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One hundred years ago Sunday 17 December

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    Posted: 13 Dec 2017 at 11:21am
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Ladies and Gentlemen:

The centennial anniversary of the loss of the USS F-1 occurs on Sunday, 17 December 2017. This is important in the history of the US Naval Submarine Force as it is the first loss of a US submarine during a declared war. Being so it then should be remembered that there are fifty three US submarines lost during wartime not the fifty two that only counts those lost during the US involvement in World War Two. For the past seventy seven years the history of our force has been remembered wrong. It is time for that egregious error be corrected.

It has been said to me by way of argument that the loss of F-1 was only an accident. This is true but so also were the losses of USS S-28, USS S-36, USS S-39 and R-12.

It has been said to me by way of argument that the loss of F-1 was not in a 'combat zone'. The west coast of the US was as much of a combat zone as the waters off Hawaii in 1944 and the waters off Key West in June of 1943.

These two arguments also logically argue that S-28 and R-12 should be removed from the list of fifty two submarines lost in World War Two. This then would need a revision of history to reflect the number of wartime US submarine losses to an even fifty.

Rather than be exclusive it would seem to be a better way to remember the sacrifices of our submarine sailors to be inclusive. Thus the actual number of wartime losses in the US Naval Submarine Force should be fifty three.

The details of the loss of F-1 are described below:

The US Navy's First Wartime Submarine Loss

The distance from San Pedro Bay to La Jolla in California is roughly 75 nautical miles.  A course connecting Point Fermin, the southern point of the Palos Verde Hills with Point Loma is 142°T, The reciprocal then would be 322°T.  To transit between these two points, one would go south on 142° and to come back one would steer 322°  

In a smooth sea the F-Class submarine could make the trip in about 8 hours at just less than 10 knots.   Naval Instructions require that ships perform and engineering test to determine both the stamina of a ship and her capabilities.  Both must be known to plan strategy.  The test for submarines was to run at a constant standard speed for 48 hours.  The test would see how far the ship could go in the requisite time.  Slowing or stopping for repairs would count against the ship's performance and reflect poorly on the ship and crew.  The best a ship could do, then, was to maintain a constant fairly high speed for the entire time.  To do a 48 hour engineering test would require six trips for the F-boats, three south from San Pedro toward San Diego  and three back to the north..

In December 1917, the USS F-1, USS F-3 and USS F-2 found themselves making just such a test.  In the five months since the United States entered World War I on the side of the Allied Powers, the US Naval Submarine Force had been thrust into an unfamiliar role.  Instead of combating enemy fleets trying to force our coast, they boats were performing anti-submarine warfare patrols off the east coast of the US and off the Azores.  There was little threat to the west coast so the remaining boats there were mostly holding training exercises.

The F-class submarine was designed in the early 1900s  when the role of the submarine was still very much in its infancy.  Electric Boat offered the General Board several designs in 1909.  These were the EB-18, EB-19 and EB-20.  They were variations on the theme put forth by EB in its C and D Classes.  Slightly longer than the D Class, EB-18 used gasoline engines for propulsion and had one more periscope.  The EB-19 design was essentially the same, but with diesel engines.  Both were too slow, the board required 14kts the -18 and -19 designs were rejected.  The EB-20 design came in two varieties, diesel and gasoline. 

Only the diesel powered EB-20B would make the requisite 14 kts. It was be accepted and four boats were built, all  on the west coast.  These for boats  would be the F-class, USS F-1, USS F-2, USS F-3 and USS F-4.

The class were all single hulled boats with circular sections laid along the same axis.  Their length overall was 142'-6".  Their beam was a mere 15'-5".  The hull was divided into three compartments;  the torpedo room with the breech ends of the four 18 inch torpedo tubes,  the control room with the operators for the ballast control valves (Kingstons), hydroplanes and periscopes,  and the engine room with two diesel engines their dynamos and shafting. The diesel engines of the F-class couldn't be reversed so shaft reversal (or backing down)  took a bit of time.  The engine had to be shut down, the clutch between the engine and the main motor disengaged then the main motor started in the astern direction.   The two 390 horsepower diesel engines were connected by a clutch and common shaft to 310 horsepower motors which could be used as generators for battery charging.  The battery was a collection of 120 Excide cells in rubber lined steel jars.  The cells were open topped and prone to leak acid into the bilge space under them.  The diesels were generally unreliable and required constant maintenance.  The motors were of the open yoke type and were suceptable to  electrical grounding in the damp atmosphere of the engine/motor room.  The F-class and the sister class, the E, were the first EB boats to have bow planes.   The fledgling submarine fleet also had the first shipboard radios on submarines.  Those in the F boats were made by Finekey.  (One wonders if that is the origin of the colloquial term that means hard to maintain).

The class was involved in several incidents, not all good.  F-2 had set a record on a dive on 5 September 1912 when she went to a depth of 283 feet, some 83 feet below her test depth"(breaking the G-1's record 256').  Lt James B. Howell, her CO was censured for the test. 

F-4 failed to come up after a routine dive off Honolulu harbor on  15 March 1915.  It was the first time the US Navy had lost a submarine and its crew.  Great efforts were made to reach the ship and rescue the crew, but she was in 300 feet of water and there was no hope.  The hull was finally raised the next year.  Investigation determined that the cause of the sinking was a structural failure of the forward battery well due to acid leakage from the batteries.  This sulfuric acid electrolyte had, over a period of time, caused heavy corrosion of rivets on tank seams which, in their weakened state failed and caused flooding of the ship.  The hull was eventually placed in a deep trench some 40 feet off wharf position Serria-14  on the north side of the submarine base at Pearl Harbor where she still resides.

F-2  ran into the underside of a kelp barge in August 1917, tearing off the radio antenna and the upper section of #1 scope.  In October, the H-1 smacked the F-2 as the former came alongside.  Hitting along frame 55, H-1 started rivets and opened seams for 40 to 50:" above the waterline along an area between frames 56 and 39.  Then in November, K-7 hit F-2 forward and started rivets from frame 10 to 14.  All these insults had been repaired by mid December.  They seemed to be sturdy boats and with the exception of F-4, safe boats.

Fog is a common factor off the California coast in winter.  The plan for the engineering run included contingency of turning to seaward in case of running into restricted visibility.  The engineering run started on the morning of 17 December 1917.  The first leg was a run to the south  with a course reversal with La Jolla light abeam to port.  The three ships formed a rough line abreast  and started south.  The engines were running smoothly at abour 292 RPM.  The engines were direct drive to the screw and at this speed, the boats made about 10 knots.  There was likely  a current to the south of about two knots so the speed "over the ground" was nearer 12 knots.  The run south was uneventful throughout the day and as the afternoon wore on, the line abreast was slightly ragged.  F-2 was to seaward standing to the south on course 142°T about ten nautical miles off La Jolla light.  F-3 was two point forward of the F-2's port beam at a range of about 7000 yards.  F-1 was about 2000 yards astern of F-3 on a bearing of 007°T from F-3.

Sunset occured about 1630 the evening of 17 December 1917 and it was fully dark abour 1715.    The orders to the flotilla were to maintain speed  as per the engineering run plan on course 142°T until abeam of La Jolla light then to stand out to sea to avoid fog then to come around to such a course that would bring them to San Pedro by about 1000 the next morning.  The ships were, even though together, were operating independently, not in formation.  Each ship was to inform the others of course changes and speed changes.  Each of the ships cruised through the calm sea with running lights on.

The F-Class had been designed without a bridge as we see on later submarines.  The crews had a pipe and rail rig made up to which a canvas screen  was lashed.  This provided some protection from the wind and occasional spray.  The captain "  " and the Officer of the Deck " " were on the bridge as well as two lookouts.  "" was in the connning tower.  Engine orders were shouted down the hatch to the connning tower. There was a helm stand on the bridge that connected via a linkage through the hull to the internal steering stand.   Air was being drawn into the ship for the engines through the air induction and through the conning tower hatch.  All seemed routine but the Captain was aware of the impending danger of nightime maneuver near land in the fog and at night.

About 1830, the ships began to run into fog that soon became thick..  F-1 changed course to 165°T  to stand away from La Jolla and Point Loma.  Being the aft most ship, she would pass astern of F-3. A radio message was sent to indicate the course change but it was evidently not received by either of F-1's companions.    The OOD of  F-2  was mindful of the two ships on his port hand.   At 1855 he turned F-2 to the west to clear the fog and to clear the area into which F-1 and F-3 would maneuver. F-2 would stand out to sea clear of the fog then turn north for the return trip along course 322°   Just after 1900 F-3 put on 10° right rudder and began a turn to a reciprocal course of 322°.  The intention was to reverse course, run to the north out of the fog and back toward San Pedro.  The assumption made was that F-1 was still to port and astern.  F-3' s radio operator started to try to raise F-1 and F-2 on the radio to inform them of the course change and intentions.

F-3 was coming slowly about and was crossing 310° when, at about 1912, her lookouts and OOD sighted the masthead and port running light of another ship closing at a combined speed of nearly 20 knots.  The OOD screamed for F-3's helmsman to  put her rudder hard over  to turn faster to starboard and for the engines to be reversed.   The other ship was crossing F-3's bow from starboard to port.  The other ship was F-1 running to the south on 165°   Seeing the lights of F-3 looming out of the fog, F-1's skipper  tried to come to starboard.  The combination of efforts was too slow to do anything but make the collision worse by placing the ships at more of a right angle.  The resulting collision was deadly.

F-3 struck F-1  on the port side some 15' aft of the shears near the bulkhead between control and the engine room.  The stiff stem of F-3 and the rounded torpedo tube bow cap punched a three foot wide by ten foot high hole in the upper hull of F-1 driving all the way into the superstructure.  F-1 rolled to starboard throwing all four men who were on the small canvas and pipe bridge into the sea.  F-3 pulled out of the hole with the screws reversed.  Not being pushed anymore,  F-1 rolled back to port and started to flood fast.  The man in F-1's  conning tower, seeing the water coming in below him climbed out and went overside. No one else escaped.  Someone in the engine room  tried to open the hatch to get out but the ship was sinking fast and water pressure on the outside kept it shut until it was too late.  Those in the forward end of the boat had no chance.  Nineteen men went down with the ship.  The five  in the water were picked up  by F-3 and she made her way back to San Pedro.

In October, 1975, the USNS De Steiguer (T-AGOS-12) was using some new equipment to search for an F-4J aircraft known to have crashed in the sea off Point Loma.  Her side scan sonar spotted what appeared to be a submarine in 635' of water.  The hull was photographed by CURV II and again on 24 October 1975 by DSRV-2.  It was positively identified as F-1.  The boat is laying on its starboard side with the hole made by F-3 clearly visible.  The hull is in amazingly good shape and serves as  deep gravesite for the US Naval Submarine Force's first wartime submarine loss.

We should be changing all references to the number of wartime losses in the US Submarine Force to fifty three as the number of fifty two is just wrong.

Very Respectfully

Jim Christley EMCS(SS) USN(ret)

St Augustine, FL


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