A history of US submarines from the Revolution to today

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June 5, 2021
U.S. Department of Defence // Wikimedia Commons

A history of US submarines from the Revolution to today

Submarines rank as the most intriguing military craft. Most people have been in airplanes and on boats, but very few of us have traveled inside a submarine gliding through the ocean depths.

The idea of traveling underwater has captured imaginations for a long time. In the 16th century, both Leonardo da Vinci and British mathematician William Bourne separately sketched out plans for submersible vessels, and Dutch inventor Cornelius Drebbel modified a rowboat to move underwater in the 17th century.

Since becoming a fixture in military defense, submarine fleets, nicknamed the “Silent Service,” have played extraordinary roles in wartime. In World War II especially, submarines were instrumental in quelling Japanese forces, disrupting supplies for Japan’s military economy, and rescuing hundreds of U.S. airmen stranded in the Pacific Ocean.

In the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union kept wary eyes on one another, more often than not from below the shadowy surfaces of the ocean. Since then, submarine design in the U.S. has evolved to feature more coastal than deep-water strategic capabilities as global geopolitics have changed. Today more than half of the nation’s nuclear arsenal is carried by the U.S. Navy’s submarine fleet.

Stacker compiled a historical look at U.S. submarines from the American Revolution to the contemporary U.S. Navy’s fleet, drawing from U.S. and military historical accounts, government records, and news articles.

Take the plunge and read on!

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Zenit // Wikimedia Commons

1776: The Turtle in the American Revolution

The world’s first combat submarine was the Turtle, used during the American Revolution. The Turtle was intended to break up the British blockade of Boston Harbor, but the fleet left before the Turtle could be put into use. The submarine was used in three unsuccessful attacks on British warships and sank under enemy fire in October 1776.

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

Civil War: The Union’s USS Alligator

During the Civil War, Union forces had the USS Alligator, while the South had the H.L. Hunley. The Alligator moved via a hand-cranked propeller, and its weaponry was two limpet mines that could be attached with magnets to the hull of an enemy ship. The Alligator was lost in a storm off Cape Hatteras in 1863 on its way to its first combat mission.

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American Civil War Museum // Wikimedia Commons

Civil War: The Confederacy’s H.L. Hunley

In the South, the Confederacy had the H.L. Hunley, which could carry a crew of eight. Its weaponry was a spar torpedo that could attach a bomb to an enemy ship. In 1864, the Hunley sank the USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor, but the submarine itself sank on its way home.

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DrStew82 // Wikimedia Commons

After the Civil War: The H.L. Hunley is missing

The remains of the sunken H.L. Hunley and its eight lost crew members were not found until 1990, and the submarine was raised in 2000. The crew was buried with full military honors in a Charleston cemetery in a ceremony that drew more than 10,000 people.

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Tomwsulcer // Wikimedia Commons

1881: The Fenian Ram

In 1881, inventor John Philip Holland designed and built a submarine, the Fenian Ram, named after the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish independence group that wanted to sink British naval ships. In a dispute over money, the Brotherhood stole the Fenian Ram but did not know how to operate it, and it rusted away.

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

1900: The USS Holland

The U.S. Navy bought its first submarine, the USS Holland, in 1900. The Holland was used to train cadets, enlisted men, and officers in preparation for working on other submarines being built. It was later sold for scrap.

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Symonds & Co // Wikimedia Commons

After the USS Holland: The Holland Torpedo Boat Company

Inventor John Philip Holland sold several designs to both the U.S. Navy and the British Navy. His Holland Torpedo Boat Company later became the Electric Boat Company. It was acquired in 1952 by General Dynamics, which remains a leading submarine manufacturer today.

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

World War I: The U.S. K-5 patrols in Europe

During World War I, the U.S. diesel-electric submarine K-5 patrolled off the Azores to protect shipping and prevent German ships from using the Portuguese islands as a base. In 1918, the submarine suffered an explosion due to improper venting by the crew and had to return to the United States.

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

World War II: U.S. submarines in Europe

U.S. submarines patrolled the Atlantic Ocean and in the Mediterranean Sea in World War II to protect against German U-boats. By the middle of 1943, U.S. forces had reduced the threat of U-boats enough that most of the nation’s submarines were redeployed to the Pacific Ocean.

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USN // Wikimedia Commons

World War II: U.S. submarines in the Pacific

U.S. military forces relied heavily on submarines during World War II. U.S. submarines sank more than 540,000 tons of Japanese naval vessels and nearly 5 million tons of merchant ships—more than half of all the vessels lost by Japan. By sinking the merchant ships, U.S. submarines could block raw materials from reaching Japan for its war effort.

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

World War II: The “lifeboat league”

In World War II, U.S. submarines became known as the “lifeboat league” for their role in picking up downed pilots. By the end of the war, more than 500 air crewmembers were rescued this way, including President George H.W. Bush. Bush was flying a bombing mission over a Japanese island when his plane was hit, so he parachuted to the sea, where several hours passed before a submarine rescued him.

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

World War II: U.S. loses 52 submarines, 3,505 crew

During World War II, the United States lost 52 submarines and 3,505 crew members. It was the highest rate of those killed in action of all the branches of the nation’s military.

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USN // Wikimedia Commons

1953: The USS Tunny

In 1953, the USS Tunny became the first submarine to launch a guided missile. The Tunny had seen significant combat in the Pacific during World War II before it was modified to fire the Regulus missile. The submarine had to surface for the missile to be fired.

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ArnoldReinhold // Wikimedia Commons

1954: The USS Nautilus

Launched in 1954, the USS Nautilus was the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. Before nuclear power, submarines were forced to surface regularly because the diesel engines needed fresh air or to be refueled. Nuclear power meant submarines could stay submerged for months.

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Victor-ny // Wikimedia Commons

1957: The Nautilus crosses the North Pole

The USS Nautilus was the first submarine to travel under the Arctic polar ice cap, across the North Pole, as part of the U.S. defense strategy against the Soviet Union. Its first attempt was blocked by drifting ice, but its second attempt succeeded, and the submarine traveled 1,000 miles from the Bering Sea to the coast of Greenland.

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U.S. Navy // Wikimedia Commons

1960: The USS George Washington

In 1960, the USS George Washington became the first submerged submarine to launch the Polaris missile. The submarine’s commanding officer sent a message to President Dwight Eisenhower saying, “Polaris from out of the deep to target. Perfect."

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PH1 James Preston // Wikimedia Commons

1981: The first Ohio class submarine

The biggest submarines in the U.S. fleet are the Ohio class. The U.S. Navy has 18 of the nuclear-powered submarines, the first of which, the USS Ohio, was commissioned in 1981. The Ohio class submarines are 170 meters long.

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U.S. Navy photo // Wikimedia Commons

1991: The USS Louisville

During Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1991, the USS Louisville became the first submarine to launch a Tomahawk cruise missile in combat. The submarine traveled 1,400 miles through the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea to launch the missile. In 2003, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the submarine fired missiles into Iraq.

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U.S. Department of Defence // Wikimedia Commons

1997: The Seawolf submarines

The U.S. Navy has three Seawolf class submarines, the first of which, the USS Seawolf, was commissioned in 1997. The Seawolfs are extremely quiet and fast. The USS Connecticut was commissioned in 1998, and the USS Jimmy Carter was commissioned in 2005.

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U.S. Navy photo // Wikimedia Commons

Modern day: U.S. military submarines

Currently, the U.S. military has 53 fast attack submarines, 14 ballistic missile submarines, and four guided-missile submarines. The ballistic missile submarines carry most of the nation’s nuclear deterrent arsenal.

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U.S. Navy photo // Wikimedia Commons

Modern day: The Virginia class submarines

The U.S. Navy has commissioned more than a dozen Virginia class submarines. They have better capabilities for coastal fighting operations than the Seawolfs have, and they handle better in shallow water.

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U.S. Navy photo // Wikimedia Commons

Modern day: U.S. Navy “boomers”

The ballistic missile submarines of the U.S. Navy are known as "boomers." They are designed to carry nuclear warheads and to be exceptionally stealthy. Under terms of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, effective in 2011, the submarines can carry a maximum of 20 missiles each.

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Shinerunner // Wikimedia Commons

2020: Finding the USS Grenadier

Divers in 2020 found what was believed to be the wreckage of the USS Grenadier, which was bombed by the Japanese military in World War II and sank. Its 76 crew members survived the wreck, but they were taken prisoner by Japanese forces and subjected to torture and starvation for more than two years. Four of the crew members died during their imprisonment.

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U.S. Navy illustration/released // Wikimedia Commons

2020: The Columbia class submarines

In 2020, the U.S. Navy signed a $9.5 billion deal with General Dynamics for the first two Columbia class submarines, which will take over for the fleet’s Ohio class of ballistic missile submarines. Work is expected to be completed by April 2030.

{Pictured: U.S. Navy illustration of Columbia Class Submarine.}

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Bumble Dee // Shutterstock

2021: The USS Montana

The U.S. Navy’s newest submarine, the USS Montana, was launched in March 2021 in Virginia. Construction on the submarine began in 2015.

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