The History and Tradition of the
“The Silent Service”
While submarines and submersibles in US Naval history go back as far as the American Revolution and David Bushnell’s Turtle, a small one-man submersible that attempted to sink the British warship HMS Eagle in New York Harbor on 7 September 1776, and the Confederate submersible Hunley, the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel in combat when it attacked the Union blockader USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor on 17 February 1864 during the American Civil War, the US Submarine Force is recognized to have officially begun with the purchase of the USS Holland SS-1 on 11 April 1900.
David Bushnell’s Turtle. The H.L. Hunley, first submersible to successfully sink
an enemy ship in combat.
Built by Irish-American
inventor John P. Holland, the
Holland SS-1 on a nautical Scale
model of the
Submarining has always been considered a dangerous profession, especially during the early days when gasoline-powered internal combustion engines were used to propel the small submersible boats while on the surface. Buildup of gasoline fumes in early boats caused explosions which in most cases killed many of the boat’s crew. This problem was rectified by the introduction of the diesel engine on submarines in the USS Skipjack (also known as USS E-1) SS-24 in 1911. Other boats, like the USS F-1 SS-20 and USS S-5 SS-110 were lost when other vessels collided with the submarines, usually due to their lack of above-water visibility. When President Theodore Roosevelt visited the USS Plunger SS-2 in 1905, spending over three hours underwater aboard the submarine, he personally realized just how dangerous the profession was and immediately authorized what would become known as Submarine Pay, the first hazardous duty pay every authorized for the US Armed Forces.
USS Squalus SS-192 on the surface USS Wandank and USS Falcon attempt to rescue
sea trials from
McCann Rescue Chamber.
at no time was the danger of submarines more apparent to the general public
than in March of 1939, when the USS
Squalus SS-192, while conducting dive tests off the coast of
The crew of Squalus emerge from the McCann The bow of USS Squalus breaks the surface during the
Rescue Chamber after being rescued from the first unsuccessful attempt to salvage the submarine.
In 1923 it was decided the submarine force needed its own emblem, in the form of a warfare pin that qualified submarine officers could wear on their uniforms to distinguish them from their ‘skimmer’ brethren. The task was placed on the shoulders of Captain Ernest J. King, who judged the submission of many designs and finally settled on what is the now-familiar insignia, known to all as Dolphins.
US Navy Submarine Force came into its own in the days that followed 7 December
1941. Following the Japanese sneak
7 December 1941 The Gato-class USS Paddle SS-263,
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor one of the hundreds of American
witnessed from the Submarine Base in
the battle directly to the enemy.
The US Submarine Force fought hard and suffered greatly. Though only 5% of the US Navy during World War II, the Silent Service accounted for over 55% of Japanese losses between December 1941 and September 1945. But these successes were paid for heavily in blood. Through the course of the Pacific War, fifty-two American submarines and over 3500 men were lost, one of the highest loss rates of any service.
the 1950’s, submarines, which until that time had actually been little more
than surface ships with the ability to submerge for relatively short periods of
time, finally came of age. On 21 January
1954 the USS Nautilus SSN-571, the
world’s first nuclear powered vessel, was launched from Electric Boat Shipyard
USS Nautilus SSN-571 The Nautilus as she appears today, berthed at the
after being commissioned. Submarine
Force Library and Museum in
the end of World War II, the mission of the US Submarine Force also
changed. No longer on a mission strictly
to hunt down and destroy the enemy, though training still focused on
anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare, the main mission of the submarine
force during the Cold War shifted to espionage.
For the next fifty years, until the fall of the
USS George Washington SSBN-598, Trident ballistic missile submarines like the
Two of the US Navy’s greatest submarine tragedies occurred during the Cold War just a few years apart. The first occurred on 9 April 1963 when USS Thresher SSN-593, conducting deep dive tests while on sea trials in the Atlantic Ocean from Portsmouth Shipyard, was lost with all hands, including 15 officers, 97 enlisted men and 17 shipyard technicians. It was eventually determined the likely cause of Thresher’s loss was flooding from an engine room pipe which caused circuit breakers to trip and the boat’s reactor to scram, causing a loss of all propulsion precisely when it was needed most. Then just five years later, sometime shortly after 21 May 1968, USS Scorpion SSN-589, returning to Norfolk, VA from a six month deployment in the Mediterranean Sea, was lost with all 99 men aboard in an accident, the exact cause of which still remains a mystery today.
USS Thresher SSN-593 USS Scorpion SSN-589
the submarine force mission is changing again.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, American submarines are conducting
fewer covert espionage missions against our former Cold War enemies and
spending more time observing rogue nations and nations that support terrorism,
as well as conducting special operations with US Navy SEALs, land attack
missions hundreds of miles inland from the sea with advanced cruise missiles
and operations with the navies and submarine forces of our allies. It was the US Submarine Force that first
brought the fight to the enemy following September 11 as USS Providence and other American submarines fired Tomahawk
missiles at al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in
For more information on
submarine history and tradition, visit the Submarine Force Library and Museum