‘ Submarine History ’ Archive

The crew of the USS Perch (SS-176)

USS Perch (SS-176) was a Porpoise-class submarine and the first ship in the US Navy to be named for the Perch. She was commissioned in 1936 in Groton CT. She became a member of the Pacific Fleet in November 1937 joining Submarine Squadron 6.
In 1942, the USS Perch was dispatched to the Java Sea. In the middle of the night on March 1, she was spotted and hit by depth charges. Despite the quick crash dive, she was badly damaged. Crewmembers found electrical grounds, battery issues and a severe leak in the engine room. A test dive was attempted on March 3 but the leaks forced the crew to return to the surface. The damage was too severe to route and escape. Spotted again by Japanese’s destroyers and unable to launch torpedoes, the decision was made for the diesel submarine to be scuttled. The crew was ordered off the boat and the Perch was lost to the sea. The entire crew of the Perch would be picked up by Japanese ships and become POW’s for the remainder of WWII. In Stephen Jackson’s book “The Men” the ordeal of the crew of the Perch is documented by one of its survivors Ernie Plantz.

“The prisoners were offloaded and marched, many barefoot, through the streets of Makassar. This city is almost on the equator, and the blacktop streets were hot enough to burn, blister, and bleed, and their feet suffered in the column of marching men…..The remaining enlisted men marched to a former Dutch army training came that the Japanese had made into a detention facility for Allied prisoners. The Perch men were not the only Americans to be interred here. Survivors of the USS Pope (DD 225), a World War I-era four-star destroyer, were also brought to the camp. The Pope had been sunk of March 1 as part of the same battle that claimed the Perch, a battle that was later called the Battle of the Java Sea.”

“How does one go about describing such and experience? When privation, loss of liberty, starvation, disease, cruelty, and torture are the norm, the only experiences that significantly deviate from that norm are noteworthy. The prison camp experience for these sailors was one of the slow erosion of physical health and mental stability punctuated by moments of violence, brutality, and rarely, pleasure. The men who found themselves trapped in this nightmare kept alive and kept together because they kept the faith with each other. They made the best of it, bartered with the locals when they could, stole from the Japanese when the opportunities arose, and stayed true to their shipmates, their prison mates, and their country.”

“Then one day, a day like any other of the one thousand, two hundred and ninety-seven days that had preceded it, the prisoners were called to assembly by the Japanese’s guards. Plantz recalled the joy and the irony of that day : They called us together and announced to us that the war was over and that the Americans had won. And they wanted to shake hands, ‘Now we’re friends.’ These were the same bastards that beat you and starved you for three and a half years, because we kept the same guards from beginning to end. They wanted to shake hands and be friends. Needless to say, nobody did. Plantz and the men would spend another month in the camp due in part the logistics of removing the remaining number of prisoners from the remote island, but initially because nobody knew they were there. Absent the report or confirmation from another Allied ship, the Perch had been assumed lost with all hands back in 1942.”

“Of the over three thousand men initially imprisoned at the Makassar camp, only about a thousand remained when the war ended….The crew of the Perch made out quite well, losing only six shipmates during their incarceration out of a crew of fifty-nine.”

U.S.S. Perch (SS-176)
Crew List
Alboney, Francis
Arnette, Elbert H.
**Atkeison, Warren Ingram
Berridge, Robert C.
Boersma, Sidney H
Bolden, Sidney
Bolton, Vernon
*Brown, Charles N.
Byrnes, Thomas F., Jr.
Clevinger, Gordon B.
Crist, Daniel
Cross, Charles L., Jr.
Dague, Lawrence W.
Deleman, Bernard
*Dewes, Philip J
Earlywine, Roland I.
Earlywine, Virgil E.
*Edwards, Houston E.
Evans, Roger W.
Fajotina, Alejo
Foley, Joseph A.
Gill, Benjamin S.
Goodwine, Calvin E.
**Greco, John
Harper, Earl R.
Henderson, Henry C.
Hurt, David A.
Kerich, Thomas L.
Klecky, Rudolph
Lents, Robert W.
McCray, James G.
*McCreary, Frank E.
Monroe, Elmo P.
Moore, Thomas
*Newsome, Albert K.
Normand, Joseph R.
Orlyk, Stephen M.
**Osborne, Robert Willis
Pedersen, Victor S.
Peters, Orvel V.
Plantz, Ernest V.
Reh, Theodore J.
Richter, Paul R., Jr.
Robison, Jesse H.
Roth, E.J.
Ryder, John F.
Sarmiento, Macario
Scacht, Kenneth G.
Schaefer, Gilbert E.
Simpson, Samuel F.
Stafford, Frankland F., Jr.
Taylor, Glenn E.
Turner, Marion M.
Van Buskirk, Beverly R.
Van Horn, Edward
Vandergrift, Jacob J.
Walton, Felix B.
Webb, James F.
Welch, Freeman
Wilcox, Myron O.
*Wilson, Robert A.
Winger, Ancil W.
Wright, Ray N.
Yates, Henry S.

Note: *Brown, Dewes, Edwards, McCreary, Newsome and Wilson died as Prisoner of War and **Note: Atkeison, Greco, and Osborne were mistakenly included in the 1963 edition. All three survived the loss of the boat and were taken, prisoner. Atkeison and Osborne were liberated from a prisoner of war camp on 17 September 1945, and Greco was liberated on 21 September 1945. (https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/u/united-states-submarine-losses/perch-ss-176.html)

This is only one story of the thousands of American men who were captured during WWII. Their stories and names will always be remembered.

Stephen Jackson’s book The Men and Trial and Triumph (An interview with Ernie Plantz) can be purchased at the museum gift shop’s online store. 




The third Friday in September is recognized as POW/MIA Day. The following is from Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
The POW/MIA flag, made official by Congress in 1990, may be flown six days a year, smaller and always below the United States flag: Armed Forces Day (third Saturday in May); Memorial Day (last Monday in May); Flag Day (June 14); Independence Day (July 4); National POW/MIA Recognition Day (third Friday in September), and Veterans’ Day (Nov. 11).The day of recognition was created in the 1998 Defense Authorization Act, stating the annual event “honors prisoners of war and our missing and their families, and highlights the government’s commitment to account for them.”And yet thousands remain unaccounted: World War II has at least 73,000 missing plus those lost at sea; 7,500 from the Korean War, 1,600 from Vietnam, 126 during the clandestine operations of the Cold War years, and two from Desert Storm. Both of those missing are Navy pilots whose planes went down in the Persian Gulf: Lt. Cmdr. Barry T. Cooke, flying an A-6 aircraft on Feb. 2, 1991, followed by Lt. Robert J. Dwyer, in his FA-18 aircraft on Feb. 5, 1991.
If you’ve ever been to a military ball, stepped inside a chow hall, or attended an event at a military veterans association in your local community, you’ve likely noticed the small, round table that is always set but never occupied—the prisoners of war/missing in action (POW/MIA) table.
The tradition of setting a separate table in honor of our prisoners of war and missing comrades has been in place since the end of the Vietnam War. The manner in which this table is decorated is full of special symbols to help us remember our brothers and sisters in arms. Those symbols are spelled out in OPNAVINST 1710.7A.
The POW/MIA table is smaller than the others, symbolizing the frailty of one prisoner alone against his or her oppressors. This table is separate from the others and can be set for one to four place settings to represent each service participating in the event.
The white tablecloth draped over the table represents the purity of their response to our country’s call to arms.
The empty chair depicts an unknown face, representing no specific Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine, but all who are not here with us.
The table itself is round to show that our concern for them is never ending.
The Bible represents faith in a higher power and the pledge to our country, founded as one nation under God.
The black napkin stands for the emptiness these warriors have left in the hearts of their families and friends. A Purple Heart medal can be pinned to the napkin.
The single red rose reminds us of their families and loved ones. The red ribbon represents the love of our country, which inspired them to answer the nation’s call.
The yellow candle and its yellow ribbon symbolize the everlasting hope for a joyous reunion with those yet accounted for.
The slices of lemon on the bread plate remind us of their bitter fate.
The salt upon the bread plate represent the tears of their families.
The wine glass, turned upside down, reminds us that our distinguished comrades cannot be with us to drink a toast or join in the festivities of the evening.

The significance of the POW/MIA table is called to attention during the toast of the evening. This is an important part of many military banquets to remind us that the strength of those who fight for our country often times rests in the traditions that are upheld today.


LA Class Submarines

Submarine classes are simple designations. They are a group of ships built to the same base blueprint with few differences between the ships. Classes are usually named after the first ship in the class. Changes will happen over time to the design, but they are usually modifications of the base model. A new class of submarines occurs when a completely different base blueprint is used to design a submarine rather than a simple modification. But what brings a new submarine design to life? In the case of the Los Angeles class, an event between a surface ship and a Soviet submarine led to a new class of submarine- the 688.
In January 1968, the USS Enterprise was coming out of San Francisco Bay on its way to Vietnam. Just outside of U.S waters, a Soviet trawler was patrolling. Thankfully for the Enterprise, Navy intelligence had warned her of its presence.

Figure 1 USS Enterprise https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/ships/enterprise.html

As the Enterprise inched closer, the Soviet trawler sent out a signal that was intercepted by intelligence. That could only mean one thing – a Soviet nuclear attack submarine was in the area. This encounter, while inexplosive or newsworthy, was a sign of a new type of warfare. When the Washington Post described it, they said, “Unlike the war going on in Vietnam, at sea there was no daily carnage, no body bags, nor even any causal ties. It was a war not covered by the media, blacked out as it was by layers of classification, but it was a war nonetheless, one in which nuclear submarines hunted each other throughout the oceans —stalking, aiming and firing imaginary torpedoes as practice for the day when it all could be real.” But this simple encounter paved the way for a new submarine design, one that could outweigh that of the Soviet Navy. While the Los Angeles Class of submarines proved to have numerous problems, it doesn’t change the fact that Admiral Rickover and his nuclear navy was always striving to make a stronger, more stealth submarine force.
Rickover was one of the first to hear the report of the Soviet submarine off the coast of California that January. Rickover knew that the United States would have to do something about the Soviets. They were building nuclear subs at an unprecedented rate. While their submarines might have been faster, the quick delivery of the fleet was leading to faulty ships and numerous problems. Nonetheless, it was a concern to Rickover and the United States. At this time, speed was the name of the game. In order to do this, development of compact high-energy nuclear reactors would be needed. Since 1964, Rickover had secretly been working on adapting a large surface-ship reactor and propulsion plant for submarine use. The Enterprise encounter gave Rickover his opportunity to show the importance of increasing submarine speeds to his superiors. The Enterprise was given the order to race the Soviet submarine. As she gained speed, the Enterprise believed she would outrun the Soviet sub at top speed in no time. Two days later, the Soviet sub was still in pursuit of the surface ship. At this point, the submarine was breaking all known speed records for its type. This race was confirming some of the U.S. worst fears- the old submarine class in the Soviet Navy was faster than any of the U.S. Navy’s newest ones.
The opposition was quick to Rickover’s high-speed design. It was too large, too noisy and too expensive. A little over a month after the Enterprise incident, seven submarine commanders met in secret with Rickover to come up with America’s next new nuclear submarine. The SSN 688 was developed by this secret group in 90 days. The new design could set speeds of 32 knots. However, to gain this speed, diving depth was sacrificed. This was an issue that the committee thought would eventually be solved – it wasn’t. The idea was approved, and full design conception was awarded to Newport News. Despite depth sacrifice, the Los Angeles class improved the fleet’s acoustic performance and led to a new knowledge of sound and speed. This led to the development of the Seawolf class.

Figure 2 Figure 3 http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-7EH3bXqk2_8/VFfF-qLy5PI/AAAAAAAAFJA/RUCat9WWakM/s1600/Los%2BAngeles-class%2Bsubmarine%2BFlight%2BI.jpg

As of 2018, 40 of the Los Angeles class submarines are still in service. The class has more active nuclear submarine than any other. The boats are all named after American towns and cities except for the USS Hyman G. Rickover. These namings were a departure from the tradition of naming attack submarines for ocean creatures. The actual top speed of the Los Angeles class is classified with official records saying over 25 knots. The maximum operating depth is 650ft but of course, this information is also classified, with the diving depths probably being greater. The class carries about 25 torpedo tube launched weapons. Thirty of the boats are equipped with 12 vertical launch systems tubes for firing Tomahawk cruise misses. Two watertight compartments are used, the forward compartment being where the crew lives and equipped with weapons handling spaces and control spaces. The aft contains the engineering system, power generation turbines, and water-making equipment. In the modified 688 design, the 688i, the forward diving planes were moved from the sail to the bow. The sail was strengthened for ice penetration, a mine laying capability was added, and the combat system was improved. While the Los-Angeles class is the backbone of the submarine force, as they age out, they are being replaced by the Virginia class which is a more affordable platform while retaining the acoustic qualities of the Seawolf class.

General Characteristics, Los Angeles Class

Builder: Newport News Shipbuilding Co.; General Dynamics Electric Boat Division
Date Deployed: Nov. 13, 1976 (USS Los Angeles)
Propulsion: One nuclear reactor, one shaft
Length: 360 feet (109.73 meters)
Beam: 33 feet (10.06 meters)
Displacement: Approximately 6,900 tons (7011 metric tons) submerged
Speed: 25+ knots (28+ miles per hour, 46.3 +kph)
Crew: 16 Officers; 127 Enlisted
Armament: Tomahawk missiles, VLS tubes (SSN 719 and later), MK48 torpedoes, four torpedo tubes

USS Bremerton (SSN 698), Pearl Harbor, HI
USS Jacksonville (SSN 699), Pearl Harbor, HI
USS Dallas (SSN 700), Groton, CT
USS San Francisco (SSN 711), San Diego, CA
USS Buffalo (SSN 715), Pearl Harbor, HI
USS Olympia (SSN 717), Pearl Harbor, HI
USS Providence (SSN 719), Groton, CT
USS Pittsburgh (SSN 720), Groton, CT
USS Chicago (SSN 721), Guam
USS Key West (SSN 722), Guam
USS Oklahoma City (SSN 723), Guam
USS Louisville (SSN 724), Pearl Harbor, HI
USS Helena> (SSN 725), Norfolk, Va.
USS Newport News (SSN 750), Norfolk, VA
USS San Juan (SSN 751), Groton, CT
USS Pasadena (SSN 752), San Diego, CA
USS Albany (SSN 753), Norfolk, VA
USS Topeka (SSN 754), Guam
USS Scranton (SSN 756), Norfolk, VA
USS Alexandria (SSN 757), Portsmouth, NH
USS Asheville (SSN 758), San Diego, CA
USS Jefferson City (SSN 759), Pearl Harbor, HI
USS Annapolis (SSN 760), Groton, CT
USS Springfield (SSN 761), Groton, CT
USS Columbus (SSN 762), Pearl Harbor, HI
USS Santa Fe (SSN 763), Pearl Harbor, HI
USS Boise (SSN 764), Norfolk, VA
USS Montpelier (SSN 765), Norfolk, VA
USS Charlotte (SSN 766), Pearl Harbor, HI
USS Hampton (SSN 767), San Diego, CA
USS Hartford (SSN 768), Groton, CT
USS Toledo (SSN 769), Groton, CT
USS Tucson (SSN 770), Pearl Harbor, HI
USS Columbia (SSN 771), Pearl Harbor, HI
USS Greeneville (SSN 772), Pearl Harbor, HI
USS Cheyenne (SSN 773), Pearl Harbor, HI

List from US Navy website. https://www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4100&tid=100&ct=4Last updated April 2017

Washington Post quote from https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1986/09/21/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-ssn-688/dc657615-8270-4c71-89c8-e546f596e3ae/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.cd4c2dfa361a

Benitez and the Cochino

September 15th marks the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month. In honor of recognizing the feats of Hispanics in the Navy, we start with the story of CDR Rafael Benitez and his courageous crew on board the USS Cochino in 1949.

On the morning of 25 August 1949, during a training cruise north of the Arctic Circle, the submarine Cochino (SS-345), in company with Tusk (SS-426), attempted to submerge to snorkel depth in the Barents Sea, but the crashing waves played havoc with these efforts. At 1048, a muffled thud rocked Cochino and news of a fire in the after battery compartment quickly passed through the boat. A second explosion soon followed and CDR Rafael Benitez, the commanding officer, ordered all of the crew not on watch or fighting fires topside. During this orderly evacuation, however, Seaman J. E. Morgan fell overboard. The 48° water and the swells created by the 20 to 25 mph winds rapidly exhausted the sailor, so Chief Torpedoman’s Mate Hubert H. Rauch dove into the chilly sea to keep him afloat before Culinary Specialist Clarence Balthrop pulled him to safety.
At 1123, another explosion badly burned LCDR Richard M. Wright, the executive officer, and left him temporarily in a state of shock, as he moved to sever the connection between the after and forward batteries on board Cochino to stem the generation of dangerous hydrogen gas. Thanks in part to a safety line run by LT (j.g.) Charles Cushman, Jr., by 1208, 60 men huddled, cold and wet, on the bridge and deck of the submarine. Almost all of them had not had time to dress properly for the stormy weather. It was no better for those who remained below, as men began to pass out from the gas and toxic smoke. At 1230, Tusk attempted to come alongside, but the swells and wind made this nearly impossible, but she did manage to send needed medical supplies to Cochino by raft.

CDR Benitez decided that he needed get word of the dire conditions on board to Tusk and the Commander, Submarine Development Group Two. Aware of the perils that awaited him, ENS John Shelton agreed to make the attempt as did a civilian engineer on board, Mr. Robert Philo. After receiving confirmation of Philo’s desire to make the journey, CDR Benitez ordered the men lowered into the angry sea, but their raft immediately overturned. Sailors from Tusk pulled Shelton and Philo alongside as they desperately clung to the raft, but the waves that swept across the submarine prevented them being brought on board. Seaman Norman Walker jumped into water to help both men onto Tusk, but not before the waves slammed Philo’s head against the hull. By this time, fifteen men from that submarine stood on the deck handling lines and attempting to resuscitate Philo, when an unusually large wave broke one of the lifelines and swept eleven members of the Tusk crew and the still unconscious Philo overboard. In addition to Philo, the sea claimed the lives of six of Tusk’s crew including Electrician’s Mate John Guttermuth whose inflatable life jacket had burst upon hitting the water which left only his boots inflated as he attempted to save the unconscious Fireman Robert F. Brunner, Jr. He fought desperately to keep his head above water, but eventually drowned in the frigid sea with his boots still visible above the water. A kinder fate awaited LT (j.g.) Philip Pennington when LCDR George Cook dove over the side to pluck him from the unruly waves. Of two life rafts thrown to those who been swept overboard, one was recovered empty, but the other contained Torpedoman’s Mate Raymond Reardon who suffered gravely from exposure to the elements. Engineman Henry McFarland entered the water but could not reach the raft then Seaman Raymond Shugar overcame the raging waters long enough to attach a line to Reardon who was subsequently rescued.
By 1800, Cochino had regained power and signaled Tusk that she could make ten knots but had no steering. It appeared the crippled boat might make it back to Norway. However, at 2306 she suffered a fatal blow in the form of yet another battery explosion. Tusk loosed her ready torpedoes then transferred the 76 officers and men from the stricken submarine. CDR Benitez, the last to leave Cochino, departed only minutes before the boat slipped beneath the waves. These selfless acts of heroism provide an example of the dedication and comradery that animates our submariners. Only their bravery and professionalism kept the tragic toll from being far higher. (Story taken from https://www.navalhistory.org/2010/08/25/the-loss-of-the-uss-cochino-ss-345)

Benitez, just like any captain, made sure the rest of his crew went to safety before saving his own life. According to a New York Times article about his death, Benitez, before jumping to safety, said, ”I’m not abandoning ship.” The plank they were using to escape to the Tusk was about to shatter when he crossed. Two minutes later and 15 hours after the fire had broken out, Cochino would be lost to the ocean. Both crews did everything they could that day. The trip to port after the accident was a somber one as they remembered those that were lost. When finally on land, the crew of the Cochino was asked to fly home or ride cramped, with the crew of the Tusk back home. The crew, submariners through and through, went home with the crew of the Tusk. Benitez, a native of Puerto Rico, would continue to serve in the Navy until 1959. The heroism of both crews will forever be remembered as well as those who lost their lives on that fateful day.

Navy Tattoo Culture

One image that often comes to mind in popular culture about sailors is tattoos. This popular image is rooted in centuries of nautical traditions. Beginning with the British Royal Navy in the 1700’s during their Tahitian voyages, British sailors were intrigued by the body art that the native Tahitians displayed. Eventually, the body art would travel to American sailors, where being tattooed became a permanent part of the maritime culture. During the American Revolution, the British often destroyed American citizenship papers, so sailors would tattoo their identification information to avoid illegal recruiting by the British Navy. By the mid-19th century. Many sailors would become amateur tattoo artists, using India ink to keep busy during down times in long voyages. “Shops” were set up wherever and whenever it was possible. Port towns became havens for tattoo businesses. It is said that Franklin Paul Rogers, known for his development of modern tattooing machinery, learned the trade from August Coleman who made a living in Norfolk, Virginia tattooing sailors.

A sailor getting a tattoo during WWII on the USS New Jersey https://pugetsoundnavymuseum.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/nara-2sailorswwiinewjersey.jpg

Early maritime tattoo designs were usually initials, names, and nautical symbols. Many of these symbols represented unique aspects of life on the high seas. For example, a sailor with a tattoo of a full-rigged sailing ship had completed the journey around Cape Horn. During the Civil War, tattoos of the clash between USS Monitor and CSS Virginia could be found being on sailor’s arms. After WWI, tattooing lost some of its social acceptance in America but remained popular in the military. They came to represent the places sailors had been. Dragons for Asia or Hulu girls for Hawaii. Some got a swallow for every 5,000 miles sailed.

In addition to indicating that a sailor had sailed 5000 miles, swallow tattoos are also associated with the idea of return. This “return” symbolism is rooted in two ideas. The first was the swallow’s famous migration pattern, always returning home to San Juan Capistrano. Second, it was believed that if a sailor dies at sea, birds carry his soul home to heaven. https://sailorjerry.com/en/tattoos/

In addition, it would not be the Navy without some superstition and tradition. Some sailors believed that tattooing a pig and a rooster on each foot would prevent them from drowning. During WWII, popular tattoos were symbols that reminded the sailors of the homes they had left behind. Names of girlfriends and wives or a hometown symbol. It was during this period that the popular pinup girl tattoos and mermaids became common. According to statistics, 65% of WWII sailors had tattoos, the highest of any of the military branches. The connection between the Navy and tattoos became so widely known that a song in the film There’s No Business Like Show Business references it:

Sailor’s Not A Sailor (’till A Sailor’s Been Tattooed) sung by Mitzi Gaynor and Ethel Merman
[Merman] I’m an old salt
[Gaynor] I’m a young salt
[Both] In the Navy we’ve been working very hard
[Merman] I was part of the Flotilla with Dewey in Manila
[Gaynor] I’m a new recruit at the Brooklyn Navy yard
[Both] Tonight we’re on a spree and feeling flow’ry
We’ve got a date with gals and drink and food
[Gaynor] Across the Brooklyn bridge and to the Bow’ry
[Merman] And I’m gonna get the kid tattooed
[Gaynor] Tattooed?
[Merman] Tattooed!
[Both] A sailor’s not a sailor ‘til a sailor’s been tattooed
[Merman] Here’s an anchor from a tanker
That I sailed upon when first I went to sea
Here’s another of my mother
Takes me back to when I sat upon her knee
Here’s a crimson heart with a Cupid’s dart
Here’s a Battle Cruiser and when I sit down
On that, too
There’s a tattoo
Of my hometown
[Gaynor] To the Bow’ry
[Merman] To the Bow’ry
[Gaynor] ‘Cross the Brooklyn Bridge and I’m just in the mood
[Merman] He’ll be filled with diff’rent mixtures
And covered up with pictures
[Gaynor] I can’t wait to be, ‘twill be great to be tattooed
[Merman] Tattooed?
[Gaynor] Tattooed!
[Both] A sailor’s not a sailor ‘till a sailor’s been tattooed

The superstition behind this tattoo has to do with the wooden cages where roosters and pigs were kept in on ships. When ships wrecked, the lightweight wooden frames became personal flotation devices, giving them a surprising survival rate. A sailor hoping for good luck would get a rooster tattoo on top of the right foot and a pig tattoo on top of the left.

Today’s booming tattoo culture has its maritime roots to thank. The connection of tattoos and sailors is so popular that in 2016, the US navy amended its policy on tattoos, considering 1 in 3 individuals were already sporting ink before joining. The new policy allowed neck tattoos, sleeves, and markings behind the ears. The only place off limits – a sailor’s head. When put in place, this policy was the most lenient of any of the branches. The change made many sailors happy, saying that higher officials were recognizing and accepting its own culture. In 2016, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Mike Stevens said, “We just got to the point where we realized we needed to be honest with ourselves and put something in place that was going to reflect the realities of our country and the needs of our navy. We need to make sure that we’re not missing any opportunities to recruit and retain the best and the brightest because of our policies.” Despite this easing in policy, tattoos that are Obscene, advocate discrimination or sexually explicit are still not allowed. The history of sailors and tattoos was documented in an exhibit at the Puget Sound Museum from 2015-2017 called “Skin Deep: The Nautical Roots of Tattoo Culture.” Tattoos will always be a part of Navy culture. Whether a sailor has ink or not- there is no denying its place in Navy traditions.

At sea, the anchor is the most secure object in a sailor’s life, making it the perfect representation of stability. This is why you’ll often see anchor tattoos emblazoned with “Mom” or the name of a sailor’s sweetheart (the people who keep them grounded). Anchors have become popular within general tattoo culture over the years, but the symbolism is still the same. It’s a reminder of what keeps you steady. https://sailorjerry.com/en/tattoos/

John S. McCain III: A Brief Navy Biography

From the Naval History and Heritage and Command Website:


John S. McCain III: A Brief Navy Biography

Family Heritage: John Sydney McCain III was born on 29 August 1936 in Coco Solo, near Colón, in the Panama Canal Zone. His father and grandfather were naval officers and graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy. John III’s entire naval career was shaped and influenced by these two great men. Their example helped him survive air combat as well as torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. His autobiography, Faith of My Fathers, is an homage to their memory.

Midshipman John S. McCain Sr., 1906

Midshipman John S. McCain Jr., 1931

Midshipman John S. McCain III, 1958

Grandfather: Admiral John S. “Slew” McCain Sr. was born in 1884 and graduated from USNA in 1906. He served as the engineering officer on San Diego (ACR-6) during World War I until May 1918.[1] Designated a naval aviator in 1936, he went on to command Aircraft, South Pacific, and South Pacific Force, during the 1942 Solomon Islands Campaign. Later in the war, he commanded TF-38 (part of Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet) during the drive into the Philippines, the capture of Okinawa, and the surrender of Japan. For this command, he received the Navy Cross. John S. McCain died four days after VJ Day of war-related stress. He was a vice admiral on death but was posthumously promoted to admiral in 1945 by a joint resolution of Congress.
Father: Admiral John S. “Jack” McCain Jr. was born in 1911 and graduated from USNA in 1931. During World War II, he commanded the submarine Gunnel (SS-253), which performed reconnaissance in North Africa prior to the landings there. He later took the boat to the Pacific where he sank a Japanese destroyer and damaged additional enemy shipping. He also commanded Dentuda (SS-335), which saw action late in the war. During the Cold War, he served in a number of shore and fleet assignments, including command of Albany (CA-123) from 1957–1958; Commander Amphibious Force Atlantic, 1963–1965; and Commander in Chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe (CINCUSNAVEUR), 1967–1968. In July 1968, during the height of the Vietnam War, he became Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command (CINCPAC), a position he held until he retired in 1972. Jack McCain died in 1981.
Education: John S. McCain III graduated from Episcopal High School in Alexandria, VA, in 1954 and then “entered his father’s business.”[2] McCain enjoyed “every minute” of his USNA experience except the academic portions of the academy and the harsh treatment he often received from some of the upperclassmen and officers there. He graduated 894 out of a class of 899. “I got by, just barely at times, but I got by.”[3] Many years later he would draw heavily on his academy experiences to help him survive the rigors of the Hanoi Hilton.[4]
Early Navy Career as a Naval Aviator: McCain entered flight school in 1958. While still in flight training on 12 March 1960, he crashed an AD-6 into Corpus Christi Bay. The engine quit while he was practicing landings. Although he barely managed to exit the plane after ditching it in the bay, he suffered no serious injuries. Following graduation from flight training in 1960, McCain served in VA-65 until 1963. In December 1961, “I knocked down some power lines while flying too low [in an A-1] over southern Spain. My daredevil clowning had cut off electricity to a great many Spanish homes and created a small international incident.”[5] In 1962, his unit deployed to the Caribbean on Enterprise (CVN-65) during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In November 1965, McCain had a third accident in a T-2 jet trainer as an instructor pilot with VT-7. He suffered an engine flame-out and ejected from the aircraft. The Naval Aviation Safety Center was unable to determine the cause of the accident. 1965 was also the year McCain married his first wife, Carol Shepp, a divorced mother with two sons.
Service in Vietnam with VA-46: McCain joined VA-46 in April 1967 and deployed to Southeast Asia in the summer of that year─the apogee of President Lyndon Johnson’s Rolling Thunder bombing campaign against North Vietnam. As an A-4 Skyhawk pilot, McCain flew some of the most dangerous missions of the war in an older aircraft poorly equipped to defend itself against the multilayered air defense system the North Vietnamese developed by the mid-1960s. In 1967, the communist regime fielded over twenty SA-2 missile battalions, more than 1,500 large caliber antiaircraft artillery, and many thousands of medium and small caliber weapons. The United States would not develop effective countermeasures to offset this system until late in the war. A-4s, as a consequence, suffered the highest loss rate of any Navy plane in Vietnam.[6] More than 195 were downed compared to 75 F-4s, the next highest number. McCain’s unit, the Saints, suffered a casualty rate of 30 percent during the year he served— one-third of the pilots were either killed or captured.[7]
Forrestal Fire: McCain not only had to fly into the teeth of some of the most sophisticated air defenses on the planet at the time, he also confronted shipboard hazards. On 29 July 1967, stray voltage from a mobile engine starter triggered a Zuni rocket to launch from an F-4 waiting for takeoff on the deck of Forrestal (CV-59). The rocket struck the belly fuel tank of McCain’s aircraft, killing Airman Thomas D. Ott, McCain’s parachute rigger.[8] McCain managed to jump out of his cockpit ten feet into a fire. He rolled through the fire and then a bomb exploded, blowing him ten feet and killing a large number of Sailors. Eventually, McCain managed to make his way to sickbay to have his burns and shrapnel wounds treated. It took damage control parties 24 hours to fully control the blaze. By that time, the fire and ordnance explosions had killed 134 Sailors, injured 161, and destroyed 21 aircraft. The event occurred just prior to what would have been McCain’s sixth combat mission. Determined to complete a full combat tour, McCain and a few others from his unit volunteered to transfer to VA-163 on Oriskany (CV-34), which had also recently suffered a terrible fire.
Shootdown, 26 October 1967: Of the more than 9,000 SA-2 Guideline missiles fired between 1965 and 1972, fewer than two percent brought down aircraft. McCain belongs to this small club, but his shootdown was not the result of poor airmanship. Rather, it resulted from a willingness of McCain to take a calculated risk to destroy an important target: the Hanoi thermal power plant. The day before, he pleaded with the squadron operations officer to put him on the roster for the large Alpha strike scheduled the next day. Four Navy squadrons participated in the raid. It was McCain’s twenty-third mission and his first attack on Hanoi. The strike force was tracked by North Vietnamese radars as it went feet dry[9], and soon McCain could see smoke plumes from SA-2 launches. The SA-2 was developed to take down slow flying bombers flying between 3,000 and 50,000 feet. With enough warning, an A-4 could outmaneuver these missiles. At the time of his shoot-down, McCain’s aircraft was at 3,500 feet.[10] He had received a good warning tone, indicating that a missile was tracking him, but he felt he had time to drop his bombs on the target next to a small lake and then outmaneuver the missile. He managed to release his bombload just before the missile impact. “If I had started jinking I would have never had time, nor, probably, the nerve to go back in once I had lost the SAM.” [11]
Prisoner of War, 26 October 1967–14 March 1973: The missile shattered one of the wings of McCain’s A-4, forcing him to bailout upside down at high speed. The force of the ejection broke his right leg, his right arm in three places, his left arm, tore his helmet off, and knocked him unconscious. He nearly died when he descended into a lake in the middle of Hanoi. He somehow regained consciousness, kicked himself twice to the surface, and floated back down. Finally, after activating his life preserver, he made it to the surface only to be attacked and bayoneted by an angry mob of civilians. No one reached the Hoa Lo Prison (aka the Hanoi Hilton) in worse condition than McCain. Dumped in an empty cell, he was interrogated for four days before his captors brought him to a hospital after learning that his father was a four-star admiral and CINCUSNAVEUR.[12] By that time he was feverish, unable to hold down food (guards had to feed him by hand because of his injuries), semiconscious, and his right knee had swollen to the size of a football.[13] Although McCain received blood and plasma, he was not washed for six weeks. For two straight hours, a doctor tried to set the bones in his right arm without anesthetics. Finally, the attendant settled for wrapping him a body cast. Eventually the Vietnamese operated on his bad leg and outfitted him with another cast. He was then transported to another jail known as the Plantation and put in a cell with two Air Force majors: George “Bud” Day and Norris Overly.
Plantation, Solitary Confinement, and Torture: At the time of his shoot-down, McCain was 31 years old, but to Day he looked like a “white-haired skeleton.” His head and body were covered in grime. Food particles clung to his face and hair, and he could not wash or relieve himself without assistance. Overly thought he appeared “damn near dead.” The two majors provided nursing home-type care for McCain until early 1968, when Overly and then Day were transferred out of the cell. McCain would spend the next two years in solitary confinement. On top of that, he was tortured regularly beginning in July 1968—the same month his father became CINCPAC. His torturer, known as Cat, singled him out for what was probably the harshest sustained persecution of any prisoner at the Plantation. For over a year, he was trussed with ropes and/or beaten for two to three hour stretches at a time until, like many other POWs from this period, he signed a confession of criminal wrongdoing and apology—permissible under the revised code of conduct.[14] This statement was all the Vietnamese ever got from McCain. He did not meet with delegations for propaganda purposes, did not divulge classified information, and refused to take an early release despite being recommended for one by the POW chain of command due to his severe injuries. McCain had amazing resilience. Time and again, he endured abuse only to bounce back again to focus on cheering up his fellow POWs with cryptic communications using the tap code. He also became a principal officer in POW resistance operations at the Plantation. Despite occasional disagreements over politics, none of the twenty POWs interviewed over the years would disagree with this statement: “McCain kept the faith with his squadron mates in the 4th Allied POW Wing, his father, and the U.S. Navy; his service in Hanoi was nothing short of heroic and exemplary.”[15]
Release and Postwar Naval Career: McCain’s wounds never completely healed in Vietnam, and he could never again raise his arms above his head. Following his release on 14 March 1973, he spent nearly five months recuperating and receiving medical treatment. He then attended the National War College and became the commanding officer of VA-174, which received a meritorious unit commendation under his leadership. Unfortunately, his first marriage did not survive Vietnam, an outcome he blames entirely on himself. He met his current wife, Cindy, a former schoolteacher from Arizona, in 1979 while serving with the Navy’s Office of Legislative Liaison in the Senate. In this legislative affairs role, McCain excelled. He played a key behind-the-scenes role in securing congressional support for a new supercarrier, despite White House opposition. Because of his injuries, his likelihood of promotion to flag officer was low, so he opted instead to retire from the Navy in 1981 at the rank of captain. His decorations include the Silver Star Medal, the Legion of Merit with Combat ‘V’ and one gold star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star Medal with Combat ‘V’ and two gold stars, and the Purple Heart Medal with one gold star.
After retirement, he was elected to the House in 1983 and the Senate in 1987. He ran unsuccessfully for President in 2008. Senator McCain passed away on 25 August 2018.
Prepared by John Sherwood, Ph.D., Naval History & Heritage Command, October 2017

[1] Note: He transferred off the ship prior to its mining on 19 July 1918. NHHC is currently re-examining the cause of its sinking.
[2] John McCain with Mark Salter, Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir (New York: Random House, 1999), 109.
[3] Ibid., 134.
[4] Ibid., 152.
[5] Ibid., 159.
[6] John Darrell Sherwood, Afterburner: Naval Aviators and the Vietnam War (New York: NYU Press, 2004), 29-32.
[7] John McCain with Mark Salter, Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir (New York: Random House, 1999), 182-183.
[8] Note: His body was never recovered.
[9] Note: Aviator slang for flying over land.
[10] Dr. Joseph Arena, OSD Historian; Dr. Glen Asner, OSD Deputy Chief Historian; Dr. Erin Mahan, OSD Chief Historian; Dr. John Sherwood, Historian, Naval History and Heritage Command, “The Origins of Offset, 1945–1979,” Historical Office of the Secretary of Defense, October 2016, 50.
[11] John McCain with Mark Salter, Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir (New York: Random House, 1999), 182-183.
[12] His father received a call from Admiral Thomas Moorer, then CNO, who told him: “Jack, we don’t think he survived.” John’s mother in turn called his wife, telling her to expect the worst. See John McCain with Mark Salter, Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir (New York: Random House, 1999), 192.
[13] Stuart I. Rochester and Frederick Kiley, Honor Bound: The History of American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia (Washington, DC: Historical Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1998), 360.
[14] The Vietnam War-era Code of Conduct arose out of the Korean War experience. In Korea, there had been a breakdown in morale, primarily among enlisted POWs, and widespread collaboration had occurred. The code called for POWs to make every effort to escape, to accept no special favors from the enemy and, when questioned, only to give one’s name, rank, serial number, and date of birth—the big four and nothing more. This code became untenable in Hanoi, where camp authorities ignored the Geneva Convention and subjected POWs to severe torture and depravity. POW leadership developed policies known as Plums to expand (and in some cases substitute for) the code. Plums required a pilot to take physical abuse and torture before acceding to specific demands but did not expect a man to die or seriously jeopardize his health and safety. However, there would be no early releases, no appearances for propaganda, and any flexibility or freelancing would be subordinated to the need for unity and discipline.
[15] Stuart I. Rochester and Frederick Kiley, Honor Bound: The History of American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia (Washington, DC: Historical Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1998), 361–364; John Sherwood, interviews with Vietnam-era POWs, NHHC.

Published:Wed Aug 29 14:19:13 EDT 2018

Surgery on a Submarine

What happens when you get sick on a submarine? When we think about the day to day operations of the submarine fleet, sickness isn’t something that normally comes up in a discussion. While crews today are larger than in the past, they are still a selected group with not much room for extra hands. Normally, a doctor is not onboard a submarine. A senior corpsman who has received special training including emergency surgical techniques is the one in charge of handling any issue. For the most part, this includes dealing with the flu or minor stitches. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t put to the test. Not much has changed in this area over the years. And in 1942, a corpsman was faced with an emergency situation and needed to think quick to save a man’s life. In a piece featured on the Naval Heritage and History Command website, the story of one man’s quick actions changed the fate of one of his fellow sailors.

 On 11 September 1942, Pharmacist’s Mate First Class (PhM1/c) Wheeler B. Lipes agonized over the most difficult decision of his life. He had just diagnosed his shipmate, Seaman First Class Darrel D. Rector, with acute appendicitis. With their submarine Seadragon (SS-194) cruising in enemy waters, there was no way to get Rector to port in time. World War II submarines always carried a well trained corpsman, but their small, 55-man complement did not rate a doctor. Lipes could attempt an appendectomy, but the operation might kill his shipmate.
After joining the Navy in 1936, Lipes had received his medical training in the Navy hospital course in San Diego and had served at the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia and at the Naval Hospital in Canacao near Manila before entering the submarine service in 1941. Classified as an electro-cardiographer, he had assisted Navy doctors during many operations, including several appendectomies.
On 8 September 1942, Seadragon was several days and thousands of miles out from Fremantle, Australia, on her fourth war patrol, cruising off the Indonesian coast, when Rector first came to Lipes complaining of nausea and abdominal pain. Lipes told him to get to his bunk and rest. At first, the corpsman thought something might be wrong with Rector’s gall bladder, but Rector soon began to display the classic symptoms of appendicitis: fever, rigid abdominal muscles, abdominal tenderness, and acute, localized pain. Lipes kept Rector in his bunk, packed his abdomen with ice, and restricted him to a liquid diet.
Nevertheless, Rector’s condition worsened. On the morning of 11 September, Lipes reported the situation to the commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander William E. Ferrall. Lipes said that unless Rector received an emergency appendectomy almost immediately, the 19-year-old seaman would die. The skipper asked the pharmacist’s mate what he intended to do. “Nothing,” said Lipes. Ferrall lectured him that everyone had to do the best they could and asked the 23-year-old pharmacist’s mate whether he thought he could do the surgery. “Yes sir, I can do it,” said Lipes, but “everything is against us. Our chances are slim.” The skipper explained the situation to Rector. Would the seaman allow the pharmacist’s mate to operate? “Whatever the doc feels has to be done is okay with me,” said Rector. Ferrall ordered Lipes to perform the surgery.
The skipper took the boat into relatively safe water and submerged to 120 feet to provide a stable platform. Every member of the crew, from the box-plane man to the galley cook, participated in the operation. Lipes boned up on the appendix from a medical book. The ship’s medical kit provided a few basics, including sulfa tablets, twelve hemostats, a packet of scalpel blades, catgut for sutures, and a limited quantity of ether. The rest of the instruments had to be improvised. A hemostat became a scalpel handle. Five tablespoons with the handles bent back served as retractors. Commercially sterilized “Handi-pads” substituted for gauze sponges. A tea strainer covered with gauze served as a mask for administering the ether. Boiling water and torpedo alcohol provided sterilization. The operation would be performed on the wardroom table, barely long enough for the patient to stretch out on without his head or feet hanging over.
Lipes didn’t know how long the operation would last and whether there was enough ether. He had no way to do a blood count or urinalysis or to monitor the patient’s blood pressure, nor was there any intravenous fluid.
Nevertheless, with everyone at his assigned station, the operation began. Lipes began administering the anesthesia at 1046. Thereafter, Lieutenant Franz Hoskins, the communications officer, served as anesthetist. With the skipper making and recording detailed observations at four to seven minute intervals, Lipes made the incision at 1107. At first he had difficulty finding Rector’s appendix. But then he slipped his fingers down behind the caecum, and there it was. The distal tip was black and gangrenous.
Lipes detached the appendix, tied it off, removed it, and preserved it in a jar of torpedo alcohol. He cauterized the stump with carbolic acid. He took sulfa, ground from tablets into powder and baked in the ship’s oven to kill off spores, and sprinkled it into the peritoneal cavity. Lipes finished suturing at 1322. Rector regained consciousness less than half an hour later.
The seaman’s three-inch incision healed nicely and he was back on duty in a few days. Seadragon returned to port six weeks after the operation. The medical officer of the submarine squadron pronounced Rector fit for duty. After examining the appendix, the medical officer concluded that Lipes and his shipmates had indeed saved Rector’s life. When the story broke in the press, Lipes became a national hero.
At bottom, it was training and leadership that saved the seaman’s life. The training Lipes had received had given him the know-how and confidence to perform at a level well above the normal expectations of his rating. The skipper’s decision to order Lipes to perform the surgery reflected his own confidence in the pharmacist’s mate’s training. And it was Lieutenant Commander Ferrall’s leadership that inspired Lipes to go above and beyond the call of duty and enabled him to organize the crew for an operation totally outside the realm of their experience.
—Robert J. Schneller, Ph.D., Naval Historical Center, September 2004


Life after the Polar Crossing

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

Nautilus in New York Harbor during her return

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

Skate at the North Pole

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

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

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

Special Nautilus Exhibit

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

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


Hubert Wilkins and his Submarine

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

Figure 1 Hubert Wilkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lucky Cribbage Board

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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