John S. McCain III: A Brief Navy Biography

From the Naval History and Heritage and Command Website:–mccain-iii/john-s–mccain-iii–a-brief-navy-biography-.html

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


60th Anniversary of Nautilus’ Polar Crossing

In late summer of 1957 Nautilus made her first attempt at crossing the North Pole. When William Anderson took command of the Nautilus in early 1957, he was determined to prove the naysayers wrong. He believed that this new nuclear powerhouse could do the impossible. Even Hyman Rickover, creator of the nuclear Navy, believed that the odds were against the ship he created. When Nautilus ventured towards the Arctic in 1957, they were faced with the very real realities that Rickover had warned them about making the crossing. Magnetic compasses don’t work that close to the North Pole. Gyrocompasses, which relay on the Earth’s spring to find true North, malfunction since the spin of the earth changes as you get closer to the poles. Instruments don’t function the way a crew expects. In her first attempt to make the Polar crossing, the crew would find themselves in a situation no other crew had ever faced. Anderson decided to surface in what appeared to be an opening in the ice pack. Upon ascending, Anderson checked the Periscope and found out that the readings had been wrong. Above them was solid ice, but it was too late- Nautilus hit the ice pack above. A recount of the incident in the book Arctic Mission writes,
“Anderson surfaced his command on 1 September, concluding eleven and a half days continuously underwater from New London- more than 3,9000 miles. Trigger (a diesel boat assigned to accompany Nautilus) holding station at approximately 80 degrees North, beyond the-ice margin, Anderson made preparations to dive at about 2100 on 1 September to run under the pack. Two topside echo sounders began recording ice coverage as Nautilus continued north under the ice at running depth from three to five hundred feet…. The boat was relying utterly on its machinery and equipment. Advancing in, scanning sonar topside, echo sounders, and a topside BGN (sonar) unit monitored the canopy. As yet no vessel had gained 90 degrees North. Not yet would Nautilus. On 2 September, a small block of ice damages the sail and periscopes while the boat was surfacing in a polynya. A reversal in course ordered, the boat tuned slowly, carefully- by reference its known turning radius. Holding rudder, ‘we hoped we were going south,’ Lyon remembers. But what South? At 87 degrees every direction is south. Back in open water repairs were made. At 2000 on 4 September, the boat having steamed to within 180 miles of the Pole, the decision again was taken to retire: the power supply to both gyrocompasses had failed (a fuse had blown). Ability to steer a known course stood problematic. Anderson dared not rely on dead reckoning.” (–pg. 64-65 of Arctic Mission by William F Althoff )

Figure 1 Anderson and Lyon

Nautilus wouldn’t have another attempt at crossing until 1958. But this time, Anderson would be prepared. With the help of Dr. Waldo Lyon, chief scientist for the U.S. Navy’s Arctic Submarine Laboratory, Anderson and the few members aware of the top-secret mission studied what they knew about the Arctic for months, finding the most precise time to reattempt the mission. Flying under the name Charles A. Henderson, Anderson carried false identification papers and boarded a plane from Connecticut to Seattle bound for Alaska. With him was Dr. Lyon, who traveled so often that his flight wouldn’t cause suspicion. But for Anderson, anonymity was key. No one could know about Operation Sunshine. The two were headed to the Alaskan village of Kotzebue. From there they charted a plane and flew over the Bering Strait. The purpose of the mission was to study ice. They noted places where the ice collided and where there was the most possibility for obstructions. This time Anderson would be prepared. He had done the trip before. He knew to not rely on his instruments. He knew that ice flows could change at any second. Conditions weren’t great as the two flew over the ice. But they both agreed that it was worth making the attempt.

Figure 2 Commander William R. Anderson, USN, Commanding Officer of USS Nautilus (SSN-571), far right, on the bridge during a period of low visibility as the submarine prepares to pass under the North Pole, August 1958. National Archives photograph, USN 1037145

Anderson later recreated the scene on board that fateful August day in 1958: “the juke box was shut off, and at that moment a hush literally fell over the ship. The only sound to be heard was the steady staccato of pinging from our sonars steadily watching the bottom, the ice, and the dark waters ahead. I glanced again at the distance indicator and gave a brief countdown to the crew. “Stand by, 10…8…6…4…3…2…1. Mark! August 3, 1958.” (Pg. 104-105 Arctic Mission)

Figure 3 The watch crew in the control room of the USS Nautilus. Source:

Another crew member on board remembered the announcement. “They were about to drill 90 degrees north latitude. Tenths of a mile remaining, Anderson stepped to the intercom to count down. Chief Engineer Early, off watch in the wardroom, was surprised to hear the CO’s voice: “It was very unusual for him to use the announcing system and I though, when he began, that it would disturb those off watch who were sleeping.” ( Pg 104) No one would be sleeping after that announcement. History had forever been changed. Years of expeditions, countless explorers, and what was once deemed as unfathomable had become a reality. Anderson and his crew were honoring the pioneers that came before them while creating a new frontier to be explored. We don’t just celebrate the Nautilus being the first of its kind performing a first of its kind mission. We celebrate what it represented to the world of exploration. As Anderson took that pre-mission flight as Charles A. Henderson, he knew his life what about to be forever changed.

For more information on Nautilus’s historic crossing and Polar exploration, check out Arctic Mission, available in store and online at the Submarine Force Museum Gift Shop, Nautilus Ship’s Store.

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

“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.

Figure 4 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 1

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

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.

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.

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.


Quotes and references:


Unmanned Underwater Vehicles

On July 3, 2018, the Kitsap Sun reported that Keyport, WA had become home to the Navy’s first unmanned undersea vehicle squadron. Keyport, WA has been home to much of the Navy’s research and testing facilities for many years. In fact, so many test torpedoes have been developed here that the town has earned the nickname “Torpedo Town, U.S.A. It only makes sense that this new development In the Navy’s forces would begin in Keyport. But what is an unmanned undersea vehicle or UUV’s. in the Kitsap Sun, Cmdr. Scott Smith called them “pre-programmed, small submarines.” However, these vehicles are much more complex and constantly changing the landscape of undersea defense as we know it.
In simple terms, a UUV is an underwater drone. They operate without a person being on board. They can be divided into two categories – ROV’s (remotely operated underwater vehicles) which are controlled by a remote operator and AUV’s (autonomous underwater vehicles) which operate on there on like a robot. In 2015, as the idea of these vehicles were still in the early test stages, Bryan McGrath, a managing director of The FerryBridge Group and assistant director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower was asked about what these vehicles meant for the Navy’s Submarine Force. He went on to say the following:
“We’ve only begun to scratch the surface on the utility of UUV’s. I’m impressed with the degree to which the Navy’s Submarine Force is innovating in this area, and I’d like to see the surface force begin to work more closely with them to leverage what is quickly becoming a vast undersea information architecture. We will someday see UUV’s doing a great number of things that manned submarines currently do- not replacing them but extending their power and reach the way helicopters have for the surface force. Doubling down on our mystery of the undersea environment is a no-brainer.” 

Figure 1Knifefish Surface Mine Countermeasure Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (SMCM UUV)
(Picture: Bluefin Robotics)

McGrath isn’t wrong when he says that working to understand the oceans is a no-brainer. While much of the ocean has been mapped, there is still plenty we are unaware of. As we saw in 2005 when the USS San Francisco hit an underwater sea mountain, having an extra pair of eyes in the deep black water doesn’t hurt. For the most part, UUV’s up until this point had been used for ocean surveillance and mine clearing. The new squadron in Keyport will utilize 10-inch torpedo-shaped tubes to large ones around 80 inches in diameter. The squadron will develop ideas and procedures that will shape how UUV’s can best be utilized by the Navy. According to Cmdr. Smith, while the UUV’s will be extremely helpful in reducing diver risks and sensory capabilities, they will never take away the vital importance of manned submarines. Despite the formation of this squadron and its growth over the past year, UUV’s are not currently deployed from submarines, something Smith sees changing in the next five years. Tests have been done using Virginia-class submarines to prove the viability of UUV’s in submarine missions. USS North Dakota, (SSN 784) which is homeported in Groton, finished a mission deploying and retrieving a UUV from the ship’s dry dock shelter in 2015. A dry dock shelter is a removable module that can be attached and allows ease of entering and exiting from a sub while it is submerged. The newly formed squadron is part of Submarine Development Squadron 5. This is the same command that oversees the Seawolf-class submarines- USS Seawolf, USS Connecticut, and USS Jimmy Carter.

Figure 2Dry-Dock Shelter open, the attack submarine Dallas (SSN-700), departs Souda harbor 19 July 2004, following a brief port visit. USN photo # N-0780F-070, courtesy of Paul Farley.

The biggest issue with UUV’s that make them different from their aerial counterparts that have been in use for years now is that due to the ocean’s depth, controlling the drone is difficult. Singles and Wi-Fi cannot reach the drone, meaning that the entire mission would have to be programmed into the vehicle before it is launched. Small UUV’s can gather surveillance and sea conditions. They can also extend the sensor reach of a submarine. Submarines rarely use active sonar in order to remain unseen. UUV’s would allow submarines the use of active sonar without giving away their location, essentially allowing the crew to be in two places at once. Rear Admiral Joseph Tofalo was quoted in 2015 as saying, “Now you are talking about a submarine CO who can essentially be in two places at the same time – with a UUV out deployed which can dull, dirty and dangerous type missions. This allows the submarine to be doing something else at the same time. UUVs can help us better meet our combatant command demand signal. Right now, we can only meet about two-thirds of our combatant commanders demand signals and having unmanned systems is a huge force multiplier.” The innovative work on how UUV’s can aid submarines and surface ships alike is taking place in Barb Hall, a building named after the World War II Gato-class submarine USS Barb. The USS Barb knows a thing or two about being the first of a kind- having been the first and only submarine to have “sunk” an enemy train when sailors snuck ashore and took out a Japanese supply train.
Viewpoints on UUVs vary and research is still ongoing to determine the long-term use of them to the submarine force. However, the tests done so far have shown significant reasoning for submarines to be equipped with the new technology. The fear that these vehicles would take away from the effectiveness and need for submarines is unfounded when you see how UUVs can make submarines a more stealth and formidable opponent to enemy forces.

The Original Sea Devil Submarine

The Balao-class submarine SS-400 and Sturgeon-class submarine SSN-664 both have something in common. They are named The Sea Devil after the largest ray in the ocean. Known for its power and endurance, the name is, of course, fitting for some powerful pieces of machinery. But these submarines also share their name with another submarine that helped begin submarine development. The original Sea Devil is considered one of the groundbreaking early submarines.
Wilhelm Bauer was an engineer in Bavaria during the German/Danish war between 1848 and 1851. Fascinated by the Danish Navy’s ability to block the Prussians, Bauer began to study ship construction and hydraulics. He was inspired through his research to create a new type of submersible ship that would be better than those that had come before. His first construction was Brandtaucher or Incendiary Diver. At the time, in order to break blockades, ships with explosives were set adrift towards the blockading. Once the vessel would explode, it would either sink the blockading vessels or cause them to move. The ships that carried the explosives were called incendiary ships. Bauer took this idea and applied it to his first submarine. He believed that his submarine could attach an explosive to the underside of a blockading ship and break through that way. His design was about 28 feet long and weighed around 35 tons. Two sailors on a treadmill powered the vessel while a third would operate it. On February 1, 1851, his first public demonstration was a disaster. The submarine began to leak and ended up on the bottom of the harbor. For six hours, Bauer and the other two sailors had to wait for enough water to leak into the submarine to equalize pressure, so they could open the hatch and escape. The submarine itself would not escape the river until 1887. Despite the terrible first run, this did not stop Bauer.

Sketch of Brandtaucher

Due to the failure of his first submarine, Bauer had difficulty finding patronage and a crew in Bavaria. Word had gotten out that while underwater, Bauer and his fellow crewmembers of his first craft had gotten into a physical fight over how to handle the situation. He had little success trying to find a sponsor in England. It was not until he traveled to Russia that he had some success. Tsar Alexander II funded the development of the next submarine- Le Diable Marin or the Sea Devil. This design was more advanced than her previous counterpart was. The Sea Devil was twice as large and could carry a crew of twelve. The same premises existed, with four men on a treadmill to power the vessel. After his previous incident, Bauer decided his new model would contain a lockout chamber. The Sea Devil carried out 134 successful dives, with some reaching a depth of 150 feet. The Tsar was so impressed that a four-piece orchestra was put onboard and played on board during a coronation from beneath the surface of Kronstad Harbor.

Drawing of the Sea Devil on the ocean floor. (Credit: ullstein bild/Getty Images)

When Le Diable Marin was first launched, it was described in the following manner: “The Russian submarine, ‘L.E. Diable Marin,’ resembled a dolphin in outward shape. It had a lent of 15m. 80. A beam of 3m. 80 and a depth of 3 m.35. The framework of the hull was of iron and the hull was credited with the power of resisting a 45 m. 50 column of water.…In the bows was a hatchway for entrance and exit. That the weight might be the more easily distributed, the forward part of the ship was 6 inches less in height than the middle portion. Pumps were used for forcing water into the cylinders, and longitudinal stability was obtained by reducing or augmenting the volume of water carried as ballast. In the bows was fixed a large mine, containing 500lb of powder and other combustible matter; on either side of this mine protruded a thick Indiarubber glove, to allow of fixing it to the keel of the vessel to be attacked. A door by which divers might descend to the bottom of the water was also provided, and this is not unnatural when one considers that Bauer’s very first submarine was intended for industrial purposes.” Unfortunately, this excess attention from the Tsar was not appreciated by the Russian admirals who devised a way to sabotage him. Bauer was ordered to do a demonstration and sink a dummy ship a distance away. However, the admirals misled Bauer on the exact depth of the river. While submerged, the Sea Devil hit a mudbank and became stuck. Bauer was forced to release the hatch and he and his crew were able to escape. However, just like his first vessel, the submarine was left on the bottom. This time, it is where the submarine would rest. This would be Bauer’s last attempt at submarine development.
Despite what many might view as a failure, Bauer greatly advanced submarine development. His work played a key role in advancing the science and engineering of future vessels. The successful dives of his second vessel proved the ability to successfully navigate underwater and with the four-piece orchestra from the Tsar’s coronation, proved it could be done comfortably. This original Sea Devil set the stage for those that came after. Just like the submarine’s namesake, Bauer had extreme endurance and fought hard for what he believed in. Today, Bauer’s first submarine that was rescued from the deep is on display in Dresden, Germany.

Figure 2 Brandtaucher on display at the Bundeswehr Military History Museum, Dresden

His name is also attached to the only German U-boat that is still floating today. Never used during the war due to its late production, The Wilhelm Bauer was originally scuttled after the war but rescued and refitted. In its second life, she served as a training vessel, shedding the connotation of her U-boat origins. Today she serves as a museum ship at the German Maritime Museum.

Submarines at the Brooklyn Navy Yard

This summer will mark the 60th anniversary of Nautilus’ historic journey to the North Pole. After making the journey, USS Nautilus sailed into New York harbor to reunite crew members with their families and meet the president. Only three short hours from her first home in Groton, CT, Nautilus would dock in one of the most famous cities in the world at the Brooklyn Navy Yard- a piece of New York and Naval history. Today, the Brooklyn Navy Yard no longer welcomes celebrated ships but has been converted into a hub of business where the community can come together. While now home to a countertop manufacturing company, a distillery, and a produce farm, in its early days, the Brooklyn Navy Yard played a vital role in the Navy and would see its fair share of submarines pass through her docks.

Figure 1 Navy Yard workers in the 1940’s. Image courtesy of Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The land the Brooklyn Navy Yard sits on today was originally purchased by Dutch settler Jansen de Rapelje in 1637. The 335 acres on Wallabout Bay was purchased from the Lenape Indians that were Native to New York harbor. During the American Revolution, Wallabout Bay was occupied by the British. According to the Brooklyn Navy Yard website, the most famous of British ships, the Jersey was moored here where American soldiers, merchants, and traders were imprisoned for disobeying the British embargo. It was 1801 when President John Adams saw the potential in the Wallabout Bay area. A New Englander, Adams knew the importance of the sea and of having a strong Naval Force. He established the first five Naval shipyards, including the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In 1833, Commodore Matthew C. Perry founded the Naval Lyceum (the predecessor to the U.S. Naval Academy) at the Yard. The first Naval publication was published there in 1836 with contributors such as Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. It was 1872 that the Brooklyn Navy Yard saw its first submarine.

During the Civil War, the Union Navy was looking for ways to counter the CSS Hunley and Pioneer. They looked to a prototype submarine aptly titled Halstead’s Folly or, the Intelligent Whale.  In 1863, Scovel S. Merriman, Augustus Price and Cornelius Bushnell began work on the Intelligent Whale in New Jersey.  In 1864, the American Submarine Company replaced Price and Bushnell. Due to soaring costs and legal battles, control of the boat went to trustees of General Nathaniel Halstead and Col. Edward W. Serrell in 1865.

Figure 2 The Intelligent Whale in the Brooklyn Navy Yard circa 1898

Despite ongoing financial issues, Halstead finished the project by April of 1866. The submarine was staffed by four men who turned cranks attached to a propeller. Compressed air was kept in two tanks that allowed for ten hours of submerged operation. “Two large ballast tanks fore and aft were connected to the air tanks and to the water surrounding the craft. A rudder and aft trim planes allowed the pilot to control the boat’s course, diving, and surfacing. A short conning tower with bull’s eye glass provided the skipper with limited visibility while partially submerged. Other navigational aids included a compass, a depth gauge, and air pressure indicator. The crew embarked via a central hatch topside, but the craft’s divers deployed through two wooden “gates” in the floor. To submerge Intelligent Whale the crew filled the water tanks by opening a valve. To anchor the submerged craft the crew deployed two 15-inch shot (weighing 350 pounds each) by working windlasses attached to wire cable in two watertight boxes. To maintain air quality while submerged, the craft had a device for spraying water through the air, and thumb valves at the top of the boat, which could be opened to release foul air. To surface, the crew pumped the water from the tanks by hand or forced it out with compressed air.”[1] Halstead’s bad luck would follow the Intelligent Whale. Despite legal battles, The Navy purchased the vessel from Halstead. However, before official trials could be done, Halstead passed away. Due to personal issues in his life, his death lead to a scandal and a tainted name for his submarine. This along with the small number of people who knew how to operate the vessel, caused tests to be delayed. Once they were able to commence, flooding saw her short career end as the Navy marked the vessel a failure. Despite this fact, Intelligent Whale became a curiosity and would be displayed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. She would remain at the Yard until 1968 when she was moved to Washington D.C. and then finally to her current place in New Jersey. This means that the Intelligent Whale was in view of the Nautilus as she returned home from her historic journey marking the coming together of two vital points of submarine history.

While no submarines were ever built in the Yard, the dry docks were a frequent home for repairs and short stays. The USS Porpoise and the USS Shark, built in 1903, spent time being refitted in the Navy Yard dry docks. It was also here that they were disassembled in 1908 to be transported to the Philippines where they served until 1919. During World War I, German U-boats were brought to the Yard to be dismantled and gain valuable information on how German submarine technology worked. This work allowed U.S. Forces to strip away German dominance in the submarine field at the time. The early 1900’s was still an experimental time in submarine development. While today’s vessels see few accidents, this was not the case for the early boats. In June of 1915, the USS Sturgeon (also known as E-2 and SS-25) arrived at the Brooklyn Navy Yard to complete a refit. E-2 was the first submarine to be equipped with a diesel engine.  However, this new engine had problems. The vibrations caused damage to the battery system which could leak lead acid that, when mixed with salt water, could create a deadly chlorine gas. When she entered the yard that June, E-2 was supposed to have its engines replaced and batteries upgraded. A new battery system had been created by Thomas Edison that would allow the boat to travel further while submerged. The unit was also made of nickel iron instead of lead-acid, getting rid of the chlorine gas issue. However, this new battery did create hydrogen gas. Tests run on December 7th, 1915 found the batteries to seem to be a better fit. Initial reports found that they ran faster on less fuel.

Figure 3 Crewmembers atop the (E-2) submarine’s conning tower, after returning from a patrol during World War I.
Courtesy of the Submarine Force Library and Museum, Groton, Connecticut, 1972.

E-2 was in Dry Dock No. 2 in January of 1916 still undergoing tests. On January 15th, an explosion in the battery compartment claimed the lives of five crew members. Investigations found the hydrogen gas to be the culprit of the explosions. Once repairs were completed, E-2 went back into service as a training vessel. This incident caused the Navy to abandon the Edison technology and redesign a safer lead-acid cell battery. These redesigns would become the foundation for the technology that is still used in submarines today. As a side note, the chief of submarines at the Navy Yard who oversaw the investigation was one Chester W. Nimitz- Fleet Admiral of the Pacific Fleet. We remembered those who lost their lives that January day, as their names are Guy Hamilton Clark Jr. (Machinist’s Mate), Roy B. Seaber (Electrician, third-class), Joseph Logan (Navy Yard plumber), James H. Peck (Navy Yard plumber) and John P. Schultz (Navy Yard Workman).

Figure 4 USS E-2 (Submarine # 25)
Fine screen halftone reproduction of a photograph of the submarine underway prior to World War I. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

The Yard would triple during World War II in order to help with the war effort. Despite the numerous ships built during her years and the historic moments she witnessed, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara closed the Yard for good in 1966 after announcements about base closures came out in 1964. At the time, the Yard had over 9,000 workers and was the oldest active industrial plant in New York State. In 1969, New York City along with a non-profit group took control of the property turning it into a large scale industrial plant which it continues to operate as today. There are still dry docks at the Yard to service ships, continuing its legacy for years to come. Today, Bldg 92 serves as an exhibition center and reminds visitors of the property’s historic past. For those of us here in Groton, we will always remember the Nautilus sailing into New York Harbor, headed to the Yard to greet family and friends after one of the most historic trips ever made. Thus, solidifying a place in history for the Brooklyn Navy Yard.


For more in-depth information on the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s history and current business you can visit



Swimmer Delivery Vehicles

You don’t have to walk through the doors of the Submarine Force Museum to begin your experience. Outside you are met with several large artifacts that allow the visitor to quickly jump right into Submarine and Naval history. For instance, outside of its doors, hung towards the sky are the hull rings of the Holland and Ohio class submarines. These give the visitor a taste of how far submarine development has come from 1900 to now. A recent addition is the NR-1 whose bright orange paint can’t be missed. But alongside these large representations of submarine history is a smaller vehicle. It can be passed right over due to its size but plays a key role in military missions, many of which are still kept top secret today. The Swimmer Delivery Vehicle or SDV is used on clandestine operations by a group that is shrouded in mystery just as much as the Silent Service.

SDV in front of Submarine Force Museum.
Picture Credit: Erica Ciallela

Looking inside the SDV from above. at the Submarine Force Museum.
Photo Credit: Erica Ciallela

The U.S Navy Seals are a volunteer unit, just like the Submarine Force. Part of the U.S. Navy’s Naval Special Warfare Command, the number of Seals is small when compared with other forces. Officially established in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy, Seals stands for Sea, Air and Land, the fronts that any seal member must be prepared for on any given mission. Today’s SEALS find their heritage dates back to five groups that played large roles in World War II and the Korean War. These groups were the Army Scouts and Navy Raiders; Naval Combat Demolition Units, Office of Strategic Services Operational Swimmers, Navy Underwater Demolition Teams, and the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons. These groups were used in missions that included reconnaissance, explosive destruction of underwater obstacles, and marking mines for minesweepers. During their time, they made advancements in closed-circuit diving, underwater demolitions, and mini-submarine operations. While established by Kennedy, the modern SEALSs come from a long evolutionary line of forces that shaped the group to its current state. Today’s SEAL teams spend much of their time getting as close to the enemy as possible without being detected. This calls for special equipment that not just any team can have. Enter the SDV. Today’s submarines are large enough to cover entire football fields. And while they are extremely quiet and are great at remaining hidden, there are just some jobs that require a much smaller vehicle. The SDV allows Navy SEALs to exit a submarine and get up close to an enemy.
According to the Navy SEAL Museum, the purpose and need for SDV’s was explained in a 1952 report titled “Underwater Swimmers.” It stated that “Whenever it is necessary to operate near an enemy-held shore in as complete secrecy as possible, the approach to the object must be made under water. The first part of the approach can be made in a fleet-type submarine, but these 1500-ton vessels cannot operate submerged in water shallower than 60 feet, and depths less than 150 feet are considered hazardous. The final submerged approach must be made by swimming or in a small submersible. On many coasts throughout the world, depths less than 60 feet extend out several miles from shore. In these areas even, men equipped with SCUBA would not have enough breathing gas to swim the distance and return. Moreover, they would be seriously fatigued when they reached their objective after their swim of several hours. To supplement their swimming, they must have a small, powered submersible.” The SDV is a manned submersible that allows Navy SEALS to execute their missions. The submersibles are free-flooding which means that the unit is filled with water during the whole mission. Team members breathe compressed air from an internal life-support system or from Scuba equipment. The predecessor to the SDV was developed by the British during World War II. This original design, while used in training and exercise, never saw combat. It could only carry one crew member and its military potential was minimal. However, a similar concept would be used to help create the design for today’s SDV’s. Out of the approximately 2600 active-duty SEALs, only around 230 are qualified to operate or serve on SDV missions. Besides being filled with water, the vessels have no windows. Navigation is done through sonar. Having to work in tight conditions and extremely cold temperatures, only a few SEALs are qualified to handle these circumstances.
Officially commissioned in 1983, the first modern SDV was the MK 7. There were six different models of this type, each one changing and adapting as new upgrades were found. This first design could carry a pilot and three additional crew members. The instruments and battery compartments were kept in water-tight compartments that were pressure-proofed to deal with variable depths. The early models were operated with an electric motor, powered by a rechargeable silver-zinc battery. The first model began experimental service in 1967 and had its first mission in 1972.

A Mk VIII Mod 1 minisub operated by members of a SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team maneuvers into a dry dock shelter fitted to USS KAMEHAMEHA (SSN-642), a U.S. Navy submarine.
U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate Andrew McKaskle

Following the MK7, the MK8 and MK 9 made electrical improvements but since the beginning, the design has mainly stayed the same. Today’s SDV’s run on lithium-ion batteries and utilize state-of-the-art navigation systems. Newer models carry a crew of six. The SDV is a clear example of how each unit within the military depends on each other to accomplish its missions. We may joke about being surface or submariner or Army or Navy, but each branch plays a vital role and are intertwined, just like the SDV and the submarine.

SEAL divers from SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team Two (SDVT-2) getting ready to launch a Mk VIII Mod 1 SDV minisub from the back of Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Philadelphia (SSN 690).
image sourced from public domain | U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate Andrew McKaskle