Life after the Polar Crossing

“They [Nautilus and an airship 126719] were undertaken at a time when the Arctic was considered the last earth frontier. Both the nuclear-powered submarine and the airship were exotic, new, yet-to-be-proven additions to the fleet.” – Admiral Arleigh A. Burke, USN (Ret.)  Nautilus was unlike any other submarine that had come before. Nautilus had unlimited power from her reactor, was able to distill her own drinking water, recycle its own air and run an air conditioning system. She sailed away from Groton with an ice cream machine, a washer machine and the crew could shower every day. When Nautilus reached Greenland in August 1958, she had sailed more than 70 hours submerged. Operation Sunshine had changed the landscape for submarines forever. The impacts of Nautilus have been far-reaching, and she stands today at the museum as a testament to innovation.

Nautilus in New York Harbor during her return

In May of 1958, before Nautilus went on her fateful mission, Proceedings magazine described what crossing the Arctic would mean for the United States. This was of course based off previous missions (Operation Sunshine was a secret). They wrote that “Employing characteristics stealth, a missle-launching submarine can reach and maintain position in the ice pack without its presence being known. The submarine can remain undetected submarine can remain undetected indefinitely.” They added that, “A thorough knowledge of the region is a prerequisite to using it to fullest advantage and to understanding its relationship and effect on the rest of the world.” Proceedings Magazine was right in their assessment. The data pulled from Nautilus’ mission led to new technologies. Her crew returned home with more than 11,000 soundings and other measurements of the polar crossing. Priceless data, including water temperatures, optical transparency, and electrical conductivity have been compiled for military and civilian science.  The inertial guidance that became a standard for navigation and scientific research below the polar ice caps was now possible. The popularity of the mission-inspired children around the world to go into careers in science and technology. The Arctic could now become a staging area for submarine operations. During the rest of the Cold War, both U.S. and Russian submarines used the waters of the Arctic to keep an eye on the other. In the wake of Nautilus’ accomplishments came the Polaris submarines that began being deployed in the 1960’s. It was the Polaris program that provided a deterrent to Soviet nuclear aggression. A program that would not have been possible without Nautilus and her advancements. In March of the following year after Nautilus’ trip, the USS Skate became the first submarine to surface at the North Pole.  After breaking through, her crew spread the ashes of Sit Hubert Wilkins as he had requested.

Skate at the North Pole

In 1960, USS Triton circumnavigated the world. A new world of exploration had been ushered in by Nautilus’ polar crossing. Submarines would continue to use the route for transit since it was now the shortest route between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Since Nautilus, submarines have used upward-looking sonar to monitor the thickness of the ice to determine breakthrough points. One advantage of these arctic missions is that we have been able to track the noticeable difference in ice thickness due to warming air and sea temperatures. When Nautilus was first launched, President Eisenhower believed that nuclear-powered cargo submarines could use the Arctic Ocean for transport. While this hasn’t happened, the diminishment of Arctic ice means the region is seeing an expansion of Arctic shipping, oil, gas, and mineral exploration. To continue arctic efforts, the Navy takes part in a biennial exercise known as ICEX where submarines test weapons, surface through the ice and perform other training. Capt. Whitescarver, Naval Submarine Base Commanding officer said that “by 2020, middle of 2025, we’re going to start spending more money on how we participate in the Arctic.”

Besides the scientific advancements made since 1958, Nautilus proved that nuclear power could be harnessed. Not one accident since Nautilus went on her journey has been attributed to nuclear propulsion. This is a record that the Navy is extremely proud of. She proved that anything was possible and with Rickover behind the Nuclear program, the safety measures put in place have been a shining example of what science can accomplish when handled wisely. By her end, Nautilus had logged more than 50,000 miles and shattered records for submerged distance and speed. When she was decommissioned, it was said that “The Nautilus belonged to Rickover, even more than to the nation that had paid for her, more than to the Navy that operated her, more than to the shipyard that built her. And the submarine was the world’s most revolutionary undersea craft to go to sea since the end of the previous century. The Nautilus was the world’s first ‘true submersible.’”   This year, as we celebrated the 60th Anniversary of the Polar crossing, a Nautilus reunion brought together those who had served aboard the ship that had forever changed the Navy. John Yuill in an article by The Day stated that it took 20 years to put what their crew did into perspective. “I sometimes think, what were we, nuts?”  The ice pack is easier to navigate today due to ice melt, so in 1958, they might have been. At the ceremony for the reunion, Retired Navy Adm. Steven White said, “Some of those crews were top notch (referring to commands he led after Nautilus). But for you Nautilus guys here, none of them compare to you.”  While every crew is compromised by amazing sailors, the Nautilus crew from that summer in 1958 will forever hold a place in the nation’s heart. Following her decommissioning, Nautilus was sent home to Groton to become a museum ship. She also would become Connecticut’s state ship in honor of her accomplishments. She will always be First and Finest.

Special Nautilus Exhibit

Ceremony at the museum celebrating the 60th anniversary of the polar crossing

Cake for 60th anniversary celebration. Was a replica of the cake during the festivities in 1958

 

60th Anniversary of Nautilus’ Polar Crossing

In late summer of 1957 Nautilus made her first attempt at crossing the North Pole. When William Anderson took command of the Nautilus in early 1957, he was determined to prove the naysayers wrong. He believed that this new nuclear powerhouse could do the impossible. Even Hyman Rickover, creator of the nuclear Navy, believed that the odds were against the ship he created. When Nautilus ventured towards the Arctic in 1957, they were faced with the very real realities that Rickover had warned them about making the crossing. Magnetic compasses don’t work that close to the North Pole. Gyrocompasses, which relay on the Earth’s spring to find true North, malfunction since the spin of the earth changes as you get closer to the poles. Instruments don’t function the way a crew expects. In her first attempt to make the Polar crossing, the crew would find themselves in a situation no other crew had ever faced. Anderson decided to surface in what appeared to be an opening in the ice pack. Upon ascending, Anderson checked the Periscope and found out that the readings had been wrong. Above them was solid ice, but it was too late- Nautilus hit the ice pack above. A recount of the incident in the book Arctic Mission writes,
“Anderson surfaced his command on 1 September, concluding eleven and a half days continuously underwater from New London- more than 3,9000 miles. Trigger (a diesel boat assigned to accompany Nautilus) holding station at approximately 80 degrees North, beyond the-ice margin, Anderson made preparations to dive at about 2100 on 1 September to run under the pack. Two topside echo sounders began recording ice coverage as Nautilus continued north under the ice at running depth from three to five hundred feet…. The boat was relying utterly on its machinery and equipment. Advancing in, scanning sonar topside, echo sounders, and a topside BGN (sonar) unit monitored the canopy. As yet no vessel had gained 90 degrees North. Not yet would Nautilus. On 2 September, a small block of ice damages the sail and periscopes while the boat was surfacing in a polynya. A reversal in course ordered, the boat tuned slowly, carefully- by reference its known turning radius. Holding rudder, ‘we hoped we were going south,’ Lyon remembers. But what South? At 87 degrees every direction is south. Back in open water repairs were made. At 2000 on 4 September, the boat having steamed to within 180 miles of the Pole, the decision again was taken to retire: the power supply to both gyrocompasses had failed (a fuse had blown). Ability to steer a known course stood problematic. Anderson dared not rely on dead reckoning.” (–pg. 64-65 of Arctic Mission by William F Althoff )

Figure 1 Anderson and Lyon

Nautilus wouldn’t have another attempt at crossing until 1958. But this time, Anderson would be prepared. With the help of Dr. Waldo Lyon, chief scientist for the U.S. Navy’s Arctic Submarine Laboratory, Anderson and the few members aware of the top-secret mission studied what they knew about the Arctic for months, finding the most precise time to reattempt the mission. Flying under the name Charles A. Henderson, Anderson carried false identification papers and boarded a plane from Connecticut to Seattle bound for Alaska. With him was Dr. Lyon, who traveled so often that his flight wouldn’t cause suspicion. But for Anderson, anonymity was key. No one could know about Operation Sunshine. The two were headed to the Alaskan village of Kotzebue. From there they charted a plane and flew over the Bering Strait. The purpose of the mission was to study ice. They noted places where the ice collided and where there was the most possibility for obstructions. This time Anderson would be prepared. He had done the trip before. He knew to not rely on his instruments. He knew that ice flows could change at any second. Conditions weren’t great as the two flew over the ice. But they both agreed that it was worth making the attempt.

Figure 2 Commander William R. Anderson, USN, Commanding Officer of USS Nautilus (SSN-571), far right, on the bridge during a period of low visibility as the submarine prepares to pass under the North Pole, August 1958. National Archives photograph, USN 1037145

Anderson later recreated the scene on board that fateful August day in 1958: “the juke box was shut off, and at that moment a hush literally fell over the ship. The only sound to be heard was the steady staccato of pinging from our sonars steadily watching the bottom, the ice, and the dark waters ahead. I glanced again at the distance indicator and gave a brief countdown to the crew. “Stand by, 10…8…6…4…3…2…1. Mark! August 3, 1958.” (Pg. 104-105 Arctic Mission)

Figure 3 The watch crew in the control room of the USS Nautilus. Source: navy.mil

Another crew member on board remembered the announcement. “They were about to drill 90 degrees north latitude. Tenths of a mile remaining, Anderson stepped to the intercom to count down. Chief Engineer Early, off watch in the wardroom, was surprised to hear the CO’s voice: “It was very unusual for him to use the announcing system and I though, when he began, that it would disturb those off watch who were sleeping.” ( Pg 104) No one would be sleeping after that announcement. History had forever been changed. Years of expeditions, countless explorers, and what was once deemed as unfathomable had become a reality. Anderson and his crew were honoring the pioneers that came before them while creating a new frontier to be explored. We don’t just celebrate the Nautilus being the first of its kind performing a first of its kind mission. We celebrate what it represented to the world of exploration. As Anderson took that pre-mission flight as Charles A. Henderson, he knew his life what about to be forever changed.

For more information on Nautilus’s historic crossing and Polar exploration, check out Arctic Mission, available in store and online at the Submarine Force Museum Gift Shop, Nautilus Ship’s Store. http://store.submarinemuseum.com/Book-Arctic-Mission-6974/

Hubert Wilkins and his Submarine

On August 3rd, we will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the historic trip Nautilus took to the North Pole. But as we know, Operation Sunshine as it was called, was not the first of its kind. In March, we shared a piece about Arctic missions and the biennial ICEX exercises that occurred. Within that article was the story of Hubert Wilkins, an explorer who wanted more than anything to completely discover all the North Pole had to offer. From that piece:

Figure 1 Hubert Wilkins

Sir George Hubert Wilkins was an Australian polar explorer that saw the submarine as the perfect means for attaining a Northwest Passage. In 1930, Wilkins along with colleague Lincoln Ellsworth laid out the plans for a trans-Atlantic expedition. They believed that a submarine would be able to be fully equipped with a working laboratory that would allow them to do comprehensive meteorological studies. Since Wilkins was not a U.S. citizen, he could not purchase a submarine, but he was able to lease a vessel for five years. He was given the disarmed O-12 which he would fittingly rename Nautilus after Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The submarine was fitted with a custom drill that would allow it to drill through the ice pack overhead. A crew of eighteen was chosen and the expedition was set. Losses plagued the beginning of the mission. Before ever leaving port, the Quartermaster was knocked overboard and drowned. Undeterred, they left New London, CT on June 4, 1931. On June 14, they faced engine failure and Wilkins was forced to SOS for help and was rescued by the USS Wyoming. Repairs were done and by June 28, the crew set out for their destination once again. By August, they were only 600 miles from the North Pole when they realized that the submarine was missing its diving planes. Without the diving planes, the crew would be unable to control the submarine while submerged. Upon a plea from one of his investors, Wilkins had to admit the problems with his journey and seek safe port. While heading to England, the crew was forced to stop in Norway due to a storm. The Nautilus suffered severe damage and Wilkins received permission from the U.S. Navy to sink the vessel off the Norwegian coast. While Wilkins may have failed at his specific mission, he proved that submarines were capable of operating in the Arctic seas. And it would only take a few short years and another submarine named Nautilus to prove that he was right.

And sure enough, in 1958, another Nautilus, the first of her kind, would do the unthinkable. But unlike Wilkins’ expedition, Operation Sunshine was kept quiet. The details of the mission were on a need to know basis. Wilkins, on the other hand, believed that good press about his mission would mean investors. Investors that could finance a bigger, better submarine than the one he modified. In 1931, shortly before getting underway, Wilkins and his team wrote a book called Under the North Pole, detailing the need for the journey and the people working on the project. While no longer in print, Under the North Pole has been archived by a nonprofit called the Internet Archives, a digital library offering free access to millions of works. Here are a few selections from the book. Two by Wilkins himself and one from Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an explorer Wilkins had worked with on previous expeditions to the North Pole.

“It is unusual and perhaps unprecedented to publish a book as we are doing in relation to an expedition before it takes place. But in our case, this is really not without point, for we are going to use a submarine for the first time in the history of polar exploration, and submarines open up a new field of Arctic research that needs explaining.”- Captain Sir Hubert Wilkins.

“The Arctic has been crossed only twice in the history of the world, once by airship and once by airplane. The commander of the first airplane, Sir Hubert Wilkins, and the second-in-command of the first airship, Lincoln Ellsworth, have now joined to attempt the first crossing of the Arctic by submarine. There was romance in flying above the polar ice from Europe to America; there is more romance, or at least more strangeness, in swimming that course beneath the ice If the journey is successful the value to science will be greater…. But a submarine navigates the very medium to be studied, the ocean. It can take soundings every mile to yield us for the first time a contour of the sea bottoms; a calculation of speed and leeway will help to show the ocean currents. If successful at all, you can make scores if not hundreds of stops on the 3000 likes from Spitsbergen by way of the North Pole to Alaska. You dive beneath the floes like a whale and like the whales that cross the Arctic every summer, you come pin the leads between the floes to breathe and look around. The staff will go ashore on the ice fields and walk about for study. They can measure the temperature gradients of the water as deep into the sea as they like. The can take water samples at similarly varying depths to learn how the chemistry changes and how the tiny animal and plant life varies. They can use nets at many depths to capture swimming animals and both plants and animals that float with the current.” – Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Figure 2 Image of Arctic waters, taken from the deck of
the Nautilus https://library.osu.edu/blogs/archives/2016/05/09/a-journey-under-the-ice-hubert-wilkins-and-the-nautilus/

“We out to be using a specially-built submarine for this work rather than the Nautilus, which is a war submarine adapted – no matter how good a military submarine it was and no matter how cleverly it has been adapted. A voyage in the Nautilus this year under the ice, even if we do not go farther than to the geographic North Pole, should, however, create enough public interest on our return to enable us or somebody else to finance a really ideal craft, to be especially designed for under-ice work, and built according to what it is to do rather than to fit a cramped financial situation. It will only be if everything goes better than I expect that we shall make the full crossing from Spitsbergen to Alaska during the summer of 1931.” – Captain Sir Hubert Wilkins

Wilkins passed away on November 30, 1958, being able to witness SSN-571 make her historic journey. A submarine, however, would not surface at the North Pole until 1959 with the USS Skate. His ashes were laid at the North Pole by the crew of the Skate in accordance with Wilkins’ wishes. Wilkins believed that submarines would be able to allow new access to this remote region in ways we never dreamed possible. And he was right. His excitement before his mission was electric. You must wonder- if we had known about Operation Sunshine before it happened- what would the excitement have been like? Nautilus, of course, returned home to a celebration and great fanfare. If it wasn’t for innovators and explorers like Simon Lake (whose company worked on Wilkins’ submarine), Hubert Wilkins, Hyman G. Rickover, and many others, we wouldn’t have the Submarine Force that we have today.

Figure 3 A large advertising poster for a lecture by Wilkins, printed in navy blue, the text surmounted by the image of the submarine “Nautilus” and itself surmounting the image of a plane with the words “Ellsworth Trans-Atlantic Flight” to the side of the plane. http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/detail/?f=&id=26600&recordNum=0&u=0&t=items&s=a&tc=0&q=aeroplane&p=0&numResults=20&l=en

Figure 4 http://blog.modernmechanix.com/will-the-nautilus-freeze-under-the-north-pole/ Article from June 1931 about Wilkins upcoming mission.

The Lucky Cribbage Board

The Submarine Force in particular and the Navy, in general, have many traditions. These traditions are passed from one generation to the next and held in great honor. Whether it be the ceremony for crossing the North Pole (and becoming a Bluenose) for the first time or hearing the whistle blow at a retirement ceremony, the Submarine Force is proud of its heritage and the traditions of those that came before them. But one tradition is rarely talked about outside of the submarine community. It is an honored tradition that has deep ties to the Navy and to one of the Submarine Force’s greatest commanders.
In April of 1943, the USS Wahoo (SS-283) was headed out on its fourth war patrol. However, unlike her previous missions, Wahoo would be tested by being sent to the shallow waters of the farthest reaches of the Yellow Sea. This would be the first time a submarine would patrol the area. Tensions ran high as the crew headed the area. To make them feel more at ease, Commander Dudley “Mush” Morton and his Executive officer Richard “Dick” O’Kane broke out a cribbage board and began to play. As submarine lore goes, Morton dealt O’Kane a perfect 29, the highest possible hand one can get in the game. It has been said that the crew calculated the odds to be one in 216,000. The crew felt like the hand was a lucky omen. That night, the Wahoo sank two Japanese freighters. Three days later, in another game, Morton dealt a 28-point hand. The following day, they sunk two freighters and a third the next day. O’Kane would leave the Wahoo and the board to command the USS Tang (SS-306) – which went on to break the record for most ships sunk in a patrol. O’Kane would be captured by the Japanese and held until the end of the war. Sixty years later, the lucky cribbage board would find a home once again on the second submarine named USS Tang (SS-563). Ernestine O’Kane sponsored the second Tang.

Figure 1http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/OnlineLibrary/photos/pers-us/uspers-m/dw-mortn.htm

The game of cribbage was played in the Navy long before WWII, however, the story of Morton’s 29 hand solidified its place in submarine lore and tradition. The game itself is believed to have been invented by British soldier and poet Sir John Suckling in the 17th century. English settlers would bring the game to America where it became popular among sailors and fishermen in New England. The game is played by having a dealer hand out cards to the players who try to score points by discarding cards to a “crib” in several combinations. There is one card set aside that players can combine with their hand to earn more points. However, this card is kept secret until all players have made their moves. The cribbage board is used to keep score with small holes and pegs. One sailor’s lore says that the game is so old that Vice Adm. Horatio Nelson played on a cribbage board made of bone at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. The tradition of playing cribbage on submarines has lived on despite the advent of video games and movies as pastime alternatives. It even has been labeled the unofficial game of submariners.

Figure 2 Sailors playing Cribbage at the Medical Center in Norfolk https://www.militarynews.com/norfolk-navy-flagship/entertainment/on_liberty/cribbage-it-s-not-just-a-game-it-s-an/article_fb6049b2-7b72-50ad-88df-cbb6e9decad7.html

But the game of cribbage is not the only tradition that has been kept alive in the Submarine Force. When the second USS Tang was struck from the Naval Register in 1987, the cribbage board was passed on to the USS Kamehameha (SSN 642), the oldest commissioned submarine in the force at the time. Since this trade, the board has been sent to the oldest commissioned submarine in the Pacific Fleet after the decommissioning of its predecessor. When she was decommissioned in 2002 after 37 years of service, the board was passed onto the USS Parche (SSN 683), the most highly decorated vessel in U.S. History. Parche was decommissioned in 2005 and the board did not reach its next home until 2007- the USS Los Angeles (SSN 688). Upon accepting the board, Commanding Officer, Cmdr. Erik Burian said, “It’s an honor to deploy with O’Kane’s cribbage board. Embarking with a piece of submarine history is a constant reminder of the legacy that we will continue. My crew and I enjoy passing time playing cribbage while not on duty and we are proud that we can carry on the tradition.”

Figure 4USS Los Angeles (SSN 688) Commanding Officer Cmdr. Steven Harrison (left) passes on the “Dick O’Kane cribbage board” to USS Bremerton (SSN 698) Commanding Officer Cmdr. Howard Warner during a departure ceremony held at the Naval Station Pearl Harbor submarine pier. The guardianship of the cribbage board is traditionally held by the oldest submarine in the Pacific Fleet. https://bremolympicnlus.wordpress.com/2012/12/04/cribbage-trivia-for-submariners/

When the Los Angeles was decommissioned in 2011, the board was sent to the USS Bremerton (SSN 698) where it has been kept atop a case of coffee mugs in the wardroom. The crew uses the board often says Cmdr. Wes Bringham. “We play on it. We figure he would have wanted us to.”

Figure 3The USS Bremerton’s commanding officer, Wes Bringham, and the historic cribbage board game in the ward room. http://archive.kitsapsun.com/northwest-navy-life/war-heros-artifact-still-rides-the-uss-bremerton-ep-969683720-354876841.html

In April 2018, USS Bremerton left its home port in Pearl Harbor and headed for her namesake city, the final destination before her retirement. She is scheduled to begin inactivation and decommissioning at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard this month. After her decommissioning, the cribbage board will find its way to a new home and tradition will continue. The board isn’t simply handed over, but in true Navy fashion, its transfer is honored with a ceremony just as any change of command has seen. Cribbage is more than just a game to submariners. It is tied to their heritage and the essence of who they are. And with O’Kane’s cribbage board being kept alive, it serves as a reminder of the greatest of the submariners who came before, the ones that currently serve, and the future.

 

Quotes and references:

https://www.militarynews.com/norfolk-navy-flagship/entertainment/on_liberty/cribbage-it-s-not-just-a-game-it-s-an/article_fb6049b2-7b72-50ad-88df-cbb6e9decad7.html

http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=29429

http://archive.kitsapsun.com/northwest-navy-life/war-heros-artifact-still-rides-the-uss-bremerton-ep-969683720-354876841.html

 

Unmanned Underwater Vehicles

On July 3, 2018, the Kitsap Sun reported that Keyport, WA had become home to the Navy’s first unmanned undersea vehicle squadron. Keyport, WA has been home to much of the Navy’s research and testing facilities for many years. In fact, so many test torpedoes have been developed here that the town has earned the nickname “Torpedo Town, U.S.A. It only makes sense that this new development In the Navy’s forces would begin in Keyport. But what is an unmanned undersea vehicle or UUV’s. in the Kitsap Sun, Cmdr. Scott Smith called them “pre-programmed, small submarines.” However, these vehicles are much more complex and constantly changing the landscape of undersea defense as we know it.
In simple terms, a UUV is an underwater drone. They operate without a person being on board. They can be divided into two categories – ROV’s (remotely operated underwater vehicles) which are controlled by a remote operator and AUV’s (autonomous underwater vehicles) which operate on there on like a robot. In 2015, as the idea of these vehicles were still in the early test stages, Bryan McGrath, a managing director of The FerryBridge Group and assistant director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower was asked about what these vehicles meant for the Navy’s Submarine Force. He went on to say the following:
“We’ve only begun to scratch the surface on the utility of UUV’s. I’m impressed with the degree to which the Navy’s Submarine Force is innovating in this area, and I’d like to see the surface force begin to work more closely with them to leverage what is quickly becoming a vast undersea information architecture. We will someday see UUV’s doing a great number of things that manned submarines currently do- not replacing them but extending their power and reach the way helicopters have for the surface force. Doubling down on our mystery of the undersea environment is a no-brainer.” 

Figure 1Knifefish Surface Mine Countermeasure Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (SMCM UUV)
(Picture: Bluefin Robotics) http://www.navyrecognition.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3616

McGrath isn’t wrong when he says that working to understand the oceans is a no-brainer. While much of the ocean has been mapped, there is still plenty we are unaware of. As we saw in 2005 when the USS San Francisco hit an underwater sea mountain, having an extra pair of eyes in the deep black water doesn’t hurt. For the most part, UUV’s up until this point had been used for ocean surveillance and mine clearing. The new squadron in Keyport will utilize 10-inch torpedo-shaped tubes to large ones around 80 inches in diameter. The squadron will develop ideas and procedures that will shape how UUV’s can best be utilized by the Navy. According to Cmdr. Smith, while the UUV’s will be extremely helpful in reducing diver risks and sensory capabilities, they will never take away the vital importance of manned submarines. Despite the formation of this squadron and its growth over the past year, UUV’s are not currently deployed from submarines, something Smith sees changing in the next five years. Tests have been done using Virginia-class submarines to prove the viability of UUV’s in submarine missions. USS North Dakota, (SSN 784) which is homeported in Groton, finished a mission deploying and retrieving a UUV from the ship’s dry dock shelter in 2015. A dry dock shelter is a removable module that can be attached and allows ease of entering and exiting from a sub while it is submerged. The newly formed squadron is part of Submarine Development Squadron 5. This is the same command that oversees the Seawolf-class submarines- USS Seawolf, USS Connecticut, and USS Jimmy Carter.

Figure 2Dry-Dock Shelter open, the attack submarine Dallas (SSN-700), departs Souda harbor 19 July 2004, following a brief port visit. USN photo # N-0780F-070, courtesy of Paul Farley. http://www.navsource.org/archives/08/08700.htm

The biggest issue with UUV’s that make them different from their aerial counterparts that have been in use for years now is that due to the ocean’s depth, controlling the drone is difficult. Singles and Wi-Fi cannot reach the drone, meaning that the entire mission would have to be programmed into the vehicle before it is launched. Small UUV’s can gather surveillance and sea conditions. They can also extend the sensor reach of a submarine. Submarines rarely use active sonar in order to remain unseen. UUV’s would allow submarines the use of active sonar without giving away their location, essentially allowing the crew to be in two places at once. Rear Admiral Joseph Tofalo was quoted in 2015 as saying, “Now you are talking about a submarine CO who can essentially be in two places at the same time – with a UUV out deployed which can dull, dirty and dangerous type missions. This allows the submarine to be doing something else at the same time. UUVs can help us better meet our combatant command demand signal. Right now, we can only meet about two-thirds of our combatant commanders demand signals and having unmanned systems is a huge force multiplier.” The innovative work on how UUV’s can aid submarines and surface ships alike is taking place in Barb Hall, a building named after the World War II Gato-class submarine USS Barb. The USS Barb knows a thing or two about being the first of a kind- having been the first and only submarine to have “sunk” an enemy train when sailors snuck ashore and took out a Japanese supply train.
Viewpoints on UUVs vary and research is still ongoing to determine the long-term use of them to the submarine force. However, the tests done so far have shown significant reasoning for submarines to be equipped with the new technology. The fear that these vehicles would take away from the effectiveness and need for submarines is unfounded when you see how UUVs can make submarines a more stealth and formidable opponent to enemy forces.

https://www.kitsapsun.com/story/news/local/navy/2018/07/03/keyport-home-navy-first-underwater-drone-squadron/751928002/

http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-us-navys-robotic-undersea-future-14239

https://thediplomat.com/2015/04/us-navy-to-deploy-underwater-drones-by-the-end-of-2015/

The Original Sea Devil Submarine

The Balao-class submarine SS-400 and Sturgeon-class submarine SSN-664 both have something in common. They are named The Sea Devil after the largest ray in the ocean. Known for its power and endurance, the name is, of course, fitting for some powerful pieces of machinery. But these submarines also share their name with another submarine that helped begin submarine development. The original Sea Devil is considered one of the groundbreaking early submarines.
Wilhelm Bauer was an engineer in Bavaria during the German/Danish war between 1848 and 1851. Fascinated by the Danish Navy’s ability to block the Prussians, Bauer began to study ship construction and hydraulics. He was inspired through his research to create a new type of submersible ship that would be better than those that had come before. His first construction was Brandtaucher or Incendiary Diver. At the time, in order to break blockades, ships with explosives were set adrift towards the blockading. Once the vessel would explode, it would either sink the blockading vessels or cause them to move. The ships that carried the explosives were called incendiary ships. Bauer took this idea and applied it to his first submarine. He believed that his submarine could attach an explosive to the underside of a blockading ship and break through that way. His design was about 28 feet long and weighed around 35 tons. Two sailors on a treadmill powered the vessel while a third would operate it. On February 1, 1851, his first public demonstration was a disaster. The submarine began to leak and ended up on the bottom of the harbor. For six hours, Bauer and the other two sailors had to wait for enough water to leak into the submarine to equalize pressure, so they could open the hatch and escape. The submarine itself would not escape the river until 1887. Despite the terrible first run, this did not stop Bauer.

Sketch of Brandtaucher https://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/06/28/constructed-1850-wilhelm-bauer-brandtaucher-first-submarine-project-germany/

Due to the failure of his first submarine, Bauer had difficulty finding patronage and a crew in Bavaria. Word had gotten out that while underwater, Bauer and his fellow crewmembers of his first craft had gotten into a physical fight over how to handle the situation. He had little success trying to find a sponsor in England. It was not until he traveled to Russia that he had some success. Tsar Alexander II funded the development of the next submarine- Le Diable Marin or the Sea Devil. This design was more advanced than her previous counterpart was. The Sea Devil was twice as large and could carry a crew of twelve. The same premises existed, with four men on a treadmill to power the vessel. After his previous incident, Bauer decided his new model would contain a lockout chamber. The Sea Devil carried out 134 successful dives, with some reaching a depth of 150 feet. The Tsar was so impressed that a four-piece orchestra was put onboard and played on board during a coronation from beneath the surface of Kronstad Harbor.

Drawing of the Sea Devil on the ocean floor. (Credit: ullstein bild/Getty Images)

When Le Diable Marin was first launched, it was described in the following manner: “The Russian submarine, ‘L.E. Diable Marin,’ resembled a dolphin in outward shape. It had a lent of 15m. 80. A beam of 3m. 80 and a depth of 3 m.35. The framework of the hull was of iron and the hull was credited with the power of resisting a 45 m. 50 column of water.…In the bows was a hatchway for entrance and exit. That the weight might be the more easily distributed, the forward part of the ship was 6 inches less in height than the middle portion. Pumps were used for forcing water into the cylinders, and longitudinal stability was obtained by reducing or augmenting the volume of water carried as ballast. In the bows was fixed a large mine, containing 500lb of powder and other combustible matter; on either side of this mine protruded a thick Indiarubber glove, to allow of fixing it to the keel of the vessel to be attacked. A door by which divers might descend to the bottom of the water was also provided, and this is not unnatural when one considers that Bauer’s very first submarine was intended for industrial purposes.” Unfortunately, this excess attention from the Tsar was not appreciated by the Russian admirals who devised a way to sabotage him. Bauer was ordered to do a demonstration and sink a dummy ship a distance away. However, the admirals misled Bauer on the exact depth of the river. While submerged, the Sea Devil hit a mudbank and became stuck. Bauer was forced to release the hatch and he and his crew were able to escape. However, just like his first vessel, the submarine was left on the bottom. This time, it is where the submarine would rest. This would be Bauer’s last attempt at submarine development.
Despite what many might view as a failure, Bauer greatly advanced submarine development. His work played a key role in advancing the science and engineering of future vessels. The successful dives of his second vessel proved the ability to successfully navigate underwater and with the four-piece orchestra from the Tsar’s coronation, proved it could be done comfortably. This original Sea Devil set the stage for those that came after. Just like the submarine’s namesake, Bauer had extreme endurance and fought hard for what he believed in. Today, Bauer’s first submarine that was rescued from the deep is on display in Dresden, Germany.

Figure 2 Brandtaucher on display at the Bundeswehr Military History Museum, Dresden https://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/06/28/constructed-1850-wilhelm-bauer-brandtaucher-first-submarine-

His name is also attached to the only German U-boat that is still floating today. Never used during the war due to its late production, The Wilhelm Bauer was originally scuttled after the war but rescued and refitted. In its second life, she served as a training vessel, shedding the connotation of her U-boat origins. Today she serves as a museum ship at the German Maritime Museum.

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/wilhelm-bauer

Submarines at the Brooklyn Navy Yard

This summer will mark the 60th anniversary of Nautilus’ historic journey to the North Pole. After making the journey, USS Nautilus sailed into New York harbor to reunite crew members with their families and meet the president. Only three short hours from her first home in Groton, CT, Nautilus would dock in one of the most famous cities in the world at the Brooklyn Navy Yard- a piece of New York and Naval history. Today, the Brooklyn Navy Yard no longer welcomes celebrated ships but has been converted into a hub of business where the community can come together. While now home to a countertop manufacturing company, a distillery, and a produce farm, in its early days, the Brooklyn Navy Yard played a vital role in the Navy and would see its fair share of submarines pass through her docks.

Figure 1 Navy Yard workers in the 1940’s. Image courtesy of Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The land the Brooklyn Navy Yard sits on today was originally purchased by Dutch settler Jansen de Rapelje in 1637. The 335 acres on Wallabout Bay was purchased from the Lenape Indians that were Native to New York harbor. During the American Revolution, Wallabout Bay was occupied by the British. According to the Brooklyn Navy Yard website, the most famous of British ships, the Jersey was moored here where American soldiers, merchants, and traders were imprisoned for disobeying the British embargo. It was 1801 when President John Adams saw the potential in the Wallabout Bay area. A New Englander, Adams knew the importance of the sea and of having a strong Naval Force. He established the first five Naval shipyards, including the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In 1833, Commodore Matthew C. Perry founded the Naval Lyceum (the predecessor to the U.S. Naval Academy) at the Yard. The first Naval publication was published there in 1836 with contributors such as Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. It was 1872 that the Brooklyn Navy Yard saw its first submarine.

During the Civil War, the Union Navy was looking for ways to counter the CSS Hunley and Pioneer. They looked to a prototype submarine aptly titled Halstead’s Folly or, the Intelligent Whale.  In 1863, Scovel S. Merriman, Augustus Price and Cornelius Bushnell began work on the Intelligent Whale in New Jersey.  In 1864, the American Submarine Company replaced Price and Bushnell. Due to soaring costs and legal battles, control of the boat went to trustees of General Nathaniel Halstead and Col. Edward W. Serrell in 1865.

Figure 2 The Intelligent Whale in the Brooklyn Navy Yard circa 1898 https://www.loc.gov/resource/cph.3b04942/

Despite ongoing financial issues, Halstead finished the project by April of 1866. The submarine was staffed by four men who turned cranks attached to a propeller. Compressed air was kept in two tanks that allowed for ten hours of submerged operation. “Two large ballast tanks fore and aft were connected to the air tanks and to the water surrounding the craft. A rudder and aft trim planes allowed the pilot to control the boat’s course, diving, and surfacing. A short conning tower with bull’s eye glass provided the skipper with limited visibility while partially submerged. Other navigational aids included a compass, a depth gauge, and air pressure indicator. The crew embarked via a central hatch topside, but the craft’s divers deployed through two wooden “gates” in the floor. To submerge Intelligent Whale the crew filled the water tanks by opening a valve. To anchor the submerged craft the crew deployed two 15-inch shot (weighing 350 pounds each) by working windlasses attached to wire cable in two watertight boxes. To maintain air quality while submerged, the craft had a device for spraying water through the air, and thumb valves at the top of the boat, which could be opened to release foul air. To surface, the crew pumped the water from the tanks by hand or forced it out with compressed air.”[1] Halstead’s bad luck would follow the Intelligent Whale. Despite legal battles, The Navy purchased the vessel from Halstead. However, before official trials could be done, Halstead passed away. Due to personal issues in his life, his death lead to a scandal and a tainted name for his submarine. This along with the small number of people who knew how to operate the vessel, caused tests to be delayed. Once they were able to commence, flooding saw her short career end as the Navy marked the vessel a failure. Despite this fact, Intelligent Whale became a curiosity and would be displayed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. She would remain at the Yard until 1968 when she was moved to Washington D.C. and then finally to her current place in New Jersey. This means that the Intelligent Whale was in view of the Nautilus as she returned home from her historic journey marking the coming together of two vital points of submarine history.

While no submarines were ever built in the Yard, the dry docks were a frequent home for repairs and short stays. The USS Porpoise and the USS Shark, built in 1903, spent time being refitted in the Navy Yard dry docks. It was also here that they were disassembled in 1908 to be transported to the Philippines where they served until 1919. During World War I, German U-boats were brought to the Yard to be dismantled and gain valuable information on how German submarine technology worked. This work allowed U.S. Forces to strip away German dominance in the submarine field at the time. The early 1900’s was still an experimental time in submarine development. While today’s vessels see few accidents, this was not the case for the early boats. In June of 1915, the USS Sturgeon (also known as E-2 and SS-25) arrived at the Brooklyn Navy Yard to complete a refit. E-2 was the first submarine to be equipped with a diesel engine.  However, this new engine had problems. The vibrations caused damage to the battery system which could leak lead acid that, when mixed with salt water, could create a deadly chlorine gas. When she entered the yard that June, E-2 was supposed to have its engines replaced and batteries upgraded. A new battery system had been created by Thomas Edison that would allow the boat to travel further while submerged. The unit was also made of nickel iron instead of lead-acid, getting rid of the chlorine gas issue. However, this new battery did create hydrogen gas. Tests run on December 7th, 1915 found the batteries to seem to be a better fit. Initial reports found that they ran faster on less fuel.

Figure 3 Crewmembers atop the (E-2) submarine’s conning tower, after returning from a patrol during World War I.
Courtesy of the Submarine Force Library and Museum, Groton, Connecticut, 1972.

E-2 was in Dry Dock No. 2 in January of 1916 still undergoing tests. On January 15th, an explosion in the battery compartment claimed the lives of five crew members. Investigations found the hydrogen gas to be the culprit of the explosions. Once repairs were completed, E-2 went back into service as a training vessel. This incident caused the Navy to abandon the Edison technology and redesign a safer lead-acid cell battery. These redesigns would become the foundation for the technology that is still used in submarines today. As a side note, the chief of submarines at the Navy Yard who oversaw the investigation was one Chester W. Nimitz- Fleet Admiral of the Pacific Fleet. We remembered those who lost their lives that January day, as their names are Guy Hamilton Clark Jr. (Machinist’s Mate), Roy B. Seaber (Electrician, third-class), Joseph Logan (Navy Yard plumber), James H. Peck (Navy Yard plumber) and John P. Schultz (Navy Yard Workman).

Figure 4 USS E-2 (Submarine # 25)
Fine screen halftone reproduction of a photograph of the submarine underway prior to World War I. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/OnlineLibrary/photos/sh-usn/usnsh-e/ss25.htm

The Yard would triple during World War II in order to help with the war effort. Despite the numerous ships built during her years and the historic moments she witnessed, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara closed the Yard for good in 1966 after announcements about base closures came out in 1964. At the time, the Yard had over 9,000 workers and was the oldest active industrial plant in New York State. In 1969, New York City along with a non-profit group took control of the property turning it into a large scale industrial plant which it continues to operate as today. There are still dry docks at the Yard to service ships, continuing its legacy for years to come. Today, Bldg 92 serves as an exhibition center and reminds visitors of the property’s historic past. For those of us here in Groton, we will always remember the Nautilus sailing into New York Harbor, headed to the Yard to greet family and friends after one of the most historic trips ever made. Thus, solidifying a place in history for the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

 

For more in-depth information on the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s history and current business you can visit https://brooklynnavyyard.org/

 

[1] http://www.public.navy.mil/subfor/underseawarfaremagazine/Issues/Archives/issue_38/whale.html

Swimmer Delivery Vehicles

You don’t have to walk through the doors of the Submarine Force Museum to begin your experience. Outside you are met with several large artifacts that allow the visitor to quickly jump right into Submarine and Naval history. For instance, outside of its doors, hung towards the sky are the hull rings of the Holland and Ohio class submarines. These give the visitor a taste of how far submarine development has come from 1900 to now. A recent addition is the NR-1 whose bright orange paint can’t be missed. But alongside these large representations of submarine history is a smaller vehicle. It can be passed right over due to its size but plays a key role in military missions, many of which are still kept top secret today. The Swimmer Delivery Vehicle or SDV is used on clandestine operations by a group that is shrouded in mystery just as much as the Silent Service.

SDV in front of Submarine Force Museum.
Picture Credit: Erica Ciallela

Looking inside the SDV from above. at the Submarine Force Museum.
Photo Credit: Erica Ciallela

The U.S Navy Seals are a volunteer unit, just like the Submarine Force. Part of the U.S. Navy’s Naval Special Warfare Command, the number of Seals is small when compared with other forces. Officially established in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy, Seals stands for Sea, Air and Land, the fronts that any seal member must be prepared for on any given mission. Today’s SEALS find their heritage dates back to five groups that played large roles in World War II and the Korean War. These groups were the Army Scouts and Navy Raiders; Naval Combat Demolition Units, Office of Strategic Services Operational Swimmers, Navy Underwater Demolition Teams, and the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons. These groups were used in missions that included reconnaissance, explosive destruction of underwater obstacles, and marking mines for minesweepers. During their time, they made advancements in closed-circuit diving, underwater demolitions, and mini-submarine operations. While established by Kennedy, the modern SEALSs come from a long evolutionary line of forces that shaped the group to its current state. Today’s SEAL teams spend much of their time getting as close to the enemy as possible without being detected. This calls for special equipment that not just any team can have. Enter the SDV. Today’s submarines are large enough to cover entire football fields. And while they are extremely quiet and are great at remaining hidden, there are just some jobs that require a much smaller vehicle. The SDV allows Navy SEALs to exit a submarine and get up close to an enemy.
According to the Navy SEAL Museum, the purpose and need for SDV’s was explained in a 1952 report titled “Underwater Swimmers.” It stated that “Whenever it is necessary to operate near an enemy-held shore in as complete secrecy as possible, the approach to the object must be made under water. The first part of the approach can be made in a fleet-type submarine, but these 1500-ton vessels cannot operate submerged in water shallower than 60 feet, and depths less than 150 feet are considered hazardous. The final submerged approach must be made by swimming or in a small submersible. On many coasts throughout the world, depths less than 60 feet extend out several miles from shore. In these areas even, men equipped with SCUBA would not have enough breathing gas to swim the distance and return. Moreover, they would be seriously fatigued when they reached their objective after their swim of several hours. To supplement their swimming, they must have a small, powered submersible.” The SDV is a manned submersible that allows Navy SEALS to execute their missions. The submersibles are free-flooding which means that the unit is filled with water during the whole mission. Team members breathe compressed air from an internal life-support system or from Scuba equipment. The predecessor to the SDV was developed by the British during World War II. This original design, while used in training and exercise, never saw combat. It could only carry one crew member and its military potential was minimal. However, a similar concept would be used to help create the design for today’s SDV’s. Out of the approximately 2600 active-duty SEALs, only around 230 are qualified to operate or serve on SDV missions. Besides being filled with water, the vessels have no windows. Navigation is done through sonar. Having to work in tight conditions and extremely cold temperatures, only a few SEALs are qualified to handle these circumstances.
Officially commissioned in 1983, the first modern SDV was the MK 7. There were six different models of this type, each one changing and adapting as new upgrades were found. This first design could carry a pilot and three additional crew members. The instruments and battery compartments were kept in water-tight compartments that were pressure-proofed to deal with variable depths. The early models were operated with an electric motor, powered by a rechargeable silver-zinc battery. The first model began experimental service in 1967 and had its first mission in 1972.

A Mk VIII Mod 1 minisub operated by members of a SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team maneuvers into a dry dock shelter fitted to USS KAMEHAMEHA (SSN-642), a U.S. Navy submarine.
U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate Andrew McKaskle
http://www.americanspecialops.com/navy-seals/seal-delivery-vehicle-teams/

Following the MK7, the MK8 and MK 9 made electrical improvements but since the beginning, the design has mainly stayed the same. Today’s SDV’s run on lithium-ion batteries and utilize state-of-the-art navigation systems. Newer models carry a crew of six. The SDV is a clear example of how each unit within the military depends on each other to accomplish its missions. We may joke about being surface or submariner or Army or Navy, but each branch plays a vital role and are intertwined, just like the SDV and the submarine.

SEAL divers from SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team Two (SDVT-2) getting ready to launch a Mk VIII Mod 1 SDV minisub from the back of Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Philadelphia (SSN 690).
image sourced from public domain | U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate Andrew McKaskle
http://www.americanspecialops.com/photos/navy-seals/seals-sdv.php

the X-Craft and D-Day

Last week marked the 74th anniversary of Operation Overlord. Also known as D-Day, Codenamed Operation Overlord saw 156,000 American, British, and Canadian forces land on the northern beaches of France. The invasion, which began on June 6, 1944 and lasted until late August, saw the liberation of Northern France. The landing at Normandy has come to mark the “beginning of the end” of the war in Europe. Many facts about the fateful day are widely known. The Higgins landing craft has become synonymous with the invasion as the boat that won the war. But first-hand reports from the day recount so many different boats waiting to take the beaches. However, one type of vessel that is often forgotten from the narrative is the British midget submarines that played a key role in the landing efforts.

Figure 1 Credit: Imperial War Museum

Preparation for D-day had been extensive. Operation Neptune, the codename for cross-channel portion of the invasion, was pushed back 24 hours due to bad weather. But by June 6th, paratroopers and glider troopers were already in position behind enemy lines. U.S. Forces would go in at Utah and Omaha Beach. The British and Canadian forces were to capture Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. Under Neptune was Operation Gambit, the use of two X -class British submarines that would mark the ends of the British and Canadian invasion beaches. The X-craft submarines were built at a secret submarine training base at Lock Erisort on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. By 1943, the Royal Navy had developed a 52-foot midget submarine they called X-craft. The submarine could carry a four-man crew and remain at sea for days. She could dive up to 300 feet. Due to her small size, the X-craft had only one access hatch and a small periscope that was mostly unreliable. Navigation was done through a Browns A Gyro Compass and Auto Helmsman. The X-craft could either be towed by a conventional submarine or launched from the deck of a submarine to reach its intended target. Two 3,570-lb mines were attached to its sides. A hand crank could release them when they were positioned below the hull of an enemy ship. The small crew consisted of one commanding officer, a first lieutenant, an engineer, and a diver.

X-Craft

Figure 2 Figure 3 Inside an X-craft submarine http://ww2today.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/x-craft-interior.jpg

In the months leading up to Operation Overlord, it was up to the x-20 to gain as much recognizance as possible to prepare for the mission. During the day the submarine would monitor the beaches using its periscope and at night divers would swim to shore. Echo sounding measurements were taken to find distance and landing positions. Over two nights, the divers surveyed the beaches at Vierville, Moulins, St. Laurent and Colleville- the beaches that made up “Omaha” beach. Plans were to have the divers make a third trip. However, bad weather and lack of food forced the commander to return to the HMS Dolphin where she would be towed to Scotland. Two X-class submarines would return to the beaches of Normandy leading up to the invasion to help aid in what would become the eventual downfall of the German troops. HMS X-23 and HMS X-20 would be the first vessels off the shores of Normandy leading up to the attack. Arriving on June 4, the X-crafts fixed their positions and waited for nightfall to surface to begin their mission. It wasn’t until they surfaced that they received the message that the operation had been postponed due to bad weather. According to the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, “On 6 June at 0445 the submarines surfaced in rough seas. They set up the 18 feet high navigation beacons that each were carrying and switched them on. These shone a green light indicating their position away from the coast, visible up to 5 miles away although undetectable to anyone on land. They used the radio beacon and echo sounder to tap out a message for the minelayers approaching Sword and Juno beaches. The incoming fleet appeared on time and roared past them.” Sailing out of Hayling Island in Hampshire, the two submarines were nervous hearing that the mission had been delayed. The conditions inside were cramped and there was not even enough room to stand. There was fear that their oxygen levels wouldn’t last them another day. The men survived on rations of tea and baked beans as they waited for word. The crew would sleep in four-hour rotations in the battery compartment. Each evening they would surface to receive the secret code worded message on the BBC broadcast that would tell them when it was time. At the darkest of night, they would surface so the men could walk on the deck to get some air. Leading up to June 6th, the crews watched the German troops play football on the shore through the periscope. And then the message came to be ready to surface at 4am on June 6th.
Operation Gambit was a success, the British and Canadian forces were able to land on their respective shores without falling off course or hitting any rocks, thanks to the beacons from the X-crafts. In 2011, the small crews of X-23 and X-20 were honored with a granite memorial donated by Prince Charles on Hayling Island, Hampshire. Today, only one X-craft vessel remains- the X-24 which can be seen at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum. While the X-20 and X-23, served only a minor role in the D-Day invasion, it shows the vital role a submarine can play in a nation’s arsenal.

Figure 4 X-24

PT Boats

When it comes to U.S. Navy boats, you often think of aircraft carriers and destroyers. Here in Groton we automatically bring up the large list of Submarines. But throughout the Navy’s long and proud history, there have been an array of different types of vessels used to help support war efforts. One such type of boat are the PT boats of WWII. Nicknamed “Devil Boats” by the Japanese, these small torpedo boats helped the U.S. Navy in its war in the Pacific.

In 1938, the U.S. Navy realized its need for a mobile attack boat. PT’s or Patrol Torpedo Boats were small, fast vessels that could be used for scouting. They were armed with torpedoes and machine guns to cut off enemy tankers and transports. Their effectiveness at targeting Japanese armored barges that were used for inter-island transport gave them the “Devil Boat” nickname. During the war, there were forty-three squadrons with 12 boats each. The work was dangerous, and the squadrons suffered a high loss rate during the war. On board each boat were four Mark 8 torpedoes. Two M2 .50cal machine guns were mounted for anti-aircraft defense. Throughout the war, Elco (Elco Moto Yachts) in Bayonne, New Jersey and Higgins Industries in New Orleans, Louisiana would become the dominant builders of the PT boat.

http://www.historynet.com/elco-pt-boat-80-feet-of-wood-and-weaponry.htm

The Elco boat was 80 feet long and the Higgins came in slightly smaller at 78 feet long.   Elco’s design was based off a purchase of a Scott-Paine motor torpedo boat. They shipped the boat to Electric Boat in Groton and began working with the prototype that would be dubbed PT-9. Over two years the PT-9 would go through numerous sea trials in order to improve the design, eventually meeting Navy standards. To keep up with the production demand, Elco would employ more than 3,000 men and women during the height of the war. The Elco company would build 399 PT boats and Higgins Industries would end up producing 199 PT boats by war’s end. Andrew Jackson Higgins is said to be the man who built the boat that won the war. The famous Higgins Boats were used during the storming of Normandy on June 6, 1944. The use of his LCVP’s (Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel) are what allowed the allied troops direct access to the beach on D-Day. But before this, Higgins’ PT boats were used against the Japanese in the Battle of Aleutian Islands and in the Mediterranean against the Nazis. For most of the war, PT boats would provide fire support for landing troops and carry out rescue missions.

Today very few PT boats survive. Most were destroyed shortly after the war’s end. Stories about their missions and crews can be hard to find. One of the best-known PT boats was the PT-109, skippered by the late President John F. Kennedy. According to NPS.org,”PT-109 was operating in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific and joined 14 other PT boats for a nighttime ambush of 4 enemy destroyers and supply ships of Japan’s “Tokyo express”.   Most of the PT boat attack force fired their compliment of torpedoes and headed for home, but three boats stayed behind including the 109.  In the confusion and darkness at sea, Lieutenant Kennedy noted a vague shape approaching him.  He assumed it was a sister PT boat, but soon discovered it was a Japanese destroyer.   Kennedy attempted to swing his boat into position to fire a torpedo, but was not fast enough.  The much larger destroyer hit the 109 broadside at full speed nearly splitting the much smaller wooden boat in half.   Kennedy and the survivors swam nearly 3 miles to a small island.   After a week of surviving on small islands with the help of natives, Kennedy and the 109’s surviving crew were rescued by PT-157.”[1]

While stories about PT boats are less common than larger vessels, the number of physical PT boats around today are even fewer. The PT-658 which was built but never saw action is housed in Portland, Oregon at the P-658 Heritage Museum.  She was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.

PT-658 Heritage Museum located at the Swan Island Industrial Park in Portland, Oregon. Photo courtesy of the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office/National Park Service

She is fully functional and up until recently was the only restored and operational US Navy PT boat.  At the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, you can take a ride on the PT-305, a Higgins PT boat that has been fully restored after being in dry dock in Texas for a number of years.

The December 8, 1944, commissioning photograph of PT-305’s first crew. Top row: Leonard Martyr, James Nerison, Benedict Bronder, Joseph Cirlot, Percy Wallace, William Minnick, William Borsdorff. Second Row: George Miles, Frank Crane, Donald Weamer, Fernando Ferrini. Bottom: William Schoonover. Gift of Mitchell Cirlo https://pt305.org/history/

The PT-305 served in European waters from 1944 to 1945. According to the National WWII Museum website the “PT-305, along with PT-302 through PT-313, was assigned to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 22 (Ron 22). Ron 22 was commissioned on November 10, 1943 under the command of LCDR Richard J. Dressling and was assigned to the Mediterranean. MTB RON 22 operated in the Mediterranean along the coast of Southern France and Northern Italy. Boats from Ron 22 participated in the Invasion of Elba on June 18, 1944, where PT-305 sank a German Flak lighter. The squadron acted as a diversionary force in Gulf Juan, and as an anti-E-boat screen in the Nice-Cannes area. Ron 22 was part of Operation Dragoon, the invasion of Southern France on August 15, 1944. They landed French Commandos on the coast of France in preparation for the invasion. The squadron was also involved in action around Leghorn, Italy. To harass the enemy Ron 22 fired torpedoes into harbors between Genoa, Italy and the French-Italian border. On the night of April 24, 1945, PT-305 sank an Italian MAS boat. In late April 1945, the squadron was returned to the United States to be overhauled in preparation for deployment to the Pacific. The war however ended while the squadron was still in New York Harbor. The Squadron was decommissioned November 15, 1945 still under the command of LCDR Richard J. Dressling. On June 18, 1948, PT-305 was sold along with the rest of the squadron.”[2] After the war, PT-305 was used as an oyster boat until 2001. Transferred to the museum in 2007, she is now fully restored.

Ensign Bleeker Morse (left) and Lieutenant Junior Grade Allan Purdy on the bridge of PT-305 in Leghorn (Livorno), Italy, on March 16, 1945. The “kill plaques” on the chart house signify the two enemy craft sunk by PT-305 prior to that date. Gift of Joseph Brannan. https://pt305.org/history/

 

 

[1] https://www.nps.gov/articles/ptboats.htm

[2] https://www.nationalww2museum.org/visit/plan-your-visit/pt-305