The First African American Women Officers

African Americans have been an integral part of the U.S. Navy. This includes African- American women. Women in the navy have had to fight for their place for years. This has especially been the case for the submarine force, which did not see women on submarine until after 2010.  For African American women, this fight was twice as hard. However, women of all races have always been there to step up when needed. This week we honor some of these women who stepped up when called and along the way paved the road for those who followed.


[The section about the first African American officers is By Regina T. Akers, Ph.D., Naval History and Heritage Command, Histories and Archives Division]


“Navy to admit Negroes into the WAVES,” so read the newspaper headlines Oct. 19, 1944.  For the first time black women would be commissioned naval officers as members of the Navy’s female reserve program. The program first made news July 30, 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law. Their official nickname was WAVES, an acronym for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. It would be two more years before the WAVES became open to all women.

It was not an easy journey. During the Congressional hearings Thomasina Walker of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority’s Non-Partisan Political Council testified the legislation creating the Navy’s female reserve program should include a non-discrimination clause so all eligible women could volunteer to serve.  Her argument fell on deaf ears. Public Law 689 creating the program did not specify blacks could not be recruited, yet they were denied the opportunity to do so for most of the war.

Whites and blacks representing civic, religious, and civil rights organizations across the country urged the Navy to recruit black women. The black press published articles about blacks being turned away at recruitment offices and the individuals and organizations demanding the Navy reverse its policy of exclusion.  During a campaign speech in Chicago, Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate in the 1944 presidential election, accused his opponent President Franklin D. Roosevelt of discriminating against blacks by not allowing them to become WAVES. Citizens expressed their opposition to the Navy’s policy of excluding blacks from the WAVES by sending letters and petitions to President Roosevelt and Secretary of the Navy William “Frank” KnoxFirst Lady Eleanor Roosevelt held a meeting with military and civilian leaders to discuss the issue. Capt. Mildred McAfee, the WAVES director, supported diversity but she was well aware of Secretary Knox’s objections.  She is reported to have overheard him saying that “[Blacks] would be in the WAVES over his dead body.” James Forrestal succeeded Knox after a fatal heart attack in April 1944. The new Navy Secretary did not believe a segregated Navy was cost-effective or made the best use of naval personnel.  Under his leadership, the WAVES and the Navy Nurse Corps integrated.

Harriet Ida Pickens, a public health worker, and social worker Frances Elizabeth Wills distinguished themselves in mid-December, 1944 as the first black women to receive their commissions in the U.S. Navy. Pickens’ father, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People advocated for the diversity of the WAVES program. Interestingly, there were Japanese and Native American WAVES before Pickens and Wills. The Navy assigned Pickens as a physical training instructor and Wills as a classification test administrator at the main enlisted WAVES training facility at Hunter College in New York City, also known as USS Hunter.  More than 70 blacks joined the enlisted ranks by Sept. 2, 1945. Among them was Edna Young, one of the first enlisted WAVES to later be sworn into the regular Navy. j.g. Harriet Ida Pickens (left) and Ensign Frances Wills close a suitcase after graduating from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School (WR) at Northampton, Mass., circa December 1944.

Edna Young was the first of her race and gender to be promoted to the rank of chief petty officer.During the past 72 years, black women across the ranks, ratings and communities have had outstanding careers in the Navy, including the following:

Brenda Robinson, the first black aviator, and Matice Wright, a naval flight officer, excelled in naval aviation.

Vivian McFadden integrated the Navy Chaplain Corps.

Janie Mines was the first black woman Naval Academy graduate.

Joan C. Bynum, a Navy nurse was the first black woman naval officer to attain the rank of captain (0-6).


Lillian E. Fishburne, a communications officer, was the first of her race and gender to reach the rank of rear admiral in 1998.

Fleet Master Chief April Beldo is one of a select few men or women to become a fleet or force master chief.

Annie Anderson is the third black woman flag officer

On July 1, 2014, Michelle J. Howard reached unprecedented heights with her promotion to the rank of four-star admiral and assignment as the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, the Navy’s first woman to hold that rank and position. Media outlets around the world celebrated her achievements. Howard made history and did a job that was reflective of her outstanding warfighting, leadership, and command abilities.[1]

And so marks the path of a trailblazer. Just like Pickens and Wills, Howard was in uncharted territory and was building the road for others to follow. When she was accepted into the Naval Academy at 17, it was only the third class to accept women. It was in 1980 that the Navy opened logistics ships to women, allowing for opportunities for women to serve at sea. In 1999, Howard took command of the USS Rushmore, becoming the first African-American woman in such a role. Howard would become a household name in 2009 only three days into her new job as head of a U.S. Navy task force when a cargo ship sailing under a U.S. flag was hijacked by pirates. The captain, Richard Philips was taken hostage and it was Howard’s job to get him back. The events of the incident inspired the 2013 movie Captain Philips. Howard recalls the incident saying “There certainly wasn’t anyone I could turn to and say, ‘How do you rescue someone from a life raft? How do you do negotiations with pirates at sea? It had never been done before.” For anyone who has seen the movie, we know that Howard and her team were successful in rescuing Captain Philips. It was only another first her and one that helped put her on the map and another step to her Historic promotion in 2014.Michelle J. Howard, in a 2014 interview with the New York Times, recalled a uniform issue after her promotion. When she called looking for a new insignia for her white Navy dress she said “I need to order a four-star women’s shoulder board, and there’s this silence, then the lady goes, ‘Um, I’m not seeing any in the system.’ And I said Yeah, I thought that might be the case.”[2]

Howard recalls in her early career only knowing of the possibility to become a one star. She comments that today’s sailors “have never known a life when there hasn’t been a woman admiral, women three-stars, women in command of ships, women in command of destroyers.”[3] Such a remark shows how much the Navy and the world has changed. Howard noted in 2009 that one of her keys to success and to that of today’s armed forces is diversity. The advisors who helped her come up with the rescue plan in 200 came from various backgrounds and experiences. Howard emphasized, “the value of both inherent diversity-gender, race, and ethnicity- and the acquired diversity of learned experience….we harvest their good ideas. We empower them. We listen to them. And we are successful as organizations.” Moreover, the navy has embraced these ideals and Howard is only one example of this. In 2015, we saw the first woman to serve aboard a fast attack submarine report to the USS Minnesota. These steps forward for women were taken because of women such as Harriet Ida Pickens, and Frances Elizabeth Wills .




The Navy and the Civil War

Last week we marked the beginning of Black History Month. A celebration of accomplishments, important persons and a culture that has helped shaped this country. In response to the question, “What does Black History Month mean to you?”, Admiral Michelle J. Howard said, “By taking the time to educate ourselves on our history and the people who shaped this nation, we can more fully appreciate the ideals set down by the founders….It’s a reminder that our work is to sustain freedom and ensure that rights and liberty belong to all our citizens.” Like many African Americans, those in the Navy had to struggle in the beginning to get where they are today. Those sailors who serve today proudly know the accomplishments of those who came before them. From the eight black sailors who earned the Medal of Honor during the Civil War to the 14 black female yeomen who enlisted during World War I, African American Naval history is a part of the greater Navy story. A history that all sailors can call their own and be proud of. For the month of February, we will share with you a few of the pioneering stories that led the way for sailors of today.

The Navy and The Civil War

The Union Navy’s official position on African Americans was ambivalent at the beginning of the war. Many Northern free blacks were already enlisted in the Navy at the start of the war and many more joined up when the call was put out. However, as the war raged on, an influx of African Americans from the South sought refuge among Union vessels. It reached a point where a policy had to be made. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells said of the situation, “It is not the policy of this Government to invite or encourage this kind of desertion and yet, under the circumstances, no other course…could be adopted without violating every principle of humanity. To return them would be impolitic as well as cruel…you will do well to employ them.”[1] In time, 16% of the Union Navy would be African Americans. Unlike the Army, the Navy paid equal wages, had better food rations and had more entry-level enlisted positions. Two sailors who served aboard Union Vessels were Thomas Mandigo and John Lawson.

Thomas Mandigo was born in South Carolina and spent 40 years enslaved. In March of 1862 he found his way to the blockading fleet in Bull’s Bay- his path to freedom. He was initially rated as 1st boy, then to landsman and finally to the level of seamen.  Thomas first served aboard the USS Restless and the USS South Carolina but would spend most of the war on the USS Lodona. The Lodona was a British screw steamer captured as a blockade runner in September of 1862. Lisa Y King, Ph.D., in the International Journal of Naval History comments that, “in order to attain these ratings [seamen] these men has to prove themselves skilled and able seamen to the officer’s satisfaction. More importantly they had to prove themselves the equal of their peers by following rigorous routines, adhering to the strict discipline and suffering the many hardships endured by all the ship’s crew.”[2] Mandigo would reenlist in 1864. At the war’s end, the Lodona would be decommissioned in Philadelphia and Thomas would settle in western Pennsylvania. He would marry and have a family and would die nearly thirty years later- in 1890, as a free man. Thomas Mandigo is just one of many who served proudly aboard a Navy vessel as an equal to his fellow sailor, no matter their skin color. Each sailor has a story, and this was Thomas’.

The gravestone of Thomas Mandigo, Sandy Hill A. M. E. Cemetery, Chester County, Pennsylvania. Author’s photo.

During the famous Battle at Mobile Bay, David Farragut uttered the phrase, “Damn the Torpedo’s- Full Speed Ahead.” During the battle on August 5, 1864, Farragut ordered a Union Fleet of fourteen wooden ships and four Monitors past Fort Morgan in Mobile Bay to attack the Confederacy. The battle is considered an important Union victory since it deprived the Confederacy of its last significant Gulf port. The Union saw 335 casualties during the battle with the sinking of the Monitor Tecumseh when it struck a torpedo and sank. Aboard the USS Hartford alongside Farragut was a Landsman named John Lawson.

John Lawson

Lawson was born June 16, 1837 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and enlisted in the Navy in 1863. During the battle of Mobile Bay, Lawson was a member of the Hartford’s berth deck ammunition party.  He was one of six men stationed at the shell-whip on the deck when the ship was attacked. All in his ammunition party were killed; Lawson himself was wounded in the leg and thrown against the side of ship by the blast. Once he recovered from the shock, he remained at his post and continually supplied the Hartford’s guns. Other members of the crew begged Lawson to go below decks due to his wounds. However he refused, vigilant in his mission. Twelve men, including Lawson, were awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroism during the battle.  After leaving the Navy in 1865, Lawson would return to Philadelphia and raise a family. He died in 1919 and was buried in Mount Peace Cemetery. Over time, his exact resting place was lost within the cemetery grounds. On April 24, 2004, a new tombstone was dedicated and placed with 72 other Civil War veterans buried in Mount Peace.

Mandigo and Lawson represent the thousands of African Americans, free or slaved, who fought during the Civil War. These two are only the beginning of a long line of men and women who stepped up when their country needed them most.



Happy Birthday Rickover!

On January 27, we celebrated the birthday of one of the most recognized names in the US Submarine Force. The Father of the Nuclear Navy – Admiral Hyman George Rickover. The story of Rickover and his contributions to the Navy are well documented. He was known for being so strict that many who knew him did not like him. He would ignore Naval traditions, leaving many to downplay his place in Naval history till after his death. These facts about Rickover are widely known but little is known about the personal life of Hyman George Rickover. Here are some short reflections based upon his relationship with his son, Robert.

Rickover was born Chaim Godalia Rickover in Makow in 1900 in what is now Poland. At the time of his birth, Makow, which is 50 miles north of Warsaw, was part of the Russian Empire under the last Russian tsar- Nicholas II. During the first five years of his life, Jews were being targeted and eliminated in pogroms. Pogroms were anti-Jewish riots that began in the 19th century as the Russian empire acquired more land with a more diverse population. It is believed that between 1903 and 1906, some 2,000 Jews were killed trying to defend their families during these riots. Rickover’s parents made the decision to flee and Rickover, his mother and his sister arrived in New York in 1904. His father had previously come to the United States to make provisions for the family. The family would eventually settle in Chicago where Rickover grew up before entering the Naval academy in 1922. He went on to study electrical engineering at Columbia University and then did submarine training in New London. After serving aboard submarines and the battleship USS New Mexico, he was given his first command on the USS Finch in 1937. After WWII, Rickover was sent to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to study nuclear physics and engineering. It was after his time at Oak Ridge that Rickover took charge of the Nuclear Propulsion Program and the rest, as they say, is history. But behind the tough exterior was a man who had fled his native land as a young boy. A man who worked his entire life to make his parents proud. And he was a father who would write letters to his son Robert from on board more than 126 nuclear-powered ships. When Rickover was asked about why he demanded such stringent safety requirements, he said, “I have a son. I love my son. I want everything that I do to be so safe that I would be happy to have my son operating it. That’s my fundamental rule.”[1]

One of the earlies letters sent was from the Sea-Wolf:

Dear Robert.

We have just returned from the first sea trials of the Sea-Wolf. The ship got underweigh [sic] from the Electric Boat Company dock, Groton, Conn. At 070 Monday, 21 January.

At first, we operated in Long Island Sound, and then steamed out into the Atlantic beyond the 100-fathom curve to have water deep enough for submerged full-power operation at submergence greater than 200 feet.

The most spectacular test was the reversal of the engines from full power ahead to full power astern. I believe we did this in record time for a large vessel. Trials included operation at full power-surface and submerged.

The trials all went smoothly, and Captain Laning and his crew are, of course elated that their ship has finally gone to sea. We returned to our mooring at Groton at 1700, having steamed 312 miles, 212 of which were submerged.

I believe it to be no overstatement to say that the Sea Wolf is the most complex machine man has ever devised.

Your father, H.G. Rickover.

Most of the letters sent to Robert were the standard kind that were sent to the permanent list of addresses of people who regularly received letters from the boat. However, Rickover requested that Robert’s name be added to the lists of other commanders as they made their Arctic voyages. One letter that stood out was the one he received in August 1958 from Commander William R. Anderson who wrote from the Nautilus, “I’m sure you realize that this historic trip was made possible by the brilliant and untiring work of your father in giving nuclear propulsion to the NAUTILUS and the Navy.”  Again in 1960, similar praise is given, this time from Commander George P. Steele from the Seadragon in 1960 where he said, “As the whole world known, your father is the naval engineering genius of our time. We could not have seriously attempted this trip without the results of his work.”[2] These letters, both from Rickover and others provide a different look at the Father of the Nuclear Navy. While many of the letters may have been somewhat mundane with simple facts of the trial, they show Rickover not just as the stern creator of the nuclear submarine, but as a father who wanted to share this journey with his son. But these letters only tell part of the story.


Rickover and Robert at age 1

In his eulogy to his father, Robert Rickover recognized, as we all do, that his father’s career in the Navy was well known. Rickover had a reputation for doing whatever he deemed necessary to see his work accomplished, and accomplished in the manner in which he wanted. He demanded the highest standards from those around him and his interviews with young officers are famous. However, to Robert, Rickover was more than the legend. He was more than the man he heard on the phone at home either yelling at a contractor or being respectful to a congressional representative. Robert proceeded to tell the story of a Rickover that the world had never seen. Robert remembered his father traveling a lot but also that Rickover would do his best to be home for at least part of the weekend. He told how his father was thrifty but at the same time generous with his money. Rickover had donated all proceeds from his books and the honorariums for his speaking engagements to a Jewish orphanage in Chicago. Rickover never forgot where he had come from. Robert recounted story after story in his eulogy of how his father would do for others. Whether it was paying for a staff member’s expenses after their death, arguing with a contractor who damaged a secretary’s car, or bringing home airline soap bars in dozens after his wife had mentioned how she was able to put them to good use. Robert also discussed the personal responsibility Rickover felt over every nuclear submarine produced. Robert said that, “When he heard the news about the Thresher, he stayed up all night hoping against all odds that she would be found and that her crew would be ok. When she was located at the bottom of the sea, broken apart into six sections, he wrote personal letters of condolence to the relatives of the 129 officers, crewmen and civilians who had been on board. He didn’t talk about it very much, but my mother told me that he agonized over this loss for years, long after it had became clear that faulty welding during repairs in a Navy shipyard-something over which he had no control-was the cause of the disaster.”[3] Robert ended his remarks speaking how much his father loved his country, the one that took him in during his youth. During the latter part of Rickover’s life, he worried about how nuclear power would affect the world and the security threats posed by the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War. Robert believed that Rickover’s fear over security threats was one reason his fathers harsh demeaner could be explained, but also noted that, “He was a man who cared deeply for the Jewish values of family, charity and justice.”[4]

Today we know Rickover by his work persona, and that’s ok. If it was not for his rigid and strict direction of the nuclear propulsion program, it very well may not had succeeded. His standards are still the very ones that keep our nuclear Navy so safe today. But as we recall his birthday, let’s also remember the man who started from such humble beginnings. Let’s remember him the way Robert remembers him. Maybe with this understanding, his title as Father of the Nuclear Navy can take on new meaning. Not only did he create it, but he also protected it and watched it grow- always making sure, he was there to catch it if it fell.



[1] Naval History Magazine- October 2015

[2] Naval History Magazine-October 2015



The Real Rosie

During WWII, we saw women entering the workforce in droves. While our troops were overseas, women in America took up the jobs that had been left by the soldiers. Probably the most iconic image of this movement was that of Rosie the Riveter. The poster with the saying “We Can Do It” has since stood for women’s empowerment in the work place. But Rosie wasn’t simply a marketing strategy. She was a real-life woman, who saw her chance to serve her country when it needed her most. This past Saturday, the real-life Rosie, Naomi Parker Fraley passed away at the age of 96. We honor Naomi not only for her willingness to step up when her country needed her but for what she represented to so many throughout the years since.

Naomi Fern Parker was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 as the third of eight children. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, then 20-year old Naomi and her 18-year old sister, Ada went to work at the Naval Air Station in Alameda. Their job duties at the station included drilling, patching airplane wings and riveting. During her time at the Station, an Acme photographer came in and took several shots of the work going on. One shot was of Naomi, with her hair tied up for safety, hard at work. When it was printed in the newspaper, she clipped it and saved it as her small moment of fame. When the war ended, Naomi worked as a waitress at the Doll House in Palm Springs, California. She would get married and begin a family. She wouldn’t remember that photo again until a fateful day in 2011.

The identity of the real Rosie was for years thought to be of a welder from Michigan by the name of Geraldine Hoff Doyle. Doyle innocently thought that she was the muse for the poster created in 1943 when she saw a photo that was said to have inspired the artist. Because Doyle’s claim seemed legitimate, Fraley’s identity went unrecognized for more than 70 years.  The New York Times, in their article on Fraley’s death, states that the search for the real Rosie was the work of one scholar’s “six-year intellectual treasure hunt.” The scholar, James J. Kimble, told the Omaha World-Herald in 2016 that “It turns out that almost everything we think about Rosie the Riveter is wrong.”[1] When Doyle passed away in 2010, Kimble’s search for the truth about the identity of the real-life Rosie became an obsession, one that led him to the doorstep of Naomi Parker Fraley. But why was it so difficult to identify the woman in the original picture that influenced the poster? According to the Times article, the confusion came about because there is, in fact, more than one Rosie the Riveter in our cultural history. The first Rosie was Rosalind P. Walter, a Long Island woman who was a riveter on Corsair fighter planes. Walter was the inspiration for a wartime song by the name of Rosie the Riveter done by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb. In 1943, the second Rosie came from Norman Rockwell,

Norman Rockwell image of Rosie the Riveter.

whose Saturday Evening Post cover on May 29, 1943 “depicts a muscular woman in overalls (the name Rosie can be seen on her lunchbox), with a rivet gun on her lap and “Mein Kampf” crushed gleefully underfoot.”[2] Rockwell’s model is known to have been Mary Doyle Keefe, a Vermont woman who died in 2015. But neither of these Rosie’s became the iconic image that has been so endearing to American culture. It is the Rosie from a wartime industrial poster that has been thrust into the spotlight as a representation of life in WWII America.

Created for Westinghouse Electric Corporation plants in 1943, Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller depicted a young woman in a work shirt and a polka dot bandanna. While flexing her arm, she declares “We Can Do It.” The poster was never meant for public consumption. In fact, it was only meant to deter absenteeism and strikes among the employees during the war. For decades, that was essentially all the poster was. After the war, the soldiers returned home and many of the factory jobs were no longer needed. It wasn’t until the 1980’s, when a copy surfaced in the National Archives that Rosie the Riveter, the feminist icon was born. As the poster gained popularity, there was a growing interest in how Miller came up with the image and who his inspiration was. It is believed that Miller’s idea for Rosie came from a widely circulated image from 1942 of a woman, her hair in a polka-dot bandanna, at an industrial lathe.

A 1942 photograph of Naomi Parker Fraley that was the likely inspiration for the Rosie the Riveter poster. Credit Getty Images

Despite the wide circulation of the image, it was never accompanied by a caption, leaving the identity of the woman unknown. In 1984, Geraldine Doyle saw the original photography and believed it resembled her younger self. In 1994, when the Miller poster was featured on the cover of Smithsonian magazine, Doyle believed her photo was the inspiration. When Kimble began his investigation, he emphasized that Doyle’s claim was made in good faith. However, he had a problem with the fact that no one seemed to do any further research to verify her claim. Kimble’s research would uncover the following story:

“In 2011, Mrs. Fraley and her sister attended a reunion of female war workers at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historic Park in Richmond, California. There, prominently displayed, was a photo of the woman at the lathe – captioned as Geraldine Doyle. ‘I couldn’t believe it,’ Mrs. Fraley told the Oakland Tribune in 2016. ‘I knew it was actually me in the photo.’ She wrote to the National Park Service, which administers the site. In reply, she received a letter asking for her help in determining the true identity of the woman in the photograph.”[3] During Kimble’s research in order to help Fraley defend her identity, he stumbled upon a copy of the photo from a vintage dealer. The image carried the photographer’s original caption which included the caption, “Pretty Naomi Parker looks like she might catch her nose in the turret lathe she is operating.” But did the photograph influence Miller’s poster? While Miller left no information on the subject, the physical evidence is pretty good. Miller was working on creating the poster in the summer and fall of 1942, around the time the photo was widely circulating. Kimble’s research also showed that the photo was published in the Pittsburgh Press, Miller’s hometown paper. And then, of course, there was the telltale polka-dot headscarf.

While one could make the argument that even Fraley may not have been the inspiration behind the poster, it may not really matter. The image of Rosie not only symbolizes the modern feminist movement, it symbolizes the group of women who stepped out from their normal daily lives and into a role that many had never even thought about. The women of WWII didn’t just enter the workforce, they took up the crucial task of keeping factories operational while so many men went to the war-front. Doyle’s innocent mistake of misidentifying the original photo is an important statement about women during WWII and what Rosie means for them. Rosie is every woman who served, whether it was overseas or here on the home in many different capacities. Each woman who thought that image was of her was correct in a sense. Rosie is every woman. And the image of Naomi is one that could have been captured a thousand times over. The confusion over who the real Rosie is only furthers the legend. That is because to the women of WWII, they are all Rosie.  Thank you Naomi. 

Fraley is survived by her son Joseph Blankenship; four stepsons, Ernest, Daniel, John, and Michael Fraley; two stepdaughters, Patricia Hood and Ann Fraley; two sisters, Mrs. Loy and Althea Hill; three grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and many step-grandchildren.




Nautilus Change of Charge

On January 21, 1954, Nautilus was christened and launched into the Thames River. On January 17, 1955, the message “Underway On Nuclear Power” was sent and changed the Navy forever. The world’s first nuclear powered submarine, Nautilus will forever stand as a testament to innovation and the incredible advancements in technology made after WWII. It is well known that besides being the first nuclear powered submarine, Nautilus was also the first vessel to pass under the North Pole, making history with the message “Nautilus 90 North” Her achievements have forever been immortalized at the Submarine Force Museum. The museum preserve submarine heritage. It is the only place in the world where someone can gain a first-hand look at this historic landmark. Nautilus was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior on May 20, 1982.  On April 11 1986, eighty-six years to the day after the birth of the Submarine Force, Historic Ship Nautilus was opened to the public.  The role of maintaining and running the nautilus and the museum falls to the Officer in Charge. As we celebrate the 64th anniversary of the nautilus christening, we also say goodbye to one officer and welcome another.

According to the United States Navy regulations in Article 0807, the Change of charge ceremony has the outgoing CO call all hands to muster and reads the order of detachment and turn over the command to his or her relief who will then read the orders of relief and assume the command. The new commanding officer will salute the outgoing officer and say, “I relieve you sir.”  To add to the events of list of events in January for the historic ship, such change of charge occurred on January 16th, as her crew said goodbye to LCDR Reginald Preston and welcomed LCDR Bradly Boyd.


Lieutenant Commander Reginald N. Preston

LCDR Reginald Preston came to the Nautilus in April 2016, following in the footsteps of the directors before him who took on the task of maintaining the legacy of one of the most important submarines in the US Navy. Originally, from Lyman, Nebraska, LCDR Preston received his commission through the Naval reserve Officer Training Corps in 2003. Following the completion of nuclear power training, he reported to USS Helena in San Diego, California. Qualifying in Submarines on Helena, he served as the Chemical and Radiological Controls Assistant, Assistant Operation Officer, and interim Engineer Officer. In 2010, he reported to the USS Chicago where served as Engineer Officer.  While on the Chicago, he would help transform her back into a warship ‘certified for tasking’ in the Seventh Fleet area of responsibility after a homeport shift to Guam. He would go on to serve as both the Operations Officer at Submarine Group Two and the Chief of Staff for the enlisted Women in Submarines task Force. His personal awards include the Meritorious Service Medal, Navy Commendation Medal, and navy Achievement medal. During his time at Historic Ship Nautilus, LCDR Preston has only maintained the excellent recorded of OIC’s at the museum. His work at the museum only furthered the museums mission to be a highly regarded museum and a must stop for those traveling in the area. LCDR Preston also “led a team of experts in rewriting the technical requirements for nautilus which previously necessitated the ship to be maintained at a level nearly commensurate with operational submarines. Preston’s revised requirements not only allowed for cost-wise upkeep and maintenance at a level that preserves Nautilus for futures generations, but did so with the expectation the ship would continue to host more than 150,000 visitors annually.” He was also “instrumental in laying the groundwork to establish a future water taxi dock at the museum. As one of almost 20 Historic and cultural sites on the banks of the Thames River, the Submarine Force Museum is one of four anchor sites in the Thames River Heritage Park.”[1] His next tour will be as the Director of Submarine On-Board Training at naval Submarine Base New London. While the crew and staff will miss him, they wish him well in his next placement and look to the future with LCDR Bradley Boyd.


Lieutenant Commander Bradley Boyd

LCDR Boyd, a graduate of Ohio State University, received his commission through the naval Reserve Officer Training Corps in 2004. In 2011, he earned a Master of the Arts degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the Naval War College. In 2006 he reported to the USS Dallas, (one of the older submarines in the fleet) as the Main Propulsion Assistant, Damage Control Assistant, Quality Assurance Officer, Assistant Operations Officer, and interim Weapons Officer. In 2011, he reported to USS Bremerton in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii as the Navigation/Operations Officer. LCDR has been awarded the Navy Commendation Medal and the Navy Achievement Medal and various campaign and unit awards. During the speech at the Change of Charge ceremony, LCDR Boyd remarked how he went from one old boat to another, the Dallas to the Bremerton. He went on to say how it was only fitting to end up at the oldest Nuclear Powered submarine the Navy had. Both Preston and Boyd remarked at the difficult task running a museum ship can be. There is no training for such things in the Navy. Despite the learning curve and the difficulties that arise, both officers emphasize the importance of the museum as a place for submarine history to be preserved. It functions as a learning environment for those new to the force to see the greatness that they have entered into as well as a place for veterans to come and honor their past. It also serves as the bridge for those outside the service to understand the achievements and sacrifices these sailors have made. LCDR Preston was stated how he was honored to have served in such as position and Boyd is excited to step into the shoes and help usher the museum forward.


Image courtesy of Naval Submarine Base New London

LCDR Preston and LCDR Boyd during the Change of Charge Reception. Image courtesy of Naval Submarine Base New London


The Submarine & The Sea Mount

This week we remember the tragic submarine accident that occurred on January 8, 2005. Submarine accidents are extremely rare. The development of nuclear powered submarines led the Navy to develop rigid standards that are followed to the letter to prevent fatalities at sea. But to error is human and while we think we can have the ocean floor completely mapped out, as the USS San Francisco learned, that is not always the case.

USS San Francisco was launched on October 27, 1979 and commissioned on April 24, 1981. She would be stationed in Pearl Harbor until 2002 when she would move to her new homeport of Apra Harbor, Guam. During her time in Hawaii she would earn a Navy Unit Commendation and her crew was awarded the Navy Expeditionary Medal in 1988. In 1994, she was awarded a Meritorious Unit Commendation while completing a Western Pacific Deployment. When she moved to Guam, she would gain a new Commander, and a history of issues on the boat would quickly become that of a “Cinderella Story.”[1]. On January 8, 2005, Commander Kevin Mooney and the crew of SSN 711 were sent on a port visit to Australia. They were passing through the Caroline Islands when all of a sudden, at 525 deep down, they came to a stop. The 137 crew members were at a loss for what had just occurred. What they would later find out was that the submarine had struck an uncharted undersea mountain. It was in these initial moments that bravery and resourcefulness kicked in. Much of the crew had been thrown about the compartments due to the collision. In the end there were a total of 98 injuries – one of which would later lead to a fatality. For those who were still able, they quickly began to take stock of the damage. The biggest fear in those first moments was the fear of flooding. At 500 feet deep, the water pressure is 16 times what it is on the surface. While some sailors tended to the most serious injuries, others began an emergency operation in which they would pump air into the submarine’s ballast tanks in order to surface the boat. Senior Chief Danny Hager recalls, “I told them 525 feet O acceleration. And I’m waiting, you know, 5 seconds, 10 seconds, I don’t know how long it was, you know, 525 feet, 0 acceleration. And it was just absolutely silence in control because they’re waiting for me to report that we were accelerating upwards.”[2] Unbeknownst to the crew at the time, most of the front ballast tanks had been destroyed in the crash. After what felt like hours but was in actuality just minutes, they were finally able to begin raising the sub. But they had no idea what would happen when they surfaced. Twenty of the crew members were so severely injured that they were unable to operate their stations. The rest of the crew was battling injuries of their own as well as everyone coming to the terrifying realization of the situation at hand.

The most serious of the injured was Petty Officer Joey Ashley. He had been thrown the farthest during the crash, some 25 feet, and had a serious head injury. The crew would take turns staying with Ashley, holding his hand, and taking care of him. An attempt to airlift him off the ship was unsuccessful. Ashley would survive 24 hours before passing away. Despite the heart wrenching situation, the crew had to press on. Once they were able to stabilize the sub enough, they sailed for Guam at 10 miles an hour. It would take the crew 52 long and hard hours to make it back to Guam. They were left to contemplate how such an accident could happen. And in the same breath, realized that the damage could have been so much worse. As the San Francisco’s left port on January 7th, the crew was using a single set of charts. Most of the time, submarines run true to the motto – run silent, run deep. Sonar gives off a distinctive ping which would give away a boat’s location, a problem a submarine does not want to have. The ocean is vast, and while much of it is charted, back in 2005, the area of south Guam was not. When the San Francisco came upon the Caroline Islands mountain chain, the charting crew believed the path to be clear in front of them. At 11:30 A.M., a sonar reading confirmed what the team was reading on the charts. The ocean was 6,000 feet deep. At 11:38 A.M., the decision was made to go to 525 feet. Another sounding was suggested, but Lt. Cmdr. Bruce L. Carlton, the navigation officer, didn’t think it was necessary. The crew’s training took over and by 11:44 A.M. the submarine was surfaced, and the captain was scanning through the periscope. Mere minutes had changed these men forever. The first rescue ship would not arrive until 4:30 A.M. on January 9th. As the San Francisco pulled into port on January 10th, the other submarines in port had their flags at half-mast and the crews were lining the decks in tribute. The San Francisco accident occurred at a time before satellites made navigational fixes precise. The lack in technology at the time caused the chart that was being used on boat to be inaccurate. Upon investigating the situation, Mooney, Carlton and Lt. Cmdr. Rick Boneau were relieved of their duties and three enlisted men were reprimanded. Mooney has taken full blame for the accident. He says he should have been going slower, that he should have better looked over the charts. “Had I appreciated that the charts really are not that accurate, then I would have navigated my ship more prudently.”[3] He knows, just like any other Navy Commander, that they are the highest authority on that vessel, and if something happens, it is on them. They are held to a high standard because they must be, and as Mooney states, “we can’t afford to have another San Francisco.”[4]

Since the accident, satellite technology has gotten more precise and greater mapping of the ocean has been completed. The Navy has also briefed hundreds of officers on how to avoid such an event from ever happening again. It wasn’t until the submarine was placed in dry dock that many of the sailors aboard could really face the damage that had occurred, and how close they really came to losing it all. To the crew of the San Francisco, the death of Petty officer Ashley will forever taint how they look at the collision. However, the fact that the San Francisco was able to surface and make it back to Guam is a remarkable feat. This is due to safeguards put in place back in 1963 after the loss of the USS Thresher. This incident led to the creation of the SUBSAFE program which would ensure that no matter what, the hull could maintain structural integrity under pressure and that a submarine would be able to surface. In situations like that of the San Francisco, the main goal was to have the hull, ballast systems and reactor working properly. If these parts remained intact, the crew would have a chance. In 2013, an admiral was quoted as saying that, “were it not for SUBSAFE decades earlier, USS San Francisco might have been lost.”[5] The San Francisco would return to sea three years later with a new nose. The bow of the USS Honolulu, which was set to be retired, was taken to repair the crushed vessel. She would serve for another eight years before heading to Norfolk to be transformed into a permanently moored training vessel. This week, and always, we remember Petty Officer Ashley, and the brave men who stayed by his side, making every effort to try and save his life. We also remember their strength as they sailed the long road home after enduring so much. We take the lessons learned from this tragedy to make a more efficient and safer submarine force.

Joseph “Joey” Allen Ashley, Machinist Mate 2nd Class (U.S.N.)




[2] Martin, David. “Who’s to Blame for Sub Accident?”



[5] Mizokami, Kyle. “In 2005, a U.S. Navy Submarine Ran into a Mountain- The USS San Francisco didn’t sink, and that’s no accident.”

New Year’s Deck Logs

Happy New Year everyone! We hope you enjoyed your holidays and are looking forward to starting off the New Year with a bang. As we watched the ball drop from the comfort of our living rooms and enjoyed our holiday parties, our military maintained their ever-vigilant watch. Holiday or not, they are always steadfast in their duties, even when it comes to something as simple as correctly filling out the deck log. But on New Years’, the ever-rigid Navy lets its sailors have a little fun in the New Year’s Eve deck log.

Ensign A. Jackson writes 2014’s New Years Day deck log entry for USS Cape St. George (CG 71).

While most naval ships keep a running record called a “log”, only deck logs on a commissioned naval vessel are retained for future viewing. The purpose of a deck log is to maintain a chronological account of events, serve as reminders to the deck officers of various duties, and as potential evidence if ever needed in a legal proceeding. The log is kept by the Quartermaster of the watch and by the OOD- designated Officer of the Deck. Each month, the logs are sent to the Washington Navy Yard where the Naval History and Heritage Command retain the records. Each log is meticulously maintained and written by the letter of the rules laid down by the Navy. The deck log is not typically where a sailor gets to let their inner poet shine…that is, until New Year’s Eve. While not officially documented anywhere, it is known that on the first night of the new year during the mid watch only (midnight-0400), the OOD can record this entry in verse. Regulations are still abided, making sure that all required information is written in the log. Such required information includes the weather, position, and speed of the ship, changes in personnel and bearings of objects sighted. These regulations present a creative challenge to the author on the midwatch. Two examples of some OOD’s creative works are listed below.

At 8kts, steaming with Hanson in stride,
Richmond K. Turner serves country with pride.
Dangerous waters are these on the coast,
Rimmed with Viet Cong who are hardly our host.
Nothing must daunt on this New year’s night,
This year, as last, we must concentrate might,
Fighting aggression, and guarding our home,
Wary, lest Commies try farther to roam.
This ship is darkened as Hanson is too,
Hiding the fact we’re on 020 True.
SOPA and Officer in Tactical Command-
Captain of Turner is much in demand.
His is the judgment, on which we rely,
He calls the shots, and TE does comply.
COMSEVENTH Fleet has positioned us here
Near North Vietnam, where our purpose is clear.
USS Richmond K. Turner (DLG 20)
1 January 1967

And moored pier side a little closer to home…

I’d like to say ‘Happy New year to you’
And tell you our ship is moored starboard side to
Berths Mike and November, and here’s the location:
San Diego, California at North Island Air Station.
As an added precaution again any trouble,
Our mooring lines are, not singled but doubled.
Our broilers are cold at the start of this year
So we must receive various services from the pier.
To lost all ships present indeed would be hard
But Oklahoma City (CLG 5) and Bon Homme Richard (CVA 31)
Are two of the ships, one forward, on aft
The others are various yard and distract craft.
SOPA Admin said tonight, and I quote,
‘COMFIRSTFLT is senior officer present afloat.’
He’s presently embarked in Oklahoma City,
But being aboard tonight, what a pity.
The night has been long, but would you believe,
That this watch is over – I stand relieved
USS Constellation (CVA 64)
1 January 1968

While the exact origin of the New Year’s mid-watch deck log is unknown, it has become a tradition that has endured following the First World War. By the time of the Vietnam War, the practice was so ingrained into the naval tradition that a New Year’s Eve contest was promoted by the Navy Times. Today the tradition has dwindled to fewer than 20 written in 2017. However, for those who keep it going, it brings a little frivolity to a sometimes-mundane task. We will leave you will the deck log from the USS O’Kane as it crossed into 2018.

LTJG Naylor here, ready to assume OOD, duties as assigned,
The New year is near its on all O’Kane watch standers minds,
Of the year past: the port calls, the dining-ins, the long underways,
That one funny story, that training moment, and the weekend getaways.
Of Hawaiian Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer, (its really all the same)
Surely…but, oh surely this has been the year of the mighty Dick O’Kane!
The New year is nigh! And I have the watch, oh! So late.
To Be out at sea with 2018 close by, it must be fate!
But before I get too excited, I must log how our plant is lighted:
2A, 1B engine fired burning while the shafts are turning!
As split plant, of course, but wait there’s more!
2,3, and 5 Sea water Service Pumps are at full operation,
Number 1 Reefer, cold as can be, thank goodness for refrigeration!
1, 2, and 4 Acs are running, cold air and berthing shall be met,
No sailor asleep shall break even a sweat!
To Combat Systems, my log must continue,
For Alpha Uniform has mandated O’Kane is in a BMD window!
SPY is high power, 360, oh my!
If any hostile misses are spotted, we’ll shoot them out of the sky!
5 Inch is loaded to shoot Illum fireworks out to the stars,
There’s a steel beach celebration on the flight deck, everything is grand so far.
The Captain hums, “Auld Lang Sybe” whilst making a toast with CMC by his
“O’Kane, 2017 has been one hell of a ride!
We’ve had a few lows,
But the highest of highs,
We’ve sailed to the edges of the Mighty Pacific,
From Alaska to Guam, it’s all been terrific!
And into 2018, O’Kane’s story will go on,
Our saw will sharpen and we will strengthen our bond!
Through the end of Deployment until we sail into Drydock,
Oh, by the way that’s soon, so submit you 80% lock!
Ok back to the fun stuff, let’s hail the New Year with a bang!”
And with that the crew shouted, their voices shrill as they rang,
“10, 9, 8, 7, 6…
And with that, I give the watch team a smile,
2018 is here, The deck log is done, at least for awhile…
Lt. j.g. Steve Naylor*
1 January 2018

*Steve Naylor is from Waterbury Connecticut. The USS O’Kane (DDG-77) is an Arleigh Burke-class destroy named after Medal of Honor Recipient Rear Admiral Richard O’ Kane who commanded the submarine tender USS Tang.


[Photo Credit and deck logs credit to and]

Simon Lake and the Submarine Contest of 1893

Simon Lake is not remembered for the great submarine contest of 1893. Despite his future success in submarine development, Lake didn’t make it very far in the competition. Without the financial backing that Holland and Baker had, Simon Lake could not cover the required bond to be considered in the competition. What would have happened had Lake been able to complete the competition? History will never know. But Lakes’ contributions to submarine development are still considered a success.

Simon Lake was born in Pleasantville, New Jersey in 1866, the grandson of Simon Lake who helped founded Atlantic City and Ocean City, New Jersey. His love of submarines was inspired by Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Lake states “Jules Verne was in a sense the director-general  of my life. When I was not more than ten or eleven years old I read his Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and my young imagination was fired. This generation may have forgotten that Verne was a great scientist as well as the writer of the most romantic fiction of his day. I began to dream of making voyages under the waters, and of the vast stores of treasure and the superb adventures that awaited subaqueous pioneers. But with the impudence which is a part of the equipment of the totally inexperienced I found fault with some features of Jules Verne’s Nautilus and set about improving on them.”[1] So began Lake’s passion for submarines and it was during his childhood that he planned his Argonaut submarine. While planning and designing his submarine at night, Lake grew up, worked with his father, and eventually moved to Baltimore where he married Margret Vogel. Vogel was supportive of Lake’s dream of building a submarine. By this time, the true difficulties of submarine development were not lost on Simon Lake. A childhood fancy had developed into exhausting research on how to overcome the issues with submerging a vessel. When the submarine contest came around, Lake believed that a submarine would be more profitable for commercial use than for the Navy.

Simon Lake’s Submarine during production – notice the wheels!

In 1892, Simon Lake’s wife found the advertisement about the bids for a submarine from the U.S. Navy. At the young age of twenty-seven, he set off to Washington D.C. to submit his plans. He was the youngest of the inventors and was not considered a threat to the other inventors. However, Lake truly believed he would prevail. In his autobiography, he stated that “I was confident that my plans were superior to those of the Holland and Baker submarine. Every inventor presumably feels that way. I could name several points of superiority. It seemed to me, too, in my almost infantile ignorance of how things are done in politics that my proposition would appeal to the chiefs in the Navy Department. I had not submitted a bid for the construction of a boat, for the very good reason that I had neither money nor backers, but I had asked that, if my plans were accepted, I be given a position in the capacity of constructor and my boat be built in one of the Navy’s yards. It seemed to me that this suggestion was both practical and a promise of economy. What I did not know was that there was the smell of business in the building of submarines. Let me emphasize that this statement is not necessarily critical. The Mends of Mr. Baker and Mr. Holland, one or both, had aroused interest in submarines among members of Congress. An appropriation of $200,000 was made, and it was the very natural feeling of those who had put this appropriation through that Baker and Holland were entitled to the first chance at it.”[2] Lake’s design gave the submarine the ability to submerge on an even keel, a diving compartment, five propellers, a double hull and wheels so the submarine could be operated on the ocean floor. The competition, unfortunately for Lake, was hinged by political influence, bickering and bureaucratic delay. It wasn’t until years later that he found out the truth about why his design wasn’t accepted. Lake met with Admiral Baird, who had been a member on the board at the time. The two men had the following conversation:

Baird: “Lake, I’m glad to meet you. We should have been building your boats all the time. Four of the five members of the Board voted for your plans in 1893, you know.”
Lake: “Then why didn’t you build my boats?”
Baird: “Because the Navy’s advertisement had required that a bid be submitted for the construction of a submarine. You made no such bid. Four of us wanted to call you over to the Navy Yard and have you make up working drawings. Then we could build in one of the Navy’s yards under your supervision. But they beat us.’”[3]

If Lake had been able to make the bid entering the contest, the history of the US submarine program may have begun very differently. But the rejection of his design only fueled Lake’s passion.

Despite his loss in the Great Submarine Contest of 1893, Simon Lake continued his dream of building submarines. In 1894, he built his first submarine, the Argonaut, Jr. It was successfully tested in New Jersey and led to the creation of the Lake Submarine Company of New Jersey in 1895. It was this company that built the Argonaut, the first submarine to operate in open sea successfully in 1898. Powered by a 30-horsepower gasoline engine, the Argonaut sailed more than 2,000 miles from Cape May to Sandy Hook in New Jersey. Not only was the distance a great feat, but the submarine traveled during a nor’easter that sunk an estimated 100 ships. This feat even caught the attention of Jules Verne, who sent Lake a congratulatory telegram. Lake would attempt to sell several designs to the US Navy even after they began work with Holland, all of which were rejected. Lake would eventually take his designs to foreign countries who were happy to latch on to the advanced designs. Lake’s Protector, built in 1901, was sold to Russia in 1904. This design had diving planes mounted forward of the conning tower and a flat keel. Four diving places allowed her to maintain depth without changing ballast tank levels. Following this sale to Russia, Lake would spend the next several years designing and engineering submarines in Europe. Upon his return, the Lake Torpedo Boat company was founded in Bridgeport, Connecticut where the first Lake submarine was built for the US Navy.   The Seal, or G-1, was the first of 33 submarines that were built for the United States Navy at Bridgeport, Connecticut, and in California at California Shipbuilding & Dry-dock.

Jules Verne’s open letter to Simon Lake

When the Lake Torpedo Company closed in the 1920’s, Lake would go on to invent new techniques in cargo and salvage developments. He is credited with basic submarine design elements such as even-keel hydroplanes, diver’s compartments, twin-hull designs, and the periscope. During his lifetime he achieved over 200 patents for his designs. Some people today regard him as the Father of the Modern Submarine.

Interior of the Protector. Photo Courtesy of Library Of Congress

Submarine. The Autobiography of Simon Lake as told to Herbert Corey, 1938.  Pg 10

[2] Submarine, pg 37

[3] Submarine, pg 41

The Great Submarine Contest of 1893 pt 2

When the great submarine contest of 1893 began, John P. Holland was already a who’s who amongst Washington bureaucracy. The Irish born schoolteacher had already submitted two designs to the US Navy that had been rejected before construction could begin. A month before the competition, a lawyer provided Holland with the capital needed to form his own company, giving him a leg up once the competition began. Holland, as we all know, would go on to win the submarine contest and the Holland submarine would become the first official U.S. Navy submarine. However, who was John P. Holland and how did he become the favorite of those running the competition.

John P. Holland

Holland was born in Ireland in 1840. He would become a schoolteacher and taught in Ireland until his emigration to the United States in 1873. While teaching in Ireland, Holland studied the battle between the Monitor and Merrimac during the American civil war. Holland realized that the best way to take down such ironclads would be from underneath the vessels, and so Holland’s interests in submarines began. Once he moved to New Jersey, Holland began to design his version of a submarine. The project was funded by the Irish Fenian Brotherhood.  The Irish Fenian Brotherhood was a group in the United States that brought together Irish immigrants to fight for Ireland’s independence from Britain. It was there hope, that Holland could design a submarine that would help win that independence for Ireland. His first design was a one man-operated vessel and was 14 feet, 8 inches long and three feet wide. It could displace 2.5 tons. While Holland considered his first attempt a failure, the brotherhood found it promising enough to fund a second design. The new submarine, nicknamed the Fenian Ram was launched in 1881.

The Fenian Ram in New York sometime between 1916 and 1927

It was 31 feet long, nine feet wide and displaced 19 tons. During its first dive, the vessel reached 14 feet. On the second day, the submarine remained submerged for 2.5 hours. What made Holland’s designs unique was the use of water ballasts to submerge the vessel and horizontal rudders to dive with. During further tests, the submarine reached depths of 45 feet. The submarine was propelled by a 20-horseoiwer gasoline engine and used an electric motor that was used to recharge the vessels battery. By 1883, the Fenians, upset over escalating costs stole the design forcing Holland to break ties with the Brotherhood. Once the brotherhood had possession of the vessel, they realized they knew nothing about its operation. Of course, Holland refused to help. The Fenian Ram would never be used in battle and would sit in New Haven Connecticut until its engine was removed to a brass foundry. Eventually the craft ended up back in Holland’s adopted hometown of Patterson, NJ were it can still be visited today.

Not wanting to be defeated, Holland brought his design to the US Navy. At this time, the Navy was still unsure about the place of submarines within its force. As the US Navy debated the topic, Holland would design a submarine for France called the Zalinski Boat in 1883. The key to Holland’s design was the use of electrical battery power rather than a petrol motor, which would not use up valuable air supply. When the 1893 contest came around, Washington believed that Holland was there best bet, despite previously being unsure about his designs. It was his previous discussions with the US Navy that led many to believe that he would be the clear-cut winner of the contest. George C. Baker’s protest over unfairness delayed the contest decision. Baker’s submission was testable, while Holland’s design was only on paper. This was in part because his model had been taken the Fenian Brotherhood. However, Baker’s plan backfired with a poor performance, leaving the judges to give the recommendation in favor of Holland. Baker protested the decision yet again, forcing the secretary of the Navy to delay his decision. One was finally made in 1895, after Baker’s death. During this period of indecision, Holland’s design was still being marketed to foreign governments. Finally, the Navy awarded the contract and construction could begin. To meet with naval guidelines, the boat was 84 feet long and 12 feet in diameter with a displacement of 168 tons. The requirements for surface speeds (15 knots) forced Holland to compromise his design. As requirements changed throughout construction, such as vertical thrusters and triple-screw configuration, it became clear that the design would never satisfy Navy requirements. During its launch in 1897, the submarine, named Plunger, the unshielded broiler made the fire room uninhabitable while on the surface.

Design sketch for the experimental submarine Plunger

While work on the Plunger seemed to stall, Holland began a private venture at his Torpedo Boat Company (what became Electric Boat). This vessel reverted to his design for the Fenian Ram. This new design was 52 feet long and had a maximum diameter of just over 10 feet. Submerged she displaced 75 tons. Holland returned to internal combustion to power the boat with a 45-horsepower Otto gasoline engine. In February of 1898, Holland took his new vessel to sea. After some trial and error, the submarine had successful test runs off the coast of Staten Island, NY on March 17, 1898. It was only fitting that it was St. Patrick’s Day. By 1900, the US Navy was onboard with Holland’s new design and had scrapped the Plunger project. USS Holland was officially commissions on October 12, 1900.

USS Holland in dry dock

For the end of Holland’s career, his merger with the Electric Boat Company left him with a number of disputes and the inability to successfully run his own company. He would die in Newark New Jersey in 1914, a month before the first submarine victory of WWI changed naval battles forever. Stay tuned for the last installment of the Great Submarine Contest of 1893.

The Great Submarine Contest-pt 1

In 1900, the U.S. Navy officially purchased its first submarine. However, seven years before that, the first full effort to launch a submarine program began with the Great Submarine Contest of 1893. Submarines had been utilized long before this, including during the Civil War. However, these submarines were rarely successful at their missions and posed real threats to their crews. On March 3, 1893, Congress approximated $200,000 for the building of an experimental model submarine. The word was put out to inventors that whoever came up with the best design would be awarded the contract. The Great Submarine Contest of 1893 began the drive for the U.S. Navy to fully dive into beginning their submarine fleet. We will discuss who submitted designs and how these men forever changed the face of the U.S. Navy.

The rules on the competition “required that each design meet certain vital prerequisites including, guaranteed safety, ability to submerge, reliability underwater, reasonable speed, endurance, offensive power, and the ability to view the target.”[1] One of the most interesting stipulations in the contest was that each proposal had to be submitted with a check equal to five percent of the bid. This check would he held by the committee if the design failed to meet the specifications. In June of 1893, the official opening of the viewing of these designs was held in Washington, D.C. Amongst the crowd were the three top contenders- Simon Lake, George Baker and John P. Holland. The first of those to make his name known was George Baker, a Civil War veteran. After the war, George moved to Polk City, Iowa where he established a hardware business. It was in his free time that he pursued the idea of designing a submarine. By 1893, Baker’s business was booming with the production of barbed wire, and he moved to Illinois. It was because of the successes of his business that Baker was able to follow through on his love of submarines when the competition opened.


Figure 1 Baker’s Submarine in Dry Dock. Image Courtesy of Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

George Baker’s design was 46 feet long and weighed around 75 tons. It was able to fit six crew members on board. The hull was made of wood, was around seven inches thick and was powered by a small steam engine while on the surface.  A collapsible smokestack would go up when the broiler was operated. When submerged, a 220 volt, 50-horse-powered electric motor with driving dual side propellers powered the boat. Baker went further than just designing a submarine. He built a prototype and ran trials in the Rouge River in Michigan. Initially, the prototype leaked, and the propulsion machinery did not operate correctly. After several experiments, he felt confident that the problems could be fixed and that his design was perfect for the submarine competition. The press would go on to inaccurately describe his work in the papers. Journalists would draw up fanciful designs of a boat topped with a smokestack and smoke billowing across the waves. Baker addressed this when he told a Detroit Free Press reporter, “Even if such a plan were possible, just see what a sure warning it would give an enemy of the approach of the boat. Scores of these things have appeared in print, and they will certainly do me more injury than good.”[2]

Figure 2 Baker’s Submarine in the Detroit River. Image Courtesy of Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Baker felt that submarines could serve multiple purposes. He knew that they could be used to plant torpedoes beneath another vessel, but he also believed that they could be used to locate shipwrecks and conduct research at the bottoms of lakes and seas. To go along with this idea of submarine usage, he designed an electric light that could bean 16 feet while underwater. The light would be operated from an iron projection on the conning tower. The idea that the submarine could be used for non-military operations was revolutionary at the time. Baker began sea trials of his boat in 1892, ahead of the submarine competition. Some believe that Baker was the instigator of the competition, convincing Washington that a submarine was needed in the Navy.

Baker’s design

Commodore William Folger sent an expert to Detroit in June of 1892 to try Baker’s boat. However, at the time of this visit, Baker’s boat was being repaired and could not be inspected. This did not stop the expert, W. Scott Simms, from raving about the submarine. Folger believed that a combination of Baker’s boat and Simm’s torpedo boat would make a perfect destroyer for the Navy. When the competition opened in 1893, Baker had just refined his design and felt like he had a leg up on the competition, including John P. Holland, a better-known inventor at the time. Baker’s lawyer and a U.S. Senator convinced the Secretary of the Navy that the Navy perform its own sea trials on the Baker Boat before a final decision was made in the competition. Baker’s push for this sea trial was due in part because by July 1893, it was clear that the board was heading towards choosing Holland’s boat as the winner. Using his political influence, Baker was able to delay the vote and receive the trial. In fairness to Holland, the committee extended an invitation to Holland to present a boat of his own.

Baker’s Design

However, Holland refused because Naval officers had assured him that his design would be approved. Holland even offered Baker $200,000 worth of his company’s stocks, if the latter would assign his patents “free of all encumbrances to the Holland interests.”[3] Not surprisingly, Baker turned this offer down. By September, the trials on Baker’s boat were completed and they did not live up to Baker’s descriptions of the submarine’s capabilities. Before a design could be made in the competition, Baker died in 1894 at just 49 years old. George Baker’s vision for submarines being used for scientific research and technical purposes is one he unfortunately did not live to see come to fruition. We can thank his forward way of thinking for such works as the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Technological University and the NR-1 research submarine. Check back next week for part two of the Great Submarine Contest.

[1] Wendy Gully Klaxon March 1992