Veterans Seek to Commemorate 28 Submarines That Passed Through Chicago River

Today mostly the domain of riverboat tours and kayakers, the Chicago River was once part of the thoroughfare for 28 World War II submarines built in Wisconsin making their way out to the Pacific. To highlight this little-known chapter of Chicago history, two Illinois submariner veterans groups are raising money to erect a memorial along the riverwalk.

"It's a part of the city's history that most people today are not aware of," said Frank Voznak Jr., project manager and vice commander of the northern Illinois Crash Dive Base, which is teaming up with the USS Chicago Base. "We want to try to educate the public on what did happen all those many years ago."

In summer 1941, in anticipation of involvement in World War II, the U.S. Navy approached shipyards across the country about building submarines. Among those contacted was the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Co., which had never built submarines but agreed first to build 10, then eventually 30, said Karen Duvalle, submarine curator at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, 40 miles southeast of Green Bay. The museum has been working closely with the veterans groups.

The Manitowoc River was too narrow for a typical launch, so the submarines had to be side-launched, a process that involves sliding a vessel off its supports and tipping it into the water on its side, Duvalle said. Before the submarines were sent off, crews did "sea trials" on Lake Michigan and tested diving, surfacing and other system controls.

"People are pretty surprised that such a unique vessel was built in Wisconsin," she said. "They usually associate (submarines) with East Coast shipyards. But a lot of people think it's pretty neat that we built submarines here ... and that they were some of the best built submarines in the Navy at the time."

Back then, the St. Lawrence Seaway did not exist, so the Manitowoc company chose the best route available that could accommodate the 312-foot-long vessels: through Illinois and down the Mississippi River.

The submarines were loaded onto floating dry docks, which could be lowered slightly underwater to fit under bridges, and pulled by tugboats down the Illinois River to the Mississippi River to New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico through the Panama Canal and, finally, to the Pacific.

It's possible that even Chicagoans in the 1940s were, at least initially, unaware of this because of government secrecy in the face of a raging world war.

A Chicago Tribune article dated May 27, 1945, had the headline "28 Subs Built at Manitowoc, Navy Discloses" and detailed "for the first time" how the submarines were made (assembly line-style and in sections to allow for inland construction) and how much the subs cost (more than $100 million). It also named other Wisconsin and Minnesota shipyards that were building Navy watercraft. This secrecy explains why photos of the submarines traversing the Chicago River are rare; the subs were usually sent early in the morning to avoid attention, Duvalle said.

By the time the war ended, the Manitowoc company had built 28 of the 30 Navy-ordered submarines; of those, 25 saw action and four were lost, crews included.

It was a World War II submariner who inspired the idea for a Chicago memorial. Harry Alvey, 90, had been talking with younger veterans at an event in April 2010.

"I challenged them to make something that would recognize the 28 boats (built in Manitowoc) and four that were lost," said Alvey, of Wausau, Wis. "I didn't tell them what to do; I just gave them a challenge. You don't tell submariners what to do. You trust, and they take it from there."

His fellow former submariners went to work. In January 2011, Voznak connected with members of the USS Chicago Base about creating what at the time they imagined would be a simple plaque to post along the Chicago Riverwalk. But months later, when the project was proposed to Ald. Brendan Reilly, who represents the tourist-heavy 42nd Ward, Reilly encouraged the groups to think bigger.

"I thought certainly the plaque is appropriate, but why wouldn't we want to make this more of a landmark destination for people to pay their respects to the veterans who've served our country?" Reilly said. "So when they were able to come up with this very modest bulkhead design, I thought that was a fantastic idea."

The new plan for the memorial, which they hope will be located east of the Columbus Drive Bridge, juxtaposes past and present, Voznak said. It consists of a reproduced submarine inside wall, or "bulkhead," with a real watertight door salvaged from the USS Trout. The door will be welded open so visitors can sit on one of two benches facing it, look through and see the Lake Shore Drive Bridge, through which the submarines passed more than 70 years ago.

Many elements of the structure are symbolic; for example, the benches will be made of teak, the kind of wood from which submarine decks were traditionally made, and will have steel backings coated with marine-grade epoxy paint and perforated with drain holes to represent the superstructure, or the part of the submarine that protrudes above the deck.

Although Reilly supports the idea, he said the veterans groups need to secure funding before reconvening with the city to make it official. So far, the groups have raised $12,000 of their $250,000 goal for the cost of the design, construction and other fees. Tom Sasgen, treasurer of the USS Chicago Base, said many of the donations have been from other veterans groups. Sasgen said the groups are in the process of sending letters to corporations asking for help.

For instructions on how to donate, visit the Chicago memorial page at

The Navy Can't Afford Its Own Plan to Buy New Subs

The U.S. Navy says that it cannot afford to simultaneously build a new strategic submarine fleet and to update the rest of its conventional ships.

In a July 1 report to Congress on its long-term shipbuilding plan, the Navy said by fiscal 2032 it would be spending in excess of $24 billion annually - almost double the traditional average of $13 billion, Inside Defense reported. The sea service described that amount of funding as "unsustainable."

"There will be resourcing challenges outside the [fiscal 2015 - fiscal 2019 future years defense plan] largely due to investment requirements associated with the SSBN(X) requirement," wrote U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work in the 28-page report. "SSBN(X)" refers to the planned successor class to the Ohio ballistic missile submarine.

The Navy's long-term shipbuilding plan does not factor in current defense spending caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act. Acquisition costs for the next-generation nuclear delivery vehicle are forecast in the report to boost yearly shipbuilding spending to an average of $19.7 billion yearly during the fiscal 2015 - fiscal 2019 period.

The need to modernize the U.S. strategic submarine fleet "will cause significant and noteworthy risks to the Navy's overall shipbuilding plan," the report says.

The projected cost of the lead SSBN(X) submarine also has increased, rising by about $400 million from last year's projection to $12.4 billion, according to the Navy.

There is a movement in both chambers of Congress to create a separate fund to pay for the new strategic submarine fleet in order to prevent the expense from swamping the Navy's shipbuilding budget. The Senate Armed Services Committee in May passed annual defense-authorization legislation that would require the establishment of a "National Sea-based Deterrence Fund." Legislation with a similar goal has already been approved by the House of Representatives.

Construction of the new submarine fleet is anticipated to begin in fiscal 2021. A total of 12 new vessels - armed with nuclear-tipped Trident D-5 ballistic missiles - are planned for acquisition.

Sub Sets Patrol Record

‘Uninterrupted steaming,’ CO calls the 140-day patrol

The gold crew of the ballistic-missile submarine Pennsylvania recently earned bragging rights on an accomplishment that they probably could have done without: Sailing on the longest strategic deterrent patrol. Ever.

The crew spent 140 days straight on patrol. They didn’t visit ports or get a beer day, as ship crews typically do on a long cruise. They were underwater almost the entire time. They only pulled in once during the whole patrol – for 20 hours’ worth of repairs.

The patrol that ended June 14 is the longest for a boomer since the inception of the Poseidon C3 ballistic-missile program, according to records kept by the Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile Weapon System Evaluation program that go back to the 1970s.

The crew was scheduled for a longer-than average patrol, more than 100 days, but the sub was extended by a month for what Submarine Group 9 officials termed a change in the force schedule for ballistic-missile subs.

“It’s worth noting that surface ships stay out for six months generally, sometimes longer,” said Cmdr. Tiger Pittman, commanding officer of the gold crew, in a July 2 telephone interview. “But in that time they might hit half a dozen ports or more. This was uninterrupted steaming.”

Pittman said the crew traveled more than 28,000 miles on its patrol and came up only a few times to take on stores, especially after the ship was extended.

Boomers typically spend 60 to 90 days underway on a patrol. The crews rotate between blue and gold teams so that when the boat pulls in, it can trade crews and stay underway as much as 70 percent of the year.

The gold crew was originally slated for a longer deployment because, after the sub recently completed a 33-month engineered refueling overhaul, the crews needed to work on their qualifications and seamanship. But as the patrol began to wind down, the sub got word it was going to be extended.

“It’s always discouraging to get extended, I’m not going to pretend that it’s not,” Pittman said. “But our men are resilient. They understand and believe in the mission and if it needs to be done, they’ll do it.”

Pittman said he was impressed by his crew and by the families.

“During the whole 140 days, we didn’t lose a single sailor because of an emergency family situation,” he said. “I think that says a lot about the preparedness of the families to deal with what was already going to be a long deployment and an unplanned extension.” The boat was not able to make any sailors available to speak to Navy Times ahead of a well-earned standdown for the July 4 weekend.

Strategic deterrent patrols have been a fixture of the submarine force since 1982, when the first one was conducted by the ballistic missile submarine Ohio, which is now a guided-missile submarine. The service is developing a replacement to the Ohio-class submarines which is scheduled to enter the service in 2031.

That means that when all is said and done, the Ohio-class boomers will have put in about 50 years of service, as long as an aircraft carrier. The follow-on Ohio replacement will have a 42-year service life and never need to be refueled.

The Navy plans to start construction on the first of 10 boats in 2021.

Hagel Says Nuclear Operation Has Drifted

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told naval submariners on Wednesday that the U.S. has let its focus on the military's nuclear responsibilities drift a bit, but two reviews are wrapping up and he will be looking at recommendations to strengthen the health of the force.

Speaking at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Hagel said more attention must be paid to the nuclear forces as key to national security. Hagel has ordered two reviews of the nation's nuclear operations, to find the causes of leadership lapses and other problems revealed by a series of Associated Press reports, including security gaps, cheating and other systemic breaches within the force.

"We have let our focus on the nuclear deterrence aspect of our national security drift a little," Hagel said.

Many of the recent problems in the U.S. nuclear forces have occurred in the Air Force, but in February the Navy announced that dozens of senior enlisted instructors at a Navy nuclear propulsion school in South Carolina were accused of cheating on written tests that help them qualify to operate nuclear reactors. The matter is not directly related to nuclear weapons but to the nuclear power reactors that provide propulsion for Navy ships and submarines.

The Navy has not announced the results of its investigation at the Nuclear Power School near Charleston.

During his visit here, Hagel toured the USS Tennessee, an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine. And he told the troops that the Pentagon is still committed to replacing the aging submarines. He said the steep budget cuts are making it difficult to meet spending priorities.

The stealthy subs, called "boomers," are one leg of the nation's nuclear triad, which also includes long-range bomber aircraft and land-based missiles. There are 14 Ohio-class subs, and they can carry up to 24 Trident II ballistic missiles, but the launch tubes can also be loaded with torpedoes.

The Defense Department wants to spend $1.2 billion in 2015 research and develop a replacement sub.

Plans call for detailed design work on the replacement to begin in 2017. The Pentagon hopes to buy 12 of the new subs, with the first purchase in 2021, at a projected cost of $12.4 billion. The cost includes $4.8 billion for planning and $7.6 billion for construction. The first sub would go on patrol around 2031.

While at Kings Bay, Hagel also met with a number of female submarine officers, as the Navy moves to slowly integrate them into what has long been a male-only force. The move to put female officers on subs began in 2012, and there currently are more than 60 women serving as part of 14 crews on seven submarines. Each sub has two crews.

There are 20 female submarine officers and six female submarine supply officers serving in Kings Bay, on three integrated subs. Women do not serve on the USS Tennessee, which Hagel toured on Wednesday.

Navy officials are planning to begin integrating female enlisted members into the submarine force over the next few years. The sub base is the first stop for Hagel on a two-day trip that will also take him to the Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and the Army's Fort Rucker in Alabama.

The trip is designed to underscore some of Hagel's budget priorities, including some that have gotten slammed by Congress, as members continue to debate the spending plan.

The Death Dance of the American SSNs

The U.S. Navy is adjusting the retirement schedule of its elderly Los Angeles (SSN 688) class SSNs (nuclear attack submarines) to maximize the number of years the remaining Los Angeles boats will be available for service as well as save money and spread around the SSN upgrade and maintenance work more evenly to eliminate bottlenecks and reduce these costs. Thus the recent announcement to delay the retirement of the 32 year old USS Dallas (SSN 700) while retiring the 31 year old USS Norfolk (SSN 714) sooner. More of this sort of thing is expected. Meanwhile there are some special cases that require even more drastic action. Thus earlier in 2014 the navy decommissioned the USS Miami (SSN 755) as part of this program. Entering service in 1990, Miami was not supposed to be decommissioned so soon and the navy has been trying to keep the boat in service after the sub was damaged by a shipyard fire in 2012. But no solution worked. In 2013 the navy concluded that recent budget cuts were making it impossible to spend half a billion dollars to repair the fire damage.

It was not for want of trying and some innovative thinking. In late 2012 the navy thought it had a way to keep those Miami repair bills affordable. The plan was to salvage components from the recently (2011) decommissioned USS Memphis (SSN 691). This boat entered service in 1977, 13 years before the Miami. While the Memphis was one of the "original" 31 Los Angeles boats and the Miami is one of the third generation (Improved Los Angeles) designs, both share many common components, especially in the forward part of the boat where Miami suffered most of its fire damage.

The 2012 Miami blaze occurred while the sub was in the Portsmouth (Maine) Naval Yard for maintenance and upgrades. This is a normal event for a Los Angeles class SSN. The fire was unexpected and initially the navy estimated that the sub suffered $400 million in damage. But a more detailed examination revealed that it would cost at least $450 million and probably north of half a billion to fix the sub. The navy thought cannibalizing the similar Memphis would help, but the savings were not sufficient and the budget cuts forced the navy to prioritize. Getting an elderly and burned-out SSN back into fighting trim no longer looked like a good investment. The USS Miami fire (set by a deranged shipyard worker) took place in May 2012, and early on there were fears that the 22 year old Miami might be scrapped because of the high cost of repairs. It's not just fires that these old Los Angeles class boats have to worry about. In 2009 a 25mm (one inch) hairline crack was found on the pressure hull of the (then) 14 year old USS Toledo (SSN 769). The crack was in the metal plate, not a weld, which was replaced.

Above the crack there was a 53 cm (21 inch) hairline crack in the outer (non-pressurized) hull, which was under the sail. The USS Toledo had just undergone a three year refit, costing $179 million, when these cracks were discovered. The sub was sent to a nearby (to New London, Connecticut) shipyard for repairs. At first it was thought some of these cracks were related to a recent scandal where shipyard workers failed to check for substandard welds but that was not the case with the Toledo. The navy began having doubts about the reliability of its aging fleet of Los Angeles class subs.

Such a crack in the pressure hull is a serious problem because it makes it more likely that the pressure hull would fail and flood the boat, at less than the "test depth" (about two thirds the "design depth," which is the maximum depth the sub can operate at). Going a little deeper gets you to the collapse (or "crush") depth, at which the pressure hull is crushed and implodes. The deepest diving U.S. subs, the Seawolf class (SSN-21), are believed to have a test depth of 490 meters (1,600 feet) and a collapse depth of 730 meters (2,400 feet). During World War II collapse depths were never more than 300 meters (a thousand feet). Since then, larger boats, built of stronger metals, have greatly increased the depth subs can operate at. But that only works if the crew knows the limits of their boats and discovering cracks in the pressure hull reduces those limits. Using Memphis components for the Miami repairs would have made possible close inspection of those items, to see if there was any more unexpected deterioration. The Miami hull has already been checked for any damage from the fire and none was found. But the older a sub gets, the more likely metal fatigue and years at sea will cause undiscovered weaknesses.

Both the Miami and the Toledo were among the latest "improved Los Angeles" boats. With the Miami being retired, a much older (in terms of technology) boat may have to delay retirement and fill in. Upgrading one of these older boats would also be expensive. If the repairs for the Miami did indeed cost less than half a billion, then it was worth keeping the Miami in service. But as much as the navy wants to maintain the size of its SSN force, there is no major threat for these SSNs in the foreseeable future. Retiring the Miami a decade early will not be a major loss.

The navy is putting most of its cash into building new Virginia (SSN-774) class boats to replace the 40 (of 62) remaining Los Angeles subs. The most recent Los Angeles boats entered service in 1996, and all will be gone by the end of the 2020s. Ten Virginias are in service and another 20 are planned. If the navy can scrounge up enough cash it can build two a year and they can have all the Virginias in service before the Los Angeles class is gone.

Otherwise, the SSN fleet will shrink because additional old Los Angeles subs will be retiring compared to new Virginia's entering service.

Enlisted women to serve on attack submarines after 2020

With female officers having served in the boomer force for nearly three years, the Navy is aiming for women to make up a significant portion of the ballistic-missile submarine force by 2020, one of the new waypoints in the silent service’s historic integration. By 2020, the Navy plans to have women make up 20 percent of the enlisted crew on seven of the 18 Ohio-class submarines, according to the Navy’slatest integration plan. The plan also calls for enlisted women to begin serving on attack submarines after 2020, when the Block IV Virginia-classsubmarines begin entering the service.

“There are many very capable women with the talent and desire to succeed in the submarine force. Drawing from this talent enables us to maintain ourundersea dominance,” said Lt. J.G. Eric Durie, spokesman for Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in a statement to Navy Times. “For these reasons, we havebeen working diligently to integrate enlisted women into the submarine force.

“We have a plan for this integration which we will discuss in detail once the congressional notification process has been completed later this year.”

Mabus has been the driving force for opening opportunities for women across the service in his five-year tenure.

More than 50 women now serve as officers on Ohio-class subs in 14 crews; thosesubmarines will be the first to integrate enlisted women beginning in 2016, officials said. They include:

The blue and gold crews aboard the ballistic-missile subs Maine, Wyoming and Louisiana.

The blue and gold crews aboard the guided-missile subs Ohio, Michigan, Florida and Georgia.

A task force led by Rear Adm. Ken Perry, head of Submarine Group 2, has been working on the plan to bring enlisted women into the silent service since May 2013. Its plan was delivered to Congress the week of June 14. The report lays out a long-range blueprint for the next phases of the integration effort, which could be sped up or slowed based on fleet feedback.

“Any changes in the plan moving forward will be to ensure the success of every submarine crew,” said one submarine official familiar with the report, who asked for anonymity while it’s being briefed to lawmakers.

In 2020 and beyond, the plan calls to look at adding women to four Virginia-class crews.

Officials have said the Virginia-class attack subs Virginia and Minnesota are slated to receive female officers in early 2015 and that they hope to have female enlisted in the sub force as soon as 2016.

Greg Jacob, policy director at the Service Women’s Action Network, praised the Navy’s plan to integrate women on boomers and said that the Navy should push hard to fully integrate the attack submarines quickly.

“The Navy has been doing this in a very systematic and progressive way,” Jacob said. “Getting women on the attack boats, though, that’s the way this has to go. Because in all the key command and staff billets, the Navy looks for combatant experience. That’s just the culture.”

Jacob said the Navy missed an opportunity in the early 2000s to design the Virginia-class submarines to accommodate women, inclduing separate berths for women and men.

The service recently signed the largest shipbuilding contract in its history for the Block IV Virginia-class subs. The $18 billion contract is for 10 of the high-tech attack boats that will have both female officers and enlisted serving on board.

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