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
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 before 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 were 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 was 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.
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.
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 on 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 after 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.
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 the ice pack overhead for ventilation and even transfer crew through the pack.
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.
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 several 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.)
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 reached 82°N, the farthest north any vessel had reached under its own power, and preparations began to dive –the first submarine to operate under the polar ice cap.
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.
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.
As for her sisters, the five other Lake designs were scrapped in 1930, USS O-9 (SS-70) and her 33 officers and men were 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.”
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)
2 × 500 hp (373 kW) Busch Sulzer diesel engines
2 × 400 hp (298 kW) Diehl electric motors
18,588 US gallons (70,360 l; 15,478 imp gal) fuel
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
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