Navy Undersea Pioneers
Inventors and innovators imagined and designed new technologies, finding ways to make the “impossible” a reality. These pioneers were inventive engineers, visionaries, problem-solvers whose work advanced Navy technology, expanded Navy capabilities, and improved Navy and national safety.
Groundbreakers and trailblazers led initiatives, broke barriers, and set records. They embodied the courage and enterprising spirit needed to do something for the first time. Their achievements inspired many who hoped to follow in their footsteps and paved the way for others to build on their accomplishments.
Connecticut native David Bushnell designed and built the first submarine used in combat, Turtle (left). Named for its turtle-like shape, the small submersible was crewed by a single operator who used foot pedals to control buoyancy and hand propellers to move horizontally and vertically. Bushnell created Turtle as a delivery vehicle for underwater mines he had invented in the early 1770s.
Early on the morning of September 7, 1776, Sergeant Ezra Lee piloted Bushnell’s Turtle in a historic attack on the British flagship HMS Eagle in the New York harbor. Lee’s attempts to screw a mine into Eagle’s hull failed, and he was forced by dwindling air, exhaustion, and impending daylight to abort the mission. He jettisoned the heavy mine during his retreat to better flee a British guard boat that had finally noticed the strange watercraft. The mine’s detonation 20 minutes later did not sink the Eagle, but it scared the British enough to move their fleet downstream, weakening the New York Harbor blockade.
British engineer Robert Whitehead created the world’s first successful self-propelled torpedo. In the mid-1860s, an Austrian captain named Giovanni Luppis approached Whitehead to design an idea he had for self-propelled mines launched from small coastal boats. By 1866 or 1867, Whitehead had produced an experimental prototype torpedo. Whitehead refined his design over time, implementing three clever engineering ideas that contributed heavily to the success of his torpedoes: compressed air propulsion, a self-regulating depth-keeping mechanism, and a gyroscope for stabilization.
In 1868, Austria became the first country to purchase Whitehead torpedoes. Most countries with significant naval powers followed suit, including England, France, German, Italy, Russia, and China. The United States, striving to develop an American-designed torpedo, would not adopt the Whitehead torpedo until 1891, almost two decades later. The U.S. Navy operated five versions of Whitehead torpedoes between 1895 and 1922.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. John Howell developed the first successful American-built torpedo, the Howell torpedo. Howell began work on his design in 1870, shortly after Robert Whitehead debuted his torpedo, and established a working model by 1881. Howell developed key improvements to existing torpedo technology and patented two of them in 1871: a heavy flywheel that provided wakeless propulsion via stored energy, and the installation of this flywheel to act as a gyroscope and directionally stabilize the torpedo.
Howell’s flywheel was an ingenious method of propulsion. A steam turbine mounted to the torpedo tube spun the 132-pound flywheel to 10,000 rpm, supplying enough stored energy to move the torpedo about 400 yards through the water. As the flywheel slowed, propeller pitch compensated to maintain a constant speed.
The U.S. Navy ordered 50 Howell torpedoes in 1889 from the Hotchkiss Ordnance Company, which had purchased the manufacturing rights from John Howell. Delivered in 1893, those 50 Howell torpedoes were carried by torpedo boats for a short time until Whitehead torpedoes supplanted them in the late 1890s.
Irish immigrant John Philip Holland designed and constructed the U.S. Navy’s first submarine, USS Holland (SS 1). John Holland began sketching submarine designs as early as 1869 and built five experimental submarines between 1878 and 1895 before arriving at Holland’s more successful design. Holland included all the major components of a modern submarine: dual propulsion systems, a fixed center of gravity, separate main and auxiliary ballast systems, a hydrodynamic shape, and a modern weapons system.
After two years of Navy trials and modifications to Holland, the Navy purchased the submarine on April 11, 1900, for $165,000 (about $4.7 million today). It also ordered seven more Holland-type boats, sufficiently impressed by Holland’s potential.
On October 12, 1900, the U.S. Navy commissioned USS Holland as its first submarine, establishing the U.S. Submarine Force. USS Holland spent most of her ten years in service at the U.S. Naval Academy as a training submarine. The seven new Holland-type submarines, built with Navy-specified improvements, became the Navy’s A-class of submarines.
Inventor Simon Lake built 33 submarines for the U.S. Navy between 1911 and 1930. Although often his contributions are often overshadowed by John Holland’s accomplishments, Simon Lake developed several key technologies important to the successful operation of a submarine, including even-keel hydroplanes, ballast tanks, and periscopes.
Lake dreamed of building submarines as a child in the 1870s after reading Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. In 1894, Lake unveiled his first submarine, Argonaut Junior, a prototype which demonstrated his understanding of diving principles despite its crude construction. Argonaut Junior employed an even keel diving system and included two characteristic features of Lake submarines: hull-mounted wheels and a diving lock-out chamber for undersea exploration.
Lake competed with contemporary submarine inventor John Holland in several naval competitions for submarine designs. After Holland repeatedly emerged the victor, financial pressures pushed Lake to sell his most sophisticated submarine, Protector, to the Russian Navy in 1904. He then spent the next seven years in Europe designing submarines for the Austrian, German, and Russian navies. After returning to the United States in 1912, Lake went on to build submarines for the U.S. Navy during and following World War I.
Naturalist William Beebe (left) and engineer Otis Barton (right) are best remembered for their ground-breaking dives in a bathysphere Barton invented. In the 1920s, as Beebe’s interests expanded into marine biology, Beebe made plans to build a cylindrical diving bell that would let him study marine creatures in their natural habitat. Barton, a zoologist who dreamed of becoming an undersea explorer, proposed and designed a spherical vessel that could better withstand deep-sea pressure. Beebe agreed and christened it a bathysphere.
Between 1930 and 1934, Beebe and Barton made 35 dives inside the bathysphere, which was lowered on a cable from the surface. Using two of the bathysphere’s three viewports, the two men were able to observe deep-sea animals in their underwater environment for the first time. On August 19, 1934, Beebe and Barton set a deep submergence record when they descended to 3,028 feet in their bathysphere. The record stood for 15 years until Barton broke it in 1949 in another bathysphere he invented called the Benthoscope.
Charles “Swede” Momsen pioneered submarine rescue in the U.S. Navy. A trained submarine officer, he commanded three submarines between 1923 and 1927. During those years, the Navy lost the crews of submarines, USS S-51 in 1925 and USS S-4 in 1927, who survived their sinkings but suffocated because the Navy had no way to rescue them. Momsen had witnessed the S-51 tragedy firsthand when he was sent to search for the lost sub while in command of USS S-1.
These losses moved Momsen to invent the two life-saving devices that would become his legacy. In 1928, he created the submarine escape lung, a wearing breathing device that would come to be known as a Momsen lung. Momsen personally tested the Momsen lung, making repeated practice escapes from up to 200 feet underwater. In 1944, eight submariners survived the sinking of USS Tang (SS 306) by wearing Momsen lungs.
In the early 1930s, Momsen designed the submarine rescue chamber, a piece of rescue equipment that worked so effectively it remains part of the Navy’s rescue arsenal today. Momsen conceived the idea and carried out the initial design of the chamber before the Navy assigned the final design work to Cmdr. Allan McCann. In less than 850 feet of water, a submarine rescue chamber can be lowered from a surface ship to a downed submarine to rescue survivors. The Navy has used a chamber once for an actual rescue, to save 33 submariners from USS Squalus in 1939.
Saturation Diving and Diving Medicine
Navy scientist Dr. George Bond formulated the concept of saturation diving in the 1950s as he sought to improve the length and efficiency of deep-sea dives. Bond discovered that after 24 hours, body tissues would saturate with atmospheric gases so that no additional decompression time would be needed. Saturation diving thus allowed divers to live and work underwater for days or weeks at time before making a single, comparatively short decompression period.
In the 1960s, Dr. Bond staged a trio of saturation diving experiments that let divers work and live in undersea habitats called Sealabs. The groundbreaking projects tested and successfully demonstrated the viability, safety, and effectiveness of using saturation diving to work underwater.
Deep Submergence and Undersea Technology
Scientist and ocean engineer John Craven was heavily involved in several important Navy deep submergence and undersea technology efforts in the 1950s and 1960s. The son of a naval officer, he served in the Navy during World War II before transitioning to a civilian career in 1951. In 1959, Admiral William Raborn, head of Special Projects Office, hand-selected Craven to be the project’s Chief Scientist, which required him to have immense technical understanding of every technological system in the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missiles the project was developing.
After the fast attack submarine USS Thresher (SSN 593) sank in April 1963, Craven became the head of a new program called the Deep Submergence Systems Project (DSSP) that was established to develop the deep-ocean capabilities the Navy discovered it lacked. Under Craven, the DSSP created deep submergence rescue vehicles for submarine rescue, deep-diving submersibles for research and recovery operations, and saturation diving systems for prolonged undersea work.
In 1966, Craven helped locate a missing hydrogen bomb lost in the Mediterranean Sea after two American aircraft collided in mid-air. He put his his undersea locating skills to further use in May 1968, when he deduced a means of finding the wreckage of USS Scorpion (SSN 589) using underwater sound surveillance system recordings.
Underwater Sound Surveillance
Captain Joseph Kelly led and grew the Navy’s undersea listening system, the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS), for 21 years. The SOSUS program grew out of a World War II system for locating downed fliers called Sound Fixing and Ranging (SOFAR) that could detect ships with its hydrophones. The Navy recognized that sound could be used as an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) tool to track enemy submariners and adapted the idea of SOFAR into the SOSUS program.
In late 1951, the Chief of the Bureau of Ships chose Lt. Kelly as the Project Officer for Project Jezebel, an early experimental project that would grow into the SOSUS program. Under Kelly’s leadership, the SOSUS program became highly successful. Kelly received two Navy Commendation Medals and three Legions of Merit.
The SOSUS program was classified for many years of its history, and aspects of the program, now called the Integrated Underwater Surveillance System (IUSS), continue to be classified today.
Submarine Propulsion and Design
Admiral Hyman Rickover drove and shaped of the development of nuclear propulsion for the U.S. Navy. An electrical engineer and graduate of the Naval Academy, Rickover recognized the potential of nuclear power early and began developing a submarine thermal reactor while studying atomic physics in 1947.
In 1949, he was assigned to the Atomic Energy Commission’s Division of Reactor Development and became the Director of Naval Reactors for the Navy’s Bureau of Ships. Through this double appointment, he led a research team that developed a nuclear reactor small enough to fit within a submarine hull. On 30 September 1954, USS Nautilus (SSN 571) was commissioned as the world’s first nuclear-powered vessel. Following his success with Nautilus, Rickover expanded nuclear propulsion to surface vessels and continued his influence over the nuclear Navy for decades, overseeing and steering ship design, technology, and personnel. He retired in 1982, sixty-three years after beginning his Navy career as a young student at the Naval Academy.
William “Red” Raborn established and led the Navy’s strategic deterrence program in the 1950s and 1960s as the director of the Special Projects Office. In 1955, Chief of Naval Operations Arleigh Burke hand-picked Raborn to create a sea-based deterrent. Under his leadership, the Special Projects Office abandoned the idea of the liquid-fueled Jupiter missile and designed a smaller solid-fueled missile, Polaris, which was better-suited for submarines.
Raborn proved an outstanding leader skilled at navigating government bureaucracy, and he crafted a religious-like fervor around Polaris’s development. His enthusiasm, together with a national sense of urgency, drove the project. The Special Projects Office delivered a working Polaris A-1 missile in 1960, three years ahead of schedule.
Following his tenure at the Special Projects Office, Vice Adm. Raborn served as Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Development, and as a civilian, the Director of Central Intelligence.
GMC Jacob Anderson (dates unknown)
Chief Gunner’s Mate Jacob Anderson ran and taught at the first Navy diving school in 1882. Before this, Navy divers received little to no training and were assigned as ships divers as a collateral duty. In 1871, the Navy began designing and testing experimental torpedoes at Naval Torpedo Station Newport in Rhode Island, which created a need for divers to recover them. The Navy established a diving school at Newport under Chief Anderson to train divers to dive to a depth of 60 feet to support torpedo recovery. Chief Anderson taught the two-week course, instructing divers on diving gear and diving procedures.
Lt. Harry Caldwell commanded the Navy’s first commissioned submarine, USS Holland (SS 1). He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1891 and served as the flag secretary to Admiral George Dewey before and during the Spanish-American War. In March 1900, after Admiral Dewey declined an invitation to tour USS Holland while the Navy considered purchasing her, Caldwell took his place. Impressed, he requested to serve aboard Holland and was selected as her commanding officer. Caldwell oversaw her first trial runs ahead of her October commissioning and trained future crews in submarine operation at the U.S. Naval Academy where Holland was stationed. He retired from the Navy in 1909 as a captain.
GMC George Stillson (dates unknown)
Chief Gunner’s Mate George Stillson helped modernize Navy diving in the early nineteenth century. Until 1912, Navy divers knew little about diving physiology and rarely descended deeper than 60 feet. That year Chief Stillson initiated a program to test John Scott Haldene’s new decompression theory and procedures. Over three years, Stillson and his divers expanded the Navy’s diving capabilities from 60 feet to an astounding 300 feet. When USS F-4 sank in March 1925, the first Navy submarine lost at sea, Stillson’s team salvaged the submarine from 306 feet.
Chief Stillson documented the findings of his experiments in the second edition of the Navy Diving Manual published in 1916. The manual was composed of almost entirely new content and provided decompression tables and procedures for the first time. Stillson is also sometimes credited with standardizing the design of the MK V helmet in the 1916 Diving Manual.
Rear Adm. Draper Kauffman spearheaded combat demolition in the U.S. Navy. Forced to resign his naval commission due to poor eyesight, Kauffman joined the American Volunteer Ambulance Corps in April 1940 and then the British Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve that September. In the latter position he served as a bomb and mine disposal officer with the Royal Navy which gave him valuable experience disarming explosive ordnance. In November 1941, Kauffman accepted an appointment as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve and began work at the Bureau of Ordnance.
In 1942, the Navy charged Kauffman with founding a U.S. Naval Bomb Disposal School at the Washington Navy Yard. Kauffman not only established the Navy’s school, he assisted the Army in creating a parallel school in Aberdeen, Maryland. The following year Kauffman established another significant first: the Naval Combat Demolition Unit (NCDU) school which trained sailors in demolitions to clear invasion sites. As Commanding Officer, Kauffman developed the school’s curriculum, which included a week of intensive training that spawned the infamous phrase “Hell Week.”
During the last two years of World War II, Kauffman worked with the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs), groups of combat swimmers that surveilled future amphibious landing sites and cleared them of obstacles. He served as the Commanding Officer of Underwater Demolition Team #5 and as the Senior Staff Officer and Underwater Demolition Training Officer for Amphibious Forces, Pacific Fleet. Rear Adm. Kauffman is often remembered as “America’s first frogman” for the nickname given to the combat swimmers of the UDTs and NCDUs.
Vice Adm. Dennis Wilkinson commanded the world’s first nuclear-powered ship, the fast attack submarine USS Nautilus (SSN 571). Wilkinson joined the Navy Reserve as an ensign in 1940, served an officer aboard submarines during World War II, and transferred to the regular Navy in 1946. In 1948, Admiral Hyman Rickover offered him the opportunity to study atomic physics and nuclear reactors at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. Following those two years, Wilkinson commanded three diesel submarines: USS Volador (SS 490), USS Wahoo (SS 565), and USS Sea Robin (SS 407), which paved the way for his historic assignment to PCU Nautilus in mid-1953. Wilkinson held command of Nautilus through June 1957.
In September 1961, Wilkinson secured a second historic post as the commanding officer of the world’s first nuclear-powered surface ship, the guided missile cruiser USS Long Beach (CGN 9). His other notable assignments included Director of Submarine Warfare Division (1963-1966), Commander of the Atlantic Fleet Submarine Force (1970-1972), and Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Submarine Warfare (1972-1974).
Submarine officer and oceanographer Don Walsh is best known for descending to the deepest point in the world’s oceans, the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, in the bathyscaphe Trieste. At 17, he enlisted in the Naval Reserve and spent time as air crewman before attended the U.S. Naval Academy. After his vision disqualified him from becoming a pilot, he switched to amphibious forces and then submarines. In 1958, the latter led him, while on assignment in San Diego, to the Navy’s fledgling Trieste program at the Naval Electronics Laboratory. He would spend three years as the officer in charge of Trieste, becoming the first American submersible pilot and earning the Navy designation U.S. Navy Submersible Pilot #1.
On January 23, 1960, Walsh and Jacques Piccard, the son of Trieste’s inventor, piloted the bathyscaphe Trieste seven miles to the bottom of the Challenger Deep. Trieste’s landing on the ocean floor stirred up so much silt that Walsh and Piccard could see little to nothing out of the sphere’s observation window. Walsh described it as “like looking into a bowl of milk.” Their visibility remained impaired the entire 20 minutes spent at depth.
Submarine skipper Edward “Ned” Beach commanded the radar picket submarine USS Triton (SSRN 586) in its submerged circumnavigation around the Earth in 1960. Captain Beach graduated second in his class from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1939. During World War II he served on three submarines, including holding command of USS Piper (SS 409), completing 12 war patrols and earning 10 awards including the Navy Cross. After the war he commanded three more subs before assuming command of USS Triton in 1959.
To demonstrate the capability of nuclear-powered submarines and showcase America’s technological capabilities ahead of a Cold War-driven summit, Triton was chosen to carry out a fully-submerged voyage around the globe as her shakedown cruise. Triton was the largest submarine in the world at the time, and the only American submarine powered by two nuclear reactors. Beach and his crew completed the circumnavigation in 60 days, earning Triton a Presidential Unit Citation and Beach a Legion of Merit.
Master Chief Carl Brashear was the Navy’s first African American Master Diver and first amputee diver. Brashear enlisted in the Navy in 1948 and initially served as a steward — one of the only ratings open to African Americans at the time. After observing a salvage operation in 1950, he decided to become a diver and petitioned to attend dive school for four years before being admitted. Brashear completed salvage dive school in 1954, despite experiencing harassment, hazing, and other threats, and went on to qualify as a first-class diver in 1964.
In 1966, while assisting with the hydrogen bomb recovery, Brashear was seriously injured by a falling steel pipe that struck him in the leg as he pushed another sailor out of harm’s way. He elected to amputate his leg after learning the injury could take up to four years to heal. Following the amputation, Brashear spent a year under evaluation before he was returned to full duty. In 1970, he qualified as the first African American Master Diver in the Navy. Master Diver Brashear retired from the Navy in 1979 with 31 years of service.
Personnelman Seaman Kati Garner was the first woman to graduate U.S. Navy SCUBA diving school. When the Navy sought women for dive training in 1973, Kati jumped at the chance, bored with her WAVES typewriting classes. She found a trainer and mentor in SCM(DV) Robert Diecks, Swim Coordinator at the Recruit Training Center. Chief Diecks created a conditioning program to prepare Kati for the rigors of dive school. For three months, Kati met Chief Diecks every morning at 6:00 AM to run, swim laps, and do pushups, sit-ups, flutter kicks, and calisthenics.
By the time SCUBA school began on November 5, Kati was ready. She slogged through four weeks of physical tests — all the exercises she practiced during her conditioning and more, including mud runs and games of leapfrog.
Kati graduated on November 30, 1973, qualifying as the Navy’s first female SCUBA diver. She went on to work at the Navy’s Water Survival Department and the Marine Mammal Program.
Hull Technician Donna Tobias made history in 1975 when she graduated from Second Class Diving School and became the Navy’s first female “hard hat” diver. Tobias joined the Navy in 1974 to be a diver. After months of effort, she secured a gender waiver that allowed her to attend dive school. Half the students quit the 10-week course, but Tobias knew she was going to finish the class. “I told myself they’d have to make me leave. I wouldn’t quit. If you ever uttered the words, ‘I quit,’ you could never take them back, and there were plenty of eyes waiting to see me fail. I didn’t want them asking less of women, for anything.” She graduated from Second Class Dive School on March 14, 1975, making her the Navy’s first woman deep sea diver.
Despite this accomplishment, Tobias had limited assignment options — sea duty billets wouldn’t open to women until three years later, in 1978. She took a position as an instructor at the Submarine Escape Training Tank at Submarine Naval Base New London, where she taught submariners escape techniques. During these years she also took part in experimental physiological research and helped evaluate the Navy’s new MK 12 diving system.
From left to right: Capt. Pete Tzomes, Rear Adm. Tony Watson, Cmdr. Will Bundy, Vice Adm. Mel Williams, Capt. Joe Peterson, Adm. Cecil Haney, and Vice Adm. Bruce Grooms.
During the first 100 years of the Submarine Force (1900–2000), seven African-American officers commanded Navy submarines. The seven men have come to be known as the “Centennial Seven” and have been mentoring junior officers of all races considering the Nuclear Propulsion Program and submarine service.
Capt. C.A. Pete Tzomes became the first African-American submarine commanding officer when he assumed command of the fast attack submarine USS Houston (SSN 713) in May 1983. Capt. Tzomes was only the second African American accepted into the Navy’s prestigious Nuclear Propulsion Program, and the first for submarines. Four years later, Rear Adm. Tony Watson took command of USS Jacksonville (SSN 699). Watson also holds the distinction of being the first African-American submarine officer promoted to rear admiral. Cmdr. Will Bundy was the first enlisted African American to become a submarine commanding officer; he assumed command of USS Barbel (SS 580) in 1988.
In 1994, two more African-American officers earned submarine commander positions. Vice Adm. Mel Williams Jr. commanded USS Nebraska (SSBN 739) (Gold) from 1994 to 1997. Capt. Joe Peterson, another enlisted submariner later commissioned as an officer, held command of USS Dolphin (AGSS 555) from 1994 to 1997 as well. Adm. Cecil Haney, a classmate of Vice Adm. Mel Williams at the Naval Academy, assumed command of USS Honolulu (SSN 718) in June 1996. Adm. Haney was also the first African-American Director of Submarine Warfare at the Pentagon. The seventh member of the Centennial Seven, Vice Adm. Bruce Grooms, joined the elite group when he took command of USS Asheville (SSN 758).
Clockwise from top left: Lt. Britta Christianson, Lt. j.g. Jennifer Noonan (left) and Lt. j.g Amber Cowan, Lt. j.g. Marquette Leveque, and Chief Dominique Saavedra.
In 2010, the Navy opened submarine service to women for the first time with the authorization of female officers aboard guided missile submarines. The first female submarine officers began serving in 2011. Four years later, the first enlisted women were selected for submarines and began service in 2016.
As of late 2016, five women not only earned positions as some of the first female submariners, they became the first women to qualify in submarines. Submariners must demonstrate extensive knowledge of all the submarine’s systems to qualify and become full, trusted members of the crew.
Lt. Britta Christianson became the first woman to qualify as a supply officer, earning her Supply Corps “dolphins” (qualification insignia) in June 2012 aboard USS Ohio (SSGN 726) (Gold). Six months later, three women earned their submarine dolphins, becoming the first female unrestricted line officers to do so. Lt. j.g Amber Cowan and Lt. j.g. Jennifer Noonan of USS Maine (SSBN 741) (Blue) and Lt. j.g. Marquette Leveque of USS Wyoming (SSBN 742) (Gold) were awarded their dolphins during ceremonies at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor and Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay on December 5, 2012.
Most recently, in August 2016, Chief Dominique Saavedra became the first enlisted woman to qualify in submarines ahead of deploying aboard USS Michigan (SSGN 727).