The Great Submarine Contest-pt 1

In 1900, the U.S. Navy officially purchased its first submarine. However, seven years before that, the first full effort to launch a submarine program began with the Great Submarine Contest of 1893. Submarines had been utilized long before this, including during the Civil War. However, these submarines were rarely successful at their missions and posed real threats to their crews. On March 3, 1893, Congress approximated $200,000 for the building of an experimental model submarine. The word was put out to inventors that whoever came up with the best design would be awarded the contract. The Great Submarine Contest of 1893 began the drive for the U.S. Navy to fully dive into beginning their submarine fleet. We will discuss who submitted designs and how these men forever changed the face of the U.S. Navy.

The rules on the competition “required that each design meet certain vital prerequisites including, guaranteed safety, ability to submerge, reliability underwater, reasonable speed, endurance, offensive power, and the ability to view the target.”[1] One of the most interesting stipulations in the contest was that each proposal had to be submitted with a check equal to five percent of the bid. This check would he held by the committee if the design failed to meet the specifications. In June of 1893, the official opening of the viewing of these designs was held in Washington, D.C. Amongst the crowd were the three top contenders- Simon Lake, George Baker and John P. Holland. The first of those to make his name known was George Baker, a Civil War veteran. After the war, George moved to Polk City, Iowa where he established a hardware business. It was in his free time that he pursued the idea of designing a submarine. By 1893, Baker’s business was booming with the production of barbed wire, and he moved to Illinois. It was because of the successes of his business that Baker was able to follow through on his love of submarines when the competition opened.


Figure 1 Baker’s Submarine in Dry Dock. Image Courtesy of Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

George Baker’s design was 46 feet long and weighed around 75 tons. It was able to fit six crew members on board. The hull was made of wood, was around seven inches thick and was powered by a small steam engine while on the surface.  A collapsible smokestack would go up when the broiler was operated. When submerged, a 220 volt, 50-horse-powered electric motor with driving dual side propellers powered the boat. Baker went further than just designing a submarine. He built a prototype and ran trials in the Rouge River in Michigan. Initially, the prototype leaked, and the propulsion machinery did not operate correctly. After several experiments, he felt confident that the problems could be fixed and that his design was perfect for the submarine competition. The press would go on to inaccurately describe his work in the papers. Journalists would draw up fanciful designs of a boat topped with a smokestack and smoke billowing across the waves. Baker addressed this when he told a Detroit Free Press reporter, “Even if such a plan were possible, just see what a sure warning it would give an enemy of the approach of the boat. Scores of these things have appeared in print, and they will certainly do me more injury than good.”[2]

Figure 2 Baker’s Submarine in the Detroit River. Image Courtesy of Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Baker felt that submarines could serve multiple purposes. He knew that they could be used to plant torpedoes beneath another vessel, but he also believed that they could be used to locate shipwrecks and conduct research at the bottoms of lakes and seas. To go along with this idea of submarine usage, he designed an electric light that could bean 16 feet while underwater. The light would be operated from an iron projection on the conning tower. The idea that the submarine could be used for non-military operations was revolutionary at the time. Baker began sea trials of his boat in 1892, ahead of the submarine competition. Some believe that Baker was the instigator of the competition, convincing Washington that a submarine was needed in the Navy.

Baker’s design

Commodore William Folger sent an expert to Detroit in June of 1892 to try Baker’s boat. However, at the time of this visit, Baker’s boat was being repaired and could not be inspected. This did not stop the expert, W. Scott Simms, from raving about the submarine. Folger believed that a combination of Baker’s boat and Simm’s torpedo boat would make a perfect destroyer for the Navy. When the competition opened in 1893, Baker had just refined his design and felt like he had a leg up on the competition, including John P. Holland, a better-known inventor at the time. Baker’s lawyer and a U.S. Senator convinced the Secretary of the Navy that the Navy perform its own sea trials on the Baker Boat before a final decision was made in the competition. Baker’s push for this sea trial was due in part because by July 1893, it was clear that the board was heading towards choosing Holland’s boat as the winner. Using his political influence, Baker was able to delay the vote and receive the trial. In fairness to Holland, the committee extended an invitation to Holland to present a boat of his own.

Baker’s Design

However, Holland refused because Naval officers had assured him that his design would be approved. Holland even offered Baker $200,000 worth of his company’s stocks, if the latter would assign his patents “free of all encumbrances to the Holland interests.”[3] Not surprisingly, Baker turned this offer down. By September, the trials on Baker’s boat were completed and they did not live up to Baker’s descriptions of the submarine’s capabilities. Before a design could be made in the competition, Baker died in 1894 at just 49 years old. George Baker’s vision for submarines being used for scientific research and technical purposes is one he unfortunately did not live to see come to fruition. We can thank his forward way of thinking for such works as the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Technological University and the NR-1 research submarine. Check back next week for part two of the Great Submarine Contest.

[1] Wendy Gully Klaxon March 1992



Submarine Battle Flags of World War II PART I: Silent Service Battle Flags do the Talking

By Wendy Gulley

When, on the morning of December 7, 1941, Japanese torpedo planes and dive-bombers appeared through the broken clouds over the Submarine Base at Pearl Harbor, the crew of the submarine USS Tautog (SS 199) was enjoying a period of rest, having just returned from a grueling 45-day pre-war exercise. With two thirds of the crew on liberty and the submarine undergoing a major overhaul, they were effectively disarmed. Yet, as soon as the sound of Japanese bombs exploding on the Naval Air Station across the harbor alerted them to the air raid, the crew was at battle stations. A .50 caliber machine gun was broken out of the locker and ammunition passed up from below, and soon Tautog was sending a steady stream of return fire skyward. By the end of the attack, Tautog’s crew reported shooting down one bomber and contributed to downing a second. The Submarine Force had drawn its first blood.

Pearl Harbor attack, 7 December 1941,looking toward the Navy Yard from the Submarine Base during the attack. The submarine in the left foreground is Narwhal (SS-167). Tautog (SS 199) is berthed nearby.

Four days later the Pearl Harbor based submarines, unscathed in the attack, were fueled, armed, and battle ready. One by one, they steamed out past the smoldering surface fleet, headed for Japanese home waters and the unknown. By New Year’s Eve USS Pollack (SS 180) was off the coast of Honshu, Japan, the first American warship to reach Japanese waters. Seven days later, she sent the 2,250-ton cargo ship Unkai Maru to the bottom of Tokyo Bay, the first confirmed victim of the US Submarine Force. Two weeks later, USS Gudgeon (SS 211), also on “Empire Patrol” in Japanese waters, torpedoed and sunk the first enemy warship, the submarine I-73. With the surface fleet still scrambling to recover, the Submarine Force was boldly taking the battle to the doorstep of the Japanese. Encouraging as this news would have been to a country still reeling in shock from the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, no one but the submarine high command (and the Japanese) knew of these early submarine successes. The always close-lipped Submarine Force had gone completely silent, muted by life-saving censorship.

Although a curtain of secrecy would shroud the Submarine Force throughout the war, to the observant there were clues to the success our submarines were having against the Japanese. Long before Pasqual Mignon, the Tautog Torpedoman credited with shooting down the bomber during air raid on Pearl Harbor, could finally, in Pearl Harbor attack, 7 December 1941, looking toward the Navy Yard from the Submarine Base during the attack. The submarine in the left foreground is Narwhal (SS-167). Tautog (SS 199) is berthed nearby. 1957, tell his story to a local reporter; “It seemed to disintegrate in mid-air. I kept firing until I ran out of ammunition,” bits and pieces of Tautog’s story were told in the wartime battle flag the crew created to record and celebrate their successes.’

Post-war reproduction of the battle flag of USS Tautog (SS 199) – the Navy’s top-scoring submarine. In action from the start, she single-handedly downed a Japanese plane during the air raid at Pearl Harbor (highlighted to the right).

Sporting the insignia of the submarine and symbols representing Japanese ships sunk, battle flags like Tautog’s were flown from the masts with pride as submarines returned to port following a patrol. For the men of the US Submarine Force, these battle flags did the talking that they could not – providing a few pieces of the stories that couldn’t be told in full until decades later.

By the end of the war, submarine battle flags were large, colorful, and crowded with symbols of the boat’s successes. Early battle flags, however, were more humble and much of the story of their origin has been lost in the fog of time. We do know that from the start of the war submarine crews kept a “scorecard” of their victories using miniature Japanese flags to represent ships sunk. A white flag with a crimson-red disc in the center (the national flag of Japan) indicated merchant ships sunk – the mising sun flag with its spreading rays (the Japanese Naval ensign) represented warships sunk. These scoreboards could be found in several places on the boat; painted on the breach doors of the torpedo tube from which the successful shot was fired, on the wardroom bulkhead, or on various panels such throughout the boat such as the flood and vent manifold.

USS Halibut (SS 232)

USS Jack (SS 259)

USS Jack (SS 259)

While these onboard records of success served to motivate the crew, they did not satisfy the submariner’s urge to brag on their accomplishments as the boat returned to port. Before long, submarine crews returning from patrol took to flying these small flags in the form of pennants – one for each sinking – along with a broom lashed to the periscope to signal a “clean sweep,” having “swept the enemy from the seas.” Eventually the practice of flying individual pennants began to evolve into sewing the
pennants added during each patrol onto one large piece of fabric that captured the entire war record in one place – thus the battle flag was born.

USS S-32 (SS 137) entering Dutch Harbor, Alaska, after a 1943 war patrol. Note the broomstick lashed to the forward periscope indicating that the boat claimed a clean sweep – the sinking of all enemy ships attacked – and the Japanese flags on her flanks representing the vessels sunk.

As with so many of our naval traditions, the flying of submarine battle flags imitated a practice originating in the British navy. It was at the start of World War I that one British submarine captain began flying the traditional skull and crossbones pirate flag, the “Jolly Roger,” after returning from successful patrols. The choice of this emblem was not by whim, but in response to an insult issued by a member of the Admiralty, who claimed that submarines were “underhanded, unfair, and damned un-English” and no better than pirates. By the advent of World War II, the attitude of the British Admiralty had undergone a complete reversal, and flotilla commanders
actually sent small boats out to meet submarines returning from their first successful war patrol to present them with a Jolly Roger to unfurl from the shears before entering port. By mid to late 1942, the earliest of American submarine battle flags began to appear, in the form of their own Jolly Rogers.

Earliest known photograph of a submarine battle flag – USS Sturgeon (SS 187), Freemantle, West Australia, March 1942.

Earliest known photograph of a submarine battle flag – USS Sturgeon (SS 187), Freemantle, West Australia, March 1942.

Members of USS Plunger (SS 179) ship’s crew display her battle flag, June 1943.

Members of USS Plunger (SS 179) ship’s crew display her battle flag, June 1943.

As the US Submarine Force entered their third year of war, with their successes mounting and the friendly competition between the boats growing, more and more submarines began designing battle flags. By 1944, the crews were moving away from the Jolly Roger and creating much more unique, individualized, and flashy battle flags to run up the periscope when they returned in triumph to their base. Because the flags were designed on board the different boats while on patrol, during the crew’s spare time, the creativity, style and design of each varied. There were, however, common elements to most of the flags. Generally, a submarine’s battle flag included a mascot, a record of how many enemy ships were sunk indicated by small Japanese flags; and important commendations awarded to the boat. After the crew agreed on the main design feature,
usually a caricature of the fish after which the boat was named, the design was then painted or sewed onto a large cloth of contrasting color. Then, patrol by patrol, as the submarine’s torpedoes found their targets, the running tally grew.

USS Batfish (SS 310) – champion “Submarine-Killer” of World War II. In February 1945, Batfish encountered three submarines and sank them in as many days. A feat that has never been matched since. The submarines are represented by three of the rising sun flags.

USS Batfish (SS 310) – champion “Submarine-Killer” of World War II. In February 1945, Batfish encountered three submarines and sank them in as many days. A feat that has never been matched since. The submarines are represented by three of the rising sun flags.

USS Queenfish (SS 393) – was awarded a prestigious Presidential Unit Citation (the tri-colored pennant) for “defying severe air and surface opposition to strike with concentrated fury at heavily escorted Japanese convoys,” and for braving “the perils of a tropical typhoon to rescue eighteen British and Australian prisoners of war.

USS Queenfish (SS 393) – was awarded a prestigious Presidential Unit Citation (the tri-colored pennant) for “defying severe air and surface opposition to strike with concentrated fury at heavily escorted Japanese convoys,” and for braving “the perils of a tropical typhoon to rescue eighteen British and Australian prisoners of war.

These banners would serve as a “living canvas” on which to record the submarine’s accumulating successes and would often need to be lengthened as the war progressed. Some crews, full of the confidence that characterized the men of the Submarine Force, started with a flag large enough to accommodate the numerous symbols of success they were certain they would be adding over the course of the war.

Battle flag of USS Snook (SS 279) at the conclusion of the fourth war patrol on the left, and following the seventh patrol on the right.

Battle flag of USS Snook (SS 279) at the conclusion of the fourth war patrol on the left, and following the seventh patrol on the right.

Most of the flags were sewn entirely by hand out of bunting, sheets, or bolts of colored cloth carried aboard for making signal flags, usually by one of the more artistic crewmembers aboard. Although in the case of the famed USS Wahoo (SS 238), commanded by Dudley W. (“Mush”) Morton, legendary for his ‘down the throat’ attacks and surface-running gun battles, it was Morton himself, not a junior crewmember, who designed and produced the flag (and provided each sailor on the crew with a tee-shirt bearing the emblem).

Enroute to Pearl Harbor, a Batfish crewmember prepares battle-flag pennants.

Enroute to Pearl Harbor, a Batfish crewmember prepares battle-flag pennants.

Newspaper photograph showing CDR Dudley “Mush” Morton, Commanding Officer, USS Wahoo (SS 238) showing off the battle flag he created for Wahoo. His son wears a pint-sized version of the tee shirt Morton created for each of the crewmembers.

Newspaper photograph showing CDR Dudley “Mush” Morton, Commanding Officer, USS Wahoo (SS 238) showing off the battle flag he created for Wahoo. His son wears a pint-sized version of the tee shirt Morton created for each of the crewmembers.

Occassionally, a battle flag originated from a source outside the boat, as in the case of USS Cavalla (SS 244), who’s first battle flag arrived as a surprise via the mail in a package for one of its officers from a girl back home. She had used the letterhead from a letter sent on the boat’s stationary as the model from which to craft a beautiful silk flag in blue and gold. Or in the case of the imaginative and distinctive battle flag of USS Halibut (SS 232) designed by art students and instructors at San Jose State College in California, Alma Mater of one of the ship’s officers who took the oppurtunity to visit a former art professor and ask for a favor while the boat was in nearby Mare Island Shipyard for repairs in mid-1944.

USS Cero (SS ) who’s crew for much of the war had no battle flag – only a broom to show a clean sweep – also obtained their flag late in the war while at Mare Island Shipyard, when they had the good fortune of running into a famous film cartoonist from a major Hollywood studio. While touring the boat he remarked that he had seen many boats in the shipyard with battle flags yet noticed that Cero had none. It was shortly thereafter that the crew received a battle flag featuring Bugs Bunny eating a carrot, with additional carrots around the borders indicating Cero’s successful attacks.

As the competition between the boats began to flourish, battle flag designs became increasingly vibrant and detailed. Many a crew modified their original design to make it even showier. At the end of the war, “polished” versions of the flag were sometimes created, and professional seamstresses working at shipyard “sail lofts” were often hired to produce souvenir copies for each crewmember.

USS Jack (SS 259) battle flag created on board the boat with the limited materials available.

USS Jack (SS 259) battle flag created on board the boat with the limited materials available.

Representation of the “refined” 1945, end of war, version of Jack’s battle flag - complete with final tally of sinkings, ribbon bars and stars representing the type and number of awards earned, and sporting a much more colorful and detailed version of the ship’s insignia.

Representation of the “refined” 1945, end of war, version of Jack’s battle flag – complete with final tally of sinkings, ribbon bars and stars representing the type and number of awards earned, and sporting a much more colorful and detailed version of the ship’s insignia.

In late 1945, a new manifestation of the submarine battle flag emerged. As the tide of battle rolled closer and closer to Tokyo, the Navy lifted the blanket of strict censorship covering the Submarine Force just a little in order to acquaint the world with the tremendous effectiveness of the ‘Silent Service.’ The stories of the achievements, previously revealed in brief glimpses of a fluttering battle flag as a submarine returned from patrol, were now boldly proclaimed in a much easier way to ‘read’ by painting them on the boat’s conning tower fairwater for all to see.

USS Jack (SS 259)

USS Jack (SS 259)

USS Nautilus (SS 168)

USS Nautilus (SS 168)

When the hostilities in the Pacific finally ended and the war-weary submarines came steaming home to their US bases, it was often with each of the evolutionary stages of their battle flag proudly on display. The pennants strung from the masts, the battle flags flying from the periscopes or cigarette decks, and the conning towers emblazoned with the boat’s scoreboard, together told the tale of the unique and significant part each submarine played in winning the war.

USS Atule (SS 403), a.k.a the “Fighting O’Toole,” returns to Submarine Base New London, in Connecticut following the end of World War II. In her short but illustrious career, at a time when enemy surface targets were rare, she had more than made her mark as her battle flag attests. Atule sank four Japanese warships in four successful patrols and exploded or sunk forty-nine floating Japanese mines by gunfire.

USS Atule (SS 403), a.k.a the “Fighting O’Toole,” returns to Submarine Base New London, in Connecticut following the end of World War II. In her short but illustrious career, at a time when enemy surface targets were rare, she had more than made her mark as her battle flag attests. Atule sank four Japanese warships in four successful patrols and exploded or sunk forty-nine floating Japanese mines by gunfire.

Next time, in Part II of the history of submarine battle flags we will learn some of the unique visual vocabulary of the battle flags and ‘read’ in more detail a few of the remarkable stories the flags tell. In the process, we will discover that the US Submarine Force did much more to win the war in the Pacific than just sink enemy shipping.

Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day

This article appears on the Library of Congress’ Today In History Page. The Images are from different divisions within the Library that help share the stories from that fateful day.  Preserving these  images, documents and oral histories are an important way to keep alive our nation’s past.

Air Raid On Pearl Harbor

On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor External, Hawaii Territory, killing more than 2,300 Americans. The U.S.S. Arizona was completely destroyed and the U.S.S. Oklahoma capsized. A total of twelve ships sank or were beached in the attack and nine additional vessels were damaged. More than 160 aircraft were destroyed and more than 150 others damaged.

A hurried dispatch from the ranking United States naval officer in Pearl Harbor, Admiral Husband Edward Kimmel, Commander in Chief of the United States Pacific Fleet, to all major navy commands and fleet units provided the first official word of the attack at the ill-prepared Pearl Harbor base. It said simply: AIR RAID ON PEARL HARBOR X THIS IS NOT DRILL.

Naval Dispatch from the Commander in Chief Pacific (CINCPAC) announcing the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. (John J. Ballentine Papers). Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years. Manuscript Division

The following day, in an address to a joint session of Congress, President Franklin Roosevelt called December 7, 1941 “a date which will live in infamy.” Congress then declared War on Japan, abandoning the nation’s isolationism policy and ushering the United States into World War II. Within days, Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy, declared war on the United States, and the country began a rapid transition to a wartime economy by building up armaments in support of military campaigns in the Pacific, North Africa, and Europe.

Also on the day following Pearl Harbor, Alan Lomax, head of the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Song, sent a telegram to colleagues around the U.S. asking them to collect people’s immediate reactions to the bombing. Over the next few days prominent folklorists such as John Lomax, John Henry Faulk, Charles ToddRobert Sonkin, and Lewis Jones responded by recording “man on the street” interviews in New York, North Carolina, Texas, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. They interviewed salesmen, electricians, janitors, oilmen, cabdrivers, housewives, students, soldiers, physicians, and others regarding the events of December 7. Among the interviewees was a California woman then visiting her family in Dallas, Texas.

“My first thought was what a great pity that… another nation should be added to those aggressors who strove to limit our freedom. I find myself at the age of eighty, an old woman, hanging on to the tail of the world, trying to keep up. I do not want the driver’s seat. But the eternal verities–there are certain things that I wish to express: one thing that I am very sure of is that hatred is death, but love is light. I want to contribute to the civilization of the world but…when I look at the holocaust that is going on in the world today, I’m almost ready to let go…”

What A Great Pity.” Lena Jameson, Interviewee; John Lomax, interviewer; Dallas, Texas, December 9 & 10, 1941. After the Day of Infamy: “Man-on-the-Street” Interviews Following the Attack on Pearl Harbor. American Folklife Center

Pearl Harbor Widows have Gone into War Work… Howard R. Hollem, photographer, August 1942. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

The Office of War Information (OWI) capitalized on the fear and outrage associated with the bombings to encourage support of war mobilization. Created In June 1942, some six months after the air raid on Pearl Harbor, the OWI served as a U.S. government propaganda agency generating pictures and copy such as the above photograph of Pearl Harbor widows. Concentrating on subjects like aircraft factoriestraining for warwomen in the workforce, and the armed forces, the OWI documented and celebrated American patriotism in the military and on the home front.

NBC Program Book. Annotated typescript, December 7, 1941; Microphone, ca. 1938. In World War II, Memory Gallery. American Treasures of the Library of Congress. Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound Division

The Memory Gallery of American Treasures of the Library of Congress contains an annotated script of a December 7, 1941, NBC news report on the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The script preserves the announcer’s markings for emphasis. The “program analysis” index card outlines all of the network’s news broadcasts of that day, including the break in regularly scheduled programming to announce the tragic news from Pearl Harbor. Other NBC documentation at the Library outlines nearly every program heard over the network during the World War II era. Recordings of more than half of these programs are held by the Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound Division.

Dry Dock, Pearl Ha[r]bor, H.T.. Robert Lorenz Dancy, photographer, August 21, 1919. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

The Ballad of Whitey Mack

One of the best things about working at the Submarine Museum is the stories people tell. Every day you can hear a new story, whether it be from one of the docents, a sailor on duty or a veteran who comes walking through the door ready to spend the day reminiscing. Recently, the gift shop assistant manager was discussing submarine stories with one of the sailors working at the Nautilus. He told her that most of the time, the good stories were not ones someone could find online due to classification purposes or because they weren’t family friendly. The sailor was right. Many times, a submariner will begin his story with…”it was top secret, but…” The submariner will usually begin a fascinating story, only to finish by saying, “but you can’t know the rest…classified and all.” These men will often walk away laughing, pleased to be in the secret circle that is the submarine force. One such recent discussion reminded the assistant manager of one of their bestselling books in the store – Blind Man’s Bluff.  In 1998, Blind Man’s Bluff became a New York Times Bestseller. The untold story of American submarine espionage during the Cold War has still not been publicly acknowledged by the US Navy. Some say the stories were juiced up for publication purposes, while others say that unlike a Tom Clancy novel, this was the truth about life on a submarine during the Cold War. In the opening of the book is a line from a song that goes, “And every man on board knew, when the going got rough, in this game of ‘Blind Man’s Bluff,’ somehow he’d pull her through.” The song is “The Ballad of Whitey Mack” by Tommy Cox. The song is a testament to a captain that will forever remain in the hearts of his crew and lived through life on a submarine during the Cold War.

Chester Mack was born on July 20, 1931, in Glen Lyon, Pennsylvania. He graduated college with a degree in chemical engineering before beginning his Naval career in 1953. He attended nuclear power training school and was assigned to his first nuclear powered submarine in 1957, the USS Seawolf (SSN- 575). During his time at sea, Mack got married, had two daughters and received a Master’s Degree in International Law from Georgetown University. By the time he was 36, he was selected for command of a nuclear attack submarine – the USS Lapon (SSN-661). He became her first Commanding Officer on December 14, 1967. What no one knew on that December day was that the Lapon and her crew would fulfill the ships motto – Secret Et Hardi – Secret and Bold.  While it might have been because he was young, or maybe it was because he was smart, Mack, or “Whitey” as he was known by many, lead his crew on some hair-raising missions. One such mission is described in Blind Man’s Bluff.

USS Lapon

In 1969, the Soviets had built a nuclear-powered missile submarine that had similar capabilities from the Polaris design being used in US submarines. This submarine was nicknamed the “Yankee.” According to the book, it was Lapon’s  job to hunt down more information about this new submarine and what the Russians might be planning. As the story goes, “There in front of his scope was a Yankee, 429 feet long, 39 feet across, weighing 9,600 tons. Mack sidled Lapon up to within 300 years and stared…The submarine was indeed a Polaris look-alike, from the shape of its hull down to its sail-mounted divining planes. With each peek of the periscope, he [Mack] grabbed a few photos, each time capturing another small portion of the massive boat. It would take seven of the photos pasted together to show the entire Yankee.”[1] While photographs were needed, it was more imperative to see the Soviet boat in action.  Lapon made several attempts at tailing the Soviet submarine, but failed each time. The Yankee was simply too quiet for standard SONAR to track. However, luckily, Mack had slipped aboard a cutting-edge piece of equipment that could zero in on specific tones. Through a series of trial and error and pure luck, Mack and crew realized that when the Yankee moved to the left, the tone was slightly higher. When she would disappear from the SONAR, she had moved right. They also realized that if they did not follow directly behind, but a little to the left, the Soviet submarine was slightly louder and was easily traceable for the Lapon. As the crew followed the Yankee, they noted her patterns and schedule. They realized that the Soviets had “settled into a holding pattern that covered about 200,000 square miles. They moved back and forth, staying between 1,500 and 2,000 miles off the United States. Up until now, the Navy had been convinced that the Soviet Union would sent its Yankees as close as 700 miles from U.S. shores. But Mack’s discovery would help Naval Intelligence determine that the Yankee’s new SS-N-6 missiles had a range of 1,200-1,300 miles.”[2]

The Lapon followed the Yankee for a total of forty-seven days. It was this mission that led crewmen Tommy Cox to write the “Ballad of Whitey Mack,” in honor of their captain. Mack’s success in trailing the Yankee created a new mission for the submarine force. Attack submarines became a critical piece of the nation’s strategic nuclear defense system. A few months later, Lapon received the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest award ever given to a submarine. Chester “Whitey” Mack was given a Distinguished Service Medal, the highest personal award given to officers in peacetime. Mack passed away on September 25, 2008. In 2009, at a Lapon reunion, “Whitey” was honored with a moment of silence in his honor. Despite his awards and his bravery and ambition in service, Mack was remembered by his crew, family and friends for the great man he was. In interviews, Tommy Cox would comment that, “Crewmembers would make comments like, ‘I’d go anywhere with Captain Mack,’ or ‘Everybody in the submarine service is trying to get orders to Lapon.’…I just say: I took on the Soviet Navy with Whitey Mack, Then I leave it at that!”[3] When Admiral Wilkerson presented Mack with the Distinguished Service medal, it was done in private, with only members of crew and their families present. No specific information was given on why the honor was being given. The crew knew and the families understood why they could not know. In note at the end of the chapter in Blind Man’s Bluff, his an enduring piece of information, on Mack’s love for his crew. It reads:

Mack was told by an admiral that his men would get their presidential thank you, PUC certificates, and ribbons, in a ceremony as secret as their mission: wives and children cordially not invited. In answer, Mack kindly informed the admiral what he could do with his PUC. As far as Mack was concerned, there would be no award and no ceremony, unless the men’s families could be there. He stood his ground, and in the end, the awards were made in the steel bowels of a Navy ship, families present, without a single word spoken about how or why the men had earned awards signed by the president.[4]

In a 2002 performance, Cox recalled a visit with Mack in 1971. Mack showed Cox his Service medal and said, “Look what my crew earned for me.” Mack didn’t see the mission as being his success, but rather that of his entire crew. Mack’s humility was a characteristic that stayed with his crew long after their submarine careers. A year after Mack’s death, the Laon was inducted into the Submarine Hall of Fame at the annual Submarine Veterans of World War II memorial service. She was the 11th boat to receive the honor, with selection based on a submarine’s contribution to national security. At the ceremony, guest speaker, Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Peter Flannery cited the courage and resourcefulness of the Lapon’s officers and men. He said, “Our nation expected Lapon’s crew to be physically harder and mentally stronger than any adversary at sea. Lapon’s men persevered, never quit, and thrived on adversity. The strength can be greatly attributed to Captain Chester Mack.

It is true that some of the best sea stories are the ones that can’t be told. The stories that crewmembers share with a glance and a knowing smile, or the ones shared at reunions in hushed tones or in quiet remembrance when thinking of a shipmate who has passed away. Blind Man’s Bluff has remained a best seller since its publication because for a few brief pages, we get to share in these fantastic stories of bravery and covert operations. We get to share in the pride and recognition of men like Mack and his crew for venturing into the unknown. Just like their families, we understand why so many of these stories remain classified. We appreciate what stories can be told and honor those that cannot.

Both the Lapon patch and the book Blind Man’s Bluff can be purchased from the museum store website at All proceeds benefit the museum and its mission to preserve submarine heritage. 

[1] Pg 133

[2] Pg 147


[4] Pg 151

Submarine Rescues at Sea and The Squalus Rescue

Making headlines this week is the disappearance of the ARA San Juan, an Argentinian submarine that went missing on Wednesday, November 15th. The San Juan was coming home from a routine mission when it reported an electrical breakdown. Command instructed her to return to base immediately and cut her mission short. She was heard from once more, surfacing to report that the problem had been fixed and that she would submerge and proceed towards Mar del Plata Naval base. However, as of this writing, this was the last time anyone communication came from the San Juan. According to a US Navy press release, the US Navy is taking part in the search and rescue mission, sending two rescue systems from San Diego. The statement read that, “Three U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III and one U.S. Air Force C-5 Galaxy aircraft will transport the first rescue system, the Submarine Rescue Chamber (SRC) and underwater intervention Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) from Miramar to Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina.”[1] The Undersea Rescue Command constantly trains to be prepared for these rare occurrences when an undersea rescue may be needed. Training in both the U.S. and with foreign Navies, Cmdr. Mark Hazenberg, former Commanding Officer of the URC, says they operate to ensure that their systems can be loaded onto  airplanes within 24 hours of receiving a call. The SRC being deployed to the rescue mission is one of two in the U.S. Navy’s rescue command. Here is some information on how the SRC come to fruition and how it made one of the greatest submarine rescues in history.

In the early years of submarines, rescue was nearly impossible in cases of malfunctions or sinkings. By 1921, 825 men had died in submarine accidents. In 1925, Lieutenant Commander Charles “Swede” Momsen came up with the idea of a rescue chamber after the failed rescue attempt of the USS S-51(SS 162). Only three of the 37-man crew were able to escape before it sank. The men onboard were friends of Momsen. This event led Momsen to vow to find a way to recuse trapped crews. In 1926, Momsen proposed the idea of a diving bell, and development began in 1928. During the project, Momsen was reassigned[2] and Lieutenant Commander Allan McCann was put in charge of the project. The diving bell was introduced to the Navy in 1930 and was referred to as the McCann rescue chamber. The chamber worked by connecting directly over a submarine’s escape hatch. Once the pressurized air in the lower chamber was released, the chamber and submarine would be at equal pressure. The hatch could then be opened, and the trapped submariners could be brought into the bell and then to the surface. The diving bell was used in what many considered to be the most famous submarine rescue mission in 1939.

Figure 1A diver from the Falcon prepares to enter the water to help guide the rescue pod (right) to the USS Squalus. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

On May 23, 1939, the USS Squalus was flooded and sank off the coast of New Hampshire while out on sea trials. Twenty-six men drowned when the aft compartments flooded but 33 of the men were able to find shelter in the forward compartments of the submarine. No submarine rescue had been successful past 20 feet. The Squalus was 240 feet beneath the ocean surface. Momsen was rushed to New Hampshire to help lead the rescue. The McCann diving bell was loaded onto the USS Falcon, a 187-foot minesweeper stationed in New London, and made the 200-mile trip up the coast. Lt. Oliver Naquin ordered the release of a marker buoy that was attached to a cable and had a telephone in it. On the side of the buoy was lettering that said, “Submarine sunk here. Telephone inside.” The Sculpin (Squalus sister ship), sent out to search for the distressed submarine, came across smoke signals and found the buoy. A lieutenant explained the issue to Sculpin’s commander. As soon as he put Naquin on the line with the commander, the cable snapped. However, the communication was enough for them to know that there were survivors on board and to begin the rescue. Rescuers were able to decipher some Morse code from the crew, gaining knowledge that 33 men were alive in the forward compartments. Momsen planned to bring them up in four trips of seven, eight, nine and nine, though he wasn’t certain that nine would fit. The diving bell was 10 feet high and seven feet wide. Two sailors would make the trip down to rescue the Squalus’s crew. Torpedoman’s mate John Mihalowski and Gunner’s mate Walter Harman were loaded into the upper chamber of the bell along with blankets, flashlights, pea soup, sandwiches, and soda lime powder. The two were sent down, attached to the Squalus and opened the hatch. The first seven men who the commander had deemed the weakest were loaded onto the bell and began towards to the surface. For the second trip, the order was for eight survivors to be taken up. However, Chief Machinist’s mate William Badders was afraid of the dangerously changing weather and decided to bring up more. While Momsen thought the bell looked heavy as she came up, he told Badders, “You brought out too many men on this trip, but do it again.”[3] The third trip went just like the first two. The fourth and last trip took 4 ½ hours. The wire attached to the bell broke and attempts to apply a new one became too perilous. Momsen decided that the only way to bring the survivors home was to manually lift the 21,600-pound bell. Six men on the Falcon took hold of the wire and began to pull. Each time finding it too heavy, the men on the bell were ordered to blow the ballast tanks for 15 seconds to control the buoyancy. After the third attempt, the chamber began to move. Thirty-nine hours after its sinking, all 33 survivors were safely at the surface.

Figure 2USS Squalus survivors aboard the USS Falcon. Photo: U.S. Navy

According to the Undersea Museum, of the 19 U.S. submarines that accidentally sunk, nine involved at least some of the crew surviving. After the rescue of the Squalus crew, the idea that submarine rescue at sea was improbable diminished. The Navy continues to develop its rescue programs today. The two rescue chambers in today’s Navy are advanced versions of the original McCann chamber and can be used in up to 850 feet of water. Along with the SRC being deployed to Argentina, the Navy is also sending the Pressurized Rescue Module, which is similar the bell in concept. However, while the bell is lowered by a tethered chord from the mother ship, the PRM is operated remotely. It can descend to 2,000 feet and carry up to 18 people, including two attendants. Submarine service is much safer today than it was in the past. However, each Navy trains their sailors to be prepared for the worst. Our hearts are with those in Argentina and with our own sailors who are helping search for the missing submarine and its crew. If found in time, we know the SRC, the modern counterpart of the McCann rescue chamber, will be there to perform as trained and provide a way out that at one time was viewed as unachievable.

Figure 3 A rescue chamber on display at the Submarine Force Library and Museum.



[2] Momsen’s reassignement lead to his most famous invention, the Momsen Lung.


“Take Her Down”

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Whitman, Edward.

The Journey of the Torpedo’s History

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

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

Figure 1 An electric ray or torpedo fish

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

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

Figure 2 mk14 torpedo

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

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

Figure 3 Mk-48 ADCAP torpedo was loaded into USS Oklahoma City – Polaris Point, Guam – November 2012

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



A Navy Halloween

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


The Mystery of the Navy’s Ghost Blimp

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

USS Hornet

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

USS Constellation

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

Submarine Force Library and Museum

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

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

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

[1] Naval History Magazine December 2000


The Whitehead Torpedo

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

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

Robert Whitehead

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

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

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

Figure 2

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

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

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


Fulton’s Torpedo’s

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

Figure 1 Fulton’s Steamboat Clermont.

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

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

Figure 3 Vessel under sail and anchored

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

Figure 4 sighting mechanism details

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

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

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

Figure 6 Submarine vessel, longitudinal section

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



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