The History of Submarine Tenders (Part I)
As printed in the Summer 2002 issue of UNDERSEA WARFARE
The image that most people have of the submarine operations that ensued is one of hunting down the enemy on far-flung war patrols and then returning home victoriously with a broom tied to the mast - as often as not passing under the Golden Gate Bridge - to a comfortable port where liberty, rest, and recreation awaited. That may have been Hollywood's version in the war films of the era - but reality was different.
The movies can't really be faulted for this portrayal: The true story would neither have helped recruiting nor been as entertaining. But in fact, it took far too long to transit from the western Pacific to the West Coast - or in many cases, even to Hawaii - when returning from patrol. Time spent coming and going was time lost in attacking the enemy, and precious little time was spent in port on rest and relaxation.
The following account gives a more accurate description of a submarine's turn-around after a typical war patrol. [The specific details of this refit and upkeep are a composite based on a typical evolution performed repeatedly during World War II. However, the basic facts of the first war patrol of USS Parche (SS-384) and her first refit and upkeep by USS Proteus (AS-19) are part of the surviving records of both ships.]
Parche's first war patrol - a wolf pack with sister ships USS Bang (SS-385) and USS Tinosa (SS-283) - was very successful. The three boats are credited with five sinkings, totaling 30,542 tons, and substantial additional damage. Parche herself got credit for the cargo ships Taiyoku Maru and Shoryu Maru. Here then is how "home-coming" really was:
It is Tuesday, 23 May 1944 - just off the coast of Midway Island. As the midnight hour approaches, Parche works her way through the minefields and nets protecting the entrance to the harbor and ties up to the port side of the submarine tender USS Proteus (AS-19) - which herself is moored starboard side to at berth S-3. Parche has been at sea for 56 days.
Day One - Wednesday, 24May 1944
The submarine's crew is exhausted - and the boat itself is in need of numerous repairs and general upkeep. As the mooring lines are doubled up, several chiefs from the tender board Parche to begin the process of determining what's needed. Refit Crew 203 is assigned for this upkeep - they will perform many tasks from cleaning the boat inside and out, to scraping barnacles, painting, repairing, replacing, stowing, etc. As the ship's "wish list" is presented, a clearer picture emerges of all of the things that will need to be accomplished in a very short time - Parche is due to depart for its next war patrol in just 16 days.
Members of Refit Crew 203 come onboard - with chippers, scrapers, mops, brooms, rope-slung scaffolding, and paintbrushes in hand. There is no time to be wasted - every moment is precious in getting the job done. Specialists from Proteus for handling Parche's more complicated and demanding repairs begin to show up. Storekeepers meet with the boat's supply personnel to get started on drawing, transferring, and stowing the thousands of pounds of food, supplies, munitions, and spare parts that will be loaded onboard during the upkeep.
Once Parche's crew has completed these initial meetings, they retire to the Boat Crew's quarters onboard Proteus to get some much-needed sleep - while Refit Crew 203 and the tender's specialists and technicians continue their work on the submarine.
Day Two - Thursday, 25 May 1944
Having had a good night's rest - and a hearty breakfast on one of Proteus's two mess decks, Parche's crew assembles to review and debrief the patrol they just completed. Interviews are conducted to collect every bit of information that might have potential intelligence value, and these data are collated by Submarine Squadron TWENTY personnel and passed along to the fleet. As the day wears on, Parche's crewmembers are cycled through Proteus's sick bay - examined for anything that might need attention. A visit to "the chair" in the Dental Department is a stop as well - the last thing a Sailor needs on patrol is a toothache.
Day Three - Friday, 26 May 1944
After Parche's crew completes their medical checks, they are released to work on the boat. By this time, Refit Crew 203 has made a lot of progress on scraping the hull - removing damaged paint and repainting exposed metal. Inside cleaning is also underway, as well as more complicated technical and mechanical repairs. Parche's crew - debriefed, poked, prodded, and patched - also pitch in to get their boat ready for her next sortie. To maximize accessibility, the crew eats and sleeps on the tender, where there is less noise, and preparing meals doesn't get in the way of the work. While some jobs need to continue 24 hours a day, much of the effort knocks off in the evenings, giving most of the Sailors a chance to rest and relax. Movies are a popular entertainment and are shown nightly on the tender.
Training in new techniques and submarine tactics also take place onboard Proteus, where there is room - and enough quiet - to ensure that classes will be productive. Depending on the need, many Parche crewmembers will receive anywhere from an hour to several days of technical training on the operation of next-generation equipment, such as the new SJ Radar that is being fitted to many submarines at this time.
And so it will go for the next thirteen days - and then Parche will be ready to sink more Japanese shipping. In fact, she left on schedule on 17 June for her second war patrol - and an action in the Luzon Strait that won her skipper, "Red" Ramage, the Medal of Honor. [Ed. Note: See "Submarine Hero - Lawson P. "Red" Ramage" in the Winter 1999 issue of UNDERSEA WARFARE.]
Auxiliary, Submarine - the Tender
Tenders were crucial to the ultimate success of World War II's Pacific submarine campaign because of the vast distances that characterized the theater. In the scenario described above, nearly a week of transit time was eliminated from Parche's war patrol, because Proteus was capable of supplying all of Parche's needs at a site much closer to her patrol areas than Pearl Harbor. And, as the war moved closer to Japan, so did the tenders - Proteus to Guam in February, 1945, for example - bringing the submarines' "base" and all it took to support them closer to where they were needed.
Since World War I, submarine tenders have had facilities onboard to provide just about every repair, replacement, service, or supply a submarine might need. Today's tenders are essentially complete factories - with pattern shops, foundries, and machine shops with precision lathes, surface mills, presses, and welding machines. Even if a replacement part isn't stocked or otherwise available on the tender - it can often be fabricated in hours. The sheet-metal shop can make partitions, ductwork, and piping. Electrical workers can run wiring, re-wind motors, and repair other electrical equipment, as well as servicing or replacing the massive primary batteries. Electronics shops are fully qualified to deal with radio, radar, sonar, navigation aids, and fire control equipment. There are weapons specialists for torpedoes, missiles, and launching systems, plus optical technicians to attend to the boat's periscopes. As noted, complete medical and dental facilities are provided to see to the crews' health and well being - and, of course, a warehouse of supplies - from toilet paper to torpedoes - that the crew will need on its next patrol. Moreover, tenders are manned - particularly at senior levels - with very experienced personnel, and their cumulative expertise is invaluable to the boats that come alongside for repair and refit services.
The Accidental "Marriage"
The United States entered the world of the "Silent Service" when it purchased its first serviceable submarine, USS Holland (SS-1), in 1900. Within three years, it acquired six more. At that time, submarines were little more than crude surface craft that could submerge briefly to strike at an enemy - and then scurry away beneath the waves. Since these small boats were generally considered coastal defense assets and, in any event, could not carry much fuel, food, or weaponry, they generally operated from a shore station, where the crew could find berthing and messing ashore. Very soon, however, as submarines were positioned at more and more ports, local "station ships" found themselves "hosting" the crews of the local submarine flotilla, particularly since a surface ship was easy to tie up to - and was "handy" as a source of help.
This "cozy" relationship developed to the point where the host eventually became a "mother ship." The Navy soon realized that one advantage of putting submarine supplies, spare parts, service facilities, and berthing on a surface ship was that it made them as portable as the submarines themselves. If a flotilla was sent off to a distant port, the tender could just go right along - and setting up a new forward submarine base became almost as simple as dropping the anchor. Thus emerged an important early role for the submarine tender - to operate at advance bases all over the world so that the U.S. Navy could project submarine presence wherever it was needed. Still another impetus was the fact that day-to-day life onboard early submarines was horrible - and the better accommodations a tender could offer were sorely needed to keep a boat's crew healthy and fit for duty.
In October 1909, the newly-reassigned USS Plunger (SS-2) arrived at the Charleston (South Carolina) Navy Yard and moored alongside the gunboat USS Castine (PG-6), a parent ship of the Atlantic Submarine Fleet. Shortly thereafter, Castine's medical officer, Assistant Surgeon Micajah Boland, inspected Plunger and two other "submarine torpedo boats" and graphically described living arrangements onboard. He found "...their sanitary condition to be far from satisfactory, notwithstanding the fact that they had been at sea only about forty-five hours." He continued,
One officer and a crew of 10 or 12 men had been living, that is, sleeping, cooking, eating, and answering the calls of nature aboard each of these boats in addition to performing their duty navigating them. Being small, they pitch and roll considerably… [and] due largely to the foul air in the boats… practically the whole crew is seasick. Food has to be carried in crates and… even the cooked meats soon spoil, increasing the foulness of the air; and the use of the toilet, which is only screened off, adds to the unpleasant odor. The small electric stoves with which the boats are supplied can not furnish heat enough, hence they are cold and damp at certain seasons of the year and, in rough weather when water is shipped down the conning tower hatch, which must be kept open, they are wet and extremely uncomfortable. These conditions are a serious menace to the health of the members of the crew; there seems to be no remedy for them on prolonged cruises.
Surgeon Boland recommended that cruises be limited to 36 hours and that when not underway the crews of the submarines, "…except those absolutely necessary to be on the boats, live on board the parent ship."
In March 1903, USS Hist, a converted yacht, was assigned to host the submarines then operating in and around Long Island Sound, where they had been attached to the Torpedo Training Station, Newport. For the next several years, Hist shared tending duties with USS Niña and USS Castine at Newport and other East-Coast bases such as Norfolk. In August 1903, USS Fortune made her way to the West Coast and arrived at Mare Island to serve as a tender for the submarines under construction by the Union Iron Works in San Francisco.
It didn't take long for several early boats to be transferred to the Far East. In 1908, the collier USS Caesar (AC-16) arrived at Manila with USS Porpoise (SS-7) and USS Shark (SS-8) carried in the well decks as cargo. After the two submarines were placed in service, however, Porpoise's deck log noted that, "Due to the small size of these 'boats,' officers and men lived onboard the gunboat Elcano" (PG-38), the station ship at Cavite. In October 1909, Caesar returned with two more submarines, USS Adder (SS-3) and USS Moccasin (SS-5), and in early1910, the venerable steam sloop-of-war USS Mohican relieved Elcano as tender to the Asiatic Submarine Fleet. By World War I, nine submarines - and several associated tenders - were serving in the Philippines.
At the beginning of that conflict, most senior American naval officers considered the submarine to be an auxiliary platform and not a primary fighting ship. However, Germany's early success with the Unterseeboot taught both the U.S. and Royal Navies how potent submarines could be, and during the 1920s and 1930s, a strategic debate raged in both nations about whether submarines should be used as an adjunct to fleet operations or primarily as commerce raiders. No clear answer emerged until the experience of World War II, but as early as the mid-1920s, the United States had tacitly acknowledged the importance of submarines by building them in increasing numbers and providing more dedicated support.
During their first decade, the Navy's de facto submarine tenders were treated primarily as accommodation ships, and as often as not, these early auxiliaries were anointed as "tenders" simply by being ordered to become one. But as submarine propulsion, weapons, fire control, environmental, and other internal systems became more and more complex, so did the equipment, skills, services, and supplies needed to properly maintain them. Increasingly, tenders better equipped with the specialized facilities and machinery needed to do the job were built and brought on line. USS Holland (AS-3), for instance, was launched in 1926 and had a special crane installed in the bow for lifting submarines. But with undersea technology advancing rapidly between 1930 and 1940, even these more modern tenders soon became inadequate to the task.
By the end of the World War II - their "high-water mark" and "finest hour" - 17 submarine tenders were operating around the world, actively engaged in the full range of support activities described above. But then, with the general draw-down after the war, all but four were retired. The Korean War (1950-1953) saw two brought back into service - and all of the Fultons except Proteus served throughout the Cold War. The latter was unique. After participating in the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay and tending submarines briefly in Japan after the war, Proteus was "retired" to New London, Connecticut, where she was assigned - though not in commission - as the "station ship" at the Submarine Base, providing support services from 1947 until 1959. More would follow.
Nuclear Power - and Nuclear-capable Tenders
With the development of submarine nuclear power shortly after mid-century, U.S. submarines became capable of staying at sea - and submerged - for months. Because of their near invulnerability, they emerged as the ideal platform to carry America's nuclear deterrent to sea, and the Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN) was born with the commissioning of USS George Washington (SSBN-598) in December 1959. Operating from advance bases around the world, the "boomers" became the force-in-being that kept the peace during the dangerous era that followed the Soviets' demonstration of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles of their own. However, if the SSBNs represented the "tip of the spear," it was the submarine tenders that kept them there, and they followed up their contribution to winning World War II with no small role in winning the Cold War.
Recent Strains on the "Marriage"
A half-century of evolving technology has culminated in larger boats capable of storing enough weapons and provisions for patrols of very long duration. Moreover, compared to their diesel counterparts, these submarines only need refueling after years of operation - rather than each month or so - and their nuclear plants provide enough power to allow them to reach patrol stations from stateside bases in days rather than weeks. At the same time, submarine-launched ballistic missiles can attain ranges of 4,000 miles, and SSBNs can stay nearer "home" than formerly and still cover their targets. Some of these new submarines are larger than many tenders - and are actually too large to be serviced by even the newest of the latter, since the tenders' fixed cranes can't reach important equipment within the hull without repositioning. Also, factors such as the fall of the Soviet Union and economic pressures for reducing the military have shrunk the fleet as a whole. Altogether, these influences have motivated a Navy decision to reduce the tender fleet to a bare minimum of two - USS Frank Cable (AS-40) at Apra Harbor, Guam, covering the Pacific; and USS Emory S. Land (AS-39) at La Maddalena, Sardinia, covering the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic. (Both Cable and Land are members of the three-ship Land class commissioned between 1979 and 1981; the newest of the class, USS McKee (AS-41), was decommissioned in 1999.) It's a far cry from the end of World War II - but given reductions in the Submarine Force as a whole, many feel it's the right call.
Vice Admiral Albert Konetzni, former SUBPAC Commander, noted in a recent interview that while the rest of the world was growing their undersea fleets, the United States had been downsizing theirs. He observed that while there are some 293 submarines of all nations in the Pacific, he had only 25 SSNs, plus SSBNs within that total. And to service his 25 fast-attacks and eight boomers, he only had one tender. [Complete interview is in the Ship's office.]
Admiral Konetzni's point was, of course, the need for more submarines and better utilization of the ones we have now. But there is still something to be said for making tender-level support available "over there" as well as at U.S. shore facilities. Recent actions in the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, and now Afghanistan have created significant additional work for the tenders at La Maddalena and Guam - from routine repairs, to re-arming Tomahawk shooters, to servicing surface ships. Moreover, Navy plans to forward-base several SSNs at Guam will create even more demand for tender services in the near future. Thus, it's reassuring to have several tenders in the reserve fleet that could be recalled to active service if needed. The United States has learned some hard lessons about preparedness in the past - one hopes we haven't forgotten them. And certainly, today's submariners shouldn't forget - and ordinary people should learn - what tenders have done for the Submarine Force over the years - and what they're still doing today.
Former ET1 Randy Guttery served onboard USS Proteus between 1971 and 1975, and his website, www.tendertale.com, is a comprehensive source of ship photographs, historical information about submarine tenders, and first-person accounts of life in the tender community. Mr. Guttery now lives in Meridian, Mississippi with his wife of 30 years and is a strong supporter of Meridian's U.S. Naval Air Station - the home of Naval Jet Strike Pilot Training.
From the Summer 2002 Issue of UNDERSEA WARFARE
Our "Can-do" Submarine Tenders
by CAPT W. Scott Gray, IV, USN
Permanently forward-deployed to the Mediterranean, USS Emory S. Land (AS-39) and Submarine Squadron TWENTY-TWO are home-ported in northern Sardinia, where we have had a submarine tender for 29 years. Although Land continues to service attack submarines operating in the Med, the men and women onboard now also support surface ships and cover the North Atlantic and the Arabian Gulf by sending flyaway teams (FATs) or deploying directly.
Nonetheless, Lands total manning is down from over 1,700 to less than 1,200 personnel, with most cuts in the Repair Department. As a result, maintenance that requires specialists no longer onboard now means bringing in shipyard workers and technicians from outside organizations to get these jobs done with Lands equipment and support. Although our people can maintain electronic equipment including sonar, radar, and communication gear, as well as repair submarine primary-propulsion and surface ship gas-turbine systems, their work on TLAM and the MK-48 torpedo has been reduced primarily to launcher-system maintenance.
Originally, Land was configured, manned, and equipped to support 688-class nuclear submarines. Therefore, infrastructure, planning documentation, parts support, tools, and personnel expertise for surface ship repairs are not optimum, but initiatives such as the recent installation of the Challenge Athena communications system will greatly enhance our capabilities. In any event, Land has conducted numerous availabilities on DD, DDG, FFG, CG-class combatants and several classes of amphibious ships, consistently achieving superior results. Last year 61 percent of our production hours went to surface ships. This success can be attributed directly to a wardroom of aggressive submarine LDOs, some very talented CPOs, and a crew that truly believes they can accomplish anything.
We are also very aggressive in employing personnel from our four stateside reserve units.
Lands expanded mission is not without challenges. Scheduling simultaneous availabilities for surface ships and submarines is tricky business, and even before 11 September, it was not uncommon to have two surface ships and two submarines alongside. Given our fixed manpower and inevitable limits on our surface ship expertise, Lands workload must be carefully managed. Coordinating our schedule takes continuous and detailed communication among CTF-69 (for submarines), CTF-63 (for surface ships), SUBRON TWENTY-TWO, and Lands Repair Department. Despite the additional stress generated by Operation Enduring Freedom in scheduling operations, these staffs somehow manage to keep things moving.
And let's not forget the war. On 11 September 2001, Land had just moored alongside the 6th Fleet Flagship, USS La Salle (AGF-3), for a ten-day availability. Five hours after the attacks on New York, we were underway. In the next three weeks, Land operated as part of a Surface Action Group with La Salle and three combatants, using VERTREPs and open-ocean personnel transfers to provide maintenance to ships in company. Then, in Souda Bay, Crete, Land personnel replaced the failed motor of a Rigid Inflatable Boat in only two days and restored to full capability a DDG tasked to conduct Maritime Interdiction Operations. Mediterranean force protection requirements could not have been met without team from Lands dive locker that conducted daily security swims at Gibraltar for a month, and an Arabian Gulf FAT corrected an amphib's mission degraded status by repairing her helicopter refueling station. We've also worked on several SSN towed-array handling systems, restoring each boat to full mission capability and conducted numerous TLAM system repairs, including two on one SSN that later launched those missiles successfully.
Although the scope of our submarine tender mission is broader now, Land has adapted to the current environment and can respond rapidly to Navy needs. Our story is certainly no match for that of USSCanopus (AS-9), which served so brilliantly in World War II, but our tenders today proudly continue a long tradition of unmatched ingenuity and tireless fleet support. Submarine tenders will remain a critical asset of the U.S. Navy as long as submarines - and surface, ships - deploy around the world.
CAPT Gray is the current Commanding Officer of USS Emory S. Land (AS-39). From 1995 to 1998, he commanded USS Maryland (SSBN-738).
[This is the end of the UnderSea Warfare Article ]
TenderTale - Foot note
As stated in the UNDERSEA WARFARE article, "today's submariners shouldn't forget - and ordinary people should learn - what tenders have done for the Submarine Force over the years - and what they're still doing today." -- that is the purpose - the mission of TenderTale.
Randall Guttery (former) ET1 USS Proteus (AS-19) 1971-1975
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