In the year 2000, the American submarine force will celebrate the first century of service by highly skilled people in some of the most technologically advanced vessels ever built. The past 100 years have witnessed the evolution of a force that mastered submersible warfare, introduced nuclear propulsion to create the true submarine, and for decades patrolled the deep ocean front line; the hottest part of an otherwise Cold War.
Submarines in War The U. S. Navys involvement with the submarine dates form 1888 when the Bureau of Construction and Repair (BUC&R) sponsored a design competition that brought John Holland a naval contract to build the experimental Plunger. As the new century dawned, prominent American naval leaders like Admiral George Dewey called the submarine a real threat to international surface forces, leading the Navy to acquire its first submarine in 1900. Overcoming competition from fellow American inventor, Simon Lake, Holland sold his newest model, Holland VI, to the Navy for $160,000 on April 11.
This 64-ton submarine commissioned as USS Holland, or SS-1, on October 12 of the same year, was equipped with an Otto-type gasoline engine for surface running and electric motors for submerged operations. Due to the volatility of gasoline, American submersible designs soon followed the French practice, adopting the diesel engine in 1909 with the Electric Boat Companys F class (SS-20 through 23), built at Union Iron Works in San Francisco. Combining the influence of diesel propulsion with the submersible designs of Holland and Lake, American submersibles took a familiar configuration through American entry into the Great War.
Submarines of the E, H, K, L, M, N, O, and R classes and ranged in displacement form 287 to 510 tons, with the fastest boats displaying a top surface speed of barely 14 knots on diesel power. During World War I the U. S. Navy separated these submersibles into two groups according to mission. Boats of the N and O classes, as well as some of the E type, patrolled American coasts and harbors following a defensive strategy. Other submarines drew assignments that sent them to hostile European waters after 1917. Some K-, L-, O-, and E-class boats conducted offensive, open-sea operations from the Azores and Bantry Bay in Ireland.
They supported the Allied effort to maintain open sea lanes along the European coast and in the approaches to the British Isles. The Nay Departments plans for these vessels reflected the prevailing surface warfare thinking, which perceived the submersible as a type of destroyer or torpedo boat that should operate with the battle fleet. Thus the first foray into submarine design by the Bureau of Steam Engineering produced the faster 15-knot, 800 ton, S-class submarine in 1916 with the assistance of Electric Boat received a commission to design the three boats of the 20-knowt T, or AA class, with a normal displacement of 1107 tons.
On paper these characteristics, adopted during the First World War, brought the Navy one step closer to the fleet submarine, a submersible that could keep the pace with the battle fleet. Shaping an Identity The German U-boats of the 1914-1918 conflict gave the American officers and designers reason for pause. Physically durable, powered by very reliable diesels, technically blessed with the very long sea legs, they provided the paradigm for American interwar development.
At the same time, the 1916 vintage American S-class proved a virtual clinic for basic design mistakes, burdened with the difficult metallurgical problems and very unreliable diesels. While Rear Admirals Harry Yarnell and Samuel Robinson, successive interwar chiefs of the Bureau of Engineering, worked to remedy the technical flaws with solutions form European and American engineering practice, the community of submarine officers struggled with a problem even more fundamental than propulsion. How should the Navy use submarines? What was their proper strategic role?
During the interwar period influential officers like Captains Thomas Hart and Yates Stirling Jr. , Admirals Henry Wiley and Frank Schofield, and the innovative commander Thomas Withers debated these issues with the German paradigm in mind. Unfortunately, this model did not offer easy direction. While the German commercial warfare strategy and independent patrol tactics had great effect on the war effort of the Entente and its allies, incidents like the sinking of the passenger liner RMS Lusitania painted this style of warfare with a dark brush, suggesting immorality when submersibles operated without restriction.
Only a subtle formula could help American submariners address questions of identity and mission in such a political environment. Since the state of design and propulsion technology would not permit American industry to build a submarine durable and fast enough to keep pace with the battlefleet, operating with surface ships on a regular basis seemed unlikely. This forced submarine strategists like Withers to look more closely at independent patrols and a model that approximated the World War I German experience.
On isolationist postwar America, however, this option brought with it the ethical burden of unrestricted U-boat warfare and civilian casualties, something a Navy diminished by the Washington Treaties did not care to assume. Thus, American submarine strategy could not include unrestricted submarine warfare, which might turn neutral commercial vessels and innocent civilians into victims. American officers realized that war in all of its brutality, not peacetime politics or worthy ethical concerns, would determine the future challenges faced by the submarine force.
In spite of official policy, the boats under construction in the 1930s reflected assertive, offensive strategic thinking as the country came to terms with the Depression under Franklin Roosevelt and the Bureaus of Construction and Repair and Engineering resolved the submarine engineering and propulsion slimes. The new Salmon-Sargo designs were intended for long-range independent patrols, with the requisite food, fuel, and weapons capacity.
In addition, the fleet exercises and war game scenarios during the late 1930s permitted these vessels to attack warships, convoy escort ships, and even certain convoys identified as critical to enemy logistical support. By 1940, the submarine force had answered its fundamental strategic questions and had the vessels to carry out the consequent roles and missions. Thus, when Admiral Thomas Hart proclaimed unrestricted submarine warfare against Japan on December 8, 1941, it came as no surprise. the submarine force know what to do.