Horace Hunley and the Civil War Underwater Experiment Part 2: The AMERICAN DIVER submarine

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Feb 22 2014

Summer, 1862:

The South is being squeezed by the North, but the war is nowhere near finished, or even, as things turned out, half over.  The Union had the advantage in numbers of people, industries, railroad connections and the military/government complex already made and tested.  The Confederates, forced to create and develop everything from Constitutions, capitals, governments, military complete with command structure and resources, on the fly or on the run while defending their boarders,  had nonetheless had a number of early, major victories.

Though eleventh in chronological battles, the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas, is considered the first major engagement between the Confederate and Union troops.  Less than 20 miles from Washington DC and connected by good roads and rails, the Battle of Bull Run/Manassas, was a complete rout, with Union troops breaking and running, with some civilian observers, back to Washington DC in a near-panic.  (It was a 10 hour carriage drive, so we’re not talking a complete gallop the entire way)


Painting "Capture of Rickett's Battery" by National Parks Painter, Sydney E King. Now on display at Manassas National Battlefield. Wikipedia.

According to the common warfare of the time period, many on the Union side believed that the Confederates would follow and attempt to capture Washington DC the next day or two. DC residents scrambled to gather their personal effects, important government papers, artifacts, and abandon town before the Confederates 1812’d the place and “White House III” needed to be re-built–again.  Certainly President Jefferson Davis of the Confederate States, there on the field of Manassas, urged his generals to do just that, capture DC, sue for peace, and put this war behind them.

But it never happened. The Confederates rested their troops, the Union regrouped, and the war dragged on.  And the weaknesses of the South’s economy began to show.

The South’s economy was based on agriculture, specifically “King Cotton”.  Prior to the invention and patenting of the cotton gin in 1793,[1] cotton was a laborious crop, requiring so much work to raise, pick, process, and weave that the resulting cloth was a luxury good only the rich could easily afford. The South primarily grew tobacco, which was losing popularity. By the end of the 1780’s ,the large plantations and the slavery on which they depended, were slowly dying away. Then the cotton gin eliminates one of the most problematic and labor-intensive parts of cotton’s cycle from plant to fabric: removing the seeds.  (Seriously, one pound of cotton needs 10 hours to de-seed by hand.  The early 19th century gins can handle 50 pounds a day.)

Suddenly, cotton cloth is cheap and there’s a whole new market for cotton all over Europe and America. They couldn’t get enough of the stuff.  The South churned out millions of bales a year to feed that appetite, increasing plantation size, numbers of slaves, and wealth.  But that means they develop industry only in so far as it helps increase cotton production, and transportation thereof to sea ports.  The North develops industry, including manufacture of steam engines, laying of railroads, mining metals, and growing grains and foods in fertile valleys that are too cold to support cotton.  Many of these things take up land that could be used for cotton, so the South’s economy benefited the most from selling as much cotton as they can produce and purchasing anything they might need from the North and Europe.

But when push comes to shove, and suddenly you can’t ship your product out, you discover….cotton’s USELESS.  You can’t eat it.  You can’t use it.  You can’t make it into weapons to defend yourself, you can’t build with it, you can’t do anything other than trade for stuff you can use.  You can make cloth and tents and clothes with it…but the looms for these things were in the North and Europe.  Cotton was shipped out in bales, not bolts. So long as the Union blockade remained and grews, millions of tons of cotton bales built up in warehouses and sea ports [2], but the economy of the Confederate States teetered  on the brink of collapse. [3]

Taken in June 1862, these are part of the Confederate fortifications of Yorktown. You can see what they used to buttress the fortifications and absorb gunfire. Well, when you have MILLIONS of bales of the stuff lying around...you've got to do SOMETHING.... Photo credit: About.com "Secondary Education: Confederate fortifications at Yorktown"

There are blockade runners, but they have to be built for speed to outrun the Union ships, so they can’t carry enough freight to balance the ships which are still being held hostage.  The South HAS to break the blockade to survive.  And despite having to sink her, the PIONEER proved to be one of the most promising ships that could blow up, sneak around, or break the phalanx of Union ships that kept Confederate frigates in, and European frigates out.

Now in Mobile Alabama, Hunley, McClintock and Watson need a new place to build their next boat, and they found it, and two new partners in the bargain: Park and Lyons Machine Shop, the business of Tom Parks and Tom Lyons.


Taken about 100 years later, in 1960, this shop would have been one of the centers of technological industry in Mobile during the Civil War. navsource.org.

This new boat was supposed to advance on the PIONEER in a few ways: she would have a longer hull with more room for men.  Her knife-like bow come to a vertical blade rather than a point, which would allow her to cut through the water easily, while giving vertical stability.  But most importantly, Hunley and his team hoped to revolutionize underwater navigation with a new engine propulsion system.

Even into the twentieth century, underwater propulsion had a central problem: combustion engines required air, and anything that’s watertight is also airtight.  Within seconds to minutes, the engine sucks all the air out of the vessel and your lungs start to take issue with this idea.  That’s why the diesel submarines of WWII were not diesel boats in the strictest sense, they were diesel electric.  Submarines would run the engines on the surface with special induction valves allowing air in, the engines would run generators, the generators would charge batteries.  Once charged, the engines could be shut down, the intakes closed, and the submarine, now running solely on electric batteries, could take to the depths. Until battery power ran out, the submarine could remain underwater. (Modern subs also function on this principle, but nuclear plants do not require air to function, so modern subs remain underwater as long as food stores and crews’ patience holds out.)

But that innovation was still thirty-five years or so in the future.  Hunley and his team of four had a lot to work through, and no time to screw up.

File:American Diver.jpg

You can see in this cross-sectional diagram, allegedly done by McClintock, that AMERICAN DIVER was meant to have only one crewman provided the engine idea worked. (engine off to the left). Wikipedia.

The original engine idea was a electric-magnetic engine.  Sadly, there are no specifications beyond this description, so no one knows how they were going to design or rig this thing in any configuration.  The only thing we know is the engine, once fitted within the hull of the PIONEER II (now called AMERICAN DIVER), was not powerful enough to propel the submarine fast enough to overcome even the simplest current.  With no documentation of the engine, or the tests used before the engine was removed and destroyed, we’ll never know how close we could have come to a unique engine propulsion system, or how much earlier the NAvy could have used submarines.

With the electric-magnetic engine abandoned, the group turned to a custom built small steam engine.  Any engineer is going to see the problem with this idea–same as the combustion engine idea-fire needs air and air in a submarine is in short supply.  The best historians can figure, this engine may have been designed to build up significant pressure, then, once the fire was doused, the crew could dive the boat, and function on the graduated release of the built up pressure.  An interesting idea, but didn’t work well enough again.  We’re back to a few strong men turning a crank.


A second diagram of the DIVER, mislabeled the Hunley, but most assuredly the DIVER. Here you can see the hand crank for the propeller is now incorporated (on the right).

It was now January, 1863.

The Great Ironclad MONITOR and MERRIMACK had already fought each other to a draw.  The Battle of Bull Run/Manassas (no. 2) had happened with another Confederate victory, but things were slowly turning against the South.

AMERICAN DIVER however, was a bright spot.  she handled, she turned, she seemed to be ideal to drag a contact mine behind her and take out the ships blocking Mobile’s harbor.  This links to the best drawing I’ve seen about how her crew were positioned and worked within AMERICAN DIVER.  (Couldn’t get permission to post in time, so the link is the next best thing)

By February 1863, the Confederates decided to try the DIVER against the blockade.  The crank was physically hard on the men of the DIVER, and Mobile was over twenty miles from the mouth of the bay. So, the DIVER was towed from Mobile to Fort Morgan, located on a little spit of sand guarding the harbor’s entrance.  Between Fort Morgan and Fort Gains, across the way, the DIVER and any of her targets would be in closest proximity until a target was close enough for a mission.  Here’s where the story of the DIVER differs slightly, though the ending is the same.

In the first version, as DIVER was approaching Ft. Morgan, a storm, which had been building as DIVER and her tow reached their goal, swamped the DIVER.  The tow ship was soon forced to cut the t0wline, lest DIVER take on water and draw her tow down with it.  With her prospective crew on the towing ship and safe, DIVER went down alone.

In the second version, the DIVER made it to Fort Morgan, and out and back on her first mission, but the attack was unsuccessful. A second attack was planned, and it was at this juncture, heading out on her second mission, that the DIVER was lost in the storm. [4]

This 1861 map of Mobile Bay shows how small and up-river Mobile is compared to modern day, and also how far the AMERICAN DIVER had to be towed to get to her operational area. Despite continuing as a busy and well-mapped port, Mobile Bay still hides the secret of AMERICAN DIVER's resting place. Image is larger than it appears, click for full details.

Whatever happened, the DIVER was gone, and with it, the time, money and resources the Confederates had put into her.  None of those where easily replaceable, not any more.

But both the PIONEER and the DIVER had been so promising, Hunley and his team were determined to try again.  With money and materials scarce, in order to build her, they were now going to have to sell shares of any future loot this next submarine, called “The FISH BOAT” or “PORPOISE” on paper, would someday capture.

Try, try, again.

 [1] Archaeological evidence shows that the ancient Indians (as in, subcontinent of,) had a type of cotton gin as far back as 500 AD.  There were also types of roller cotton gins in the Bahamas in the 19th century.  In addition, there are claims that Eli Whitney was not,  technically, the first inventor of the cotton gin–just the first one to try and patent it for mass-production.  Whatever the truth (which is usually tangled), Whitney did not make much money on his gin…later he invented the rifle with inter-changeable component parts for easy assembly and repair.  THERE’s where the money was!

[2] Ironically, in 1861, after the South started to secede, but before the North decided to blockade the ports (see note [3]) the South decided to economically force the North and Europe (actually, England, or if all else fails, France) to either sue for peace (North) or intercede and mediate for peace (Europe).  They did this by voluntarily refusing to ship cotton out of the South, devastating the European and Northern cloth shipping, weaving, textile, and clothing markets.   Or so they thought.  The North wasn’t interested, and thanks to the South’s extreme sucess at growing cotton, they’d actually grown more than could be USED in the past year.  (The English also had seen this war coming and had stocked up…just in case)  So warehouses were bulging with cotton on both sides of the Atlantic.  The 1861 crop was not, strictly speaking, needed.  Moreover, England didn’t want to upset the North, putting trade for grain and corn and goods at risk, and they most certainly didn’t want the North invading Canada in retribution…again (War of 1812).  There was some economic fallout, see “Lancashire Cotton Famine” in Whikipedia.  But it wasn’t bad enough for the English to risk jumping in the middle of this mess.  France didn’t want a divided America, they wanted a strong America who could balance the English in trade and military naval might in the Atlantic. So, they didn’t interfere and hoped for a Union success.  And then Egypt and the Bahamas said, “If you’re looking for cotton…we’ve got plenty!”  So this failed on a catastrophic level. (Let that be a lesson, unless you have ABSOLUTE 100% control of a good or service and there is NO substitute, more often than not, hoarding stuff only provides others the opportunity to fill the market you vacated!)

[3] Ironically, (there’s just too much irony!)  by “blockading” the Confederate States, the Union States were tacitly acknowledging the Southern states HAD the right to secede and form an independent nation, and thus, this isn’t a rebellion, this was a war against a seperate nation that used to be part of their own.  After all, you block someone else’s ports.  You simply close your own to trade.  By “blockading” the South rather than closing her, the North showed that despite rhetoric, they, on some level, believed it was true the South had the formed a second nation.  (Another little known fact: NEW ENGLAND came within a hairs-breadth of seceeding from the union during the War of 1812, when Federal policies de facto prevented trade with France and England both–killing New England’s economy.)

[4] Clive Cussler, the novelist of the Dirk Pitt adventures (love ’em!) was part of the team which located and helped raise the HUNLEY in 2000.  He’s now searching for the AMERICAN DIVER in Mobile Bay.  I do hope he someday finds her, and the HUNLEY and DIVER can be exhibited together.

Horace Hunley and the Civil War Underwater Experiment Part 1: The PIONEER submarine

Uncategorized | Posted by Rebekah
Feb 18 2014

That line between Genius and Insanity is razor thin…just ask Horace Hunley, lawyer and submarine inventor.

The Hunley submarine, the first submarine to sink an enemy warship in war, sank 150 years ago today (within minutes of completing her claim to fame).  I will be putting together a week long blog about her development, sinking(s), crew, sisters, and finally, rediscovery.

The CSS HL HUNLEY, in her refrigerated conservation tank in Charleston, South Carolina. (only a few miles from the AMBERJACK's memorial, come to think of it.) Public Domain

It’s a fascinating story…but has several moments of, “Wait, they did What?  AGAIN?!” in it.

Most people don’t know this, but the CSS HUNLEY, who is getting all the attention this week, was the youngest of a submarine trio, and only one of MANY submarines designed and constructed for both sides of the American Civil War.  her two older sisters were the PIONEER and AMERICAN DIVER.

Despite the fact the Hunley is officially the first submarine to sink an enemy warship, it is not considered to be part of the official history of the Navy’s submarine force.  The Submarine Force’s start date is April 1, 1900, when the Navy purchased the HOLLAND (VI) from its inventor John P. Holland.

Of course, technically, the HUNLEY was invented, served, and was lost under the flag of the Confederate States of America, not the United States of America, so I suppose on some level, it makes sense.

Despite the use of submarines during war on American soil (the Turtle’s attack on the HMS EAGLE in 1776, and two more ‘submarine attacks” on British Ships during the War of 1812), and a number of other submarine developments and inventions world-wide, by the mid 19th century Navy of the USA did not have any plans to pursue submarines.   In fact when Hoosier SHOEMAKER Lodner Philips invented and successfully tested two submarines in Lake Michigan, in 1852, he offered to sell them to the US Navy.  Their response?  “No Authority is known to this Bureau to purchase a submarine boat…the boats used by this Navy go on, not under, the water.”

But of course, necessity is the mother of invention…and invention’s unspoken father? Desperation.

Just as soon as the United States split along the Mason-Dixon line, both the US Navy and the brand-spanking squeaky new Confederate Navy are willing to consider and even encourage any new technologies, no matter how cutting edge, dangerous or even foolhardy.

Leaving the Union and their “Alligator” for the moment, since this IS an article about Hunley and The Hunley, we’ll head to New Orleans.

Horace Hunley was a New Orleans lawyer, and like many men in the Americas at this time, liked to wear a few more hats, serving in the Louisiana Legislature as well as inventing.

As soon as what would become known as the American Civil War broke out, The Confederate Government authorized private citizens to operate as privateers (cause the new Confederate Navy is missing several critical items: ships!  (well, at least seaworthy ones, they didn’t have many of those).

Knowing that it would take years they didn’t have for the Confederate Navy to come close to matching the Union Navy in terms of ship numbers, the Confederacy turned to technological innovation, trying to make each ship more than a match for any on the other side.  Ironclads, torpedo boats, and even revisiting the submarine question.

Submarines became even more important as President Lincoln and the Union Navy, taking advantage of their pre-existing personnel, resources and numbers of ships, took advantage of the Confederacy’s Achillies Heel, and blockaded the new nation into its own boarders. Despite the wealth the South exported in the form of cotton to Europe, it had little infrastructure compared to the north, and required trade with the north and Europe to sustain its economy.  The blockade would end up destroying the South’s economy.

A submarine however, theoretically, could either run under the blockade itself, or attack and destroy enough Union ships that the  South could break through and trade with Europe or even gain recognition from European countries for its status and standing in the world.

Enter Horace Hunley in New Orleans. (New Orleans was one of the principal ports of the South and one of the particularly blockaded ports from the North.)

Hunley and two friends, Machinists James McClintock and Baxter Watson, began designing submarines. They quickly built one submarine, the PIONEER, and tested her in NOLA’s Lake Pontchartrain. Thirty feet long, four foot diameter, she had a hand cranked propeller, it was crewed by three men.  Two turned the propeller, and the third guy  got to do everything else.


Sketches of the PIONEER showing the exterior, and interior plan. You can see the hand-cranked propeller on the right, towards the stern. The "periscope" in a way, is object "C". navsource.org

PIONEER proved she was seaworthy (after some modifications to stop small leaks), including being able to stay safely underwater up to two hours. Some accounts state that she sank a schooner and a couple of target barges using towed Torpedoes in Lake Pontchartrain.  (A Torpedo at this time was what we’d consider a “sea mine” today, an explosive device that blows on contact).  According to Donald Cartmell’s The Civil War Up Close: Thousands of Curious, Obscure and Fascinating Facts, two men died in the course of dive tests, though there does not appear to be evidence that the PIONEER herself sank.


This shows the eventual HUNLEY, but you can clearly see how a submarine could easily sink something while dragging a buoyant "torpedo". The submarine, being underwater and several feet ahead and below the explosion (and presumably on the opposite side of the affected target) would probably have been well-shielded from the blast and sinking. from hunley.org

As with most inventions, once you have one, you start going, “Oh, next time we should do this, and this, move this here, that over there…”  As PIONEER continued her trials, Hunley, McClintock and Watson began designing a sister on paper.  But in the meantime, they received a letter of marque from the Confederate government, turning the PIONEER and any of her potential crews into legal pirates, allowed to attack ships and capture booty–so long as they limited themselves to Union ships and booty.

But New Orleans was too important to the Union Troops.  A year after the war began, Union troops landed in massive numbers, overwhelming NOLA’s defenses.  The  inventors had to evacuate to Mobile, Alabama with as many blueprints, designs and drawings they could carry, but there was no way to move PIONEER in time, and no way to reliably take her by sea to a safer port.  She had to be scuttled, better lost to all now than show the incoming Union troops what Hunley and his team had already accomplished.

Sadly, the attempt didn’t work.  The PIONEER was found and raised by Union troops.  U.S. Navy Lieutenants Alfred Colin and George W. Baird of the USS Pensacola‘s engineering department thoroughly studied this strange ship and forwarded their drawing to their fleet engineer.  These documents were lost until around 1994, when historian March Ragan found them in the National Archives.  The drawing below was included in that report (note the “Rebel” in the “Rebel Submarine Ram” title.)


The Union Troops drawing of the PIONEER. This was the drawing that finally proved the submarine on display for years in New Orleans wasn't the PIONEER. (see below). From navsource.org


The PIONEER remained high and dry until 15 February 1868, when she was sold at auction for $43 worth of iron scrap.  And so ended one of the great experiments in marine technology.

Strangely though, PIONEER apparently had some competition.  In 1878, while dredging the St. John Bayou channel, another iron submarine was discovered. Incorrectly identified as the “Pioneer” for years, (because no one seems to have made the connection between the weird vessel sold ten years earlier for scrapping and this thing) it’s now known that this was a different boat altogether.  But that’s about all that’s known.  To date, no one has been able to conclusively find any records, documentation or any indication of what she was called, who designed or built her, or anything else.  As mysterious an artifact as you’ll ever find from the Civil War, it underwent conservation in 1999 (to remove the cement “conservators” filled her with in 1908!) and is now on display in the Louisiana State Museum in Baton Rouge.

(Apparently, there is a current theory regarding this strange boat.  Historian Francis Chandler Furman theorizes that this vessel might have been a scale model working prototype of what should have been a much larger vessel to be constructed in Confederate shipyards.  If true, it would have been made at Tredegar Iron Works of Richmond Virginia (makers of steam engines, rifles, cannons and  iron cladding for CSS VIRGINIA, among other things) and may have been sent to New Orleans through Edward M. Ivens, Tredegar’s New Orleans agent, possibly for testing, or even to be the pattern for the New Orleans shipyards.)



The unknown submarine, at its outdoor display site, where it remained until 1999. It's now housed inside the Louisiana State Museum. wikipedia.org

Based on the blueprints left behind, a life-size PIONEER has been re-created and is now on display at the Lake Pontchartrain Museum in Louisiana.

Meanwhile, back in 1862, on their way to Mobile, Alabama, with as many designs as they could salvage, the Hunley trio already had a new name in mind: AMERICAN DIVER.  And unlike her now-lost older sister, she’d have a new innovation: engine power.


More Information:

The HL Hunley in Historical Context


USS Amberjack: Lost around 16 February 1943

Lost Subs | Posted by Rebekah
Feb 17 2014

The Amberjack sat on her building ways on December 7, 1941.  One of many planned submarines, she was soon finished, tested, commissioned and sent to the Pacific, where she and her sisters were, in many respects, the largest and most complete line of defense against the Japanese.

AMBERJACK just before her commissioning. navsource.org

Her first patrol was extremely successful for a new crew.  AMBERJACK’s commanding officer, John Archibald Bole, had commanded the S-21 before the war, but the AMBERJACK was one of the new fleet boats, will all the luxuries the S-boats lacked: air conditioning, clothes washers, refrigerated food storage, and a bunk for (almost) every man.  Amberjack, like her sisters, was also longer, wider, deeper diving, and farther ranging than the old S-boats.  Bole was expected, especially with the new unrestricted warfare declaration for the submarine force, to go deep in Japanese territory and bring the war to the enemy before the surface fleet could even start to refloat and recover.

Her first patrol was amazingly successful.  Leaving Pearl on 20 August, 1942, AMBERJACK headed for New Ireland and the Solomon Islands.  Three days in, she fired at her first target, but the torpedoes missed.  She didn’t miss her second chance, which came the next day, and broke the troop ship SHIROGANE MARU in two, sending her to the ocean’s floor.

Three weeks and two failed attack later (including AMBERJACK’s first thorough depth charge attack,) she fired two torpedoes at a coal freighter.  One blew the bow open, but the ship doggedly cdrive herself forward, trying to escape.  AMBERJACK took up the chase, with both vessels firing deck guns at each other an hour in.  The freighter hoped to scare off her hunter, the Amberjack tried to finish the job.  Both stayed too far out of range to do any damage.

The sun set, and AMBERJACK lost sight of her target.  The freighter may have breathed a sigh of relief.  But AMBERJACK’s new Radar system pinged the freighter 8,000 yards off the starboard bow.  AMBERJACK moved closer, startling the freighter, who zigged out of the way of AMBERJACK’s first shot.  Amberjack fired again, and caught her prey, the SENKAI MARU.  She sank, many of her crew evacuating on lifeboats for nearby Kavieng.

A few days later, lurking in Kavieng Harbor, AMBERJACK fired at four vessels sitting anchored, hitting and sinking the Tonen Maru II.  A whale (slaughter) factory ship now converted tanker, it sank to the bottom of the harbor…which was too shallow to fully engulf the TONEN.  Amberjack claimed her kill, believing the TONEN MARU too damaged to be used again.

(Indeed, five days later, the Allies, who had long since cracked the Japanese military’s secret codes, intercepted this message, which AMBERJACK included in her War Patrol Report:

Excerpt from War Patrol Report, First War Patrol, USS Amberjack, SS-219, page 18. From fold3.com. The Japanese eventually raised the TONEN MARU (II), and put her back to work. Submarine PINTADO put a permanent end to her on 22 August, 1944.


But now AMBERJACK was running into trouble.  She decided “it was not advisable to linger around” (you think?) and headed to sea.  But the calm seas betrayed her.  AMBERJACK’s ballast tanks had started to leak under the pressure of the patrol’s many attacks and counterattack, and streams of bubbles trickled out of ballast tanks #2 adn #6.  The planes guarding Kavieng Harbor tracked her down, dropping multiple depth charges, forcing AMBERJACK to stay down.  In addition, the attack periscope was broken and nearly useless, and sonar had been knocked completely out, renderning AMBERJACK deaf (and to a submarine, half-blind as well).

Bole decided to head for the nearest safe port, Espritu Santo Island.  While her own crew tried to repair her ballast tanks to get her safely to Australia, the Navy decided, “As long as you’re here, could you swing by…” AMBERJACK would transport aviation gas (in a modified fuel tank), bombs and fifteen pilots to Pacific battlefield Guadalcanal (and halfway there the Navy woudl say, “Wait, never mind, drop them off a Tulagi instead.” [1]

She returned to triumph at Brisbane, claiming three sinkings for her first patrol, a very respectable record.

Her second patrol was more disappointing.  No torpedoes hit their targets (this was during the time the Mark XIV torpedoes were proving they had multiple problems) and AMBERJACK had several close calls.  She returned to Brisbane on January 11, 1943, claiming no kills.

There was, however, an interesting surprise on this patorl, the morning of November 29, 1942.

Just south of Shortland Island, the AMBERJACK, patrolling submerged, saw a bizarre submarine.  Before the war, all navies kept records on the silhouettes and capabilities of other navy’s ships.  The Americans knew about the Japanese K and J type submarines (the submarines that acted as mother subs for the midget subs that attacked Pearl Harbor in conjunction with the airplanes on December 7, 1941. ) and had provided photographs and silhouettes of these submarines to American submarine crews.

But heading into Shortland’s south harbor, was a Japanese submarine AMBERJACK’s CO had never seen.   She was too far away to attack, and moved so fast, AMBERJACK soon gave up the chase, but she looked so different, the CO drew a picture, complete with labels to show the unusual aspects of the submarine, and included it in the War Patrol Report.  Here it is: Ship Contact #5, the strange submarine:

Taken from the Appendix of Second War Patrol, USS AMBERJACK, 1942-1943. from fold3.com. You can clearly see some of the unique aspects of what will later become known to the American's as a B-type Japanese Submarine. Image is larger, and more detailed. Click for larger copy.

As it would turn out, this was one of Japan’s newest submarines, the B1 Type submarine.  They were similar to the Gato-class submarine the American Navy was using, in that they were numerous and the workhorses of the Japanese Submarine Force.  But there were some interesting differences the Japanese were experimenting with.


The B1 type submarine (the I-15 in this case), which is the class of submarine AMBERJACK saws the morning of 29 November 1942. Wikipedia Commons.


That “island” in front of the conning tower?  That’s an airplane hanger for a small scouting plane, the Yokosuka E14Y1 Glen Seaplane, which was used for scouting missions.  AMBERJACK apparently wouldn’t see the collapsable airplane crane that was lashed to the foreward deck, and of course, the launching catapult was folded flush under the deck when the plane wasn’t in use.

How does a plane fit in there?  They were modular, and the wings were removed and stowed alongside the body.  This cross section, courtesy of this blog, shows how this submarine was put together.

Cross Section of a B1-type submarine, similar to the one spotted by AMBERJACK. From this blog

The B-type Japanese submarines were a really interesting bunch, and would accomplish a number of fascinating missions, including going to Europe, lifeguarding Japanese pilots…off Hawaii’s coast, and attacking the US Mainland (successfully).

The submarine AMBERJACK spotted that morning was likely the I-31, one of several submarines that were supplying the Japanese forces on Guadalcanal and other Solomon Island strongholds, by smuggling in men and supplies from Truck (Chuuk Atoll) to Guadalcanal, to Shortland Island, and back.  I-31 was the only Japanese submarine to dock at Shortland, coming from the southerly direction of Guadalcanal, as AMBERJACK reported.  I-31 was only 6 months old when she was spotted, and only had another six months or so to live.  On 12 May, 1943, while running cargo between Japanese installations on the Alaskan Islands of Attu and Kiska, she fired a torpedo at the American Battleship, PENNSYLVANIA, survivor of Pearl Harbor.   PENNSYLVANIA’s aerial escort dropped a smoke bomb to mark the submarine’s postition, and three nearby destroyers, the USS PHELPSUSS FARRAGUT ad USS EDWARDS hunted her down.  Ten hours of relentless cat-and-mouse-and-depth-charges later, the I-31 was forced to surface–and cut down by EDWARDS’s guns.  She sank in nearly 6,000 feet of water, and has not been discovered as of this date.

But all of that was in the future, and AMBERJACK, who spotted the strange new submarine I-31 that morning, had a shorter lifespan than the sub she’d just reported.

AMBERJACK’s third patrol was her final one, and what she did was pieced together by the Navy afterward.

She left Brisbane on January 26, 1943, to once again patrol the Solomon Islands and provide support for the ongoing Guadalcanal Campaign.  The JApanese were frantically evacuating over 117,000 troops from Guadalcanal, and using submarines as cover.  AMBERJACK’s mission would have involved reconnaissance in addition to “unrestricted warfare” (i.e. “If it flies a Japanese Flag and you can get a good shot, SINK IT!” On February 3, she radioed base, reporting that she’d made contact with a Japanese submarine south of Shortland Island (again) on Feb 1 (Was likely the I-9 running between Guadalcanal and Shortland, arriving at Shortland that day), and sunk a two masted schooner on the 3rd. The next day, the 4th, she radioed home to say she had hit a freighter, which as apparently carrying a large supply of explosives, with the results one would expect from blowing apart an explosives-laden freighter.

This sinking inspired this painting "Night Battle" by E.V. Vandos. Part of the Naval History Department. From navsource.org

However, in the process, A Lt. Stern was hit in the hand from gunfire from the freighter’s crew.  When Pharmacist’s Mate Arthur Beeman ran to help the Lt., he was hit and killed.

The next day, she radioed to report that after her last report, she’d been chased and forced down by two determined Japanese destroyers.  On surfacing, AMBERJACK discovered a Japanese Aviator floating in the sea.  His plane had come down, and AMBERJACK took him aboard, intending to bring him back to Brisbane.  (Apparently) in response to HQ’s question, AMBERJACK decided they did not need to replace their Pharmacist’s mate immediately, and would finish out their patrol.

It was the last message AMBERJACK ever sent.

For three week, HQ sent message after message to AMBERJACK, telling her to move here, or there, or perform reconnaissance on various islands.  AMBERJACK never responded, but this wasn’t unusual: submarine CO’s were allowed to not respond if they felt the chance the Japanese would intercept a radio message and use it to track down a submarine was higher than the value of responding to a simple “move here”, message.  But on March 5, with AMBERJACK’s scheduled patrol winding down, HQ ordered her to respond and check in.

No response.

Five more days passed, and AMBERJACK was due to arrive in port.  Submarines were supposed to radio ahead with an ETA so the various aerial and sea patrols did not attack and sink a friendly submarine returning from patrol.  AMBERJACK never showed.

The Navy decided that she must have been lost sometime after Valentine’s Day, 1943. The families would have to be told.

Then, fifteen days later, on March 25, military intelligence, still reading Japan’s “encrypted” radio messages, intercepted and decrypted a notification that proved to be AMBERJACK’s final chapter.  She’d been lost on February 16, two days after her final message.  The message, as it now appears in AMBERJACK’s file, appears below:

Taken from "Report of the Loss of AMBERJACK". From hnsa.org

AMBERJACK’s loss was publicly announced around 13 June, 1943, nearly four months after her loss.

In honor of AMBERJACK and her lost crew, AMBERJACK’s name was given to a new, planned TENCH-class submarine.  Completed after the war, AMBERJACK (II) had a long and successful career during the Cold War.  Eventually, she was sold to Brazil, who changed her name to the Ceara.  I cannot find any publicly available documentation about AMBERJACK (II)’s disposition, so it is possible that she is still around somewhere in Brazil’s Naval dockyards.

AMBERJACK (II) following her GUPPY conversion ca. 1947-1948. navsource.org


In the 1970’s a memorial to AMBERJACK and her lost crew was erected in Charleston, South Carolina.


The Amberjack Memorial as it currently appears in Charleston, South Carolina. Image courtesy of Ted Kerwin, flickr.com. Creative Commons attribution license.


To date, her wreck has not been found or documented.

To the crew of the AMBERJACK, “May you rest your oars, sailor”.  And Thank You.

For more information:

On Eternal Patrol’s Page honoring AMBERJACK’s lost crew


[1] Tulagi is a small island just north of Guadalcanal, which the Marines had taken after a one-day battle the August 7, earlier that year.  It also was the base to a PT-boat contingent, including one PT-109 and it’s soon to be commander, a young John Fitzgerald Kennedy.




Shirley Temple and her (short) Submarine History

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Feb 11 2014

Saw the news this morning of child actress Shirley Temple-Black’s passing. Another golden age icon gone.

While I’m reading all these news reports about Temple, I’m noticing that one of her many accomplishments that’s being (I’m sure inadvertently) overlooked is her support for the military, before and during WWII.  It’s not surprising really, as many stars at that time did anything they could, and many did it quietly, with no press releases or announcements.  The only reason I stumbled across it was from a tiny photo.

USS Flier’s Chief Radioman was Walter Joseph “Bud” Klock, originally from St. Paul, Minnesota.  He joined the Navy to get training and work, but also support his single mom and little brother.  The Submarine Base in Honolulu was a far cry, in distance and environment, from his mother’s little apartment, and Klock wrote her frequently, sending all sorts of accounts of this things he was doing. (Two years into his hitch, he wrote home complaining that it was a cold 60 degrees in Honolulu that winter’s day.  I wonder what his mother, still in St. Paul, thought of that!)

Prior to WWII, servicemen like Klock, even aboard submarines, were allowed to take photos aboard, and write home talking about what they were doing and where they were serving, and Klock, armed with his old camera, sent dozens of photos home.  Sometime while he served on the massive ARGONAUT, Klock got to see a performance by Shirley Temple, and snapped a photo of her being escorted across the deck of his boat to send home.

After WWII started, letters from Klock became fewer and shorter.  Fewer because he could only send letters when he was in port, and shorter because the Navy had all sorts of rules against mentioning place names, ship and boat names, personal names of other servicemen, any information that could identify military tech in case a spy intercepted the letter (which, in the submarine force’s case, the entire boat was the latest technology, so nothing to see here!), and on and on and on. Some men complained that the only thing you could do was write, “As of today’s date, I’m somewhere in the world, doing something I can’t tell you, and I’m still breathing and healthy.  How are you?”

Klock sent his last letter home in mid-July, 1944, and died with the Flier on 13 August, 1944.  His mother and wife Velma, kept all of the letters, which were passed on to Klock’s nephew, whom Walter never had an opportunity to meet.

Klock’s nephew allowed me to see and transcribe these letters before their donation to the USS Silversides Submarine Museum in Muskegon, Michigan. While sorting them and putting them in chronological order, I found that fun little photo of Shirley Temple, in the late 1930’s (August 11, 1937: see update below), visiting the USS Argonaut (likely in Pearl Harbor, Honolulu).

Taken in the late 1930's when Temple was between 8 and 11 years old, then submariner Walter Joseph "Bud" Klock took this photo of Shirley visiting the USA's largest submarine at that time, the 358 foot Argonaut. To the left, the Argo next to a "standard" sized (between 207 and 240 feet) S-boat. The Fleet Boats of WWII were still largely in the planning stages, but would still be a good forty-six feet shorter than the Argo. Argo was lost with all hands on 10 January 1943. She would retain her "largest submarine" record until 1959 when the USS Triton (SSRN-586 ) and USS George Washington (SSBN-598) were commissioned, coming in at 447 (Smashing Argo's record) and 381 feet long, respectively. Photos courtesy of the family of Walter Klock.


Temple was thirteen when WWII began for the USA, and seventeen when it was over.  As an established celebrity, and moreover, a celebrity associated with positive, feel-good movies, she was valued as a morale booster for the country and the military. She worked for War Bond Drives, in both America and Canada, in her movies, making personal appearances, and serving and performing at the famed Hollywood Canteen.

The Canteen was a restaurant/entertainment venue for servicemen regardless of race (this was a segregated time period in American History, so a racially integrated venue, even for working servicemen, was extremely unusual) that was staffed and headlined by Hollywood’s best and brightest.  Chaired by Bette Davis, who had no problems calling personal celebrity friends from all over Hollywood, including from multiple studios (something that got her in trouble once, but as usual, she quickly pointed out that if the Hollywood head’s had trouble with their stars working together, doing their bit for the boys in uniform, she’d have no choice but to follow their wishes…and then call a press conference!  Studio heads promptly decided they had no problem with it!) celebrity chefs, anything and everything to entertain the boys. At one point, apparently, when meat rations were too scarce for The Canteen, Davis even called DC to inform them that as the Canteen served servicemen, she should be allowed to get better rations to serve them.  DC made that happen. Temple was one of her regulars, holding signs pointing the way, serving punch or cake, and performing. (Check out the link for tons of pics and a great story about the Canteen.  It was really something!)


A Teenage Shirley Temple serving cookies to the troops at the Canteen ca. 1942-43. The Canteen would close in 1944. Photo from silverscreenoasis.com


After the war, she married two WWII servicemen (the first marriage ended in divorce) which, all things considered, wasn’t all that uncommon.  She later became one of the first women to publicize her battles with breast cancer, and even became an American ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.

A truly remarkable women, who, when she was a child, brought smiles one day to a submariner who snapped a picture for his mom, far away in St. Paul. Let this desire to serve men and women in uniform, also be a part of Shirley Temple’s remembered legacy.

(BTW, if anyone can help me date the Shirley Temple submarine photo, please contact me at ussflierproject@gmail.com  I’d love to be able to add some more context to the photo for its records)

The Argonaut’s story on this website (includes more candid photos courtesy of Walter Klock and his camera)


UPDATE:  Talking to another person who inherited another photograph of Shirley that same day on the Argonaut gave me some new ideas for web searches.  Thank goodness for online archives and newspaper archives.  We now have a date!  Shirley Temple visited the Argo at Pearl Harbor on August 11, 1937, when she would have been 9 years old (and a six-year veteran of the movie industry already!)  A sailor wrote an account of the visit and sent it to the Chicago Daily Herald, which printed it!  It’s an interesting little article, though as a writer, I had to laugh a little bit towards the end when he describes Temple.  It’s also an interesting note in that Temple was given an officer’s dolphin pin during her visit.  This almost NEVER happens.  I know of only a few times a civilian has been bestowed with a dolphin pin, and here one.  Enjoy!

Chicago Daily Herald, Friday, September 10, 1937, pg 8 column 2

“Bronco Forszen helps Entertain Shirley Temple

“Merlin (Bronco) Foszen, who is a member of the US Navy and is stationed at Pearl Harbor Hawaii, has written an interesting account of the recent visit of Shirley Temple to Pearl Harbor and the Submarine USS Argonaut, which gives a first hand picture of the most popular juvenile star of the movies.  Mr. Forszen’s story follows:”

“On Wednesday, August 11, 1937, the officers and enlisted men of the Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor, T[erritory of] H[awaii]  were honored with a visit by Shirley Temple.

Miss Temple was due to arrive at 10:30 a.m and all Navy Children were invited to be present.  Several house before Miss Temple was scheduled ot arrive a strained and somewhat tenseness wrapped itself around the base.  Every sturdy man O’Warsman tried hard to conceal the fact that he was just a little thrilled at the thoughts of seeing the little star.  And as could be expected, most of them were down on the dock fully three quarters of an hour before she came.  At 10:35, she arrived, her car stopping a few yards from the gangway of the USS Argonaut, the submarine she was to visit.  She was immediately swarmed by move photographers, autograph hound, and ardent admirers.

Due military honors were bestowed on the little Colonel, as the boatswain piped the six side boys to a “hard salute” as she came across the gangway.  Genial Lt. Commander L.C. Walton, skipper of the Argonaut, on receiving his honored guest, presented her with a gold submarine insignia.  Following this came an informal inspection of the ship’s crew, and the topside.  Points of interest were explained by Captain Wilson, Miss Temple’s Naval Aid, and skipper Walton.

On leaving the ship Shirley gave each of the side boys a snappy salute, and walked fearlessly into the surging crowd of women and children.  She was quickly freed and slipped in to an official car.  The car pulled away and the crowd quickly broke up.  But the little ray of sunshine and happiness hadn’t left as everyone one thought she had.  The reason for this was that she wanted to see the big submarine shove off and go to sea.  As the mechanical fish grew small in the distance, Miss Temple was taken to the Submarine Officer’s quarters.  Once there she had to go through the trying and tiring experience of being hostess to approximately seven hundred small children.  They touched her golden curls, felt her white silk dress, crowded around her, inspired by her presence, and no doubt longing and praying to trade places with her.

No amount of descriptive words can adequately describe the splendid character, vivacious personality and cool nonchalance that this internationally famous little girl possesses.  She could receive pompous military men, celebrated statesmen, pious clergymen, and stately demigods and still predominate the setting with her spakrling [sic] blue eyes, winsome smile, golden hair and above all, her outstanding, electrifying personality.

Miss Temple’s visit here made many children happy and relieved many men of heavy hearts and spirit.  No one could be dull or unhappy with an enchanting bundle of humanity like Shirley Temple around. 

I would like to thank both Mr. and Mrs. Temple for the honor and privilege they bestowed on the Naval Service by this visit.

98 Years ago–the E-2 blows up in Dry Dock

Lost Subs | Posted by Rebekah
Jan 15 2014

(I wanted to post this in commemoration of E-2’s explosion, 98 years ago today…I made it with 15 minutes to spare.  Pics will have to come tomorrow…I’m too tired right now!)


Early in submarine history, submarines were more of working laboratories than anything else.  The men manning these boats were constantly working at the bleeding edge of science, and deadly consequences occurred with no enemy other than the basic forces of nature and chemistry.

Case in Point: the USS E-2.

Originally named “Sturgeon” while under construction, the re-named “E-2” was commissioned on 14 February 1912, just a few weeks before the other great Technical nautical wonder, the Titanic, would set sail on her maiden and final voyage.

She served for a number of years, patrolling around the New England coast, then Guantanamo Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Like most submarines, E-2 was an engine/battery submarine.  While on the surface she would run on her diesel engines (E-2 was one of the first to run on diesel, rather than the more unstable/explosive gasoline engines) and these engines would charge her batteries.  Unlike the engines, the batteries, producing no fumes and needing no oxygen, would run the submarine’s systems while underwater.  When the batteries ran out, the sub had to surface.

The trouble with these wet-cell batteries, however appeared frequently and caused some limitations in maneuvering. Submarines could only dive and surface at less than a fifteen-degree angle or the batteries would have trouble.  Any salt water at all hitting the batteries would cause deadly chlorine gas to form, asphyxiating the crew or even, causing an explosion.

In fact, the first sub fatality in the American Navy, the F-4, in 1915, was partially caused by a corroded battery case, leading to a loss of control, and implosion during a dive.

These issues lead American Inventor, Thomas Edison, as Chairman of the Naval Advisory Board,  to invent a new battery that would be more stable, less prone to the angles of a submarine’s dives and ascents, and eliminate the chlorine gas.  After five years of work, he believed he had a stable working model, which was photographed and proclaimed from this Washington Herald newspaper from October 1915 feature section:


Based on a nickel-potash solution, the battery could not produce chlorine gas, nor should it be unstable if doused with seawater for any reason[1].  Lighter, stronger, it could potentially allow submarines to maneuver at up to a sixty-degree pitch, allowing for faster, tighter, maneuvering.  Even more importantly, it could be charged within one hour, allowing submarines to remain hidden longer in enemy waters.[2] With WWI already in full swing, and the US possibly heading to war, the possibility for greater flexibility and safety combined, was enticing, even if the Edison battery was nearly three times as expensive as the current lead-acid batteries.

By this time, the E-2, the selected test submarine, already had two 400-cell Edison batteries installed,[3]  and was undergoing dock-side tests, charging and discharging her batteries under carefully controlled conditions.  [4]

Interestingly enough, the E-2 had already experienced battery failure with her old led-acid batteries. In September 1914, the E-2 was fifty feet underwater when, unbeknownst to the crew, the lead acid of the battery chewed through the battery tanks and into the seawater ballast tanks. Ensign Edward Gillam, E-2’s Commanding Officer, detected the feared chlorine gas leaking from the battery compartment, and drove the sub to the surface, using her pumps, rather than blowing the ballast tanks (the chlorine gas could have released inside in a cloud if he had, killing his crew).[5]  The crew managed to venting the gas but the brief exposure to the gas still injured and incapacitated nearly every one of the nineteen hands aboard[6], forcing the submarine to be towed back to port.  (Later tests would show the acid had deeply pitted the entire battery tank, forcing all D and E class subs to port to replace and double-line their battery tanks.) Gillam’s lungs, however, were badly scarred, would need a year to recover, and a new CO, Charles “Savvy” Cooke, was chosen to replace him.[7]

On December 7, 1915, the E-2 made her maiden voyage with the batteries.  The initial test was successful: the batteries “produced better speed on less fuel.”[8] The experiments also proved that the Edison battery generated “nearly double the ordinary amount of hydrogen during the process of charging, but on discharge or while lying idle, gives off much less…observers aboard…reported that while in operation not enough gas was produced to be dangerous.”[9]

But Savvy wasn’t comfortable with the amount of hydrogen gas the batteries produced.  Dangerous as chlorine gas was, you could smell it, and react, hopefully in time.  Hydrogen gas is odorless, and could build up with no one knowing.  He requested the Navy’s Bureau of Steam Engineering install hydrogen gas measuring devices in the E-2 as a safety feature.  And was denied.  He suggested installing individual voltage meters for all 800 battery cells to see which ones produced hydrogen gas under certain conditions.  And was turned down. By both the Navy and the Edison Company.  (Hutchinson said they would increase the chances of a short circuit).[10]

More tests would be needed, but the early results were encouraging enough that the Edison Battery would be installed on one of the newest boats, the L-8[11], under construction in Portsmouth.  E-2, along with three other submarines, entered Brooklyn Navy Yard on December 30, 1915.  As a standard safety precaution, all four submarines were stripped of their torpedoes and drained of all fuel, and they were each about fifty feet away from her closest neighbor.

On Saturday morning, January 15, several civilian and Naval personnel went inside the E-2, down to the battery compartment.  New canvas pipes and fans had recently been installed to see if the new ventilation would cool the batteries uniformly, and so, that day, the men were measuring the voltage output and temperature of the batteries over a complete discharge, followed by a seven hour charge.[12]  For this first part at least, no one was expecting any hydrogen gas build up, though the fans and vent pipes were kept running as safety protocols demanded.  At least five men, two Navy sailors and three civilian contractors, were inside the after battery compartment, and another ten worked throughout the vessel on multiple projects.

At 1:16 pm,[13] there was a devastating explosion deep within the E-2. One man, standing the deck hatch, was blown twenty feet into the air, before landing on the drydock floor, thankfully with only minor injuries.  The ladder he had been standing on was also blown sky-high, finally landing 150 feet away.

E-2 roared, the sound of the explosion rumbling and bouncing around the confined space.  Within the battery compartment, four men, Roy Seaber of Cincinnatti, James Peck, civilian from Brooklyn, John Shultz, civilian from Brooklyn, and Joseph Logan, Civilian from Brooklyn, lay dead, and the man in charge of the discharging procedure, Chief Electrician’s Mate LL Mills, was badly injured.  Another nine men lay too injured to move, forced to breathe in the searing gas fumes which now suffocated through the submarine.[14]

From the outside, the E-2 looked was perfectly fine.  The hull designed to withstand the ocean’s pressures from the outside had contained the explosion within, though her internal space was “badly shattered.”[15]  Then the rescuers coming from the dry dock discovered a new twist: the watertight hull trapped the gasses inside the sub, forcing would-be rescuers, led by E-2’s Savvy, to don diving helmets while other men tried to pump pressuriezed air into the E-2, forcing the gas out.

Ambulances and medical personnel were on hand when the first of the injured men were hauled out to the open air.  Many were badly burned.  When the bodies of the men near the battery compartment were finally retrieved, they spoke of the severity of the explosion: all were badly burned, one was missing an appendage, and another was crushed.

Within hours, reporters were clamoring for the reason why. The navy offered one initial suggestion: that the hydrogen gas that the batteries built up when charged, had somehow been ignited by a spark.  However “It is too early to state definitely the cause of the explosion,” Said acting Secretary of the Navy, (and future president) Franklin Roosevelt.[16]  But the batteries, as it turned out, had been discharging, and shouldn’t have been throwing off enough hydrogen to spark anything, much less a massive explosion.  .  The only two other immediate theories were the explosion was caused by the diesel-oil engines…but no diesel had been onboard and the engines were intact…or an air flask nearby had exploded…but an explosion of one of those should have blasted metal shards throughout the battery compartment, which hadn’t happened.[17]  Another option, intentional sabotage, was ruled out by January 17.[18]

A Naval inquiry would be required, and the coroner of Brooklyn also announced and inquiry on behalf of the three dead civilians.

Despite not being on board the E-2 at the time of the explosion, and leading the rescue effort, as CO, Savvy’s career was potentially on the line.  He needed a defense counsel, and chose a fellow submarine officer: Chester Nimitz, future WWII Commander of the Pacific Fleet.

Now Hutchinson and Savvy were at polar ends, each believing the other’s people or devices had to be the cause of the explosion.  During the inquiry and the many press releases surrounding it, many conflicting statements were made:

  • Hutchinson, inspecting the E-2 the day after the explosion, stated that the batteries were intact and undamaged, proving that the explosion, even if it happened in the same vicinity, had to have come from somewhere else.[19]
  • Naval Lt. C.S. McDowell, stated that he too had inspected the remains of the E-2, and said the after compartment of the Edison batteries “were completely ‘blown up’ [and] the forward batteries also damaged.”[20]
  • Savvy revealed his requests for safety devices, only to be turned down. [21]
  • Hutchinson announced that the Edison battery was safe, and as proof, it was currently in use in three “non-German” European submarines, currently waging war in Europe.  One of those unnamed subs had sunk seventeen ships thus far.  This surprised many people, as it was assumed the US Navy would have exclusive rights to the Edison Battery if it passed its tests.[22]

While the investigation continued, a fifth man succumbed to his injuries.  But some of the others, crucially, Chief Electrician’s Make Lewis Miles, were slowly improving.

As soon as the survivors were stable, they started to give testimony.  Five men were able to speak, though from reports, they had to speak through a head-full of bandages, only their eyes and mouths visible.[23]

They were adamant about several points, however

1.)     No one was smoking[24]

2.)     There was a blinding flash, then they were all insensible[25]

3.)     There was no smoking or sparking wires on the E-2 on January 15[26]

The two critical testimonies came from Raymond Otto, a second class electrician’s mate from E-2’s crew, and Chief Electrician Lewis Mills, who had been in the battery compartment when the explosion happened.  Otto, who had been partially blasted through E-2’s hatch, and burned his legs, was able to testify around January 19, but Miles, forever confined to a bed, and whose voice permanently restrained to a whisper, couldn’t testify until early February.[27]

Both men, however, recalled the same unusual thing: four of the Edison Battery cells had depleted their charge, and were bubbling moments before the explosion.  The bubbling was hydrogen gas, being produced as the cells, depleted of their charge, had begun to recharge ahead of the others.  If they had produced enough hydrogen gas to stay ahead of the new ventilation system, a random spark (though from what, no one ever saw) could have, may have, caused the explosion.

By the end of January, the civilian coroner’s jury found that the cause of the civilians’ death was an “explosion of gases.” However, they also “were unable to determine the cause of the gases” [28] Despite testimony from naval and civilian experts, the civilian jury was not able to find any new conclusions regarding what gasses or sparks may or may not have sparked the explosion.

In the end, on the 19th of February 1916, the Naval Court of Inquiry wrapped up, though the results were strangely, not made public after conferences with officers of the Navy and Secretary of the Navy, Josephus  Daniels.[29]  The official conclusion did, however, absolve Charles “Savvy” Cooke from any blame.[30]

The press reported that the “court reached substantially the same decision as the board of investigation appointed by the navy commandant immediately after the accident” most likely buildup of hydrogen gas and a stray spark, though the “spark’s” origin was never discovered.[31]

The Navy decided to pull the Edison batteries from the under-construction L-8 in Portsmouth, but turn the E-2 into a floating laboratory, testing the Edison battery further.

They also pulled Savvy from his boat, reassigning him as an engineering officer on the Receiving Ship USS Salem in Boston.[32]  It was a step down in career, though the worst, for Savvy, was the sleepless nights wondering if he could have saved his crew, somehow.  He wouldn’t be given command of another submarine until after WWI…and then he would, once again, be in the news for a submarine incident that almost, again, took the lives of him and his crew.  Quick thinking on Savvy’s part, however would save them.  Just watch.


The E-2 would recover, and spend the next two years near the Navy Yards, testing the Edison and Ironside batteries thoroughly (some naval records state that as the Edison batteries themselves survived the 15 January explosion (one count that suggests the batteries were nto the cause of the explosion itself) they had to be tested cell by cell, to find the problem.  None was ever found.).  The Edison batteries were eventually passed over.  USS E-2 was recommissioned in 1918, and served in WWI running anti-U-boat patrols off Cape Hatteras.  None the worse for WWI, and having completed longer patrols than ever before, E-2 was decommissioned on 20 October 1921, and sold for scrap on 19 April 1922.

[1] Hill, A.J. Under Pressure: the Final Voyage of the Submarine S-Five  2002, Free Press, New York, New York.

[2] “Battery Approved by Edison’s Expert” New York Times, January 20, 1916.  From New York Times Digital Archives, Accessed 15 January 2014: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=FB0910FF3C5E11738DDDA90A94D9405B878DF1D3


[3] “E-2 Commander Testifies He Warned of Gas Menace: Asked Navy Department for Hydrogen Detector and Battery Charge, but Was Ignored” Chicago Tribune, 20 January 1916, Pg. 4.  Retrieved 15 January 2014 from fold3.com

[4] Hill, A.J.

[5] “US Submarine Crew Had A Narrow Escape” 7 April 1915, New York Times.  Accessed 15 January 2014 from New York Times Digital Archives: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F70611FB355A15738DDDAE0894DC405B858DF1D3

[6] “Blas Wrecks US Submarine While in Dock” Chicago Sunday Tribune, 16 January 1916, pgs. 1 and 2.  Accessed 15 January 2014 from fold3.com.

[7] Hill, A.J.

[8] “Explosion on Submarine Kill Four: E-2 Wrecked by Internal Blast Which Puzzles Experts; Diver Was Equipped with New Type Edison Safety Batteries” Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, 16 January 1916, pgs 1 and 15.  Accessed 15 January 2014 from fold3.com

[9] Fort Wayne; 1916 pg. 15

[10] Hill, A.J.

[11] “Blame Battery Trouble for Explosion on E-2: Navy Board of Inquiry Says Excessive Gas was Generated nad Ignited by Spark” Chicago Tribune, 19 January 1916, Pg 2. Accessed 15 Janauary 2014, from fold-3.com.

[12] “Navy Heads Warned of E-2 Months Ago” New York Times, 20 January, 1916, accessed 15 January 2014 from New York Times Archive: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=FB0C1EFD3B5B17738DDDA90A94D9405B868DF1D3

[13] “Naval Board Named to Make Inquiry” Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, 16 January 1916, pg 15.  Accessed 15 January 2014 from fold3.com

[14] “E-2 Blowup Due to Gas” Washington Post, 19 January 1916 pg 2.  Accessed 15 January 2014 from Fold3.com

[15] “4 Killed, 10 hurt by and explosion on Submarine E-2” The Atlanta Constitution; 16 January 1916, pgs. 1 and 3.  Accessed 15 January 2014 from fold3.com.

[16] Chicago Tribune, 16 January 1916.

[17] “4 Killed, 10 hurt in E-Boat Explosion: Mysterin in Disaster at New York Navy Yard” Washington Post, 16 January 1916, pgs 1 and 4. Accessed 15 January 2014 from fold3.com

[18] “Court Named for E-2” Washington Post, 18 January 1916, pg 2.  Retrieved 15 January 2014, from fold3.com

[19] “Edison Expert Asserts Battery Did Not Explode: Chief Enginner Says There Must Have Been Some Other Cause For Blast,:” Chicago Tribune, 17 January 1916, Pg. 4.  Retrieved 15 January 2014 from fold3.com

[20] “Crew of the E-2 Showed Bravery” 19 January 1916 pg. 4.  Retrieved 15 January 2014 from fold3.com

[21] Chicago Tribune , 20 January 1916.

[22] “Foreign Navy Uses Edison Battery Too” New York Times, January 17, 1916.  Accessed 15 January 2014 from New York Times Digital Archive: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F30B17FB355C13738DDDAE0994D9405B868DF1D3


[23] “US Submarine Survivors Deny anyone Was Smoking: Five of Crew, Recovering in Hospital Say there was a Blinding Flash—Then Lost Senses” Chicago Daily Tribune, 21 January 1916, Pg. 9. Retrieved 15 Janaury 2014 from fold3.com.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] “Navy Heads Warned of E-2 Months Ago” 20 January 1916, NY Times

[27] “Deny Exposed Lamp was Burning in E-2: Crew of Submarine presents 20 Points why it Should Be Held Blameless: Inquiy Board Held at Hospital—Take Testimony of Electrician Permanetly Injured in Explosion—Hearing Near the End”.  New York Times, 11 February 1916. Accessed  15 January 2014: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9D02E3DF1F38E633A25752C1A9649C946796D6CF


[28] “E-2 Blast Due to Gas: Coroner’s Verditct Condemns Authorities in Charge of Boat” Washington Post, 28 January 1916, pg. 2.  Accessed 15 January 2014 from fold3.com

[29] “E-Boat Blame Unfixed” Washington Post 20 February 1916, pg 2.  Accessed 15 January 1916 from fold3.com

[30] Hill, A.J.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Hill, A.J.

Loose ends: Griffon, Miami, and more

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Aug 08 2013

Lots of new information coming to light on a number of topics:


First, the submarine MIAMI, having hung in there for so long, will hang no longer.  Late last year, the Navy announced plans to repair and put MIAMI back out to sea, even if, as many supposed, they would have to partially cannibalize her decommissioned sister MEMPHIS, also in Portsmouth’s Shipyard, to do so.  MIAMI’s arsonist, Casey James Fury,, set the fires so he could go home due to anxiety about his girlfriend.  While he set the initial fire in the Crew’s Quarters, it soon spread to the Torpedo Room, Control Center, Auxiliary Machine Room, and Sonar Room.  These rooms are highly complex with thousands of components and interrelated and interconnected systems.  Fixing her would amount to gutting the MIAMI and rebuilding her most central and sensitive rooms.  That being said, MIAMI still had at least ten years left on her nuclear fuel, and until the fire, was in fairly good repair.  Moreover, submarines are under more demand than ever, but new boats cannot be built at the same rate as the older girls are scheduled to be decomissioned.

Cross section of an LA-class submarine (like Miami) with the fire damages highlighted. This may or may not reflect all the damage Miami suffered since some damage might be classified. Still, it’s a decent schematic of where most of her damage likely lies. It’s a large graphic, so click on it if you want to see it full-size.

So back in 2012, shortly after the fire, the Navy weighed the extra costs of repair against the cost of scrapping, against the personnel costs of keeping other submarines at sea longer while MIAMI holds her place in a drydock long after she was supposed to…on and on and on.  The submarine force is a thing of precision, in more ways than one.  Each sub’s crew, schedule, maintenance is all based on the movements of her sisters worldwide, all of which has to dovetail with the surface fleet as well.  MIAMI’s longer tenure in her drydock affected the next submarine scheduled to have maintenance in that drydock, which affected her mission schedule, which may have forced other shipyards to pick up extra jobs, or shuttling extra jobs, also forcing another submarine to pick up MIAMI’s future missions, while screwing up maintenance, crew rotations, and missions all over the place.  It was a nightmare, and each ripple of change had costs.

But submarines form a good portion of the backbone of the Navy, and many believe we need as many submarines as we can safely keep afloat.  All things considered, MIAMI was best put back to sea, and plans went forward.

Then this little thing called the sequestration happened.  MIAMI times ten.

Now the Navy had to reconsider MIAMI’s status in light of less money.  Then, more news came in–cracking.  In a highly controlled environment, like a submarine underwater, the slightest crack in any part of hull, piping, or componenent can end a submarine’s life, and that of her crew.  In 1963, a faulty pipe in the THRESHER likely lead to her sinking and the loss of her crew.  In MIAMI, cracking was now reported in pipes in air, hydraulic and cooling systems which run through the torpedo room and an auxiliary machine room.  More repairs.  More time.  More money.  More potential problems yet to be uncovered.  For every day MIAMI was in drydock, another surface ship or submarine may have to wait longer for necessary repairs and crew rotation.

According to the Navy, it was a hard choice, but now, instead of repairing a submarine, Portsmouth Shipyard will now scrap her, a process that requires fewer workers, so layoff processes are now in consideration.  The money that had been earmarked for her repairs, both this year and next, will be re-allocated to the standing fleet for their maintenance and upgrades.

After a long and respectful career, most of which is still buried under Top Secret classification, the MIAMI will be scrapped where she stands, in the dockyard where she burned.

She becomes the first submarine as well as the first nuclear powered naval vessel to be lost in a naval shipyard.

Godspeed MIAMI, you and your crew served your country well, and we thank you.


Following in MIAMI’s footsteps are nine submarines in various stages of construction: form the MINNESOTA, due to be commissioned in less than a month, to the ILLINOIS, WASHINGTON, COLORADO, INDIANA, SOUTH DAKOTA, and DELAWARE….all ordered and named, but whose keels are not yet laid.  Currently, construction takes sixty-five months, start to finish (Construction has likely started on some of these submarines, if not all, but the keel has yet to be laid), and is soon due to constrict further to 60 months.  (Way down from the 84 months a Virginia-class sub used to take!). Still, that’s five years from start to finish. MIAMI’s loss will be felt.


As I’m trying to tie up loose ends, I’ll touch on the Griffon’s “wreck”.  After delving 20 feet through Lake bottom, the surface sonar detected and was thought to potentially be the Griffon was…bedrock, so no ship there.  That doesn’t mean she’s not out there, nor that the “bowsprit” is fake.  It may indeed be a part of the Griffon, and the rest of her may be nearby–or may be broken up.  It’s possible, if she really did sink in that general area, that she broke up, either in the process of sinking, or over the intervening centuries.  So she may be found yet.

The “Bowsprit” had to be taken care of.  The archaeologists had two choices: take it or leave it.  Taking it would be problematic, as the State of Michigan claims ownership of the “bowsprit” and issues 30-day “leases” on it for research purposes.  Leaving the legal nightmare that is likely coming up behind, the bowsprit itself will need highly technical conservation to prevent its decomposition, and allow for study.  (See Development’s in the Griffin’s Dig, near the photo of the Mary Rose’s conservation for more information of what conservation will entail) Leaving it, however, was also problematic, as the bowsprit could be stolen by someone or even lost once again under Lake Michigan’s sands.

Not shockingly, they took it.  I hope we’ll hear more about any forthcoming tests or results on it.  Preliminary tests already suggest it’s the right age.  If more tests are done that can conclusively prove it’s from the late 17th century, then whatever that big stick is, it’s most likely part of the Griffon.  A small step forward, is a step forward!

Below, see a half-hour documentary made on-the-ground as it were about the recent Griffon dig and what they found.  Really interesting.  Locally produced.

Shipwrecked: The Search for Le Griffon

That’s all for right now.  But news is still forthcoming: MINNESOTA is due to be commissioned soon, the submarine command has transferred, and underwater archaeology is always changing and revealing new things!

Military Times Article about Miami’s scrapping decision

Article about Miami’s new damage

Developments in the Griffon Dig, the ‘Bowsprit’ came down…

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Jun 19 2013

Update: Wednesday, June 19, 2013.  With the initial excavation permit (the first underwater permit in Michigan’s history!) due to expire on Friday, and the French archaeologists scheduled to leave the USA shortly thereafter, time is running out at the Griffon site.

A map showing Griffin’s last days in the blue (any route taken by Griffin is pure speculation, though the dates of her ports of call were recorded by Hennepin.As before, click image of larger image.

Initially, the sonar scans done last year suggested a large object, around 40-45 feet long, consistent with the Griffon’s descriptions, was buried only about 2 feet below the surface.  So this week’s excavations have involved dredging around the alleged bowsprit sticking out of the mud, hopefully uncovering the deck of the Griffon.  Unfortunately, what they found first was a near impenetrable layer of quagga mussels, and what the Sonar was picking up earlier seems to be much, much, much, further down. At least another 8-10 feet, if not further.  The extra depth forced the Griffon Excavation Team to bring in new excavation equipment that could handle this new depth.

Then, Tuesday night, as they were working near the “Bowsprit”, it suddenly began to wobble.  Divers realized that if it had once been connected, it wasn’t any longer, just deeply stuck in the mud.  Archaeologists decided to lower it to the lake bed, before it became a safety hazard.  So now we have a nearly twenty-foot long…something.

This is both good and bad news.  The bad news, obviously, is we’re still no officially closer to the Griffon if they’re excavating the right spot.  The good news, however, is multi-fold.

  • With the “bowsprit” down, they can now start excavating wider and with…well, one hates to say “with less care” but they certainly can explore a wider area faster than when they were concerned about the “bowsprit” and its stability.
  • The “Bowsprit” is now eligible to return to the surface and be fully examined.  This will include some really extensive conservation, but would allow it to be examined in controlled conditions.
  • The “Bowsprit” has been examined underwater by French archaeologists, who are convinced that it came from ship, and it a bowsprit, though the top, exposed ten feet are eroded from three centuries of sand and water (ya think?).  And therefore, SOMETHING interesting is in the area.  If she sank in a storm, the Griffon could have broken up, leaving this “bowsprit” where it is, and other items in the area.  Even broken up, she would still be archaeologically very valuable

The Bowsprit is the long, needle-like projection that extends from many (but not all) sailing ships’ bows. Of the four drawings of the Griffon done by Dr. George Quimby based on contemporary descriptions, this is the only one that shows any bowsprit at all, surprisingly. If the Griffon is only 45 feet in length as most scholars believe, I have a hard time believing her bowsprit is nearly half that length, but then again, 17th century sailing ships are not my specialty.

Now, the sand they’re sucking up is being sucked to the fishing vessel “Viking” which is the home base for this expedition.  The sand is filtered and checked, before being put back in the Lake.  This far, one or possibly two artifacts have come to light: a “cultural artifact”, with no further description, and a 15-inch long slab of blackened wood that shows signs of hand shaping.  These artifacts, could, of course, be one and the same.

Ideally, what they’re looking for is a French artifact from the 17th century, which could definitively prove that this place is the site of the Griffon, warranting a larger excavation this year, or a return next.  The perfect artifact would be one of Griffon’s guns, as these would be emblazoned with the arms of Louis XIV, proving beyond doubt that the Griffon settled near here.

Three days down, two to go, and of course, what happened today is not yet known—that’ll hit the papers tomorrow.

What happens to the bowsprit now?  Who knows?  There are two real options: leaving it near the site, and bringing it to the surface.

The exact site of “the Griffon” is a closely guarded secret (in fact, the discoverer, Steve Libert sat on that piece of information for nearly a decade as the rights to this expedition were dragged through court after court after embassy, after court as his trump card. ), but the general location is known.  To prevent theft or vandalism, the “bowsprit” may be buried nearby, and they’ll hopefully return next year.

Or, they could bring the Bowsprit to the surface and return with it to shore.  The problem here is that wood is full of natural oils. What does oil do in water?  Float to the surface.  Carbon-dating tests and archaeological surveys already suggest that that “bowsprit” is centuries old whatever it is and wherever it comes from, and over the hundreds of years, most of the oil in the original wood will have seeped out, up and away.

If it’s brought to the surface and allowed to dry out, the wood will essentially crumble to dust.  Another 17th century shipwreck, the Swedish Vasa, had to be kept damp until it can be sprayed with polyethylene glycol, which filled and the spaces the oil used to and stabilized the water-logged wood.  The Vasa had to be sprayed for seventeen years and dried for nine to allow for full penetration and stabilization, while the Mary Rose was sprayed for sixteen, and is currently drying (the earliest it will be considered “conserved” and ready for visitors will be 2015.).  Being one piece of wood, of course, the process for the “bowsprit” here will be faster, but it’s a long journey from the Lake to the nearest place that would be equipped to do that sort of work, and it would have to be kept wet and stable the whole time.

The Mary Rose undergoing the glycol treatment. If the bowsprit is brought to the surface, it’ll undergo something like this–though obviously, not at this scale! Image from Wikipedia.

The other good news, is the mud surrounding the “wreck” appears to be thick and possibly anaerobic, meaning no oxygen penetrates and therefore, anything that could eat the wreck can’t do anything.  She could possibly be whole down there…I’d say that’s asking too much, but the name Richard III rolls around in my head and reminds me that, yes, every so often, you can strike the Archaeological equivalent of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

But as I was thinking about the bowsprit, it got me to think about some possibilities about the wreck:

If that is the bowsprit, the wreck, if the bowsprit didn’t break at the beginning, could be tilted as much as this. Still, the final dimensions of that “bowsprit” are close to 20 feet, and again, a bowsprit that’s half the length of her ship seems very unusual to me.


A set up like this, where the “bowsprit” is actually part of the main or other mast makes a little more sense to my point of view. It at least would explain why the original staff was between 10 and 11 feet high and the hole was reportedly around 8 feet deep when it started to tumble, but sensors indicate the ship, if she’s there, is still several feet further down. It would also explain why we haven’t come across many artifacts yet.


Or even this idea. The top right sketch of Quimby’s Griffon drawings shows no bowsprit at all, but a main mast that appears to be two masts joined roughly half-way to two-thirds the way up. If this upper portion came loose and that’s what has just been excavated, (The “mast” to the right would indicate its original position)  that would also account for why no ship was attached to the lower end of the spar, and why sensors show a mass of something several feet down. Of course, there are any number of other possibilities: she could be broken up, she could be on her side, she could be scattered everywhere. Still, it’s fun to wonder…


Some of the best from today’s articles:

The Associated Press Article about the mast separating

One of the more detailed articles I found researching today

Another article about the bowsprit coming loose

Grand Haven Tribune article with a map of the area on which I based the one above

Has La Salle’s Legendary Griffon been found?

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Jun 18 2013

One of the most unique shipwrecks in the world may be on the verge of coming to light.  And being a native Michigander some four generations back, I’ve always heard about “The Griffin” and her wreck.  Part legend, part haunted ship (she’s the “Flying Dutchman” of the Great Lakes by some sources), part wild goose chase, it now appears there may be an end to her story.

In 1679, the Great Lakes region looked much different.  The area was known as “New France” or “Louisiana”.  French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle was sent by King Louis XVI to explore the New World and formally claim part of it for France.  He’d been doing this for a number of years, exploring parts of modern New York, Michigan, and possibly down as far as Kentucky.

Satellite view of the Great Lakes Region as it appears today. The Great Lakes region, or Louisiana, part of New France, as it was called them, would appear very different. It was under these raw conditions that the first cobbled-together shipyard would produce “The Griffin” the first European decked, sailing ship to appear on the upper Great Lakes.

Of course, the native peoples of the Great Lakes region were welcoming of Europeans as long as there were few of them and they were eager traders, but as more colonists came desiring land, things got a little more uneasy.  Some tribes were welcoming and some were openly hostile, yet others allied with other tribes against the Europeans or with the Europeans against their own enemies. (Of course, individuals have unique agendas, further blurring these lines.)

Setting out to map the Great Lakes, and discover if the rumored Ohio River did lead to the Mississippi and eventually the Gulf of Mexico, de la Salle took a ship up Lake Ontario, but was stopped by a little obstruction called Niagara Falls, and had to figure out what to do next.  He couldn’t go around Lake Erie, as the local peoples, the Seneca nation, did not want him in their territory, so he had to continue on ship…and the only one he had was stuck at the base of the falls.

He had two choices, use the large canoes used by the native peoples of the Great Lakes, or build a new, European style ship.  Guess which one he went with?

Named “Le Grifon” or “The Griffin”, this ship, only about as long as one of those canoes, but much higher and more heavily armed, was built between January and June 1679.  But think for a second: the Griffin’s men first had to build their own lodgings, and guard against attacks from the Seneca and Iroquois, who did not approve of this new ship.  They had to fell great, virgin trees, likely hundreds of years old, cut them to length and width, plane them down, shape them, and set them in the ship on-site, while a blacksmith would first have to build a forge, then create all of the metal fastenings to hold Griffin together.

Thankfully,  de la Salle had a priest along on this expedition, a Louis Hennepin, who chronicled the entire journey, including Griffin’s short life.  It’s his writings that give us the clearest and one of the only first-person accounts of the build to loss of this unique ship.  He records that one master carpenter, one blacksmith, and ten other workmen built the Griffon in five months (January – May 1679).  The only pre-made items for her construction were the cannons, guns, rigging, chains, sails and anchor.  She had a griffon on her bowsprit, and an eagle carving as well.

Griffin’s possible appearances based on Hennepin’s period descriptions, other French ships of the time, and the research of Dr. George Quimby, Field Museum curator. Only finding the wreck will prove which, or any, of these designs are accurate.


The map below shows where Griffin’s only voyage went.  All things considered, she was very fast for her time.


Griffon’s Voyage, based on Quimby’s research and Hennepin’s accounts. Click on the map for a larger image. To read the Griffon’s account in Quimby’s book for yourself, go here:  (Link on the right).

In September, De la Salle, wanting to continue down Lake Michigan and find a river that could lead to the Gulf, but also needing to return to settle debts and acquire more supplies, decided to divide and conquer.  The priest Hennepin wrote what happened next:

“M[onsieur] la Salle, without asking anybody’s Advice, resolv’d to send back his Ship to Niagara, laden with Furrs [sic] and Skins to discharge he Debts: our Pilot [Luc the Dane, by all accounts] and five Men with him were therefore sent back, and ordere’d to return with all imaginable speed, to join us toward the Southern Parts of the Lake…They wailed the 18th of September with a Westerly Wind, and fir’d a Gun [cannon] to take their leave. ..it was never known what Course they steer’d, not how they perished; for after all the Enquiries we have been able to make, we could never learn anything else but the following…

The ship came to an Anchor to the North of the Lake of the Illinois [Lake Michigan] where she was seen by some Savages, who told us that they advised our Men to sail along the Coast, and not towards the middle of the Lake, because the sands [shoals, bars, islands] that make navigation dangerous when there is any high Wind.  Our Pilot as I said before, was dissatisfy’d and would steer as he pleas’d, without hearkening to the Advice of the Savages, who, generally speaking, have more sense than the Europeans think at first; the ship as hardly more than a League from the Coast, when it was toss’d up by a violent Storm in such a manner that out Men were never heard of since and it is suppos’d that the Ship struck upon a Sand as was there bury’d.”

The Griffin was never seen again.  De la Salle later heard some rumors that the pilot, Luc the Dane, and his men had scuttled the Griffin, and made off with his supply of furs worth £49,830 (in 2005 values) or $90,689.73 (2005 values)[1].  Another rumor that floated around was the local peoples had boarded the Griffin, then burned her to the waterline, where she sank.  Of course, the most common conclusion was the Griffin had sunk the four-day storm that Hennepin noted in his diary from September 19 to September 24, 1679.

The only European built ship in the Upper Great Lakes for nearly another hundred years, the Griffin is unique for several reasons: she’s the first European style ship built on the Great Lakes, using mostly native materials.  She may have utilized unique construction techniques due to this construction.  She’s from a time period that few examples survive, even few accurate plans.  As a wreck, she would be a time capsule, allowing an unpolluted view into this elusive time period of North American history, when the lines between the native peoples and the European settlers was constantly shifting, the concept of the USA and Canada was not yet born, when a French Flag flew over most of modern New York, Ontario, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, and the whole place was called “Louisiana” (And now you know where the name “Louisiana Purchase” officially originated.)  But most important, she seems to have sunk in a relatively deep, cold place in Lake Michigan, and possibly was completely covered in sand.

Why is that important?  Because unlike the ocean, where wooden ships quickly rot away, leaving their outlines in weaponry, metal fastenings and other stable cargo, wooden shipwrecks of the Great Lakes can remain whole for decades, if not centuries.  Many 19th century shipwrecks in Lake Michigan and Huron still bear their riggings, and hold cargo in perfect condition.  The Griffin, if found, even raised, could change our concepts of this time, much as the Mary Rose did Tudor England, or the Vasa about 17th century Sweden.

To give an idea of the excellent condition the Griffin could be found in, if she reached the bottom relatively intact, check out this video of the HMS Ontario, which sank in Lake Erie in 1780, during the Revolutionary War, or the American War of Independence.  Outside of some zebra mussels, she’s in such perfect condition, her discoverers said even two windows are still intact.

Or look at these 3D  models of shipwrecks from Thunder Bay, most of which sank in the 19th century.  Many of them look as though they sank a short while ago, still standing some with masts and some rigging intact.

The Griffin could indeed tell us much of the earliest written history of the Great Lakes.  But if the site that’s been investigated now is Griffon, who owns her and what happens next?  Heck, her discovery is a story in and of itself.

That’s another post.

For More Information:


This movie was put out by the Great Lakes Expedition team which is heading the Griffin expedition:

And this one is a highlight reel of the excavations taking place this summer (June 2013) Apparently, this spar of “the Griffin” was 10 feet, and they’ve excavated another 8 feet down to find, more spar! If this is the Griffin, I’m wondering if it’s the mast, not the bowsprit as previously thought, but then again, I’m not on site, and 17th century sailing vessels aren’t my specialty!

Great Article on the Griffon’s possible wreck, including photos and film footage of the bowsprit/mast spar:

Information Provided by the Great Lakes Exploration Group, who are leading the exploration of the wreck

 More information about the shipwreck and the progress of the preliminary dig taking place this summer (2013)



[1] Calculations based on “Money and Exchange Rates in 1632” by Francis Turner; “Currency Converter: old Money to new” from the British National Archives online: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency/default0.asp#mid; and X[change] Rates: Great Britain Pound to US Dollar 2005 Exchange Rates: http://www.x-rates.com/average/?from=GBP&to=USD&amount=49830&year=2005


USS Flier Exhibit Opened

Uncategorized | Posted by Rebekah
Jun 05 2013

I took a long time away from this project, mostly because the USS Flier exhibit now on display at the Silversides Submarine Museum swallowed me whole!  It was a great ride, and the exhibit is now open for the public!

When I started this blog, I assumed I would be in Muskegon to work more closely with this project, instead of working remotely from another state as the historian and consultant checking facts, drawing maps, ect.  But I couldn’t be happier with the results.

Designed by Kalamazoo-based Jeff Bernstein Exhibitions, I think the Flier exhibit is very well executed and tells the story very well.  Even though Flier herself only lived 13 months, from launch to sinking, and more than half of that was training, transport and repairs, she left her mark on the Navy, and history.

The exhibit highlights each member of the crew’s personal story, artifacts from the Flier’s crew, and the Coastwatchers and Filipinos working against the Japanese behind enemy lines.

In addition, we also have a cross-section WWII-era torpedo, and history of submarines in WWII highlighted as you head into the museum.

It’s a permanent installation, so if you’re ever in Muskegon, stop on by and check out the story!

For more about the exhibit including a small gallery of photos, see this article from the Muskegon Chronicle.


Next up: A short diversion from submarines, though not shipwrecks.  Has the Griffin been found at last?

Submarine News: The Past: Discovery of the U-486 and her tale.

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Mar 27 2013

Several months absence can put you far behind on submarine news–even of the historic kind.

Breaking news: a new U-Boat wreck has been identified in Norway.  The U-486’s remains, split by a British torpedo, has been found in 820 feet of water off of Norway.

She was only on her second patrol.  Her first had been amazingly successful, especially given that it was late 1944, and Germany was operating from a defensive position, with many experienced submarine hands already having been lost.

U-486 at sea, likely 1944 or early 1945. Original Image from The Local.

U-486 departed for her maiden patrol on November 26, 1944, out of German-occupied Norway, to circle the British Islands.  Armed with acoustic torpedoes, she also sported a new skin: rubberized tiles coated her hull, designed to counter the Allied sonar.  She circled the north of Scotland and down the western coast of Ireland, approaching her assigned patrol area, the English Channel.  She quickly found and sank the cargo ship SILVERLAUREL, who was en route to Hull from Falmouth, carrying tons of supplies, but only a small crew, most of which was saved.

But on Christmas Eve, she’d strike a greater blow: the LEOPOLDVILLE.

The Leopoldville in her passenger days of the 1930’s

By 1944, the old Belgian passenger ship has an old hand on the Southampton to Cherbourg run.  She’d transported over 120,000 men in 23 runs, and now took 2,235 more Americans plus some British troops aboard.  Unknown to them, they were destined for the Battle of the Bulge.

As per usual, she and another troop transport, the CHESHIRE, departed with three escort destroyers, BRILLIANT, ANTHONY, and HOTHAM, and the free French ship, CROIX de LORRAINE.  The trip would be quick, less than 12 hours, and the men aboard, who had abandoned their Christmas celebrations in England, would celebrate in France instead.

But there were some differences for the LEOPOLDVILLE.  For the first time, the entire convoy was ordered to zig-zag, a standard anti-submarine move designed to make it more difficult to aim a torpedo accurately.  The reason? U-Boat activity seemed to have picked up recently, though no one had seen any.

Of course, what no one would know until the war’s end, is the German’s had invented the Snorkel, a specialized pipe that allowed a submarine to draw in the necessary air to run their diesel engines without having to surface.  Now, U-Boats could operate relatively safely even in the heavily patrolled and defended British waters, and they were taking full advantage of that.  Snorkels were soon standard equipment, the U-486, watching the convoy, had one aboard.

Aboard the LEOPOLDVILLE, things were a bit in disarray.  For the fifth time, an incomplete and, as it would turn out, highly error-filled passenger list had been delivered before she left the dock.  Inside, the men were ordered to sit in benches in the former cargo holds and cabins, anywhere they could find room.  This lead to some groups being split up.  A lifeboat drill was called, but due to a faulty loudspeaker system, not everyone heard.  Those that reported were not trained in how to lower lifeboats, or the proper way to wear and enter the water while wearing LEOPOLDVILLE’s life jackets.  A minor oversight that would have severe repercussions.  But one wrinkle that may have initially saved lives: the December sea was rough, forcing many of the men in the hold to make a dash for the heads and rails on the upper levels as soon as LEOPOLDVILLE hit open water.

By 1745 (5:45 pm local time), the LEOPOLDVILLE had already been stopped twice, as the BRILLIANT’s sonar made a submarine contact (which may actually have been the U468).  The alert and depth charges didn’t bother the traveling troops, most of whom had suffered similar alerts on the trans-Atlantic trip the month earlier.

Now five miles from the French coast, the U-486 took aim and fired one torpedo, hitting the LEOPOLDVILLE in the starboard stern.

The U-486 headed for the bottom again to dodge the depth charges that quickly came raining down, while on the surface, the men in the depths of the LEOPOLDVILLE struggled through the debris and newly dead to clamber to the higher decks.  Stairs had been blown away, some debris sank, injuring the flailing men, others floated and became their own obstructions.  The men already on the higher decks reached down and hauled as many men to safety as they could, even those severely injured.

Still, as many as 300 died in the initial attack.

The LEOPOLDVILLE’s deck was now flooded with the passengers. Those in the forward sections knew exactly what had happened, and the commanding officers quickly ordered the men to spread out as evenly as possible, to prevent a capsize.

Everyone was quiet and calm. Three of the escorts were actively hunting the U-boat, while the BRILLIANT was trying to raise help from Portsmouth via radio, or Cherbourg, by signal light.  The CHESHIRE stood off at a distance, unable to risk her passengers to save the LEOPOLDVILLE’s.

As the initial minutes passed, LEOPOLDVILLE looked like she might, despite her wound, be able to be towed to shore.  But complications were starting to show, and the disarray of earlier that day was about to be costly.

Portsmouth and Cherbourg were, for security reasons, on different radio frequencies and codes, forcing BRILLIANT to spend a lot of time switching back and forth.  In addition, being Christmas Eve, everywhere was lightly stationed, giving as many as possible the night off.  The many small vessels that crowded Cherbourg’s harbor and normally would have raced to help at the initial strike, were dark and cold, their owners and crews celebrating in town.

LEOPOLDVILLE began to drift in the current, towards a minefield.   Her captain, Charles Limbor, ordered the anchor dropped, a sensible action which would not pay off later.

Ten minutes after that, about 40 minutes after LEOPOLDVILLE was hit, Limbor ordered all non-essential crew to abandon ship, an order not fully understood even today.  With those men gone, few remained who knew how to raise the anchor, lower lifeboats, or safely evacuate the ship in an emergency.

At the same time the crew was rowing away, HMS BRILLIANT finally managed to get a message to Fort L’Ouest, near Cherbourg, which had noticed the drifting LEOPOLDVILLE.  L’Ouest tried to signal the LEOPOLDVILLE, but BRILLIANT answered: “LEOPOLDVILLE hit, need assistance.”  L’Ouest asked what kind of assistance, but BRILLIANT didn’t reply.

The HMS Brilliant at sea. Undated photo.

At that moment, probably one of the bravest and insane rescues started.  With no one coming and the LEOPOLDVILLE in rough seas, BRILLIANT’s captain decided to take a risk and save some of the trapped men if he could.  Sidling his own, smaller but more heavily armed ship next to the LEOPOLDVILLE, he made his ship available for anyone who wanted to…jump.

This was no mean feat.  Even with LEOPOLDVILLE’s scrambling next hung down her side, the seas were tossing the two ships back and forth and up and down.  The BRILLIANT’s deck, one moment was 12 feet below LEOPOLDVILLE’s deck, another moment, twenty feet, yet another, forty.  Then the ships would yaw apart for one moment, before crashing together the next.  Jumping took nerves of steel, and those that didn’t make it…

Blood soon smeared the sides of both ships.

On the BRILLIANT, the survivors broke bones as they landed.  BRILLIANT’s crew grabbed their hammocks, laying them in the “landing zone” to cushion the falls, and evacuated the injured as quickly as possible.

Five hundred men later, the little BRILLIANT could not physically hold many more, and drew away, leaving hundreds still trapped with no way out.  It was 90 minutes after the LEOPOLDVILLE had been hit, but help was finally coming from For L’Ouest and Cherbourg.  The tug ATR-3 was on her way, as were a number of smaller boats, ready to stand by and help as needed.  BRILLIANT’s commanding officer, noting that even now, there was not much on  LEOPOLDVILE, believed that most of the passengers could still be saved. [1]

The Tug ATR-3 threw tow lines to the LEOPOLDVILLE, but too few on board knew how to tie them, or raise the anchor so LEOPOLDVILLE could set underway.  A Coast Guard cutter tried to sidle up beside LEOPOLDVILLE as BRILLIANT had done, but the sea battered her too badly, and she pulled away before many could get on board.

Lifeboats were lowered, or cut away, with many of the injured on board, as the men started to improvise evacuations.  Captain Limbor marched through the masses, officially ordering “Abandon Ship” in French and Flemish, as the ship’s loudspeakers had died, but few understood him.  Some lept overboard with improperly secured life jackets.  If not secured snugly enough, the front and back halves of these jackets “clapped” together as the men hit the water, breaking necks.

Suddenly, between 2020 and 2040 hours (10:20 pm – 10:40 pm), approximately five hours after she had been hit, two explosions were heard deep within the ship, blowing hatch covers and men into the water.  LEOPOLDVILLE keeled over and sank in moments.  Those left aboard scrambled over the side and into the water, or simply stepped into the sea as the ship fell beneath them.

Drawing of the Leopoldville sinking, done by Richard Rockwell, nephew of Norman Rockwell, for the book , “SS LEOPOLDVILLE DISASTER” by Allan Andrade.

The water was 48 degrees, and the waxing gibbous moon low in the sky, giving little light.  Some of those thrashing tin the water were still in their full gear and were dragged down by it.  Others managed to drop what they had quickly enough to re-surface.  The small vessels that had stood by now rushed in to grab the living and the dead.  In the dark, it was sometimes difficult to tell which was which.

Captain Limbor went down with his ship, as well as four crewmen from Belgium and the Congo.  Due to the error-filled, incomplete passenger list, it would take days for the British and the US to figure out who and how many had been lost.  No number has yet been released by the British government (even nearly 70 years later) but it’s probably less than 10.  The American number officially stands at 763, though unofficial numbers frequently reach as high as 802.  It was the second worst loss of infantrymen in the Atlantic Theater.

To finish the LEOPOLDVILLE’s story quickly, the men who survived, nearly 1,400 of them, were re-routed away from the Battle of the Bulge, and most survived the war.  They were, however, forbidden to talk about the LEOPOLDVILLE’s loss, and their letters were censored to make sure.  A highly erroneous story about the loss of LEOPOLDVILLE was released to the official press to confuse any German spies (some said LEOPOLDVILLE was a hospital ship, others said it sank too quickly to help the passengers.)  Some in the Navy believed that the LEOPOLDVILLE’s loss reflected so poorly on them (Christmas Eve, for example, should not have been an excuse to half-staff ports when a convoy was expected, communication should have been more coordinated in case of emergency, especially since U-boat attacks were rising, a lifeboat drill should have been done, records kept accurately) that the story was buried, and the families given few details.  The loss of the LEOPOLDVILLE was little known for decades.[2]

Painting of the Leopoldville wreck, as she’s seen today.

In the chaos, the U-486, simply waited until Christmas Day dawned.  No one found her, and she spent a quiet Christmas in the same general area she had been on the eve.  On December 26, as the French people were recovering the bodies of those lost on LEOPOLDVILLE from the beaches formerly known as Omaha, U-486 struck again in the same area.

Two frigates, the HMS AFFLECK and the HMS CAPEL, were hit by acoustic torpedoes, the CAPEL sinking with the loss of eighty-five men.  The AFFLECK, having lost 9 in the initial strike, was stable enough to be quickly towed to the over-crowded Cherbourg harbor, and left as a total loss until the war’s end.

Map showing the location of the three known attacks of the U-468. Both LEOPOLDVILLE and CAPEL went down near the now-famous Normandy beaches that had been taken only six months earlier.

With four kills under her belt, U-486 returned to Norway.  After three months, she was sent out again on April 9.  Three days later, the submarine HMS Tapir, patrolling near Bergin, heard the U-486.  Nineteen minutes later, U-486 surfaced for Tapir’s periscope.  Four minutes after that, Tapir fired 6 torpedoes, one of which hit the U-486.

From the Taipir’s log book:;

0755 hours—One hit was observed on the enemy submarine, which blew up and was seen to disintegrate.  A huge column of brown smoke arose some 500 feet in the air. Breaking up noises were heard on the Asdic  [British equivalent of Sonar] and after the smoke had cleared nothing more could be seen.”

No more was ever heard of the U-486 until now.  Found by accident by Statoil company while seeking a oil pipeline route underwater, U-486 will be left alone with her crew of 48.  Her wreck confirms what Tapir saw, she disintegrated into two pieces.

Sonar image of the U-486’s wreck. Her bow has been severed, and she lays on her starboard side. From The Local.

Hopefully, though her wreck location is known, she will be left in peace there.

Some other submarine wrecks haven’t been so lucky this year.

U 486’s conning tower, with the periscopes still attached at the top. From the Local


For more information:

First, my favorite:  a unique telling of the sinking of the SS LEOPOLDVILLE:

The first ship U-486 sank, the Silverlaurel: http://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?9962

An account of the LEOPOLD’s sinking: http://www.uboat.net/history/leopoldville.htm

LEOPOLD’s Sinking from a survivor and what happened to the men after: http://www.lonesentry.com/gi_stories_booklets/66thinfantry/index.html

An account of the LEOPOLDVILLE sinking seen from the BRILLIANT: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/54/a1904654.shtml

Another personal account from that convoy: http://donmooreswartales.com/2013/03/04/val-peterson/#more-11752

An announcement of U-486’s wreck discovery: http://www.thelocal.de/gallery/news/1777/8/


UPDATE  6 Nov 2014:  Thanks to Mr. D. Becker for alerting me to the fact I used U-468 and U-486 almost interchangeably in this entry.  That’s been fixed now (I think I got them all at least).  The U-boat discovered near Norway is the 486.  The U-468 was sunk by a British Bomber off the western coast of Senegal, Africa on 11 August, 1943.  One of the British aircrew which sacrificed themselves to destroy the 468 was Mr. Becker’s uncle.  The wrecks of The U-468 and the wreck of the British B-24 Liberator Bomber that destroyed her  have apparently not been found, but the story is still an important one.   Intriguingly, the pilot of the Liberator was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross…based solely on the testimony of the surviving U-Boat submariners who were later captured.  It’s the only such incidence of enemy testimony being the basis of a Victoria Cross award.



[1] The BRILLIANT made directly for Cherbourg’s port, which was already filled with the half-sunken, scuttled ships the Germans had attacked earlier.  There was one quay left open, and a Jeep had to pull the BRILLIANT in and tie her up.  By the time BRILLIANT’s LEOPOLDVILLE passengers were unloaded, she turned and headed back for more, but it would be too late.

[2] The wreck of the Leopoldville, in 820 feet of water, was discovered by author Clive Cussler in 1984.  She rests on her side, her stern severed and laying beside her.