Archive for March, 2018

The USS Tautog and the Importance of WWII Submarines


“When I assumed command of the Pacific Fleet on 31 December 1941, our submarines were already operating against the enemy, the only units of the fleet that could come to grips with the Japanese for months to come. It was to the submarine force that I looked to carry the load. It is to the everlasting honor and glory of our submarine personnel that they never failed us in our days of great peril.”
– Admiral Chester Nimitz Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet


On December 7, 1941, there were four submarines stationed in Pearl Harbor. USS Narwhal, USS Dolphin, USS Cachalot and USS Tautog. Tautog (SS-199) was the only one built in Groton, Connecticut. She would also be one of the first to fire on the enemy on that fateful day. By the war’s end, Tautog would be one of the most decorated submarines in the war, sinking 26 Japanese ships. Her nickname? “The Terrible T.”

Tautog’s keel was laid on March 1, 1939 by the Electric Boat Company. Launched on January 27, 1940, she was sponsored by Mrs. Hallie N Edwards, the wife of Captain Richard S. Edwards, the Commander of Submarine Squadron Two. In her early career, Tautog would operate out of Naval Base New London until May of 1941 when she would move to Pearl. On October 21, 1941, Tautog along with USS Thresher (SS-200), would begin a 45-day simulated war patrol in the area around Midway Island. Unbeknownst to the crewmen, the simulated patrol would become very real, very soon. Tautog would return to Pearl on December 5, 1941.

USS Tautog – SS -199

On the morning of December 7th, torpedoman’s mate Pat Mignone was on the deck of the Tautog when he saw planes flying over Ford Island. Much of the 59-man crew was getting some much-needed rest after their 45-day patrol when Mignone realized that the low flying planes weren’t a paratrooper exercise but enemy planes dropping bombs. Mignone recalls that “The deck watch sounded battle stations, but it caught everybody by surprise. All over the navy, 8 o’clock is ‘colors’ [ceremonial raising of the flag] and when the sirens sounded, that’s what they thought it was. I went below to get a machine gun out of the ready locker. It was three decks down, so I had a hard time getting it up and getting it mounted. I had somebody else bring me ammunition. “[1] Mignone would man the machine gun as he watched low flying Japanese torpedo planes head toward battleship row. Pat remembers firing until he ran out of ammunition. These first shots fired on that day took down one of the Japanese planes, bringing it down into the channel. All eight battleships in Pearl by the end of December 7th were damaged, four having been completely sunk. There is some curiosity as to why the submarine piers were not targeted. Whatever the reason, it was a mistake that would allow the submarine force to help win the war.

Aerial view of the Submarine Base (right center) with the fuel farm at left, looking south on Oct. 13, 1941. Among the 16 fuel tanks in the lower group and 10 tanks in the upper group are two that have been painted to resemble buildings (topmost tank in upper group, and rightmost tank in lower group). Other tanks appear to be painted to look like terrain features. Alongside the wharf in right center are USS Niagara (PG 52) with seven or eight PT boats alongside (nearest to camera), and USS Holland (AS 3) with seven submarines alongside. About six more submarines are at the piers at the head of the Submarine Base peninsula. (Official U.S. Navy photograph/Released)

During the attack on Pearl, the submarine base, fuel storage depot and the munitions storages were left untouched. It has been estimated that if the fuel storage had been attacked, it would have taken over two years to replenish the supply. After the attack, the submarine force was the only force able to begin immediate war patrols. While submarines only made up 2% of the U.S. Navy, they were responsible for the sinking of 30% of Japanese battleships and 55% of all Japanese merchant ships.

Nineteen days after the attack, the Tautog would leave on a reconnaissance mission near the Marshall Islands in search of the Japanese fleet. In its next war patrol in April 1942, the Tautog would sink two enemy submarines and a Japanese cargo ship. In an article in Connecticut Magazine, Lt. Cmdr. Reginald Preston commented that “She was the ‘killingest’ submarine in the war, and notably the first to sink three enemy submarines, later tied, never bested.”[2] The USS Tautog represents the emerging of Submarine power in the 1940’s. While submarines were used during WWI, the real potential for the submarine force was still not at its height. One theory is that the submarine base wasn’t attacked at Pearl because Japan saw the surface fleet as the Navy’s major weapon. And up until that point, that was the case. But with the first shots fired by the Tautog and the USS Narwhal, submarines became as much a threat as its surface counterparts. With the Tautog’s wartime record, we see that submarines were not just for surveillance and reconnaissance. The force could stand their own and, in some case, perform in ways none of the other military branches could. Early on the United States realized the importance of the Pacific sea routes to the Japanese. The “Silent service” with the help of U.S. Navy code breakers were able to inflict major losses on the Japanese fleet that ensured victory in the Battle of the Philippine Sea and established a blockade of the home islands that strangled the Japanese economy.

With everything the US Submarine Force was able to accomplish during the war, they also paid the heaviest cost. Fifty submarines were lost, and 3,628 submariners (22% of the force) either died or were missing in action. The actions of the Submarine Force on December 7 and after only exemplify the power and strength of the silent service.



Grace Hopper

   “A ship in port is safe; but that is not what ships are built for. Sail out to sea and do new things.” –  Grace Hopper

March is Women’s History Month and we would be remiss if we let it go by without talking about probably one of the greatest women to have served in the US Navy. Grace Murray Hopper not only changed how computers worked in the Navy, but how they were used in general. For her amazing work in computer science as well as her position as a rear admiral, she is sometimes referred to as “Amazing Grace”

Grace Murray was born on December 9, 1906 in New York. She graduated from Vassar in 1928 and earned an MA and PHD from Yale University.  In 1943 she entered the US Naval Reserve and attended the UNSR Midshipman’s School-W at Northampton, Massachusetts. Originally, Hopper was turned away from joining the military because her weight was too light for her height. The military also believed that her work on mathematics at Vassar at the time was too important to abandon. She fought to join and was successfully given a waiver to attend training in Massachusetts. At 37 years old, she was one of the oldest recruits. Despite her age and weight, Hopper achieved the highest training rank- battalion commander- and graduated first in her class in June 1944.  Her first assignment was at the Bureau of Ordinance Computation Project at Harvard.

Figure 1 The Harvard Mark I. IBM Archives.

It would be here that she first learned to program a computer –The Mark I. The Harvard Mark I was the first fully functional computer and the brainchild of electrical engineer and physicist Howard Aiken. IBM funded his research and he compiled a team which included Grace.

The Mark I computer was a whopping 55 feet long and eight feet high. The five-ton device contained over 760,000 separate pieces. The U.S. Navy used the computer for gunnery and ballistic calculations and was in operation until 1959. The computer used pre-punched tape and could carry out addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. It could also reference previous results and had subroutines for logarithms and trigonometric functions. All of its output was displayed on an electric typewriter. Hopper is responsible for coining the term “bug” to describe a computer fault while working on the Mark I. The original “bug” was a moth that had caused a hardware fault which Hopper got rid of, thus becoming the first person to “debug” a computer. In 1946 she joined the Harvard Faculty as a Research fellow and would continue working on the Mark I and Mark II computers for the Navy. While working on the Mark systems she would help develop Flow-Matic, the first English-language data processing complier.

Figure 2 Grace Murray Hopper (seated, second from right) and Howard Aiken (seated, center), along with other members of the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project, in front of the Harvard Mark I at Harvard University in 1944. U.S. Department of Defense.

In 1949, Hopper joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in Philadelphia as a Senior Mathematician. The corporation was building the UNIVAC I, the first commercial large-scale electronic computer. She would serve as the company’s Staff Scientist, Systems Programming until her retirement from the company in 1971 while on military leave.  In 1959, Grace was asked to serve on a committee which would later develop the programming language COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language) which is still used in order-processing business software today. While working on the UNIVAC I, Hopper would serve as the director of the Navy Programming Languages Group and was promoted to Captain in 1973. Amid all her technological accomplishments, Hopper tried to retire from the Naval Reserve twice, first in 1966 and again in 1971. Both times she was recalled to active duty indefinitely. In 1966, she was recalled to work at the Pentagon to upgrade COBOL. Versions of COBOL were having issues running on different computers. Hopper was responsible for bringing together all the incompatible strands to ensure that the language would be able to be used on multiple platforms. She did this by issuing a certifier. A certifier was a program that tested any version of COBOL and then made sure that it was truly compatible with all computers.  In 1983, she was promoted to Commodore, a title that was later renamed to Rear Admiral, lower half.

Figure 3 Grace Hopper, age 76, is promoted to Commodore at the White House in 1983. President Ronald Reagan looks on. Her rank was reassigned in 1985 to Rear Admiral

She would finally retire in 1986 at the age of 80. Upon her retirement, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy. She would receive the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the highest non-combat award possible by the Department of Defense.

During her career, Grace Hopper was awarded 40 honorary degrees from universities around the world, and awarded numerous honors. Among her many accolades, Hopper was the first winner of “Computer Science Man of the Year” in 1969. She was also honored as the Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society in 1973, and then later became the first woman to receive the National Medal of Technology as an individual in 1991. Hopper’s role in computer science forever changed the field. She also serves as an inspiration to women working in a variety of STEM fields today.  Upon her death in 1992, she was laid to rest with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. In 1997, the Navy commissioned a guided-missile destroyer to be named USS Hopper. Her legacy lives on not just in the computer science world or the Navy. Grace Hopper believed that her greatest accomplishment was the training she gave to the younger generations. “The most important thing I’ve accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, ‘Do you think we can do this?’ I say ‘Try it’ and I back them up.” Grace Hopper told writer Lynn Gilbert in 1981.

Figure 4

America’s First Black Sailors

This Story comes from The Sextant at the Naval History and Heritage Command

By Alex Hays, Communication and Outreach Division, Naval History and Heritage Command

“British gold and promises of personal freedom served as futile incentives among the Negroes of the American Navy; for them, the proud consciousness of duty well done served as a constant monitor and nerved their strong black arms when thundering shot and shell menaced the future of the country; and, although African slavery was still a recognized legal institution and constituted the basic fabric of the great food productive industry of the nation, it was the Negro’s trusted devotion to duty which ever guided him in the nation’s darkest hours of peril and menace.”

Kelly Miller, a premier black intellectual at the turn of the 20th-century, penned these words in 1919 to describe the patriotism of free and enslaved black Sailors during the Revolutionary War. Despite slavery and British offers of freedom, thousands of black patriots served on American vessels during the American Revolution. According to a U.S. Army report on the African American military experience, higher percentages of black men served in the naval forces than the land forces, since the Continental Navy did not restrict their service like the army and militias did. However, the Continental Navy was relatively small, and black Sailors served in even greater numbers aboard state naval vessels and privateers. These ships provided more opportunities for advancement and rewards than the Continental Navy. Detailed records of black Sailors’ service are scarce, but their stories are an important part of naval history and heritage as a group that fought on the seas for a country that denied them basic rights.

James Forten.

In American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm, Gail Buckley documents the amazing story of James Forten. Born free in Philadelphia in 1766, James Forten joined the crew of Royal Louis in 1781. This ship was a Pennsylvanian privateer commanded by Capt. Stephen Decatur, Sr. (father of Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr.). Forten served as a powder monkey, running gun powder from the ship’s magazine to the cannons, alongside a crew of 200.

On Forten’s second cruise, the ship was overrun by a British frigate and the entire crew was captured. The British captain’s son befriended Forten and the captain eventually offered him a life in England. However, Forten refused to renounce his American allegiance and was imprisoned aboard the British Old Jersey. Confined with hundreds of prisoners off the coast of New York, Forten struggled to survive (11,000 prisoners died on this ship throughout the war) while continuing to resist the British. After seven months, Forten was released and made the 100-mile trek back to Philadelphia despite severe malnutrition.

After the war, Forten worked for a sailmaker and became the owner of a sail loft. He invented a sail-maneuvering tool and amassed a $100,000 fortune. He was a strong abolitionist and a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Forten’s relatives and descendants continued his abolitionist and patriotic fights after his death in 1842. His nephew, James Forten Dunbar, served in the Navy during the Civil War. From fighting for American independence as a Sailor to fighting against slavery, James Forten showed true American patriotism.

Unlike James Forten, many black Sailors were enslaved and their records of service are even scarcer than his. These enslaved Sailors were often victims of a substitution system where they served in their owner’s place, but the owners received their pay. In The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, Sidney Kaplan and Emma Nogrady Kaplan document the lives of enslaved persons in the Virginian navy. Capt. James Barron, commander of the armed schooner Liberty (and the father of Commodore James Barron), wrote of the valor of the enslaved persons on his ship, which was involved in twenty engagements during the American Revolution:

“I take pleasure in stating there were several coloured men, who, I think, in justice to their merits should not be forgotten. Harry (a slave, belonging to Captain John Cooper) was distinguished for his zeal and daring; Cupid (a slave of Mr. William Ballard) stood forth on all occasions as the champion of liberty, and discharged all his duties with a fidelity that made him a favorite of all the officers.”

Francois, Brittain (captain’s boy), and Primus Helle (seaman) served aboard Alfred, a 24-gun ship in the Continental Navy.


Cato Calite and Scipio Africanus served as seamen on Ranger (left), an 18-gun sloop commanded by Capt. John Paul Jones.


Multiple enslaved persons served aboard Patriot, another Virginian warship. David Baker served instead of his master and was re-enslaved after the war, although he petitioned the government for freedom in 1794 because of his military service. Caesar Tarrant served on Patriot as its pilot for four years and was present when the ship captured the British vessel Fannywhich was sailing to Boston with supplies. Tarrant was born into slavery in Hampton, VA, but was freed in 1789 by the Virginian government due to his military service. Before dying in 1796, Tarrant became a landowner. His daughter Nancy received 2,667 acres of land in Ohio in recognition of her father’s service. Finally, Capt. Mark Starlin commanded Patriot. Starlin was re-enslaved after the end of hostilities, despite his accomplishments. Capt. Barron wrote that Starlin was “brought up as a pilot, and proved a skillful one, and a devoted patriot.”

1998 silver dollar commemorating black Revolutionary War patriots.

Although they all served this new country, black Sailors had vastly different experiences both during and after the war. Some enslaved persons, such as Caesar Tarrant, were freed after the American Revolution. Most enslaved persons, such as Capt. Mark Starlin, remained in bondage, and even free black citizens like James Forten continued to be treated unequally. Nevertheless, thousands of black patriots fought for American freedom, while their compatriots denied them this very freedom. In 2013, the National Defense Authorization Act approved the creation of a memorial to honor the black patriots of the American Revolution. This National Liberty Memorial is currently undergoing site selection, funding, and design.