before World War One – and only a dozen years after USS Holland
(SS-1) inaugurated the Navy’s undersea force – U.S.
naval strategists had already begun to postulate submarines that
could operate in closer collaboration with the surface fleet than
the Navy’s existing classes, which had been designed primarily
for coastal defense. These notional “fleet” submarines
would necessarily be larger and better armed, but primarily, they
would need a surface speed of some 21 knots to be able to maneuver
with the battleships and cruisers of the line.
Thus, in the
summer of 1913, Electric Boat’s chief naval architect, former
naval constructor Lawrence Y. Spear, proposed two preliminary fleet-boat
designs for consideration in the Navy’s 1914 program. In the
ensuing authorization of eight submarines, Congress stipulated that
one should “…be of a seagoing type to have a surface
speed of not less than twenty knots.” After the money was
found – in 1915 – this first fleet boat was laid down
in June 1916 as a larger version of Spear’s original concept
and in a short-lived break with convention, named USS Schley
(SS-52) after deceased Spanish-American war hero Winfield Scott
Schley. With a surface displacement of 1,106 tons – 1,487
tons submerged – on a length of 270 feet, Schley
(later USS AA-1, and finally USS T-1) was twice as large
as any previous U.S. submarine. To achieve the required surface
speed, two tandem 1,000 horsepower diesel engines on each shaft
drove twin screws, and a separate diesel generator was provided
for charging batteries. Although Schley and two sisters
authorized in 1915 - USS T-2 (originally AA-2,
SS-60) and USS T-3 (originally AA-3, SS-61) -
all made their design speed of 20 knots, insoluble torsional vibration
problems with their tandem engines made them very troublesome ships,
and they were decommissioned in 1922 and 1923 after a service life
of only a few years.
As U.S. entry
into World War One became more likely – and well before the
T-class debacle became apparent – Congress in 1916 authorized
58 coastal submarines and nine additional “fleet” boats.
Three of the larger coastal boats – at 800 tons – eventually
became competing prototypes for the long-lived, 51-member S class.
[Ed. Note: See “The Submarine Heritage of Simon Lake”
in the Fall 2002 issue of UNDERSEA WARFARE.] The nine “fleet
boats” became the V class, built between 1921 and 1934, and
in fact, they were the only U.S. submarines produced for a decade
that began in the early 1920s.
to left, the three “B”s – Bonita
(SS-165), Barracuda (SS-163), and Bass (SS-164)
– lie alongside their tender, USS Argonne (AS-10),
in late 1927 at San Diego. At the time of the
photograph, the three boats – the first of the V class
– were still officially V-3, V-1, and V-2, respectively.
The large, bulbous bows, fitted for better seakeeping, are especially
A “Class” in Name Only
construction was spread over so many years – a period of considerable
flux in U.S. thinking about submarine operational concepts –
and because no other boats were being built during that time, the
“V-class” designation became a catch-all for five separate
sub-types whose displacements varied by more than a factor of two.
Thus, the V-boats were hardly a “class” in today’s
sense of the word! Moreover, except for the very last, they were
all built by the government – seven at the Portsmouth (New
Hampshire) Navy Yard and one at Mare Island – at a time when
the Navy was purposefully assigning all submarine construction to
its own shipyards, both to build up its own expertise and to insulate
the service from the possibility of a future Electric Boat Company
monopoly. Originally called USS V-1 through V-9 (SS-163 through
SS-1711), the nine submarines were renamed in 1931 as Barracuda,
Bass, Bonita, Argonaut, Narwahl, Nautilus,
Dolphin, Cachalot, and Cuttlefish, respectively.
All served in World War Two, six of them on war patrols in the central
Pacific, and among those, one – Argonaut – was lost
to enemy action.
photograph of Bass and S-46 (SS-157) at Coco
Solo in the Panama Canal Zone between the wars makes clear how
much larger the early V-class boats were than their predecessors.
S-46, launched by Electric Boat in September 1923,
displaced 963 tons (surfaced) on 225 feet; Bass (then
V-2), launched only a year later, weighed in at 2,119 tons on
342 feet. This extraordinary increase in length and displacement
was necessitated by the speed and endurance required of a true
through V-3 –
The first three
V-boats were funded in fiscal year 1919, laid down at the Portsmouth
Navy Yard in October and November 1921, and commissioned somewhat
less than a year apart between 1924 and 1926. Significantly, V-1,
V-2, and V-3 were the only members of the class designed to satisfy
the Navy’s original “fleet-boat” requirement for
high surface speed. These were large and powerfully-engined submarines,
displacing 2,119 tons surfaced and 2,506 tons submerged on a length
of 342 feet. The propulsion plant was divided between two separate
engine rooms – forward and aft of the control room –
with two 2,250-horsepower main-propulsion diesels aft, and two independent
1,000-horsepower diesel generators forward. The latter were primarily
for charging batteries, but to reach maximum surface speed, they
could augment the mechanically-coupled main-propulsion engines by
driving the 1,200-horsepower electric motors in parallel. The three
boats were partially double-hulled and fitted forward with buoyancy
tanks inside a bulbous bow for better surface sea-keeping. They
were armed with six torpedo tubes – four forward and two aft
– plus a 5-inch/51-caliber deck gun.
the operational performance of the first three V-boats was only
mediocre. Designed for 21 knots on the surface, they only made 18.7,
and also failed to make their submerged design speed of 9 knots.
As built, they were somewhat too heavy forward, which made them
poor sea boats, even after replacing the original deck guns with
smaller 3-inch/50-caliber models to save weight. Moreover, both
the main propulsion diesel engines and their original electric motors
were notoriously unreliable, and full-power availability was rare.
Renamed Barracuda, Bass, and Bonita in
1931, they were decommissioned in 1937, and only the imminence of
World War Two provided a reprieve, in preparation for which they
were recommissioned in September 1940. Just before Pearl Harbor,
the three boats were transferred to Coco Solo, Panama Canal Zone,
and each made a number of defensive war patrols – without
seeing any action – off the approaches to the Panama Canal.
All three boats
were overhauled in Philadelphia between late 1942 and early 1943
and converted to cargo submarines by removing both torpedo tubes
and main engines, thereby leaving them solely dependent on their
diesel generators for propulsion. Because this rendered the boats
severely under-powered, they apparently never served operationally
in their cargo-carrying role but instead were relegated to training
duties at New London until just before the end of the war in 1945.
After decommissioning, Barracuda and Bonita were
scrapped, and Bass was scuttled as a sonar target near