Warship Wednesday, July 28, 2021: What a Loony Idea
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 28, 2021: What a Loony Idea
Here we see, some 73 years ago this month, an LTV-N-2 guided missile going dramatically to pieces over the Balao-class guided-missile submarine USS Cusk (SSG-348), while off Point Mugu, California.
Let’s get another view of that, from the same day.
Of the July 7 Loon explosion, from her Veterans’ group:
Horrified onlookers saw the boat disappear beneath a towering fireball and smoke cloud. “Everyone thought the Cusk had sunk,” remembers Captain Pat Murphy, USN (ret.) another Loon-era veteran. “But the Cusk’s captain [Fred Berry] saw what happened through the periscope and saw that there was no hull rupture. Well, he submerged. They had all the water they needed to put out the fire.” The Cusk survived with minor damage.
We’ll get on to the rest of the story of Cusk, but first, we should probably talk about the German rocket-carrying submarines of WWII.
Gruppe Seewolf and Operation Teardrop
The concept of strapping a primitive vengeance weapon rockets to a U-boat, then allowing it to creep across the Atlantic to get within range of American ports at, say New York or Boston, was attractive to the cropped mustachioed Austrian corporal and was even trialed. In 1942, U-511*, an advanced IXC type, test-fired a variety of rockets in the Baltic.
As detailed by Uboat.net:
A rack for six 30 cm rockets was installed and extensive tests carried out. These concluded with the successful launch of rockets from a depth of 12m (40ft). These amazing tests failed to convince Donitz’s staff of the merit of this innovatory weapon system, and it was not put into service. The rocket in question, the 30cm Wurfkörper 42 Spreng, was not advanced enough to target ships, but it might have been used to bombard shore installations such as oil refineries in the Caribbean. This idea was developed in late 1944 with a proposal for Type XXI electro boats to tow V-2 launchers which would attack shore bases. Neither the launchers nor the type XXI boats became available before the war ended.
*Interesting, but beyond the scope of today’s post, U-511 was handed over to Japan on 16 September 1943 at Kure as a goodwill donation from Germany to the Emperor and became Japanese submarine RO-500, ultimately handed over to the USN and scuttled in 1946.
Fast forward to September 1944 and, although there was no functional German rocket submarine afloat, Abwehr agent Leutnant Oskar Mantel, who was to be landed on the East Coast near NYC to act as a paymaster for German spy rings, instead fell into the hands of the FBI after his U-boat was sunk off the coast of Maine. Spilling his guts, Mantel told tall tales of Vergeltungswaffen-equipped U-boats headed to Amerika. This was later backed up by Abwehr agents William Curtis Colepaugh and Eric Gimpel, the last agents Germany attempted to land in the United States, who were captured in late 1944.
The rumors, mixed with intel that seven advanced U-boats, assigned to Gruppe Seewolf, the last Atlantic Wolfpack, were headed across the Atlantic, sparked Operation Teardrop, an extensive barrier program of ASW assets that ranged the East Coast in early 1945. In the end, Gruppe Seewolf was a dismal failure and the German rocket submarine program never got off the drawing board.
Mark Felton on the German program if you want a deeper dive:
The U.S. Navy had, simultaneously with the Germans, attempted to use rockets from submarines in WWII, having mounted and semi-successfully fired a ripple of Mk 10 5-inch unguided rockets from the surfaced Gato-class submarine USS Barb (SS-220) on 22 June 1944, against the Japanese coastal town of Shari from a range of 5,250 yards.
As detailed by DANFS:
She fired 12 rockets that exploded in the town center causing damage but no fires. The Japanese believed that an air raid was in progress and activated air search radar and turned searchlights to the sky while Barb retired safely seaward.
Cusk, meanwhile, was too late for the war. Launched 76 years ago today– 28 July 1945– by Electric Boat Co., Groton, Connecticut, she only commissioned 5 February 1946. Following a Caribbean shakedown, she reported for duty at her planned homeport at San Diego on 6 June to join Submarine Division Fifty-One.
As VE-Day faded to the Iron Curtain and the Cold War, the U.S. was eager to update its technology in the new Atomic era, borrowing where it could from captured German trade secrets to help stay a few steps away from the Russkis. This included snorkel and sonar tricks borrowed from Donitz’s boys, and modified V-1 rockets, cloned by Republic-Ford as the JB-2 (Jet Bomb no 2), popularly just called the Loon. While the Army Air Force soon launched hundreds of these American buzz bombs from ramps near Destin and Santa Rosa Island in West Florida, the Navy was eager to try out a few of their own.
Outfitted with an AN/ANP-33 radar transponder (instead of the V-1’s simple gyrocompass autopilot control) the Navy’s version of the JB-2, of which 399 were ultimately produced, could receive course corrections while in flight via a ship-or trailer-borne microwave radar. The Navy’s model of the Loon was the LTV-N-2 (Launch Test Vehicle, Navy 2) and the idea was that it could be fired from ramps located either on surface ships or ashore. However, instead of either of those, the first test platform was to be our humble little fleet boat.
With Cusk retrofitted at Mare Island with an airtight missile hangar and launch ramp behind her sail, it was thought she could carry and launch a Loon while at sea. As the ramjet engine had no possible underwater launch capability, the idea was that the submarine would battle surface, unpack the missile from the hangar, make it ready to fire by attaching wings and four JATO rockets, and fire it from the surface with support from the sub’s SV-1 type radar for the first 50 miles or so– no speedy task. Early tests found that it took an hour to accomplish. As Loon could carry a 2,200-pound warhead of conventional explosives (the V-1 only carried 1,870-pounds) to a target approximately 160 miles away, though, it was deemed worth the risk.
On 12 February 1947, Cusk made the Navy’s first missile launch from a submarine, ushering in the era of today’s Harpoon, Tomahawk, and Trident-equipped attack boats and boomers. It was not a success.
Of course, there were dramatic incidents such as the one shown at the top of this post– Loon had a failure rate of about 45 percent as a whole and it would not be until Cusk’s fifth launch that the missile was considered fully successful– other launches would be more productive. To note her new mission, Cusk was designated Submarine, Guided Missile (SSG) 348, on 20 January 1948.
One other fleet boat, the Balao-class USS Carbonero (SS-337), would join Cusk as a Loon launcher in a series of tests conducted between 1947 and 1952, demonstrating that the Germans, if they had pushed just a little harder or had an extra year or two worth of time, could have produced an Unterseeboot-carried vengeance weapon. The sisters would participate in a fleet operation that would herald today’s missile boats.
As detailed in a scholarly work on the Loon by Gary Francis Quigg:
A November 1949 Navy exercise, off Hawaii, provided convincing evidence. Loon missiles fired from the submarines USS Cusk and USS Carbonero managed to escape unharmed through a gauntlet of anti-aircraft fire from thirty-five surface vessels and elude the machine guns of fighter aircraft from carriers USS Valley Forge and USS Boxer.
And Cusk would set a few records that today sound like footnotes but for the time were incredible. Quigg:
In the most successful transfer of radio guidance control of a missile from ship to shore on March 22, 1950, the USS Cusk launched a Loon just off Point Mugu. The Cusk guided the missile for twenty-five miles before surrendering radio control to a station on San Nicolas Island. Navy technicians on the island guided the missile another twenty-five miles to a splashdown in the Pacific just over a thousand feet from the center of the target. On May 3, the Cusk set a new distance record for the Loon. Diving to periscope depth immediately after the launch, the submarine controlled the missile and tracked its position for 105 nautical miles.
In all, the Navy would launch 46 Loon missiles from shore launchers at Point Mugu, 38 from our two submarines, and three from the seaplane tender USS Norton Sound. Coupled with launches made elsewhere in the Pacific, Cusk would fire at least 77 Loons in her short career, with the last taking to the air on 6 November 1952.
However, the twin Loon boats would be left behind by technology, the program canceled in 1953– although 25 missiles had been married up to warheads and made available just in case they were needed for use in Korean War. Carbonero was redesignated an Auxiliary Submarine (AGSS-337) in 1949 and both subs would soon chop to help develop the follow-on SSM-N-8A Regulus missile program, which would successfully launch a 400-mile range missile in 1953. Meanwhile, Cusk would continue to be a testbed platform for missile guidance equipment but would lose her “SSG” designation in 1954 as she carried no missiles of her own.
In 1954, Cusk would receive a basic “Fleet Snorkel” GUPPY conversion at Mare Island and leave her “hangar” and ramp behind, and pick up a new, more streamlined fairweather while still maintaining her advanced missile avionics gear. Her AN/BPQ-1 (XN-1) Regulus missile guidance equipment was only finally removed in 1960.
Her homeport shifted to Pearl Harbor, Cusk completed five lengthy Westpac cruises (1958, during which she would participate in Special operations near Soviet ICBM range in Vladivostok; 1960; 1962, where she would serve as the Subplot 7 Mining platform, 1963, where she would spend two months in North Korean water before her and sister ship USS Carbonero were rewarded with a show-the-flag visit to French Polynesia; and 1964-65) as a standard diesel-electric fleet boat in a “smooth” condition. During her 1962 cruise, Cusk made a month-long patrol in the tense South China Sea and spent another month in Yokosuka and Sasebo, serving as a sonar training target for Japanese destroyers and aircraft. Her 64-65 Westpac would include significant time on Yankee Station as an ASW asset, and three close-in patrols of the North Vietnamese coast via the Gulf of Tonkin.
Again, moving homeports, this time to San Diego, in 1966, Cusk would go on to complete two further Westpac cruises in 1967 and 1969, with both spending time in the Vietnam area of operations. On her last tour, she would be submerged on patrol for 43 days in the South China Sea, conducting special operations in Communist Chinese waters, of which her Veteran’s group recalls, “It was an adventurous time that included on one occasion, accidentally straying into an abandoned minefield. Later during the reconnaissance patrol, the Cusk was detected and attacked by unfriendly forces.”
Her time with the Navy coming to an end, Cusk sailed to Hunter’s Point Shipyard, was Auxiliary Research Submarine (AGSS-348) on 30 June 1969, and “she was gutted of virtually all of her equipment by her final crew. Everything that would fit through a hatch was lifted out, stacked on pallets on the pier, and hauled away for scrap.”
Following that, she was decommissioned on September 24, 1969, and the hulk was sold 26 June 1972, to Zidell Exploration, Inc. of Portland, Oregon, for $112,013.
Besides her 77 Loons and title as the world’s first guided-missile submarine, Cusk stood by to deliver said missiles during Korea, was awarded the Armed Forces Expeditionary Award (1964) and four Vietnam Service Awards (1965, 1967, 1968, and 1969) in addition to holding down numerous Battle Efficiency “E” awards.
A former Navy-owned Loon was donated to the Smithsonian in 1965, 12 years after the program shuttered, and is on display in the Boeing Aviation Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.
Loon launches from the Cusk were featured in an episode of Time for Defense (a radio program broadcast nationally on the ABC network), and in the May 1950 issue of Popular Science along with the January 1953 issue of Parade, where she graced the cover.
On Christmas weekend 1950, Columbia Pictures released the Glenn Ford submarine vehicle The Flying Missile, which features the actor as the skipper of the fictionalized SSG USS Bluefin, including footage of our very own USS Cusk, although the Loon program was on its last legs before the film hit cinemas.
There is a Cusk Veteran’s group, that was very active from 1990 through 2019.
Displacement: 1,570 tons (std); 1,980 (normal); 2,415 tons submerged
Length: 311 ft. 8 inches
Beam: 27 ft. 3 inches
Operating depth: 400 feet
Propulsion: diesel-electric reduction gear with four Fairbanks Morse main generator engines, 5,400HP, two Elliot Motor Co. main motors with 2,740HP, two 126-cell main storage batteries, two propellers.
Speed: 20 surfaced, 10 submerged
Fuel Capacity: 113,510 gal.
Range: 11,000nm @ 10 knots surfaced, 48 hours at 2 knots submerged, 75-day patrol endurance
Complement 7 officers 69 enlisted (planned), actual manning 10 officers, 76 men
Radar: SV. APR and SPR-2 receivers, TN tuning units, AS-125 antenna, SPA Pulse Analyzer, F-19 and F-20 Wave Traps, VD-2 PPI Repeater (1946 fit)
Sonar: WFA projector, JP-1 hydrophone (1946 fit)
10 x 21-inch torpedo tubes, six forward, four aft, 28 torpedoes max (typically MK V), or up to 40 mines
2 x 5″/25 deck guns (wet mounts)
2 x 40mm guns (wet mounts)
2 x .50 cal. machine guns (detachable)
(1947, as SSG)
10 x 21-inch torpedo tubes, six forward, four aft, 28 torpedoes max or up to 40 mines
1 Loon surface-to-surface missile
2 x .50 cal. machine guns (detachable)
(1954, as Fleet Snorkel SS)
6 x 21-inch torpedo tubes, forward, 18 torpedoes (typically MK 14), or up to 30 mines.
2 x .50 cal. machine guns (detachable)
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