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Celebrating the “Silent Service” on Submarine Day

A blueprint of a battle model Navy submarine, with top, front and side views.

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once noted that of all the branches of service there is none that faces grimmer perils than submariners.

He thought this because he believed that from the time it leaves port and until its return, that submarine and its crew are on the doorstep of their nation’s adversaries.

Today is National Submarine Day, and we remember the dedication and history of the men and women in the Silent Service.


Hand crank power

The Turtle was the first American submarine.  Designed by John Bushnell in 1775. It was hand crank powered.

Piloted by Ezra Lee, it deployed on September 7, 1776 to place an explosive on the hull of British Admiral Richard Howe’s 64-gun flagship Eagle.

The attack failed; however, the idea of waging war from under the water gathered steam.

In 1800 innovator Robert Fulton built the Nautilus, another hand crank powered submarine.

Sixty-three years later, financier Horace L. Hunley commissioned the construction of the hand crank powered 40-foot H.L. Hunley.  With a top speed of four knots and one spar torpedo, on February 17, 1864 it became the first submarine to sink a warship.


From steam to gas power

In 1875, engineer John Holland submitted a submarine design to the US Navy.  It was rejected.

But the idea of a fleet of submarines persisted, and by 1893 the Navy recognized its potential and held a competition for the construction of an underwater vessel.

Holland won, and the Navy soon contracted with him to construct the Plunger, a steam powered submarine.

As the boat building progressed, however, Holland concluded that steam power would not work.  Scuttling his efforts on the Plunger, he began building a boat he named the Holland VI.

Powered by a gasoline engine to cruise on the surface and batteries to run underwater, the 54-foot boat had a speed of six knots, a range of 200 nautical miles and carried three torpedoes.

Launched on May 17, 1897, the boat was purchased by the Navy on April 11, 1900.  It became the service’s first commissioned submarine and was renamed the USS Holland (SS-1).


Diesel-electric power

As Holland’s submarine was commissioned, a German engineer named Rudolf Diesel was developing a safer and more energy efficient engine that allowed for longer cruise time on the water line.

After 1909, diesel engines and battery power propelled American, Asian and European submarines for the next 50 years.

World Wars I and II brought engineering and weapons advancements as combatant countries built and deployed larger, faster and more deadly submarines which ran deeper and quieter.

In the wake of these advances came the idea of a single power source for these warships of the deep: nuclear power.


Illustration of a nuclear-powered submarine underwater.

Submarines go nuclear

By the end of World War II, the notion of a nuclear-powered submarine led American physicists Ross Gunn and Phillip Abelson to propose the idea, and their thinking found an ally in Admiral Hyman Rickover.

In turn, Rickover convinced the Navy and the Atomic Energy Commission that nuclear power was the ideal propulsion system for submarines.

As of result of Rickover’s advocacy, the USS Nautilus (SSN-571) became the world’s first operational nuclear submarine in January 1954.  

During her first voyage, the Nautilus traveled submerged in the Atlantic for over 1300 miles. In August 1958, she traveled under the polar ice cap and reached the North Pole.

“For the world, our country, and the Navy – the North Pole,” Commander William Anderson announced to his crew.

Over the years, America’s submarine fleet has kept pace with a changing and often dangerous world, as witnessed by the recent commissioning of the most technologically advanced nuclear-powered boat, the USS South Dakota (SSN-790), on February 2, 2019.

While the men and women who wear Dolphins serve in silence, we should acknowledge them and their service. Happy Submarine Day, sailors!


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