‘ Submarine History ’ Archive

“Take Her Down”

While Veteran’s Day may have been last weekend, we honor those who have served all year long. Here at the museum we take great pride in honoring those who have served and preserving their legacy and history for generations to come. One exhibit we have is the Medal of Honor wall. It honors those who have received the Medal of Honor during their service in the submarine force. These submariners are all different, but share in the fact that they gave their hearts and, for some, their lives to protect this country. Here is one of their stories.

Howard Walter Gilmore was born in Selma, Alabama on September 29, 1902. He enlisted in the Navy on November 15, 1920 and was appointed to the US Naval Academy in 1922. In 1926 he was sent to his first station on the battleship USS Mississippi (BB-41). By 1930, Gilmore was seeking something new and exciting and underwent submarine training in New London. Gilmore’s life was filled with close calls and his personal life filled with tragedy. His first wife died of polio and his second was seriously injured in an accidental fall. During his time as an executive officer on the USS Shark (SS-174), he and a colleague were assaulted while in Panama. Gilmore’s throat was cut, and he narrowly survived.  Unfortunately, his luck would not change when he was assigned to take command of the still-unfinished USS Growler (SS-215) in late 1941. By March of 1942, construction of the Growler was finished, and Gilmore and his crew would operate out of Pearl Harbor in the Pacific theater. Their first war patrol would come in late June 1942 in the Aleutian Islands. During this patrol, Gilmore once again narrowly escaped disaster, avoiding two torpedoes that were fired at him during an attack by three Japanese destroyers. In August, they would leave for their second patrol in the East China Sea near Taiwan. During what would end up being Growler’s most successful war patrol, they sunk four merchant ships totaling 15,000 tons. Her third patrol was quiet, and she would remain in Brisbane, Australia for the rest of 1942.

The Growler and her crew left Brisbane on New Year’s Day 1943 for her fourth war patrol. Her mission was to target Japanese shipping lanes in the Bismarck Archipelago. In early February, while charging her batteries on the surface, Gilmore spotted a provision ship and prepared for a surface attack. The 900-ton provision ship Hayasaki saw the on-coming submarine and attempted to ram the Growler. In the darkness, Gilmore “sounded the collision alarm and shouted, ‘Left full rudder!’-to no avail. Perhaps inadvertently, Growler hit the Japanese adversary amidships at 17 knots, heeling the submarine 50 degrees, bending sideways 18 feet of her the bow, and disabling the forward torpedo tubes.”[1] The Japanese crew began firing at the bridge, killing the assistant officer and a lookout who were on deck. Gilmore and two other men were also wounded during the burst of gun fire. Gilmore, without thinking, called for the bridge to be cleared. Gilmore realized that if they dove, the Growler could be saved, but there was no time for him to make it below. Despite this, he gave the call to “Take her down!”  LCDR Arnold Schade, shaken and unsure, followed the last order his captain would ever give him. Schade would service the ship a few hours later but found no sign of the Hayasaki. There was also no sign of Gilmore. Schade and the crew were able to keep the battered ship together long enough to make it back to Brisbane on February 17th. Gilmore’s death would unfortunately not be the only tragedy for the Growler. On her 11th war patrol in 1944, she was lost at sea. By her end, The Growler received eight battle stars for her role in the Pacific War.

CDR Howard Gilmore was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his sacrifice to save his ship. The submarine tender Howard W. Gilmore (AS-16) was named for him and sponsored by his widow. His award citation reads:

For distinguished gallantry and valor above and beyond the call of duty as Commanding Officer of the USS Growler during her Fourth War Patrol in the Southwest Pacific from 10 January to 7 February 1943. Boldly striking at the enemy in spite of continuous hostile air and antisubmarine patrols, CDR Gilmore sank one Japanese freighter and damaged another by torpedo fire, successfully evading severe depth charges following each attack. In the darkness of night on 7 February, an enemy gunboat closed range and prepared to ram the Growler. CDR Gilmore daringly maneuvered to avoid the crash and rammed the attacker instead, ripping into her port side at 11 knots and bursting wide her plates. In the terrific fire of the sinking gunboat’s heavy machineguns, CDR Gilmore calmly gave the order to clear the bridge, and refusing safety for himself, remained on deck while his men preceded him below. Struck down by the fusillade of bullets and having done his utmost against the enemy, in his final living moments, CDR Gilmore gave his last order to the officer of the deck, “Take her down.” The Growler dived; seriously damaged but under control, she was brought safely to port by her well-trained crew inspired by the courageous fighting spirit of their dead captain.

The two others lost that day by the gunfire during the attack were Ensign W. Williams and lookout Fireman W.F. Kelley. The phrase “Take her down!” remains a legendary phrase in the U.S. Submarine Force, and rightfully so. Gilmore is honored in our Medal of Honor room as well as in an exhibit honoring the legacy of the phrase, “Take Her Down!”

[1] Whitman, Edward. https://www.ussnautilus.org/undersea/gilmore.html

The Journey of the Torpedo’s History

Over the last couple of weeks, we have done blog stories covering specific times in Naval history dealing with the torpedo. However, when discussed individually, you may not get the whole picture of the evolution of the torpedo and how it went from floating sea mine to today’s strategic weapon. With that in mind, we thought we’d share a brief evolutionary tale of the torpedo. Today’s definition of a torpedo is “a long metal cylinder with an explosive warhead, propelled through the water by an internal combustion engine or batteries. Modern torpedoes are wire-guided: a think wire spooling from the torpedo links it to the submarine’s fire control computer, from which guidance commands in the form of digital electronic signals flow.”[1] How did we get to such a sophisticated piece of machinery?

There is often confusion when looking at the evolutionary tale of torpedoes. This is mainly because, in the 17th and 18th centuries, sea mines were typically called “torpedoes.” However, the two are very different. The torpedo is a descendant of the floating mine. Therefore, when studying the torpedo, one must begin with the floating mine. The earliest reference to floating mines dates back to 1585. The Dutch would pack an entire ship with explosives, keeping them alongside potential victims.  By the Revolutionary War, this method was replaced with floating barrels of gunpowder. When David Bushnell decided to pack kegs with gunpowder, the idea of using floating mines in warfare became a tangible possibility. The problem with these devices was that they were uncontrollable. They could not be anchored and would drift with the current. Despite their problems, these sea mines ushered in a completely new idea of how to attack an enemy ship. Bushnell referred to these mines as “torpedoes.”

Figure 1 An electric ray or torpedo fish

The term torpedo comes from a fish with the same name, which emits an electric discharge that can incapacitate its enemies. Torpedo fish are part of the electric ray family. They can produce electric discharges from 8 to 220 volts. The name comes from the Latin torpere, which means to be stiffened or paralyzed. As Robert Fulton built on Bushnell’s idea, he also used the term “torpedo” for his mines. Fulton, however, did not believe this weapon should be used during wartime, but beforehand as a preventive measure. By rendering an enemy’s fleet as obsolete, maritime battles would disappear. Fulton’s mines could be anchored, solving the problems of mines drifting away from their target. This style of warfare continued throughout the Civil War. Confederate states used mines to counter Union ships, which outnumbered southern vessels. Samuel Colt would perfect the use of an electric current to detonate a mine in 1844. He also created a moored minefield that could be detonated on command through an operator standing on the shore.

It was not until 1866 that Robert Whitehead developed the precursor to the modern torpedo. This self-propelling torpedo is the design that all torpedoes have been based on ever since. The US Navy originally decided not to invest in the Whitehead torpedo. They instead initially developed their own design based on the Whitehead model, in 1869. However, their efforts never left the testing stage and the program was terminated in 1874, at which time the US Navy purchased their first Whitehead torpedo. The first models of the Whitehead torpedo were cold running and operated on compressed air. Later models would improve speed and distance with the addition of heat. The device used a combustion pot to heat the compressed air allowing the torpedo to go faster. The speed and distance could be varied by changing the amount of heat used. With the modification of a gyroscope, directionality could be improved as well. From 1866 to 1922, torpedo development remained relatively unchanged. Modifications to the war nose or detonators were made between 1910 and 1915. These changes allowed the torpedoes to go from direct impact to a “model that would detonate from any direction or glancing blow to the hull using whiskers; four levers which actually extended from the warhead. Upon any slight jolt of a glancing blow, the whiskers would release the shear pin and allow the firing pin to impact the percussion cap, detonating the warhead.”[2] In 1920, the first air-dropped torpedo was tested.

Figure 2http://pwencycl.kgbudge.com/U/s/US_Mark_14_torpedo.htm mk14 torpedo

In pre-WWII, the MK 14 was developed and later became the standard submarine anti-ship torpedo in WWII. This torpedo is responsible for sinking tons of Japanese vessels and giving them devastating blows. By 1942, the development of the electric torpedo was complete and the MK 18 joined the submarine service. This type of torpedo had a battery compartment instead of the typical air flask. The engine was replaced by an electric motor. The first electric torpedoes were more efficient than their predecessors. However, due to their usage of a lead acid battery, they required maintenance often. This was a problem for the submarine force since hydrogen would be expelled during the maintenance process. This was a safety concern on these diesel fleets. This would mean that purchasing of the torpedo room had to be done on a regular basis. Electric options had its advantages despite these maintenance issues. They could not be detected through the water, leaving no answer as to the location it came from or even that it was coming at all.

After WWII and the beginning of the 1950’s, torpedo development switched its focus onto anti-submarine warfare. At the end of the war, the US had seven torpedoes in service and had 24 more in development. Advancements in sonar technology allowed submarines to be detected from a further distance away. The need arose for strong torpedoes that were more efficient. Testing began on homing torpedoes that would attack based on sound. This proved difficult since newer submarines and propellers were becoming quieter. The MK 27 was the first torpedo to leave its tube under its own power and not by compressed air. As nuclear-powered submarines entered Navy fleets, the need for a faster, more capable submarine arose yet again. The MK 45 was delivered in 1963. It had speeds of 40 knots and a range of 11,000 to 15,000 years. It featured a sea-water activated battery and a detonation command via wire guidance.  In 1976, the MK 45 was replaced with the non-nuclear MK 48. The MK 48 is the primary active service torpedo in today’s submarine fleet.  The latest generation is the MK 48 ADCAP which was produced in 1989. This model can operate with or without wire guidance.  These models can act on their own active or passive sensors to reach their desired target and can even readjust if a target is missed. The MK 48 is 19 feet and 21 inches long and weighs 3,450 pounds. It has a range of 20 miles at a speed of 55 knots, which is four times the range and speed of its predecessor, the MK 37.

Figure 3 Mk-48 ADCAP torpedo was loaded into USS Oklahoma City – Polaris Point, Guam – November 2012 http://www.seaforces.org/wpnsys/SUBMARINE/Mk-48-torpedo.htm

Torpedoes have come a long way from the days of Bushnell and Fulton. The sea mines of the 1700’s have developed their own path and are still used today in Naval warfare. However, their predecessors that were once called “torpedoes” gave way to the improved innovation and conception of today’s modern-day torpedo defense system.

[1] http://americanhistory.si.edu/subs/weapons/armament/torpedoes/index.html

[2] https://www.history.navy.mil/museums/keyport/History_of_the_Torpedo_and_the_Relevance_to_Todays_Navy.pdf

A Navy Halloween

In honor of Halloween, we thought we would share with you a few Navy ghost stories. So, sit back, turn the lights on and indulge in some eerie tales that have taken place during the Navy’s history.


The Mystery of the Navy’s Ghost Blimp

On August 16, 1942, the L-8, a Navy anti-submarine blimp, was setting off on a routine reconnaissance mission. The destination was the Farallon Islands, about 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco to look for approaching Japanese submarines. The blimp would take off from Treasure Island with two crew members, Ernest Cody and Charles Adams. They would circle the islands and return to base with any information.  An hour into the flight, they radioed back that they had detected an oil spill and would keep investigating. At about 10:30 AM, two ships and a Pan Am airline saw the blimp and it appeared to be on course. Around noon, people on a beach near Dale City watched the L-8 crash into some rocks along the shore before heading back up into the sky. She would finally come down among a residential block just a short distance into the city. When rescuers rushed to the scene of the accident, they were shocked to find that the cockpit was empty. There was no sign of either Cody or Adams anywhere. As the Navy began its investigation, it was found that all equipment was in working order, parachutes and life rafts were still in place, and the radio was fine. Two life vests were missing, however. It was common practice for the men to wear them during a mission if they were to go over the water. As news of the missing crew spread, there were many theories proposed to explain their disappearance. One such theory suggested a potential fight that had broken out between the two which caused them to fall through an open door. Another proposed that they had somehow been captured by the enemy. Some even believed that UFO’s were involved. The L-8 was thoroughly investigated, but no clues were ever found. She was repaired and kept in service until 1982. However, after the crash, her duties were mostly nonmilitary and even used to broadcast sporting events. No trace of the two men have ever been found and the L-8 blimp mystery has never been solved.

USS Hornet

The USS Hornet is often called the most haunted ship in history. She is currently berthed at the decommissioned Alameda Naval Base in California. She is the eighth US ship to be given the Hornet name. Commissioned in 1943, she became a highly decorated ship in WWII. She destroyed 1,410 Japanese aircrafts, damaged 1,269,710 tons of enemy shipping and helped in sinking the battleship Yamato. Despite her impressive record, the Hornet had a long history of tragedy from wartime deaths to accidental deaths. In her 27 years of service, 300 men are believed to have died aboard the ship. Its tragic past may be the reason that she has become one of America’s most haunted ships. Crew and visitors have reported many strange incidents aboard the vessel. Doors will open and close by themselves, objects move across the floor, and spectral sailors will move aboard the ship. An electrician, Derek Lyon-McKeil, was interviewed in December 2000 and described an incident that occurred during fleet week in 1995. He said, “We’d all just bunked down, and we had a rule. No exploring. All of a sudden, I heard this banging noise like someone was opening the hatches who shouldn’t have been. Peter Clayton, our supervisor, came charging around, saying ‘okay, who’s sneaking around opening hatches?’ We realized that everyone in the group was there. As we were all standing there staring at each other, we heard it again. At that point we were pretty secure. It couldn’t have been anyone who’d gotten aboard.”[1] And in 2013, Heidi Schave, the education manager retold a story to a local newspaper. Schave was sitting in her office, she said when ‘it got really cold. I saw a man in a blue uniform. He was clear as day, like you or I, but he wasn’t making any eye contact. He was sort of slow moving. There was a bulkhead there, and he walked right the bulkhead.” [2] These are just two of the many experiences that have drawn people to the ship to experience these hauntings for themselves. The idea that the Hornet is haunted is so popular that when you visit the museum website, they offer special evening tours that talk about the chilling history of the aircraft carrier and the chance to have an experience yourself.

USS Constellation

Located in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is the USS Constellation. The ship served in different forms from the Civil War till WWII. Built in 1854, the sloop-of-war, was the last sail-only warship designed and built by the US Navy. She was built using salvaged material from the frigate of the same name that was disassembled in 1853. Remaining in service for close to a century, she was decommissioned in 1954 and moved to Baltimore, becoming a National Historic Landmark. USS Constellation’s long service has given her a past filled with many stories and legends that lend themselves to giving her a haunted background. During her active time, there were quite a few untimely and unpleasant deaths below her decks. During reconstruction efforts, the crew reported seeing a man dressed in Civil War attire and others reported hearing crying followed by a cannon. Theses sightings are linked to a sailor who was killed for treason onboard the vessel. When found guilty, he was tied to a cannon which was then fired and sent him to a watery grave. Not all sightings or noises are scary. A friendly ghost, thought to be a former captain, has been said to give tours of the vessel to visitors who think they are being led around by a docent. Manifestations and sightings were said to have started shortly after she was decommissioned and placed in Baltimore. In 1955, the crew of the submarine USS Pike was moored next to the Constellation and reported seeing apparitions, lights and hearing strange noises. Lieutenant Commander Allen Ross Brougham from the Pike is said to have taken a picture of an apparition dressed in 18th-century clothes that were described as having a glowing radiance and wearing a cocked hat and carrying a sword. The Constellation can be toured and visitors can decide for themselves if she is haunted.

Submarine Force Library and Museum

*The Following is an excerpt from the March 1990 issue of The Klaxon.

Footsteps are an uncommon sound aboard a submarine. The whine of the fans and turbines, the roar of steam, and the rush of water over the hull drown out most other sounds. Here on Nautilus footsteps should be just as uncommon, since its equipment is now silent and its crew long departed. But in the eerie silence of this warship put to rest, there can be heard the sounds of footsteps where there should be none, the banging of doors and lockers with no one there, unexplained sounds over the phones, and even once the apparition of a figure carrying a light. The crew that maintains and watches over Nautilus calls this unexplained presence “Herb.” Is it just imagination or could it be a former Nautilus shipmate loyally keeping watch on her. Herb walked the decks, checks the spaces, and reports the status by phone. The present crew will come and go, but Herb seems to be a permeant crew member, always on watch and maintaining Nautilus as the “first and finest.” Of course, we all know there are no ghosts, especially not on Nautilus. The story of “Herb” is simply a folktale, a small part of the larger legend of the Nautilus. It is nice to think that, in addition to the crew and staff there is an extra, ‘friendly’ person watching out for the welfare of Nautilus. – Daniel A Lewis MM1/SS

Those of us who currently work at The Nautilus like to believe that Herb is real. And when you walk the halls at night alone, you can feel his presence. It is nice to know that someone is always there making sure that the boat and museum are ready and waiting for visitors to come and learn about the Submarine Service. While we will be closed for Halloween through November 11 for our yearly maintenance, we invite you to come any time of the year and say hello to Herb. You never know – he might just want to give a tour that day.

[1] Naval History Magazine December 2000

[2] http://www.mercurynews.com/2013/01/30/uss-hornets-ghosts-and-spirits-roam-the-decks-observers-say/

The Whitehead Torpedo

In 1959, The Sound of Music premiered on Broadway. It quickly became a hit and in 1965 was turned into the famous film with Julie Andrews. But did you know that this singing family has a relationship with the torpedo?

The Von Trapp family is not known for their military history but rather for their famous escape of Nazi occupied Austria. What the movie leaves out is the fact that Maria did not actually bring the gift of song into the Von Trapp household. The children already had a love of singing from their mother, Agatha Whitehead Von Trapp. The Von Trapp’s have multiple ties to Navy life. Not only was Georg Von Trapp (the father) in the Austrian Navy serving aboard submarines, Agatha is the granddaughter of Robert Whitehead – the inventor of the modern torpedo. In fact, most of the wealth that belonged to the Von Trapp family before the war was from sales of the Whitehead Torpedo. But who was Robert Whitehead?

Robert Whitehead

Robert Whitehead was born in 1823 in Bolton, England. At fourteen, he left school to become an apprentice to an engineer. He would spend several years attending Manchester’s Mechanics Institute. In 1844, Whitehead left for France and would later start his own business in Milan. By the 1850’s his work with marine steam engines allowed him to have successful businesses throughout Europe. This success attracted the Austrian government, who asked him to develop a new weapon for marine ships. Austrian Captain Giovanni Luppis enlisted the help of Whitehead to develop a weapon that could damage another vessel from a far distance. Their invention became the first self-propelled torpedo and would become the starting point for all future designs.

In 1866, the first experimental model was ready. Propelled by a two cylinder, compressed-air engine, the model could travel 200 yards at a speed of 6 ½ knots. By 1868, Whitehead had refined his design and offered two versions of his torpedo for sale – an 11-foot, 8-inch model and a 14-foot model. The United States Navy described the torpedo in an 1898 manual in the following manner:

The Whitehead Torpedo consists of a cylindrical air-flask to which is attached an ogival head and a conical after-body, bearing the tail. The head contains the explosive charge, for use in action, or fresh-water ballast for use in exercise; the air-flask contains compressed air, the motive power of the torpedo; the after-body contains the engine and the controlling mechanism; and in the tail, are the propellers and the rudder. Air is compressed in the air-flask to a pressure of 1350 lbs. per sq. in., or ninety atmospheres, approximately, and the torpedo is launched from a tube, above or below the water-line, by air or gun-powder impulse. The air-flask is of heavy forged steel; the other parts of the shell of the torpedo are of thin sheet steel, strengthened at various points by strengthening-rings and at the joints by stout joint-rings. The interior parts are generally of bronze, with a few easily accessible parts of steel.[1]

Figure 2 https://archive.hnsa.org/doc/whitehead/plates1.htm

A war-head.
B air-flask.
B’ immersion-chamber.
CC’ after-body.
C engine-room.
DDDD drain-holes.
E shaft-tube.
F steering-engine.
G bevel-gear box.
H depth-index.
I tail.
K charging and stop-valves.
L. locking-gear.
M engine bed-plate.
P primer-case.
R rudder.
S steering-rod tube.
T guide-stud.
UU propellers.
V valve-group.
W war-nose.
Z strengthening-band.

The Austrian Navy was the first to place and order for the torpedo. While Austria purchased the manufacturing rights in 1869, Whitehead negotiated a contract which allowed him to continue selling his torpedo to other countries. By 1881, Britain, Russia, France, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Argentina, and Belgium had purchased Whitehead torpedoes. In 1877, he introduced the MK2, an improved version of his MK1 models that traveled faster and further. The MK2 had speeds of 27-28 knots, but the larger 16 ½ foot model was twice the speed compared to its 11-foot model. At first, the United States tried to develop their own torpedo before buying the Whitehead. In 1892, the Whitehead torpedo joined the U.S. Navy after the E.W. Bliss Company secured manufacturing rights. Five types of models were purchased – MK 1, MK 2, and MK 3 units in multiple sizes. All models featured three-cylinder engines and a gyroscope to control the larger models. The gyroscope was used in the later models solved the issue with course correction that was seen in the MK 1 model. The gyroscope was patented by Ludwig Obry. Whitehead bought the rights to the gyroscope in 1896 to use in his torpedoes. Between 1896 and 1904, the Bliss Company produced 300 Whitehead torpedoes. Whiteheads made up most of the torpedo arsenal for the U.S. Navy until 1910. The MK 3 was still being used in WWI and the last known use of a Whitehead torpedo was in WWII.

Robert Whitehead died in 1905, leaving a small fortune to his family. By the time of his death, new innovations lead to the MK 5. A hot running torpedo, the MK 5 used an air heater and a four-cylinder reciprocating engine. The heat allowed the Whitehead torpedo to run 4000 yards at 27 knots. What Whitehead accomplished in such a short time was rarely seen. The Whitehead torpedo set the primary design of today’s modern torpedoes. While his great-grandchildren are remembered for their singing, Whitehead should also be remembered for the important place he holds in Naval history. A MK 3 Whitehead torpedo is currently on display at the museum.

[1] https://maritime.org/doc/whitehead/

Fulton’s Torpedo’s

The idea of the torpedo is much older than one might think. The term “sea mine” was first used in the early 16th century when the Dutch would load vessels with large amounts of explosives and set them adrift to use against an enemy. In the 18th and early 19th century, inventors such as David Bushnell and Robert Fulton worked on finding ways to use these sea mines, or “torpedoes”, as these investors referred to them, in warfare. These were the precursors to today’s warheads.

Figure 1 Fulton’s Steamboat Clermont.

Those who study submarine history know the story of Bushnell’s “torpedoes” all too well. These sea mines were floating kegs filled with gunpowder with the hopes that a light shake from an enemy ship would ignite the keg and destroy the British ship. Unfortunately, Bushnell’s submarine and “torpedoes” yielded few results, but set the stage for further developments in the field. Bushnell’s work on underwater explosives gave future inventors the necessary skills to understand the logistics of how a mine might work while submerged. Fulton continued with the development of sea mines, developing a system that would have a clockwork mechanism that could be set and then explode five to ten minutes later. Robert Fulton is best known for creating the first commercial steamboat the Clermont in 1807. However, Fulton contributed more than just a steamboat to the waterways. In 1801, Fulton developed what some believe to be the first practical submarine, which he called Nautilus. Fulton believed that designing a submerged vessel which could carry a torpedo would put an end to maritime wars. In 1797, he stated, “Should some vessels of war be destroyed by means so novel, so hidden and so incalculable he confidence of the seamen will vanish and the fleet rendered useless from the movement of the first terror.”[1]

Figure 2 Cross section through “plunging boat” showing “chambers for submarine bombs. Sketch by Fulton 1806.

Figure 3 Vessel under sail and anchored

Fulton’s original design for a submarine was for the French, but the government rejected the idea, viewing it as a dishonorable way to fight. Using his own funds, Fulton built the vessel hoping to change minds using a functioning prototype. The Nautilus introduced stealth strategy to naval warfare and allowed the torpedo to be mobile. His design included a collapsible mast and sail which provided surface propulsion. A hand-turned propeller allowed the vessels to move while submerged. One unique feature was the use of copper sheets over the iron-ribbed hull. He was the first to use the term “torpedo” to describe a gun powdered device that would explode beneath ships. Compared to the torpedoes of today, Fulton’s torpedoes were merely floating

Figure 4 sighting mechanism details

mines since the idea of self-propulsion had not been developed yet. In 1801, he sank a small ship using his submarine mine with an explosive charge of 20 tons of gunpowder. On October 18, 1805, he succeeded in sinking the 200-ton brig Dorothea. – a first in naval history. The overall premise of his design consisted of a cable with a mine

Figure 5 Pumps, cocks, water chamber, and anchor for “plunging boat”

connected to the ends. Fulton would release the mine in such a way that it would snag the target’s bow, drawing the mines into contact with the ship’s sides as it went by. Compared to previous attempts of his that had failed, he decided to make each mine heavier, ensuring that they would sink beneath the surface and remain underneath the ship undetected. Fulton concluded that a weighted mine beneath the surface, rather than floating on top as in previous designs, would be successful in destroying a ship’s hull.  Fulton would end up scrapping Nautilus and began designing a larger vessel that was never built. Disinterest from France and England led Fulton to draw up designs for the United States and Jefferson who had been in correspondence with Fulton during his time abroad. In 1806, he submitted many designs to the government for their review. Despite Jefferson’s interest in his designs, Fulton’s demonstrations did not live up to his success with the Dorothea. With the success of his steamboat, Fulton would leave behind his submarine designs to focus his energy on other ventures. Despite his focus on his commercial enterprises, Fulton remained adamant in his belief that torpedoes could end Naval warfare. In 1813, Jefferson urged Fulton not to give up his submarine work. He wrote to Fulton that, “I confess I have more hopes of the mode of destruction by submarine than any other.”[2]

Figure 6 Submarine vessel, longitudinal section

Fulton may have been the first to think of a torpedo’s offensive potential. After his death in 1815, torpedo development stagnated. However, it was used during the Civil War by both the North and South, most notably by Lt. William Barker Cushing in sinking the Confederate ram Albemarle at Plymouth, North Carolina in October 1864. Today’s submarines still utilize innovations that were made by Fulton. The conning tower design is like modern submarines. Fulton was also the first to use a compass underwater, rudders to steer and dive and compressed air tanks for breathing.



[All images of submarine sketches are from the collection at the Library of Congress. The collection is entitled {Submarine (“Submarine Vessel, Submarine Bombs and Mode of Attack”) for the United States government} The original images were created in 1806 by Robert Fulton.]

[1] http://49817097.weebly.com/submarine.html

[2] http://lancasteronline.com/opinion/the_scribbler/fulton-jefferson-and-torpedoes/article_bd8e59f2-11a2-11e4-8ffe-001a4bcf6878.html

The Navy’s 242nd Birthday!

On October 13, 2017, we will be celebrating the 242nd birthday of the United States Navy. Here at the museum, we will be hosting a food truck festival and Meet the Navy day in order to celebrate. However, what exactly happened on October 13th that makes it the Navy’s birthday?

On April 1775, the Revolutionary War began with the battles of Lexington and Concord. With these battles, a colonial uprising became a war that would last eight years. In the beginning, the war consisted mainly of land battles and by June of 1775, the Continental Army was created and lead by George Washington. Quickly, settlements on the coast began to fear for their safety. America was still a fledgling nation, with most settlements hugging the coastline. The colonies had been dependent on port cities such as Boston and New York to provide material goods coming from Britain. Once the war began, it became clear that Britain would use their Navy, the largest Navy in the world at the time, to their advantage. On June 12, 1775, the Rhode Island Navy was created with two vessels that fended off British Forces in Narraganset Bay. As the war raged on, it was apparent that two vessels were not nearly enough. During an 11-day period in October of 1775, Congress debated whether building its own Navy was worth the cost. Samuel Chase, a congressman from Maryland believed that such a venture would bankrupt the colonies. Edward Rutledge of South Carolina believed that “it would ruin the character, and corrupt the morals of all-out Seamen -[making] them selfish, piratical, mercenary, [and] bent wholly on plunder.” [1] Others such as John Adams argued that by establishing a Navy, they would be creating a system of maritime operations to protect the colonies during the war and after. On October 13, 1775, Congress voted to build two more vessels with 10 carriage guns and manned by crews of 80. The ships would be sent out on a three-month trip to intercept British vessels carrying supplies for its troops. This three-month deployment was the beginning of the Continental Navy that would become the U.S. Navy as we know it today.

Before the end of 1775, the Continental Navy had purchased six additional ships and ordered the construction of 12 frigates. There was a commander (Esek Hopkins)


, eighteen Naval officers, two Marine battalions, established service pay, prize money for captured enemy ships and an administrative body that would give guidance and direction. Four captains were also named – Dudley Saltonstall, Abraham Whipple, Nicholas Biddle, and John Burrows Hopkins. Their respective ships were the Alfred, Columbus, Andrew Doria, and Cabot.

Continental Ship Alfred (1775-1778) Painting in oils by W. Nowland Van Powell, depicting Lieutenant John Paul Jones raising the Grand Union flag as Alfred was placed in commission at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 3 December 1775. Commanded by Captain Dudley Saltonstall, Alfred was flagship of Commodore Esek Hopkins’ Continental Navy flotilla during the remainder of 1775 and the first four months of 1776. Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C. Donation of the Memphis Council, U.S. Navy League, 1776. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

By February of 1776, the fleet was ready for sea and within two months, they returned home with a store of munitions taken at New Providence Island in the Bahamas and two captured British warships. While the British Navy was too formidable for the Continental Navy to contend with, Britain’s commercial vessels were a prime target. Slowing down incoming provisions would seriously hurt mounting land attacks. Ships patrolled trade routes in search of British vessels to capture as prizes. Many of the missions were conducted in the North Atlantic; many times, in French ports or British waters. It was in one of these commercial attacks that one of the more famous quotes of the Revolution was spoken. At the Battle of Flamborough Head (1779), Commander of the Bonhomme Richard, John Paul Jones found himself tangled up with the warship HMS Serapis. Jones found that his cannons were faulty, so his crew had to rely on a close-range battle that lasted into the night. When asked if he wanted to surrender, Jones is believed to have replied, “I have not yet begun to fight.”

John Paul Jones

The Bonhomme Richard won the battle despite the ship being completely battered. Jones was forced to abandon his ship and would sail into a Dutch Port on the captured HMS Serapis flying the American Flag. Jones competes for the moniker of “Father of the American Navy” with Commander John Berry. Raids such as these, along the English coast, brought the war home for British citizens. It was no longer a dispute in the colonies that would never affect them. These highly publicized actions would turn the tide of British support for the war. By 1781, the land conflicts were in America’s favor. The British citizens’ displeasure at the war due to the coastal attacks and the surrender of Cornwallis troops in Yorktown lead to the King George’s move toward peace.

Despite the efforts made by the Continental Navy, it did not reach the heights of greatness that Congress had hoped for. During the war, the Navy had sent out more than 50 armed vessels. They took 200 British vessels as prizes. It was also because of the Navy that France would join the war on America’s side. Until its official entrance into the war in 1778, France turned a blind eye to the Naval attacks on British vessels in its ports from American privateers and the Continental Navy. In some respects, the fears of Congressmen such as Edward Rutledge did come to pass. Hopkins and the Navy had to compete with privateers for supplies and men. Privateers offered sailors high wages and a greater share of captured goods. Privateers were private merchant ships that would receive a “license” to be armed and attack foreign vessels during the war. Unlike the ships of the Continental Navy, privateers could keep and sell the prizes they captured. By January 2, 1778, Congress was displeased with Hopkins’ meager efforts and dismissed him. He was the only Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy. Hopkins’ legacy with the Navy is ever present in the Gadsdsen Flag. Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina created Hopkins’ personal standard which flew over the first Navy fleet. The yellow flag bore a coiled snake and the patriot motto, “Don’t Tread on Me.”

During the American Revolution, the Continental Navy made only minimal advancements in the war. Despite this, the victories made created a symbol of national resolve to the rest of the world. A show of unity at home and abroad.  It became the legacy on which today’s Navy was built upon. The Continental Navy was mainly comprised of citizen sailors, which is the basis for today’s Navy reserve. With the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the war was officially over and the Navy was disbanded. By 1794, piracy and the need for a stronger national defense lead to the construction of six new ships including USS Constitution (Old Ironsides). Concern over the management of these ships during battle lead to the creation of the Department of the Navy in 1798. While there are many dates that could be linked to the beginning of our Navy, October 13th was the beginning of the national resolve to protect our shores with a fleet that would one day become stronger than any other.

[1] http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=49113

National Hispanic Heritage Month

September 15th through October 15th is National Hispanic Heritage month. Around the museum are panels explaining some of the contributions that Hispanics have made to the Navy throughout the years. Here are just two of the stories.

Do you know the phrase “Damn the Torpedoes?” Used in countless submarine movies, the origin of the phrase cannot be found at a writer’s table. It dates back to the Civil War and the Battle of Mobile Bay. David G. Farragut

Figure 1 Admiral Farragut https://www.loc.gov/item/brh2003002790/PP/

was born in 1801 to a Spanish merchant captain who had served in the American Revolution and War of 1812. At a young age he was sent to live with Captain David Porter in order to learn a trade. By the time he was 9, Farragut joined the Navy, and by 12 served in the War of 1812. During the war he served under Porter aboard the frigate Essex. The Essex captured so many British vessels that Farragut was put in charge of one the captured ships. Despite growing up in the South, David chose to side with the Union once the Civil War broke out. In 1862, as commander of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, he took the city and port of New Orleans. The Union would create the new rank of Rear Admiral for Farragut as a reward for these actions. Farragut’s greatest contribution during the Civil War came during the Battle of Mobile Bay. Mobile Bay became a major Confederate port on the Gulf of Mexico after the fall of New Orleans, thus making it of special significance to Farragut. While Farragut’s force consisted of 18 warships and the Confederacy only had four, those four included the CSS Tennessee which was said to be the most powerful ironclad afloat. Not only was the Tennessee a concern, but the Union forces were also up against two powerful Confederate batteries inside of forts Morgan and Gaines.

Figure 2 Admiral Farragut and Captain Drayton on deck of U.S. frigate Hartford https://www.loc.gov/item/2013646181

On the morning of August 5, 1964, Union forces headed into the mouth of Mobile Bay and faced heavy fire. Within minutes, the USS Tecumseh was sunk by torpedoes placed in the water by the Confederacy and the fleet fell into confusion. It was during this confusion that Farragut rallied his men by saying, “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!.” While the authenticity of the quote has been questioned over the years, it has become one of the most famous quotes in U.S. military history. The smaller Confederate ships were quickly taken out and the Tennessee was eventually overwhelmed and surrendered after facing heavy damage. Union troops laid siege to the forts within several weeks. While Confederate forces would remain in control of the city of Mobile, the port was no longer able to receive the needed supplies the South would need to help maintain the war. The capture of the Bay was a morale booster and was the first in a line of victories for the Union that culminated with the successful reelection of Abraham Lincoln that fall. In December 1864, Farragut was promoted to Vice Admiral and in 1866, promoted to Admiral. He stayed in active duty until his death in 1870. He is buried in Brooklyn, New York.

Figure 3 Statue of Farragut in New York City


Captain Marion F. Ramirez de Arellano was the Navy’s first Hispanic submarine commanding officer and commanded the USS Balao in three war patrols. During his service he was awarded two Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit and a bronze star. Ramirez de Arellano was born in Puerto Rico in 1913, where he would spend most of his childhood with the exception of a brief period when his family lived in Georgia. Theodore Roosevelt Jr, would appoint Ramirez de Arellano to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1931 during his term as Governor on the Island. Upon his graduation, Ramirez de Arellano was assigned to the USS Ranger, the first ship to be designed and built as an aircraft carrier. During his time on The Ranger, he served as a Gunnery Officer. In 1937 he made the decision to join the submarine force and headed to Groton for Submarine School. In 1938, he was assigned as a Division officer on the USS Pickerel. The Pickerel was training near the Philippines when on December 8, 1941, Japanese ordered an attack. Pearl Harbor was not the only surprise attack initiated by Japanese forces during WWII. Nine hours later and over the international date line, Japanese forces began an air strike in the Philippines that would wipe out air support at Clark Field and nearby fighter base Iba Field. With the exception of the few aircrafts that had been deployed, the entire Far East Air Unit was destroyed. After the attack, The Pickerel was ordered to patrol the coast of the islands. It was during her second war patrol that she sank the Japanese vessel Kanko Maru in the Gulf of Davao off Mindanao. Ramirez de Arellano would participate in five war patrols on the Pickerel, which led the effort to rescue five Navy pilots and one enlisted gunner off Wake Island. He was then reassigned to the USS Skate where he would serve on three war patrols and contributed to the sinking of the Japanese light cruiser Agano. In April of 1944, Ramirez de Arellano was named Commanding Officer of the USS Balao, becoming the first Hispanic submarine commanding officer. He would participate in the boat’s fifth, sixth, and seventh war patrols.

Figure 4 Receiving his Silver Star in 1942

On July 5, 1944, he lead the rescue of three downed Navy pilots in the Palau area, and in January 1945 sunk the Japanese cargo ship Daigo Maru. In 1946, Ramirez de Arellano was named Commanding Officer of Submarine Base Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Except for two ship commands from 1952-1954 and 1954-1955, Marion held various administrative and teaching positions for the rest of his Navy carrier. He retired from the Navy on July 1, 1961. Captain Marion F. Ramirez de Arellano died in 1980 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

These are only two of the many stories of Hispanic Contributions to the Navy over the years. The panels in honor of these men and many others will be on display at the museum till October 15, 2017.

The Nuclear Submarine

On September 30, 1954, the USS Nautilus was commissioned. Under Captain Hyman G. Rickover, the idea of a nuclear Navy came to life. The Nautilus was much larger than its diesel predecessors. She stretched 319 feet and displaced some 3,180 tons. Due to the atomic engine, she could remain submerged for almost an unlimited amount of time because no air was needed. The uranium-powered nuclear reactor produced steam that drove propulsion turbines, which allowed the her to travel at speeds in excess of 20 knots.  Rickover was considered a fanatic by his colleagues, and to many the idea of harnessing nuclear power to run a submarine was science fiction. However, Rickover’s background in engineering and science paved the way for our modern submarine force. But why switch to nuclear power at all? What makes a nuclear submarine a modern marvel?

A nuclear ship propulsion program was first studied in 1939. After the end of WWII, a theory began to circulate that the atom bomb could be harnessed and turned into an engine. Commander Edward L. Beach recalls the period, saying, “I remember at that time thinking to myself, by George, there’s the way to go. The nuclear engine would give a submarine tremendous capability, because, you see, the submariners right away to relate to air – you have to have air to run the {diesel} engines. That requires that you come up all the time; you can’t run the engines submerged … But if you could run a nuclear engine – not need air – it could go indefinitely.”[1] In 1947, Beach was assigned to the Atomic Energy Division of the Navy, which at the time was solely dealing with atomic bombs. That October, a secret memorandum was signed that would initiate the development, design and construction of a nuclear powered submarine within the department. Rickover headed the nuclear-propulsion program, with its sole mission to figure out how to extract power from an explosive radioactive substance and have it drive a propeller. Rickover was famously known for being a rigid and at times difficult man. But his determination led to a new submarine Navy. He would not allow any corners to be cut and safety was his number one priority. The project was fast paced and anything Rickover needed was procured immediately. No expense was spared and the project consumed $55 million. Nuclear-propulsion development was a completely new undertaking when Rickover was assigned to the program. His conservative approach to reactor and propulsion plant designed ensured that manufactures and shipyards followed specific guidelines. He emphasized in-depth inspections and rigorous training. Rickover knew that working with such an unstable element needed to be handled with respect and caution in order to move ahead with the project. The guidelines he set during his tenure as Director of the program (1940’s-1982) are still followed today. The US Naval record for safety on nuclear power is excellent directly because of  their high level of standardization and training.

In order to work on this revolutionary project, the propulsion division worked with private industries including Westinghouse and Electric Boat. The first Naval reactor which was used in the

Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, Idaho Chemical Processing Plant, Fuel Reprocessing Complex, Scoville, Butte County, ID https://www.loc.gov/resource/hhh.id0446.photos/?sp=14

Nautilus was the Mark I (later designated as S1W). The construction of the reactor took place at a power plant in Idaho. The success of the Mark I and the plant changed the way we view nuclear power. Working with Westinghouse, the first nuclear power plant that generated commercial power on a large scale was built in Pennsylvania as a direct result of harnessing this technology in submarines. In the decades following the success of the Nautilus, nuclear propulsion was used beyond attack submarines and introduced to ballistic missile submarines, guided missile cruisers and aircraft carriers.  But how does a nuclear reactor work?

Understanding how the nuclear reactor works can be complex. According to the National Museum of American History, “Nuclear reactors are basically heat engines. As uranium fissions, the breaking of atoms releases energy, much of it in the form of heat, which can be used to do work. In a nuclear-powered submarine, reactor heat produces steam to drive the turbines that provide the submarine’s actual power.” Sea water is pumped into the boat and desalinated to create the steam used to drive the turbines. The power generated by the nuclear reactor not only drives the boat but provides all of its electricity and systems that provide oxygen. The auxiliary systems that are driven by the turbine generators furnish power for cooling equipment, lighting, cooking, climate control and water distillation. It purifies the air, allowing the submarine to remain a closed system and maintain its own atmosphere.Nautilus was the Mark I (later designated as S1W). The construction of the reactor took place at a power plant in Idaho. The success of the Mark I and the plant changed the way we view nuclear power. Working with Westinghouse, the first nuclear power plant that generated commercial power on a large scale was built in Pennsylvania as a direct result of harnessing this technology in submarines. In the decades following the success of the Nautilus, nuclear propulsion was used beyond attack submarines and introduced to ballistic missile submarines, guided missile cruisers and aircraft carriers.  But how does a nuclear reactor work?

By 2010, The United Stated had built 219 nuclear powered vessels. A nuclear reactor can last 33 years without refueling, which greatly changed how long submarines could stay in service compared to their diesel ancestors. According to the World Nuclear Association, the US Navy has “accumulated over 6200 reactor-years of accident-free experience involving 526 nuclear reactor cores over the course of 240 million kilometers without a single radiological incident, over a period of more than 50 years.” In order to decommission boats, handle the nuclear reactor properly, and maintain its safety records, the Navy has the Ship/Submarine Recycling Program (SRP. All SRP’s take place at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington.

Moored submarines awaiting their final fate at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, WA sometime in 1996: From left to right:
Shark (SSN-591),
Plunger (SSN-595),
Snook (SSN-592) &
Patrick Henry (SSBN-599). http://www.navsource.org/archives/08/08592.htm

The beginning of the Nuclear Navy forever changed the submarine force. Since its inception, all submarines built have been nuclear, allowing longer lifespans for each boat and the ability to protect our waters for longer periods at a time. The Nautilus was extremely loud compared to today’s standards, but her speed and ability to stay submerged created a new asset for militaries around the world. As the science developed, reactors were made quieter and powered the ships more quickly. Despite this ability to use a reactor onboard ships, nuclear power is still an unstable element and must be used with extreme caution. While Rickover may have been considered a fanatic, he has taught us that nuclear energy can do wonders, but only if it is handled with the proper care and respect.


[1]Arctic Mission: 90 North by Airship and Submarine by William F. Althoff. Pg 28

Coffee and the Navy!

As Thomas Jefferson once said, “Coffee…The drink of the civilized world.” Coffee means so much to so many people that it even has its own day – September 29th. Coffee has become a staple in most homes, offices, campgrounds, and yes – even the military. The US military is one of the largest consumers of coffee in the country. Coffee allows military personal to always be on the watch, and is especially helpful to those who do the night watch. The Navy has a special history with coffee. We can even thank the Navy for the term “cup of Joe”. Sailors have their own special relationship with the hot brew, one that is much different from the average drinker. From the way it’s brewed, to the cup you drink it in, coffee in the Navy is like no other.

                In 1773 after the Boston Tea Party, the Continental Congress declared coffee to be America’s National drink. In fact, the plan for the Tea Party was hatched in a coffeehouse. During the Civil War,

Figure 2 Forbes, Edwin, 1839-1895, artist. Military life 1870-1880 https://www.loc.gov/resource/ppmsca.20744/

coffee was the only fresh food available to many of the troops. Confederate troops tried to substitute anything to try and make the drink including roasted corn, rye, sweet potatoes, and chicory. But of course, nothing beat the original.  The Civil War even saw the first attempt at instant coffee. However, this trial did not go very well. Factory owners trying to save cost used spoiled milk which caused more problems on the battlefield and failed to boost morale. The military very quickly switched back to the real product. Before becoming President, William McKinley delivered hot coffee to the front lines. There is even a Civil War monument in Maryland honoring McKinley’s coffee service. The monument reads, “Sergeant McKinley Co. E. 23rd Ohio Vol. Infantry, while in charge of the Commissary Department, on the afternoon of the day of the battle of Antietam, September 17, 1962, personally and without orders served hot coffee and warm food to every man in the Regiment, on this spot and in doing so had to pass under fire.” This story was told many times during his Presidential campaign – highlighting the soldiers’ love of coffee. In a 1983 memoir on World War II, Captain Sam Lombard-Hobson said that sailor’s strong coffee was “black as ink and hot as hell; to keep the watch watchful on cold nights in the North Atlantic.”

Figure 1 Marines making Coffee on Iwo Jima https://www.wearethemighty.com/articles/brief-history-coffee-field

From the beginning of our military, coffee has been a necessity. While coffee was an integral part in soldier’s rations, in the Navy, it wasn’t always the favorite drink of choice.

The early days of the US Navy was molded after the British Royal Navy. This meant a daily ration of grog. Grog, which is rum diluted with water, was a daily ration in the British Navy up until 1970. Much of early Naval history is filled with stories of the rum trade. Many of our early sea tales are filled with rum soaked pirates being chased by the Dutch East India Company. In 1801, Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith substituted the daily ration of American-made sour mash for West Indies rum. The daily ration of hard liquor was restricted though in 1862 during the Civil War. Order No. 29 restricted all alcohol brought on board ships. Only drinks that the Captain permitted were allowed onboard. While specific information isn’t available, many officers continued to have wine with a meal daily. The removal of alcohol on board ships came in 1914 with Order No. 99, which banned all alcoholic beverages from Naval property. This move was made by Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels.

Figure 3 Harris & Ewing, “Josephus Daniels,” c. 1920. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-36747. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

While there is no definitive proof of the connection, the American slang for coffee – “a cup of Joe” is highly linked to this action. The coffee mess became a prominent fixture on surface ships and submarines alike. Coffee pots could be found on the bridge, in the engine room, the ship’s office, the machine shop, and many other places. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Navy established its own coffee-roasting plants in Oakland, California and Brooklyn, New York. While both plants are closed now, this represents how serious coffee was regarded during wartime in the Navy.

Figure 4 Oakland Naval Supply Center, Coffee Roasting Plant, East of Fourth Street, between J & K, Oakland, Alameda County, CA https://www.loc.gov/resource/hhh.ca2215.photos/?sp=5

During WWII, most of Hawaii’s kona crop was purchased by the Navy in order to supply its sailors with the amount of coffee they needed. The average coffee consumer may be asking why is Navy coffee so important. After all, it’s just coffee. But coffee on a boat is not like your average cup.

There is an article on the Naval Historical Foundation website called “Don’t Wash That Coffee Mug” that perfectly describes the outsider’s realization about Navy coffee. The author of the article describes his first experience with Navy coffee in the following manner: “It was hot and strong. Very strong. The thickness of it closely resembled crude oil. It tasted both wonderful and terrible at the same time. Your mind can trick you into believing anything. When a supreme bot of joe is brewed, many of the volunteers would call it ‘Signal Bridge Coffee,’ recalling the nostalgia of long nights and many cups consumed.” [1] One of our own had a similar experience. When our assistant manager in the gift shop started, she asked one of the sailors if they had any milk she could borrow. She was quickly told that there was no milk around. Submariners drink their coffee black and strong – or not at all. While this may not be true with all sailors (creamer and sugar are consumed widely by military personal), this idea stems from the period of time when soldiers in war could only get spoiled milk due to the delay in the arrival of supplies. Today many sailors, and other military members as well, will tell you a cup of black coffee is the only way to go. It is not only the strength of the coffee that matters, but the cup in which you drink it. There is a tradition, as strange as it may seem, to not wash your coffee mug. The practice is called “seasoning”, and many a sailor that passes through the museum will suggest that one must never wash their mug. This is another reason for drinking their coffee black. If someone used milk and sugar in their coffee, they’d have no choice but to clean it. A 1945 Navy cookbook outlines clear instructions on how to clean both the coffee pot and mug upon consumption. Today’s sailors carry a different tune. Especially amongst the Navy chief community, a well “seasoned” cup is a sign of stature and seniority.  Much like taking coffee black, a “seasoned” coffee mug is not practiced by every sailor in today’s Navy. Despite this, these traditions show how coffee has become an integral daily routine for many sailors.

Coffee has played a distinctive role in the US military. The drink is one of the top items sent to deployed military personnel.  So, we want to know – how do you take your coffee? Do you think you could handle the strong, thick Navy coffee? And would you ever try to “season” your coffee mug?

[1] http://www.navyhistory.org/2013/11/dont-wash-that-coffee-mug/

Naval Myths and Traditions

To the outside person, the Navy is a different world with customs, myths, and vocabulary that only those inducted into its ranks would know. For example, once the museum has been cleared in the evening, you can overhear the sailors on duty saying that the building is “Mike Tango.” Many of the gift shop staff learn very quickly that this means they can close and the museum is empty. Another simple example is that the restrooms are called “head.” During change of command ceremonies at the museum, visitors can witness the naval tradition of passing the reigns from one commander to the next. The ceremony is filled with naval traditions that have lasted for hundreds of years. To detail every one of these phrases and traditions would fill a book, so we have chosen just a few to allow you to join the ranks and learn a little more about Navy traditions, lore, and terms.

-A Navy lore that has been passed through the generations is that of The Flying Dutchman. It is such a popular legend that it even made it onto the Naval traditions list from the Naval Heritage and Command website. According to the NCH’s website,

Figure 1 Albert Pinkham Ryder’s The Flying Dutchman c. 1887. On Display at the National Museum of American Art, Washington.

“One superstition has it that any mariner who sees the ghost ship called the Flying Dutchman will die within the day. The tale of the Flying Dutchman trying to round the Cape of Good Hope against strong winds and never succeeding, then trying to make Cape Horn and failing there too, has been the most famous of maritime ghost stories for more 300 years. The cursed spectral ship sailing back and forth on its endless voyage, its ancient white-hair crew crying for help while hauling at her sail, inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge to write his classic “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” to name but one famous literary work. The real Flying Dutchman is supposed to have set sail in 1660.”


-Are you a Shellback? In the Navy, if you have crossed the equator, you are a shellback. Many times, this feat is commemorated with a Crossing the Line ceremony. Become a shellback is a rite of passage and has been for hundreds of years.  The earliest account is from a British sailor in 1708. In today’s Navy, the tradition is one of simple fun and a way to blow off some steam. However, in the beginning, sailors would practice the ceremony with great earnest. Long before the 1700’s, sailors believed that Neptune -the god of sea- was quite fickle. In order to appease him, they

Figure 2 Certificate from a line crossing ceremony in 1944 aboard the USS Bluegill

would sacrifice goats and oxen. By the 18th century, while the belief in ancient seafaring gods was gone, the traditions and practices to honor them remained in place. One of these being the shellback initiation. Before crossing the equator, the sailor was referred to as a “pollywog”. Once they were initiated, they then become “shellbacks”, otherwise known as fit subjects of King Neptune. Pranks are often played on the new initiates during the ceremony. However, the Navy has outlined that any hazing or abuse is strictly forbidden. The ceremony today is meant to honor the achievements of the sailor. While specific activities of the ceremony are for the sailor’s knowledge only, one can only imagine the shenanigans to be had when sailors get some time to play around. Crossing the equator isn’t the only such instance that has a ceremony. Crossing into the Arctic allows a sailor to go from a “red-nose” to a “blue-nose”!


– Done the dogwatch lately? No, we are not asking if you have pet sat lately. A dogwatch in the Navy is the period between 4:00 and 6:00pm and 6:00 and 8:00pm. The dogwatches are only two hours long in order to help avoid having the same Sailors on duty at the same time each day. The term’s origins are fuzzy but date back to at least the 1700’s. A normal watch schedule aboard ships are:

Noon to 4:00 p.m. Afternoon watch 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. First dogwatch 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Second dogwatch 8:00 p.m. to midnight 1st night watch Midnight to 4:00 a.m. Middle watch or mid watch  4:00 to 8:00 a.m. Morning watch  8:00 a.m. to noon Forenoon watch

The watches are marked by the ringing of bells. Bells were used because in the 1700’s most sailors couldn’t afford watches and if they could they did not know how to read them.

Number of bells Afternoon Watch First Dog Watch Last Dog Watch First Watch Middle Watch Morning Watch Forenoon Watch
One 12:30 16:30 20:30 00:30 04:30 08:30
Two 13:00 17:00 21:00 01:00 05:00 09:00
Three 13:30 17:30 21:30 01:30 05:30 09:30
Four 14:00 18:00 22:00 02:00 06:00 10:00
Five 14:30 18:30 22:30 02:30 06:30 10:30
Six 15:00 19:00 23:00 03:00 07:00 11:00
Seven 15:30 19:30 23:30 03:30 07:30 11:30
Eight 16:00 20:00 Midnight 04:00 08:00 Noon


– Have you earned your fish? For something submarine specific, all submariner’s main objective is to earn their fish. This means they are fully qualified on submarines. The term “fish” is a nickname for the submarine force insignia’s formal name, which is dolphins. Once a sailor has qualified to wear his or her dolphins, an SS is added to their rank, standing for “Submarine Specialist.” The insignia of the US Submarine force is a submarine flanked by two dolphins. Dolphins were the attendants to Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea and the patron deity to sailors. They were also chosen due to their shared characteristic of diving and surfacing like a submarine.  The badge came into effect in 1923 when a commander suggested that those who had qualified on a submarine have something to recognize this accomplishment. The dolphins appear to look more fish-like, gaining the nickname “fish”

These are just a few naval traditions and terms. We would love to hear more terms and traditions from you. Have you served aboard a submarine or a surface ship? What are some terms you know of? What myths and legends have passed through the years that are still talked about today? Maybe you’ll know a couple of terms we don’t. So, grab a cup of Joe (named after Josephus Daniels, who was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Among Daniels’ reforms of the Navy was the abolishment of the officers’ wine mess. From that time on, the strongest drink aboard Navy ships could only be coffee. Over the years, a cup of coffee became known as a cup of Joe) and share your Navy knowledge.