Warship Wednesday July 13, 2016: The tale of the pre-owned polar sub

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday July 13, 2016: The tale of the pre-owned polar sub

Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson, 1978 #: NH 86969

Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson, 1978 #: NH 86969

Here we see the O-class diesel-electric submarine USS O-12 (SS-73) at the Lake Torpedo Boat Co., Bridgeport, Connecticut, on 7 October 1918, just prior to her completion. Although her Naval service during the Great War and immediately after was limited, her mark on history was not.

The U.S. Navy, dating back to the Revolutionary War’s Turtle and the Civil War’s Alligator, was a world leader in submarine development.

Starting with the 64-ton gas/electric USS Holland (SS-1) in 1900, the Navy proceeded with the 7-vessel Plunger-class; 3-ship Viper/B-class; 5-ship Octopus/C-class (the first United States submarines with two-shaft propulsion and an overall length longer than 100-feet); 3-ship Narwhal/D-class (designed to survive flooding in one compartment); 2-ship E-class (first US diesel-powered submarines and first with bow-planes); 4-ship F-class; 4-ship G-class; 9-ship H-class; 8-ship K-class; 11 L-class boats (first US submarine class equipped with a deck gun); the unique M-1 (world’s first double-hulled design); 3 large 1,500-ton AA-1-class boats capable of 20-knots; and 7 smaller N-class boats (first US Navy submarine class completed with metal bridge shields) by 1917.

In all, some 67 submersibles built in less than two decades, with each teaching a lesson.

This led to the most capable class of U.S. Navy subs commissioned in World War I, the O-class.

Originally designed to fight off German U-boats along the East Coast, the boats of this class were not gigantic (500-600 tons, 173 feet oal) but had a decent 5,500 nm range and could carry 8 torpedoes as well as a deck gun. Laid down in five different yards (and two slightly different designs, one by Electric Boat the other by Lake) on both coasts starting in March 1916, all 16 were completed in 1918.

Built for $550,000 each, they were the first U.S. boats with really reliable diesel engines as well as the first in which each officer and man had his own berth and locker (even later designs would require “hot-bunking” well into the 1970s)

Wartime service on the O-class as limited, with two being shelled by an armed British steamer who thought them to be U-boats being the closest they came to combat.

The hero of our tale, USS O-12, was laid down at the Mr. Simon Lake’s Torpedo Boat Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut and commissioned 18 October 1918.

USS O-12 (SS-73) Photographed as she left her dock at the Lake Torpedo Boat Co., to start her official trials, Bridgeport, Connecticut, 21 August 1918. Note damaged bridge in background. #: NH 44559

USS O-12 (SS-73) Photographed as she left her dock at the Lake Torpedo Boat Co., to start her official trials, Bridgeport, Connecticut, 21 August 1918. Note damaged bridge in background. #: NH 44559

Made part of Submarine Division 1, she was sent with several sisters to secure the Panama Canal, where she spent almost all of her U.S. Naval career.

USS O-12 (Submarine # 73) At Coco Solo, Panama Canal Zone in February 1920. Donation of Lieutenant Gustave Freret, USN (Retired), 1971. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 74644

USS O-12 (Submarine # 73) At Coco Solo, Panama Canal Zone in February 1920. Donation of Lieutenant Gustave Freret, USN (Retired), 1971. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 74644

"O" Class Submarines photographed in port by A.E. Wells of Washington, D.C., circa 1919, with S.S. SOTHERLAND in background. Subs are (l-r): O-12 (SS-73), O-15 (SS-76), O-16 (SS-77), O-14 (SS-75), O-13 (SS-74), O-11 (SS-72).#: NH 44558

“O” Class Submarines photographed in Panama by A.E. Wells of Washington, D.C., circa 1919, with S.S. SOTHERLAND in background. Subs are (l-r): O-12 (SS-73), O-15 (SS-76), O-16 (SS-77), O-14 (SS-75), O-13 (SS-74), O-11 (SS-72).#: NH 44558

Submarines O-12, O-14, O-11, and others in dry-dock circa 1919 with floating Derrick No. 5 (YD-5). Description: Courtesy Philadelphia evening ledger. #: NH 42566

Submarines O-12, O-14, O-11, and others in dry-dock circa 1919 with floating Derrick No. 5 (YD-5). Description: Courtesy Philadelphia evening ledger. #: NH 42566

On 17 June 1924, after just a few years in commission, she was pulled from service along with all of her Lake Torpedo Boat Company design sisters, replaced by newer R and S-class submarines. Meanwhile nine of her Electric Boat designed classmates continued service (one, USS O-5, was lost in a collision 28 October 1923).

Rusting away in Philadelphia, O-12 was stricken on 29 July 1930 and was soon leased for $1 per year (with a maximum of five years in options) to Lake’s company for use as a private research submarine– as far as I can tell the first time this occurred. As part of the lease, she was disarmed and had to be either returned to the Navy or scuttled in at least 1,200 feet of water at the conclusion of her scientific use.

Australian explorer and man of letters Sir George Hubert Wilkins, MC & Bar, and American polar explorer and philanthropist Lincoln Ellsworth (whose family bankrolled Roald Amundsen’s 1925 attempt to fly from Svalbard to the North Pole) hammered out a deal to use the retired sub on a private trip to the North.

Simon Lake was all-in, and made tremendous modifications to the ex-O-12.

Cutaway illustration of the Nautilus for Modern Mechanics magazine, 1931

Cutaway illustration of the O-12/Nautilus for Modern Mechanics magazine, 1931

The prow of the submarine was equipped with a rounded plunger, which served as extra protection while diving under the ice. Her topside structure cleared for operating under ice, she was outfitted with a custom designed drill that would allow her to bore through ice pack overhead for ventilation and even transfer crew through the pack.

Elevating conning tower showing crewman exiting through tube on to ice

Elevating conning tower showing crewman exiting through tube on to ice

All 18 crewmembers–mostly ex-Navy men– had to sign a contract indemnifying Lake, the submarine’s skipper Sloan Danenhower and the Expedition against damages, including particularly claims for death.

Jean Jules Verne, grandson of Jules Verne, author of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was present at christening, at the invitation of Lake, and the ship was named Nautilus. She was christened with a bucket of ice cubes.

460_001

Ellsworth contributed $90,000 to the project while newspaper tycoon Randolph Hearst added $61,000 for exclusive rights to the story. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute pitched in $35,000 and even Wilkins chipped in $25,000 of his own money. There were also a number of moneymaking tie-ins.

During the expedition, special radio telegrams were sent as were a series of 12,655 postal covers (mailed during the voyage at London, Bergen, Spitsbergen and from an unidentified port at the end of the expedition. The basic fee was 75 cents per cover for the first three legs, $1 for the final leg with additional fees for registry service and autographs.)

1931A

However, things started going bad almost immediately.

A June 1931 crossing to Europe almost ended in failure had Nautilus not been towed by the battleship USS Wyoming in the mid-Atlantic and emergency repairs in England. Setting out from Norway in August, they only had 600 miles to go to reach the Pole and make history.

Nautilus in the dry dock in Devonport, England undergoing repairs to the engines and other items things that failed during the first part of the voyage

Nautilus in the dry dock in Devonport, England undergoing repairs to the engines and other items things that failed during the first part of the voyage

Nautilus reached 82°N, the farthest north any vessel had reached under its own power, and preparations began to dive –first submarine to operate under the polar ice cap.

Captain Sloan Danenhower opening the conning tower hatch following a dive. A huge cake of ice can be seen jammed on the main ice drill

Captain Sloan Danenhower opening the conning tower hatch following a dive. A huge cake of ice can be seen jammed on the main ice drill

 The Nautilus in the Arctic, 1931.

The Nautilus in the Arctic, 1931.

The thing is, she was missing her diving planes, suffering from mechanical issues, facing thicker ice than anticipated and fighting severe storms and by September had to turn back for Spitsbergen and then Norway, for repairs, without ever reaching the Pole.

In Bergen

In Bergen

There in Norway, Wilkins threw in the towel on Nautilus and agreed with the Navy to sink her in deep water outside Bergen, which was done 30 November 1931.

Her wreck, in over 1,100 feet of water, was found in 1985 and has been visited several times since then. In good condition, the Bergen Maritime Museum has an extensive exhibit on her though there are no plans to raise this world’s first Arctic submarine.

naut_4

As for her sisters, the five other Lake designs were scrapped in 1930, USS O-9 (SS-70) and her 33 officers and men was lost on a test dive in 1941, and seven Electric-design classmates served through World War II at New London training thousands of students at the Submarine School, being scrapped in 1946. Few enduring relics remain of the class.

The Ohio State University Libraries have an extensive online exhibit on Nautilus as does PigBoats.com from which many of the images in this post originate. Dr. Stewart B. Nelson has a great post covering the vessel and her discovery here while the Universal Ship Cancellation Society Log details the philately history of the Nautilus covers in a way far outside the scope of this post.

Wilkins’ 1931 book “Under the North Pole: the Wilkins-Ellsworth Submarine Expedition” is available for download free online in multiple formats.

After his death, the Navy later took his ashes to the North Pole aboard the submarine USS Skate on 17 March 1959. The Navy confirmed on 27 March that, “In a solemn memorial ceremony conducted by Skate shortly after surfacing, the ashes of Sir Hubert Wilkins were scattered at the North Pole in accordance with his last wishes.”

Specs:

Simon Lake's O-12 (SS-73) retained his trademark stern and amidships planes (shown folded down in the outboard view). Note the separate flooding ports in the watertight superstructure. Drawing by Jim Christley, text courtesy of U.S. Submarines Through 1945, An Illustrated Design History by Norman Friedman. Naval Institute Press. Via Navsource

Simon Lake’s O-12 (SS-73) retained his trademark stern and amidships planes (shown folded down in the outboard view). Note the separate flooding ports in the watertight superstructure. Drawing by Jim Christley, text courtesy of U.S. Submarines Through 1945, An Illustrated Design History by Norman Friedman. Naval Institute Press. Via Navsource

O-12 (SS-73) was discarded in 1930 to be rebuilt by Lake & Danenhower Inc., of Bridgeport CT., for the Wilkins Artic expedition. Lake had long thought about submarine operations under ice; in 1903, he built a trestle atop his Protector and deliberately operated her in iced waters. The Nautilus conversion, shown here, was far more sophisticated. Drawing by Jim Christley, text courtesy of U.S. Submarines Through 1945, An Illustrated Design History by Norman Friedman. Naval Institute Press. Via Navsource

O-12 (SS-73) was discarded in 1930 to be rebuilt by Lake & Danenhower Inc., of Bridgeport CT., for the Wilkins Artic expedition. Lake had long thought about submarine operations under ice; in 1903, he built a trestle atop his Protector and deliberately operated her in iced waters. The Nautilus conversion, shown here, was far more sophisticated. Drawing by Jim Christley, text courtesy of U.S. Submarines Through 1945, An Illustrated Design History by Norman Friedman. Naval Institute Press. Via Navsource

Displacement:
491 long tons (499 t) surfaced
566 long tons (575 t) submerged
Length: 175 ft. (53 m)
Beam: 16 ft. 7 in (5.05 m)
Draft: 13 ft. 11 in (4.24 m)
Propulsion:
Diesel-electric
2 × 500 hp (373 kW) Busch Sulzer diesel engines
2 × 400 hp (298 kW) Diehl electric motors
1 shaft
18,588 US gallons (70,360 l; 15,478 imp gal) fuel
Speed:
14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph) surfaced
11 knots (20 km/h; 13 mph) submerged
Test depth: 200 ft (61 m)
Complement: 2 officers, 27 men (Naval service), 20 scientists, explorers, and crew in civilian
Armament: (Disarmed 1930)
4 × 18 in (457 mm) torpedo tubes, 8 torpedoes
1 × 3″/50 caliber deck gun

If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International

They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find http://www.warship.org/membership.htm

The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.

Nearing their 50th Anniversary, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.

PRINT still has it place. If you LOVE warships you should belong.

I’m a member, so should you be!

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About laststandonzombieisland

Let me introduce myself. I am a bit of a conflict junkie. I am fascinated by war and warfare, assassination, personal protection and weaponry ranging from spud guns and flame throwers to thermonuclear bombs and Soviet-trained Ebola monkeys. In short, if it’s violent or a tool to create violence it is kind of my thing. I have written a few thousand articles on the dry encyclopedia side for such websites as GUNS.com, Univesity of Guns, Outdoor Hub, History Times, Big Game Hunter, Glock Forum, Firearms Talk.com, and Combat Forums; as well as for print publications like England Expects, and Strike First Strike Fast. Several magazines such as Sea Classics, Military Historian and Collector, Mississippi Sportsman and Warship International have carried my pieces. Additionally I am on staff as a naval consultant and writer for Eye Spy Intelligence Magazine. Currently I am working on several book projects including an alternative history novel about the US-German War of 1916, and a biography of Southern gadfly and soldier of fortune Bennett Doty. My first novel, about the coming zombie apocalypse was released in 2012 by Necro Publications and can be found at Amazon.com as was the prequel, Chimera-44. I am currently working on book two of that series: "Pirates of the Zombie Coast." In my day job I am a contractor for the US federal government in what could best be described as the ‘Force Protection’ field. In this I am an NRA-certified firearms, and less-than-lethal combat instructor.

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