- California Naval
- The Early Submarines
of Mare Island
- by Mark J. Denger
- California Center for Military
- 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
- "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
- 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
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
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.
- 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
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
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.
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.
- 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.