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Then and Now: Midway and Submarine Force

By Rear Adm. Blake Converse, Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet

“When I assumed command of the Pacific Fleet on 31 December 1941, our submarines were already operating against the enemy, the only units of the fleet that could come to grips with the Japanese for months to come. It was to the submarine force that I looked to carry the load. It is to the everlasting honor and glory of our submarine personnel that they never failed us in our days of great peril.” — Adm. Chester Nimitz, Commander, U.S. Pacific

Midway, a
feature-length film scheduled for release on November 8, tells the story of the
Sailors who fought so bravely in June 1942 to thwart the Japanese attack at
Midway.  This retelling comes at a
critical time for our Navy and our nation. Seeing the Battle of Midway on the
big screen serves as a reminder of the critical importance of a strong and
combat ready Navy to the security of our Nation. 

As you walk the
historic submarine piers of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, you see visceral reminders of
the beginning of the war and its conclusion – the memorial to USS Arizona
(BB-39), which was sunk in the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the battleship USS
Missouri (BB-61), on which the peace agreement was signed in Tokyo Harbor to
end the war. Adm. Nimitz also walked on these piers during WWII and witnessed
both the devastation of the Pearl Harbor attack and the unparalleled
industriousness of our Navy and civilian work force as they recovered from that
attack, rebuilt our Navy, and set sail to take the fight to the enemy at the
Battle of Midway.   

In May 1942, the submarine USS Nautilus (SS 168), under the command of Lt. Cmdr. William Brockman Jr., departed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, for her first war patrol. Her mission was to search for the Japanese fleet sailing for Midway, and she succeeded.  USS Nautilus assisted in leading U.S. aircraft directly to the Japanese carrier Hiryu and harassing the enemy while our aircraft ravaged the Japanese Fleet. USS Nautilus survived 42 depth charges, several of her torpedoes failed to detonate, and Japanese aircraft and ships spotted her multiple times, forcing Nautilus to dive and evade multiple times. Yet, despite these challenges, the crew’s efforts were critical to the success of the battle and resulted in Brockman receiving the Navy Cross for the Battle of Midway.  

USS Nautilus (SS-168) underway, March 1933. (U.S. National Archives photo.)

U.S.
submarines would go on to take the fight to the Japanese across the Pacific,
wreaking havoc on the critical maritime supply routes that supported their
industry, and ravaging their warships. Although submarines only made up only 2%
of our entire Navy during WWII, they sank 30% of Japanese warships and 55% of
Japanese merchant ships.  

But this wartime effort was not without significant sacrifice. The U.S. submarine force experienced some of the highest casualty rates of any force in WWII. A foundational part of our training as submariners is the study of this legacy of sacrifice and commitment in the face of the enemy. In this training, we make it a point to ensure that today’s submariners recognize that even though we eventually achieved victory, we were not ready for unrestricted submarine warfare when we entered the fight after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Our weapons were erratic, our tactics unrefined, and our training inadequate to the task. Yes, we eventually overcame each of these obstacles to halt the Japanese advance and set the conditions for victory in the Pacific, but there is no guarantee that the pace of future combat operations will forgive such a lack of foresight and preparation. We have to be ready to deploy and sustain high-end combat operations with little or no warning – and today we exercise that every single day in our Submarine Force. 

USS Tang (SS 306) off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, Dec.2, 1943. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command.)

Last month, we celebrated the return of USS Olympia (SSN 717), our oldest Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine, from her final deployment. Olympia completed a circumnavigation of the earth, transiting both the Panama Canal and Suez Canal, and conducting operations in the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific Ocean. Shortly after USS Olympia’s successful return, we welcomed home one of our newest Virginia class fast attack submarines, USS Illinois (SSN 786), who returned to Pearl Harbor from her first deployment. She was the first Block II Virginia-class submarine to ever deploy to the Indo-Pacific region, during which, the crew completed a full spectrum of operations to support the highest priority tasking.

USS Illinois (SSN 786) departs Groton, Connecticut to conduct sea trials. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of
General Dynamics Electric Boat.)

We are in an
era of great power competition. Utilizing the strength, determination, and
lessons learned from those brave submariners before us, we will continue to be
first to the fight, just like at Midway. We are trained, equipped, and ready to
fight tonight because we have not forgotten our past.  

Editor’s Note: The four-part “Then and Now” NavyLive blog series is presented so
interested audience members have an idea of what’s changed, and what has not,
since the famed Battle of Midway. As the nation faces the Great Power
Competition, “Midway” is an authentic representation of the Pacific in the
opening months of WWII and can help people understand the value we provide
today, and honors the toughness, initiative, integrity and accountability that
are Sailors’ core attributes. The movie reflects the extraordinary
determination and courage of those who fought in WWII, and showcases how the
Navy team worked together then, as we do today.

10 Things to Know about U.S. Navy Submarines

Happy birthday to our Silent Service!

117 years ago today, John Holland sold the 64-ton submersible Holland VI to the Navy, marking the beginning of our submarine force. Several months later, the submarine was commissioned as USS Holland (SS 1).

 

USS Holland (SS 1), 1900.
USS Holland (SS 1), 1900.

 

Here’s a look at how submarines have continuously adapted in both quantity and quality to address more complex and rapidly evolving challenges.

Then…

  1. The world’s first submarine used in warfare, the 8-foot-long Turtle, debuted during the American Revolution. With an oak made, walnut-shell-shaped casing, it bobbed just below the water’s surface. The one-person craft was paddled using a hand crank. It’s objective was to attach an explosive to the hull of an enemy ship and get away before the explosion. In its one combat use, it failed to successfully attach the explosive, however it gave the Royal Navy enough of a scare that they moved their ships to safer distance from American Forces.
Bushnell's American turtle
Bushnell’s American turtle
  1. Experimentation in subsurface craft continued after the American Revolution, including a Confederate boat, Hunley, that sunk a Union warship. Still, it wasn’t until 1900 that the Navy finally commissioned a sub. Even then the technology was rudimentary but continued to improve into World War II where the submarine came of age through legendary acts of heroism and warfighting excellence. Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz said, “We shall never forget that it was our submarines that held the lines against the enemy while our fleets replaced losses and repaired wounds.”
Reproduction of USS Cabrilla (SS 288)'s World War II battle flag
Reproduction of USS Cabrilla (SS 288)’s World War II battle flag
  1. Research and development to enhance the firepower, survivability and endurance of submarines continued after the war, culminating with perhaps the most significant technological advance in submarine history: the advent of nuclear propulsion. On Jan. 17, 1955, the crew of
    USS Nautilus (SSN 571) cast off lines and signaled the memorable and historic message, “Underway on Nuclear Power.”
Undated photo of USS Nautilus (SSN 571)
Undated photo of USS Nautilus (SSN 571)
  1. Late in 1955, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Arleigh Burke established a special project office charged with developing a fleet ballistic missile for sea launch. Just four years later, USS George Washington (SSBN 598) was commissioned. Within six months of commissioning, the ship successfully test fired two Polaris missiles and, within six months of that, deployed for the Navy’s first strategic deterrent patrol. As of June 2014, U.S. submariners have completed more than 4,000 such patrols.
USS George Washington (SSBN 598) underway at sea, June 30, 1960.
USS George Washington (SSBN 598) underway at sea, June 30, 1960.

Now…

  1. Today’s Navy submarines are 100 percent nuclear powered – patrolling the depths of our oceans, taking the fight to our enemies and providing maritime security around the world.
KINGS BAY, Ga. (March 20, 2013) The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Rhode Island (SSBN 740) returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay after three months at sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber/Released)
KINGS BAY, Ga. (March 20, 2013) The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Rhode Island (SSBN 740) returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay after three months at sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber/Released)
  1. We have 69 commissioned submarines – attack (SSN), fleet ballistic missile (SSBN) and guided missile (SSGN).

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Attack (SSN) |
ARCTIC CIRCLE (March 10, 2016) USS Hartford (SSN 768) surfaces in the Arctic Circle near Ice Camp Sargo during Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2016, a five-week exercise designed to research, test and evaluate operational capabilities in the region. (U.S. Navy video by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tyler Thompson and Staff Sgt. Edward Eagerton/Released)

Fleet ballistic missile (SSBN) |

KINGS BAY, Ga. (June 28, 2014) The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Wyoming (SSBN 742) returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay following routine operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Rex Nelson/Released)
KINGS BAY, Ga. (June 28, 2014) The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Wyoming (SSBN 742) returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay following routine operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Rex Nelson/Released)

Guided missile (SSGN) |

BREMERTON, Wash. (June 26, 2015) The guided-missile submarine USS Ohio (SSGN 726) transits through the Puget Sound after departing Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kenneth G. Takada/Released)
BREMERTON, Wash. (June 26, 2015) The guided-missile submarine USS Ohio (SSGN 726) transits through the Puget Sound after departing Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kenneth G. Takada/Released)

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  1. Our submarine force includes approximately 28,000 officers, enlisted Sailors, civilians and Reservists. In 2011, female officers began serving aboard U.S. submarines. On June 22, 2015, the Navy announced the selections of the first enlisted female submariners, marking a key milestone in the continued integration of women into the Submarine Force.
PEARL HARBOR (Jan. 13, 2017) Sailors assigned to the USS North Carolina (SSN 777) stand at attention as Cmdr. Gary Montalvo, the ship's commanding officer, accepts a Navy Unit Commendation presented by Capt. Richard Seif, commanding officer of Submarine Squadron 1 onboard Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Hinton/Released)
PEARL HARBOR (Jan. 13, 2017) Sailors assigned to the USS North Carolina (SSN 777) stand at attention as Cmdr. Gary Montalvo, the ship’s commanding officer, accepts a Navy Unit Commendation presented by Capt. Richard Seif, commanding officer of Submarine Squadron 1 onboard Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Hinton/Released)
  1. Our submarines are responsible for the #1 mission within the Department of Defense – strategic deterrence – accountable for approximately 50 percent of nuclear warheads.
ATLANTIC OCEAN (Aug. 31, 2016) An unarmed Trident II D5 missile launches from the Ohio-class fleet ballistic-missile submarine USS Maryland (SSBN 738) off the coast of Florida. The test launch was part of the U.S. Navy Strategic Systems Programs demonstration and shakedown operation certification process. The successful launch certified the readiness of an SSBN crew and the operational performance of the submarine's strategic weapons system before returning to operational availability (U.S. Navy Photo by John Kowalski/Released)
ATLANTIC OCEAN (Aug. 31, 2016) An unarmed Trident II D5 missile launches from the Ohio-class fleet ballistic-missile submarine USS Maryland (SSBN 738) off the coast of Florida. The test launch was part of the U.S. Navy Strategic Systems Programs demonstration and shakedown operation certification process. The successful launch certified the readiness of an SSBN crew and the operational performance of the submarine’s strategic weapons system before returning to operational availability (U.S. Navy Photo by John Kowalski/Released)

Future…

  1. The 12-ship Columbia class will replace the existing Ohio-class nuclear ballistic submarine force; the first patrol of the lead ship, SSBN 826, is scheduled for Fiscal Year 2031.
WASHINGTON (Dec. 14, 2016) A graphic representation of the future USS Columbia (SSBN 826). (U.S. Navy photo illustration by Petty Officer 1st Class Armando Gonzales/Released)
WASHINGTON (Dec. 14, 2016) A graphic representation of the future USS Columbia (SSBN 826). (U.S. Navy photo illustration by Petty Officer 1st Class Armando Gonzales/Released)
  1. The Columbia class reached Milestone B Jan. 4, enabling the program to move into the engineering and manufacturing development phase, where the attention is on achieving an 83 percent design maturity prior to construction starting in 2021.


Statistics current as of Nov. 6, 2015