Archive for December, 2017

Simon Lake and the Submarine Contest of 1893

Simon Lake is not remembered for the great submarine contest of 1893. Despite his future success in submarine development, Lake didn’t make it very far in the competition. Without the financial backing that Holland and Baker had, Simon Lake could not cover the required bond to be considered in the competition. What would have happened had Lake been able to complete the competition? History will never know. But Lakes’ contributions to submarine development are still considered a success.

Simon Lake was born in Pleasantville, New Jersey in 1866, the grandson of Simon Lake who helped founded Atlantic City and Ocean City, New Jersey. His love of submarines was inspired by Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Lake states “Jules Verne was in a sense the director-general  of my life. When I was not more than ten or eleven years old I read his Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and my young imagination was fired. This generation may have forgotten that Verne was a great scientist as well as the writer of the most romantic fiction of his day. I began to dream of making voyages under the waters, and of the vast stores of treasure and the superb adventures that awaited subaqueous pioneers. But with the impudence which is a part of the equipment of the totally inexperienced I found fault with some features of Jules Verne’s Nautilus and set about improving on them.”[1] So began Lake’s passion for submarines and it was during his childhood that he planned his Argonaut submarine. While planning and designing his submarine at night, Lake grew up, worked with his father, and eventually moved to Baltimore where he married Margret Vogel. Vogel was supportive of Lake’s dream of building a submarine. By this time, the true difficulties of submarine development were not lost on Simon Lake. A childhood fancy had developed into exhausting research on how to overcome the issues with submerging a vessel. When the submarine contest came around, Lake believed that a submarine would be more profitable for commercial use than for the Navy.

Simon Lake’s Submarine during production – notice the wheels!

In 1892, Simon Lake’s wife found the advertisement about the bids for a submarine from the U.S. Navy. At the young age of twenty-seven, he set off to Washington D.C. to submit his plans. He was the youngest of the inventors and was not considered a threat to the other inventors. However, Lake truly believed he would prevail. In his autobiography, he stated that “I was confident that my plans were superior to those of the Holland and Baker submarine. Every inventor presumably feels that way. I could name several points of superiority. It seemed to me, too, in my almost infantile ignorance of how things are done in politics that my proposition would appeal to the chiefs in the Navy Department. I had not submitted a bid for the construction of a boat, for the very good reason that I had neither money nor backers, but I had asked that, if my plans were accepted, I be given a position in the capacity of constructor and my boat be built in one of the Navy’s yards. It seemed to me that this suggestion was both practical and a promise of economy. What I did not know was that there was the smell of business in the building of submarines. Let me emphasize that this statement is not necessarily critical. The Mends of Mr. Baker and Mr. Holland, one or both, had aroused interest in submarines among members of Congress. An appropriation of $200,000 was made, and it was the very natural feeling of those who had put this appropriation through that Baker and Holland were entitled to the first chance at it.”[2] Lake’s design gave the submarine the ability to submerge on an even keel, a diving compartment, five propellers, a double hull and wheels so the submarine could be operated on the ocean floor. The competition, unfortunately for Lake, was hinged by political influence, bickering and bureaucratic delay. It wasn’t until years later that he found out the truth about why his design wasn’t accepted. Lake met with Admiral Baird, who had been a member on the board at the time. The two men had the following conversation:

Baird: “Lake, I’m glad to meet you. We should have been building your boats all the time. Four of the five members of the Board voted for your plans in 1893, you know.”
Lake: “Then why didn’t you build my boats?”
Baird: “Because the Navy’s advertisement had required that a bid be submitted for the construction of a submarine. You made no such bid. Four of us wanted to call you over to the Navy Yard and have you make up working drawings. Then we could build in one of the Navy’s yards under your supervision. But they beat us.’”[3]

If Lake had been able to make the bid entering the contest, the history of the US submarine program may have begun very differently. But the rejection of his design only fueled Lake’s passion.

Despite his loss in the Great Submarine Contest of 1893, Simon Lake continued his dream of building submarines. In 1894, he built his first submarine, the Argonaut, Jr. It was successfully tested in New Jersey and led to the creation of the Lake Submarine Company of New Jersey in 1895. It was this company that built the Argonaut, the first submarine to operate in open sea successfully in 1898. Powered by a 30-horsepower gasoline engine, the Argonaut sailed more than 2,000 miles from Cape May to Sandy Hook in New Jersey. Not only was the distance a great feat, but the submarine traveled during a nor’easter that sunk an estimated 100 ships. This feat even caught the attention of Jules Verne, who sent Lake a congratulatory telegram. Lake would attempt to sell several designs to the US Navy even after they began work with Holland, all of which were rejected. Lake would eventually take his designs to foreign countries who were happy to latch on to the advanced designs. Lake’s Protector, built in 1901, was sold to Russia in 1904. This design had diving planes mounted forward of the conning tower and a flat keel. Four diving places allowed her to maintain depth without changing ballast tank levels. Following this sale to Russia, Lake would spend the next several years designing and engineering submarines in Europe. Upon his return, the Lake Torpedo Boat company was founded in Bridgeport, Connecticut where the first Lake submarine was built for the US Navy.   The Seal, or G-1, was the first of 33 submarines that were built for the United States Navy at Bridgeport, Connecticut, and in California at California Shipbuilding & Dry-dock.

Jules Verne’s open letter to Simon Lake

When the Lake Torpedo Company closed in the 1920’s, Lake would go on to invent new techniques in cargo and salvage developments. He is credited with basic submarine design elements such as even-keel hydroplanes, diver’s compartments, twin-hull designs, and the periscope. During his lifetime he achieved over 200 patents for his designs. Some people today regard him as the Father of the Modern Submarine.

Interior of the Protector. Photo Courtesy of Library Of Congress

Submarine. The Autobiography of Simon Lake as told to Herbert Corey, 1938.  Pg 10

[2] Submarine, pg 37

[3] Submarine, pg 41

The Great Submarine Contest of 1893 pt 2

When the great submarine contest of 1893 began, John P. Holland was already a who’s who amongst Washington bureaucracy. The Irish born schoolteacher had already submitted two designs to the US Navy that had been rejected before construction could begin. A month before the competition, a lawyer provided Holland with the capital needed to form his own company, giving him a leg up once the competition began. Holland, as we all know, would go on to win the submarine contest and the Holland submarine would become the first official U.S. Navy submarine. However, who was John P. Holland and how did he become the favorite of those running the competition.

John P. Holland

Holland was born in Ireland in 1840. He would become a schoolteacher and taught in Ireland until his emigration to the United States in 1873. While teaching in Ireland, Holland studied the battle between the Monitor and Merrimac during the American civil war. Holland realized that the best way to take down such ironclads would be from underneath the vessels, and so Holland’s interests in submarines began. Once he moved to New Jersey, Holland began to design his version of a submarine. The project was funded by the Irish Fenian Brotherhood.  The Irish Fenian Brotherhood was a group in the United States that brought together Irish immigrants to fight for Ireland’s independence from Britain. It was there hope, that Holland could design a submarine that would help win that independence for Ireland. His first design was a one man-operated vessel and was 14 feet, 8 inches long and three feet wide. It could displace 2.5 tons. While Holland considered his first attempt a failure, the brotherhood found it promising enough to fund a second design. The new submarine, nicknamed the Fenian Ram was launched in 1881.

The Fenian Ram in New York sometime between 1916 and 1927

It was 31 feet long, nine feet wide and displaced 19 tons. During its first dive, the vessel reached 14 feet. On the second day, the submarine remained submerged for 2.5 hours. What made Holland’s designs unique was the use of water ballasts to submerge the vessel and horizontal rudders to dive with. During further tests, the submarine reached depths of 45 feet. The submarine was propelled by a 20-horseoiwer gasoline engine and used an electric motor that was used to recharge the vessels battery. By 1883, the Fenians, upset over escalating costs stole the design forcing Holland to break ties with the Brotherhood. Once the brotherhood had possession of the vessel, they realized they knew nothing about its operation. Of course, Holland refused to help. The Fenian Ram would never be used in battle and would sit in New Haven Connecticut until its engine was removed to a brass foundry. Eventually the craft ended up back in Holland’s adopted hometown of Patterson, NJ were it can still be visited today.

Not wanting to be defeated, Holland brought his design to the US Navy. At this time, the Navy was still unsure about the place of submarines within its force. As the US Navy debated the topic, Holland would design a submarine for France called the Zalinski Boat in 1883. The key to Holland’s design was the use of electrical battery power rather than a petrol motor, which would not use up valuable air supply. When the 1893 contest came around, Washington believed that Holland was there best bet, despite previously being unsure about his designs. It was his previous discussions with the US Navy that led many to believe that he would be the clear-cut winner of the contest. George C. Baker’s protest over unfairness delayed the contest decision. Baker’s submission was testable, while Holland’s design was only on paper. This was in part because his model had been taken the Fenian Brotherhood. However, Baker’s plan backfired with a poor performance, leaving the judges to give the recommendation in favor of Holland. Baker protested the decision yet again, forcing the secretary of the Navy to delay his decision. One was finally made in 1895, after Baker’s death. During this period of indecision, Holland’s design was still being marketed to foreign governments. Finally, the Navy awarded the contract and construction could begin. To meet with naval guidelines, the boat was 84 feet long and 12 feet in diameter with a displacement of 168 tons. The requirements for surface speeds (15 knots) forced Holland to compromise his design. As requirements changed throughout construction, such as vertical thrusters and triple-screw configuration, it became clear that the design would never satisfy Navy requirements. During its launch in 1897, the submarine, named Plunger, the unshielded broiler made the fire room uninhabitable while on the surface.

Design sketch for the experimental submarine Plunger

While work on the Plunger seemed to stall, Holland began a private venture at his Torpedo Boat Company (what became Electric Boat). This vessel reverted to his design for the Fenian Ram. This new design was 52 feet long and had a maximum diameter of just over 10 feet. Submerged she displaced 75 tons. Holland returned to internal combustion to power the boat with a 45-horsepower Otto gasoline engine. In February of 1898, Holland took his new vessel to sea. After some trial and error, the submarine had successful test runs off the coast of Staten Island, NY on March 17, 1898. It was only fitting that it was St. Patrick’s Day. By 1900, the US Navy was onboard with Holland’s new design and had scrapped the Plunger project. USS Holland was officially commissions on October 12, 1900.

USS Holland in dry dock

For the end of Holland’s career, his merger with the Electric Boat Company left him with a number of disputes and the inability to successfully run his own company. He would die in Newark New Jersey in 1914, a month before the first submarine victory of WWI changed naval battles forever. Stay tuned for the last installment of the Great Submarine Contest of 1893.

The Great Submarine Contest-pt 1

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

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


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

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

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

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

Baker’s design

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

Baker’s Design

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

[1] Wendy Gully Klaxon March 1992



By Wendy Gulley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USS Halibut (SS 232)

USS Jack (SS 259)

USS Jack (SS 259)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USS Jack (SS 259)

USS Jack (SS 259)

USS Nautilus (SS 168)

USS Nautilus (SS 168)

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

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

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

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

Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day

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

Air Raid On Pearl Harbor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ballad of Whitey Mack

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

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

USS Lapon

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Pg 133

[2] Pg 147


[4] Pg 151