A short history of the US Naval Submarine Force
by Jim Christley EMCS(SS) USN(ret)
20 February 2000

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The US Naval Submarine Force, traditionally known as the Silent Service, has its roots in the exploits of Sergeant Ezra York who piloted David Bushnell's "Turtle" against British ships during the Revolutionary War and the sinking of the USS Housatonic by the Confederate "Hunley" during the Civil War. The Force dates its beginning, however, from the acquisition date of John Holland's submarine #6 on 11 April 1900. On 11 October 1900, that ship was commissioned the USS Holland and became the first of a continuous unbroken line of submarines to serve in the US Navy.

The USS Holland had an internal combustion engine for propulsion while on the ocean's surface, a storage battery and motor combination for propulsion while submerged and a single torpedo tube that was able to launch the rather new self-propelled torpedo. These three elements combined on a single vessel made the submarine a practical weapon.

Over the next fifteen years, the technology grew quickly in both the US and overseas. The submarines got larger and more reliable. The numbers of torpedo tubes grew from one to four and propulsion changed from the gasoline engine to diesel, which was safer. The submarines were an integral part of fleet strategies and their presence changed the operations of all the world's naval forces. These advances were not without serious cost. Battery explosions and gasoline fires took the lives of some of the early submariners. Then, the F-4 sank while on a training exercise off Hawaii in 1915 and was the Force's first loss of a submarine with all hands.

By the start of World War I, the US was building the K, L and N class submarines which, when the US entered the War in 1917 immediately commenced operations on the East Coast against the threat of the German U-boat. The boats would operate from bases on the East Coast at New London, Block Island, Cold Spring Harbor and Key West.

In late 1917, US Submarines deployed to advance bases in the Azores and Bantry Bay, Ireland and commenced anti-submarine operations and ship escort duties. The operational tempo of the submarine force was stepped up as was new submarine design and construction. In December 1917 the Force suffered its first wartime submarine loss when the F-1 sank after a collision off San Diego.

During World War I, the Submarine Force performed over one hundred fifty war patrols in US and foreign waters. They engaged German submarines in surfaced and submerged combat and were credited with sinking one of the enemy U-boats. (Later information revealed that sinking was attributable to an accident or the torpedo of another U-boat). The wartime design and construction program resulted in the building of the O, R, and S classes of submarines whose usefulness lasted until after World War II.

The period between World Wars I and II were marked with advances in torpedo technology, tactical understanding and submarine design. Unfortunately it was also marred by submarine tragedies. The USS H-1 ran aground and sustained a serious onboard fire that took the lives of four of her crew in 1920. In 1923, the USS O-5 was struck by a freighter and sank just off the entrance to the Panama Canal. Two of her crew were killed. The heroism of Torpedoman Henry Berault during this accident led to his being awarded the Medal of Honor.

In September of 1925, the USS S-51 was sunk in a collision with a steam ship off Block Island. Thirty-two of her crew were lost in the sinking. The changes in operations and safety that were in planning and being implemented were too late for the crew of the USS S-4, which sank off Cape Cod after a collision. The nation watched and waited as divers and salvage teams fought bad weather and time to rescue the men trapped in the torpedo room of the submarine. All the rescue efforts were too late. All thirty-four of the crew of S-4 died in the tragedy. In 1939, the USS Squalus sank during a test dive off Portsmouth, NH. Again, the nation watched the efforts of the rescuers armed with new tools as they fought the sea to free the trapped men below. This time, thirty-three of the crew of fifty-nine were saved. Then in 1939, the O-9 sank in nearly the same place, but in water too deep for any of the crew to survive or any chance at rescue.

These tragedies led to advances in safety equipment and procedures helped to save lives in the years to come. However, the first half of the next decade was anything but safe. In the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the submarine force went on the offensive. It stood nearly alone as the one striking force that could immediately inflict damage on the enemy. The older S class boats and newer fleet submarines of the Perch, Sargo, Tambor, Gato and other classes deployed to sea to patrol and to the attack.

In World War II the Submarine Force came of age. They supported landings in North Africa and operations in the Atlantic. The boats ranged the far reaches of the Pacific placing a strangle hold on the island bound Empire of Japan. From the frigid and ice bound Dutch Harbor to the sun baked dangerous waters north of Australia the submarines went alone into harm's way. Their independent and aggressive commanding officers and crews took boats into shallow water in search of tankers and freighters. Instead of running from the attacking escorts, the submarines counter attacked and sank them. As the number of targets available in the outlying areas lessened, the subs went into the Empire's home waters to keep up the pressure. As new Balao and Tench class boats came on line, the older crews trained the newer ones in the lessons learned on endless nights as lookouts, under furious depth charge attacks and in the art of stealth.

In the end, the US Submarine Force,  which comprised less than two percent the naval strength in the Pacific inflicted over fifty-five percent of the total naval and merchant shipping losses suffered by the Empire of Japan. That effort came because of the courage and integrity of the ship crews and such men as Admiral Charles Lockwood, Captain John Cromwell, Commanders Gilmore, Fluckey, O'Kane, Ramage, Street, and Dealy. Other names that became legends during that brutal war included English, Beeman, Morton, Beach and Coe. But that victory came at a tremendous cost to the Force. Fifty-two boats were lost from all causes during the campaign. Over three thousand five hundred men are listed as "being on eternal patrol".

The end of World War II saw the beginning of another war of a very different kind. Instead of going on offensive patrols, actively seeking out the enemy shipping and attacking it, the new war was one of watching, waiting and testing. Our adversary was primarily the Soviet Union that had as its goal the worldwide spread of its communist ideology. They were building a sizable ocean control fleet and a large number of submarines of a very modern type. The Force had to watch their ports and ship deployments. They had to wait in positions of defense and be ready for any eventuality. And the Submarine Force had to continuously test its own and our adversary's readiness. It was an added burden that all this had to be done under a blanket of secrecy. It was called the Cold War and again, US submarines rose to the task.

The Cold War and its campaigns saw submarines on patrol in the icy waters near Korea, in the frigid Barents Sea, off the coast of Viet Nam and anywhere else they were needed. Some operations were fraught with danger and were downright exciting; most were endless days of routine. They were all performed with skill, courage, determination and the personal responsibility that have always marked the Submarine Force.

The Cold War was brought to a successful conclusion, but not without cost to the Submarine Force. In 1949 the USS Cochino was lost off the northern coast of Norway. The rescue of the crew by the USS Tusk is the stuff of submarine legend. In 1963, the USS Thresher sank while on sea trials off the Cape Cod. The lessons learned from her loss are still ongoing as the SubSafe Program, which is a way of life for modern submarines.

And finally, the USS Scorpion went missing in 1968 while on transit back to home port from a deployment. Her remains were found in 12,000 feet of cold Atlantic water. The post-war years saw a tremendous change in the Submarine Force, a change that came with much controversy. Submarines up to that time had a very limited range and speed when submerged. They spent most of their time on the surface, which in modern war with an adversary, which could attack from the air, was disastrous. New technologies in propulsion revolutionized that shortcoming and changed the entire Force. Forceful and innovative individuals saw nuclear power as the answer to the propulsion problem.

Under the aggressive supervision of Admiral Hyman Rickover, teams of engineers fitted a nuclear reactor and its supporting systems to a steam turbine propulsion system and crammed the whole thing into the narrow confines of a submarine hull. This took not only a whole new look at submarine propulsion but a new look at quality of construction of the submarine and all its component parts and a new look at the quality of the training of the builders, crew and support personnel.

A key element in the change to nuclear power for submarines is that the plant, its maintenance and operation, had to be made safe. Not just safe for the crew but safe for all the people who lived in the areas in which submarines operated and were based. This new look at safety and quality was a costly and controversial change. It has resulted, however, in a submarine which can submerge as it leaves port, go on patrol anywhere in any ocean without ever surfacing, then come home and surface just before it reenters port.

The mating of nuclear propulsion to other new technologies gave rise to a new weapon system that has been a mainstay in preventing a major nuclear war. Admiral Raborn supervised the fusion of several technologies into a system which when combined onboard the submarine USS George Washington demonstrated the Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile system. Fifty-four more submarines like her have, since that day in 1960, gone on patrol without fanfare and in secrecy. They have maintained their silence and secrecy and as a force that cannot be overcome by an enemy, kept the nuclear peace for over 40 years.

The modern submarine force continues to maintain the peace, and, when called upon, it quickly and without warning exerts its force from the deep. The personnel of the submarine force continue to be, as their forerunners were, people of high ability with a great sense of personal responsibility.

As the Submarine Force marks it Centennial, it continues to go about its business with great reliability, invisible and silent. It is a Submarine Force with a great and honorable history and one that is second to none.