Learning Pearl Harbor: What Is a Submarine?

January 26, 2018

Submarine history begins long before the 20th century, but it was during World War I that they became a true staple of naval warfare. In both World War I and World War II, their presence was heavily felt in the Atlantic with German U-Boats causing significant losses to Allied vessels, and though the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was mostly from the air, submarines did play a small and mostly ineffective role for the Japanese.

The history of the submarine and its use during World War II and beyond is marked by a great deal of innovation that has continued into the 21st century.


Early Submarine History

Submarine history

Cornelis Drebbel

Though it wasn’t until the 18th century that the concept of the submarine started to take real shape, the first known submarine actually came about in 1620, designed and built by the Dutch engineer Cornelis Drebbel. The oar-propelled submersible was inspired by two prior designs, first recorded in Inventions or Devises, by English mathematician William Bourne in 1578, and later in Secret Inventions, by the Scottish mathematician and theologian John Napier, in 1596.

Besides Drebbel’s, no other early design for submarines are thought to have been constructed and tested. Then, in the mid-18th century, England approved more than a dozen patents for submersible boats. Nathanial Symons, Giovanni Broelli, and David Bushnell became pioneers of submarines during this period. It was Bushnell, an American, who was responsible for designing Turtle, the first military submarine.



In 1864, another first occurred when the Confederacy's H. L. Hunley sank a Union ship, the USS Housatonic, becoming the first military submarine to engage the enemy in combat. The Housatonic was the first of a long string of casualties as the submarine design continued to evolve and improve.

Means of propulsion ranged from compressed air to steam power and in the 1880s, Isaac Peral y Caballero of Spain, Gustave Zede of France, and James Franklin Waddington of England, came up with the first electrically-powered boats. The standard for submarines had been created.


The Submarine in the 20th Century

Though submarines had been a topic of study and innovation since the 17th century, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the underwater boat was considered for mass use by navies. To be more effective wartime use, improvements to current technology were made, including diesel-electric propulsion and the addition of the periscope.

U-Boats in Kiel Harbor, 1914

SM U-20, responsible for sinking the RMS Lusitania, front row, second from left.

By the time World War I erupted in Europe, the submarine was ready for war. German U-Boats terrorized shipping in the Atlantic. The sinking of the RMS Lusitania, a civilian passenger liner, is thought to be one of the events that drew the United States into the war. The U-Boats were an unstoppable force responsible for the loss of over 11 million tons of shipping during the Great War.

The power of the submarine would be felt again 21 years later, when war broke out once again. Along with the German U-Boats in the Atlantic, Japan introduced its own fleet of submarines. Included in the Imperial Japanese Navy’s fleet were a new form of war vessel that recalled design aspects of the early submersibles: the midget sub.


The Midget Subs of Pearl Harbor

One of the first implementations of the midget sub was during the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. As part of the striking force, five midget submarines were intended to sail undetected into the harbor and attack the ships there from below.

Submarine history

Midget submarine beached at Waimanalo

Known as Type A Ko-hyoteki-class submarines, the five subs were successful in crossing the Pacific undetected, but the USS Ward (DD-139), a destroyer patrolling the waters just outside of the Pearl Harbor, spotted a Japanese submarine making its way towards the harbor mouth. The small submersible was sunk in the encounter. None of the five midget submarines survived the day

In addition to Japan, both Britain and Germany had their own version of a midget submarine.



Submarines Today

USS Tunny (SSG-282) launching a Regulus missile

USS Tunny (SSG-282) launching a Regulus missile

With its success in World War I and World War II, the military submarine had solidified its place as a reliable asset that would remain a cornerstone of a well-prepared naval fleet. Enhancements after World War II included the capability of carrying and launching cruise missiles, beginning with the USS Tunny ((SS-282). Along with the USS Barbero (SS-317), the Tunny was converted to provide a nuclear deterrent.

By 1959, the first ballistic missile submarines had entered service in the United States and Soviet Union. Submarines were used during the Cold War as intimidation tactics, though “cat-and-mouse” games played by both nations led to dangerous tensions.

Beyond military uses, submarines were also deployed in a civilian capacity. The first submarine used for tourism was the Auguste Piccard (PX-8), launched in 1964 in Switzerland. In 1997, 45 tourist submarines were in operation around the world.

More recently, submersibles known as narco-submarines have been used in drug smuggling.

Modern military submarines continue to improve, including a switch from diesel or steam-powered turbines to nuclear power. Larger submarines use nuclear power while many smaller vessels retain diesel-electric propulsion.

The submarine got its start almost three hundred years ago, and the progress made since then has led to a reliable warship that's a vital part of many modern navies.

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