Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 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, Sep 11, 2019: The Leader of the Pack
Here we see the small crew of an early H (Holland) class diesel-electric “submarine torpedo boat” USS H-1 (SS-28), originally known as the first USS Seawolf, at the Naval Submarine Base New London, Groton, Connecticut, circa 1919. Crew complement of these vessels was just two officers and two dozen men.
Built by the Union Iron Works of San Francisco, California as an improvement to the Holland 602 type, Seawolf had a staggering 70~ sisters that were ordered not only by the U.S. Navy (H-1 through H-9) but also by the navies of Imperial Russia and the British Commonwealth. With a submerged displacement of about 450-tons, these were small boats, going just 150.25-feet long overall.
With a hybrid powerplant of New London Ship & Engine Co (NELSECO) diesels and Electro Dynamic electric motors, they were fast for their time, able to make 14 knots when surfaced. Likewise, they had a 2,300nm range on their meager 11,800-gal fuel bunker, a 200-foot test depth, and could remain underwater on their two 60-cell Gould batteries traveling 100 nm at 5 knots.
As for armament, they carried no deck guns due to their limited size but had space reserved to tote eight torpedoes (four in their forward 18-inch tubes and four reloads).
The first three vessels were ordered before the Great War and were originally to have kick-ass predator/fish names (as was common for the U.S. Navy at the time, with early boats bestowed such enviable monikers as USS Tarantula and USS Viper) but this changed gears while they were still underway. Therefore, instead of the planned USS Seawolf, Nautilus and Garfish, we simply got USS H-1, H-2 and H-3, a naming convention that would continue through the follow-on K, L, M, N, O, R, and S-class boats until the nine V-class subs under construction in 1931 were renamed for fish, a practice that carried on through the 1970s..
Nonetheless, the three Hs were a relative unknown in the 1914 Jane’s:
USS H-1 (Submarine No. 28) commissioned 1 December 1913, and she and her two sisters were attached to the 2nd Torpedo Flotilla, Pacific Fleet, operating along the West Coast out of San Pedro, ranging from Los Angeles to lower British Columbia.
Considered poor open ocean boats, the H-class were not very successful in U.S. service, with the later flight (H-4 through H-9) only acquired as they had already been built for the Tsar who, after 1917, was no longer signing the checks for Mother Russia. Nonetheless, with Uncle Sam entering the war, they were all pressed into use as training boats.
“H-1 set out from San Pedro on 17 October 1917, and reached New London, Conn., 22 days later via Acapulco, Mexico, Balboa, Panama Canal Zone, Key West, Fla., Charleston, S.C., and Philadelphia, Pa. For the remainder of the war, she operated from there and patrolled Long Island Sound, frequently with officer students from the submarine school on board.”
When the war ended, H-1 and H-2 set off for their return trip to the West Coast via the Panama Canal– and they almost made it too.
On 12 March 1920, H-1 grounded in a storm off Santa Margarita Island, Baja California. Four men, including her skipper, LCDR. James R. Webb (USNA 1913), perished in the heavy surf during the effort to reach dry land as H-2 narrowly avoided the same fate.
While the repair ship USS Vestal (AR-4) two weeks later pulled the stricken submarine off the rocks, H-1 rapidly sank in 50 feet of water and her hulk was abandoned. The Navy drew a name through her entry on the Navy List on 12 April 1920, and her remains were sold where-is/as-is to scrappers a few months later. However, it doesn’t seem that said salvors were very successful.
The rest of her class in U.S. service were all much luckier, and, decommissioned in 1922, were laid up and sold for junk a decade later.
Meanwhile, the Italians and Russians had their own 19 boats, with the latter losing five in the Baltic in 1918 to avoid having the Germans capture them and continued to operate these American submersibles for years. The Soviets still had five in their Black Sea Fleet when the Germans came back in 1941, losing two during WWII. As a side note, some of the lost Tsarist subs were raised by the Finns who attempted unsuccessfully to get them working while at least one was used by White Russian Gen. Wrangel’s fleet until 1922 when it was handed over to the French for scrapping.
As for H-1s 40+ British sisters, they were produced at the Canadian Vickers Yards in Montreal, Fore River in Massachusetts, and a host of yards in the UK proper. Three were lost during WWI. A fourth, HMS H-6 (the British coincidentally used the same inspired H-series names as the USN boats) was interned in Holland in 1916 and sold to the Dutch who used her as HNLMS O 8 until WWII when the Germans captured her and later scuttled the well-traveled boat in 1945. Many of the rest of the boats lived on after Versailles as training craft and four were lost in accidents in the 1920s, as is the nature of student drivers. Nine continued to see WWII service with the Royal Navy, where two more were lost in action.
In addition to the British RN H-class units, the Canadians fielded two (CH-14 and CH-15) briefly and six went to Chile as the Guacolda-class, where they continued in service until as late as 1949, the last H-class boats in operation.
From the 1946 Jane’s:
As it stands today, H-1 could be the best remembered and most accessible of this huge class of early submarines. Lost in shallow water off Baja California, and technically not a gravesite as the bluejackets lost in her grounding died on the effort to reach the beach, her bones have often been visited over the past century.
Most recently, in 2016, locals from nearby Puerto Alcatraz rediscovered the wreck, sparking a drive by Mexican authorities of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) to move in and survey the vessel.
Time has not been kind and the stern is reportedly full of sand while most of her pressure hull has collapsed. Still, the offices of INAH, in conjunction with the U.S Navy’s NHHC, are recovering what they can for preservation and documentation.
Since her loss, the Navy has never commissioned another H-1, but there have been three subsequent USS Seawolf (s) since 1939, all hard-serving submarines.
358 long tons (364 t) surfaced
467 long tons (474 t) submerged
Length: 150 ft 4 in
Beam: 15 ft 10 in
Draft: 12 ft 5 in
950 hp (710 kW) (diesel engines)
600 hp (450 kW) (electric motors)
2 × NELSECO diesel engines 950 hp
2 × Electro Dynamic electric motors (450 kW)
2 × 60-cell batteries
2 × shafts
14 knots surfaced
10.5 knots submerged
2,300 nm at 11 knots surfaced
100 nm at 5 knots submerged
Test depth: 200 ft
Complement: 25 officers and men
4 × 18-inch (450 mm) torpedo tubes
8 × torpedoes
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