The sixth of April, 1917, found the United States quite unprepared to carry on a submarine warfare in the enemy’s waters, largely because the boats in commission at the time were not capable of taking the long trip across the Atlantic under their own power and of still being in condition to carry on war operations. The United States recognized no obstacles as insurmountable and great efforts were made to send a number of submarines overseas as quickly as possible. The first submarines scheduled to make the attempt was a division of K-boats, the K-l to K-8 inclusive.
At that time the Diesel engine was very much in its infancy so far as our submarines were concerned and it was feared that our undersea craft would be unable to make the transatlantic trip unless towed part of the way by the submarine tenders, as the submarines’ engines were continually in a state of repair and the fuel capacity of the boats was small. The K-boat division was put through an intensive repair period, including meticulous overhaul of the engines and renewal of the storage batteries.
Of the eight K-boats that had been overhauled for duty in the war zone, only four, the K-l, K-2, K-5 and K-6, managed to get as far as the Azores.
The K-l, under the command of Lieutenant James R. Webb, and the K-2, under the command of Lieutenant E. M. Williams, left Brooklyn Navy Yard and put to sea for the war zone on the towline of the U.S.S. Chicago, while the K-5, commanded by Lieutenant E. D. McWhorter, and the K-6, by Lieutenant S. O. Grieg, started their ocean voyage on the towline of the tender, the U.S.S. Bushnell, during the latter part of September, 1917.
The small submarines were uncomfortable to travel on even in the smoothest of weather and when a storm came up and the towing vessels were forced to cast off their tows and let them shift for themselves, the little boats suffered so much that when they finally managed to limp into the port of Ponta Delgada, Azores, on October 27, 1917, they were unable to proceed any farther and carried on what war patrols they could in that vicinity.
The trip over had been such a strenuous one that a number of officers and men had to be transferred and given absolute rest for some time. The second officer of the K-l, Ensign Homer L. Ingram, tried to stick it out as long as possible and would only relinquish his duties when physically unable to stand on his feet any longer. He was sent home on sick leave, a mere shadow of the former 200-pound captain of a Navy crew and a football end that had sailed overseas just a few months before. Soon after his return he breathed his last.
None of the K-boats had any actual contacts with the enemy although they had the usual number of scares. The end of the war found them still in the Azores, able only to carry on a war patrol in that neighborhood.
The next division of American submarines to arrive in the war zone consisted of seven L-boats, the L-l, 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, and 11.
Although they had their full share of adventures with the enemy and also our own men-of-war, none of them managed to bag a German submarine, although they had a number of opportunities and only failed by the worst breaks of luck.
On the trip across the Atlantic all the L-boats started on the end of a towline but such heavy storms were encountered that they soon had to shift for themselves. They all managed to arrive safely at the base at Berehaven, Bantry Bay, Ireland.
After receiving the latest submarine approach information from the experienced English submarine officers, all of our boats put out on their weekly war patrols in succession.
When they were not busy trying to run down U-boats, they were endeavoring to get off a recognition signal to some American destroyer that preferred to fire first and ask questions afterwards. It would have been easily possible for some of our boats to have been sunk by our destroyers but all managed to come through without harm.
The L-l, under the command of Lieutenant R. A. Rood, had an excellent opportunity at an enemy ship. While on patrol on May 22, 1918, in sight of Pendeed Watch House Light and Long Ship Light, this vessel had her first encounter with a German submarine.
On this eventful morning the L-l had dived at daybreak, as was customary. About noon a German submarine was sighted on the surface at a distance of about 8,000 yards. Lieutenant Rood immediately maneuvered his submarine to place it in a good position for firing a torpedo. Estimating the course to be steered to gain that advantage, he went down to sixty feet and slowly stalked his victim, knowing that a slow speed was necessary, for the German boats were well equipped with listening devices.
At 2:35 p.m. the L-l again came up to periscope depth, about twenty feet, after having carefully located the target’s position with the listening device. The U-boat was now seen to be at a distance of 2,000 yards, and was apparently of the U-110 class.
At 2:52 p.m. the L-l had reduced the intervening range to 800 yards and at 2:55 two torpedoes were fired, one at the conning tower and the other at the bow of the German. The sudden removal of almost two tons of weight from the forward part of the American submarine caused the bow to broach, and the German immediately maneuvered to avoid the onrushing torpedoes, which he succeeded in doing. Before diving he fired four shots from the deck gun at the American, all shots falling clear of the target, although the men in the engine-room said that they had heard the fall of shots near their compartment.
The L-l immediately attempted to ram. Failing to make contact, she came to the surface and went ahead on the engines, broadcasting the location of the U-boat.
On July 27 at 10:40 a.m. a U-boat was sighted just as it surfaced. Before an attack could be made the enemy had disappeared; apparently, it had come to the surface only to enable the navigator to take a sun sight in order to fix his position on the chart. The German could be heard plainly but the American was unable to close in. An oscillator message was intercepted from the enemy, probably sent to the submarine working with him.
The L-2, commanded by Lieutenant E. A. Logan, also had contact with a German submarine, but in a most peculiar way. It was only by the merest luck that the American submarine was not blown out of the water.
On July 10, 1918, the L-2 was en route to Bantry Bay on the surface. About six- thirty in the evening the lookout reported seeing something on the starboard bow which resembled a buoy and the L-2 proceeded to investigate. A little later the submarine was suddenly shaken by a terrific explosion, lifting the stern almost out of the water; the lights in the boat were dashed out, the circuit breakers tripped, the engine- room floor plates were moved around, and the ventilation motors were thrown out of alignment. At the same time a large geyser of water was observed about sixty yards away on the starboard quarter. As the boiling water receded, about six feet of the periscope of an enemy submarine was observed, which soon disappeared. A periscope was then noticed on the other side of the L-2. The American submarine immediately dived and tried to ram the other U-boat but was unable to make contact, although the high-speed propellers could be plainly heard in the listening device. The second U-boat sent out oscillator messages, trying to get an answer from the first, but no answer was received. The L-2 tried to decoy the German by sending out an oscillator message with a high pitch but received no response.
Apparently, one German submarine had fired at the American boat and the torpedo had missed the target, had continued on its track, and had intercepted the other German, who was also about in position to sink the L-2.
The L-4, commanded by Lieutenant Lewis Hancock, later lost in the dirigible Shenandoah, with Lieutenants Garnet Hulings and Kenneth R. R. Wallace, and Gunner Ard as junior officers, certainly had more than her share of experiences.
On March 20, 1918, about 4:00 p.m., while on patrol, something was sighted on the starboard bow which, at first, was thought to be Fastnet Light. It was then made out to be a ship, which almost immediately turned away at high speed. The ship now resembled a submarine and the L-4 headed for it at full speed. At 4:45 p.m. about two feet of brown periscope was sighted three hundred yards on the starboard bow. The rudder of the L-4 was put hard over and the boat passed over the spot where the periscope had been seen.
The L-4 then dived and the periscope was kept training about the horizon. Nothing was seen, although the propeller sounds could be heard very distinctly, showing that the German was only a short distance away.
The first loud propeller sounds were heard astern of the L-4 and course was changed to bring the sound abeam. After this was done, course was again changed to bring it dead ahead. The sounds of the German propellers could be plainly heard in the American submarine without the use of the listening device. Just as the L-4 swung around to place the German ahead of it a distinct jar was felt throughout the boat. Lieutenant Hulings, who was in the torpedo room, reported that the shock was plainly felt in that compartment and it is only reasonable to suppose that the two had made slight contact while submerged. The German possessed more speed than the American and finally drew away and out of hearing distance.
On April 12, 1918, at 8:00 a.m. propeller noises were detected and at nine-twenty a large German submarine was seen on the surface at a distance of one thousand yards. The enemy had apparently just come up, as his bow was well up and his stem still awash. As there was a considerable bow wave ahead of the U-boat, the L-4’s commander judged that it was making its best speed and gave credit to his belief when the torpedo was fired. Hardly had the torpedo left the tube when the U-boat started down. The torpedo made a straight, fast run and was seen to pass just ahead of where the U-boat had been, the shot missing the target due to overestimating the enemy’s speed. The U-boat’s conning tower was seen a little later and an effort was made to ram it, but the L-4 could not get close enough. The American then trailed the German for two and a half hours by means of the listening device, and then abandoned the chase.
On April 24, about 5 :00 a.m., in bright moonlight, a vessel was made out on the surface on the port bow of the L-4. The boat was seen to be a submarine and, as it was heading directly for them, the range rapidly closed, the distance soon being one thousand yards. A moment later the German changed course, exposing his full left side, but at the same time he commenced to dive, evidently sighting the American. The L-4 fired a torpedo at a range of two hundred yards and watched the steel missile of destruction as it leaped toward its target. The torpedo made a perfect run and a trail of bubbles was seen just forward of the conning tower. Nothing happened, however, and it was never known whether the torpedo passed under the German or hit without exploding.
On April 26, a little after midnight, a vessel, thought to be a submarine, was sighted. The L-4 fired two torpedoes at it; the first passed under the target, while the second ran around in circles, almost hitting the L-4 during its erratic run. The target was then seen to be a friendly surface vessel.
On May 18, 1918, the L-4 was almost lost with all hands on board and, incidentally, set a record that stands today for deep submergence of a submarine.
About 8:40 a.m. the submarine was on a submerged patrol, traveling at a depth of twenty-five feet, at a very slow speed, on the “half switch,” to use submarine phraseology. After being submerged for some time, water began to creep into the boat through the sea valves and it was desired to lessen the weight in the vessel by taking water out of one of the variable tanks.
For this purpose the submarine had a small tank in the center of the ship, then called “adjusting” tank, with a capacity of about one thousand pounds of sea water. The variable tank adjacent to it was called the “auxiliary” tank and had a capacity of about eighteen tons of water.
Lieutenant Hulings, then on watch in the central operating compartment, desiring to rid the tank of water by sending compressed air into it, gave the order:
“Blow the adjusting tank!”
The man on the air manifold, not as experienced as he might have been, mistook the order and thought that the word had been:
“Open the auxiliary tank,”
And thereupon he proceeded to do it.
In the meantime, Lieutenant Hulings had stopped the motors and ordered the storage batteries to be hooked up in “series,” as he would then be able to get more speed by this means. He then looked at the adjusting tank gauge to note the exit of the water from that tank. His attention was called by the man on the diving planes by “She is settling fast, sir!”
Lieutenant Hulings then noticed that his order had been misunderstood and made every effort to rectify the mistake, but so much weight had been added to the boat, and the boat was going so slow, as the motors had been stopped, that she dropped like a rock and hit the bottom at 294 feet. The boat had only been designed and tested for 200 feet.
The chart showed that there was a depth of water in that vicinity of fifty fathoms, or three hundred feet, and that the bottom was soft mud.
The submarine was now too far down to attempt blowing the water out of the ballast tanks by means of air, as the added pressure would undoubtedly carry away the already strained hull.
First, the motors went ahead at one-third their maximum speed and an attempt was made to plane the boat up. But it refused to leave the mud. Next, two-thirds speed was tried with the same results.
The ballast pumps were designed to pump water out of the boat at depths up to three hundred feet. The high-pressure ballast pump was next placed on the forward ballast tank, all valves outboard on the tank being closed first. The pump could not take a suction as the circuit breakers tripped at the set amperage. The amperage on the breakers was doubled but still they refused to hold. They were then set for the maximum possible under any condition. For a few minutes the pump functioned and then the breakers tripped. The pressure in the tank had, however, been reduced from 127 pounds, the sea pressure at that depth, to 90 pounds. The pumping was discontinued as the motor was extremely hot, and the flanges on the pump discharge overboard valve were leaking badly, as was also the pump.
Backing the main motors was next resorted to, in the hope of breaking the suction of the soft bottom, but without success.
The small adjusting pump was then tried on the adjusting tank but after seven hundred pounds had been pumped out the fuses on the power line blew out as fast as they were put in.
The adjusting tank had been designed to withstand great pressure, so this tank was filled with water three times from the auxiliary tank and blown empty with high-pressure air. The bad feature of this method was that after each blowing the tank had to be vented into the boat before it could be refilled. A great pressure was soon built up within, so much that the needle on the barometer, used in a submarine to record the pressure, was bent up hard against the top of the instrument.
There are two ways of reducing the air pressure in a submarine while the boat is submerged. First, by pumping bilges until the water is out, after which the pump takes the excess air through it. This method is not advisable in time of war because the air bubbles and oil slicks can be detected by surface craft and the position of the submarine disclosed. However, the pumps on the L-4 were not functioning, so this method could not be used. The next method is to turn over the air compressors, which are - connected to the main propeller shafts, and supply compressed air for the torpedoes and for blowing water from the ballast tanks. When air is compressed, heat is generated, and for that reason cooling coils surround the compression chambers. Before the compressor could be started the cooler shell would have to be opened to the sea so that the circulating water might enter the coils. The commanding officer realized that the shell would be subjected to a great pressure but decided to take the chance. The port compressor was started but had to be stopped almost immediately as the shell burst.
The stern tube glands on the propeller shafts began to leak badly although the crew set up on them as much as possible. Soon, the water began to fill the bilges in the engine- and motor-room and was mounting to the main motors. Different valves in the engine-room began to leak and soon little trickles of water were in evidence throughout the compartment.
As the water level was rapidly approaching the main motors the commanding officer knew that something had be to done before they were permanently disabled, or they would remain on the bottom forever. He had every man except those on the necessary diving stations go as far aft in the boat as possible, with the idea of lightening the bow. Pressure was then put in the forward ballast tank until the safety valve on the air line blew; it was then reset at 15 pounds above the sea pressure, or at 140 pounds, considerably above what it had been designed for. The main motors were then sent ahead at two-thirds speed, the chief electrician on the submarine coolly holding the circuit breakers closed, despite the fact that his arms would probably be burned badly.
The bow rose to a three-degree angle but held fast in the mud. Slowly it tilted to six degrees, then suddenly broke loose. The L-4 headed for the surface at a very steep angle—approximately fifty degrees. At one hundred feet the middle main ballast tank was blown and a moment later the boat was on the surface, having been on the bottom for one hour and ten minutes. The after main ballast tank was left filled in order to keep the water in the bilges from coming over the floor plates and wetting the main motors, as the water was only three inches from them before leaving the bottom.
In a report on the accident, the commanding officer said:
I cannot too highly praise the behavior of the personnel, both officers and men. Although every one realized that the situation was extremely serious, there was not the slightest evidence of panic or excitement. Every man stood by his station in as calm and efficient a way as if an ordinary drill was being conducted.
As the result of this accident the name of the adjusting tank was changed to regulator tank and the lever handle operating the auxiliary tank was painted a different color from the others and was kept locked or pinned down.
There were any number of instances when, while out on listening patrols, the L-boats heard a depth charge from a distance and soon afterwards heard the U- boat hurrying away. On every occasion effort was made to intercept the enemy but without success.
On the same day that the L-2 had her unusual experience with the two German submarines, the destroyer Allen opened fire on her despite the fact that the L-2 was making recognition signals and waving flags. The Allen only ceased firing when a range of two thousand yards had been attained. Some of the shots fell alongside the L-2 but, fortunately, none hit her.
Some of our officers were sent out as observers on the British submarines. On March 7, 1918, the submarine service lost a brilliant officer, Lieutenant Earle W. F. Childs. This officer had gone out on the British submarine H-5 for instruction purposes and was lost with it when the boat was destroyed by the enemy.
The L-10, commanded by Lieutenant Commander James C. Van de Carr, was almost destroyed by depth charges by one of our own destroyers. On March 25, 1918, about 5 :50 p.m. a destroyer was seen approaching through the periscope of the L-10, and it was recognized as being the U.S.S. Sterett, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Simpson, the Naval Academy roommate of the L-10’s commanding officer. As it was not desired to surface at the time, the L-10 planed down to sixty feet, with the idea of letting the Sterett go by. The propeller sounds could be heard getting closer and closer, and suddenly the submarine was shaken violently from stem to stern, throwing the lights out in the boat and jarring many things loose. The Sterett then threw over a buoy and proceeded to lay a barrage of depth charges around her proposed victim. The L-10 was being shaken badly and threatened to burst after each explosion. As the Sterett reached the outer ring of the barrage circle, the L-10 was quickly surfaced and the recognition signal got off before the destroyer could open fire with the deck guns.
The Sterett then came close aboard and held a conversation with the submarine commander:
“Your oil tanks are evidently leaking as I spotted you by the oil slicks. You are lucky I misjudged your position. Are you all right now?”
Van de Carr shouted back:
“All right now, Buck, old boy, but almost scared to death.”
The destroyer commander then shouted over a parting admonition:
“The Trippe will be up here in about an hour. You had better remain on the surface until she gets here. So long.”
An hour later another destroyer, presumably the Trippe, appeared over the horizon, and although the American flag was being waved on the submarine and the recognition signal was being made periodically, the destroyer fired six shots, three going over, three falling short.
Commander Van de Carr then radioed his famous message to the Trippe:
“Three over, three short, deflection fine 1”
The L-11, commanded by Lieutenant A. C. Bennett, came very close to scoring our only hit of the war so far as our submarines operating in the war zone were concerned.
On May 11, 1918, while on a submerged listening patrol, a U-boat was sighted on the surface at a distance of about six thousand yards, bearing on the L-11’s port quarter. The American slowly swung around to a firing position and reduced the firing range to nine hundred yards. Two torpedoes were fired at an interval of five seconds. The first one broached. A terrific explosion was seen to take place about two hundred yards from the enemy submarine as the torpedoes exploded and it seems only probable that one torpedo overtook the other and caused the premature explosion. The U-boat dived and was not seen again.