Warship Wednesday, July 14, 2021: The Edison Bubblehead Connection
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, July 14, 2021: The Edison Bubblehead Connection
Here we see the early Narwhal/D-class USS D-3 submersible (Submarine No. 19, ex-Salmon) underway off New York City during the October 1912 Naval Review with the fog-shrouded pre-dreadnought battlewagon USS Kearsarge (Battleship No. 5) in the background. Note the Battle Efficiency “E” award displayed proudly on D-3‘s fairwater, her tuna-tower style surface running bridge complete with a life ring, and her submariners wearing no doubt spotless crackerjacks. Although the name “USS D-3” doesn’t inspire, or garner much name recognition to naval history buffs, this humble little boat pulled off a few “firsts” that deserve recognition.
The trio of boats that made up the Navy’s D-class submarine family– Narwhal (D-1, SS-17), Grayling (D-2, SS-18), and Salmon (D-3, SS-19) — were all laid down on the same day, 16 April 1908 by Fore River Shipbuilding Co., Quincy, Mass., under subcontract from the newly-formed Electric Boat Company of, Groton, Connecticut. At the time of ordering, they were reportedly the largest submersibles designed, being 134 feet in length overall and displacing 337 tons. Using port and starboard gasoline (!) engines, theoretically capable of developing 300 horsepower each, they were designed to reach 16 knots surfaced (although this proved to be closer to 13 knots in operation. For submerged operations, they had two 97 kW electric motors fed by two 60-cell batteries enabling a brief (three-hour burst) speed of about 8 knots while underwater. They were short boats. From the tip of the tallest periscope to the outermost layer of paint at the bottom of the keel on a D-class submarine was about 50 feet, meaning they could completely submerge at anything past the 10-fathom line.
Compared to today’s submarines, they had lots of issues. For instance, it took the class a full three minutes to submerge. Further, their torpedo battery, two tubes each on her starboard and port bows, took a solid minute to flood and used small (18-inch) fish without the room to carry reloads– although they were the first U.S. boats to be able to fire a potentially devastating four-torpedo brace all at once.
However, they did mount some innovative signal gear, amounting to an Allied Signal Bell on the deck (with an air-operated clapper) and a “stethoscope apparatus, permitting transmission of signals with sister ships when submerged at a distance of about one mile.” They also carried a series of both observation and attack periscopes, the latter with range finders, which were cutting edge for 1908.
Remember, Mr. Holland’s first primitive submarine was only placed in service by the U.S. Navy in 1900.
Salmon was commissioned on 8 September 1910. However, the previous July, before she joined the Navy, Electric Boat took her on one hell of a builder’s trials.
With her navigator the esteemed LCDR Gregory Caldwell Davison, USN, Ret, and Electric Boat’s VP at the time, PCU Salmon set out from the Fore River bound for Hamilton, Bermuda in a historic “overseas” cruise with a 1,700-mile round trip.
She embarked a mixed 21-man crew made up of four naval enlisted men along with LT D.A Weaver as skipper, and Asst Naval Constructor D.R. Battles as ship’s engineer; 13 builder’s tradesmen under Davison’s control; and one Captain A. Cuevas of the Chilean Navy who was very keen on acquiring submarines. As these 21 souls were shipping out in a boat built to accommodate 14 (and could be run by five!) they landed most of the installed bunks as well as the torpedoes (the tubes cleaned and filled with potable water as there was no desalination equipment) and the ship was crammed with crated spare parts and supplies, with air mattresses directly over the battery deck.
It was the first international deployment for a Navy submarine (although she wasn’t commissioned just yet and had shattered the fleet’s previous submarine record (483nm) achieved by the USS Viper (Submarine # 10, later USS B-1) while also besting British (512nm) and French (1,200nm) records as well.
Ready for my close-up, Mr. Edison
Once she was turned over to the Navy and commissioned, she promptly joined the Atlantic Torpedo Fleet at Newport, Rhode Island.
There, this stupendous record-setting submarine chalked up another first: she appeared in a movie.
Of the 2,100 Edison Studios motion pictures made between 1894 and 1919, just one featured a commissioned submarine in action, 1910’s United States Submarine Salmon.
According to the Moving Picture World synopsis:
The film shows the “Salmon” at close range, running on surface, submerging by water ballast, making “porpoise” dives, and running submerged so far that only the top of the periscopes are visible. All the pictures were taken from an accompanying boat and in a fairly rough sea, and it is not going too far to say that the effect is thrilling. To the many thousands of people who are keenly interested in the modern submarine boat, yet who never have had, and never may have, an opportunity to see one, the picture will be a rare treat from a spectacular standpoint, aside from its educational value. Through the courtesy and cooperation of the Holland Electric Boat Company, we are enabled to present it to the motion picture public.
These screen captures provided by the fine folks at Almost Lost Images:
Back to the grind
The remainder of her service was busy but not quite as heady. Salmon/D-2 was part of the forces operating in Mexican waters following the occupation of Vera Cruz in 1914, appeared in a series of naval reviews, and spent two years in Key West as the flagship of Submarine Division 2.
In November 1911, the Narwhal class lost their fish names, as did the earlier classes of U.S. submarines, and traded them in for alpha-numeric, in this case, D names.
Around 1914-15 she became a favorite subject of a New York City-based commercial photographer, Robert Enrique Muller, Jr., who was an official shutterbug for the Navy Department. He visited D-3 on what looks to be at least two different periods while she was in the Cape Cod area, snapping several photos that appeared in naval publications and as postcards.
On 18 October 1915, the submarines D-1 (SS-17), D-2 (SS-18), D-3 (SS-19), E-1 (SS-24), G-1 (SS-19 1/2), G-2 (SS-27), and G-4 (SS-26) arrived at the New London Navy Yard in Groton, Connecticut, where they became the first such craft stationed at what is now Naval Submarine Base New London. There, they would spend the next few years alternating training duties for new submarine service volunteers with neutrality patrol and, after April 1917, active combat patrols. During this time, D-3 would have as her commander Lieutenant (j.g.) Robert Henry English (USNA 1911) who would go on to be COMSUBPAC in WWII.
Postwar, her career was limited as the Navy had several new classes of submarines that were much more advanced. Placed in reserve on 5 September 1919, then in ordinary on 15 July 1921, she was towed to Philadelphia Navy Yard and decommissioned 20 March 1922. Three months later, she was sold for scrap.
More Edison-Navy Connections
Edison had several additional ties to the Navy besides the Salmon film. His early nickel-iron (NiFe) battery was trialed for submarine operations as were other inventions of his.
During the Great War, he lent his status and energy (see what I did there) to help expand the Navy’s brain pool.
As detailed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory:
Thomas Edison, when asked by a New York Times correspondent to comment on the conflict, argued that the Nation should look to science. The Government, he proposed in a published interview, should maintain a great research laboratory…. In this could be developed … all the technique of military and naval progression without any vast expense.
Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels seized the opportunity created by Edison’s public comments to enlist Edison’s support. He agreed to serve as the head of a new body of civilian experts — the Naval Consulting Board — to advise the Navy on science and technology. The Board’s most ambitious plan was the creation of a modern research facility for the Navy. Congress allocated $1.5 million for the institution in 1916, but wartime delays and disagreements within the Naval Consulting Board postponed construction until 1920. And so it was that NRL began operations at 11:00 a.m. on July 2, 1923.
Today, NRL’s Edison Program helps develop and retain talented employees.
In 1920, the Navy Department awarded him the Navy Distinguished Service Medal. Then, in 1940, the Navy named the USS Edison (DD-439), a Gleaves class destroyer, in his honor. A second vessel named after the inventor, USS Thomas A. Edison (SSBN-610), a fleet ballistic missile nuclear-powered submarine, was commissioned in 1962.
The plans and ship drawings for USS Salmon/D-3 are in the National Archives.
Muller’s images were often reproduced as color photomechanical print postcards, and many survive today that feature USS D-3.
Of her sisters, USS Grayling (D-2) SS-18, would be the first U.S. submarine to test bow planes, the first to be commanded by a “mustang” officer, LT Owen Hill— one of the original crewmen of the USS Holland (SS-1) — and discovered the Imperial German Navy submarine SM U-53 off Rhode Island in 1916 while on neutrality patrol. Meanwhile, class leader USS Narwhal (D-1) SS-17, in 1911 sensationally documented an encounter with whales as attributed to a young LT Chester Nimtz.
Like Salmon/D-2, both her sisters were decommissioned and sold for scrap in 1922.
The Navy, while they never saw the appeal of recycling the name “D-3,” did commission a few later Salmons. The second Salmon, SS-182, was a curious composite diesel-hydraulic and diesel-electric submarine commissioned in 1938. At sea off Luzon on 8 December 1941, she started her first war patrol (of 12!) immediately upon receiving word of the attacks on Pearl Harbor. By 1945, she earned nine battlestars and a Presidential Unit Citation, racking up a tally sheet of Japanese shipping during the conflict.
The third and so far, (as of 2021) final USS Salmon (SSR/SS/AGSS-573) was a Sailfish-class radar picket submarine commissioned in 1956. Later GUPPY-fied, she would become a normal hunter-killer and then an auxiliary research submarine, completing nine West Pac deployments including two with the Seventh Fleet off Vietnam where she conducted special operations. After decommissioning in 1977, she lingered on for another 15 years as a shallow water sonar target hulk, was sunk off Long Island where she continues to clock in as a bottom target.
If you are curious about the D-boats, or any old pre-1940 U.S. Submarine, please visit Pig Boats.com
288 long tons (293 t) surfaced
337 long tons (342 t) submerged
Length 134 ft 10 in
Beam 13 ft 11 in
Draft 12 ft 6 in
600 bhp (450 kW) (gasoline)
330 hp (250 kW) (electric)
Propulsion, Surfaced; 2 x Craig Shipbuilding Co. 6cyl, 4 cycle gasoline engines = 600 total shp, 2 shafts
Propulsion, Submerged: 2 x Electro Dynamic Co. 97 kW electric motors, 2 shafts
Batteries: 2 x 60-cell Electric Storage Battery Company Model 23-WL, 2,970 amp/hr. capacity each.
Speed: 13 knots, surfaced; 9.5 knots, submerged
Range: 1,179 nm at 9.3 knots on the surface, 24 nm at 8 knots submerged
Test depth: 200 feet
Complement: 1 officer, 14 enlisted
Armament 4 x 18 inch (450 mm) bow torpedo tubes for 17.7-inch torpedoes with no reloads
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