The Unsung Heroes of the Submarine Service:The Submarine Tender

Posted by Rebekah
Mar 05 2010

One question I was frequently asked when I worked at the Silversides was “Why are submarines “boats” and other ships “ships”?

Make no mistake, subs are boats, not ships, and if you call a sub a ship in a submariner’s hearing, they are sure to correct you, maybe gently, maybe humorously, but they WILL correct you.

If any water vessel is deployed from a larger vessel, the smaller vessel is called a boat and the larger vessel is a ship.  The very earliest submarines were often unable to operate for long distances, so if they needed to be transported long distances, they were hauled aboard a large ship, hence the original term “boat” for a submarine stuck around long after submarines were capable of going places large surface ships couldn’t manage.

An example of the initial ship-boat relationship. This is the USS Caesar, transporting submarines to the Philippines from Virginia 1908-1909. The two subs on board are either Shark and Porpoise (SS-8 and SS-7) which would date the photo to April-June 1908 or Adder and Moccasin (SS-3 and SS-5) which would date the photo to July-October 1909.

This symbiotic relationship soon lead to a subset of the Submarine Force:  The Submarine Tender.  Foot for foot, the submarine is the most complex piece of equipment in the Navy, and needs experienced technicians to repair and maintain them.  Early sub were used for coastal defenses, and had little to no room for provisions, bunks, or living space, so crews would come back at the end of the day.  As submarines moved about, the ships on which they were moved became the homes for the submarine crews and the base from which repairs were made, provisions were acquired, and eventually, these type of “mother ships” evolved into a new ship class within the Navy:  The Submarine Tender.

These ships were traveling submarine bases.  Provided the boat didn’t need to be dry-docked, the submarine tender could repair, re-load, restock, refuel,  replace personnel, and send the submarine back out.  The Submarine Tender could drop anchor and turn any port into a submarine base in a matter of hours to days, and after Pearl Harbor, these ships became the front lines of the war in many ways.  As the Allies pushed further into the Pacific and took back territory, a submarine tender could be sent in to a newly liberated area and create a submarine base days closer to the front, shaving days off a patrol and turn-around time between sub patrols.

It was the Submarine Tender Holland that pulled up stakes and raced south to Fremantle, establishing a new base.  By the time Redfin dropped anchor there two years and a half years later, two sub tenders, the Orion and the Griffen were the heart of the US Submarine Base.  Other submarine tenders established or enhanced bases at  Pearl Harbor, Brisbane, Midway Island, Guam, Saipan, Majuro Atoll, Marianas Islands, Dutch Harbor Alaska,  and more.

WWII was probably the Golden Age of the submarine tender.  Between training, salvage, repair, and tending duties, 28 tenders served, and 4 were lost.  A submarine tender, Pigeon, was the first naval vessel to earn the Presidential Unit Citation for towing and saving the submarine Seadragon from her burning warf during the Japanese bombing of Cavite Bay.  Pigeon won a second one a few days later.  Another tender, Canopus, feigned being an abandoned hulk off the coast of the Philippines during the Japanese invasion, while repairing and reprovisioning submarines by night.  She was later scuttled to keep her out of enemy hands after the surrender of Bataan.  The Orlotan helped raise and repair ships in Pearl Harbor and then helped salvage Japanese submarines off Guadalcanal.

As technology advanced, submarines became more self-reliant, and when repairs beyond the submarine’s crew were needed, they could be accomplished in port or in dry-dock.  There are only two submarine tenders left in the Navy’s arsenal, USS Emory S. Land, and USS Frank Cable, both are over 30 years old, and have no replacements planned.

The USS Orion in a photo dated September 1944, likely at Mios Woendi. Here you see the "Mother Ship" configuration with her nest of submarines which she was tending.

in 1944, the Orion was the tender that re-fitted the Redfin and Flier as they sat next to each other before Flier’s last patrol, and Griffen could have repaired the Redfin and Robalo.  Without these ships, submarines would have been more limited and more vulnerable.

For more information about Submarine Tenders, check out A Tender Tale:

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