‘ Submarine History ’ Archive

Cape Cod and The Submarine

Orleans, Massachusetts is a quiet town in Cape Cod with a population a little over 5,000 and is known for its bass and blues fishing. Nauset Beach at the edge of town is today known as a great place for off-road-vehicle fans to drive through dunes and catch the sunset. But in 1918, Orleans became the site of something far less tranquil. Orleans, Massachusetts became the only part of the Continental United States to be attacked during World War I.

In July of 1918, the quiet town of Orleans was enjoying the hot summer on a Sunday morning. While great war was raging in Europe, those in Cape Cod truly felt that it was millions of miles away. Three miles off the coast of Nauset Beach, the tugboat Perth Amboy was pulling four barges in the morning fog. The U.S. Navy was aware that an attack could happen on the coast of New England. The German U-boat SM-U156 had been off the coast of the Eastern seaboard for some time. It was on July 21, 1918, when that fear of attack would come to fruition. According to “Attack on Orleans” author Jake Kilm, “Right around 10:30am, a deckhand on the Perth Amby sees something either skimming across the water or flying across the water. Just as he’s about to yell, ‘submarine’, a third projectile comes screaming through the sky and crashes right into the pilothouse.”[1]


Figure 1 Lifeboats being pulled in. https://www.orleanshistoricalsociety.org/single-post/2018/04/09/Attack-on-Orleans-Centennial-is-coming

There were 32 men, women and children aboard the tugboat and barges who were quickly moved to lifeboats as the shelling continued.  Kilm continued, saying, “The aim from the German guns apparently is not very good and some of these shells go wild and some actually land on the beach and the marshes, and that makes the event significant.” A crowd gathered along the beach to watch the event unfold. Twenty minutes after the incident had begun, a single Navy plane flew past, dropping a single bomb on the U-boat. Unfortunately, the bomb didn’t explode. Had it worked, the U-boat would have been in trouble.  A little while later, some more planes arrived dropping bombs near the U-boat’s location. This was enough to scare the German submarine away after 90 minutes of shelling.  By the time the lifeboats made it to shore, over a thousand people were on the beach. The news quickly reached Boston, when Dr. J Danforth Taylor called the Boston Globe and said, “This is Dr. Taylor of East Boston, I am at Nauset [Beach] on Cape Cod. There is a Submarine battle going on just off shore.”[2] To the tiny town, it was the most excitement they had ever seen.

Figure 2 One of the sunken barges. https://www.orleanshistoricalsociety.org/single-post/2018/04/09/Attack-on-Orleans-Centennial-is-coming

By the end, no one was killed and only two men were injured. Three of the four barges were left sunk. The Perth Amboy, while badly damaged, would be able to be repaired and keeping working. She would end up being sold to Great Britain during World War II and would help evacuate French citizens during the evacuation of Dunkirk. The SM U- 156 would eventually hit a mine of the coast of Norway while returning to Germany and sink to the bottom.  Before heading back, she would sink allied merchant ships off the coast of Maine and Canada for a few weeks.

The dramatic event on that Sunday morning would leave an impression on the tiny Cape town. The continental United States would not see another attack on its shores until September 11, 2001. World War I clearly showed the powerful capabilities submarines could have during wartime. Submarine development would quickly advance and by World War II, submarines would be powerful components for both the Allied and Axis sides of the war.

[1] https://news.wgbh.org/post/attack-orleans-when-world-war-i-hit-cape-cod

[2] https://www.boston.com/news/history/2017/07/21/99-years-ago-world-war-i-arrived-on-the-shores-of-cape-cod

Colt and the Submarine Battery

Samuel Colt is best known for having produced a revolver that was able to fire multiple times without being reloaded. His work in firearms made him a pioneer in the fields of advertising, product placement and mass marketing. Samuel Colt was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1814 and began an early career in the firearm business. By the age of 15, Colt had found a passion for explosives and began work on a pistol.  In 1836, Colt would open his first factory in Paterson, New Jersey.  These early years were not very lucrative with multiple issues plaguing his designs and company. In 1843, Samuel was forced to close his plant and sell most of his company’s assets at auction. But Colt did not stay away from manufacturing for long, and being a true Connecticut native, he turned his attention to the water.

The mid-nineteenth century in undersea warfare was built on the work that came from such people as David Bushnell and Robert Fulton. Their work in mine and submarine development was something that people like Colt saw to surpass. Colt began creating and selling underwater electrical detonators and waterproof cables. He would eventually team up with Samuel Morse and petition the government for funding. Morse used one of Colt’s mines to transmit a telegraph message from Manhattan to Governors Island. After this endeavor, Colt would move towards underwater explosives, an idea that had been of interest to him from the time he was a boy. He believed that these mines would be of great economic value to the country as a coastal defense. In an account he gave to Congress, Colt said, “The idea of Submarine explosions for the purposes of harbor defect was conceived by me as early as the year 1829 while stud[y] in the laboratory of a bleeching and colouring establishment at Ware Vilage, Massachusetts, and I made sundry experiments on a small scale at that time and repeated them in various ways for several successive years theareafter” [1]. Even while working on his revolver, the idea of underwater mine warfare intrigued Colt. While in New Jersey, he sketched an idea for tracking the movements of a man-of-war by a means of visual cross-bearings of shore observers. He would eventually refine this idea to a single-observer system. Colt’s idea included that “Within shore observation post would be installed a ten-foot convex mirror, positioned above and behind the galvanic operator in order to reflect the image of an adjacent minefield onto the mirrored control grid before him. Embedded in this control panel, as suggested in Colt’s later overhead perspective of the observation post and nearby river minefield, were envisaged numerous individual metallic terminals from several score anchored mines, each terminal being located upon the control grid’s equivalent of its mine’s watery position.” [2] The hoe would be that the observer would be able to trigger selective groups of mines as a target moved across the area.

In 1842, Colt’s submarine battery or electric mine was successfully used to sink the gunboat Boxer and the brig Volta. However, in a first for an underwater mine operated by an electric current on April 13, 1844, he blew up a schooner on the Potomac River in a demonstration held for President John Taylor and his cabinet. Colt pushed for the demonstrations, feeling encouraged by the news that an armored floating battery was under construction for the defense of New York Harbor. For years Colt dealt with a government wry on his ideas and found achieving funding difficult. He believed that the demonstration in Washington would be exactly what he needed. On March 19, Colt was given anchors, boats, timber, and mooring lines from the Washington Navy Yard to aid in his demonstration preparation. On April 1, 1844, he reported that, “I have fortified the river leading to the Navy Yard & the ship is to be got under way with all her sails set & blown up while at her greatest speed.” [3] The plan for the day was that Lieutenant Junius Boyle of the Navy Yard was to maneuver the target vessel to the vicinity of the minefield. At 4:30pm, Colt would signify that he was ready with a pistol shot, at which point Boyle would respond by lowering the vessels topsail three times. Once the national ensign was removed, Boyle and his small crew would leave the target vessel in a small boat and get clear of the target area. When in position, the crew would fire a rocket signaling their safe distance. An account from the Daily National Intelligencer covering the event wrote that, “A little boat advanced and removed certain buoys which had been floating near the spot where the battery lay; and soon after a low and peculiar sound was heard, when a most beautiful jet, of mingled water, fire and smoke, rose to a considerable height near the opposite shore, and as the water fell back in white translucent masses, the smoke, colored by the sub’s rays with all the dyes of the prism, slowly melted into the air, while the grains of we powder, ignited and smoking, fell in soft showers upon the bright surface of the river…..The Ship held on her course, and in a few minutes another mountain of water, larger and blacker than the first, rose on her larboarded bow, and so close to her that she rocked under the undulation. ‘Oh, he has missed her!’ But it was very near’ The words were scarcely uttered when a third explosion took place-the bows and bowsprit of the ship, instantly shattered to atoms, were thrown into the air.” [4]

Figure 1 he Last Experiment of Mr. Colt’s Submarine Battery. 1844 painting by Antoine Placide Gibert. For a long time, this was assumed to be in New York harbor. However, the building to the left of the doomed ship is clearly Coningham’s brewery, and the Washington Navy Yard can be seen to the Styx‘s right. (Google Books)

During the demonstration, Colt’s position for setting off the explosions was never found. While not being detected was a key part of the demonstration, for professional evaluation of the system, the fact that his precise location has never been told has led the Submarine Battery demonstrations to be somewhat of a mystery. Colt’s papers leave no evidence indicating a second observer, a reflecting mirror, or a control grid to help pinpoint accuracy of the explosions. Despite the success of the demonstration, military officers were skeptical of the battery and had little confidence of its use in war.

In the end, Colt would suffer a similar fate as Robert Fulton did with the British government. In the early 1800’s, the British government had not rewarded Fulton for advancements he had made in underwater mining while working with them. Secretary of the Navy, John Y. Mason did not attend the demonstration, nor did he try to understand how Colt’s battery worked so well. Without professional military evaluations and without all the key components to the system, Mason decided to end the Navy department’s role with the submarine battery. The secret of the Submarine Battery would lead to an eventual ongoing debate in Washington that played a major role in holding back submarine mine development in the United States for over a generation. Colt would end up pulling his application for a patent thus keeping the secrets of his Submarine battery with him forever. The inventor would not be reimbursed for the funds he used to build the battery and the situation would leave him almost bankrupt. Colt would eventually see success with his revolver and government arms contract. During the Civil War in the following years, a variety of underwater systems comprised of mines, obstructions, and semi-submersible torpedo crafts convinced military engineers that it was an absolute necessity to use undersea warfare in coastal defense, which was the very idea that Colt had had been pushing for so long. While Colt’s Submarine Battery may not have ended up as a part of the Navy’s system, the idea of hidden undersea defenses was the key motivation to submarine development. These early developments were the stepping stones to the powerful, silent service we have today.


[1] Lundeberg, Philip K. Samuel Colt’s Submarine Battery: The Secret and the Enigma. Pg 8. Sil.si.edu


[2] Lundeberg, Philip K. Samuel Colt’s Submarine Battery: The Secret and the Enigma. Pg 15. Sil.si.edu

[3] Lundeberg, Philip K. Samuel Colt’s Submarine Battery: The Secret and the Enigma. Pg 40. Sil.si.edu

[4] Lundeberg, Philip K. Samuel Colt’s Submarine Battery: The Secret and the Enigma. Pg 43-45. Sil.si.edu

Submarine Poetry

April is National Poetry Month. Now you may be wondering what that has to do with submarines. Poems, ballads and music have a long history in the naval world. In 1798, two musicians, a fifer and a drummer were put to sea on the USS Ganges. By the mid-1820’s, ship’s bands were extremely common. The USS Constitution had a 20-piece band onboard in 1825. The songs, poems and ballads sung by the crews, also known as “sea shantys” were set to a specific rhythm for hoisting the sails of a ship in unison. In 1865, in an early publishing that carried the term shanty, it was written that “Every man sprang to duty. The cheerful chatty was roared out and heard above the howl of the gale. The cable held very hard, and when it surged over, the windlass send the men flying about the deck, as if a galvanic battery had been applied to their hands” (G.E. Clark). The arts have played an integral role in naval tradition just as much as the strict codes and time-honored ceremonies have. This past January, we wrote a blog about New Year Eve’s deck logs. This is one manner in which poetry has found its way into the workings of a vessel. But poetry and music have long been a part of telling the stories of life on the sea. Below we have shared some of the submarine poems we know and love. Please share with us poems or songs you know, remember hearing or ones you may have even written yourself.
In 1915, Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem “Submarines”. The work was set to music by the English composer Edward Elgar as the third in a set of four war-related songs. The title of the whole work was called “The Fringes of the Fleet.” The piece goes as follows:


The Ships destroy us above

And ensnare us beneath,

We arise, we lie down, and we move

In the belly of death.

The ships have a thousand eyes

To mark where we come…

But the  mirth of a seaport dies

When our blow gets home.


The work Submarine comes from a larger piece by Kipling which was called Sea Warfare.  This book holds a poem titled The Trade which is also about the submarine service. It reads:


They bear, in place of classic names,

Letters and numbers on their skin.

They play their grisly blindfold games

In little boxes made of tin.

Sometimes they stalk the Zeppelin,

Sometimes they learn where mines are laid,

Or where the Baltic ice is thin.

That is the custom of “The Trade.”


Few prize-courts sit upon their claims.

They seldom tow their targets in.

They follow certain secret aims

Down under, far from strife or din.

When they are ready to begin

No flag is flown, no fuss is made

More than the shearing of a pin.



The Scout’s quadruple funnel flames

A mark from Sweden to the Swin,

The Cruiser’s thund’rous screw proclaims

Her comings out and goings in:

But only whiffs of paraffin

Or creamy rings that fizz and fade

Show where the one-eyed Death has been.

That is the custom of “The Trade.”


Their fears, their fortunes and their fames

Are hidden from their nearest kin;

No eager public backs or blames,

No journal prints the yarn they spin

(The Censor would not let it in!)

When they return from run or raid.

Unheard they work, unseen they win.

That is the custom of “The Trade.”


Another poet who wrote about submarines was Cale Young Rice. Born in Kentucky in 1872, Rice witnessed the birth of the United States Submarine Force and the beginning of submarine development as a part of the US Navy. Rice describes the idea of sailing beneath the ocean waves only as an outsider would. His poem titled Submarine Mountains was written in 1921.


Under the sea, which is their sky, they rise

To watery altitudes as vast as those

Of far Himalayan peaks impent in snows

And veils of cloud and sacred deep repose.

Under the sea, their flowing firmament,

More dark than any ray of sun can pierce,

The earthquake thrust them up with mighty tierce

And left them to be seen but by the eyes Of awed imagination inward bent.


Their vegetation is the viscid ooze,

Whose mysteries are past belief or thought.

Creation seems around them devil-wrought,

Or by some cosmic urgence gone distraught.

Adown their precipices chill and dense

With the dank midnight creep or crawl or climb

Such tentacled and eyeless things of slime,

Such monster shapes as tempt us to accuse

Life of a miscreative impotence.

About their peaks the shark, their eagle, floats,

In the thick azure far beneath the air,

Or downward sweeps upon what prey may dare

Set forth from any silent weedy lair.

But one desire on all their slopes is found,

Desire of food, the awful hunger strife,

Yet here, it may be, was begun our life,

Here all the dreams on which our vision dotes

In unevolved obscurity were bound.

Too strange it is, too terrible!

And yet It matters not how we were wrought or whence

Life came to us with all its throb intense,

If in it is a Godly Immanence. It matters not,—if haply we are more

Than creatures half-conceived by a blind force

That sweeps the universe in a chance course:

For only in Unmeaning Might is met The intolerable thought none can ignore.


While these two poets wrote beautifully on submarines, nothing can compare to a poem written by a submariner himself.  Written by Tim Butterfield while deployed on the USS Houston in 2000, Ode to the Submariner is a wonderfully written piece telling the story of a submariner as only a submariner could.


Take her Deep, Take her Low
May you never have to Emergency Blow

Out in the Ocean’s Deep
Without even a Peep

You track both Man Made and natural things
Without even emitting a ping

Your shaft and screw run around
And run others into the ground

Your weapons are harnessed in racks
Just waiting for the word to target their tracks

Back during the Cold War
We tracked the enemy both near and far

The skimmers all wonder
How they could make such a blunder
When they think they see a periscope’s glare
But all it is a submariner’s Green Flare
The submariner outfoxed them again
And showed them who owns the Ocean’s Great Den

We sometimes take Seals
And feed them a great meal
Then off they go
To put on their own show

The Boomers patrol out there
In places no one else knows where
Silent and Deadly
But Smooth and Stealthy

When submariners return to port
Coming from places of every sort
They go from bar to bar
Just to see how much and how far
And how many and how much
They can outdo one another

In this and that way
So they can tell all on the boat
That they beat their sub brother

They also make new friends
Both yonder and here

Though they sometimes get wild and go bare
Are up until the crack of dawn or beyond
They are all quite fond
Of the sex that is so fair
Some people call it crazy
But never call a Submariner lazy
’cause come what will and what may
He knows how to make the enemy pay!

The Quartermaster plots our course
Through Nav Hazards both many and few
He keeps his calm even through ORSE
And we always arrive inport ahead or when we are due

The MS’ forever slave to get us our grub
Which is served with a flare by an FSA nub

The A-Gangers are always busy
Keeping their systems fixed so we get underway
Though their workload would make the rest of us dizzy
To them it’s just another part of the day

The Radioman makes sure we get our e-mail
Through State 5 seas, hurricanes, and tsunamis, without fail
They also ensure we receive all pertinent news
Like Sports, news, and the occasional birth news

The nukes back aft work as a team
So efficiently with a full head of steam
That we keep getting the Engineering “E”
For all to know and others to see

The IC men and NavETs work as a group
To ensure we never get out of the loop
From navigation and CAMS to monitoring and RADAR
They also ensure we pull in safe whether near or far

The Store Keepers
Are always the keepers
Keeping us up and running
So we have more time for funning

The Sonar Techs
Try to prevent all the wrecks
Listening for ships
Or the big bios blips

The FTs plot all our contacts
So none end up jumping on our back
The Torpedomen can’t wait for the day
When the weapons come out of their tray
And go for their targets out in the Great Way

The JOs are always in the Wardroom training
With knowledge they are a’gaining
Will help them in quals to join the halls
Of the qualified members of the Submariners band
Our Engineer owns the Reactor Plant
With all the power for the ship

To go at a mighty good clip

The smokers complain
Because they have only one lane
With which to enjoy
The sweet taste of nicotine

Out at sea we run out of milk, fresh fruit, and juice
Until we pull in and get us some more

The COB and XO love to make us clean
But they don’t do it just to be mean
For all the cleaning keeps dirt and dust out of machines
And also helps the crew from getting migraines

The Captain looks out for us one and all
And ensures we all have time with our families in the Fall.

We run silent, we run deep
We may get little sleep
But our pride runs just as deep
But in the end it is all worth it
When those we protect tell us how proud they are
Of the way that we did it[1]

[1] http://www.submarinesailor.com/poetry/OdeToSubmariners.asp

We Remember The USS Thresher

Two hundred and twenty miles East off the coast of Cape Cod lays the remains of one of the worst submarine disasters in the history of the U.S. Submarine Force. This week we remembered the USS Thresher and those who were lost 55 years ago. We also ask, how did this happen?

There were nine classes of submarines created before the Thresher. With each class, the Navy believed that they could do better. Before mass producing a specific kind of submarine, they knew that the design had to be perfect. The Thresher class of submarines was the first to have more than five ships built. They were built to be fast and deep-diving. They were the second class behind the Skipjack to be designed with a new streamlined hull that is still in use today. The Threshers were the first to use HY-80 steel alloy that would be used through the 1980’s. Built 30 percent larger than the Skipjack class, they weighed 4,369 tons while submerged. The primary sensor was the first bow-mounted sonar installed in an attack submarine. This moved the four torpedo tubes back, which is a design still used in the Virginia class. Carrying Mark 37 homing torpedos, Mark 57 deep water mines, Mark 60 CAPTOR mines and the SUBROC antisubmarine weapon, the Thresher would be the most powerful submarine to join the fleet. But in April of 1963, that power would be brought to the bottom of the ocean under 8,400 feet of water, and 129 lives ended before their time.

On April 9, 1963, the USS Thresher was conducting test dives off the coast of Cape Cod. Even though she had been in service for two years, The Navy was conducting more tests to determine how much strength the hull could truly withstand. The submarine rescue ship USS Skylark was waiting on the surface should anything happen. At nine in the morning, Thresher reported to Skylark that they were experiencing minor difficulties. Two more inaudible messages were sent before there was eerie silence. The Thresher was never heard from again. She was at a test depth of 1,300 feet. The hull was found ruptured into six pieces.  The question on everyone’s mind after the loss was how this could have happened. To this day, the submarine force prides itself on safety. Every effort is made on keeping the crew of the submarines as safe as they can be. Rickover, the father of the nuclear Navy, was known for being overbearing and at times extremely difficult in order to maintain safety regulations onboard ships. However, in the 1960’s, there was still a lot to learn about submarines – from developmental practices to the best materials to use. The best theory to have come from years of investigations has been that the use of silver brazing on the piping throughout the ship was to blame. It is estimated that three thousand silver-brazed joints were used on Thresher. The process of silver brazing involves a non-ferrous filler metal that is heated to melting temperature and distributed between two or more parts. It is believed that some of these joints were improperly made, causing a pipe to experience joint failure. As seawater came through the pipe, it shorted one of the main electrical boards and caused a loss of power aboard the vessel.

In 2003, a Navy testimony showed that the crew of the Thresher was unable to access equipment that was needed to stop the flooding from the failed pipe. As she took on water, the submarine’s ballast tanks failed to operate. Investigations show that restrictions on and moisture in the air system led to a buildup of ice on the valves which prevented them from being able to operate properly. The Navy was extremely quick after the loss to make sure that the lives of the 129 on board would not be in vain. Less than two months later, SUBSAFE was created to prevent another tragedy like the Thresher. The Submarine Safety Program is a quality assurance program that covers all systems exposed to sea pressure or that are critical to flooding recovery. Between 1915 and 1963, 16 submarines were lost due to non-combat related causes. Since the creation of SUBSAFE, only one submarine has been lost. SUBSAFE certification has four key areas- Design, Material, Fabrication and Testing. During each step, testing is done in order to make sure each element is up to standard. All work done, and materials used that relate to sea pressure are controlled by specific guidelines set forth in the certification manual. Every part is tracked and tested from its point of creation to its insulation. While these measures have created an extra cost with submarine development, it is a cost that has saved countless lives since 1963 and one everyone is willing to pay. While SUBSAFE only addresses the quality control for flooding concerns, other programs are in place to regulate safety concerns such as fire safety, weapons systems, and nuclear reactor safety.

The loss of the USS Thresher will forever be a part of the submarine force’s collective memory. The creation of SUBSAFE and every precaution that has bee taken since is in honor of those men we lost on April 10, 1963. The men and women who choose the submarine force are choosing a service that is still highly unknown. A submarine sails silently underneath the waves, leaving no trace of where it has been or where it is going. Extreme pressure from the water that surrounds the steel hull is consistently beating against it. We must protect those that dive to great depths to protect us here and abroad. The loss of the Thresher is a reminder that we must always do better. Rigid guidelines and advanced testing has led to countless lives saved. But to continue doing better we must remember and honor those that came before and will never be forgotten.

The Aluminum Submarine

What do Reynolds wrap and submarines have in common? Well in the 1960’s, the Reynolds Metal Company experimented with the idea of an aluminum submarine. Due to this innovated thinking, the same company that brought us quick ways of wrapping our food also brought us a new way of looking at the submarine.

The Reynolds Metals Company was looking for an exciting way to market the many uses of aluminum in the 50’s and 60s. They developed ideas for aluminum buses and cars but probably there most interesting experiment was the Aluminaut. Reynolds started designing the experimental submarine during WWII. It would be a full 20 years before the idea would becoming a reality. In 1964, Aluminaut was launched in Groton, Connecticut. She weighed 80 tons, was 50 feet long, and could hold crew of three or four. The submarine designed in the hopes that she could operate at depths of up to 15,000 feet and could be used for oceanographic research as well as salvage missions. The deep-submergence vehicle had four view ports, active and passive sonar and a side scan sonar. Aluminaut was equipped with some unique specifications, a 51 foot hull with 11 forged cylinders. The vessels strength-to-weight ratio exceeded the of steel so that the shell could withstand pressures of 7,500 pounds per square inch at the vessels maximum diving range. In an article from “Underseas Technology” in 1964, it was written that “The Aluminaut is the first major response to the challenge of full scale deep-ocean research and exploration. With its 15,000-foot depth capability, self-propulsion, 80-mile range and 32-hour routine submergence time, the Aluminaut can explore the very bottom of 60 per cent of the ocean areas of the world. Beyond question, it is the forerunner of tomorrow’s deep-diving undersea fleet to probe the mysteries of the oceans.” [1]

While the future seemed bright for Aluminaut, she would have a short career, being decommissioned in 1970. During her six short years, Aluminaut participated in a search for a missing thermonuclear bomb in 1966. The bomb was lost in the Mediterranean after a B-52 bomber and a refueling plane crashed over Spain. The recovery mission took nearly three months. In 1968, she participated in the recovery of a torpedo at the navy’s request. It was in October 1968, which saw Aluminaut’s claim to fame. In 1964, the U.S. Navy commissioned their own deep-ocean research submarine named Alvin. In 1968, while aboard the Navy tender ship Lulu, Alvin was lost while being lowered into the ocean. Three crew members were on board and the hatch was open. As soon as she hit the water, Alvin sunk quickly but thankfully, the three crew members were able to escape. Alvin sunk into the Atlantic, about 100 miles off the south side of Nantucket Island. Weather prevented any chance of recovering Alvin during the remaining months of 1968. Photographs of the sub in 1969 found that while at the bottom, it was upright and intact. Up until this point, no rescue had ever been attempted at such a depth level. On August 27, 1969, Aluminaut was able to descend nearly 5,000 feet to Alvin’s resting spot. Securing lines around the hull, Alvin was able to be towed while submerged to Woods Hole Massachusetts and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Alvin is still in commission today.

In 1991, Aluminaut was donated to the Science Museum of Virginia where she sits today and a reminder of the innovation and creativity of a group of people who sought to bring Aluminum into the spotlight. At the end of her short career, Aluminaut had set a world record for deepest recorded dive by a submarine and had traveled the globe. Aluminaut may seem an oddity in today’s eyes, but in 1960- she was a pioneer for what the future could hold. Research and deep-sea vessels are an important tool to understanding the vast ocean that lays before us. They also play a crucial role, as we saw with Alvin, with providing undersea support that many vessels cannot compete with.  Below you will find a photo gallery of the Aluminaut. Just another testament to human innovation.

Figure 1A mockup of the 42-foot Aluminaut, shown at WHOI in 1961. Photo Courtesy of Wood Holes Oceanographic Institution Archives

Aluminaut at the Science Museum of Virginia.

[1] Covey, Charles W. Onlinelibrary.wiley.com, 1964

Vietnam War Veterans Day

March 29 has officially been designated as Vietnam War Veterans Day as we continue to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. As the Naval History and Heritage Command said “Every facet of the U.S. Navy we know today supported the Vietnam War effort. Navy Sailors were on the sea, along the rivers and coastal waters, in the air, and on land. Today, our bilateral relationship with Vietnam demonstrates our support for a strong, prosperous, and independent Vietnam. Through hard work and mutual respect, we are now close partners.” To honor this day, we are sharing with you an excerpt from Sea, Air, and Land: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy and the War in Southeast Asia. This section is called The Final Curtain, 1973-1975.  This excerpt along with more information on the Navy and the Vietnam War can be found on the Naval History and Heritage Command website.

During the period from 29 March 1973 to 30 April 1975, the Defense Attaché Office (DAO), Saigon, administered the American military assistance to the Republic of Vietnam. Limited by the Paris Agreement to 50 or fewer military personnel, the activity was staffed predominantly by civilians and contractors. The DAO was responsible for providing supplies and material to the 42,000-man Vietnamese Navy, which operated 672 amphibious ships and craft, 20 mine warfare vessels, 450 patrol craft, 56 service craft, and 242 junks. The quality of personnel in the naval service remained adequate over the two-year period. A drastic cut in U.S. financial support, however, hurt the navy’s overall readiness. The U.S. Congress appropriated only $700 million for fiscal year 1975, forcing the Vietnamese Navy to reduce its overall operations by 50 percent and its river combat and patrol activities by 70 percent. To conserve scarce ammunition and fuel, Saigon laid up over 600 river and harbor craft and 22 ships. The enemy did not target the waterways during 1973 and 1974, but such would not be the case in 1975 when the coastal areas of South Vietnam became the war’s main operational theater.

Naval Evacuation of I and II Corps
The final test of strength between the Republic of Vietnam and its Communist antagonists that many observers had long predicted occurred in the early months of 1975. Seeking to erode the government’s military position in the vulnerable II Corps area, on 10 March Communist forces attacked Ban Me Thuot, the capital of isolated Darlac Province, and routed the South Vietnamese troops there. The debacle convinced President Nguyen Van Thieu that even the strategic Pleiku and Kontum Provinces to the north could not be held and must be evacuated. Accordingly, on the fifteenth, government forces and thousands of civilian refugees began an exodus toward Tuy Hoa on the coast but that degenerated into a panicked flight when the enemy interdicted the main road. The enemy dispersed or destroyed many of the South Vietnamese II Corps units in this catastrophe.

These events set off a chain reaction as the demoralized South Vietnamese troops abandoned port after port along the South Vietnamese coast to swiftly advancing North Vietnamese forces. Learning of the disaster in II Corps and confused by contradictory deployment orders from Saigon, the defenders of I Corps also began to crack. Giving up Hue on 25 March, Vietnamese troops retreated in disorder toward Danang. The Vietnamese Navy rescued thousands of men cut off on the coast southeast of Hue, but heavy weather and the general confusion limited the sealift’s effectiveness. On the previous day (24 March) government units evacuated Tam Ky and Quang Ngai in southern I Corps and also streamed toward Danang. Simultaneously, the navy transported elements of the 2d Division from Chu Lai to Re Island 20 miles offshore. With five North Vietnamese divisions pressing the remnants of the South Vietnamese armed forces and hundreds of thousands of refugees into Danang, order in the city disintegrated. Looting, arson, and riot ruled the city as over two million people sought a way out of the ever-closing trap.

During this period of growing chaos in South Vietnam, the U.S. Navy readied for evacuation operations. On 24 March, the Military Sealift Command (MSC), formerly the Military Sea Transportation Service, dispatched the following tugs, pulling a total of six barges, from Vung Tau toward Danang:

Asiatic Stamina
Chitose Maru
Shibaura Maru

On 25 March, the following ships were alerted for imminent evacuation operations in South Vietnam:

SS American Racer
SS Green Forest
SS Green Port
SS Green Wave
SS Pioneer Commander
SS Pioneer Contender
SS Transcolorado
USNS Greenville Victory
USNS Sgt Andrew Miller
USNS Sgt. Truman Kimbro

Noncombatants were chosen for the mission because the Paris Agreement prohibited the entry of U.S. Navy or other military forces into the country.

With the arrival at Danang of Pioneer Contender on 27 March, the massive U.S. sea evacuation of I and II Corps began. During the next several days four of the five barge-pulling tugs and Sgt. Andrew Miller, Pioneer Commander, and American Challenger put in at the port. The vessels embarked U.S. Consulate, MSC, and other American personnel and thousands of desperate Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. When the larger ships were filled to capacity with 5,000 to 8,000 passengers, they individually sailed for Cam Ranh Bay further down the coast. By 30 March order in the city of Danang and in the harbor had completely broken down. Armed South Vietnamese deserters fired on civilians and each other, the enemy fired on the American vessels and sent sappers ahead to destroy port facilities, and refugees sought to board any boat or craft afloat. The hundreds of vessels traversing the harbor endangered the safety of all. Weighing these factors, the remaining U.S. and Vietnamese Navy ships loaded all the people they could and steamed for the south. MSC ships carried over 30,000 refugees from Danang in the four-day operation. American Challenger stayed offshore to pick up stragglers until day’s end on 30 March, when the North Vietnamese overran Danang.

In quick succession, the major ports in II Corps fell to the lightly resisted Communist advance. Hampered by South Vietnamese shelling of Qui Nhon, Pioneer Commander, Greenville Victory, Korean-flag LST Boo Heung Pioneer, and three tugs were unable to load evacuees at this city, which fell on 31 March. The speed of the South Vietnamese collapse and the enemy’s quick exploitation of it limited the number of refugees rescued from Tuy Hoa and Nha Trang. Before the latter port fell on 2 April, however, Boo Heung Pioneer and Pioneer Commander brought 11,500 passengers on board and put out to sea.

Initially, Cam Ranh Bay was chosen as the safe haven for these South Vietnamese troops and civilians transported by MSC. But, even Cam Ranh Bay was soon in peril. Between 1 and 4 April, many of the refugees just landed were reembarked for further passage south and west to Phu Quoc Island in the Gulf of Siam. Greenville Victory, Sgt. Andrew Miller, American Challenger, and Green Port each embarked between 7,000 and 8,000 evacuees for the journey. Pioneer Contender sailed with 16,700 people filling every conceivable space from stem to stern. Crowding and the lack of sufficient food and water among the 8,000 passengers on board Transcolorado led a number of armed Vietnamese marines to demand they be discharged at the closer port of Vung Tau. The ship’s master complied to avoid bloodshed, but this crisis highlighted the need for the Navy to provide better security.

As the magnitude of the calamity in I and II Corps became apparent, the Seventh Fleet deployed elements of the Amphibious Task Force (Task Force 76) to a position off Nha Trang. Because of the political restrictions on the use of American military forces in South Vietnam and the availability of MSC resources, however, Washington limited the naval contingent, then designated the Refugee Assistance Task Group (Task Group 76.8), to a supporting role. For the most part, this entailed command coordination, surface escort duties, and the dispatch of 50-man Marine security details to the MSC flotilla at sea. By 2 April, the task group–Dubuque, Durham (LKA 114), Frederick (LST 1184), and the Task Force 76 flagship Blue Ridge (LCC 19)–was monitoring operations at Cam Ranh Bay and Phan Rang. That same night the first Marine security force to do so boarded Pioneer Contender. A second contingent was airlifted to Transcolorado on the fourth. Dissatisfied with the condition of reception facilities on Phu Quoc and ill-tempered after the arduous passage south, armed passengers in Greenville Victory forced the master to sail to Vung Tau. Guided missile cruiser Long Beach (CGN 9) and escort Reasoner (DE 1063) intercepted the ship and stood by to aid the crew, but the voyage and debarkation of passengers proceeded uneventfully. In addition, Commander Task Group 76.8 immediately concentrated Dubuque, guided missile destroyer Cochrane (DDG 21), storeship Vega (AF 59), and the three ships of Amphibious Ready Group Alpha at Phu Quoc to position security detachments on each of the MSC vessels and to resupply the refugees with food, water, and medicines. Naval personnel also served as translators to ease the registration process. By 10 April, all ships at Phu Quoc were empty, thus bringing to a close the intracoastal sealift of 130,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese citizens. With stabilization of the fighting front at Xuan Loc east of Saigon and the Communists preparation for the final offensive, the need to evacuate by sea diminished. By the fourteenth all naval vessels had departed the waters off South Vietnam and returned to other duties.

Eagle Pull
Meanwhile, the Seventh Fleet focused its attention on Cambodia, in imminent danger of falling to the Communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas. Since 1970, the United States had aided the government of President Lon Nol in its struggle with the indigenous enemy and with North Vietnamese forces arrayed along the border with South Vietnam. The American support included a bombing campaign launched from Navy carriers and Air Force bases as far away as Guam and the delivery to Phnom Penh of arms, ammunition, and essential commodities through airlift and Mekong River convoy. Material assistance to the 6,000-man Cambodian Navy included the transfer of coastal patrol craft, PBRs, converted amphibious craft for river patrol and mine warfare, and auxiliary vessels. Despite this aid, by early 1975 the Communists in Cambodia controlled every population center but Phnom Penh, the capital. As the enemy tightened his ring around the city, the resistance of Cambodian government forces began to crumble.

Concluding that it was only a matter of time before all was lost in Cambodia, American leaders prepared to evacuate American and allied personnel from Phnom Penh. Fleet commanders revised and updated long-standing plans and alerted their forces for this special mission, designated Operation Eagle Pull. On 3 March 1975, Amphibious Ready Group Alpha (Task Group 76.4), and the 31st Marine Amphibious Unit (Task Group 79.4) embarked and arrived at a designated station off Kompong Som (previously Sihanoukville) in the Gulf of Siam. By 11 April, the force consisted of amphibious ships Okinawa,Vancouver, and Thomaston (LSD 28), escorted by Edson (DD 946), Henry B. Wilson (DDG 7), Knox (DE 1052), and Kirk (DE 1087). In addition, Hancock disembarked her normal complement of fixed-wing aircraft and took on Marine Heavy Lift Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 463 for the operation. Anticipating the need to rescue as many as 800 evacuees, naval leaders decided that they needed all of the squadron’s 25 CH-53, CH-46, AH-1J, and UH-1E helicopters and Okinawa’s 22 CH-53, AH-1J, and UH-1Es of HMH-462. The amphibious group also carried the 2d Battalion, 4th Marines, which would defend the evacuation landing zone near the U.S. Embassy, and reinforced naval medical-surgical teams to care for any casualties. Land-based U.S. Air Force helicopters and tactical aircraft were also on hand to back up the naval effort. Commander U.S. Support Activities Group/7th Air Force (COMUSSAG) was in overall command of the evacuation operation.

On 7 April 1975, the American command put Amphibious Ready Group Alpha on three-hour alert and positioned the force off the Cambodian coast. In the early morning hours of 12 April Washington ordered execution of the daring mission. At 0745 local time, Okinawa began launching helicopters in three waves to carry the 360-man Marine ground security force to the landing zone. One hour later, after traversing 100 miles of hostile territory, the initial wave set down near the embassy and the Marines quickly established a defensive perimeter.

Within the next two hours, U.S. officials assembled the evacuees and quickly loaded them on Okinawa and Hancock helicopters. Because many already had left Cambodia by other means prior to the twelfth, the evacuees numbered only 276. The group included U.S. Ambassador John Gunther Dean, other American diplomatic personnel, the acting president of Cambodia, senior Cambodian government leaders and their families, and members of the news media. In all, 82 U.S., 159 Cambodian, and 35 other nationals were rescued.

By 1041 all the evacuees had been lifted out, and little more than one-half hour later the ground security force also was airborne and heading out to sea. At 1224 all aircraft and personnel were safely on board Amphibious Ready Group Alpha ships. Although one Khmer Rouge 75-millimeter shell landed near the embassy landing zone, no casualties were suffered during the entire operation. The following day, task group helicopters flew the evacuated personnel to Thailand and the naval force set sail for Subic Bay. Thus through detailed planning, preparation, and precise execution, the joint evacuation force successfully accomplished the military mission in Cambodia.

The Fall of South Vietnam
The experience gained in Operation Eagle Pull and in the refugee evacuations from South Vietnam’s I and II Corps served the fleet well when the Republic of Vietnam, after 20 years of struggle, collapsed under the Communist onslaught. During the latter half of April, U.S. naval leaders prepared ships and men for the final evacuation of American and allied personnel from South Vietnam. The ships of the MSC flotilla were cleaned, restocked with food, water, and medicine; and deployed off Vung Tau in readiness. In addition, Marine security detachments embarked in each of the vessels and prepared to disarm boarding refugees and ensure order. Rincon (T-AOG-77) stood by to provide fuel to Vietnamese and American ships making the exodus from South Vietnam’s waters.

The Seventh Fleet also marshalled its forces in the Western Pacific. Between 18 and 24 April 1975, with the loss of Saigon imminent, the Navy concentrated off Vung Tau a vast assemblage of ships under Commander Task Force 76.

Task Force 76
Blue Ridge (command ship)

Task Group 76.4 (Movement Transport Group Alpha)
Peoria (LST 1183)

Task Group 76.5 (Movement Transport Group Bravo)

Task Group 76.9 (Movement Transport Group Charlie)
Anchorage (LSD 36)
Denver (LPD 9)
Duluth (LPD 6)
Mobile (LKA 115)

The task force was joined by Hancock and Midway, carrying Navy, Marine, and Air Force helicopters; Seventh Fleet flagship Oklahoma City; amphibious ships Mount Vernon (LSD 39), Barbour County (LST 1195), and Tuscaloosa (LST 1187); and eight destroyer types for naval gunfire, escort, and area defense. The Enterprise and Coral Sea carrier attack groups of Task Force 77 in the South China Sea provided air cover while Task Force 73 ensured logistic support. The Marine evacuation contingent, the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade (Task Group 79.1), consisted of three battalion landing teams, four helicopter squadrons, support units, and the deployed security detachments.

After a dogged defense at Xuan Loc, the South Vietnamese forces defending the approaches to Saigon finally gave way on 21 April. With the outcome of the conflict clear, President Thieu resigned the same day. On the 29th, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces closed on the capital, easily pushing through the disintegrating Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces. Although U.S. and South Vietnamese leaders had delayed ordering an evacuation, for fear of sparking a premature collapse, the time for decision was now at hand.

At 1108 local time on 29 April 1975, Commander Task Force 76 received the order to execute Operation Frequent Wind (initially Talon Vise), the evacuation of U.S. personnel and Vietnamese who might suffer as a result of their past service to the allied effort. At 1244, from a position 17 nautical miles from the Vung Tau Peninsula, Hancock launched the first helicopter wave. Over two hours later, these aircraft landed at the primary landing zone in the U.S. Defense Attache Office compound in Saigon. Once the ground security force (2d Battalion, 4th Marines) established a defensive cordon, Task Force 76 helicopters began lifting out the thousands of American, Vietnamese, and third-country nationals. The process was fairly orderly. By 2100 that night, the entire group of 5,000 evacuees had been cleared from the site. The Marines holding the perimeter soon followed.

The situation was much less stable at the U.S. Embassy. There, several hundred prospective evacuees were joined by thousands more who climbed fences and pressed the Marine guard in their desperate attempt to flee the city. Marine and Air Force helicopters, flying at night through ground fire over Saigon and the surrounding area, had to pick up evacuees from dangerously constricted landing zones at the embassy, one atop the building itself. Despite the problems, by 0500 on the morning of 30 April, U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin and 2,100 evacuees had been rescued from the Communist forces closing in. Only two hours after the last Marine security force element was extracted from the embassy, Communist tanks crashed through the gates of the nearby Presidential Palace. At the cost of two Marines killed in an earlier shelling of the Defense Attaché Office compound and two helicopter crews lost at sea, Task Force 76 rescued over 7,000 Americans and Vietnamese.

Meanwhile, out at sea, the initial trickle of refugees from Saigon had become a torrent. Vietnamese Air Force aircraft loaded with air crews and their families made for the naval task force. These incoming helicopters (most fuel-starved) and one T-41 trainer complicated the landing and takeoff of the Marine and Air Force helicopters shuttling evacuees. Ships of the task force recovered 41 Vietnamese aircraft, but another 54 were pushed over the side to make room on deck or ditched alongside by their frantic crews. Naval small craft rescued many Vietnamese from sinking helicopters, but some did not survive the ordeal.

This aerial exodus was paralleled by an outgoing tide of junks, sampans, and small craft of all types bearing a large number of the fleeing population. MSC tugs Harumi, Chitose Maru, Osceola, Shibaura Maru, and Asiatic Stamina pulled barges filled with people from Saigon port out to the MSC flotilla. There, the refugees were embarked, registered, inspected for weapons, and given a medical exam. Having learned well from the earlier operations, the MSC crews and Marine security personnel processed the new arrivals with relative efficiency. The Navy eventually transferred all Vietnamese refugees taken on board naval vessels to the MSC ships.

Another large contingent of Vietnamese was carried to safety by a flotilla of 26 Vietnamese Navy and other vessels. These ships concentrated off Son Island southwest of Vung Tau with 30,000 sailors, their families, and other civilians on board.

On the afternoon of 30 April, Task Force 76 and the MSC group moved away from the coast, all the while picking up more seaborne refugees. This effort continued the following day. Finally, when this human tide ceased on the evening of 2 May, Task Force 76, carrying 6,000 passengers; the MSC flotilla of Sgt Truman Kimbro, Sgt Andrew Miller, Greenville Victory, Pioneer Contender, Pioneer Commander, Green Forest, Green Port, American Challenger, and Boo Heung Pioneer, with 44,000 refugees; and the Vietnamese Navy group set sail for reception centers in the Philippines and Guam. Thus ended the U.S. Navy’s role in the 25-year American effort to aid the Republic of Vietnam in its desperate fight for survival.

26 October 1997


Adventures in the Arctic

The Arctic. A vast land of ice with unexplored depths that have intrigued explorers for centuries. There is evidence of Arctic expeditions dating back to the Ancient Greeks.  With the discovery of the American continent, the search for a Northwest passage became the mission of many brave men who would give their lives for the discovery. This month the U.S. Navy conducted its biennial Polar exercises in the Arctic Ocean. ICEX 2018 is the product of years of research, expeditions, and our desire to be faster, stronger, and better. The roots for this five-week biennial exercise lay in the history of the Cold War and the beginning of the nuclear-powered submarine.

In April of 1909, Robert Peary claimed to be the first person in recorded history to reach the North Pole. While this claim has been disputed, it laid the foundation for future explorers to attempt the arduous journey and make history of their own. The crew of the airship Norge flew over the Pole on May 12, 1926. This claim is undisputed and has become the first noted sighting of the Pole. The first people to step foot on the North Pole were a Soviet party of scientists in 1948 under the command of Alexander Kuznetsov. One thing that all these missions had in common was that they were either done on foot with sleds and dogs or by plane. The idea of a passable sea route seemed unfathomable with the thickness of the ice in the region. That was until a submarine entered the picture.

The submarine O-12 in dry dock, before it was renamed the Nautilus. https://library.osu.edu/blogs/nautilus/the-submarine/#gallery/3d34f2a0bcfeb3029487efb933d7a511/87


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.

On August 3, 1958, USS Nautilus became the first vessel to pass through the North Pole. During her journey she traveled the entire Polar ice cap. She returned home to a hero’s welcome and expeditions to the Arctic were changed forever. What was once seen as impossible had in one mission become a tangible Northwest passage.  On March 17, 1959, the USS Skate became the first submarine to surface at the North Pole. During the mission, the crew placed an American flag at the Pole and held a ceremony for Sir Hubert Wilkins who had passed away in 1958, unable to see his dream accomplished. During the ceremony, his ashes were left at the Pole in honor of the work he had done to make such a mission possible.

USS Skate at the North Pole http://navylive.dodlive.mil/files/2015/03/Skate-59.jpg

On March 7, ICEX 2018 was officially kicked off with the construction of a temporary Ice Camp and the arrival of two U.S. fast-attack submarines and one U.K. Royal Navy submarine. During the five weeks, the Navy will assess its operational readiness and develop its understanding of the Arctic environment. USS Connecticut from Bangor, Washington and USS Hartford from Groton, Connecticut will conduct multiple exercises in the region, along with the Royal Navy’s Trafalgar-class submarine HMS Trenchant. Rear Admiral James Pitts stated that “With every ICEX we are able to build upon our existing experience and continue to learn the best way to operate in this unique and harsh environment.”[1] Not only do the three submarines participate in these exercises, but the Navy’s Arctic Submarine Laboratory brings together three nation’s services and over 100 participants. The camp set up in the Pole is called Ice Camp Skate, named after the submarine that was the first to be able to lay eyes on the Pole.  This year’s ICEX takes on new importance. As sea ice disappears, largely due to global warming, new waterways have emerged, leaving open untapped natural resources and uncharted territory. The race has begun to lay claim to these previously uncharted territories and ICEX allows the U.S. Navy along with the Royal Navy to explore and learn what it has to offer.

#ArcticFunFact The aurora borealis, or the northern lights, are a spectacular color display in the sky on clear, dark nights during periods when solar storms are active. The amazing displays are produced by the solar wind, a stream of electrons and protons coming from the sun. Check out this photo of the northern lights taken from Ice Camp Skate last night! Credit- Arctic Submarine Laboratory

Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine USS Hartford SSN 768 surfaces through the ice March 9, 2018 in support of Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2018. Credit: Department of Defense via ABCNews

SSN 22 during ICEX 2018. Credit: Artic Submarine Laboratory

Ice Camp Skate. Credit: Arctic Submarine Laboratory

BEAUFORT SEA (March 10, 2018) The Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine USS Connecticut (SSN 22) and the Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine USS Hartford (SSN 768) break through the ice March 10, 2018 in support of Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2018. ICEX 2018 is a five-week exercise that allows the Navy to assess its operational readiness in the Arctic, increase experience in the region, advance understanding of the Arctic environment, and continue to develop relationships with other services, allies and partner organizations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication 2nd Class Micheal H. Lee/Released)

[1] www.navy.mil

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.


[1] http://www.connecticutmag.com/the-connecticut-story/a-connecticut-submarine-survived-pearl-harbor-then-helped-win-the/article_540e8332-b680-11e6-9b18-1fb325d8a568.html

[2] http://www.connecticutmag.com/the-connecticut-story/a-connecticut-submarine-survived-pearl-harbor-then-helped-win-the/article_540e8332-b680-11e6-9b18-1fb325d8a568.html

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 http://navylive.dodlive.mil/files/2013/12/Grace-Hopper-slider.jpg

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.