Sea Bodies

9 Jan

The submarine has gone through a variety of changes and alterations over twentieth century though they still vaguely resemble the first modern submarine, the USS Holland (SS-1). Certainly they are far more advanced than the old Turtle, the Revolutionary War submersible that looked more like a barrel with a propeller, rudder and screw driver attached to it. And they have become far more powerful, more dangerous than the first submarine to sink another vessel, the CSS Hunley, which ironically sunk itself moments after destroying USS Housatonic.

When we are asked to sketch up a submarine, draw a basic understanding of what one looks like, most will likely put down a long body with a little tower sticking up top toward the front of the vessel. This basic shape has remained to stay in most military submarines all the way into the twenty-first century with the USS Virginia (SSN-774). The shape of the hull has a reason behind it, just like everything else on these deep-sea vessel, when one looks at a diagram of a World War II submarine or one that happen to be out of water, they see it has more in common with a surface vessel, while a modern one seems to have more in common with a torpedo.

Function and Technology Determine Form

The World War II submarine hulls were designed to travel through the water where they would spend the most time in their careers, on the surface. The drawback to this design was that they were significantly slower underwater.

It runs against popular thinking to say that a submarine, any submarine would spend all that much time on the surface; there were several reasons for this, the primary being that the batteries.In the case of the Balao class submarine, like the USS Ling (SS-297), a museum vessel in Hackensack, New Jersey, all electricity was generated from for electrical generators, each attached to a diesel engine.

  • While running the diesel engines, the vessel had to be on the surface to draw in fresh air through main induction, the main intakes of the vessel and any open hatches.
  • The electricity created would be utilized in several ways; some of it would go to the four electric motors arranged two to a drive shaft and used for propulsion, as well as other systems such as lights, radars, air conditioning, etc.
  • The electrical batteries for storage, used up when the vessel was submerged. In the case of the Balao class, there are two batteries each with 126 cells.


These batteries were large, a little over five feet tall and the cells weigh about five hundred pounds each. They were filled with a chemical, part water and had copper strips extended into them. As the batteries were charged, they created a byproduct of hydrogen which had to be vented overboard; not doing so would create a serious explosion risk, one which resulted losses of submarines like the USS Cochino (SS-345).

Meanwhile, the batteries needed the water element of the chemical replenished. Fresh, salt free water was drawn aboard the vessel, boiled in the distillers in the back of forward engine room, purified, and pumped into storage tanks around the batteries. Because only a certain amount of water could be distilled at one time and because, especially during wartime, things could change very quickly, water was conserved and rationed. This meant that submariner did not shower in fresh water, if at all while at sea.

It was also critical that the water be absolutely free of salt. Any salt in the batteries would create chlorine which would filter up into the vessel poisoning the crew.

Limits and Changes

Forty-eight hours was the limit one could stay underwater in one of these WWII submarines, at least these American submarines.

If, for whatever reason, the vessel’s captain needed to get somewhere fast underwater, they would be out of power in six hours driving those motors full power. Toward the end of the war, the German developed more powerful, more advanced submarines, the Type XXI being the most useful. This boat nicked-named the Elektro-boote could say under water on batteries for about a week.

Reflecting this new capability was the hull design.

Much sleeker, more refined than the American and British submarines of that era; even the German’s own earlier submarines did not have the sleek lines like the Type XXI. When the war ended, the United States took a couple of those submarines home as war booty and began to learn from them. Submarine hull design began to change; existing boats were modified under the GUPPY program, the acronym for Greater Underwater Propulsion and Power with a “Y” thrown in for pronunciation. But by the 1950’s, a new revolution in submarines were underway.


Many saw hull design of the day to be a combination of other ideas; nothing really new and certainly nothing that took advantage of the seemingly unlimited supply of electricity that nuclear power offered. Even the first of our nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN-575) had a very convention hull, conventional for that time, reminiscent of the Type XXI and the GUPPY altered WWII submarines. A new teardrop shape hull was devised and would be tested out on the diesel-electrically powered USS Albacore.

The next vessels that followed, the Skipjack class and the George Washington ballistic missiles submarines would take advantage of this design. In the years to follow, this would evolve into the longer shape of the Thresher/Permit class and the way to the new Virginia class nuclear submarines. These sleek underwater vessels are, interestingly enough, significantly slower on the surface than under the water, but this is fine as these rarely ever surface and do not have to surface while underway under nuclear power.

These vessels are true submarines; they are most at home underneath the waves of the ocean, on the hunt for anything they are ordered to destroy, spying, patrolling, doing what submarines are known for in the Silent Service.

A Good Idea

28 Nov

A Good Idea is an essence, an image that inpires confidence in the inventor to develop it, serving as a road plan, but not as dogma. It is adaptable, adjustable, all while retaining its origional, core purpose.

A good design, be it a manual, newsletter, a sketch, a submarine, all need a good idea, a simple notion to start with. Many has there been an aircraft or vessel, that was conceived with the unrealistic notion of fulfilling too many needs and ideas at once. The General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark, for example was supposed to meet the very different needs of the US Air Force, the US Navy, and the Marine Corps, all while trying to be cheap.

Early long range submarines, their technology too new, too underdeveloped often left the owners with large, cumbersome and troublesome vessels. My own short stories, where I try to jam so much history and emotion into one character, action, adventure and still keep it down to fifteen to twenty two pages.

I follow the KISS Directive: Keep It Simple Sammy.

I can see it!

It is right there in front of me, the idea, the lay out, the solution to the design problem, there, floating, a plan to follow, but not set in stone.

An essence!

The initial idea is impulsive, but it connects to something, it is immediate, I feel my mind beginning to pick up with it. Other ideas, I pick up the idea, look at it slowly and try to force out a meaning, a purpose. A truly good idea is has the potential of development, hints of realistic avenues of that development, and a possible outcome.

Less than a second later, I should be able to sum it up in one sentence. What is it that I want to write about? My last great tour through the USS Ling. The fictional persecution of a modern day witch. Two types of bullies, two loves, on two sides of a border, with World War II era A-20 Havoc bombers to tie everything together, let them all meet up, and carry home a simple, easy to understand explosive point or meaning. What do I want to achieve in the mind of the user of my latest, greatest manual?




Just like art or graphic design; to be able to sketch what I want, what I really want, quickly, suddenly and not worrying about detail, not worrying about rules or sloppiness. I scribble the image, I dash out some reminder of where the details are, I throw down the essence and you do so like lightning.

Then off I go. I have an objective, a purpose, a plan, confidence. The most important aspect to any project: Confidence! I write. Or build, construct, or sculpt. I draw in the details, put the blue prints down.

A simple, easily relatable idea is where it all comes from. It touches me, it stirs something in the head, something that says, “Oh, yeah, I could pull that off” with confidence.

That’s a good idea.

Statistical Submarine Summaries

21 Nov

The US Submarine Force of World War II started from modest beginnings and modest successes to become a force that took out half of the Japanese World War II Navy. More than any other vessel type, carriers, destroyers, cruisers, or battleship, the US submarine is responsible for bringing the Japanese Navy to its knees, gradually whittling it down, encircling Japan itself and cutting it off from its Empire and the rest of the World.

Approximately fifty-four percent of all Japanese merchant ships fell to submarine torpedoes and gunfire. These were from the beginning of the war, up until 1944, the primary target of the submarine. These vessels contained or had the capacity to transport food, fuel, ammunition and troops to all corners of the Japanese Empire, supplying the defenses of these islands and the ships at sea. More so than the mighty battleships, like the Yamato, these slow, lumbering vessels, possibly armed with some kind of light armament to fend off aircraft and ward off enemy surface vessel attack.

These were also the only vessels the submarine had a serious chance of killing on a regular basis.

The three classes of submarines built during the war, the undeniably excellent Gato, Balao, and Tench class submarines were capable of doing approximately twenty knots in the surface, where the boat would spend most of its time. Knots are used to indicate speed of vessels; one knot is equal to 1.151 miles per hour.  Underneath the water, the speed was reduced to just over eight knots if they really pushed their electrical batteries, though if they wanted to stay under the water for at least forty-eight hours, they could only travel at two knots. Meanwhile, the more common Japanese long-range vessel encountered by the submarine, the destroyer, could do an excess of thirty knots.

USS Flasher at sea. Taken from

The merchant ships, however, were slow to begin with and, when loaded down with cargo, were even slower. The Shiretoko class oilers for example, were only capable of twelve knots according to statistics and most transports were not much faster. Many was the time where a submarine’s watch officer caught site of such a vessel on the horizon, spotting a mast or a small, lazy stream of black smoke in the distance, and, after calling it out, would trigger a boat’s skipper into action. Those targets, juicy, heavy freighters were even more valuable than the heavily armed battleships, the carriers and their squadrons of aircraft, and the destroyers, one of the submarines greatest adversaries. The loss of these logistical vessels would have long-term implications on the destiny of the Empire.

There are two ways to measure what Navies loose during conflicts. One way is to count the actual number of ships lost, while another is to add up the tones of each of those ships lost. In both cases, the Japanese losses are staggering.

When the war began, Japan had approximately 589 warships in service. Of these,

  • 393 of these vessels were either aircraft carriers, battleships, light cruisers, cruisers, destroyers and submarines.
  • 193 of these vessels were smaller, less capable, but equally important warships, these being: patrol ships, gunboats, armed merchant ships, submarine chasers, minelayers, minesweepers, and other auxiliaries

Japan lost 201 warships to American submarines.

The merchant ships, of course, being the main target of American warships, suffered even more.

  • These were vessels weighing over 500 tons.
  • When the war started, Japan had 6 million tons of merchantmen and they succeedded in capturing another 4 million
  • 1,079 individual merchant vessels were lost, this coming to 4,649,650 tons. Another 600,000 tons worth of shipping was so heavily damaged, they were of no further use to the Japanese
  • By August of 1945, there were 1.8 million tons left. Most of these vessels were wooden transport vessels travelling in inland waters

For their efforts, the United States lost 45 boats against the Japanese in action. We lost fifty-two total, the other lost because of accidents as far as can be told today. Some of those boast lost had been built at the end of World War I or shortly afterwards and were simply old. Mechanical failure was most likely the reason in those cases.

Plate honors those US Navy boats lost. Image from

The most incredible statistic is the number of submarines deployed, versus the number of surface ships.

  • By August of 1945, the US Navy had 6,768 ships, both old and new deployed worldwide, 70% of all the world’s tonnage in ships.
  • On December 7th, 1941, the Navy had 112 submarines in service and 203 more were built, most of those being deployed in the Pacific.
  • At its height, the US Navy’s submarine force only made up just under 2% of all Allied vessels deployed in the Pacific.

That tiny force inflicted such heinous damage on the Japanese!

Below is a chart of some of the top scoring boats in terms of tonnage and numbers of ship sunk during World War II.

Submarine Tonnage Sunk Number of Ships   Sunk















This was the mark made by the Submarine Force of the United States during World War II. It is interesting to note that the Germans did not have the same success the United States did in the Atlantic despite the enormous number of sinkings they did achieve. One of the reasons for this was the kinds of defenses the two sides’ submarines went up against; the Japanese put, if anything, a warship or two with some transports, while the German U-boats went up against highly organized convoys with very sophisticated plans and methods for dealing with the marauding submarines.

Battle flag of the USS Tang. The origional was lost with the boat. This replica was made with the survivors consent. From


14 Oct

USS Swordfish

I love when former submariners
take a tour of the boat.

It’s not because I get
a tour off, it’s not less work for me. I learn, I learn about life on the
submarines from those who actually served on them, went to see in them,
entrusted their lives and futures in the designs and decisions of others.
These are the people who actually operated these vessels, in times of war or
peace. These are the people who had
to deal with the little things, who had to sleep, eat, breathe, work, brush
their teeth,  study, serve aboard these vessels.

I am just a tour guide,
a teacher of sorts, a story teller really.

These people, submariners teach me,
give me material to work with.

I had no idea who he
was when he came to the museum; he was told I would take him through the boat
and when I asked him and the woman with him, if they had ever been aboard one
of these before, I was thinking about warning them about the size of the
vessel, warning them of tights spaces….

He toldme, “Oh, yeah,
I was aboard one of these in the Pacific, USS Swordfish….”

Here was someone who actually knew what this thing, the Ling
was, who knew what the later boats were capable of, knew what they could

Of course, I began with
my usual; pointing out parts of the superstructure, the hydrophone and he told
me what it was like to be riding on the nose of his boat as it rode out of
Pearl Harbor.

In forward torpedo
room, I leaned about Pound Puppy sheets.

On a submarine, even an
early nuclear one, water is a sparse commodity and even the older nuclear boats
needed a great deal of water, not just for their batteries, but for their
reactors as well. Clean sheets, therefore, were a commodity. Crew members would
buy their own sheets when they were in port and, in order to easily identify
them; they would by sheets that had cartoon characters on them.

In forward battery, I learned
about the Goat Locker. The senior chiefs aboard the Ling and other Balao class
boats, used to sleep in the forward batteries, where the officers slept as well.
As I pointed this room out to him, he smiled and referred to it as the “Goat
Locker”. This, according to him is because the chiefs were generally older and

Our control room, built
in the 1940’s was fairly familiar to him. The Skate class was not
that much different from the WWII boats in some ways; he was able to identify
many of the parts on his own and he mentioned a little trick they liked to play
with the new crew members coming aboard.

When a submarine dives deeper into
the water, its hull is subjected to growing pressure of the water surrounding
it. And while I know this, I did not think it was as visible as he described
it. For as the boat was diving, they would tie a string to each side of a
compartment as tightly as they could and as the boat submerged, they would
watch as they string began to sag in the middle. Once at their depth, say seven
hundred feet, they would tie another string as tightly as they could to both
sides of the compartment. As the boat would rise, the tension on the string
would increase and the string would latterly snap.

They ate well on the
submarines, they ate very well, that he confirmed. The only problem was the
fresh items, things like the real milk, would go very quickly and then they
would have to go to the powdered milk, not as good. Eggs, however, were
preserved for a period of time by dipping them in wax.

Many books do not
convey the type of people that were aboard these vessels, the human element
that we, people typically remember. Few people ask me about the Ling’s maximum
depth, her speed, and all the other statistical items that are so easy to find
and memorize.

He came aboard
Swordfish during her last four years. He and his fellow new crew members walked
down the pair, they saw one modern submarine after another, the lower sitting,
darker, larger, more advanced vessels, they marveled at their size, their
advanced shape.

Then they got to

There was rust in her
hull. She had a wooden deck, teak wood, just like the older boats, the World
War II boats. They wondered if she was a museum ship, if there was one kind of
mistake. There of course, was not, Swordfish was simply an old boat.

His chief kissed him,
all part of a test. He passed it by requesting another kiss.

A man was ducted taped
to the ceiling. There was also a body building cook that would congratulate
those who earned their dolphin by hitting them as hard as he could, right on
the pin. He liked to sneak up on his victims, that made it all the more fun.
Our guest would be prepared for that and would catch the cook, frustrating him.
Then, one day, the cook simply walked up to him and hit him as hard as he could
over those dolphins.

Of course, hazing never
happens in the Navy.

Shorter than the Ling,
a Balao class WWII boat, but deeper, it had a second deck. The Ling has mainly
crawl space below the deck within her. He told me how when they would go out on
training exercises against the modern Los Angeles class attack boats, Swordfish
had no real chance. Against the boats of other nations, Swordfish dominated.
But they never went chasing after Soviet boats in the 80’s; Swordfish was
mostly on costal defense work, her time as a deep sea predator was long gone.

Still, she does have an
unofficial, disputed claim to fame.

This Wikipedia quote says
it all:

“On 8 March 1968, K-129, a Golf-II class submarine, sank northwest of Oahu. On 17 March, Swordfish
put into Yokosuka, Japan, for emergency repairs to a bent
periscope. The United States Navy states that Swordfish
was damaged in an ice pack and that K-129, with her nuclear missiles and
crew of 98, was destroyed by an internal explosion, perhaps hydrogen from
its batteries, perhaps a torpedo, while some 2000 miles (3,000 km) distant from Swordfish.”

The Navy attempted to
salvage the K-129 in a secret operation with the CIA and Howard Hughes. The
vessel, Glomar Explorer was used to literally reach down with a massive scoop
and bring the vessel into its massive hold. This, however, failed as K-129
broke up in the grip of the grabber halfway up.

But, did Swordfish
trigger this incredible journey and loss of life? It was not uncommon for
American Nuclear submarines to quietly follow Soviet Missile boats, watching,
gathering intelligence on their actions and capabilities and waiting for
orders, telling of the beginning of world war III and clearance to kill the
missiles boats before they launched their deadly payload.

According to our
submariner visitor, the truth will never be known for certain.

Swordfish no longer
exists; she was cut up into razor blades as everyone likes to say. It’s up to
tour guides like me to carry on the story of these vessels, the people aboard

That’s what we tour
guides do.

We convey the stories
of those who lived, those who did.

Tour Guide: Entertainer or Teacher

26 Aug

Entertainer. Teacher. Tour guide. The same? Completely different? Three in one, the Sacred Mystery of the Museum.

I was told once by a director of tour guides in another museum that a tour guide at least the ones in his museum were seen more as entertainers.

I considered that fairly degrading.

They were not like teachers with their set of objectives and their curriculum. The tour guide was to paint a picture as they guided the group through the exhibits, creating in their minds a clear picture of the past, stirring their interests and inspiring their imagination.

Now, as I sit down and think about what he said, I have to ask myself if the tour guide is not a combination of teacher and entertainer, more teacher than the later.

For both have objectives, conveying the message of the art, the subject to their audience or class, inspiring some memory creating a touch of change in their minds and hearts. Both have a plan of some sort, be it a fifty page long curriculum or a fifty page long script.

Perhaps, I simply found it degrading to refer to someone who had the mission to convey the past of a courageous group of soldiers, many who gave their lives for family, friends, beliefs and country, as an entertainer, someone you have at parties and other functions. Talking about Howard C. Gilmore’s (see picture) sacrifice atop of USS Growler (SS-215) where he uttered the famous phrase “Take her down,” ending his own life to save his crew, is not something you throw around like it’s a toy, a party favor or such. Depth charging stories, the sheer terror, the memories and stories of war can be outright depressing and deserve a certain place of reverence. To view our stories are knowledge as entertaining, to work as entertainers, would be on par with rigging a Crucifix with fire and turning the story of Jesus Christ into a happy musical in every single Catholic Church all around the world.

War is not entertaining, it is a tragedy. Common sense, mercy, kindness are thrown aside, sometimes due to incompetence on the part of statesmen, sometimes due to terribly illogical dreams such as those of Hitler, Mussolini, and Emperor Hirohito and his generals. War is a tragedy and those who gave their lives for their country do not deserve to be treated like silly, happy party favors, but as the heroes they died as. They deserve silence, reverence and, above all, a place in our memory.

A good tour guide, however, is, whether I like it or not, both. They are a teacher and will always be teachers; they will research their topics and dig some more, they will organize and constantly redo their tours in their minds until they feel they have conveyed the story they want to tell. We do it not to please people, but for those who have fallen so that we may enjoy our liberty.

But, we will entertain, we will inspire, we will do so because of our passion. Without even knowing it, as we concentrate on our more scientific, more technical approach to our tours, inspire and amaze our guests, most of them, entertain them without even trying.

That’s it, really!

We are entertaining teachers!

We work like teachers, but we entertain without even trying!

What’s your opinion?

USS R-12, A Submarine Lost at Sea

21 Jul

Everybody has a story, everybody lived a life, everybody will die, yet there is so little of that remains behind. 2011, internet, supposedly limitless information and we still have to dig, truely dig to find out anything meaningful on lesser known people and topics that are truly meaningful. My case in point for this blog is submarine USS R-12 (SS-89), lost at sea June 12, 1943, taking with her approximately 43 men. Forty-three men, they were born, they were children, they laughed, played, they went to school, they grew up, joined the Navy, some even served for a while, and then, one day, they were gone. I can find the very basic information on this boat and I can find a good list of her crew. Still, I am missing alot, I am missing alot about these people.

Who were they?

R-12 (R-12’s deck gun. This is a photo of the wreck, 600 feet underwater, off Key West, Florida)

The only reason I know about this boat is because of my United States Submarines Veterans, Inc. calendar I have, tacked up the window frame right next to my desk. June 12, a Sunday, simply reads “R-12 (SS-89) 1943”.

A disclaimer, if I may. The author of this blog is not complaining about a lack of interest in history in this nation, a terrible insensitivity to lost submariners, or some kind of injustice or failure of our system. People are busy meeting their own needs and history is a real subject requiring real effort and dedication, much like other interests, pursuits and hobbies. The author accepts this and is at peace with the reality that not everyone and their brother has to be an expert on history to be considered a productive human being.

My purpose in this blog is to collect information already in existence on the internet and in my books, put it together in a manageable form, and put it on display. If I find anything new, I will be happy to share it, but do not be surprised if what you see here is repeated on the first pages of Google.

I volunteer at a submarine museum, I give tour guides, I answer a, excuse the pun, boat-load of questions on them. I like to answer them correctly and effectively, so I research submarines of various types and designs as well as specific ones. R-12 was built at the end of World War I and, back then, most submarines in the US Navy were not given names. The first submarine in the US Navy, SS-1 was named USS Holland after the creator of the modern submarine and there was a period where they were being named after fish. The system changed and many boats that did have a name, lost it and was simply given a letter and a number. This happened long before R-12 was launched.

USS R-12 being launched

The specific dates can be found on Wikipedia, where I got much of her historical data from. Up until 1932, her crews conducted patrols with her and participated in training exercises. In 1932, she was taken out of service, decommissioned is the formal saying in the Navy, and placed in the Reserve Fleet. This usually amounts to a vessel being tied up at a port, closed up and unused until a need arises. That need came in 1940 with Germany, Italy and Japan becoming more and more aggressive, and much of the worldly population feeling that war with these countries, the Axis powers was imminent.

Many of the old vessel of WWI were pulled back into service, these included the old “Flush Deck” destroyers, fifty of which were leased to England in a deal that would give the US access to British bases in the Caribbean. In the United States, on July 19, 1940, Congress passed the Two-Ocean Naval Act which authorized an increase in size of the US Navy by seventy percent and, among many other things, authorized the construction of forty-three new submarines. This bill was based on a request by Admiral Harold Stark, after German troops entered Paris. The United States had formally declared neutrality, but it was gearing up for the potential of a war, granted, one that would not take us by surprise.

In the meantime, however, the US made do with what they had, including old submarines. Newer, more advanced submarines with greater range had long come online, these boats having a range of approximately ten thousand miles. Called the “Fleet Boats” these would be the vessels that would take the fight to Japan and the rest of the Axis powers, particularly in the Pacific where the surface fleet had been devastated. The smaller, older boats, the short ranged boats known as the S-boats would see a little action, though they would be hampered by their lack of range. Most of these boats would be used as trainign vessel and crews would see thier first action on the larger, more advanced and far more comfortable Fleet Boats. The R-boats would never see action, despite being used for coastal patrols.

R-11 on the left, R-12 on the right. This was taken in 1920.

And perhaps it was better that way. These vessels, despite the hard work of their crew and the men who brought them out of the Reserve and back into commission, were not much of fighting ships. One former skipper, who would later go on to captain USS Halibut (SS-232) would say they spent more time trying to keep the R-boat he was assigned to floating than searching for potential targets, in his case, German U-boats. R-12 was twenty four years old when it went down, middle aged to say the least and this factor may have contributed to her sinking.

Once R-12 was back into service, she conducted war patrols off the east coast of the United States and down in the Caribbean and served as a training boat. When she was lost, she was serving as a training boat working out of Key West, Florida. On June 12, 1943, R-12 was about to engage in practice exercises for torpedo attacks. There is no evidence that there was anything to be concerned about when the diving alarm was sounded, but within moments of that, flooding was reported in a forward section of the boat, known as forward battery. The main ballast tank was ordered blown immediately, but so much water must have flooded in so quickly, that the action did nothing. Fifteen seconds after sounded that diving alarm, R-12 sank under the ocean for the last time. We know what happened because there were survivors; the commanding offer, the first officer and three enlisted crewmen were swept off the bridge of the boat, atop of the superstructure and were rescued some time later.

Gone, just like that.

One minute, a crewman is working, preparing for the dive, just like so many others. The next moment, panic, water comes pouring in, the lights fail, everything goes black, and the boat begins to descend out of control, water flooding in the compartments….

Is that how it was?

Amazing really, simply amazing.

R-12 was the oldest of all US submarines lost during the WWII, again, that age may have attributed to her loss, in my opinion at least. Last I heard, the cause of her loss is still unknown; she was recently discovered in 600 feet of water off of Key West, however, and a future expedition is to be launched in the spring of 2012.

Here is a link to a memorial site listing all of the men lost on this vessel:

All photos in this blog are from

July 4th Submarine Tours and Thoughts on History

10 Jul

Bow and Stern Plane Wheels in the Control Room

I’ll be the first to admit this is a little late, but our July 4th opening, a last minute decision by museum staff worked out very nicely. I, personally, did a total of three tours alone, two for visitors, one for a fellow tour guide with questions. Quite a day, I will say. I love giving tours through that boat and I will keep giving them until I cannot give them anymore!

Interest in history is alive and well; since beginning my time at the Ling as a tour guide, I have talked to many people who have said they love history, they love reading about it, they love to know more about it. That, for many reasons, makes me happy, and not just because it will mean more people visiting our unique exhibit. The study of history starts out as a simple retention of facts about the nation around us, about our planet, but then, as we delve deeper into it, we start to see connections, pathways ways, and a much greater story. Why something happened can be lost; the American Civil War, according to US News Magazine (I think) reported, during the Anniversary of the Civil War, that the actual origins of the Civil War, the definite origins are unknown. Meanwhile, Sarah Palin recently started some controversy and argument over the origins of Paul Reveres’ Ride before the American Revolution began. And sometimes, even events that have shaped a culture can be forgotten by a large group of people even by those who are direct descendants. I read in an aviation history magazine that a sizable portion of London Citizens have do not know about the Battle of Brittan.

But when I hear people say they love history, when I see parents and grandparents bringing their children and grandchildren to New Jersey Naval Museum to see USS Ling, I am filled with joy! No more do I feel that we are doomed to ignorance and forgetfulness, actually, I gave up that depressing fear about the time I joined the museum. No, each tour is filled with questions and interest, be they little ones, parents, grandparents, or veterans themselves. Ladies and Gentlemen, I am proud to declare once more the interest of history is ALIVE AND WELL!

All we have to do is preserve the piece of it that are left standing. Reading about it is one thing, but to actually touch it and interact with it is something completely different, something that will stay with a person for a long time. Many years ago, my Father took my brother and I to the Ling and I can still remember the two of us making a run for the bow and stern plane wheels in the third compartment of the tour, the Control Room. Many years later, I think it was toward the end of high school, he would take me to see the boat once more. The kids going through it are as amazed as I was when I was a kid and the kids going through the other museums are also as amazed and excited. These places are not just nice little places of antiques, expendable during a time of budget cuts or in the face of financial gain, these are holy places of memory, honor, intelligence, learning, places that are as important as schools and hospitals, places where an appreciation of knowledge, a love of learning and sense of patriotism can be fostered. These are our museums and we must, every now and then, give them a loving hug!

Depth Charged By the Russians

25 Jun

The following article was in the second issue of the Ling Log, official newsletter of the New Jersey Naval Museum. I , Matthew Milsop, conducted an interview with John O’Meally, a twenty-two year US Navy veteran whose last see assignment was USS Halibut (SSGN-587).

Anyone who has read the book Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of the Submarine Espionage, will remember the story and accounts of the USS Halibut. The only Nuclear Powered Regulus boat of the US Navy, she was modified and used as a spy vessel and had some pretty hair raising experiences keeping an eye on the Soviet Union. One of our newest volunteers was assigned to Halibut for three years, while she was a Regulus Missile boat and had a few interesting experiences to share with us. For even as a missile
boat, Halibut was doing quite a bit of snooping. Just goes to show you how truly diverse our Submarine
Force is.
The best way to learn about history is to hear it straight from the source, that is, the source of a person who was actually there! John O’Meally came to us as a volunteer to give tours through the Ling and had, perhaps, some of the best credentials to do so. John served in the United States Navy for about 22 years, many of those years on submarines, seven of those years on a very unique: USS Halibut SSGN-587.

The first name, the first book that comes to mind when this name is mentioned is Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage , written by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew with Annette Lawrence Drew. Read this book. I say again: read this book! It runs like a spy thriller, it sounds like a spy thriller, it might as well be a spy thriller similar to Tom
Clancy’s work. All of the events in this book, all of the missions, the events, the people, all of it was real, all of this was and continues to be the mission of the submarine force, this and more still happens today under an impenetrable blanket of security! What’s in a name?

This was the second submarine to bear the name Halibut; the first one, a Gato class diesel electric submarine was depth charged 250 times during the War in the Pacific and still returned to base. The account of this and more can be read in
Take Her Deep, by Admiral I.J. Galantin, USN (ret). Halibut, SSGN-587, meanwhile, was a Regulus Boat, commissioned in January of 1960. Carrying five of the winged Regulus type missiles, like the one seen in New Jersey Naval Museum’s park, a Regulus Boat’s job was to conduct Nuclear Deterrence Patrols against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In the event of war, a Regulus Boat would surface, load and begin to fire its big blue nuclear armed missiles at various Soviet targets. The Regulus boats and surface ships equipped with such weapons were eventually replaced by the Polaris missile boats; these submarines could fire their missiles from below the sea at much greater ranges from their targets. In 1965 she entered Pearl Harbor to undergo refit and reconstruction for her new role as a spy submarine. Halibut’s exploits as a spy sub can be read about in Blind Man’s Bluff and they are, to say the least,
impressive. But what makes Mr. O’Meally’s relation to the Halibut so interesting is that he did not serve on her when she was a spy submarine, but a Regulus Boat.

Don’t stop reading.
I know, I know! Missile boats, deterrence patrols, long, long patrols of nothing, absolutely nothing!
No missiles were fired in anger, missile boats don’t hunt submarines and there is no way a missile boat would do something like spy missions. Halibut may have been a missile boat, but this missile boat was busy and its crew was gutsy, and it had its share of danger and discovery. John O’Meally too, is a rather interesting man; in his mid seventies, he still works for a living, volunteers at our museum to give tours and loves to talk about his time in the Navy and in the Submarine Force.

 John joined the Navy in 1954 for several reasons. The influence of the Navy had been great on him, for he and friends had older brothers who had been Navy and had been in the war. In addition, he had gone to a high school that had also doubled as a Navy school to teach students skills they could use in the Navy when they graduated, should they decide to join. He was also a member of the Navy Club and would meet with fellow students every Thursday. What really did it for him, though, were the post cards from his brother who was in the Navy and on a world tour. Every post card was from another part of the world and John, who already had a good job as an electrician, was inspired to join.

His first few years were not on submarines, but surface ships like destroyers. Despite the fact he was already an electrician, a member of the union, had a Journey Man’s card, the Navy ordered him to go to Electrician School. I asked him if he learned anything new there and he laughed; it was an easy school for him, an opportunity to relax. Later on, he volunteered for the submarine force because of increased pay. He said sailors in the Submarine Force who were doing the exact same job he was doing were doing it for $50.00 more. At the age of 19, that seemed like it would solve all of his money problems. Well, it did more than that. Because he never looked back once; he said to me he was glad he volunteered for the submarine force and you can tell just by listening to him, his voice that he is genuine in that feeling. This man truly enjoyed his time in the Submarine Force!
Another motivation was his station at the time, Key West, Florida. John is an African American and as anyone with a very basic history of our nation knows, the Deep South in the 1950’s was not very hospitable toward African Americans I did not press John for detail about what Key West was like for an African American in the 1950’s, but I know when I say uncomfortable, I am probably making a terrible understatement.

 This was a time before the Civil Rights Movement, when schools were still segregated, a different world from what we live in today. I asked him if he ever had any problems with prejudice in his time in the service and, with regards to the Submarine Force. He said he encountered no prejudice on his boats that he was ever aware of. He did relate one story, which gives younger readers an idea of what that world was like and how tough this man really is. On his first Destroyer, before his time in the Submarine Force, out of training, John’s Chief Petty Officer, a man who was not described in very favorable or nice terms by John informed him that he did not believe that, “Colored Boys” did not make good electricians. As a result, John was forced to do mess cook duty for six months. Normally all new sailors did mess cook duty for three months, but upon completing that, the Chief Petty Officer put him on for another three months. Following that, he was made to do another three months of compartment cleaning. In the meantime, he would work in the electrical shop on his off time as he truly enjoyed electrician work. But at the end of his tour cleaning compartments, he was promoted to Petty Officer Third Class and was no longer eligible to do those kinds of jobs. There was nothing the Chief Petty Officer could do or did about it.
His first boat was a diesel-electric submarine on its way out of commission. Later, he would go to New London, Connecticut to attend the submarine school and serve on two other diesel electric boats. Meanwhile, technological advancements were beginning to gain momentum, advancements that would change the Submarine Force forever. During this period, the Navy was in the process of expanding its nuclear powered submarine force. Starting with USS Nautilus, they were developing a fleet of vessels that could remain under the water for months at a time without surfacing, travel underneath the water much faster provide better defensive and offensive power for the Navy. The diesel-electric boats of the time were excellent designs and many of the boats, like the Ling, had been modified and rebuilt, providing them with better batteries for underwater travel, streamlining for smoother, more efficient underwater travel, and improved sensor equipment. The newer diesel boats built after the war were excellent models. Yet, these boats principal disadvantage was their power source; diesel engines requiring hundreds of thousands of gallons of diesel fuel and batteries with the capacity to hold two days worth of electricity before running out and forcing the boat to surface and run the engines. The most immediate remedy had been the snorkel system, where a pair of pipes would be raised above the water and air would be drawn in to replenish the boats air supplies, while another pipe serving as an exhaust, would allow the submarine to run its engines. This system had its problems, one of them being that it was highly taxing on the engines. What was needed was a power supply that would allow the submarine to stay submerged. That was found in harnessing the power of the atom. But men were needed to control and maintain these vessels, and the Navy was having a hard time finding qualified individuals in the ranks of volunteers. Therefore, men like John were ordered to go. As long as their grades and service records had been good, they were eligible enough to train. Upon completion of his training, John was sent to one of his more memorable boats, the USS Halibut.
He spent seven years on Halibut, from 1960-67, and did three patrols in three and a half years. On his last year, the Halibut was undergoing conversion into the spy submarine she is best known as. Despite its unusual design and shape, many of the Regulus Boats had an unusual design and shape, the boat was really no different from the Skate class nuclear powered submarine. The difference came forward of Officer Country, the part of the vessel with sleeping quarter reserved for officers only, where the hanger and launch equipment for the Regulus missiles were stored. This section, known as the “Bat Cave” was notable for having a large, 18 foot hatch atop of it, a hatch much bigger than any other in the Submarine Force. In Blind Man’s Bluff this hatch was said to be a source of concern to those serving aboard her, as well as her noise and ballast tanks. None of these concerned John and the rest of the crew, though when
he did see Halibut’s huge missile bay hatch, he had to wonder, “what the hell kind of submarine is this?”

 By the time he was serving on Halibut, he was an Electrician 1st Class and qualified to stand watch in Engineering. This meant, when ordered to by the Engineering Officer, he was in charge of the Engine Rooms, the Reactor, the Electrical Panel etc. In addition, he had electrical specialists under him and, just like any other submarine. He had to have, at the very least, a basic understanding of all the boat’s systems. While it may have been a far more complex beast, a nuclear crew is still responsible for knowing all of their systems just like on the World War II boats. The isolation, the enormous depths and pressures they were subjected to, combined with the immense firepower, requires the crew to be able to react quickly and replace any loss of deficiency as quickly as possible. Halibut engaged in Nuclear Deterrence Patrols as well as spy missions of her own.

One of those spy missions had an ironic twist to it. Halibut sat 50 miles outside of Pearl Harbor gathering information on the US Navy’s own ships as they came in and out of the base and there is no indication that Halibut was ever detected. This was, in a sense, a warning, that if they could do this, the Soviet Union, in all likelihood was doing the same.

Halibut also observed the Soviets firing one of their first intercontinental ballistic missiles from a submarine. The Soviet vessel launched the missiles from the back of its sail structure from what would be called the fairwater on the Ling. In watching this launch, the crew found the missiles were actually so long, that their bottoms actually rested deep in the Soviet boats. This ran counter to what the Navy believed prior to this, that the missiles were only as tall standing as the sail they were launched from.

The patrol area for Halibut was near the largest Soviet Naval base in the Pacific. In the Kamchatka Peninsula and even there, they got so close to the Soviets, Halibut actually slipped underneath a surfaced Soviet Submarine and photographed its propeller, or what naval people refer to as the screw. A screw’s shape and design are closely guarded secrets. Normally when a boat is in dry dock, the screw is covered up as the shape can actually determine how quiet the boat is underwater. On submarines, the quieter the boat, the better.

 But while they were conducting their intelligence gathering missions, Halibut was always ready to receive the orders that would correspond with a terrible breakdown of peace, orders that would come at the beginning of World War III, orders that, thankfully, never came. Halibut would then have to surface and fire its terrible nuclear payload and destroy the base with its Regulus missiles. The Soviets, meanwhile, were always on the lookout for boats like Halibut and the other nuclear boats of the US Navy. Their destroyers constantly trolled the surface, listening, watching for any sign of any Americans spying on their operations. There are several occasions where American boats were discovered, and Halibut was one of them.

 On a Monday, the Russians had pulled their fleet out of the base to conduct training exercises and this provided an enormous opportunity for the Halibut to gather some excellent intelligence on these vessels. Pictures were taken and, even more importantly, the sounds of the vessel’s engines were recorded by Halibut’s sound sensors. Each ship’s engines have a very specific sound; all engines do not age and deteriorate exactly the same way even if they are the same model and these unique variations in sound are like fingerprints and are a good way to identify each vessel. The force the Russian had deployed consisted of two of their own submarines, several destroyers and a larger ship. At some point, the Russians suspected that another submarine was in the area and they ordered their two submarines to surface. As the sound of a submarine was still audible, clearly they had an uninvited quest. Halibut promptly dove deep and hid.

 By Thursday, the Russian fleet had completed their exercises and was on their way back, but several of the Russian destroyers remained behind. Once more, Halibut had been detected and those destroyers were on the hunt for the snooping vessel. At this time, Halibut had been “rigged for patrol quiet”. There was to be no excessive noise in the boat, but showing a movie was permissible. John was one of those men in the forward torpedo room watching a movie and, half way through, the order, “rig for ultra quiet” was given. The movie had to be shut off as well as many other systems. Soon, he could feel the boat beginning to submerge deeper and deeper. The order “rig for deep submergence” was given and several of the movie viewers in the forward torpedo room got up immediately and began to go from compartment to compartment carrying out their assigned task to make sure each compartment was ready for deep submergence. Then came the order John heard for the first time and would never hear again: “Rig for depth charge.”

 He was up and out of the torpedo room, practically jumping. He went to the battery well with someone else and began securing battery buckets by tying them down. That was when the first depth charge went off. Next, he made his way aft to Engineering to see if he was needed. As a qualified officer of the watch, he had skills that would be needed in the event of an emergency. In addition, this was his battle station.

Then the second charge went off.

The Captain had yet to call Battle Stations. Battle Station is such a high state of readiness. Adrenaline flows, focus is laser sharp, and, forefront on everyone’s mind is the reality, unbelievable as it may have seemed, that they were about to go into combat against the Russians. In addition, on a more immediate level and an immediate concern to Halibut’s forward thinking Captain, he had no idea how long he would have his crew at Battle Stations. Instead of wearing everyone out, therefore, those not on duty or watch were ordered to their bunks to get whatever sleep they could.

On the second day of this, however, Battle Stations was called and the Russians were still hunting Halibut.

They dove deep, very deep. Halibut’s test depth had been 710 feet. In other words, that was the depth the official documents and experts said the boat could safely operate at. As a submarine, dives deeper and deeper into the ocean, it is subjected to more and more pressure, above, below and on the sides of the boat. All submarines have their limits, known as the crush depth, the depth which water pressure becomes so much that the steel of the boat can no longer hold back the pressure of the water. When there is so much water around the boat it will squeeze the hull and crush it like an empty soda can in the hands of a heavy weight wrestler. Halibut’s captain, like many captains trying to escape relentless Japanese attacks during World War II, took a page from their books and drove Halibut a little deeper. They continued on somewhere between 805, 810, the Russians still tracking them. There were ways of escape, methods, tricks that would through the Russians, any anti-submarine warfare team off and allow a submarine to escape. The Russians, according to John were not too skilled, but they had a good learning curve and were getting close. The best way for a submarine to escape was to
find what was known as a thermal layer, enter it, and hide there. A thermal layer is an area of ocean, varying in size, where the temperature has suddenly increased. It is not by much, usually about five degrees or so, but the effects this temperature change has on sound is profound. Sound equipment cannot detect much outside the thermal layer, likewise, hunter sound equipment will usually lose track of a submarine when it enters this layer. Research into thermal layers during the war had resulted in the addition of a small piece of equipment onboard submarines called the bathythermograph, a small device that displayed the temperature of the water around the boat which was instrumental in detecting these layers. Many a crew saved themselves from further torment and possible destruction by finding one of these and slipping their boat into it, confusing and eventually loosing hunting vessels above.
Cold War boats had lost hunters in a similar way. They would drive the boat at high speed, find a layer, enter it, shut the engines down while using hard right rudder. It literally threw the sound of the boat like a decoy and sent the hunting vessel on a wild porpoise chase.
The problem was the weather. Above sea it had been a perfect week for exercises for the Russian Navy with clear skies, calm winds, and nice weather, which allowed Halibut to gather all that data as well. But that also meant there would be few thermal layers in the ocean and, therefore almost no cover. It was not until later that the weather began to pick up and Halibut was able to find its
thermal layers, hide and lose the Russian destroyers.

With their escape complete, and the Russian destroyers returning home, Halibut could drive away to a safer distance. But this was not the end of their seventh patrol, not by a long shot. They still had seven more weeks to go and much more snooping to do in addition to serving as a reminder as to what the Russians would face in retaliation if they decided to begin WWIII. That was a deterrence patrol.

 About 25 to 30 miles away from their patrol area, they cleaned up the boat, fixed what they had to and returned to what would be the last patrol of the USS Halibut as a Regulus missile boat. Next would be her yearlong metamorphosis into the pure spy boat written about in Blind Man’s Bluff. This was neither the first time nor the last time a US submarine would be depth charged by Russian surface forces, but little came of this politically. Rare, if ever, is the story such as this in popular media. The Russians never sank one of our boats and the charges they were using were not very big or powerful ones. This was intentional. These depth charges, smaller ones, were never designed to sink a submarine, but to serve as a warning shot to let the US submarine know that they were found, the jig was up, come up and show yourself.

It may seem like a dirty writer’s trick to drop that little piece of information at the end, as if to say, “oh, but Halibut was never in any kind of danger.” One has to remember, that crew was cut off, and crew did not have the benefit of foresight. That crew, at the moment those charges were falling, did not know what was to follow after the next charge- another warning or the real thing.

Had WWIII begun?

All they knew was that there were explosives being dropped around them and they had no idea when it would end. Perhaps the best indicator of this was in the forward torpedo room.

 They had two of the tubes flooded down, loaded each with a very real, very live torpedo, ready to shoot if the need presented itself.

Thankfully it never did.

My Opening Posts

21 Jun

My greatest two loves in life are writing and history. I write almost every day, finding excuses to do so, before my paid job, and I work at a museum as an unpaid volunteer. My fiction just excercises my mind, gives a bit of life and purpose for learning, my volunteering at the museum allows me to give others a little inspiration and knowledge. New Jersey Naval Museum is the home of a truely great historical artifact, a WWII United States Navy Submarine, USS Ling (SS-297). The Submarine Force of the US Navy was the first arm that struck back at the Japanese, in the days after Pearl Harbor. They would continue to strike at the Japanese for the rest of the war, growing in size, in power, refining tactics and weapons. In the opinion of the writer, they did half the work out in the Pacific War as they sunk about fifty-four percent of Japanese cargo shipping and about a third of thier surface ships, strangling Japan itself. Consider the dangers they faced; depth charges, aircraft, being rammed by friendly or enemy ships, malfunctioning equipment; they are one of the most amazing and understudied groups in WWII history.

Here’s a shot of my boat; I’m proud of her and proud of what she has accomplished. No war record; she did not complete her first war patrol because the war ended and she was used as a training boat after fourteen years in the reserves. She is a teacher to the young and old and a memorial to those who braved the depth of the seas for our country and for freedom.


The fairwater/superstructure of the USS Ling