The United States Navy Submarine Service has been officially in existence for one hundred and twenty years ever since the Holland VI was commissioned USS Holland SS-1 becoming the U.S. Navy's first submarine. Submarines had not been widely operated by world navies before the early 1900s and so the era marked a pivotal time in submarine development with several important technologies emerging and diesel-electric propulsion became the dominant power system. As well, complementary equipment such as the periscopes and deck guns became standardized.
The Irish inventor John Philip Holland built a prototypical model submarine in 1876 and followed with a full-scale prototype in 1878 that was succeeded by various additional unsuccessful versions. However, in 1896 he designed the Holland Type VI submarine which used internal combustion engine power while surfaced and electric battery power when submerged. It Launched on 17 May 1897 at Crescent Shipyard in Elizabeth NJ then was purchased by the United States Navy on 11 April 1900.
Prior to the Holland, the Submarine Service had a storied history beginning with the submarine Turtle built in 1775 by American David Bushnell, a Yale graduate and combat engineer. It was the world’s first submersible vessel having a documented battle record as during the American Revolutionary War it was employed in 1716 to make several attempts to affix explosives to the undersides of British warships in New York Harbor, but all failed. As well, other submersible projects date back to the 1800s such as an early US Navy submarine Alligator that while being towed to be engaged in the Civil War battle of Charleston it encountered severe weather on 2 April 1863 off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Consequently, it sank and prematurely ended the service of the USN’s first submarine. Later on, the Confederate States Navy CSS H.L. Hunley was constructed and launched at Mobile, Alabama in July 1863. Then, on February 17, 1864, Hunley attacked and sank the 1,240 lb. displacement USN screw-sloop-of-war USS Housatonic which had been on Union blockade-duty in Charleston's outer harbor. However, the concussion of its “torpedo” severely damaged and sank her taking down her third crew, as two others had been lost prior. Finally, its wreckage being discovered in 1995, Hunley was raised in 2000, restored and is now on display in North Charleston, SC at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center.
Then, submarine warfare began to come of age in World War I with the success of the German U-boats. However, because of the United States' late entry into the war, her capital ships and submarines never engaged the German fleet, so few decisive submarine actions ensued. But the USN hierarchy had taken note of the German accomplishment. However, limitations in U.S. submarine design and construction in the 1920s and early 1930s had made the combination of desired qualities difficult to achieve. So, the Navy experimented continually with submarine design and construction in the post-World War I years producing a series of submarines with less than stellar qualities and reliability. The AA-1 class known as the T class too, and the V-boats of which V-1 through V-3 were unsuccessful attempts to produce a fleet submarine. Afterward, during the late 1930s submarine class boats such as Purpose, Salmon and Sargo were developed and by 1940 a much-enhanced American industrial base and innovative manufacturing technics resulted in an adequate combination of expertise’s to build the Navy’s long-desired fleet submarine having the speed, range, and endurance to operate as part of its battle fleet.
However the existing Sargo-class submarines were among the first US submarines to be sent into action after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, starting war patrols the day after having already been deployed to the Philippines in late 1941. Similar to the previous Salmon class, they were built between 1937 and 1939. With a top speed of 21 knots and a range of 11,000 nautical miles allowing patrols in Japanese home waters, and along with the Salmons they were an important step in the development of a true fleet submarine
Then the Tambor-class was deployed primarily during the beginning of World War II. And, it was the USN's first fully successful fleet submarine. Six of the class were in Hawaiian waters or the Central Pacific on 7 December 1941, with USS Tautog SS-198 at Pearl Harbor during the attack. They went on to see hard service early on with seven of the twelve boats of the class sunk before the rests were withdrawn from front-line service in early 1945; it was the highest percentage loss of any US submarine class. The Tambors attained the top speed of 21 knots and range of 11,000 nautical miles allowing patrols in Japanese home waters. Improvements over the Sargo class included six bow torpedo tubes, a more reliable full diesel-electric propulsion plant, and improved combat efficiency with key personnel and equipment relocated to the conning tower.
Following Pearl Harbor the fleet submarines proved their worth when USN submarine skippers waged a devastating campaign against Japanese merchant vessels. To do so, America fielded two new primary classes of fleet submarines over the course of WWII with the first being the Gato class that was built for the Navy and launched between 1941–1943 by the Electric Boat Company, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Mare Island Naval Shipyard, and Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company . And, together with their near-sisters the Balao and Tench classes their designs represented the majority of submarine fleet. However, the Tench class was built toward the end of the war so most saw service in the post-war era and were in service until 1951.
Named after the lead ship of the class, USS Gato SS-212, the other Gatos, and their successors formed the core of the Submarine Service that was largely responsible for the destruction of the Japanese merchant marine fleet and the majority of the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II. Gato's name comes from a species of small Catshark following the tradition of most other U.S. Navy submarines of the period having the names of marine creatures.
The Gato-class boats were progressive fleet submarines and the rationale behind their design was that they were intended to operate as adjuncts to the main battle fleet to scout out ahead, surveille and report the enemy fleet's composition, speed, and course, then they were to attack to soften up the adversary in preparation for the main fleet action.
The Gato-class design was a near-duplicate of the preceding Tambor and Gar-class boats with the only significant differences being an increase in diving depth from 250 feet to 300 feet, with an extra five feet in length to allow for additional watertight bulkheads dividing the one large engine room into two, with two diesel generators in each compartment. The Gatos, and nearly all of the fleet-type submarines had a partial double hull construction. And, they had additional crew comforts including air conditioning, refrigerated storage for food, generous fresh water distilling units, clothes washers, and enough bunks for every crew member; luxuries unheard of in other navies.
The succeeding Balao class submarine was a another deployed during World War II, with 120 units commissioned it was the largest class of submarines in the United States Navy. An improvement on the earlier Gato class, the boats had slight internal differences. The most significant improvement was the thicker higher yield strength steel in the pressure hull skins and frames which increased their test depth to 400 feet.
After the end of the war the Navy realized that the one hundred eleven remaining Balao-class submarines were obsolete despite being just one to three years old because the German Type XXI U-boat then being operated by countries worldwide had a larger battery capacity, a streamlined hull design to give maximize submerged speeds, and a snorkel mast and so was the submarine of the immediate future. Therefore, the Greater Underwater Propulsion Power Program (GUPPY) conversion was developed to give some Balao and Tench-class submarines comparable capabilities to the Type XXI. However, the Navy couldn’t fund all the GUPPY conversions it required so it devised the Fleet Snorkel Program as a less expensive means of providing the minimum necessary modifications to the fleet boats. The modification added a snorkel mast, a streamlined sail, higher capacity HVAC systems, and an upgraded electrical system. Moreover, the deck guns and auxiliary diesel generator were removed. In contrast to the GUPPY conversions, the Fleet Snorkel boats retained their original deck structure, bow, and storage batteries. The initial two-boat test program was implemented at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and eventually grew into several successive conversion programs. Those upgrades proceeded in seven variants, GUPPY I, GUPPY II, GUPPY IA, Fleet Snorkel, GUPPY IIA, GUPPY IB, and GUPPY III. Some boats that went through an early phase were then upgraded further in a later phase. Submerged performance of the Fleet Snorkel boats was therefore significantly inferior to GUPPY converted boats. But, despite their limited capabilities the Fleet Snorkel boats served almost as long as the more modern GUPPY boats.
A total of thirty-six Balao-class submarines were converted to one of the GUPPY configurations with nineteen additional boats receiving Fleet Snorkel modifications too. Two of the GUPPY boats and six of the Fleet Snorkel boats were converted immediately prior to transfer to one allied foreign navy, and most of the forty-seven remaining converted submarines remained active into the early 1970s, when many more were reassigned to foreign navies while others were decommissioned and scrapped.
During WWII submarines of the United States Navy were accountable for sinking 55% of Japan's merchant marine fleet. And, the war against shipping was the single most decisive factor in the collapse of the Japanese economy and Allied victory. In addition, submarines also proved valuable in air-sea rescue and were positioned near targeted islands during aerial bombardments. In what became known as the "Lifeboat League", U.S. pilots were instructed that they should ditch their damaged planes or bail out to await submarine rescue. And, eventually the rescue of downed pilots played an important secondary submarine mission.