The Loss of USS F-1 (SS-20)

On 18 December 1917, the U.S. Navy issued a brief statement revealing that “the American submarine [USS] F-1 [SS-20] has been rammed and sunk by the submarine [USS] F-3 [SS-22].” The incident had happened the day before in the waters off San Diego, CA. Given that the U.S. was at war, “how this accident occurred has not yet been announced,” the release concluded. No more information would be available for a number of years. In the December 1998 issue of The SubCommittee Report, Jim Christley pieced together what happened to the five-year-old submarine.

“The distance from San Pedro Bay to La Jolla in California is roughly 75 nautical miles. …In a smooth sea the F class submarine could make the trip in about eight hours at just less than ten knots. Naval Instructions require that ships perform an engineering test to determine both the stamina of a ship and her capabilities. Both must be known in order to plan strategy. The test for submarines was to run at a constant speed for 48 hours. The test would see how far the ship could go in the requisite time. Slowing or stopping for repairs would count against the ship’s performance and reflect poorly on both ship and crew. The best a ship could do, then, was to maintain a constant, fairly high speed for the entire time. To complete a 48-hour engineering test would require six trips for an F class submarine, three south from San Pedro toward San Diego and three back to the north.

“In December 1917, the USS F-1, USS F-3 and USS F-2 [SS-21] found themselves making just such a test….

“…Fog is a common factor off the California coast in winter. The plan for the engineering run included the contingency of turning to seaward in case of running into restricted visibility. The engineering run started on the morning of December 17, 1917. The first leg was a run to the south with a course reversal to be made when La Jolla light was abeam to port. The three ships that were participating in the engineering run formed a rough line abreast and started south. The boats were making about 10 knots with the direct drive engines running smoothly at about 292 rpm. There was a current running to the south of about two knots, so the speed ‘over the ground’ was nearer 12 knots. The run south was uneventful throughout the day and as the afternoon wore on, the line abreast had become slightly ragged. F-2 was to seaward standing to the south on course 142 degrees True and about ten nautical miles off La Jolla light. F-3 was two points forward of F-2’s port beam at a range of about 7000 yards. F-1 was about 2000 yards astern of F-3 on a bearing of 007 degrees True from F-3.

“Sunset occurred about 1630 on the evening of December 17, 1917, and it was fully dark by about 1715. The orders to the flotilla were to maintain speed as per the engineering run plan and to maintain a course of 142 degrees True until abeam of La Jolla light. They were to stand out to sea to avoid fog then…come around to such a course that would bring them to San Pedro by about 1000 the next morning. Even though the ships were together, they were operating independently and not running in formation. Each ship was to inform the others of course and speed changes. Each of the ships cruised through the calm sea with running lights on.

“The F class had been designed without a bridge as we see on later submarines. The crews had a pipe and rail rig made up to which a canvas screen was lashed. This provided some protection from the wind and occasional spray. The Captain and the Officer of the Deck were on the bridge in addition to the two lookouts. Another man was in the conning tower. Rudder and engine orders were shouted down the hatch to the conning tower. Air was being drawn into the ship for the engines through both the air induction and the conning tower hatch. All seemed routine, but the Captain was aware of the impending danger of maneuvering near land in the fog and at night.

“About 1830, the ships began to run into a fog that soon became very thick. F-1 changed course to 165 degrees True to stand away from La Jolla and Point Loma. Being the aft most ship, she would pass astern of F-3. A radio message was sent to indicate the course change, but it was evidently not received by either of F-1’s companions. The OOD of F-2 was mindful of the two ships on his port hand. At 1855, he turned F-2 to the west to not only clear the fog but also to clear the area into which F-1 and F-3 would maneuver. F-2 would stand out to sea until clear of the fog and then turn north for the return trip along course 322 degrees True. Just after 1900, F-3 put on 10 degree right rudder and began a turn to a reciprocal course of 322 degrees True. The intention was to reverse course, running to the north to get out of the fog and back toward San Pedro. The assumption made was that F-1 was still to port and astern. F-3’s radio operator started to try to raise F-1 and F-2 on the radio to inform them of the course change and intentions.

“F-3 was coming slowly about and was crossing 310 degrees True when, at about 1912, her lookouts and OOD sighted the masthead and port running light of another ship closing at a combined speed of nearly 20 knots. The OOD screamed for F-3’s helmsman to put her rudder hard over, to try to turn the ship faster to starboard, and for the engines to be reversed. The other ship was crossing F-3’s bow moving from starboard to port. The other ship was F-1 running to the south on 165 degrees True. Seeing the lights of F-3 looming out of the fog, F-1’s skipper tried to come to starboard. The combination of efforts was too slow to do anything but make the collision worse by placing the ships at more of a right angle. The resulting collision was deadly.

“F-3 struck F-1 on the port side some 15 feet aft of the periscope shears near the bulkhead between the control and engine rooms. The stiff stem of F-3 and the rounded torpedo tube bow cap punched a three-foot wide by ten-foot high hole in the upper hull of F-1, driving all the way into the superstructure. F-1 rolled to starboard throwing all four men who were on the small canvas and pipe bridge into the sea. F-3 pulled out of the hole with the screws reversed. Not being pushed anymore, F-1 rolled back to port and started to flood fast. The man in F-1’s conning tower, seeing the water coming in below him, climbed out and went over the side. No one else escaped. Someone in the engine room tried to open the hatch to get out, but the ship was sinking fast and water pressure on the outside kept it shut until it was too late. Those in the forward end of the boat had no chance. Nineteen men went down with the ship. The five in the water were picked up by F-3 and she made her way back to San Pedro.

“In October 1975, the USNS DE STEIGUER (T-AGOS-12) was using some new equipment to search for an F-J4 aircraft known to have crashed in the sea off Point Loma. Her side scan sonar spotted what appeared to be a submarine in 635 feet of water. The hull was photographed by CURV II and again on October 24, 1975 by DSRV-2. It was positively identified as the F-1. The boat is lying on its starboard side with the hole made by F-3 clearly visible. The hull is in amazingly good shape and serves as a deep grave site for the US Naval Submarine Force’s first wartime submarine loss.”

F-1 aground off Watsonville, California, 11 October 1912. (The boat had slipped her mooring and fetched up on the beach.)

F-1 aground off Watsonville, California, 11 October 1912. (The boat had slipped her mooring and fetched up on the beach.) More photos are available on F-1’s NavSource page.

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