Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time 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, Dec. 23, 2020: All I Want for Christmas is a New SSK
Photo via the Taiwanese MNA
Here we see the beautifulTench-class diesel attack sub, ROCS Hai Shih (SS-791) of the Republic of China Navy during a celebration at Keelung Port last summer. Formerly USS Cutlass (SS-478), the Taiwanese boat is the oldest operational submarine in the world, at some 76 years young, and is set to continue to hold that title for a few more years.
Designed by the Bureau of Ships in conjunction with the Portsmouth Navy Yard and Electric Boat, the Tenches were the epitome of WWII U.S. Navy fleet boats. Some 311-feet overall, these 2,000-ton boats were an enlarged version of the preceding Balao-class. Strong, with 35-35.7# high-tensile steel pressure hull plating and eight watertight compartments in addition to the conning tower, they had a 400-foot operating depth. Their diesel-electric arrangement allowed a surfaced speed of just over 20-knots and a submerged one of 8.75 while a massive fuel capacity granted an 11,000nm range– enough to span the Pacific.
Some 80 Tenches were planned (some reports say over 120) but most– 51– were canceled in the last stages of the war when it became clear they would not be needed.
Janes’s referred to the class in 1946 somewhat curiously as the Corsair-class.
With construction spread across three yards– Boston NSY, Electric Boat and Portsmouth– the subject of our tale, the first and only U.S. Navy ship to be named after the Cutlass fish, was laid down at the latter (as were most of those that were completed) and commissioned 5 November 1944.
After shakedowns, she headed for the Pacific and left out of Pearl Harbor on her maiden war patrol on 9 August 1945 from Midway. By the night of the 14th she reached the Kurile Islands, some 1,700 miles to the West.
As described in her 17-page patrol report, by 0700 on 15 August, Cutlass received the initial news that the Japanese may be surrendering while surfaced seven miles offshore of the enemy’s coastline.
As noted by a history of Cutlass on a reunion site:
Everyone was at his station when the Chief Radioman yelled up the open hatch from the control room, ‘Sir, they are celebrating, in New York; the war is over”
Nonetheless, Cutlass was still in an active war zone and soon busied her crew with the task of sinking floating mines, a sport she spent the next two weeks pursuing. After detonating one such floating device on the 24th, her log noted, “the explosion came as a surprise because the mine was old, rusty and filled with barnacles.”
Mooring at Midway again on 27 August, Cutlass’s war was effectively over and the next month she departed the Pacific for the East Coast, hosting curious visitors for Navy Day in New York on 24 September.
USS Cutlass, likely in 1948, with only one 40mm gun mounted. USN photo # 80-G-394300 by Cdr. Edward J. Steichen
Spending most of the next two years on a spate of service around the Caribbean– tough duty– she entered Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in March 1949 for modernization.
A New Life, a New Look
She was to become a GUPPY, specifically an SCB 47 GUPPY II series conversion, ditching her topside armament, picking up a new sail, better batteries, and, most importantly, a snorkel.
Of the 48 GUPPY’d WWII diesel boats that were given a second life in the Cold War. Cutlass was one of the 14 Type II conversions
Cutlass (SS-478) port side view, circa the 1950s with stepped “Portsmouth Sail” as an early Guppy type. Photo courtesy of John Hummel, USN (Retired) via Navsource.
In her Cold War career, she spent the early 1950s at Key West, then shifted to Norfolk for the bulk of her career before returning to Florida to cap it. This included hosting President Truman on at least one occasion in March 1950.
Note the differences in sails. Cutlass (SS-478), Trutta (SS-421), Odax (SS-484), Tirante (SS-420), Marlin (SST-2) & Mackerel (SST-1), alongside for inspection at Key West. Wright Langley Collection. Florida Keys Public Libraries. Photo # MM00046694x
USS Cutlass (SS-478) Torpedoman’s Mate Second Class William Meisel prepares to load a torpedo in one of the submarine’s torpedo tubes, circa 1953. Photographed from inside the tube. #: 80-G-688314
Cutlass: Quartermaster Seaman Ronald Petroni and Henry Seibert at the submarine’s diving plane control, circa 1953. 80-G-688318
On 28 June 1961, Cutlass was given the task of testing Mark 16 War Shot torpedoes, by sinking the ex-USS Cassiopeia (AK-75) (Liberty Ship, Melville W. Fuller, Hull No. 504), 100nm off the Virginia Capes. She did so with a brace of four fish, earning the sub the distinction of claiming 10,000 tons on her tally sheet.
She would later receive the partial GUPPY III treatment in the early 1960s to include a tall, streamlined fiberglass sail and fire control upgrades but not the distinctive BQG-4 PUFFS passive ranging sonar. This much-changed her profile for the third time in as many decades.
USS Cutlass (SS-478), early 1960s NH 82299
Cutlass photographed 9 May 1962, while operating with USS LAKE CHAMPLAIN (CVS-29). USN 1107442
Cutlass (SS-478) at Genoa Italy, 29 June 1968. Note the windows in the sail. Photo courtesy of Carlo Martinelli via Navsource
USS Cutlass (SS-478) photographed circa 1970. NH 82301
Busy throughout the 1950s and 60s, she would hold the line during the Cuban Missile Crisis and deploy to the 6th Fleet on Med cruises at least four times, one of which she would extend by a tour around the Indian Ocean, operating with the Pakistani Navy– a fleet that would go on to use a few of her sisters (losing PNS/M Ghazi, ex-USS Diablo in the Bay of Bengal in 1971).
She ended her career as part of the rusty and crusty GUPPYs of SUBRON12 in Key West, tasked primarily with being a target vessel for destroyers, aircraft, and SSNs to test out their sonar and fire control on, often making daily trips out to the Florida Straits to be the “fox” for the hounds.
An anecdote from that time:
While on these operations, CUTLASS was a target for destroyers going through Refresher Training. During the week CUTLASS would outwit the destroyers by firing beer cans from the signal gun, so as to give the destroyers a false target for their Sonar while the CUTLASS evaded them. Then on Saturday CUTLASS went out to get “Sunk” so as to allow the destroyers to pass their exercise.
On her last Med Cruise in early 1972, she was able to get close enough to the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt to fire a signal flare within torpedo distance of her in an exercise, to the reported dismay of FDR’s destroyer screen. It wasn’t just American carriers the 28-year-old diesel boat counted coup upon that cruise, she also came close enough to the Soviet Moskva-class helicopter carrier Leningrad to get a snapshot.
Nonetheless, she was not long for the U.S. Navy.
Another New Life
Finally, as SUBRON12 was disbanded and the last GUPPYs were liquidated in the early 1970s, many were gifted to U.S. allies overseas. With that, Cutlass was refurbished, her torpedo tubes sealed, then was decommissioned, struck from the Naval Register, and transferred to Taiwan under terms of the Security Assistance Program, 12 April 1973.
There, she was renamed Hai Shih (Sea Lion) (SS-1) and was intended to serve as an ASW training platform, essentially an OPFOR for Taiwan’s destroyer and S-2 fleet.
1973 entry in Jane’s, noting that Cutlass and Balao-class near-sister USS Tusk (SS-426), were the country’s first submarines.
As a matter of course, the long-held belief is that the Taiwanese soon got both Cutlass and Tusk’s combat suite up and running with a combination of assistance from freelance Italian experts and West German torpedoes.
While the GUPPY combat record in 1982 wasn’t impressive, it should be noted that even old SSKs can prove extremely deadly in a point defense role of an isolated island chain when operating on home territory. They can basically rest with almost everything but their passive sonar off and wait for an enemy invasion force to get within torpedo range. After all, there are only 13 beaches that are believed suitable for an amphibious landing in Taiwan.
She recently underwent extensive refurbishments of her hull, electronics, and navigational systems to allow her to continue operations for another six years.
Those tubes sure look well-maintained for being sealed dead weight.
Check out the below video of Cutlass/Hai Shih in action (go to the 2:58 mark).
While Taiwan currently has Cutlass on the books until 2026 (Tusk is sidelined as a pier-side trainer) and operates a pair of 1980s vintage Dutch-built Zwaardvis/Hai Lung-class boats, the country is set to produce their own design moving forward and is requesting MK-48 Mod6AT torpedoes and UGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles from the under FMS sales.
It would be interesting if Cutlass came “home” in 2027 after her then-54-year career with Taipei. At that point, she will be well into her 80s.
As for her remnants in America, the Cold War logbooks, WWII war diaries, and ship drawings of USS Cutlass remain in the National Archives, with many of them digitized. Two of her classmates, the “Fleet Snorkel” converted USS Requin (SS-481) and USS Torsk (SS-423), are preserved as museums in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, respectively.
A Cutlass reunion site was updated as late as 2018 and has some interesting ship’s lore archived.
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
Sonar: WFA projector, JP-1 hydrophone
10 x 21-inch torpedo tubes, six forward, four aft, 28 torpedoes max or up to 40 mines
1 x 5″/25 deck gun
2 x 40mm guns
2 x .50 cal. machine guns
(1973, as GUPPY II+)
Displacement: 1,870 tons (std); 2,420 tons submerged
Length: 307.5 ft.
Beam: 27 ft. 3 inches
Propulsion: 3 Fairbanks Morse (4) (FM 38D 8 1/8 x 10) diesels, 2 Elliot electric motors, 504 cell battery, 5400 shp, 2 shafts
Speed: 18 surfaced, 15 submerged
10 x 21-inch torpedo tubes, six forward, four aft
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