How They Became Legends (Part 7 of 8)

Continued from Part 6


The United States Naval Academy and Submarine School produced a breed of naval officers unlike their contemporary surface counterparts in both mission and attitude. Financially, submarines constituted a sound financial investment in direct comparison with other warships of the United States Navy; the per unit cost of each boat ranged between $2.7 to $4.5 million and it took as little as 23 months between the start of construction and the first action against the enemy. [1] In contrast, battleship construction immediately prior to the Second World War required between 49 to 55 months for construction and an investment of up to $90 million per ship.[2] [3]

USS Razorback, the USS Ronquil and the USS Scabbardfish on the ways at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Kittery, Maine – 1944. (Source:

Operationally, the men who were the products of these institutions were an investment of the Navy in terms of education, and the process for validation of the overall effectiveness of their training as well as their contributions to the evolution of doctrine was substantial. Most of the 1,471 patrols conducted by submarines during the Second World War represented 48 days on patrol, with 6 patrols extending past 80 days.[4] In terms of threat, the Imperial Japanese Navy constituted a substantial adversary intent on territorial expansion which was facilitated by maintaining naval supremacy. The focus of their research, development, and production of capital ships to augment the demands inherent in the protection of their growing empire, however, neglected the assets necessary for detecting and defeating the submarine threat to their extended logistics routes. Capitalizing on this weakness, submarines skippers pressed attacks accordingly upon this vulnerability; the final tallies conducted at the end of the war credited America submarines with 1,113 merchant vessels sunk – a loss of almost 4.8 million tons of vital shipping capacity.[5] It is important to note that while these numbers are impressive, what makes these figures even more significant is that the American submarines force constituted a mere 1.6 percent of the Navy’s manpower and consisted entirely of volunteers.[6] Operating in a hostile environment, the skippers led their crews through typhoons as well as the placid waters of shallow bays and rivers, with navigation learned at Annapolis and an with an appreciation for the capabilities and limitations of submarines assimilated in New London. As leaders, submarine skippers not only understood the critical tasks of their shipboard peers, they were trained and capable of assuming additional tasks due to illness, incapacitation, or other necessity.

Most importantly and vital to the success of the American submarines was the human element. Unlike their contemporaries serving on surface warships, naval officers upon submarines were, due to design of the boats and the crew size, in much closer proximity to the men they led which fostered a working relationship and personal understanding unique to the service. This bond was continually reinforced over the duration of patrols and the shared triumphs of successful attacks, the frustrations experienced with problematic torpedoes, and the implicit reliance each crewmember maintained on their shipmates to work towards the shared goals of survival and success. From the very beginning of their careers at the Naval Academy, the men who became the commanding officers of these small crews were rated not only on their own performance, but their capacity to contribute as a team member towards the effort of a crew at sea. This education continued to the Submarine School and highlighted the extreme dangers involved in submarine operation and employment and the importance of initiative and cooperation. As dual volunteers, submariners consisted of men determined to reach a goal, and often their path towards that goal necessitated duplicity or persistence to overcome the obstacles which would typically deter lesser men. The resulting breed of officers, therefore, possessed the ability to independently adapt to rapidly changing tactical and operational demands, as well as understand the circumstances and need to occasionally circumvent doctrine, equipment limitations, and convention to guarantee success. American submarine skippers, though subordinates in the hierarchy of the naval command structure, largely determined their own success and though many were relieved of command during the war, this was a reflection in the difficulties in transitioning from the established pre-war doctrine to the dynamic and fluid methods which actually worked in practice. In 1940, a submission to the professional journal of the United States Navy, Proceedings Magazine, offered a valid reminder of the importance of the role of the skipper on the submarine:

No one can help him. Germany had some 400 submarine captains during the war but over 60 per cent of the damage they did was accomplished by but 22 of these 400 officers. The inference is obvious. The one and great difficulty in submarine warfare is to find sufficiency of officers who will rise supe­rior to the incidental intricacies of these compli­cated vessels, who will make their opportunities and take advantage of them when found under conditions of hardship and acute discomfort[7]

[1] Rodney Watterson, 32 In 44: Building the Portsmouth Submarine Fleet in World War II (New York, NY, USA: Naval Institute Press, 2011), 107, 111.

[2] James Hamilton, “Battleships,” USNI Proceedings 66, no. 8 (1940): 1130-1137, accessed June 25, 2017,, 1131.

[3] “Professional Notes,” USNI Proceedings 65, no. 12 (1939): 1791-1818, accessed June 25, 2017,, 1792.

[4] Ivan F. Duff, Medical Study of the Experiences of Submariners as Recorded in 1,471 Submarine Patrol Reports in World War II, (Washington D.C.: Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Navy Department, 1949), accessed June 25, 2017,, 166.

[5] “Summaries of Japanese Shipping Losses During World War II by All Causes,”, n.d., accessed June 25, 2017,

[6] Blair, 853.

[7] Brown, 1609.


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