USS Bowfin And Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum
Submarine and Museum At Pearl Harbor
Pearl Harbor, Arizona Memorial or even the USS Bowfin Submarine are not only a series of museums and monuments commemorating the lives lost during World War 2, but it’s also a tribute to a time in our history that changed the way we view the world.
While over 1 million people from all over the world visit the Arizona Memorial every year, there is so much more to the story of the war in the Pacific, both before and after, than most visitors are aware of. In the 1940’s most of the wartime glory went to battles between aircraft carriers and their pilots as well as the invasion forces of marines in the Pacific, but the most effective part of the Navy attack plan came from the United States submarine fleet.
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Submarines have been in development by the U.S. for a very long time. The very first submersible in the world was built in 1775 during the Revolutionary War. Submersibles continued to be developed and used in the Civil War and into WW1. Although there were lives lost during the sub development it would prove to be an indispensable part of naval warfare by the outset of WWII.
The very first submersible in the world, named the “Turtle”, was built in New Haven Connecticut and was designed to attach bombs to the hull of British warships in New York Harbor during the Revolutionary War. The pedal-powered sub and it’s single operator were able to approach the ships undetected but unable to attach the bombs. Though unsuccessful this machine led to the development of today’s modern submarines and forever changed the ideas and strategies for Naval warfare.
During the Civil War the Confederate Army built a submarine called the H.L Hunley, named after the boatʻs designer and builder. Launched in 1863 it proved to be a dangerous machine. Designed and built in Mobile Alabama it was shipped by rail to South Carolina to combat a Union blockade of Charleston Bay.
The Hunley performed 2 test runs and one attack. Each time it sank killing all aboard including Hunley himself. The Hunley managed to sink one union warship in Charleston Bay South Carolina but sank itself as a result of the torpedo blast (which was mounted on a 22 ft pole on the nose of the vessel and rammed into the ship). The wreck was recovered in 2000.
By 1905 submarines became part of a Naval strategy that favored large heavily armed battleships, destroyers and cruisers. The submarines role was that of escort for these large ships – scouting ahead, reporting ship movements and patrolling coastlines as was customary for smaller vessels. It was a minimal fleet used cautiously during and after WWI.
However, the battle strategy for submarines was to only attack military targets as it was considered barbaric to initiate surprise attacks (as all submarine warfare was) on unarmed merchant vessels.
Historically the strategy of attacking merchant vessels during time of war was known as “merchant raiding” and was used to great effect during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. However, the loss of life from these raids were rare as ships were usually seized first then scuttled.
This changed during WWI as German U-boats sank numerous British and American merchant and military ships in the Atlantic and by 1916 the attacks to shipping nearly starved the British population. Both Britain and the U.S. despised U-boats and Britain even proposed outlawing them.
By the 1930’s Japanese aggressions in Asia after WWI spurned the U.S. to expand its fleet of Naval ships, including submarines, in the Pacific. During the 1930’s torpedo fire control, which involved the tracking of ships, aiming the boat, determining launch angles and distance calculations, were all done by looking through the periscope and guesstimating range and speed. It was a slow and inaccurate process. By 1938 submarine design and technology had advanced to including one of the first computers ever made. The Torpedo Data Computer, or TDC, was a top secret device developed before the war. It was used to determine torpedo launch angles on moving ships and would prove to be a lethal advantage.
During this time the U.S. Navy built large submarines with relatively fast cruise speeds, long range capabilities and heavy armaments of torpedos and deck guns. The U.S. submarine fleet had also become better suited for longer patrols than the Germans or Japanese due to amenities such as air conditioning (which German U-boats lacked) and water distilleries.
Problems and Delays
In the fall of 1941 it was determined that the Navy would need to produce 50 torpedos per day to wage an effective war campaign in the Pacific. The weapons had a complicated design incorporating propulsion, a gyroscope and a magnetic detonator. Production facilities were expanded to include three Navy factories in Newport Rhode Island, Keyport Washington and Alexandria Virginia. While Keyport was being built the Newport and Alexandria factories with 3000 workers went to 3 shifts operating 7 days a week 24 hours a day. However throughout 1942 these complicated weapons would only bring these factories combined torpedo production to 23 per day.
The Navy contracted civilian manufacturers that included the American Can Company, Pontiac Motor Company, International Harvester, E.W. Bliss Company, Precision Manufacturing Co and Westinghouse Electric Company (who developed a new electric torpedo). During 1942 only 2000 torpedos were built by all three Navy Torpedo Stations despite the main weapon, the Mark 14 steam driven torpedo and the Mark 18 electric torpedo, having four major flaws.
Along with the Navy Torpedo Stations, the US manufacturing companies were able fix the problems while ramping up torpedo production and by 1943 the submarine fleet began to inflict heavy Japanese losses in warships and merchant shipping throughout the Pacific. By the end of the Pacific war in August of 1945 the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base had overhauled 15,644 torpedos of which 5,185 were fired in combat with a total of 1,860 hits.
Pearl Harbor Dec 7th 1941
By the time Pearl Harbor was attacked the U.S. submarine fleet numbered 55 fleet size boats and 18 medium-sized S-boats in the Pacific. There were 38 more elsewhere and 73 under construction. It was the largest submarine force of all the Allied countries. By the end of the war, the U.S. had completed 228 subs.
The long-held Navy doctrine that merchant ships were secondary targets, as agreed to in the London Naval Treaty of WWI was now disregarded in response to the Japanese sneak attack. Six hours after the attack the U.S. Navy Chief of Staff ordered commanders to “execute unrestricted air and submarine warfare against Japan”, authorizing submarines in the Pacific to attack and sink any warship, commercial vessel or passenger ship flying the Japanese flag without warning.
The fleet had been upgraded in many ways including a change from gasoline to diesel engines (more efficient and reliable) and much of these improvements can be attributed to submarine commander Chester W. Nimitz, who had been a Naval Officer since 1908. Nimitz also conducted experiments in 1939 with underway refueling of large ships which would prove a key element in the Navy’s success in the war to come.
Nimitz was put in command and later commented:
“When I assumed command of the Pacific Fleet on 31 December 1941, our submarines were already operating against the enemy, the only units of the fleet that could come to grips with the Japanese for months to come. It was to the submarine force that I looked to carry the load. It is to the everlasting honor and glory of our submarine personnel that they never failed us in our days of great peril.”
The submarine fleet would become the most effective weapon in the US Navy arsenal. The fleet comprised only 2% of the naval force but accounted for destroying 30% of the Japanese Navy and over 60% of the Japanese merchant fleet, despite the first year struggles with defective torpedoes.
Though the aircraft carriers got all the publicity it was the submarine fleet that accounted for the majority of Japanese naval losses. Their efforts resulted in the isolation of the Japanese home islands which crippled Japanese industry and prevented resupply and reinforcement of Japanese island garrisons. A relatively small crew of sailors in a submarine could do more damage than a battleship and at significantly less cost.
Along with the Bowfin the Balao Class submarines of WW2 were a devastating addition to the air and ground attack forces in the Pacific. A list of the most successful submarines and their 70+ man crews who engaged in up to 2 month patrols in the Pacific between 1942 and 1945 Are:
The USS Queenfish, the USS Pampanito, the USS Batfish, the USS Tang, the USS Clamagore and the USS Ling.
The U.S. Submarines fleet also played several important roles other than attacking enemy ships. They conducted reconnaissance patrols in enemy territory and harbors, landed special forces and guerrilla troops, and attacked docks and harbors, but one of their most valuable services was air-sea rescue.
In what became known as the Lifeboat League, submarines were stationed near target islands during aerial attacks. Pilots were informed they could ditch their damaged planes or bail out at submarines stationed nearby and be rescued. The rescue of downed pilots became the fleets second most important mission after destroying Japanese shipping.
There were several obstacles to submarine rescues in the beginning. Most important was the lack of communication between submarines and aircraft during battles. Several U.S. submarines were strafed or bombed by friendly fire. This led to the creation of several Standing Operating Procedures which assigned reference points for submarines and pilots during battles. From 1943 to the end of the war in 1945 submarines spent a total of 3272 days on lifeboat duty rescuing 504 Naval aviators. Famous examples include the rescue of 22 airmen by the USS Tang and the rescue of future U.S. President George H Bush by the USS Finback.
The Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee indicated the Pacific submarine fleet destroyed 686 Japanese warships of 500 tons or larger during 1600 patrols. This is in addition to destroying 1,113 merchant vessels equaling nearly 4.8 million tons.
The submarine fleet payed a heavy price for these successes with the loss of 52 submarines.Some 374 officers and 3,131 enlisted sailors were lost. It was the heaviest casualty rate of any American branch of service (22% of the force) during the war.
The USS Bowfin was nicknamed the “Pearl Harbor Avenger” by its factory workers. It was launched exactly one year to the day of the attack on December 7th 1942 at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery Maine. Much like her namesake, a mean looking scrappy fish with powerful jaws and sharp teeth, the Bowfin would become one of the most decorated submarines of the war sinking 44 ships totaling nearly 68,000 tons.
The Bowfin would engage in 9 wartime patrols in the Pacific receiving the Presidential Unit Citation for it’s second patrol in 1943, a source of pride for it’s crew of 10 officers and 70 enlisted sailors.
Admiral Christie selected the Bowfin for his own war patrol, becoming the only US Flag Officer to be aboard a submarine during combat. The Bowfin would go on to be awarded the Navy Unit Citation and the Philippine Republic Presidential Unit Citation for sinking a record number of ships, rescuing downed aviators and supplying Philippine guerrilla troops in the Battle of the Philippines.
At the end of the war the Bowfin was sent to New York and served with the Atlantic Fleet until she was decommissioned in 1947 and placed in reserve. The submarine was reactivated during the Korean War and sent to San Diego to be used in training operations. She was again placed in reserve until being moved to Seattle in 1960 as a training submarine once again. The Bowfin was finally retired in 1971 and taken back to Pearl Harbor to serve as a memorial to the highly successful submarine fleet and the men who served aboard submarines during WWII.
In 1972 Admiral Bernard A. “Chick” Clarey, a WWII submariner and Pearl Harbor survivor, approached the Secretary of the Navy about acquiring the Bowfin as a memorial to the US Submarine Force at Pearl Harbor. With assistance from Hawai’i Senator Daniel Inouye the Bowfin was secured to be use as a floating museum. She was restored to her WWII specifications and by 1980 would be moored next to the newly built Pacific Submarine Museum at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center.
Touring through the submarine takes about 30 minutes and includes a free self guided audio tour featuring commentary by members of the Bowfin crew. Life aboard an attack submarine in the Pacific during WWII is evident as visitors make their way through the cramped and crowded interior of the submarine. With narrow hatches and hallways, cramped galleys, engine rooms and battle stations jam packed with equipment including folding sleeping quarters (some bunks were on top of torpedoes), the boat is an amazing example of engineering and compact design. It’s remarkable that this 312 ft long by 27 ft wide metal tube could house 80 men and 24 torpedoes! It’s also amazing to think that this is the actual submarine, not a replica, that took the battle to the enemy in the Pacific.
The USS Bowfin Submarine Museum is located at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center directly in front of the Bowfin’s mooring. The museum features exhibits and artifacts about the US Silent Service. Newly redesigned during the pandemic closure, the expanded museum now hosts interactive displays and detailed models and artifacts in two new areas: WWII and the Nuclear Age. It’s a world class upgrade that includes an audio headset for an in depth experience of life and history aboard submarines.
USS Bowfin And Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum
The Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum is open daily from 7 am to 5 pm. Prices start at $15 for adults to $7 for children ages 4 to 12 years old. There are discounts for senior citizens and military personnel. To tour, the museum only is $6 for adults and $3 for children. Admission includes a free self-guided audio tour handset.
The on-site snack bar and gift shop is a great place to relax as it includes a large covered outdoor seating court overlooking the Bowfin. Open from 7 am until 4 pm the snack bar offers hotdogs, nachos, and hot soup.
A group tour, the VIP Captains Tour, is also available on Tuesdays and Thursdays and includes a two-hour tour of the Museum and submarine guided by a former Commanding Officer of a US Navy submarine. Book online or call for availability and pricing.
The museum is within walking distance of the visitor center and nearby theater which is the starting point for the Arizona Memorial tour. Also nearby is the bus pick up that takes visitors out to Ford Island and the Battleship Missouri Memorial along with the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum.