Congressman Edwin W. Higgins of Norwich, who was worried about the loss of Federal spending in the region. Within six years, the Federal government would spend over a million dollars at the Yard. On 13 October 1915, the monitor Ozark, a submarine tender, and 4 submarines arrived in Groton. With the war effort in Europe and the Atlantic in full swing, additional submarines and support craft arrived the following year and the facility was named as the Navy’s first Submarine Base. The first Commander of the Yard was retired Commodore Timothy A. Hunt, who was recalled up to service. Living in New Haven, Commodore Hunt used the Central Hotel on State Street, New London when in town to attend to Yard duties on an “as needed” basis. Despite being physically located in the Town of Groton, the name New London became associated with the Navy Yard because the base had its main offices and housing in New London. Following World War I, the Navy established schools and training facilities at the base.
The first diesel-powered US submarine, USS E-1 (SS-24), was commissioned in Groton on February 14, 1912, Lieutenant Chester W. Nimitz in command.
Previous to the outbreak of World War I, very little consideration had been given to the care and upkeep of submarines, except at the primary navy yards and stations. New London (Conn.), commissioned in December 1915, was the first continental submarine base.
On June 21, 1916, the Navy Yard changed forever as Commander Yates Stirling, Jr. assumed the command of the newly designated Submarine Base, the New London Submarine Flotilla, and the Submarine School.
The Base property expanded during the latter part of World War I. Congress approved over a million dollars for Base real estate and facilities expansion. By the end of the war, 81 buildings had been built to support 1400 men and 20 submarines. With victory in hand, the land expansion of the Base was slowed through much of the 1920s. However, the Great Depression of the 1930s saw an expansion and enhancement of the physical plant of the Base. President Franklin Roosevelt created a series of Federal Government employment programs that contributed significantly to the Submarine Base. Over 26 high quality warehouses, barracks and workshops were built at the base under these Federal job-spending programs.
New London, as the only station especially equipped for the training of submarine personnel, received special consideration by the Hepburn Board, and early in January 1939 a survey was made by the public works officer at the base to determine the necessary facilities required to provide for 21 submarines in commission and reserve. Rehabilitation of service lines to existing piers was listed as a first priority, and that work, begun in October of that same year, was completed by July 1940.
On the 12th of July 1940, a CPFF contract in the amount of $2,021,175 for facilities for commissioning reserve submarines, including improvement of buildings and accessories and waterfront development, was awarded. Field work was begun July 29, 1940. Additions to the contract included a marine railway. A second CPFF contract called for additional facilities for servicing the submarines, including connection with outside power. A third CPFF contract provided for housing units for married enlisted naval personnel.
In July 1941 the Fuel Storage Board recommended that additional fuel-oil and diesel-oil storage facilities be provided in prestressed concrete tanks. In March of 1942, work was started on the construction of 50 “keyport” magazines for the storage of torpedo warheads, two fixed ammunition magazines, one small-arms magazine, one pyrotechnic magazine, and one fuse magazine. The second largest expansion of Submarine Base New London occurred during World War II, when it grew from 112 acres to 497 acres. The Submarine Force leaped in size, and the Base accommodated thousands of men to service the growing combat fleet.
Expansion of the Submarine School facilities, calling for the construction of additional barracks, subsistence building, and school buildings, and concomitant services, was approved July 28, 1942. Unforeseen increases in the training program made it necessary to increase these facilities, under an appropriation approval in January 1943. By May of 1943, approximately $12,000,000 had been spent on the rehabilitation program, and plans were immediately begun for further development.
By March 1946 the record stood at 263 buildings, including 87 magazines and 15 Quonset huts, providing floor space of 1,815,362 square feet. Berthing space had been increased to 10,000 linear feet. There were 15 submarine piers, a floating drydock with a capacity of 3500 tons, and a marine railway with a 3000-ton capacity, together with 300 square yards of outdoor assembly, repair or working space. The barracks could accommodate 448 officers and 7286 enlisted men, and, in addition, there were 106 family housing units. Messing facilities to care for 142 officers, 2774 enlisted personnel, and 264 civilians had been provided, together with dispensary facilities of 354 beds.
Immediately after WWII the Submarine Force was significantly reduced and many famous submarines were sent into storage. Most of the World War II fleet was sold for scrap metal during the early 1960s.
The Escape Training Tank
From 1930 to 1994 the most recognizable structure on the base was the 100-foot-tall Escape Training Tank. Generations of submariners learned to escape in up to 80 feet of water using buoyant ascent, and were trained in the use of the Momsen lung or Steinke hood. In 2007 the Escape Training Tank was replaced by the Submarine Escape Trainer, which has two types of escape trunks in up to 40 feet of water. The Steinke hood was replaced by the Submarine Escape Immersion Equipment in the 2000s
The First School
Within a few years of the first submarine being accepted by the United States Navy, it became apparent that the new technology and tactics would require special training.
When the first class of twenty four officers began studies for submarine duty a century ago in the summer of 1916, the submarine base in Groton, Connecticut, was little more than a handful of buildings scattered across the area now known as Lower Base.
First Submarine Officer Graduation Class, 1 July 1916
By Christmas 1916, the twenty two graduates of that first submarine officers’ course were heading out for assignments after spending six months in training on submarines, torpedoes, engineering and electricity.’ Records are sketchy on the nature of much of that training-especially since the bulk of the early trainers were salvage material from decommissioned submarines.Within a year the graduates of that first officers course, and those who were to follow them through Naval Submarine School, were serving around the globe as the United States entered World War I.
One hundred years after that first graduation, Naval Submarine School, Submarine Base, the U.S. Navy and the world have all undergone radical and profound change but the tradition as the center for submarine training excellence continues.
First enlisted muster at Naval Submarine School, Winter 1917
From one building on Lower Base in 1916, Naval Submarine School has grown to the largest single tenant unit on Submarine Base, with over thirty thousand Sailors graduating annually from nearly two hundred different courses.
From an era when training aids were Mark I Attack trainers and a German-built trainer of unspecified history, Naval Submarine School maintains and operates state-of-the-art trainers costing millions to design and develop. These trainers are vital tools in providing realistic individual and team training for a submarine fleet striving for total inclusion in Joint Vision 2020.
Basic Enlisted Submarine School (BESS) is the U.S. Navy’s submarine training school for enlisted sailors. Located on Naval Submarine Base New London (NAVSUBASE NLON) in Groton, New London County, Connecticut, the school is an eight-week introduction to the basic theory, construction and operation of nuclear-powered submarines. The course includes instruction on shipboard organization, submarine safety and escape procedures. This program requires passing a physical and mental screening. As of 2015, BESS is open to female sailors, including current sailors who wish to join the submarine force by completing the two-month program.
Yesterday and today: Still the Center of Submarine Force Training Excellence
Naval Submarine School course offerings include introduction, apprentice and basic skill level training; encompass initial technical proficiency training and advanced team operator and team training in electronic and combat systems employment, navigation and damage control; and provide mid-career professional growth courses for both officers and enlisted Sailors.
The Naval Submarine School also conducts refresher training of all Atlantic Fleet submarines completing construction or overhaul, pre-deployment and training ashore for all submarines of the Atlantic Fleet.
I supposed I am prejudiced, but I would say that the US Submarine Force is the best equipped and trained submarine force in the world. In a dangerous world, that makes me very happy.
Its funny how an old picture can bring back so many memories. Whether a boomer sailor sailed out of Scotland, Guam, Rota or Charleston many of the events they experienced were similar. I don’t know how many hundreds of ballistic missile patrols were made. I am sure there were a lot.
Since the 1960s, strategic deterrence has been the SSBN’s sole mission, providing the United States with its most survivable and enduring nuclear strike capability.
The world’s first operational nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) was USS George Washington (SSBN-598) with 16 Polaris A-1 missiles, which entered service in December 1959 and conducted the first SSBN deterrent patrol November 1960-January 1961. The Polaris missile and the first US SSBNs were developed by a Special Project office under Rear Admiral W. F. “Red” Raborn, appointed by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke. George Washington was redesigned and rebuilt early in construction from a Skipjack-class fast attack submarine, USS Scorpion, with a 130 ft (40 m) missile compartment welded into the middle. Nuclear power was a crucial advance, allowing a ballistic missile submarine to remain undetected at sea by remaining submerged or occasionally at periscope depth (50 to 55 feet) for an entire patrol.
A significant difference between US and Soviet SLBMs was the fuel type; all US SLBMs have been solid fueled while all Soviet and Russian SLBMs were liquid fueled except for the Russian RSM-56 Bulava, which entered service in 2014. With more missiles on one US SSBN than on five Golf-class boats, the Soviets rapidly fell behind in sea-based deterrent capability. The Soviets were only a year behind the US with their first SSBN, the ill-fated K-19 of Project 658 (Hotel class), commissioned in November 1960. However, this class carried the same three-missile armament as the Golfs. The first Soviet SSBN with 16 missiles was the Project 667A (Yankee class), the first of which entered service in 1967, by which time the US had commissioned 41 SSBNs, nicknamed the “41 for Freedom”.
This is a typical picture of a boat leaving Holy Loch Scotland
Inside that boat, the sailors and officers were preparing for the first dive after refit. There are very few times in life where something so seemingly simple can be so complex. The vent valves on the ballast tank will open on command but will they close? Are the seals on the hatches cleaned and inspected before closing? What major systems were worked on during refit that might cause a problem? Did you get all of the air out of the hydraulic lines, especially the ones for the planes controls?
For the older guys, a feeling of sadness knowing that it will be sixty or more days before they get to talk to a loved one again. For the new guys, its that feeling of mixed excitement at a first dive and a nagging fear that anyone one of the things listed above could go wrong. For the officer’s its that lurking Russian trawler just beyond the Clyde waiting to give them a hard time on their way to work.
For the tender guys, its just another boat in a long rotation of boats with another one soon to follow. On shore, the people of Dunoon see a shadow filled with customers and men who often drank too much knowing there would be no more drinks for the months ahead. Somewhere back in the states there was an empty feeling in the homes of the families who may have wished that last phone call could have lasted a few minutes longer. In the heartland of America, there was nothing. Not a feeling of something special or different about to happen. Not a fear in the world that some Soviet boat might be at that very minute patrolling near their coasts. Not a streak of an ICBM over the dawn sky.
Because at the heart of it all, men who sailed on that boat and worked on those tenders and docks were so very damn good at their jobs.
I’M THE GALLOPING GHOST OF THE JAPANESE COAST
By Constantine Guiness, MOMM 1/C, USN
I’m the galloping ghost of the Japanese coast.
You don’t hear of me and my crew
But just ask any man off the coast of Japan.
If he knows of the Trigger Maru.
I look sleek and slender alongside my tender.
With others like me at my side,
But we’ll tell you a story of battle and glory,
As enemy waters we ride.
I’ve been stuck on a rock, felt the depth charge’s shock,
Been north to a place called Attu,
and I’ve sunk me two freighters atop the equator
Hot work, but the sea was cold blue.
I’ve cruised close inshore and carried the war
to the Empire Island Honshu,
While they wire Yokahama I could see Fujiyama,
So I stayed, to admire the view.
When we rigged to run silently, deeply I dived,
And within me the heat was terrific.
My men pouring sweat, silent and yet
Cursed me and the whole damned Pacific.
Then destroyers came sounding and depth charges pounding
My submarine crew took the test.
Far in that far off land there are no friends on hand,
To answer a call of distress.
I was blasted and shaken (some damage I be taken),
my hull bleeds and pipe lines do, too
I’ve come in from out there for machinery repair,
And a rest for me and my crew.
I got by on cool nerve and in silence I served,
Though I took some hard knocks in return,
One propeller shaft sprung and my battery’s done,
But the enemy ships I saw burn.
I’m the galloping ghost of the Japanese coast,
You don’t hear of me and my crew.
But just ask any man off the coast of Japan,
If he knows of the Trigger Maru.
USS Trigger SS 237 Departed on her first war patrol on June 26, 1942.
The United States Navy had not planned on using the submarines at its disposal in the way they found themselves forced to in the spring of 1942. The Japanese Navy had crushed the battle fleet in a surprise attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 but failed to do much damage to the submarines or their base. This fatal error would cause them damage of amazing proportions in the four years to come.
The USS TRIGGER was a Gato-class submarine, the first ship of the United States Navy to be named for the triggerfish.
The Gato-class were a class of submarines built for the United States Navy and launched in 1941–1943; they were the first mass-production US submarine class of World War II. Together with their near-sisters the Balao and Tench classes, their design formed the majority of the United States Navy’s World War II submarine fleet.
The Gato-class boats were “Fleet Submarines”. The original operational intent behind their design was that they would operate as support units for the main battle fleet, based on the way battleships were operated and had been since World War I. The submarines would scout out ahead of the fleet and report on the enemy fleet’s composition, speed, and course, then they were to attack and whittle down the enemy in preparation for the main fleet action, a large gun battle between battleships and cruisers. This operational concept had developed from experiences gained during the First World War
A remarkable ship
From the Official Naval Records:
“A fantastically colored and dangerous fish is the trigger, and like the fish after which she was named, USS TRIGGER had a fantastically colorful career and a dangerous for the Japanese. Her brilliant record was not made without danger to herself and her last patrol proved that heroes are often lost but heroic achievements will never die.
The twisted plating of many Japanese vessels went to the bottom of the ocean from the daring attacks of TRIGGER. Battered and pounded time and a in by the merciless depth charges of the Japanese, TRIGGER returned time after time from the deep, dark shadows of an ocean grave to fight on. Former TRIGGER men throughout the submarine service fought on with new resolve when they learned of her loss.
From the very beginning TRIGGER had a spirit of go-ahead built into her trim lines. She was completed several months before schedule at the Navy Yard, Mare Island, and the keel for the next submarine was laid in the same spot four months ahead of schedule. Her keel was laid on 1 February 1941 and by 22 October of the same year, Mrs. Walter Newhall Vernon, wife of Rear Admiral Vernon, senior member of the Board of Inspection and Survey, Pacific Coast Section, served as the sponsor for this ship at the launching.
TRIGGER joined the United States Navy on 30 November 1942, the date of her commissioning with Lieutenant Commander J.H. Lewis, as the first commanding officer. It took weeks and months of arduous training before she was ready to meet the enemy. The officers and crew had to learn the multiplicity of complicated mechanisms before they knew their ship well — their ship— their home— their destiny! It was in the early days of rugged training that TRIGGER acquired that last intangible installation called soul.
As TRIGGER nosed into the submarine base at Pearl Harbor before her first war patrol, she was a neophyte, a trifle self-conscious and perhaps apologetic to slip her trim form into the berth of her illustrious sisters. Little was she to know that before very long any submarine of the fleet would be proud to tie-up alongside her.
Off to a slow start on her first war patrol, TRIGGER departed Pearl Harbor on 26 June 1942, bound for the area around Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. During her first war patrol, six enemy contacts were made but bad weather and unfavorable approach conditions precluded any successful attacks. Considerable time was spent on special tasks in connection with the bombardment of Kiska Harbor and in searching various harbors and bays. Pickings were mighty slim and the patrol terminated with TRIGGER’s arrival at Dutch Harbor on 10 August.”
USS TRIGGER would go on to win eleven Battle Stars. On her twelfth patrol, she left port with the USS TIRANTE, A radio call was sent out from TIRANTE calling TRIGGER. From the official report:
“Silence was the only answer — a silence that has never been broken; a silence that told a wordless story. The call for the TRIGGER is still echoing through the ocean depths; echoing through the hearts that knew her for the gallant ship she was. The spirit of the TRIGGER lives on. It will never die.”
USS TRIGGER Lost with all hands
Struck from the record 11 July 1945
One of the things you learn quickly about the military is the endless stream of nicknames attached to the people, equipment and all manner of things unique to the recipient of the toast. The Navy is not unique but it certainly has no shortages of slang and identifiers. These all help to separate the various groups within its ranks. If you ride a surface ship, there is a good chance that you have been called a skimmer at some point in your life. The boys and girls associated with the air wings are mostly called “airdales”
But a unique name exists for our submariners: Bubblehead. I have been around submariners for over forty years and have heard a million different explanations for the term. Like most sea stories, the origin is somewhat questionable. I have never really found a place that says that it was born on a specific day or linked to a specific event. Some of the many descriptions can be found at a blog of a similar name:
If you look up the term in the dictionary, its not at all complimentary :
American submarine history started a long time ago but the official start date coincides with the purchase of the submarine Holland on April 11, 1900. The start of the journey was slow and filled with all kinds of obstacles and enemies. But it was a joy ride from one of the least Bubbleheaded men of his day that helped to strengthen the future for submarines. President Theodore Roosevelt himself took a ride on an early version and as a result recognized the unique possibilities of the fledgling service. He assured a tradition of support through his backing of their credible service for sea time and a bonus for taking rhe risk to serve on them.
I will admit that the extra money was a nice incentive. But dead men can’t spend it and there are many who rode their boats to an early grave that are proof of that fact. April 10, 1963 stands out as a perfect example of what the cost of riding a boat can be. The sea is unforgiving in its ways. Submariners are the best of the best but even they sometimes will be overcome by the power of the deep.
On this day, we celebrate all things submarine. The incredible adventures we remember and the incredible boredom we overcame. The ports and the people, the sights and the sounds, the brave and the bold. But mostly the bubbleheads we knew. I am honored to be among one of the few that ever earned the title.
Happy Birthday Bubbleheads.