California Naval History
The Early Submarines of Mare Island
by Mark J. Denger
California Center for Military History
When California became a part of the United States, she was more than just a new state in the Union. California was the newest and westernmost outpost of the Nation. With a coastline spanning some 1,200 miles, washed by the waves of the mightiest ocean in the world, it is only logical that one of the greatest Navy Yards would rise along its shores —along with it a new harbor and port —providing the first base of operations for the nation's Navy in its duty of protecting the commerce and the territories of the United States from any threat from beyond our shores.

The It was in the year 1854 that the Mare Island Navy Yard became the first naval base on the Pacific Coast. Her first commanding officer was none other than Commodore David G. Farragut –later to become the Navy's first Admiral.

The beginning of the twentieth century was to spark a new beginning —a period of marvelous change for California and the Mare Island. Forty-six years after establishing itself as the West Coast's premier Navy Yard, the purchase of the Navy's first submarine HOLLAND, from its inventor John P. Holland in 1900, would forever connect the Mare Island Navy Yard to the submarine.

Following the purchase of the HOLLAND, the Navy set out to build its first class of submarines –designated as the "A" class. Two of these submarines, A-3, originally laid down as GRAMPUS, and A-4, PIKE, in December 1900 by Union Iron Works, a San Francisco company and subcontractor for the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company of New York, were launched in 1902. These submarines were commissioned at the Mare Island Navy Yard in 1903, with a young Navy lieutenant by the name of Arthur MacArthur Jr. in command. Prior to this assignment Lt. Arthur MacArthur had served as the submarine HOLLAND's second commanding officer.

The commissioning of the GRAMPUS and PIKE would forever mark the beginning of Mare Island's long association with the U.S. Submarine Force –later adding a Submarine Training Center and Base to its ever expanding Navy Yard. More important, these two submarines were to become the first U.S. submarines stationed on the West Coast.

Over the next three and a half years, GRAMPUS and PIKE operated out of the Mare Island-San Francisco area, principally in training and experimental work. These strange little craft were only sixty feet long, with an eleven-foot beam. When moored and lying awash along the sea wall they resembled nothing ever seen before.

Powered by a 160-horsepower gasoline engine on the surface and a 70-horsepower electric motor when submerged. These submarines, often called ‘divers,' did most of their cruising in the shallow reaches of San Pablo Bay, and underwater trips were usually only a couple of hours long. There were no diving planes to control underwater movements of these craft; reaching the proper stage of buoyancy for a dive was a tricky operation, and if a crew member should decide to walk forward, the shift in weight might well plunge the sub to the bottom.

Mare Island's early submarines were a far cry from the underwater ocean raider described by the novelist Jules Verne.

These early submariners themselves cast off more than the mooring lines when they left the dock; each trip offered a one-way possibility not overlooked by the Navy
Department. Every crew member was required to keep a will safely filed ashore, and to sign written papers releasing the Navy from all responsibility before making either a surface or submerged run.

The year 1903 would also brand Mare Island as a submarine repair center. Yard workers assigned to submarine repair work, like the submariners themselves, had to learn about submarines the hard way –-by trial and error.

In Arnold S. Lott's book A Long Line of Ships; Mare Island's Century of Naval Activity in California, he describes an early incident:
"One of the first Yard workers assigned to submarine repair work was Jack Ward, . . . One of the first jobs was to install periscopes in the GRAMPUS and the PIKE –no small undertaking, as neither he, master machinist John Jones, nor the submariners themselves had ever seen a periscope before, and were not too certain as to what it did. Before that innovation, submerged submarines couldn't see where they were going, but merely guessed.

"The first test of the periscope was not a qualified success. Jack peeked through the eyepiece at the Starr Flour Mills, a well-known river landmark, and suddenly warned his helper" ‘Get out of her quick! Something terrible's happened, the flour mill is upside down!' Subsequent investigation proved the flour mill to be still normally situated, but did reveal that the optical system of the periscope sometimes produced a very topsy-turvy and disturbing effect."


These two submarines would ultimately be assigned to the 1st Submarine Division, Pacific Torpedo Flotilla in 1910, and to the Pacific Fleet in 1911, operating locally off the California coast.

The submarine repair business showed continued expansion, as the Fleet grew in numbers. The submarines GRAMPUS and PIKE were soon replaced by four submarines of the F-class, two of which were also built by Union Iron Works and the others by the Seattle Construction & Drydock Co. These were: CARP [redesignated F-1], BARRACUDA [redesignated F-2], PICKEREL [redesignated F-3], and SKATE [redesignated F-4]. While these early submarines were graced with names, those that would soon follow would not, so Mare Island's Yard workers knew them by their class: H-boats, L-boats, O-boats, R-boats.

By 1909 these California built submarines had their first tender, the old FORTUNE. A few years later the CHEYENNE (former Wyoming [Monitor No. 10]) and ALERT were converted by Mare Island for the same purpose. Along with the submarines of the F-Class, the tenders CHEYENNE and ALERT would play a significant role in the establishment of the first Submarine Base in San Pedro, California.
World War I
The year that saw World War I begin in Europe also saw the Mare Island Navy Yard come of age. While it was the dull, week-in and week-out grind of repairing vessels of the Fleet that kept the Navy Yard busy, it was the Yard's submarine shipbuilding aspect that would make her famous in the years to come.

In 1916, authorization had been given to Mare Island to build its first submarine –NAUTILUS or V-6, a five million dollar submarine, the "first of its type to be constructed in the Yard."

Under President Coolidge and Secretary of the Navy Denby, the last submarines added to the fleet were a few S-boats, all built under World War I authorizations. But by the terms of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, the Navy Yard shipways soon laid quiet and idle. Work on the submarine NAUTILUS was finally authorized on February 11, 1925, although another lengthy delay was caused while another discussion on limitation of naval armaments went on in Geneva during 1926 and 1927. By mid summer of 1927 it was evident that no agreement would be reached, so Mare Island proceeded with the keel laying of the V-6 on August 2, just two days before the Geneva Conference ended.

NAUTILUS was to be a giant among submarines —371 feet long with an underwater displacement of 3,960 tons. By the time NAUTILUS was commissioned, the London Naval Conference had limited future submarines to a much smaller size. Nevertheless, the V-6 was launched on Saturday, March 15, 1930, becoming Mare Island's first in a long line of submarines for which Mare Island would build.

By 1936, the Navy Yard was building the submarine POMPANO, and had an order for the submarine STURGEON. The following year saw the SWORDFISH. The following year the STURGEON was launched —1938, and the Yard was awarded construction of the twelve million dollar submarine tender FULTON. At the same time the Navy Department announced a ten-year building plan for the Yard, to include a new submarine every year and another submarine tender every other.

Still submarine repairs continued on S-boats, R-boats, and O-boats, as well as the newer and larger submarines: BASS, BARRACUDA, BONITA, CACHALOT, CUTTLEFISH, and NARWHAL.

Meanwhile, over the waterfront glare of floodlights at night, could be seen the flickering of the welding torches working on the tender FULTON and submarine TUNA. The keel of the submarine GUDGEON was laid on November 1939, followed by the submarine SILVERSIDES on November 4, 1940.

That year, 1940, the Navy bought the commercial docks at Hunter's Point and commenced development of the Naval Shipyard at Hunter's Point –soon to become a familiar home to the submarine fleet. Late in December 1941, Hunter's Point docks would be completely taken over from the Bethleham Steel Company and placed in operation as the Annex to the Navy Yard, Mare Island.

These ship building ways were not long vacant. Mare Island started the new year off with another submarine tender –SPERRY and the submarine TRIGGER laid on February 1, 1941. As the three submarines GUDGEON, SILVERSIDES, and TRIGGER slid into the channel, the keels for four more were laid right behind them.
World War II
The second Sunday of December, 1941, started out like almost any other at Mare Island. Twenty-two ships lined the waterfront. On the ways were the submarine tender SPERRY, almost ready for launching, and the submarines WAHOO, WHALE, SUNFISH, and TUNNY. In the yard that day were the submarines S-27, S-28 and WAHOO. Within ten days the submarine tender SPERRY would slide down the ways, the first of the hundreds of ships Mare Island would send to the Fleet.

At precisely twelve minutes past eleven, December 7, 1941, an urgent transmission came across the Fleet broadcast: AIR RAID ON PEARL HARBOR. THIS IS NO DRILL. Within the hour, Mare Island was transformed for war. The Yard's and harbor defenses were immediately manned and all leaves cancelled. Anti-aircraft batteries were hauled in by the Army from Fort Haan at Riverside. Guards were immediately doubled and the Navy immediately established a rigid censorship of all mail and communications. Marines at the Main Gate stopped every car even before they reached the guard house and conducted a complete search of every vehicle. Interestingly enough the Yard log book, however, never mentioned the beginning of World War II.

By 1942, four submarines –SUNFISH, TUNNY, TINOSA, and TULLIBEE were launched. The following year another four submarines –SEAHORSE, SKATE, TANG, and TILEFISH were launched. SPADEFISH, TREPANG, SPOT, and SPRINGER followed, being launched in 1944. And to help care for the Navy's growing underwater fleet, Mare Island continued to build the big submarine tenders of which FULTON and SPERRY were the first –BUSHNELL in 1942, the HOWARD W. GILMORE in 1943, and the NEREUS in 1945.
One week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor the Mare Island built submarine SWORDFISH took an early bit out of the Japanese merchant marine by downing the 8,000-ton cargo ship Atsutasan Maru, the fourth Japanese merchant ship sunk by Allied forces. On January 27, 1942, some 700 miles off Midway, the submarine GUDGEON got her first kill by sinking the Japanese submarine I-173, and became the first U.S. submarine in history to sink an enemy naval vessel in that war.

In the Battle of Midway, early in June, 1942, another Mare Island submarine, NAUTILUS, the first submarine ever turned out by the Yard, caught up with the 17,500-ton Japanese aircraft carrier Soryu and sank the flat-top. A couple of months later, NAUTILUS was involved in secret operations that included landing "Carlson's Raiders" on Makin Island. By the time she returned to the Gilbert Islands in November 1943, NAUTILUS had landed another load of Marines on Apamama Island and accounted for the sinking of six more Japanese ships.

In the Philippines, early in 1942, Mare Island's SWORDFISH helped run sorely needed ammunition and supplies to the defenders of Corregidor.

In 1943, the Mare Island built WAHOO, skippered by "Mush" Morton and her executive officer Richard O'Kane, slipped into the Yellow Sea and started a one-ship war against Japanese shipping. WAHOO sank the big ships with torpedoes; surfaced and fought the smaller ships with machine guns, and when the guns jammed, her crew pitched in with "Molotov cocktails." Nine ships sunk in one month, nineteen sunk during 1943, a record set by WAHOO before she was finally pronounced "OVERDUE AND PRESUMED LOST."

Mare Island's athletic field near the submarine barracks was named "Morton Field" as a lasting reminder of WAHOO's fighting captain.

The record set by the TANG was even more impressive. The TANG, commanded by WAHOO's former executive officer, was built in seven months during 1943, and started her nine-month-long war career in February 1944. She went down in October, after a running battle through the Strait of Formosa, when her last torpedo made a circular run and came back to sink the ship which launched it. But in those nine months TANG accounted for 93,824 tons of Japanese shipping –24 ships.

A close second to TANG was SILVERSIDES, with 23 ships and 90,080 tons; third was TRIGGER with eighteen ships and 86,552 tons.

However, the costs were high –among the submarines lost were the Mare Island built GUDGEON, POMPANO, SWORDFISH, TANG, TRIGGER, TULIBEE, and WAHOO. These submarines joined the list of 52 submarines lost in that war –amounting to the highest percentage of loss of life of all the armed services.
A Record Worth Remembering
The history of Mare Island Navy Yard built warships include those that have fought in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I. During World War II the shipyard repaired and returned to the battle lines 1,227 ships. At Mare Island's high point, in World War II, the shipyard had a population of 46,000.

The Mare Island Navy Yard contributed heavily to the Navy's submarine efforts –building four submarine tenders and seventeen submarines. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, the United States only had 111 operational submarines in commission. At war's end in mid-August 1945, thanks in part to Mare Island, the navy had a force of 260 submarines in commission, 202 of them having been delivered during the war. By VJ Day, Mare Island workers raised over $75,697,000 in war bonds –enough to pay for all the submarines built during the war, and a tender to boot.

All in all, twenty-two Mare Island built submarines got into the shooting war, and they alone accounted for the sinking of 252 enemy ships for a total of 988,357 tons of shipping.
A Final Note
Fletcher Pratt once wrote: "There is a poetry in ships' names. It can still be heard in the quiet watches of the night..., when mist obscures the waterfront and foghorns call mournfully through the darkness. Out across the bay, blinking lights mark the channel down which Navy ships have sailed for a hundred years, and bells sound a knell for those that never came back.

There is no quiet Arlington for ships; their bones rust in unknown lands beneath the sea. The names that entered history in minutes filled with fire and thunder are soon forgotten, except in long hours of the night when the bells call the roll of missing ships —SEAWOLF . . . .

They are honored names, and the ships that wore them carried them well. Some were old and some were new, but sweat and skill and steel of Mare Island was a part of each of them to the end —PICKEREL . . . .

There are historic names, old in the naval list. Though the logs in the archives fade, their memories will live so long as the bells still toll —These are fighting names, and these were fighting ships —WAHOO, SWORDFISH, TANG, TRIGGER, TULLIBEE, GUDGEON, POMPANO. . . .

Such were the ships that Mare Island built, and such were the ships that made history.


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Updated 8 February 2016