My cousin sent me a wonderful picture from the New London ferry in Connecticut: a nuclear submarine heading out to sea. This is all you’ll see of the Silent Service, since the boats stay submerged for most of their patrol. Submariners are part of a highly trained branch with a distinguished history. I’ve loved to read about subs ever since I was a kid. I even visited a submarine on my honeymoon. (Thanks for tagging along, dear.)
My grandfather’s VHS collection included more than a few great sub movies: Run Silent, Run Deep with Gable and Lancaster, The Enemy Below with Mitchum and Jurgens, and Operation Petticoat with Grant and Curtis. I watched them all the time as a kid, but my favorite was The Hunt for Red October. My biggest reaction was this: “They can make them that big, and they’re that quiet?”
Nuclear subs have evolved significantly since the WW2 diesel-electric fleet boats used in such iconic flicks. Real submarines are incredibly quiet by both design and practice. Noises from machinery, propellers, and even conversations can reveal a submarine to acoustic sonar, among other sensors. (I’ve heard one account of submariners taking the seats off the toilets before they went under the ice pack. . . even a clanging piece of metal can give away their position.)
The art of stealth allows a submarine to do amazing things. They can track other subs or surface vessels at close range while submerged. They can deliver SEALs into hostile waters. They can intercept signal emissions from enemy platforms. They can take video and photographs and launch unmanned vehicles. They carry a variety of torpedoes, cruise missiles, and mines. No adversary wants to witness a surprise attack by a nuclear submarine. USS Louisville (SSN-724) and USS Pittsburgh (SSN-720) are such platforms, having fired Tomahawk missiles at Iraqi targets in both Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Marvels aside, the Silent Service is a very hazardous business. Submariners have to train for every possible crisis involving nuclear propulsion, sea conditions, fires, and battle damage. Terrible loss from USS Scorpion and USS Thresher have not been forgotten, but the sacrifice of submariners is even greater in war. Fifty-two U.S. submarines were lost in World War II. Such was described by Vice Admiral C.A. Lockwood, Jr. in 1945:
To those whose contribution meant the loss of sons, brothers or husbands in this war, I pay my most humble respect and extend by deepest sympathy. As to the 374 officers and 3131 men of the Submarine Force who gave their lives in the winning of this war, I can assure you that they went down fighting and that their brothers who survived them took a grim toll of our savage enemy to avenge their deaths. May God rest their gallant souls.
Having grown up in New England, I was treated to some wonderful museums with retired submarines and related collections. If you ever get the opportunity to visit the region, I would highly suggest the following sites:
Albacore Park (Portsmouth, New Hampshire): The start of the modern nuclear submarine really begins with USS Albacore (AGSS-569), the first submarine with a teardrop hull. This darling prototype was used to research hydrodynamics, submerged speeds, propulsion and dive planes. Albacore‘s motto was “Praenuntius Futuri” or “Forerunner of the Future”. The submarine was retired to Albacore Park in Portsmouth where she remains to this day.
Battleship Cove (Fall River, Massachusetts): The Balao-class USS Lionfish (SS-298) is a survivor of World War II and an excellent example of the diesel-electric boats from the WW2 sub force. Lionfish sank two Japanese vessels during Pacific operations, rescued downed pilots, and later trained sailors in Atlantic waters. Lionfish remains in Battleship Cove with good company: the battleship Massachusetts, destroyer Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., two PT boats, the former Volksmarine corvette Hiddensee, and much more.
Submarine Force Museum (Groton, Connecticut): The centerpiece of this remarkable museum is USS Nautilus (SSN-571), the first atomic-powered submarine in history. Atomic energy permitted this sub to move faster and farther than conventional boats. In 1958, Nautilus became the first ship to cross the North Pole—while submerged. USS Nautilus is located near a wonderful 6,000-volume research library and museum that traces submarine history.
History buffs and veterans are very lucky to have these museums! I was also excited when the ex-Russian sub K-77 opened to museum enthusiasts in Providence, Rhode Island. It was a terrific look at Soviet cruise missile development. (The vessel was even used at one point to film K-19: The Widowmaker with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson.) Sadly, the vessel sank in a storm in 2007 and was sold for scrap. Owners hoped to use the proceeds to fund a new museum around the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga.