TAKE 'ER DOWN! 120-Years of American Submarines

Article excerpt

From the first crude submarines of John Holland to today's stealthy nuclear warriors, the submarine has rewritten the course of Naval history


The US Navy's involvement with the submarine dates from 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 Adm. 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 $150,000, 11 April 1900. This 64-ton submarine, commissioned as USS Holland (SS-1), 12 October 1900, 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 Company's Fclass (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 on a familiar configuration through American entry into the Great War. Submarines of the E-, H-, K-, L-, M-, N-, O-, and R-classes ranged in displacement from 287- to 510-tons, with the fastest boats displaying a top surface speed of barely 14-kts on diesel power.

During World War I, the US 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 Navy Department's 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 Construction and Repair and the Bureau of Steam Engineering produced the faster 15-kt, 800-ton, S-class submarine in 1916 with the assistance of Electric Boat Company and Lake Torpedo Boat Company. At virtually the same time, Electric Boat received a commission to design the three boats of the 20-kt T-, or AA-class, with a normal displacement of 1107-tons. On paper these characteristics, adopted during WWI, brought the Navy one step closer to the "fleet. submarine," a submersible that could keep pace with the battle fleet.


The German U-boats of the 1914-1918 conflict gave American officers and designers reason for pause. Physically durable, powered by very reliable diesels, technically blessed with 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 difficult metallurgical problems and very unreliable diesels.

While R/Adms. Harry Yarnell and Samuel Robinson, successive interwar chiefs of the Bureau of Engineering, worked to remedy the technical flaws with solutions from 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 Capts. Thomas Hart and Yates Stirling Jr., Adms. Henry Wiley and Frank Schofield and the innovative Cmdr. Thomas Withers debated these issues with the German paradigm in mind. …