Published April 10. 2000 4:00AM Updated December 29. 2009 8:10PM
Harry Caldwell took command of Navy submarine 56 years after his father commanded the Navy's first
East Lyme — As he was going through the Naval Academy in the early 1940s, and Submarine School in Groton after his graduation, Harry H. Caldwell learned a good deal about submarine history, but no one ever mentioned the role his father played in the development of the undersea fleet.
It wasn’t until 10 years later, as he prepared to take command of his own submarine, that Caldwell pulled some boxes that had belonged to his father out of storage and found letters his father had written home, charts from New York Harbor, and newspaper accounts of his father’s early command, as the first skipper of the USS Holland, the S-1, the first Navy submarine.
“There was not a lot, but enough to give me a thread to pull at, and to go off and look for more stuff,” said Caldwell, now a retired Navy captain living in East Lyme. He also talked to his mother, who began to fill in some of the family history, how as an aide to an important admiral Caldwell had an opportunity to become one of the first Navy officers to ride the Holland, and that little bit of experience gave him an advantage when it came time to pick a captain. He learned, too, how his father, under the tutelage of Capt. Frank Cable, assembled a crew and conducted sea trials in New York Harbor.
“It must have been awful,” Caldwell said. “You had all those sailboats so you couldn’t hear them, and you couldn’t see them because there was no periscope — it was a recipe for disaster.”
But his father put the ship into commission, and through some exercises that began to demonstrate how the fundamental nature of naval warfare would be forever changed. And in an amazing coincidence, as the Navy prepares to celebrate the centennial of submarining on Tuesday, the only child of the commissioning skipper prepares to celebrate his own 78th birthday. Caldwell was born on April 11, 1922.
“By the time I came along, he was a writer, and that was his business, and he never looked back,” said Caldwell. His father died the year his son turned 17, and never lived to see his son become a respected submariner in his own right. And until Caldwell junior began to investigate, there was little information available about his father’s role in the early days of submarine warfare.
“He’s pretty obscure,” Caldwell said. “Most pioneers in the business have a tender named after them or something, but he was pretty much left out of it. You never hear about Lieutenant Caldwell.”
A ride on the Holland
Caldwell senior was born Feb. 5, 1873, in St. Louis, the fourth of five children. His father died when he was 4, and family finances were tight.
“I think it was the free education that attracted my father to the Naval Academy,” Caldwell said. “He was a real bright young guy, known to people as a real eager beaver.”
Graduating in 1891, he seemed on a fast track, and was named an aide to Adm. George Dewey before the Battle of Manila in 1898. As the Spanish American War broke out, Dewey won renown as the commodore who wiped out an entire fleet without losing a single boat. Caldwell senior returned to his family, then living in Quincy, Ill., where townspeople presented him with an inscribed silver loving cup and a huge party for his role in the battle.
The following year, when Electric Boat demonstrated the Holland in the Potomac River, Dewey went to observe. The admiral declined the offer of a ride, but sent his aide down in the boat for a closer look. It was the first of several dives that Caldwell senior would make.
The Navy purchased the submarine with few plans for its use, and since Lt. Caldwell had more experience than almost any other officer, he was asked to help assemble a crew. He began consulting with EB engineers about the skills that would be needed, and as he grew more acquainted with the ship his superiors realized that he would be the best commissioning captain.
The Holland’s official log records the commissioning with little fanfare: “11 Oct 1900, Acting Gunner O. Hill, Lieut. H. H. Caldwell reported for duty; 12 Oct 1900, Lieut. H.H. Caldwell today placed this boat in commission.” Caldwell would command it until Nov. 25, 1902.
The Holland is a success
Caldwell was taking command of a ship that did what no other Navy ship in history would do — approach and attack from under the sea.
“I’m proud of him mostly because he started from zero,” his son said. “He didn’t have a ship’s organization book to read — he had to write it. Captain Cable was able to tell him how to keep the ship level, but that was about all. That’s where they started learning.”
And he apparently learned quickly. During war games in Newport Harbor a couple of weeks before the formal commissioning, Caldwell was at the helm when the battleship Kearsarge played the role of attacker. Sneaking in close to the hull, Caldwell sent over the message: “Hello, Kearsarge, you are blown to atoms. This is the Holland.”
A few months later, the senior Caldwell wrote that the little torpedo boat had amazing success during that evening exercise: “The ‘Holland’ was not seen by any vessel of the blockading fleet or torpedo boat, although she was within range of three of the former and several of the latter. I consider that the attack was a success because the ‘Holland’ could in all probability have torpedoed three blockading vessels without being discovered.”
The captain of the Kearsarge, meanwhile, observed in his own report of the incident, “It is clear that the ‘Holland’ type will play a very serious part in future naval warfare.”
Caldwell resigned in 1909 and joined the reserves, re-entering active duty for World War I, when he commanded the warship Amphritrite in New York Harbor. He did one stint at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton during his reserve years, some time in the 1930s, when he served on one of the R-class boats, almost 10 times the size of the Holland.
“I can’t imagine what good he did, but at least he must have learned that R boats were palaces compared to the Holland,” his son said.
Caldwell senior became a writer and editor in the movies, and was 48 when he married Katharine Clark, known as Katharine Hilliker in cinematic circles, where she did titles for the early silent films. Together they were involved with about 75 movies, travelogues early in their career, and later such famous films as “Ben Hur” and “Seventh Heaven,” which won the first Academy Award. Histories of the Oscar still list H.H. Caldwell as a contributor to “Seventh Heaven.”
“I was pretty proud because what that said was my dad had gone to the top of one profession, right to the top of another,” Caldwell said.
A predetermined career
Caldwell senior lived long enough to see his son pass the entrance examination for the Naval Academy, but not long enough to see him enter the school. Forced to find a living in the year before he could win sponsorship to the school, Caldwell junior called on the old family friend Cable at EB. Cable helped him secure a job as mail boy, carrying a leather sack filled with messages around the shipyard, making the same route six times a day, for 37 cents an hour. Later, he would work as an assistant shipfitter, learning how submarines were built and how they worked, before entering the academy in 1940.
With war looming, Caldwell’s was one of the classes that was put on a fast track, scheduled to graduate in three years instead of four. In the summer before his final year, he sought permission to return to Groton and ride submarines during his 30-day leave. He spent the month on an O-class boat doing training. The following summer, he and more than one-third of his 250-plus man graduating class reported to the Groton base for Submarine School.
“What choice did I have?” Caldwell jokes today. “With my background? It was a no-brainer.”
His first assignment was on the USS Dace, SS-247, at almost 2,400 tons more than 40 times the size of the Holland that his father had commanded 43 years earlier. He made four war patrols, including the famous patrol where the Dace pulled the crew of the Darter off a reef and then scuttled the stranded boat in a spectacular rescue.
After the war Caldwell had a succession of assignments in submarines and ashore, including a stint at Yale University teaching officers-in-training. His own command came on the Spikefish, from 1956-58, and he quickly earned a reputation as a top skipper, the kind of commander enlisted men and young officers wanted to serve with.
“Because we were on the river, we caught a lot of basic training for students at the Submarine School,” Caldwell said. “You’d bring them down in the morning, make 15 or 20 dives, move them through the various positions, and get them familiar with the boat.”
Then came a succession of staff jobs, including materiel officer on the Atlantic submarine force staff in the early 1960s. The men in his office rode submarines during sea trials, and on April 10, 1963, one of the men who sat at a desk across from him went out with the USS Thresher; that boat was lost with all hands, a reminder that while the boats were getting bigger and better, it was still a dangerous profession.
Caldwell earned a deep-draft command on the oiler Marias, AO-57, and after a few more staff jobs got his final Navy job, as commanding officer of the Fleet Training Center in Newport, where his father had been homeported when he commanded Holland.
A few years ago Caldwell got a chance to experience first-hand what his father went through with the Holland. He knows retired Royal Navy Cmdr. Compton Hall, who had used a borrowed Navy minehunter and calculated the effects of currents and tides and wind to salvage the first British submarine, the Holland 1, commissioned in 1902 and modeled after the U.S. Navy’s Holland.
“I was going over there anyway, so I wrote and asked him if I could come by,” Caldwell said. “That submarine was 10 feet longer than the Holland, but it was still pretty small to me. You can move, but not much, and of course you can’t move at all once you get under way because you would change the trim.”
Pneumatic valves kept raising the air pressure inside, and there was a spring-loaded relief cap at the top of the boat.
“When the pressure got high enough inside the submarine, you would hear it pop up, and you would look up and see green water, and hope it would close quickly enough so the water wouldn’t rush inside,” Caldwell said. “The conditions must have been horrible.”
“I already had a great deal of respect for what my father had done,” Caldwell said, “but that made me realize it was much worse than I thought.”