Archive for July, 2018

Hubert Wilkins and his Submarine

On August 3rd, we will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the historic trip Nautilus took to the North Pole. But as we know, Operation Sunshine as it was called, was not the first of its kind. In March, we shared a piece about Arctic missions and the biennial ICEX exercises that occurred. Within that article was the story of Hubert Wilkins, an explorer who wanted more than anything to completely discover all the North Pole had to offer. From that piece:

Figure 1 Hubert Wilkins

Sir George Hubert Wilkins was an Australian polar explorer that saw the submarine as the perfect means for attaining a Northwest Passage. In 1930, Wilkins along with colleague Lincoln Ellsworth laid out the plans for a trans-Atlantic expedition. They believed that a submarine would be able to be fully equipped with a working laboratory that would allow them to do comprehensive meteorological studies. Since Wilkins was not a U.S. citizen, he could not purchase a submarine, but he was able to lease a vessel for five years. He was given the disarmed O-12 which he would fittingly rename Nautilus after Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The submarine was fitted with a custom drill that would allow it to drill through the ice pack overhead. A crew of eighteen was chosen and the expedition was set. Losses plagued the beginning of the mission. Before ever leaving port, the Quartermaster was knocked overboard and drowned. Undeterred, they left New London, CT on June 4, 1931. On June 14, they faced engine failure and Wilkins was forced to SOS for help and was rescued by the USS Wyoming. Repairs were done and by June 28, the crew set out for their destination once again. By August, they were only 600 miles from the North Pole when they realized that the submarine was missing its diving planes. Without the diving planes, the crew would be unable to control the submarine while submerged. Upon a plea from one of his investors, Wilkins had to admit the problems with his journey and seek safe port. While heading to England, the crew was forced to stop in Norway due to a storm. The Nautilus suffered severe damage and Wilkins received permission from the U.S. Navy to sink the vessel off the Norwegian coast. While Wilkins may have failed at his specific mission, he proved that submarines were capable of operating in the Arctic seas. And it would only take a few short years and another submarine named Nautilus to prove that he was right.

And sure enough, in 1958, another Nautilus, the first of her kind, would do the unthinkable. But unlike Wilkins’ expedition, Operation Sunshine was kept quiet. The details of the mission were on a need to know basis. Wilkins, on the other hand, believed that good press about his mission would mean investors. Investors that could finance a bigger, better submarine than the one he modified. In 1931, shortly before getting underway, Wilkins and his team wrote a book called Under the North Pole, detailing the need for the journey and the people working on the project. While no longer in print, Under the North Pole has been archived by a nonprofit called the Internet Archives, a digital library offering free access to millions of works. Here are a few selections from the book. Two by Wilkins himself and one from Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an explorer Wilkins had worked with on previous expeditions to the North Pole.

“It is unusual and perhaps unprecedented to publish a book as we are doing in relation to an expedition before it takes place. But in our case, this is really not without point, for we are going to use a submarine for the first time in the history of polar exploration, and submarines open up a new field of Arctic research that needs explaining.”- Captain Sir Hubert Wilkins.

“The Arctic has been crossed only twice in the history of the world, once by airship and once by airplane. The commander of the first airplane, Sir Hubert Wilkins, and the second-in-command of the first airship, Lincoln Ellsworth, have now joined to attempt the first crossing of the Arctic by submarine. There was romance in flying above the polar ice from Europe to America; there is more romance, or at least more strangeness, in swimming that course beneath the ice If the journey is successful the value to science will be greater…. But a submarine navigates the very medium to be studied, the ocean. It can take soundings every mile to yield us for the first time a contour of the sea bottoms; a calculation of speed and leeway will help to show the ocean currents. If successful at all, you can make scores if not hundreds of stops on the 3000 likes from Spitsbergen by way of the North Pole to Alaska. You dive beneath the floes like a whale and like the whales that cross the Arctic every summer, you come pin the leads between the floes to breathe and look around. The staff will go ashore on the ice fields and walk about for study. They can measure the temperature gradients of the water as deep into the sea as they like. The can take water samples at similarly varying depths to learn how the chemistry changes and how the tiny animal and plant life varies. They can use nets at many depths to capture swimming animals and both plants and animals that float with the current.” – Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Figure 2 Image of Arctic waters, taken from the deck of
the Nautilus

“We out to be using a specially-built submarine for this work rather than the Nautilus, which is a war submarine adapted – no matter how good a military submarine it was and no matter how cleverly it has been adapted. A voyage in the Nautilus this year under the ice, even if we do not go farther than to the geographic North Pole, should, however, create enough public interest on our return to enable us or somebody else to finance a really ideal craft, to be especially designed for under-ice work, and built according to what it is to do rather than to fit a cramped financial situation. It will only be if everything goes better than I expect that we shall make the full crossing from Spitsbergen to Alaska during the summer of 1931.” – Captain Sir Hubert Wilkins

Wilkins passed away on November 30, 1958, being able to witness SSN-571 make her historic journey. A submarine, however, would not surface at the North Pole until 1959 with the USS Skate. His ashes were laid at the North Pole by the crew of the Skate in accordance with Wilkins’ wishes. Wilkins believed that submarines would be able to allow new access to this remote region in ways we never dreamed possible. And he was right. His excitement before his mission was electric. You must wonder- if we had known about Operation Sunshine before it happened- what would the excitement have been like? Nautilus, of course, returned home to a celebration and great fanfare. If it wasn’t for innovators and explorers like Simon Lake (whose company worked on Wilkins’ submarine), Hubert Wilkins, Hyman G. Rickover, and many others, we wouldn’t have the Submarine Force that we have today.

Figure 3 A large advertising poster for a lecture by Wilkins, printed in navy blue, the text surmounted by the image of the submarine “Nautilus” and itself surmounting the image of a plane with the words “Ellsworth Trans-Atlantic Flight” to the side of the plane.

Figure 4 Article from June 1931 about Wilkins upcoming mission.

The Lucky Cribbage Board

The Submarine Force in particular and the Navy, in general, have many traditions. These traditions are passed from one generation to the next and held in great honor. Whether it be the ceremony for crossing the North Pole (and becoming a Bluenose) for the first time or hearing the whistle blow at a retirement ceremony, the Submarine Force is proud of its heritage and the traditions of those that came before them. But one tradition is rarely talked about outside of the submarine community. It is an honored tradition that has deep ties to the Navy and to one of the Submarine Force’s greatest commanders.
In April of 1943, the USS Wahoo (SS-283) was headed out on its fourth war patrol. However, unlike her previous missions, Wahoo would be tested by being sent to the shallow waters of the farthest reaches of the Yellow Sea. This would be the first time a submarine would patrol the area. Tensions ran high as the crew headed the area. To make them feel more at ease, Commander Dudley “Mush” Morton and his Executive officer Richard “Dick” O’Kane broke out a cribbage board and began to play. As submarine lore goes, Morton dealt O’Kane a perfect 29, the highest possible hand one can get in the game. It has been said that the crew calculated the odds to be one in 216,000. The crew felt like the hand was a lucky omen. That night, the Wahoo sank two Japanese freighters. Three days later, in another game, Morton dealt a 28-point hand. The following day, they sunk two freighters and a third the next day. O’Kane would leave the Wahoo and the board to command the USS Tang (SS-306) – which went on to break the record for most ships sunk in a patrol. O’Kane would be captured by the Japanese and held until the end of the war. Sixty years later, the lucky cribbage board would find a home once again on the second submarine named USS Tang (SS-563). Ernestine O’Kane sponsored the second Tang.

Figure 1

The game of cribbage was played in the Navy long before WWII, however, the story of Morton’s 29 hand solidified its place in submarine lore and tradition. The game itself is believed to have been invented by British soldier and poet Sir John Suckling in the 17th century. English settlers would bring the game to America where it became popular among sailors and fishermen in New England. The game is played by having a dealer hand out cards to the players who try to score points by discarding cards to a “crib” in several combinations. There is one card set aside that players can combine with their hand to earn more points. However, this card is kept secret until all players have made their moves. The cribbage board is used to keep score with small holes and pegs. One sailor’s lore says that the game is so old that Vice Adm. Horatio Nelson played on a cribbage board made of bone at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. The tradition of playing cribbage on submarines has lived on despite the advent of video games and movies as pastime alternatives. It even has been labeled the unofficial game of submariners.

Figure 2 Sailors playing Cribbage at the Medical Center in Norfolk

But the game of cribbage is not the only tradition that has been kept alive in the Submarine Force. When the second USS Tang was struck from the Naval Register in 1987, the cribbage board was passed on to the USS Kamehameha (SSN 642), the oldest commissioned submarine in the force at the time. Since this trade, the board has been sent to the oldest commissioned submarine in the Pacific Fleet after the decommissioning of its predecessor. When she was decommissioned in 2002 after 37 years of service, the board was passed onto the USS Parche (SSN 683), the most highly decorated vessel in U.S. History. Parche was decommissioned in 2005 and the board did not reach its next home until 2007- the USS Los Angeles (SSN 688). Upon accepting the board, Commanding Officer, Cmdr. Erik Burian said, “It’s an honor to deploy with O’Kane’s cribbage board. Embarking with a piece of submarine history is a constant reminder of the legacy that we will continue. My crew and I enjoy passing time playing cribbage while not on duty and we are proud that we can carry on the tradition.”

Figure 4USS Los Angeles (SSN 688) Commanding Officer Cmdr. Steven Harrison (left) passes on the “Dick O’Kane cribbage board” to USS Bremerton (SSN 698) Commanding Officer Cmdr. Howard Warner during a departure ceremony held at the Naval Station Pearl Harbor submarine pier. The guardianship of the cribbage board is traditionally held by the oldest submarine in the Pacific Fleet.

When the Los Angeles was decommissioned in 2011, the board was sent to the USS Bremerton (SSN 698) where it has been kept atop a case of coffee mugs in the wardroom. The crew uses the board often says Cmdr. Wes Bringham. “We play on it. We figure he would have wanted us to.”

Figure 3The USS Bremerton’s commanding officer, Wes Bringham, and the historic cribbage board game in the ward room.

In April 2018, USS Bremerton left its home port in Pearl Harbor and headed for her namesake city, the final destination before her retirement. She is scheduled to begin inactivation and decommissioning at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard this month. After her decommissioning, the cribbage board will find its way to a new home and tradition will continue. The board isn’t simply handed over, but in true Navy fashion, its transfer is honored with a ceremony just as any change of command has seen. Cribbage is more than just a game to submariners. It is tied to their heritage and the essence of who they are. And with O’Kane’s cribbage board being kept alive, it serves as a reminder of the greatest of the submariners who came before, the ones that currently serve, and the future.


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Unmanned Underwater Vehicles

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

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

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

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

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

The Original Sea Devil Submarine

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

Sketch of Brandtaucher

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

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

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

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

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