Posts Tagged ‘submarine’

No Athiests in Foxholes…or underwater?

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Apr 06 2010

The Submarine Service is dangerous.  No one has ever debated that.  Well, almost never.

In fact, early in the 20th century, submarine duty was considered safe shore duty and submariners were paid twenty-five percent LESS than those on surface ships.

But in 1905, at the invitation of the Captain and crew of the USS Plunger (SS-2), President Theodore Roosevelt spent about four hours aboard.  They dove, surfaced, porpoised and tooled around quietly beneath the storm tossed Atlantic, and even operated with the lights out, much to the delight of Roosevelt, who said, “Never in my life have I had such a diverting day, nor can I recall having so much enjoyment in so few hours as today.”

But he quickly saw that submariners, far from having a safe shore patrol duty, were, in fact, highly trained professionals who were in a dangerous job.  Being Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces has its advantages.  He raised the submariners pay, and gave them an additional dollar per day if the submarine spent any part of the day underway while submerged.  (This increased the rate of diving practice very quickly!).

An amusing cartoon from a 1905 paper talking about Roosevelt's experience on Plunger. The Plunger herself was a very small boat, holding only 7 crewmen. Taken from:

Submarines, however, are so dangerous, that some people who are routinely assigned to bases and ships are left off of submarines, and the submariners must make do.

Two of these positions are the Chaplain and Doctor (or even nurse).  We’ll cover the medicos later.

Chaplains, regardless of the military affiliation, are valued members of the military, and called upon to offer guidance, counseling, conduct religious services, including marriages, funerals, and other religious rites.  (The most famous fictional chaplain is probably Father Mulcahy of MASH television show)  The position has been recorded as far back as the 1770’s.  Currently, the United States Navy has chaplains representing the Christian (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant), Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist faiths.

The Navy also had a strong tradition of holding religious services every Sunday for those interested to attend.

While there are chaplains assigned to surface ships, there are none on a submarine. So what to do?

During WWII, for regular services, many submarines would have men who would agree to lead the worship for those who wished to attend.  For Example, aboard the Silversides, the Executive Officer, Roy Davenport, a Christian Scientist, would lead services in the Forward Torpedo Room for their men.  (He later became known as the “praying skipper” and credited his prayers and faith with Silversides and his later commands, Haddock and Trepang surviving the war.  He even turned out to be the most decorated Naval Officer of WWII who didn’t win a Medal of Honor, having been awarded FIVE Navy Crosses!)  Other submarines would use the Mess Hall, the common area of the submarine.

An example of a church service lead by a common sailor, held in the After Torpedo Room, taken in the Spring of 1945. Sadly, most of the men in this photograph were lost when Bullhead went down near Lombok Straits ca. August 6, 1945.

Aboard a submarine, sadly, the only real service that might happen, would be a funeral, and usually, the Commanding Officer or Executive Officer would pray and conduct the services.  Sometimes, for holidays such as Christmas or Easter, or the Fourth of July (religious holidays weren’t the only ones celebrated!) the kitchen would also pitch in with special meals and treats.  Alcohol, however, was always strictly prohibited…officially.  Though strictly NEVER on duty.

Today, the tradition continues, though with specially trained lay ministers, meaning people who are trained to hold religious observances and services, but do not have the Master’s Degree and theological training that the military requires for its chaplains.

It takes a labor of love to volunteer to go above and beyond what your title is and minister to your fellow crewmen, but these lay ministers continue to volunteer for the good of their crews.

For more information on Roosevelt’s dive on the Plunger

More information about the role of the modern lay minister on submarines

Redfin and Robalo: Sub Sisters

Uncategorized | Posted by Rebekah
Mar 06 2010

Sixty-six years ago today, the USS Robalo pulled into Fremantle after her first patrol.  She may even have moored next to the Redfin.

Robalo and Redfin shared a special relationship.  All submarines are sisters, but some are closer than others.  The Redfin (SS-272) and the Robalo (SS-273) were both Manitowoc boats, were built side-by-side, were laid, launched, and commissioned within weeks of each other.  They tested themselves in the depths of Lake Michigan, and probably moored side-by-side night after night.  Both were packed up on barges and shipped down the Mississippi to New Orleans, and both would have a new commander after her first patrol.

USS Robalo launch. Due to the narrowness of the Manitowoc River, submarines and other ships were launched sideways into the water. While it was common for some of the commissioning crew to ride their submarine into the water when she launched at Groton or Mare Island, that did not happen in Manitowoc!

But now, the Robalo was finishing her first patrol, under her commissioning CO Stephan Ambruster.  She  had traveled from Pearl Harbor, down the western coast of the Philippines and finished in Fremantle.  She damaged one freighter.  Her crew was looking forward to the standard two-week R&R that was due them as soon as they could be relieved by the Tender’s relief crew.

Redfin was beginning her two weeks of training and testing before leaving for her second patrol.  Both would return to Fremantle after their second patrols, and Redfin would bring news of Robalo home to Fremantle.

The USS Redfin undergoing her shakedown trials in Lake Michigan.

Their endings would be quite different.

While Robalo would vanish and her ending remains a mystery in many ways (not even her date of loss is known for certain), the Redfin completed seven war patrols and served honorably in Korea and Vietnam.  Despite numerous upgrades and refittings, Redfin eventually was retired and finally scrapped, the fate of many gallant submarines.  Her crew still gathers and maintains a website in Redfin’s memory.

For more information on the Redfin, check out their webpage (with some great photos of WWII submariners at work and play)

Submarine News: Women aboard!

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Feb 24 2010

Well, this has been in the works for a long while, but the Navy  has announced the opening of the Submarine Force to women.  Providing Congress does not forbid it over the next 30 days, women will begin to be integrated into the Submarine Force.  This will take time of course, but women,beginning with officers (since they will have more privacy in cabins rather than the large crew’s quarters) may begin to serve on submarines as soon as 18 months from now.

I’m not a sailor, and certainly not a submariner, and am therefore unqualified to comment on whether or not this is a good idea or if it is being implemented in a good way, but I thought I’d reveal some of the reasons why women have been barred from submarine service until this year’s decree.

Back in WWII, women did not serve on any active warship or combat group, including submarines. In fact, when women were encouraged to join the military, it was more to take the shore-side office jobs releasing the men who would have taken those jobs to go to the front. There were a few times women were on board submarines in WWII, but in all cases, they were being evacuated from one point to another, and the submarine was the best transport available.  Like any civilian, the women were restricted to a cabin in officer’s country, escorted to the head a few times a day.  This is more a reflection of the world at that time, not outright discrimination as we would define it today.

The Norweigen and Danish submarine forces were the first to integrate women onboard submarines in 1985 and 1988 respectively, followed by the Swedes, Australians and Canadians.  In 1995, the first woman CO of a submarine took command of a Norweigen submarine.

This issue, however, is not as cut and dried as it would first appear.  The above mentioned navies only keep modern diesel electric boats, not nuclear boats.  This limits the time at sea to a few weeks, not the six to seven month patrols that American Nuclear Submarines routinely do.  They also, since they need fresh air every few days as opposed to never like a nuc sub, are limited as to where they can go.

The biggest objection to women on submarines has little to do with whether or not women are physically or mentally capable of serving aboard.  Most people, even submariners, agree they are.  It has more to do with potential problems to a woman and her unborn children should she be pregnant.  Right now, any woman who is serving on board a ship  and finds herself pregnant is removed to a shore station for her own and her unborn child’s protection

Despite what one may think, it’s not the radiation issue that’s at the core of the concern.  You absorb more radiation from the sun working in your yard for a day than you would working on a nuclear submarine for several days.  The radiation from the nuclear core is obsessively measured and tracked, and quite low.  It’s the air quality, believe it or not.  While the standards of sub air, which is manufactured and recycled, are well within the livable standards for adults, it’s known that higher CO2 levels such as is found in a submarine, can have detramental effects on a fetus.  How high those levels have to be has never been effectively studied on humans because there is no ethical way to test it.  There are also trace gases on a submarine that could have negative effects.   If there is going to be a negative effect, it’ll have the greatest impact during the first trimester, when a woman may go weeks before suspecting that they are pregnant.

Moreover, submarines are very, very, cramped.  Despite being larger than WWII submarines, at least in WWII, the subs were designed to have one bed per crewmember.  This is no longer true, the submariners “hot bunk”, meaning when you go on duty, you roll out of bed, dress, roll up your sleeping bag and your bunkmate takes your place on your bunk.  Dressing and undressing takes place in the open hallway of the crew’s quarters.  There are no doors to the heads (bathrooms).  When two people pass in the hallway of a submarine, they often have to turn sideways to pass each other.  So when does a guy in the hallways brush past a female and the line of “sorry, just passing by,” and potential problems get crossed?  It’s bad if someone is going to harass another crewmember, but innocent people could get caught in the crossfire as well.  This is one of the potential legal headaches involved.

Submarines could potentially be retro-fitted to accommodate a co-ed crew much like the surface ships have been and are currently designed to do, but to do so would be billions of dollars.  The new submarines being designed and built could be built to accommodate co-ed crews from the beginning, but that would mean women couldn’t be on submarine crews until 2015 or beyond.

Another option that was explored  in 2008 was instead of integrating submarines, putting an all-female crew on a submarine.  That would eliminate expensive retro-fitting, possible harassment, and allow women to serve.  The downside, of course, is for a while, everyone on that boat, from the skipper down to the new enlisted, would be new and have no to limited experience, but this would solve itself over time.

It will be interesting to see what will happen.  In an election year, I doubt any congressman would risk speaking out against this idea for fear of repercussions at the polls, but I could be wrong.

Incidentally, until this year, no nuclear submarine force allowed women on board.  In January, the British, facing a manpower shortage on submarines, floated the idea of women serving aboard. That idea, like the American idea, is still in planning phases.

For more information:

A submariner’s stance on women on submarines

Another submariner’s stance on women on submarines

A women’s group against women on submarines

The 2008 idea of crewing a submarine with an all-female crew

UK Submarines and women

One of the first articles after the announcement

Exhibit Update

The Exhibit, Where was Flier 66 years ago today? | Posted by Rebekah
Feb 09 2010

Well, the formal proposal is finished.  11 custom graphics for it.  And of course, as is normal, I realized after I sent it that I forgot a few things and had to send several addendums in follow-up e-mails.  Oh well.

One of the fun things to do with the proposals is establish a basic exhibit, then build layers on top of it.  It’s rather like a menu.  If you get past the baseline you can start to pick and choose what you want for additions.  Whether you want floor graphics, or touchscreen interactive documentaries or quizzes, or what.  It’ll be interesting to see what this will end up looking like.  Once I get clearance to show what we have in mind, I’ll post it here.

One of the most interesting things about this exhibit is working with the crew of the USS Redfin, the submarine that not only rescued the Flier survivors, but who also, four months previously, dropped off the Coastwatchers that sheltered them and set up the rescue.   The Redfin survived WWII, then went on to serve until 1969.  Her crew gets together every year to tour, swap stories, and in general, have a good time.  They’re very good at that, and very welcoming (not to mention, hilarious).

When they had their 2008 reunion in Muskegon, they asked me to talk about the Flier and Redfin’s rescue.  It was one of the best evenings in my life.  The next year, they contacted us to say that one of their number had located the Redfin’s bell and, on the condition we put it on display, they wanted to donate it to the museum and in particular, to the long-talked about Flier exhibit.

Submarines tended to leave their bells behind when they left on patrol.  If they remained mounted to the exterior of the submarine, it could ring during the concussions of a depth charge attack, allowing their enemy to hone in and target the sound.  If they brought it inside, it would just use up valuable storage space.  Moreover, if they never came back, their bell could serve as a memorial.  Some of these bells are used for that purpose today.  Some, due to the fact they’re made of nearly 100 pounds of solid brass, were sold and melted down.   (The bell for the USS Narwhal was rescued from the scrap metal heap only a few years ago and is now at the Bowfin Museum inPearl Harbor,  Hawai’i: )

It is tradition to ring a bell in memory of lost boats and their crews.  The Redfin bell will do that for the lost Fliers and nearly 3500 men who have given their all in the submarine service.

The Flier’s bell is still missing.  It may have been destroyed decades ago.  It may exist somewhere, long forgotten in someone’s attic.  If anyone ever finds an old brass bell engraved “USS Flier 1943 (or possibly 194)” we would love to hear from you so she can sit next to her sister.

And where was Flier 66 years ago today?  About halfway back to the United States.

Career in Crosshairs continued…

Where was Flier 66 years ago today? | Posted by Rebekah
Feb 06 2010

We’ve left Captain Crowley in limbo long enough.

The issue the Board of Investigation had to address was simple:  did Crowley put his boat and men in danger unnecessarily? If the storm was so severe the trained pilot couldn’t be transferred from tug to sub, should Crowley had just waited the storm out?  Or perhaps he should have just skipped Midway altogether and missed the top off?  (While it was normal for ships and subs to  top off fuel and supplies there, there was no specific order to do so, which was another issue that was brought up at this inquiry: whether the stop at Midway was an order or an option.)

Crowley had never been to Midway before; neither had his navigator.  Crowley decided, in the absence of the experienced pilot, to follow the advice of his tug: “Follow Me”.    He assumed that if the local authorities thought it was safe to enter, then it was safe to enter.   Both Crowley and his Executive Officer thought they were well within the channel when Flier grounded, (it later turned out that in the storm, one buoy had been completely lost at sea and the other one had been thrown  out of position, so it was understandable that they thought they were in a safe depth)

After the Flier grounded, the Board of Investigation wanted to know if Crowley had ordered all crew to wear life vests or life belts.  Certainly  the anchor crew and deck crew should have been wearing those at least.

But here, the Board ran into problems.  Some of the crew that were interviewed remembered the topside crewmen wearing lifebelts, some remembered crewmen definitely NOT wearing lifebelts, still others remembered lifebelts being made available, but in the early part of the grounding, most crewmen didn’t think they were necessary.  One man later claimed he felt pressured to testify that everyone was wearing lifebelts.

The Board also wanted to know if Peder Cahl, who had been swept overboard and drowned in the lagoon, had been wearing a lifebelt when he had been sent topside.  Once again, they found a variety of answers: one said Cahl was, but couldn’t remember if it was inflated when he went over.  Another said Cahl definitely had been, still a third remembered that while lifebelts had been made available to all who wanted them, he couldn’t remember if Cahl had been one of them who had taken one or not.

After Cahl, Banchero and Gerber had been swept overboard, Crowley took no chances, and ordered all hands, topside and inside to wear lifebelts.  When Flier had broken away from Florikan on the way back to Pearl, the anchor detail was wearing life belts AND  life lines tethering them to the submarine (turned out to be a good idea, since Charles Pope, who was trying to re-attach the towline ended up being swept overboard).

Crowley accepted the responsibility for all his decisions and their consequences, but wanted to make sure the board knew that he had made the best decisions he could with the information he had in had at that time.  That was all a Commanding Officer could ever do, and sometimes, that simply wasn’t enough.  (My interpretation, not his words).

His career was on the line, and the Board adjourned to decide Crowley’s fate: a desk job, or returning to the States to have Flier overhauled and taken back on patrol.

Meantime, Flier was in drydock, having her engines cleaned and her props fixed.  It was just enough  so she could limp back to the States under her own power.


Uncategorized | Posted by Rebekah
Feb 04 2010

Originally Posted February 2, 2010

Flier flying away

The USS FLIER has been found!!!!!

In the sixty-six years after the war ended, only a handful of non-grounded submarines have ever been found.  Due to the secrecy of most of their missions, some of their fates have never been known, and some some simply disappeared in the depths.

Since the USS Flier had survivors, there was a good general idea of where the Flier might be located, but the water where she went down was near a deep channel.  The Flier could have been located in water only a couple of hundred feet deep to nearly one thousand feet deep.  In any case, the Navy, knowing the Flier was lost, announced her loss with most hands, and closed Balabac Channel to keep other submarines from Flier’s fate.

In 1998, Al Jacobson, the youngest officer who survived the sinking, traveled back to the Palawan archipelago with his younger son Steve,  to visit the places where he had “involuntarily visited”.  He asked to be taken to the place where Flier likely sunk.  The ocean was too cloudy that day, but native fishermen told them that on days when the water was crystal clear, they had seen a submarine down there, but it was too deep to dive on.  (Moreover, the wreck was “guarded” by two dangerous fish).

Al never gave up finding the Flier, and started to research where, precisely, she may have come to rest.  He died of brain cancer in 2008, but his family and two sons kept going.

In the spring of 2009, Steve and his son traveled to the Palawan group with YAP Films and found a submarine right were Al’s research indicated she would be.  As is normal, no one announced this find because, though it may be obvious that what has been found is a US submarine, only the Navy, looking a photographs and film of a wreck and comparing it to the last-known configurations and photographs of submarine, can confirm which one it is.  It takes several weeks to several years, which is why, though found last spring, it has taken this long to officially confirm that the wreck found last year is indeed the Flier!

No photographs as of yet, but here is the official press release!

I knew Al for close to three years, and this was his greatest wish was to find her to give the families of his friends the gift of knowing where their loved ones laid.    He always talked about wanting to see her again, and finding out if someone had opened the aft escape hatch, and just to see her one more time.  I’m sorry he wasn’t able to do so, but it is AMAZING that his dream has been fulfilled.

THIS certainly changes the floorplan and the exhibit!  I was going to post a bit about the exhibit floorplan in the next day or so, but now I have to re-write it to include this new development!

Career in Crosshairs

Where was Flier 66 years ago today? | Posted by Rebekah
Feb 04 2010

Originally Posted February 2, 2010

Sixty-six years ago this week, Captain John Crowley of USS Flier was facing one of the worst and likely most humiliating events of his life. His career hung on a thread, and he probably thought that his career as a wartime captain was over.

It wasn’t the first time a submarine had grounded at Midway. But the results had not been good for a commanding officer. On 13 August, 1943, almost exactly five months earlier, the USS Scorpion, which had been training near Midway for her third patrol, grounded on the reef. It took five hours and one tugboat to remove her, and that short period of time damaged enough of the hull and ballast tanks that Scorpion was forced to return to Pearl Harbor for repairs. Scorpion’s Commanding Officer and Executive Officer were both relieved of command.

Flier had been grounded for six days. Her grounding had lead directly to the grounding of the six-month old Macaw (and since Macaw was still hard aground, Crowley faced the possibility he would be held partially responsible for her eventual loss if she could not be recovered). One of his crewmen had died. It didn’t look good.

The Official Board of Investigation (one step down from a Court Martial) was convened on the Submarine Tender Bushnell on February 1. The first day, the convening officers visited Flier, now high and dry in the drydocks at Pearl Harbor. The tally was immense, and Flier looked like she’d been worked over by a severe attack. Major damage had been sustained to the flat keel, vertical keel and bilge keels, as well as the rudder, port strut, port propeller shaft, both propellers and the main ballast tanks. Moderate damage was sustained to the hull frames, tank bulkheads, stern torpedo tubes, reduction gears, liquidometer, and fathometer. In addition, the saltwater cooling system to the engines was thoroughly clogged with coral dust.

Flier could float, but that was about it. Her props couldn’t turn, she couldn’t shoot stern torpedoes, she couldn’t measure the depth of the water around her, her engines could start, but would quickly overheat, and her internal frames which would keep her from collapsing in on herself in deep water were compromised.

Final cost of repairs: $312,000, (nearly 11% of her original build cost!) and Flier would have to be shipped to California–she was too damaged to fix at Pearl.

It was going to be a long few days.

Sixty-Six Years Ago…the Jinx Begins

Where was Flier 66 years ago today? | Posted by Rebekah
Feb 04 2010

Originally Posted on January 30, 2010

Sixty Six years ago today, the USS Flier, towed by the Submarine rescue ship USS Florikan, and guarded by two escort ships, was towed back to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  Her hull was smashed and dented, though it did hold water.  Her shafts and propellers were so damaged they couldn’t turn and leaked.   Unable to dive, unable to run, she had been hauled back to Pearl under guard, destined for either the dry dock or scrap heap, her commanding officer’s career on the line after only three months in command, and the whispers began to pick up pace…

“She’s a jinxed boat…”

Eighteen days earlier, Flier left Pearl for her first war patrol in the Pacific.  Like many ships and subs, she was supposed to stop at Midway Island to top off her fuel.  The canal into Midway was tricky, and incoming vessels always took on an experienced pilot/navigator from Midway who helped guide the ship in.

arrived during one of the worst winter storms on record.  It was too dangerous to transfer the pilot from the waiting tugboat, so the tug turned and signaled Flier to follow.  Flier’s Captain, John D. Crowley, took Flier in slowly and carefully, determined to thread the canal.  What he didn’t know is there was a strong cross current, and unless you took it fast enough, you’d be thrown to the side.

Flier got caught, and the storm whipped waves threw her further up the coral reef that ringed Midway.  The tug got back to base, and sent out the USS Macaw, Midway’s brand-new submarine rescue ship to help them off.  But soon she too, was aground.  Trying to drop the anchor so Flier wouldn’t go any higher on the reef, two men were washed overboard, and another dove in after his buddy.

A week later, the storm blew over.  Word reached them that one of the men who had been swept overboard, Clyde Gerber, and the man who went in after him, George Banchero, were in the hospital.  The other man swept overboard, James Francis Peder Cahl, had been found washed up on shore, dead, and had already been buried at sea.  Sadly, he was one of the few married men on board.

It took the Florikan, the original tug that tried to guide them in, and a floating crane to free Flier from her perch, but no amount of lift would budge the Macaw.  To add insult to injury, on the way back, another winter storm hit the Flier and Florikan, and snapped the tow line, leaving Flier at the mercy of the waves for hours.

Three months old, she limped back to Pearl sixty-six years ago today.  She had already been fired at by a friendly ship who mistook her for a U-Boat, had been torn up on a coral reef, lost a crewmember, and still had yet to see war.  The whispers began…is she jinxed?

Some men said they could tell if a sub was lucky or not.  It might not have helped that the wounded Flier likely passed or moored near the USS Silversides who was resupplying in Pearl Harbor between her infamous patrols.  Her nickname was “The Lucky Boat”, and she still floats today, a museum ship.

But Flier only had eight months left.