IN THE WATER: The Mare Island Mystique
By Fred Tannenbaum
"… the killer
fish are spawned that will eat at the vitals of Japan…"
--Leonard Graves, Victory at Sea, "Full Fathom Five."
California’s Napa River is better known to most Americans as running through
a valley of the same name producing some of the world’s finest wines. But
more than 60 years ago, the brackish river baptized several U.S. Navy submarines
that helped secure victory during World War II.
Island Navy Yard, later Naval Shipyard, built some of the war’s most famous
submarines, including the mighty Wahoo (SS-238) and probably refitted
all, if not most, of the rest.
Island also built almost the smallest number of submarines before and during
World War II, yet a high percentage of these boats ranked highly. Those
that slid into the Napa during the war included eight Gato-class
and eight Balao-class, compared to 70 built by Portsmouth, N.H.,
Navy Yard, the 74 at Electric Boat Co.’s massive yards in Groton, Conn.,
and even Manitowoc Shipbuilding in Wisconsin, which built 28 boats. Before
the war, Mare Island also built a Porpoise-class boat, two Salmon-class,
a Tambor-class boat and a Gar-class boat.
of Mare Island’s effort was focused on submarine overhauls, keeping them
updated, and sometimes swiftly returning them to service after being wounded
Island actually was built on a peninsula where the Napa joins the Sacramento
River to empty into San Pablo Bay, about 25 miles north of San Francisco.
It was one of the Navy’s oldest Pacific coast shipyards until it closed
in the early 1990s. It was founded in 1854 by Admiral David Glasgow Farragut,
who later gained fame as the hero of the battle of Mobile Bay during the
shipyard originally was the first base of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which
consisted of only 12 ships. The yard later grew into one of the most important
West Coast shipyards during World War II, even repairing some of the destroyers
nearly destroyed in the 7 Dec. 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
Mare Island-built submarines built before World War II were the Nautilus
(SS-168), Pompano (SS-181), Sturgeon (SS-187), Swordfish
(SS-193), Tuna (SS-203) and Gudgeon (SS-211). All saw extremely
tough service, and were among the first U.S. warships taking the fight
to the Japanese early in the war. On 27 Jan. 1942, Gudgeon sank
the Japanese submarine I-173, the first enemy warship sunk by an American
the nation ramped up to prepare for war in the late 1930s and early 1940s,
the shipyard built a trio with a bloodline unmatched in submarine history.
A Navy request to increase the fleet by 11 percent increase, including
alotting 21,000 tons for submarines, was approved by Congress on 14 June
1940. Included was an order to Mare Island for four Gato (SS-212)-class
submarines including Silversides (SS-236), Trigger (SS-237)
and Wahoo (SS-238).
the postwar Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee (JANAC), are somewhat
controversial, they give a good performance barometer. The three submarines
sank a total of 61 ships (Silversides, 23; Trigger, 18; and
20) totalling 236,670 tons of shipping destroyed (Silversides, 90,080;
Trigger, 86,552; and Wahoo, 60,038). The fourth submarine
in the order, Whale (SS-239), sank nine ships totaling 57,716 tons.
the war, the yard built other successful siblings, including Sunfish
Tunny (SS-282), Tinosa (SS-284), sisters Seahorse
(SS-304), Tang (SS-306), and sisters Spadefish (SS-411) and
smiled on all of those submarines as well. In fact, eight of the top 25
submarines by number of ships sunk according to JANAC were built at Mare
Island, while boats built there accounted for nine of the top 25 by tonnage
of ships sunk.
price paid was high. Pompano, Swordfish, Gudgeon, Trigger, Tulibee
and of course, Wahoo and Tang, were among submarines that
never came home. Mare Island's athletic field near the submarine barracks
was named "Morton Field" as a memorial to Mush.
Island also built submarine tenders that did yeoman’s service to the Submarine
Force during and after the war: Fulton, Sperry, Bushnell, Howard W.
Gilmore and Nereus.
is no evidence that this clustering of success was the result of anything
but coincidence. Mare Island boats were highly regarded by the fleet, especially
those boats also fitted with the rugged Fairbanks-Morse diesel engines.
once the boat passed through Carquinez Strait and out the Golden Gate,
it was on its own.
the Navy’s Bureau of Personnel didn't hoard its best men and give them
orders to Mare Island boats. That would be unfair to staffing boats at
other yards, which also built fine boats. Many boats built elsewhere also
racked up impressive records.
theory held by Darryl Baker, who spent 29+ years at Mare Island, ultimately
working his way up to a branch head in the Workload Forecasting Branch
(6 Years), was that the average mechanic at Mare Island "always wanted
to do the best work possible. This was not only true during WWII but also
during my days on the waterfront. Also, mechanics at the time (WWII) were
able to made decisions on the deck plates without an engineer approving
every nut, bolt and wire hookup."
also thinks, that in addition to the yard building sound submarines, since
it was the main major repair base for Pacific submarines, the yard received
a lot of feedback from the returning ship's commanding officers and crew
concerning the problems they had under real war condition. "I am sure that
this information helped to produce a better fighting ship after Mare Island
repair and modification," says Baker.
the last surviving Mare Island submarine from World War II and the last
survivor of the brotherhood that included Trigger and Wahoo,
can be visited in Muskegon, Michigan during warmer months.
fate, fortune and God just were looking out for the Mare Island boats.
For more Mare Island
information, visit: http://www.fas.org/man/company/shipyard/mare_island.htm
is a journalist living in North Carolina. He is an
independent Silversides historian who has researched that submarine since 1979.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.