Forerunner: USS Albacore


A marvel of its day, USS Albacore owns a place in submarine history.

100_0664Germany was plundered for its technological gems at the end of World War II. The United States made off with rockets, parts, and scientists, but there were other treasures to be found. . . the U-boats.

Like jets and rockets, the Type XXI submarine was part of a German arsenal that could have ruined the Allied war effort. The submarine’s hull and conning tower were free of protrusions and angular lines to reduce underwater drag. The 84.25kW battery system offered high endurance and performance underwater. For perspective, typical U-boats could achieve six knots for nearly an hour while submerged, but the Type XXI made 18 knots for an hour and a half. A retractable snorkel allowed the vessel to run diesels underwater, recharge batteries, and supply oxygen. With all these features, the Type XXI could keep up with convoys while submerged and cut into the effectiveness of escort ships and aircraft.

Two Type XXIs, U-2513 and U-3008, were brought to the naval base at Portsmouth, New Hampshire for testing. Their technology poured into the American Tang-class submarine, while another Type XXI imitation, the Whiskey-class, was built by the Soviets. These were merely stop-gaps in the brewing Cold War. For years, institutes and experts talked about a sub that could achieve high speeds, as much as 20 knots, while submerged. It took time to push this concept through the upper echelons. There were reports, conferences, and models. Ongoing research in hydrodynamics explored flow, friction, drag, and turbulence around a teardrop-shaped submarine. USS Albacore (AGSS-569), commissioned on 5 Dec. 1953, was a product of these labors. The ship’s motto was Praenuntius Futuri, forerunner of the future.

The unarmed Albacore was exclusively manned by submariners and scientists. She operated from Portsmouth for tests at sea. Initial trials must have been enough to unnerve the most experienced sailor. Her bow planes stuck at full rise at 18 knots. Water poured in from the aft hatch. Her prop shaft vibrated and water came in through a shaft-bearing seal. Post-shakedown repairs addressed problems with the diesels. Despite setbacks, the sub moved like an underwater race car. Cornelius Ryan’s Collier’s piece on a ride aboard Albacore describes men in the cramped control room moving with the sudden motions of a rapid turn at plus-20 knots.

Albacore went through design phases where hull, rudder, and propeller were reconfigured. In later phases, Albacore matched underwater speeds coveted by destroyers on the surface.   This was truly a revolutionary boat meant to test systems and equipment relied upon by the U.S. submarine force for years. In 1985, Albacore was taken to her permanent home in Albacore Park in Portsmouth. This museum is not to be missed by veterans and naval history buffs. Readers might also be interested in a terrific book on the sub, U.S.S. Albacore: Forerunner of the Future, by Robert Largess and James Mandelblatt.


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