History Revisited: Twin submarine launchings are unforgettable events
Throughout the years, among the most newsworthy events to occur in New England were the launchings, also referred to as christenings, of submarines at the Electric Boat Corporation.
A launching (or christening) ceremony is the formal custom for dedicating, naming and committing to sea a new ship. It is a means of bringing good luck to a new ship and all of those who sail on it.
The history of launching ceremonies can be traced back thousands of years and, in times past, they were more barbaric than they are today. For instance, the Vikings reportedly provided a human sacrifice during boat launches to win over the favors of the sea god. When Christianity was adopted, the human sacrifice was replaced with a goat.
Fortunately, earlier traditions have changed and today, the ceremonies involve a designated sponsor of the ship, usually a female civilian, breaking a “sacrificial” bottle of champagne or wine over the bow of a ship and providing a blessing of sorts to bring good fortune to the boat and those who sail upon it.
Submarine launching ceremonies in Groton have historically attracted thousands of spectators to witness the long tradition. The men and women who design, build and operate the ships, as well as their family and friends, are amongst the many in attendance.
The first two submarines built at the Electric Boat facilities in Groton, the R-1 and R-2, were built for the Peruvian navy. These boats were launched in April and July of 1926, and over 1,500 were in attendance for each of these ceremonies.
The USS Cuttlefish (SS171) was the first submarine built by Electric Boat for the U.S. Navy. It was launched on Nov. 21, 1933, and despite the cold weather, the ceremony was attended by more than 5,000 people.
From the beginning of their production of submarines in 1926 and continuing until the launching of the USS Columbia (SSN771) on Aug. 24, 1994, Electric Boat utilized the “sliding” or “stern-first” method of launching. Launchings using this method, wherein the boats would slide into the water, were considered more dramatic, colorful and visibly exciting than the land-based ceremonies practiced today.
The “sliding” launches would typically be attended by 15,000 to 20,000 spectators.
Some months ago, while conducting research on a different subject, I came across an article in the June 22, 1963, edition of The Day newspaper titled “Double Launch at EB Is a First.” The article, which recounted the launching of the nuclear submarines Flasher (SSN613) and the Tecumseh (SSBN628), indicated that this was “the first simultaneous submarine launching ever attempted” at Electric Boat.
Almost immediately, my memory (which periodically surprises me) seemed to say that this was not the first simultaneous launching ceremony for Electric Boat, that there had been a “double launching” conducted at EB during World War II when the company was producing submarines at an amazing rate of approximately one submarine every two weeks,
After conducting research of my personal Groton memorabilia collection, I found an envelope, postmarked Oct. 17, 1943, displaying a superbly drawn cachet commemorating the launchings of the submarines USS Shark (SS-314) and the USS Bream (SS-243). The cachet also contained the words “First Twin Launching by the Electric Boat Co., Groton, Conn.”
The Shark was launched at noon at the South Yard and the Bream was launched at 1 p.m. at the Victory Yard. It should be noted that at the time, Electric Boat was constructing submarines at two neighboring facilities on the Thames River in Groton: the South Yard is still part of the present EB facilities, and the Victory Yard is now owned by Pfizer.
Now, armed with the information that there had been two “twin” launchings, the search began to determine if there had been other simultaneous submarine launches. With a great deal of assistance from the librarian and staff at the Submarine Force Library and Museum, it was learned that there had been a third “twin” submarine launch at EB. It occurred on Nov. 14, 1943, when the USS Cavalla (SS-314) and the USS Barbel (SS-316) were launched.
Several other simultaneous submarine launches had been conducted as well at other submarine construction facilities throughout the United States. On April 14, 1943, the USS Dragonet (SS-293) and the USS Escolar (SS-294) and then, on May 30, 1943, the USS Devilfish (SS-292) and the USS Hackleback (SS-295) were launched in “twin” ceremonies at the Cramp Shipbuilding Company in Philadelphia.
On June 25, 1944, the USS Piper (SS-409) and the USS Threadfin (SS-410) were launched at the Portsmouth Navy Yard in Kittery, Maine. On Oct. 14, 1966, the USS Whale (SSN638) and the USS Sunfish (SSN649) were launched at the General Dynamics Quincy Division shipyard in Quincy, Mass.
As if “twin” launching ceremonies were not spectacular enough, on Oct. 27, 1943, a “triple launching” was conducted at the Portsmouth Navy Shipyard for the USS Piranha (SS-389), the USS Pomfret (SS-391) and the USS Sterlet (SS-392). This must have been an amazing event.
As a point of interest, just a few hours before the “twin” launch ceremony involving the USS Flasher (SSN613), the former diesel submarine USS Flasher (SS-249) was towed past Electric Boat, heading to Roebling, N.J. to be scrapped. The former Flasher had served her country well during World War II when she made six successful war patrols, sinking 21 ships.
Before being scrapped, her conning towner was removed and today it serves as the centerpiece at the Submarine Veterans World War II National Submarine Memorial East in Groton where it honors the 52 submarines that were lost during World War II and all submariners who lost their lives serving their country.
This article is dedicated to the men and women who have helped design and build our country’s submarines and all submariners who have served on them.
Jim Streeter is the Groton town historian.
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