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The Navy's Variegated V-Class Out of one, many?

by Edward C. Whitman

Photo caption follows
Submarine Division 20 was formed at San Diego in the mid-1920s to provide a “home” for the new V-class submarines commissioned during that period. This December 1934 photograph of seven of the nine V-boats nested alongside the submarine tender USS Holland (AS-3) shows clearly the differences in size and configuration among members of the “class.” From inboard, the submarines are Narwahl (formerly V-5, SS-167), Nautilus (formerly V-6, SS-168), Bonita (formerly V-3, SS-165), Bass (formerly V-2, SS-164), Barracuda (formerly V-1, SS-163), Dolphin (formerly V-7, SS-169), and either Cachalot or Cuttlefish (formerly V-8 and V-9, respectively.) From 1929 to 1931, CAPT (later Fleet Admiral) Chester W. Nimitz was the commodore of SUBDIV 20.

Even 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.

Photo caption follows From right 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 prominent.

The V-boats –
A “Class” in Name Only

Because their 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.

Photo caption follows This side-by-side 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 “fleet boat.”

V-1 through V-3 –
the Barracudas

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.

Unfortunately, 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 Block Island.