While submarines have been a part of United States history as far back as the American Revolution and David Bushnell’s Turtle, the US Submarine Force officially came into existence on 11 April 1900.


It was on that date that the US Navy purchased the Holland VI, a submarine designed and built by Irish-American inventor John Philip Holland.  Commissioned in October of that year as USS Holland (SS-1), the vessel was equipped with one 18-inch reloadable torpedo tube and one 8.4-inch dynamite gun.  USS Holland was propelled on the surface at speeds up to 8 knots by a 45-horsepower gasoline engine.


USS Holland on a Marine Railway for Maintenance



On 13 June 1923, Captain Ernest J. King – Commander Submarine Division THREE – suggested to the Secretary of the Navy that a distinguishing device for qualified submariners be adopted.  The design eventually approved depicted a bow view of a submarine (S-class) proceeding on the surface with bow planes rigged for dive, flanked by dolphins in the horizontal position with their heads resting on the upper edge of the planes.



To earn the right to wear ‘fish,’ prospective submariners must complete an extensive qualification process that lasts about a year and covers virtually every system aboard the submarine.  Crew members must learn basic knowledge of all systems on board, their uses, operations, and interrelationships with other systems.  They must then complete a qualification board which includes knowledge of damage control procedures and to be able to draw and recite the specifications of any equipment aboard the submarine.  Finally, they must be certified by the submarine’s commanding officer before they can pin the coveted emblem on their uniform – Gold for officers, Silver for enlisted.


Click HERE for more information on Submarine Dolphins.




While submarine technology advanced rapidly during the early 20th Century – diesel engines replacing dangerous gasoline-powered engines, more powerful batteries allowing for longer duration submergence, escape procedures and technology – the American Submarine Force matured rapidly with the onset of World War II.


Following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the only viable fighting force available to take the war to the Japanese were the submarines stationed in the Philippines, Australia, and Hawaii.


Gato Class Fleet Boat of World War II


Over the course of World War II, US Submarines comprised only 1.6% of the US Navy, but accounted for more than 55% of all Japanese losses, including the sinking of 4.9 million tons – or 60% - of all Japanese merchant marine losses and 700,000 tons – or 30% - of Japanese Naval losses, including 8 aircraft carriers, 1 battleship, and 11 cruisers!  Additionally, 504 downed airmen – including future US President George H.W. Bush – were rescued by submarines on lifeguard duty.


However, of the 288 US Submarines deployed during World War II, 52 submarines were lost, with 48 destroyed in the war zones of the Pacific.  American submariners suffered the highest loss rate in the US Armed Forces during World War II, with 22% - or 3505 men – killed.




With the advent of Nuclear Power and the rise of the Soviet Union following World War II, the mission of the US Submarine Force changed to that of deterrence and espionage.  Under the guidance of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the US Navy launched the world’s first nuclear-powered vessel – USS Nautilus SSN-571 – on 21 January 1954.




Nuclear-powered fast attack submarines (SSNs) like Nautilus and her descendants tracked Soviet submarines throughout the Cold War, learning their capabilities and weaknesses and developing countermeasures and tactics to defeat the Soviet threat.  Meanwhile, in June 1959, the Navy launched USS George Washington SSBN-598, the first Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBNs) capable of launching nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles from any of the world’s oceans while submerged.  Since that day, SSBNs have conducted over 4000 deterrence patrols.


An Ohio (SSBN 726) Class Ballistic Missile Submarine



With the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and the subsequent end of the Cold War, the mission of the US Submarine Force continued to evolve.  While still proficient in Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) techniques, fast attack crews also trained in Strike Warfare capabilities – launching Tomahawk Cruise Missiles at targets hundreds of miles inland – and supporting Special Operations by carrying Navy SEAL Teams in and out of war zones unseen.


Then, on 11 September 2001, the Submarine Force found itself on the tip of the spear as submarines deployed in the Middle East launched attacks against al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan in retaliation for the terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania to begin what would be known as the Global War on Terror (GWOT).


USS Missouri SSN-780, a 774 (Virginia) Class Fast Attack Submarine


Even today, ballistic missile submarines continue their never-ending deterrent patrols, while fast attack submarines ensure free movement across all oceans and guided missile submarines (SSGNs) conduct land-attack strike missions and transport special operations troops to hotspots around the globe.




The site author – Peter J. Koester – is also the National Historian for the United States Submarine Veterans, Inc, and has prepared a multi-media presentation on the History of the US Submarine Force and the Loss of USS Thresher.  The presentation can be either a 30-minute or 60-minute presentation and goes into much greater detail than this web page can allow.


If you or an organization you are a member of are located in the New England region and would be interested in scheduling a Submarine History Presentation, contact Peter at



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