USS Bowfin Submarine and Museum
Pearl Harbor Hawaii
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 submarines development it would prove to be an indispensable part of naval warfare by the outset of WW2.
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.
Pearl Harbor Dec 7th 1941
By the time Pearl Harbor was attacked the U.S. submarine fleet numbered 55 fleet size submarines and 18 medium sized S-boats in the Pacific with 38 submarines 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 submarines.
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.
at Pearl Harbor Visitor Center