Undersea Warfare The Official Magazine of the U.S. Submarine Force Spring 2004 U.S. Submarines... Because Stealth Matters Cover USW Magazine Spring 2004
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The Submarine Force Library and Museum had its origins in a collection of books, records, and artifacts begun by the Electric Boat Company in the 1950s. After it was donated to the Navy in 1964, the collection was moved to the Naval Submarine Base New London, where it remained until 1986.

In April of that year, the Library and Museum finally opened in its own dedicated facility on the Thames River, located just outside the submarine base. Today, the museum complex consists of three main elements: the Museum itself, the Library and Archives, and the historic ship USS Nautilus (SSN-571).

Visiting the Submarine Force Library and Museum

The Museum

Arriving at the submarine museum, visitors first encounter a number of displays outside the main building itself. These set the stage for many of the exhibits inside and give the museum a venue for displaying many items that simply will not fit elsewhere.

The most prominent of these outdoor displays is the complete sail from USS George Washington (SSBN-598), which stands in front of a monument dedicated to the Polaris program and the first “41 for Freedom” ballistic-missile submarines. Together with the nearby top section of a Polaris launch tube, complete with open hatch and missile cover, it forms an impressive remembrance of our earliest seaborne nuclear deterrent.

Four unusual mini-submarines and submersibles are arrayed next to the entrance:

  • HA-8, a Japanese Type-A mini-submarine. Five craft of this design participated in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
  • X-1, the US Navy’s first midget submarine design, built in 1955 to test U.S. defenses against enemy counterparts. Originally powered by an experimental hydrogen-peroxide propulsion system, X-1 was converted to conventional propulsion after a 1957 explosion destroyed much of her original bow.
  • A Mk VII Swimmer Delivery Vehicle (SDV), an early U.S. Navy design now replaced by larger and more sophisticated versions.
  • An Italian “chariot,” or swimmer delivery vehicle, similar to the maiale (“pig”) types used to attack British ships during World War II.

Rounding out the collection is a World War II submarine deck gun from USS Piranha (SS-389) and several other artifacts. 

Photo caption follows The unique entryway of the Submarine Force Museum consists of a large 40-foot outer ring – representing the hull diameter of an Ohio-class SSBN – and a nine-foot inner counterpart that contrasts the hull diameter of the U.S. Navy’s first submarine, USS Holland (SS-1), commissioned in 1900.

To enter the museum building, visitors pass through an interesting archway. A ring 40 feet in diameter represents the hull diameter of an Ohio-class SSBN. Suspended inside is a 9-foot ring marking the diameter of USS Holland (SS-1), the Navy’s first submarine. This provides a striking reminder of the dramatic advances achieved in submarine technology since 1900, when Holland was commissioned.

Once inside, the first thing a visitor sees is an earlier Nautilus – not a real submarine, but the version imagined by Jules Verne in his novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. A model of the submarine created for the 1954 Walt Disney movie of Verne’s classic hangs in the entryway. Nearby there are two hands-on exhibits ideal for younger visitors – a replica of a World War II submarine attack center, complete with functioning periscopes, and a submarine control room.

One wing of the museum deals primarily with modern submarines. Exhibits focus on the strategic deterrence program, including Polaris, the former submarine base at Holy Loch, Scotland, and similar aspects. There is also a cutaway model of a USS Los Angeles (SSN-688)-class submarine and a display on submarine contributions to Operation Desert Storm and other recent conflicts.

The other wing houses several large-scale historical displays, beginning with a replica of the first combat submersible, Turtle, from the Revolutionary War. Associated exhibits describe the evolution of submarines over the centuries. The contrast between the crude hand-cranked Turtle and modern submarines is striking, yet both had the same goal – to seek out and destroy the nation’s enemies.

In addition to Turtle, a McCann Rescue Bell dominates this section of the museum, and there is also a small exhibit on the 1939 rescue of crewmembers from the stricken USS Squalus (SS-192), which made the McCann bell famous.

Much of the remaining space is dedicated to Submarine Force achievements in World War II. A cutaway model of a USS Gato (SS-212)-class submarine hangs over the area, helping visitors to appreciate how little space was available onboard these vessels. (It is interesting to compare this wartime submarine with Nautilus, only a decade later. While the basic configuration is much the same, nuclear power was clearly a great improvement for crew habitability, as well as submarine performance.) Other exhibits describe both combat operations and life onboard wartime submarines. Rotating displays of historical artifacts from the museum’s archives honor individual boats. These displays are often arranged to coincide with crew reunions or other events at the museum.

Finally, one wall is dedicated to submarine armament. There are a number of torpedoes and other submarine weapons, ranging from a 1918 Whitehead design to the modern Mk 48 and a SUBROC rocket- propelled nuclear depth charge. As an adjunct to the many other displays on SSBNs and strategic deterrence, there is a demilitarized Polaris missile on hand, sectioned to show the complexity of its internal workings.

As visitors head out of the museum building toward Nautilus, they pass a wall of models, representing every class of U.S. submarines from Holland to USS Seawolf (SSN- 21).

Photo caption below Photo caption below Photo caption below
The wardroom onboard USS Nautilus (SSN-571) is displayed behind a plexiglass partition for visitors to the historic ship. Suspended just inside the museum’s entrance is a large-scale model of Captain Nemo’s fictional Nautilus, created for the 1954 Walt Disney film of Jules Verne’s
Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.