Undersea Warfare The Official Magazine of the U.S. Submarine Force Fall 2003 U.S. Submarines… Because Stealth Matters Cover of Fall 2003 Issue
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NSWC Submarine Races Encourage Innovation

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Undersea Warfare 2002 CHINFO Merit Award
Photo caption follows
Here, V-4 (later USS Argonaut, SS-166) is seen transiting the Panama Canal. This huge mine-laying submarine, the only one ever built for the U.S. Navy and the largest of the V-class boats, could carry 60 mines internally and was armed with four torpedo tubes forward and two 6-inch deck guns. Converted to a troop-carrying submarine early in World War II, she was lost in action with all hands in January 1943.
Photo caption follows
Here, V-4 emerges from a crash dive during her trials off Provincetown, Massachusetts in June 1928.

“And now for something
completely different” –
USS V-4, or Argonaut

Displacing 4,164 tons (submerged), USS V-4, later Argonaut (SS-1662), was both the largest submarine the Navy ever built before the advent of nuclear power and the only U.S. submarine specifically designed as a minelayer. Her configuration, and that of the two V-class boats that followed – USS V-5 and USS V-6 – resulted from an evolving strategic concept that increasingly emphasized the possibility of a naval war with Japan in the far western Pacific. This factor – and the implications of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty – suggested the need for long-range submarine “cruisers,” or “strategic scouts,” as well as long-range minelayers, for which long endurance, not high speed, was most important. Funded in fiscal year 1925, laid down at Portsmouth in May of that year, and commissioned in April 1928, V-4 was 381 feet long overall and carried four 21-inch torpedo tubes forward and two 40-inch mine-laying chutes and their associated mechanical handling equipment aft. Considerable engine-room volume was sacrificed to achieve an internal payload of 60 specially-designed Mark XI moored mines, and consequently, the main propulsion diesels were limited to a total of 2,800 shaft horsepower, yielding only 15 knots on the surface.

An over-large, under-powered, and one-of-a-kind submarine, Argonaut was never particularly successful but stayed in commission all through the 1930s. Early in World War Two, she was re-engined at Mare Island to increase her main propulsion horsepower to 3,600, and additionally received two external aft-firing torpedo tubes. Then, at Pearl Harbor – having never laid a mine in anger – her mine-laying gear was stripped out to facilitate conversion to a troop-carrying submarine, and in that guise, she participated in the commando assault on Japanese-held Makin Atoll by Carlson’s Raiders in August 1942. [Ed. Note: See “Submarine Commandos – Carlson’s Raiders at Makin Atoll” and “Bells Left Behind” in the Winter 2001 issue of UNDERSEA WARFARE.] In transferring to Brisbane, Australia late that year, Argonaut was diverted to a war patrol near Bougainville in the northern Solomons and lost with all hands on 10 January 1943 after attacking a heavily defended Japanese convoy.

Long-range “Submarine Cruisers” – V-5 and V-6

In their overall appearance and dimensions, USS V-5 (later Narwhal, SS-167) and USS V-6 (later Nautilus, SS-168) were similar to Argonaut and constituted “submarine cruiser” counterparts at least partially inspired by German success with long-range submarine commerce raiders in World War One. Endurance, sea-keeping, increased torpedo capacity, and large deck guns were emphasized at the cost
of high speed; and originally, a small scouting seaplane was to be carried in a water-tight hangar abaft the conning tower.3 As built – V-5 at Portsmouth and V-6 at the Mare Island (California) Navy Yard – the two double-hulled boats displaced 2,730 tons on the surface and 3,900 underwater on a length of 370 feet. Powered by two ten-cylinder, two-cycle, 2,350-horsepower MAN4 diesel engines, they also had a pair of smaller 450-horsepower diesel generators for charging batteries or augmenting the main propulsion engines on the surface. On trials, the two boats achieved nearly 17-1/2 knots surfaced and 8 knots submerged, and their claimed (surface) endurance was 18,000 miles at 10 knots. In addition to the customary torpedo tubes – four forward and two aft with over 30 reloads – they (and Argonaut) carried two 6-inch/53-caliber deck guns, the largest ever mounted on U.S. submarines.

Photo caption follows
Narwahl (formerly V-5, SS-167) and Nautilus (formerly V-6,
SS-167) were designed as long-range “submarine cruisers” in which high surface speed was sacrificed for larger payload and longer endurance. Similar in size to Argonaut, they also carried two 6-inch deck guns and served with distinction in World War II, which both survived. This aerial view of Narwahl makes apparent her prominent “surface-ship” characteristics, notably high freeboard and an expansive deck structure.

Funded in 1926 and commissioned in 1930, V-5 and V-6 emerged as too large and unwieldy for fully successful operation – they were slow to dive, hard to maneuver, and easy to detect. Nonetheless, as Narwhal and Nautilus, they served usefully in the 1930s, and just before World War Two, Nautilus was modified to carry 20,000 gallons of aviation gasoline for refueling seaplanes at sea. Early in the war, each was re-fitted with four General Motors 1,600-horsepower diesels and four additional external torpedo tubes, and despite their age and inherent design flaws, they went on to compile enviable war records.

Narwhal completed 15 successful war patrols and Nautilus 14, and between them, they are credited with sinking 13 enemy ships for a total of 35,000 tons. Somewhat more serendipitously, their large size made them useful for carrying both troops and cargo on covert missions. Thus, Nautilus joined with Argonaut in transporting Carlson’s Raiders to Makin, and then with Narwhal, landed a strong detachment of U.S. Army Scouts on Attu in the Aleutians preparatory to the main landing that regained that island from the Japanese in May 1943. [Ed. Note: See “The Forgotten Theater: U.S. Submarine Operations in the Aleutians in World War II” in the Spring 2003 issue of UNDERSEA WARFARE.] For the final two years of the war, the two boats were devoted almost exclusively to clandestine insertion and retrieval operations behind enemy lines, particularly in preparation for the U.S. campaign to retake the Philippines.

With the end of the war in sight, Narwhal and Nautilus were withdrawn from service in April and June 1945, respectively, and sold for breaking up soon thereafter. Narwhal’s two 6-inch guns are retained as a memorial at the Naval Submarine Base New London.

Another One-off

The penultimate design in the V-boat series was laid down at Portsmouth in June 1930 and emerged as USS Dolphin (formerly V-7, SS-169) two years later. With a length of 319 feet and a displacement only a little more than half that of her three predecessors, Dolphin was clearly an attempt to strike a happy medium between those latter ships and earlier S-class submarines, which were little more than large coastal boats. The general arrangement of propulsion machinery was identical to that of V-5 and V-6, but even with a surface displacement of only 1,718 tons, Dolphin’s scaled-down main engines – 1,750 horsepower each – could only just deliver the surface speed of the larger ships, and her endurance and torpedo load-out were much reduced. Interestingly, however, Dolphin’s size and weight were very nearly ideal for the range and duration of the war-patrols that became customary in the Pacific during World War Two, and indeed, the war-time Gato (SS-212), Balao (SS-285), and Tench (SS-417) classes had similar dimensions.

Photo caption follows The one-of-a-kind USS Dolphin (formerly V-7, SS-169) displaced only half as much as her three predecessors, but her scaled-down engines could produce no more surface speed than that of the larger ships. Although she served only briefly as a combatant during World War II, Dolphin’s size and weight were essentially adopted for the Gato, Balao, and Tench classes
that bore the brunt of the fighting.

Early in the war, Dolphin herself made three patrols from Pearl Harbor without notable distinction, and her deteriorating material condition soon led to restricting her to training duties – first in Hawaii, and then in New London for the duration of the war. She was decommissioned in October 1945 and sold for scrapping a year later.

Cachalot and Cuttlefish
the Last of the Breed

Even before V-5 and V-6 had been completed and V-7 laid down, submarine officer opinion had begun to shift in favor of smaller boats similar to Germany’s 1,200-ton U-135 design from World War One. Then, when the London Naval Treaty of 1930 for the first time imposed international limits on total submarine tonnage, the incentive to build smaller ships became especially compelling.5 The result was the two smallest submarines of the V class, USS Cachalot (originally V-8, SS-170) and USS Cuttlefish (originally V-9, SS-171), funded in fiscal year 1932. At 271 feet overall and only 1,130 tons surface displacement, Cachalot and Cuttlefish were even smaller than the T-boats of 15 years earlier. The engineering plant consisted of two innovative, MAN-designed, compact main engines supposedly capable of delivering 1,535 horsepower each, plus a single diesel generator rated at 440 horsepower. Although the boats approached 17 knots on trials, the new MAN engines failed repeatedly from excessive vibration and were replaced in 1938 by General Motors diesels with reduction gearing.

Photo caption follows
The last and smallest submarines of the V-class were USS Cachalot (formerly V-8, SS-170) and USS Cuttlefish (formerly V-9, SS-171), launched in late 1933. At only 1,130 tons surfaced, they were severely limited in speed, endurance, and weapons load, and they made only a few war patrols in World War II before being relegated to training duties. Significantly though, Cuttlefish, shown here, was the first submarine in a decade built in a commercial yard – Electric Boat – and the only member of the V “class” not built by the government.

Perhaps of most interest was the Navy’s assignment of Cuttlefish to the Electric Boat Company, the first submarine award to a private yard since the last of the S-class boats in 1921. Accordingly, Cuttlefish differed from her Portsmouth-built sister, Cachalot, in many respects, including more spacious internal arrangements, the first installation of air conditioning on a U.S. submarine, and the first partial use of welding (vice riveting) in hull fabrication. Moreover, Cachalot and Cuttlefish served as the first test beds for the Mark I torpedo data computer that revolutionized underwater fire control in the mid-1930s.

Unfortunately, because small size severely limited their speed, endurance, and weapons load, neither boat was successful under the conditions of the Pacific war. Each did three scoreless war patrols in the central and western Pacific, and Cachalot did one in Alaskan waters, but by late 1942, it was clear both were out-classed and worn out, and they finished the war at New London as training ships. The two were decommissioned in October 1945 and broken up several years later.

In Retrospect…

By today’s standards, the Navy’s exploitation of the congressional “fleet-boat” authorization of 1916 to build five vastly different submarine designs in a series that ended only in 1934 may seem surprising or even disingenuous. However, as the only U.S. submarines built during an entire decade of shifting and often-contradictory operational concepts, the nine boats of the V class could hardly have been expected to be homogeneous. But the relative freedom that the Navy was granted to try so many novel submarine approaches in so few years may only have been matched subsequently in the initial era of the nuclear-propulsion program. Except for Narwhal and Nautilus – and there for unexpected reasons – none of the V-boats achieved significant success either in peacetime or under combat conditions in World War Two. But the willingness to experiment – or perhaps it was only shooting in the dark – that produced the V class in all its interesting variety paid off handsomely in a host of lessons-learned that were quickly applied to the subsequent succession of true “fleet-boat” designs – Porpoise, Shark, Salmon, Sargo, and finally, Gato – that brought us “silent victory” in the Pacific.

Dr. Whitman is the Senior Editor of UNDERSEA WARFARE.


Alden, John D., The Fleet Submarine in the U.S. Navy, U.S. Naval Institute Press (1979)
Blair, Clay, Jr., Silent Victory, J.B. Lippincott Company (1975)
Dictionary of American. Naval Fighting Ships (DANFS), “Submarines” (1959-1991)
Friedman, Norman, U.S. Submarines Through 1945 – An Illustrated Design History, U.S. Naval Institute Press (1995)
Milton, Keith M., Subs Against the Rising Sun, Yucca Tree Press (2000)
Weir, Gary E., Building American Submarines, 1914-1940, University Press of the Pacific (2000)


1 In 1920, the Navy adopted a numbering scheme that distinguished between coastal and general purpose boats, designated “SS”; and fleet boats, designated “SF.” Accordingly, T-1 through T-3 were originally designated SF-1 through SF-3, and V-1 through V-9 were designated SF-4 through SF-12.)

2 In accordance with the numbering scheme described in the preceding note, V-4/Argonaut was also designated SM-1 at one time, indicative of her mine-laying role.

3 The Navy experimented with seaplanes on submarines with a prototype hangar installation on USS S-1 (SS-105) during the mid-1920s. How-ever, the resulting increase in scouting capability was significantly offset by several additional dangers to the host submarine, and the initiative was dropped.

4 Maschinenfabrik-Augsburg-Nürnberg (MAN) was a German firm that built many of the engines used in German U-boats during World War One. Subsequently, the U.S. Navy purchased the rights to build MAN diesels domestically for their own submarines.

5 The restrictions of the London Naval Treaty were one factor in the disposal in 1930 of T-1, T-2, and T-3, which had been laid up for nearly a decade. But by special agreement, Argonaut, Narwhal, and Nautilus were exempted from the treaty limitations.