THE WACKIEST SUB IN THE NAVY
OR A SHORT HISTORY OF THE USS G-1 SS-19 ½ © 2007
DAVID L. JOHNSTON
First, a little background info:
All commissioned U.S. Navy vessels are designated with an alphanumeric hull number.
As an example, the Mine Countermeasures ship USS Pioneer is designated MCM-9, and the
submarine USS Darter was SS-576. This system allows the classification of ships for
record keeping and treaty verification purposes, it aids in their identification,
and allows the Navy to reuse a name after a ship is decommissioned without the
inevitable confusion this would present. However, for the first 100 years of its
existence, the Navy did not have this system, indeed even the well known U.S.S.
(for United States Ship) was not formally a part of a ship's name until 1907
when it was officially established by President Roosevelt.
Starting in 1895, new ships of the emerging "Steel Navy" were assigned serial
numbers, so that a battleship, for example, would be known as the USS Indiana
Battleship #1, or the submarine USS Holland Submarine #1 and so on. This system
was formalized on 17 July 1920 and combined with a two letter code to allow the
separation of subtypes (i.e. heavy and light cruiser, CA and CL). With modifications
accounting for advances in technology (i.e. new ship types) and sometimes to satisfy
political whims, this system is still in use today. The numbering system (sequential
within a ship type) has remained fairly constant over the years, but a very strange
deviation occurred in 1911, and this brings us to the beginning of our story.
In the early years of the 20th Century, two main companies were eagerly vying
to build submarines for the U.S. Navy: Simon Lake's Lake Torpedo Boat Co., and Isaac
Rice and L.Y. Spear's Electric Boat Company. Of the two, Electric Boat proved to be
the more successful, mostly due to Lake's various eccentricities. The obstinate but
brilliant Simon Lake had very strong opinions on how submarines should be operated
and utilized and thus tended to put unusual features on his boats, such as diver
lock-out chambers, wheels for rolling along the bottom, and watertight superstructures.
These unusual features, Lake's forceful personality, and the fact that his subs were
usually mechanically and operationally inferior to Electric Boat's products made
Lake something of a pariah within the Navy Department. In 1907 he brought suit against
the Navy, accusing them of giving Electric Boat a virtual monopoly on submarine
construction and the U.S. Attorney General agreed with him.
In order to settle this legal dispute, Secretary of the Navy Victor Metcalf offered
Lake a contract to build a boat, as long as it met Navy operational specifications.
Lake readily agreed to this contract, but after seeing the specs of the design that
Lake provided, the Navy did not have the "warm fuzzies" so to speak. The boat was to
have all of Lake's trademark "goofy" features, and even had trainable torpedo tubes
in the superstructure that could shoot fish to port or starboard.
Another interesting sidebar to this story pertains to the name of the boat itself.
Prior to 1911, submarines were assigned names of sea creatures or snakes. These names
included Porpoise, Octopus, Viper, and Moccasin among others. On 17 November 1911 these
names were dropped and an alphanumeric system was substituted. Thus, Porpoise became
A-6, Octopus became C-1, etc. Lake's controversial 1907 submarine design was originally
ordered by the Navy as the USS Seal. Launched but not commissioned in 1911 when the
naming system for subs was changed, she was renamed the G-1. Virtually convinced that
this boat was not going to live up to Lake's boastings, the Navy Department hedged
against the possible failure of the boat and assigned it hull number 19½! Submarine
hull number 19 had already been assigned to the USS D-3 (formerly the Salmon), and
hull number 20 had been given to the USS F-1 (Carp). The G-1 is the only U.S. Navy
ship in its entire history to be assigned half of a hull number!
USS G-1 (Submarine #19½) as expected turned out to be flawed, but not as bad as
the Navy feared. She was 2 ½ years behind schedule. The two in tandem on each shaft
arrangement of her four gasoline engines was "unsuccessful", her watertight superstructure
was not watertight, she was a slow diver, and her endurance did not meet Navy specs.
Especially disliked were the wheels and the trainable torpedo tubes. However, the Board
of Inspection and Survey (INSURV) described her as "fairly reliable" and she did make
a then record dive to 256 feet in 1914. She even managed two short defensive war patrols
off Nantucket in June 1918. G-1 participated in sonar development tests and was a school
boat at the new Submarine School in New London.
There are other unusual things about this boat. The Naval Historical Center states
that she was eventually officially redesignated as SS-19 ½ , and finally as SS-20
(a virtually unprecedented reuse of a hull number, that of the USS F-1, lost in a
collision on 17 December 1917). Apparently, the designation system instituted in
July, 1920 had been informally in use for some time and the boat was redesignated
prior to her decommissioning on 6 March 1920. Beyond a doubt, though, whatever she
was designated at the time the G-1 was sunk during depth charge tests in Narragansett
Bay off Taylor's Point, R.I. on 21 June 1921.
Her wreck was officially abandoned by the Navy on 26 August 1921, unmourned and with a hearty good riddance.
Chronically under funded and unable to convince the Navy of the efficacy of his
controversial design features, Simon Lake hung onto submarine construction by his
fingernails until 1924, when the Lake Torpedo Boat Co. was quietly dissolved.
More pictures of this wacky boat can be found at www.history.navy.mil (do a search on Seal)
, www.navsource.org,or Through The Looking Glass on the "G-Boat page,
and in Norman Friedman's excellent book U.S. Submarines Through 1945.