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Tales from the Silent Service Connecticut’s Submarine Century

Connecticut’s Governor Dannel P.Malloy has designated a year-long celebration to commemorate Groton’s centennial anniversary of the Naval Submarine Base and Submarine School. The City of Groton, the town od Groton, the City of New London, the Town of Ledyard and numerous civic organizations and businesses have come together to celebrate the 100th anniversary.

“On behalf of the citizens of the State of Connecticut, I request your support as I designate October 2015 through October 2016 a year-long celebration of Connecticut’s Submarine Century. Over this year, we will commemorate the centennial anniversary of our Submarine Base and Submarine School, which along with Electric Boat and the host community of Groton, we collectively and affectionately call the Submarine Capital of the World.” He said in making the announcement.

I have spent a good deal of time in the Submarine Capital of the World both at the Submarine base (SUBASE) while in Submarine School and for advanced training afterwards, and at the General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard (GDEB) for a year while attached to the pre-commissioning crew of USS Bluefish SSN 675 while undergoing its final construction phases and sea trials.

My personal recollection of the SUBASE when I reported in there back in 1969 is that it was unique because its setting was reminiscent of a college campus rather than a military installation. It was compact and intimate and its red brick barracks evoked images of college dorms dotting the scenic hillside overlooking the Thames River. During the course of my stay there I would discover that it is indeed unique because it caters exclusively to U.S. Navy submarine force operations and support, and as the birth place of the Submarine Service it is held dear in the hearts of its brethren. It is the only facility of its kind in the world, the Annapolis of the Silent Service.

General Dynamics Electric Boat ship building facility, Groton, CT.

Back then, besides the lower base with its rows of piers and repair shops to support the blend of older WWII vintage diesel/electric powered submarines as well as the still “new on the block” nuclear powered Attack and FBM submarines, there was the upper base that consisted of Navy personnel housing and the Submarine School instructional and training facilities, Navy Exchange store, various parking lots, ball fields, the Ghee Dunk with movie theater and bowling alley and of course “The Tank”; the dreaded submarine escape training tower that rose 100 feet into the sky where every Sub school candidate had to perform a free assent from the 50 foot-level absent of any breathing apparatus, and failing resulted in being immediately washed out of submarine school, no make ups and no exceptions. If a student botched the tank, any of the ten weekly exams or the final, or any other training such as the damage control and diving simulators, the smoke house, or gas house then they were out period. It was and is an extremely challenging curriculum that encompassed every aspect of the operational theory, maintenance and repair of Navy nuclear powered submarines including subject matter such as masts and Periscopes, pneumatics, hydraulics, electronics and electricity, nuclear reactor operating theory, propulsion, radiation safety, weapons and launching systems, damage control, emergency first aid and much more. So, the drop out rate in sub school when I was there was 48%.

The Submarine base’s history goes back to 1868 when the state of Connecticut ceded 112 acres of land to the U.S. Navy for the construction of a naval station. However, due to a lack of federal funding it wasn’t until 1872 that two small brick buildings and a “T” shaped pier were constructed there and it was officially designated as a navy yard. Then, over the course of the following years it had a sketchy existence first being utilized as a coaling station to refuel Navy ships and then being twice closed and reopened again only because it was less expensive for the federal government to keep it rather than dismantle it and sell off the land. So, in 1913 the government made the decision to pump an additional million dollars into it and soon the Submarine Tender Monitor Ozark along with four submarines reported to their new home port of Groton. Then during WWI submarine operations in the Atlantic necessitated the arrival of additional subs and support craft and that culminated in the facility being named the first submarine base. Subsequently, the Navy established a school and training facility there, and on July 21, 1916 Commander Yates Stirling assumed official command of the base, the New London Submarine Flotilla, and the Submarine School.

Presently, SUBASE NLON is home port to fifteen nuclear powered Attack submarines and the school command that provides initial training to all USN officers and enlisted submariners and many foreign allied sub sailors as well. Additionally, it is the permanent home to the world’s first “Atomic” submarine USS Nautilus SSN 571 whish stands as the center piece of the Submarine Force Library and Museum (ussnautilus.org).

Just down the River Road from the SUBASE lay the sprawling engineering and shipbuilding facilities of General Dynamics Electric Boat. Founded by Isaac Rice in 1899, it built the first submarine sold to the United States Navy that was designed by John Phillip Holland an Irish born engineer. The USS Holland SS-1 was commissioned into the Navy on April 11, 1900. And, its success led to later versions such as the A-Class, or the Plunger Class whose lead ship was the USS Fulton.

Los Angeles class attack submarine.

In 1954, GDEB constructed the first nuclear powered submarine USS Nautilus SSN 571 that was christened by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower and which upon embarking on its first sea trial a year later transmitted the historic radio message “underway on nuclear power” and then went on to accomplish another milestone by transiting beneath the Polar Ice Cap. Then, in 1959 GDEB built the world’s first ICBM launch capable Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) submarine the USS George Washington SSBN 598 and the lead ship of boats designated by the Navy as “Forty-One for Freedom”. Each of these “Boomer” submarines were capable of delivering 16 Poseidon A1/A3 ICBM missiles having multiple warheads (MIRVs) that could strike individual targets; the payload of each one of these submarines exceeded the destructive force of all the ordnance used by all sides in WWII. These boats were an arm of the United States “Nuclear Triad” consisting of land based ICBMs, the heavy bombers of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), and submarine launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs). The aircraft of SAC, most notably the B-52 Flying Fortresses, remained airborne 24/7 as the FBM Submarines operated on “deterrent patrols” over the entirety of the Cold War. The boomers were complemented by fast attack submarines whose mission in addition to running interference for the Boomers when entering or leaving ports and escorting carrier strike groups engaged in highly classified and sensitive “Cold War Patrols” conducting visual and photographic surveillance, and gathering acoustic intelligence on the Soviet submarine and surface fleets, and its allies.

GDEB built the U.S. navy’s only twin nuclear reactor submarine the 447-foot-long USS Triton SSN 586 that retraced Ferdinand Magellan’s route and circumnavigated the globe submerged over an 84-day period. Then in 1966 GDEB launched the USS Sturgeon SSN 637 the lead ship of a class of deep diving, stealthy attack submarines which have been acknowledged to be the work horses of the U.S. Submarine Force during the Cold War. In 1972 Electric Boat was awarded contracts for the design and construction of the Ohio Class submarines capable of delivering twenty-four Trident SLBM missiles armed with MIRVs. They built eighteen of the mammoth 560-foot long submarines for the U.S. Navy.

Additionally, over the years GDEB has designed and constructed the Skate, Permit, and Skipjack classes of Attack submarines, as well as NR-1 the world’s first nuclear powered ocean engineering and research Deep Submergence Vessel (DSV) which took part in the search and recovery of crash debris from the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.

In addition furnishing the design and construction of new submarines for the Navy, GDEB provides continuous life cycle support to the USN submarine fleet employing 10,000 people.

The Town of Groton Connecticut was incorporated in 1705 when it seceded from the town of New London. The earliest inhabitants of the area were the Nehantic Indians followed by the Pequot. Then in the summer of 1614 the first white settlers arrived and began trade with the Indians. The settlers were chiefly farmers and raised livestock too but eventually they turned to ship building in order to promote commerce and soon the initial traders sailed to Boston and Plymouth Rock to exchange food, clothing, tools and guns.

By the end of the American Revolution Groton was a booming ship building and seafaring town and then following the War of 1812, whaling became a mainstay of the area economy with Groton emerging as the world’s second largest whaling seaport by 1846.

Ship building in Groton continued through the California Gold Rush which fostered a demand for speedy Clipper ships and in 1859 the Mystic River Shipyard produced the clipper Andrew Jackson that sailed between New York and San Francisco in the record time of eighty-nine days, four hours. Subsequently, the American Civil War seeded demand for ironclad steamships and a Groton yard was selected to construct one of three experimental ships to be implemented against the Confederate wooden ships. The Galena was launched on St. Valentine’s day 1862, and in all fifty steamships were built along the shores of the Mystic River for government service in the war.

The war’s end resulted in a surplus of steamships and so the demand for new ones dried up. Consequently, in 1860 a marine railway (Patent Slip) was constructed in Groton in for the purpose of dry docking vessels for repair, and it aided the town’s economic recovery during the lean years and up to WWI.

So, from humble beginnings the towns of Groton and New London in unison with General Dynamics Electric Boat and the United States Navy are steeped in maritime tradition and the Groton ship building industry has produced a blend from whaling ships, Square Riggers, Clipper ships, and Ironclad steamships to the diesel electric submarines of WWII, nuclear powered Attack, FBM and Trident SLBM capable submarines of the Cold War era then on to today’s Ohio SSBN, and Virginia Class Attack boats that prowl the depths of the world’s oceans today in in vigilant defense of America and the free world against the War on Terror. All culminating in Groton’s emergence as “The Submarine Capital of the World” and the tradition will continue far into the future with the construction of the Ohio Replacement Program SSBN(X).

The “USS Nautilus” SSN 571 at the Submarine Force Library and Museum, Groton, CT

In commemoration of Connecticut’s Submarine Century, the town of Groton will stage a yearlong series of events such as a United States Coast Guard band concert series, Submarine Century Movie matinees, a presentation concerning the life and career of John P. Holland, an air and sea celebration, the Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival, and much more (www.ctsubmarinecentury.com). As well, there will be commemorative events at the Submarine Force Library and Museum (www.submarinemuseum.org).

Resources and additional reading: www.ctsubmarinecentury.com, “Groton Ct. Submarine Capitol of the World” LIBW- 9/12, “The Beginning” pt.1 -LIBW- 9/10


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