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.
Each submariner’s journey begins when they finish all of their training and the hatch closes when the last man is down. For a hundred and seventeen years, submariners have steered a course unique to their own generation and their own type of boat. From the wildly dangerous gasoline powered boats to the sleek new nuclear powered leviathans, submariners have all pioneered their own form of warfare facing unique challenges. In my lifetime, I have watched the demise of the diesel boats and an entire generation of nuclear boats that had vastly different missions and capabilities.
The lessons learned on the early boats have been passed along in design and operations. Learning the characteristics of the sea is a never ending process as boats operate in depth greater than the early designers could have imagined at speeds that dwarf the Pig Boats. New technology and weapons have made the modern submarines the most fearsome warriors the world has ever known.
With all of these improvements in design and technology comes a much stronger need for training and skills. Even though I sailed on some of the most updated submarines for their time (688 Class and Ohio Class) the new boats have capabilities that make what we did seem like it was primitive.
Two things have remained constant throughout the entire history of U.S. Submarines. First, the older generation always had a rougher time than these newbies and were somehow the “real” submariners. Second, the older generation passes away and is replaced by the “newbies” that are now the older generation and had a rougher time than the current generation of newbies. They become the “real” submariners.
If you ever want to have some fun at a USSVI meeting, just whisper out loud to someone that the definition of a real submarine is one that can stay underwater for months at a time. Man Battle Stations Torpedo will soon be heard throughout the room. Shouts of DBF will fill the air.
News flash: your dolphins make you unique among the many classes of sailors who have ever challenged the sea. But they do not make you any better than anyone else wearing them because of the type of boat they earned them on. The mixture of bravery, comradery, sacrifice and tireless work binds us all together. I would even challenge that those men and women who are currently serving on the newest boats are more technically qualified than people of my generation. Their sacrifices are just as real however. In some cases more. Instead of weeks of sea time, they routinely do months. Instead of slowly cruising near the ocean’s surface, they bravely sail at great depths with astounding sustained speeds.
I love my many memories from serving on my five nuclear submarines. We did and saw things that will remain secretly in my heart forever. I also love belonging to a unique fraternity that stands alone in all of the fraternities of the world. I feel disappointed when any member of this fraternity tries to diminish the service of anyone else who has earned the position just to make themselves feel better or more important. You aren’t. And God willing, maybe the next generation will not be so inclined to be so self-focused.
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.
I have been chronicling the actions of the US Forces in the Pacific fleet for a number of months and in doing so have found some really great stories with a lot of detail about how the war was progressing in mid 1945. One of those stories started with a small footnote about a wolf pack operation in the Java Sea conducted by the submarines USS Blueback (SS-326) (Balao-class submarine – commissioned 1944) and USS Lamprey (SS-372) (Balao-class submarine – commissioned 1944) as they battled the Japanese submarine chaser Ch.1 in a surface gunnery action off Japara, N.E.I., 06°28’S, 110°37’E.
What I like most about these stories is the human face they put on the war’s prosecution. The Blueback’s war patrol records and deck logs have been preserved and I was able to trace the action in the words and sometimes very interesting thoughts of her skipper M.K. Clementson Cdr. USN. one small example came in his final report where he spoke about crewmembers who were departing before the mission began. While reading the original report, I was a bit confused for a few moments about the upcoming re-assignment of Lt. James Mercer who had completed 13 war patrols.
By this time in the war, many of the submarine skippers were modifying their deck guns to suit the missions they would be conducting. During his refit in Perth AU prior to commencing the third war patrol, Clementson and his crew rearranged the location and firing support devices for much of his topside weaponry. The hope was that with an increased capacity to conduct surface operations, they would be able to have more flexibility in attacking the dwindling enemy surface fleet and merchant fleet. During the third war patrol, Blueback would get credit for sinking one patrol boat using surface tactics.
Night Action – Java Sea
This story occurs on May 28th in the Java Sea. While the world and most of the military was still focused on the continuing battle of Okinawa, patrols by the US Submarine force continued all across the pacific. The boats that had been rushed into service during the previous few years had finally started overcoming the torpedo problems of the early years. Success after success had started piling up and even though submarine losses also took their toll, new fleet boats were adding to the overall efforts in ways never before imagined. At 0355 on the morning of the 28th, Blueback had just completed a secret mission and was beginning her patrol. She sighted what she thought was a Jap destroyer at 0510 and sent a report to the Wolf Pack she was operating with.
From that moment on, she would join with the Lamprey in a running torpedo and gun battle in the Java Sea.
The Balao submarine classs was made up of 120 boats and those were typically armed with the following weapons:
10 × 21-inch (533 mm) torpedo tubes
(six forward, four aft)
1 × 5-inch (127 mm) / 25 caliber deck gun (which replaced the 4-inch 102mm gun installed at the beginning of their service)
Bofors 40 mm and Oerlikon 20 mm cannon
During her overhaul prior to WP 3, the guns on the Blueback were modified as follows: the twin 20 MM was moved from the cigarette deck to the main deck forward and a second 40mm was installed on the cigarette deck. They also installed specially braced mountings for twin 50 caliber machine guns and twin 30 caliber machine guns on the bridge. In short, the Blueback was loaded for bear and was ready to take on any targets she would encounter on the surface.
Wolf Pack – American Style
German submarines are well known for Wolf Pack tactics that resulted in horrific losses. Not as well known are the Wolf Packs that the US Forces operated in during the Pacific campaign. Starting with the coordinated attacks of the USS Cero, many combined operations were mounted. At first, there was a reluctance among the individual skippers to advocate for this type of operation. But some, including Captain Swede Momsen saw the need for new tactics in this war . USS Cero cleared New London 17 August 1943 for Pacific waters, and on 26 September sailed from Pearl Harbor, bound for the East China and Yellow Seas on her first war patrol. This patrol was also the first American wolfpack, comprising Cero, Shad (SS-235), and Grayback (SS-208), commanded from Cero by Captain “Swede” Momsen.
At 0843, the Blueback submerged and began a day long track and search pattern looking for the contact the had sighted at 0520 and at 1910 sighted a submarine that was identified as the USS Lamprey. At 1954, she surfaced and communicated with Lamprey using blinker lights. At that time Blueback was informed about the three targets in the Japara anchorage. Plans were then exchanged for the hunt. At 2010, there was a radar contact which the skipper verified was not a submarine. The contact was at approximately 12,000 yards and zig zagging.
From the action report:
“Can just barely get in a night tracking surface approach before the just rising full moon gets too high. Tracking 10 knots, base course 090 true. Am convinced this is our OOD. Will have enough moon before shooting to make certain it is not a submarine.”
One of the greatest fears of submarine commanders concerning the Wolf Pack approach was in not shooting a fellow American submariner in the heat of the battle. Our technology in weapons firing and ship identification was pretty basic during that war so this was a real concern.
At 2033, confident of his target, Blueback headed in at flank speed.
At 2102, Blueback slowed to 2/3 speed. He received a message from the HMS THOROUGH giving his position and stating that a patrol craft has been patrolling in the area all day. Target was not THOROUGH. Target definitely not submarine. (Note: HMS Thorough was a British T class submarine that served in the Far East for much of her wartime career, where she sank twenty seven Japanese sailing vessels, seven coasters, a small Japanese vessel, a Japanese barge, a small Japanese gunboat, a Japanese trawler, and the Malaysian sailing vessel Palange)
At 2107, with confidence that the vessel was not a submarine, Blueback fired five MK 18-2 torpedoes forward. Torpedo run was 3000 yards. At 2109, the skipper turned the boat and fired 2 MK-14-3A torpedoes aft, torpedo run 2200 yards. All missed and as a good close broadside view of the target was obtained, it was discovered that this was not a destroyer but a patrol boat. Blueback headed away at 19 knots. The patrol boat headed away from a torpedo that broached just ahead of him.
Blueback’s skipper made a note in the log:
“Made mental note to always use binocular formula hereafter in an attempt to avoid such costly errors in the future. Even with grim visions of my income tax soaring to the stratosphere. Won’t be able to look a taxpayer in the eye.”
At this point he slows the ship and manned the 5″ and two 40mm gins and informed Lamprey who was 9-10,000 yards to the northwest.
At 2135, Blueback opened fire and immediately got some hits. These hits resulted in a small fire being started on the patrol ship’s forward action station. He commenced returning fire , too accurately according to reports with 25mm explosive shells.
at 2140, Blueback laid a smoke screen and opened range. The moon was brilliant by that time and very low. Blueback was heading into the moon and was weaving to each side trying to distribute the smoke in any direction but true west. The target’s gunfire was on them every time they emerges from either side of the narrow screen.
At 2143, Lamprey opened fire with her 5′ gun but in the words of the Blueback CO “The silly target didn’t know enough to shoot at him.” Then Blueback opened range to 6500 yards and headed to join the Lamprey. The target was making radical maneuvers and returning fire on both Lamprey and Blueback by this time with four guns. The Lamprey skipper reported that “his aim was not very good”. Lamprey expended 40 rounds of 5″ ammunition and recorded two sure hits.
At 2200, Blueback fired a few more rounds of 5″ at his gun flashes but when he ceased firing, there was no more point of aim. Blueback decided to call it a draw (except that Blueback was not hit thanks to the smoke screen.) Lamprey made the same decision at 2209 and the engagement was completed. Blueback’s skipper records in his log that better night sights and star shells would have helped considerable to eliminate “this boil on the heel”.
Lessons learned from the action that night:
1. Get and keep the TARGET up moon,
2. Concentrate forces on initial attack.
At 2207, Blueback set course for new area, 3 engines… At 2339, Lamprey departed for her new patrol area in the Karimata Strait.
The CH-1 would survive the rest of the war but had one more brush with the American submarine fleet. On the 16th of July 1945: West of Surabaya, Java, she was escorting gunboat NANKAI (ex-Dutch minelayer REGULUS) when they were attacked by LCDR William H. Hazzard’s USS BLENNY (SS-324). Hazzard fires a total of 12 torpedoes in a night surface radar attack and claims four hits that sink NANKAI at 05-26S, 110-33E. At about 0700, Hazzard finds and shells CH-1 with his 5-inch deck gun. BLENNY gets two hits that set CH-1 on fire at 05-16S, 110-17E.
Despite two attacks, CH-1 survives the war and is finally scuttled by the Royal Navy in Singapore in 1946.
Both Blueback and Lamprey also survive the war. Guns would be removed from the decks of post war submarines for a host of reasons. Submarines evolved through technology to be more effective under the water during all modes of warfare and a deck gun was no longer needed or practical. One of the many enemies a submarine fought was the airplane and post war development of antisubmarine air forces increased the danger of being on the surface for any period of time. But having those guns on board WW2 boats was a critical factor during the early months and years where the unreliable torpedo corrupted the ultimate mission of a submarine. The other factor of not wasting a torpedo on smaller craft played a key role as well
Seventy years has passed since that night action on the Java Sea. The bravery of those men on both sides under some very difficult conditions is a testament to the strength found in men who are committed to a cause.
By the way, come to Pittsburgh this September 7-13 and celebrate the heroes of the US Navy submarine forces.
USSVU National Convention web site: http://www.ussviconventionsteelcity2015.org/
As Memorial Day 2015 approaches, I am once again reminded that submarine sailors paid a heavy price during the second World War in a way that is vastly more expensive that nearly any other type of war fighting based on a per capita measurement.
This video certainly captures many of the issues they faced.
Of the things I have done in my life, being privileged to be a Submariner is the one thing that stands out the most.
Looking back in the mirror of over forty years, what made being a submariner so special was a combination of men, machines, methods and materials (as well as the environment we lived in).
The men were bold and adventurous. In order to surrender your personal freedom and commit part of your life to operating in a steel tube (often for months at a time), you had to have a great sense of boldness. These are the men that forty years later I still call brothers. The shared sacrifice we made cemented that bond. They were the embodiment of trust and loyalty. They still are.
The machines were part of this experience too. The ones we rode on are all special to us since they took us into the unknown and brought us safely home in most cases. Whether they were named after fish, men, cities or states, they were our boats. Some rode to glory in a haze of diesel exhaust and some silently lurked beneath the surface on an invisible field of power. What made them common was the pressure that pushed against their hulls when they were sent into danger.
The methods evolved with the technology. The little pigboats that felt almost tethered to the shore were replaced by sleek combat vessels. Despite the horrific loss of 52 of them during World War 2, they emerged with more enemy tonnage sunk per capita than any other combat vessels. Post war, they ran picket duty against the new threat and became platforms for exotic missiles with a powerful projection. These warriors were at the front line of the Cold and Gulf Wars and although their stories will never be fully known, influenced the shape of the world for decades.
Since Holland’s little boat first broke the surface, the materials have adapted for each new mission. Stronger, quieter, more adaptable to depths unfathomable in the old days, these boats are powerful voices in a world of threats.
The environment continues to challenge our boats. Sea mountains, hurricanes, typhoons and classified threats to submarine operations will always be the wild cards that increase the risk. Any person who has ridden a submarine into the unknown without being able to see what is ahead knows what it feels like to commit your life to something greater than themselves. But our boats and our people continue to fight them and overcome the odds in the very face of the unknown.
Someday we will all stand and have to take account for our lives. On that day, I hope to still be wearing my dolphins. That is a sure way for St. Peter to know that I once did my time in hell and I am ready to come home.