Submarine History

Submarine Warfare – An Illustrated History

A Concise History of US Navy Submarine Design

Technical Innovations of the Submarine Force


Chronological Timeline



September 7, 1776

Turtle, a one-man submarine built by 34-year old Yale graduate David Bushnell, unsuccessfully tries to attach a torpedo to the hull of the HMS Eagle anchored off New York Harbor.

July 3, 1801

Robert Fulton’s submarine Nautilus dives to a depth of 25 feet and remains there for more than an hour.


Another American, Silas Halsey, losses his life in New London harbor during the War of 1812 while attempting to use a submarine to blow-up a British warship.

March 31, 1862

CSS Pioneer, the first confederate submarine, is commissioned in New Orleans as a privateer. Pioneer most likely is scuttled just before the capture of New Orleans by union troops.

February 17, 1864

The Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley is the first to sink an enemy ship in combat when it rams its spar torpedo into the hull of the Union screw sloop USS Housatonic off Charleston, South Carolina.  The concussion wave sank the Hunley.


Bureau of Construction and Repair design competition brings inventor John P. Holland a contract to build Plunger.

August 7, 1897

Plunger, a steam-powered submarine, launches but fails to pass acceptance tests.

April 11, 1900

John P. Holland sells his internal combustion, gasoline powered submarine, Holland VI, to the Navy for $160,000, after demonstration trials off Mount Vernon, VA, marking the official birthdate of the U.S. Navy’s submarine force.

October 12, 1900

USS Holland (SS-1), the former Holland VI is commissioned.


The U. S. Navy commissions the seventh and last boat of the original Holland A class, USS Shark (SS-8).


The U. S. Navy imitates the diesel propulsion of French submarine Aigrette when the Electric Boat Company begins building the F class (SS-20 through 23) and the E class (SS-24 and 25) at Fore River Shipyard.

March 5, 1912

The Secretary of the Navy establishes the Atlantic Submarine Flotilla, commanded by Lieutenant Chester W. Nimitz.

February 14, 1914

USS Skipjack (SS-24), the first U. S. submarine to run on diesel engines, is commissioned.


USS Skipjack (SS-24) is the first U. S. submarine to cross the Atlantic under her own power.The Bureau of Construction and Repair and the Bureau of Steam Engineering produce the faster 15-knot, 800-ton, S-class submarines with the assistance of Electric Boat and Lake corporations.

June 19, 1916

Submarine Force U. S. Atlantic Fleet is established.

August 29, 1916

The revolutionary and hotly contested Appropriations Act of 1916 creates the Council of National Defense to take stock of domestic industrial capability to wage war.  The Navy begins building ships and submarines in much larger numbers; Congress specifically includes a provision in the bill to construct thirty new submarines.

January 1, 1917

Submarine School is established at Submarine Base, New London, Connecticut.

March 4, 1917

The Appropriations Act of 1917 adds eighteen more boats to the submarine construction program. The Navy uses resources from the Naval Emergency Fund for twenty more.

June 28, 1917

Submarine Force U. S. Pacific Fleet is established.

December 12, 1918

The American submarine force in Europe borrows four captured U-boats from the British and takes them to Portland, England, for almost three weeks of tests and inspection.

December 17, 1927

While running submerged off Provincetown, Massachusetts, USS S-4 (SS-109) is rammed by the Coast Guard cutter Paulding, sinks and 42 men were lost.  Although at least 6 men survived initially, trapped in the forward torpedo room, non-existence of a rescue capability resulted in their death. This accident leads to the development of the Momsen Lung, which for the first time allows escape from a sunken submarine; the McCann rescue diving bell; and telephone buoys, which allow crews trapped inside a submarine to communicate with rescue ships on the surface.


The Washington Navy Yard makes 20 sets of quartz steel, echo-ranging equipment, a major development in SONAR (SOund NAvigation and Ranging) technology.

October 27, 1933

USS Porpoise (SS-172) is the first U. S. submarine to have electric reduction gear and high-speed diesel engines.


The importance of submarine operations in the Pacific, Caribbean, and the South Atlantic leads the Navy Department to install the first submarine air-conditioning system on board USS Cuttlefish (SS-171), in spite of space constraints.

May 23, 1939

USS Squalus (SS-192) sinks during a practice dive off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. By using a rescue chamber, 33 men are saved.

January 1, 1941

The first RADAR for submarines becomes operational.

December 7, 1941

Submarines are spared during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, making the submarine force indispensable.   “When I assumed command of the Pacific Fleet on 31 December 1941 our submarines were already operating against the enemy, the only units of the Fleet that could come to grips with the Japanese for months to come. It was to the Submarine force that I looked to carry the load until our great industrial activity could produce the weapons we so sorely needed to carry the war to the enemy. It is to the everlasting honor and glory of our submarine personnel that they never failed us in our days of great peril.” (Admiral Chester W. Nimitz)

December 31, 1941

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, a qualified submariner, is sworn in as Commander, Pacific Fleet, aboard USS Grayling (SS-209).

January 27, 1942

USS Cudgeon (SS-211) is the first U. S. submarine to sink an enemy submarine, the Japanese IJN I-173.


World War II ends.  Fleet consists of 6,768 active units, 232 are submarines. The defense budget is $83 billion representing 89.5% of federal spending.U. S. Navy begins study of German U-boat technology and future anti-submarine warfare (ASW) problems. Begins work on new SONAR, weapons, and propulsion systems.Admiral Ernest J. King is the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), James V. Forrestal is Secretary of the Navy.Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz becomes CNO.

September 2, 1945

By V-J Day, U. S. submarines have sunk 5 million tons of Japanese naval and merchant shipping at a loss of 52 U. S. submarines and more than 3,500 valiant men.


Captain Hyman G. Rickover arrives at Oak Ridge to begin study of atomic energy.Greater Underwater Propulsive Power (GUPPY) program for WWII fleet boat modernization begins.


James Forrestal becomes the first Secretary of Defense.First two GUPPY submarines, USS Odax (SS-484) and USS Pomodon (SS-486) are commissioned.USS Cusk (SS-348) fires the first LOON missile from a submarine.Regulus missile program begins.USS Irex (SS-482), first fleet snorkel submarine, enters service.


Bureau of Ships forms Nuclear Power Branch and Captain Rickover chosen as head.Westinghouse signs contract with the Atomic Energy Commission to build the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, beginning the Submarine Thermal Reactor (STR) design using pressurized water.Submarine Squadron 6 in the Canal Zone conducts tests with USS Tusk (SS-426) concluding that submarines are the best ASW platform against snorkeling submarines.Charleston Navy Shipyard enters the submarine overhaul business.

January 20,   1948

USS Cusk (SS-348, later redesignated SSC-348) is the Navy’s first guided-missile submarine.


USS Cochino (SS-345) lost at sea.


President Harry S. Truman authorizes the construction of the first nuclear powered submarine.Bureau of Ships begins design work on Swimmer Delivery Vehicles (SDV).


Bureau of Ships signs contract with Westinghouse and Electric Boat for USS Nautilus, first nuclear powered submarine.


Keel laid for USS Nautilus (SSN-571) at Electric Boat, Groton, Connecticut.


Admiral Robert B. Carney becomes CNO.Fleet consists of 1,122 active units, including 110 submarines (all diesel). The defense budget is $52.8 billion, representing 69.3% of federal spending.First Submarine Thermal Reactor prototype reaches initial criticality.Atomic Energy Commission approves the Submarine Fleet Reactor (SFR) project. This will result in the S3W and S4W reactor designs.Keel laid for USS Seawolf (SSN-575), the second nuclear powered submarine, at Electric Boat. This submarine is designed with the Submarine Intermediate Reactor (SIR) using liquid sodium coolant.USS Albacore (AGSS-569) is commissioned to test new submarine technology. Her most important innovation is her teardrop shaped hull form.

May 8, 1953

USS Tunny (SS-282), prototype SSG conversion is recommissioned. She is the first U. S. submarine equipped to fire surface-to-surface Regulus missiles.

September 30, 1954

USS Nautilus (SSN-571), the world’s first nuclear powered ship, is commissioned.


The X-1, the U. S. Navy’s first midget submarine, is placed in service.

January 17, 1955

Commander Dennis Wilkinson, aboard the USS Nautilus (SSN-571), sends the historic message, “Underway on nuclear power,” signaling a new era in both submarine warfare and maritime propulsion.

December 3, 1956

The Navy terminates participation in the U. S. Army’s Jupiter missile program and begins pursuing the development of the Polaris missile submarine.


USS Skate (SSN-578), the first submarine to be powered by the Submarine Fleet Reactor, is commissioned. This class introduces Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and Mare Island Naval Shipyard to nuclear powered submarine construction.Regulus missile program terminated to free funds for the Polaris project. SSGNs on order are recast as SSN-593 class attack submarines. Existing Regulussubmarines continue operations.

August 3, 1958

USS Nautilus (SSN-571) is the first ship to pass beneath the North Pole, on a four day, 1,830-mile voyage from the Pacific to the Atlantic.


USS Triton (SSN-586) commissioned. She is the first and only dual reactor submarine in the U. S. Navy.USS Skipjack (SSN-585), is commissioned, the first submarine combining nuclear propulsion with the Albacore hull form. The first submarine powered by the S5W reactor. This reactor plant will become the workhorse of the nuclear powered submarine force for more than 30 years. This class introduces Newport News Shipbuilding and Ingalls Shipbuilding to nuclear powered submarine construction.USS George Washington (SSBN-598), the first of the “41 for Freedom” Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) submarines, is commissioned.


USS Halibut (SSGN 587), the first and only nuclear powered, Regulus guided missile submarine, is commissioned. She is also the first submarine to carry the Ships Inertial Navigation System (SINS).Polaris A-2 missile becomes operational.

May 10, 1960

USS Triton (SSN-586) completes the first submerged circumnavigation of the Earth, following Ferdinand Magellan’s route and covering more than 41,000 miles in just 84 days.

July 20, 1960

While submerged off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, USS George Washington (SSBN-598) successfully fires two Polaris A-1 missiles with a range of 1,200 miles. This year, she will depart Charleston, South Carolina on the first operational strategic patrol with the Polaris missile system.

August 25, 1960

USS Sea Dragon (SSN-584) charts the Northwest Passage and surfaces at the North Pole where the crew plays baseball.


USS Thresher (SSN-593) is commissioned at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the first unit of what will be a class of 14 submarines. This is the first new design submarine for which Electric Boat is not the lead yard.

July 9, 1961

USS Robert E. Lee (SSBN-601) sets a new continuous underwater patrol record of more than 68 days.

November 8, 1962

USS Ethan Allen (SSBN-608) sets a missile record by firing six Polaris A-2 missiles with a range of 1,500 miles.


USS Sam Houston (SSBN-609) is the first Polaris submarine assigned to a Mediterranean patrol.USS Lafayette (SSBN-616), the third class of SSBN, is commissioned.Polaris A-3 missile becomes operational.

April 10, 1963

USS Thresher (SSN-593) is reported overdue and presumed lost during a test dive 220 miles east of Boston. SUBSAFE program initiated as a result of this accident.


USS Halibut (SSGN 587) makes the last Regulus patrol. With Polaris on line, Regulus submarines are phased out.

August 21, 1964

USS Daniel Boone (SSBN-629) is the first fleet ballistic missile submarine permanently assigned to the Pacific.

January 18, 1965

President Johnson announces plans to develop Poseidon, a more powerful missile than the Polaris A-3.

February 2, 1966

USS George Washington (SSBN-598), after long deployment on many submerged patrols, completes her initial overhaul and is refit to carry the 2,500-mile range Polaris A-3 missile.

December 6, 1966

USS Queenfish (SSN-651) is the first Sturgeon class attack submarine to be commissioned.


USS Sturgeon (SSN-637), the lead ship of a 37 unit class, is commissioned. This class introduces General Dynamics to submarine construction. New York Shipbuilding Corporation drops out of submarine construction while building USS Pogy (SSN-647); she is towed, to Ingalls Shipbuilding, in Pascagoula, Mississippi to be completed.

April 1, 1967

USS Will Rogers (SSBN-659) is commissioned. This completes the building of the “41 for Freedom” FBM submarines, two years ahead of schedule.


At the height of the Vietnam War, the fleet consists of 932 active units, including 156 submarines (diesel and nuclear).Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, Washington, enters the nuclear powered submarine overhaul business.

June 5, 1968

USS Scorpion (SSN-589) is reported overdue and presumed lost during her transit from the Mediterranean to Norfolk.

August 17, 1968

USS Dolphin (AGSS-555), a small diesel powered research and development submarine, capable of operating at depths in excess of any other known submarine, is commissioned.


NR-1, the Navy’s only nuclear powered research submarine, is commissioned.

April 5, 1969

The 100th Polaris patrol in the Pacific is completed when USS Stonewall Jackson (SSBN-634) returns to Apra Harbor, Guam.


The first Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV), designed for quick deployment in the event of a submarine accident, is launched.Poseidon missile conversions begin on SSBN-616 class submarines.


Portsmouth Naval Shipyard drops out of the nuclear powered submarine construction business. Overhaul business continues.


Design work begins on the Tomahawk cruise missile. This is the U.S. Navy’s first cruise missile since Regulus.Design work begins on a submarine launched version of the Harpoon anti-ship missile.Mare Island Naval Shipyard drops out of the nuclear powered submarine construction business. Overhaul business continues.

February 16, 1973

The Secretary of the Navy announces Bangor, Washington as the initial base for Trident submarine operations.


Ingalls Shipyard drops out of the nuclear powered submarine construction business. This action leaves only General Dynamics Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding as the U. S. Navy’s only source of new construction nuclear powered submarines.


USS Tigrone, (SS-419), the last of the World War II fleet submarines is decommissioned.

November 13, 1976

USS Los Angeles (SSN-688) is commissioned at Newport News, Virginia as the first of a new class of attack submarine. She is outfitted with the S6G reactor plant.


The U. S. Navy consists of 523 active ships, including 118 submarines (3 diesels, 115 nuclear). The defense budget is $95.1 billion, representing 23.4% of federal spending.


Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia is established for Atlantic fleet Trident submarine operations.


Ten SSBN-616 class submarines begin upgrades for Trident C-4 missile systems.

March 3, 1980

USS Nautilus (SSN-571) is decommissioned at Mare Island Naval Shipyard.


USS Theodore Roosevelt (SSBN-600) and USS Abraham Lincoln (SSBN-602) are decommissioned. The remaining SSBN-598 class submarines are converted to SSNs.John Lehman becomes the Secretary of the Navy. He plans a 600 ship navy with 100 attack submarines.

June 27, 1981

Upon return to port, USS James K. Polk (SSBN-645) completes the submarine force’s 2,000th fleet ballistic missile deterrent patrol.

November 11, 1981

USS Ohio (SSBN-726), the first Trident class submarine, is commissioned. She is outfitted with the S8G reactor plant.

February 1, 1982

Admiral Rickover is relieved by Admiral McKee.

March 1, 1982

The Navy’s last Polaris fleet ballistic missile submarine, USS Robert E. Lee (SSBN-601), is redesignated SSN-601, marking the end of the Polaris system after 21 years of service.


Tomahawk cruise missile becomes operational.USS Sam Houston (SSBN-609) and USS John Marshall (SSBN-611) begin conversion as swimmer delivery platforms.Design work begins on the SSN-21 class to succeed the SSN-688, Los Angeles class.Introduction of the Dry Deck Shelter, a modular housing capable of being fitted onto the deck of a submarine for swimmers and swimmer delivery vehicle (SDV) lockouts. This is the first real tasking of SSNs to special operations support. Long hull SSN-637s and converted SSBNs are given capability to carry the shelters.

May 6, 1986

For the first time, three submarines surface together at the North Pole, USS Archerfish (SSN-678), USS Hawkbill (SSN-666), and USS Ray (SSN-653).


U. S. Navy consists of 594 active units, including 139 submarines (3 diesels, 136 nuclear). The defense budget is $274 billion, representing 27.3% of federal spending.


USS Tennessee (SSBN-734), the first Trident submarine employing the D-5 missile system, is commissioned.USS San Juan (SSN-751), the first improved 688 submarine (688I), is commissioned. Improvements include a strengthening of the sail and the relocation of the fairwater planes to the bow. This gives the class an Arctic operations capability.


USS Memphis (SSN-691) is withdrawn from active service to become a research platform to test advanced submarine technology such as optronic non-hull-penetrating masts, Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUV), and large diameter torpedoes.

March 21,   1989

The first submerged test launch of the eight-warhead Trident II missile is made aboard USS Tennessee (SSBN-734) off Cape Canaveral, Florida.


USS Scamp (SSN-588) becomes the first nuclear powered submarine to be dismantled as part of the U. S. Navy’s Submarine Recycling Program at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. This program leads to a safe and effective process for disposing of decommissioned nuclear powered submarines.USS Blueback (SS-581), the last non-nuclear powered attack submarine in the U. S. Navy inventory, is decommissioned.The last of the SSN-585 (USS Skipjack) class submarines are decommissioned.


The U. S. Navy consists of 529 active units, including 121 submarines (all nuclear powered).USS Louisville (SSN-724) fires the first Tomahawk cruise missile from a submarine in a combat situation during Operation Desert Storm.Admiral Kelso, CNO, orders the design of an “affordable” submarine, as a follow on to the SSN-21 class. This is the beginning of the New SSN (NSSN), which will be named the Virginia class SSN.

February 4,   1991

The Pentagon earmarks $2.8 billion for a Seawolf nuclear powered attack submarine in their fiscal year 1992 budget.


Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney terminates the SSN-21 program and asks Congress to rescind funds for two boats authorized in fiscal year 1991. Compromise is reached to cancel one unit and retain the other.President Clinton supports construction of the third SSN-21 class submarine.


USS Kamehameha (SSBN-642) and USS James K. Polk (SSBN-645) replace the SSN-609 and SSN-611 in swimmer delivery roles.


USS Mariano G. Vallejo (SSBN-658), last of the original “41 for Freedom,” is phased out of the strategic force.


USS Baton Rouge (SSN-689) becomes the first SSN-688 class submarine to be decommissioned. Units of this class are still under construction.Dr. Robert Ballard explores shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea aboard NR-1.Admiral Boorda, CNO, proposes the “Arsenal Ship,” a surface warship designed to carry a large volume of fire power. This concept will lead to ideas of converting some SSBN-726 class submarines into cruise missile submarines (SSGN).


USS Gato (SSN-615), last of the SSN-593 class submarines, is decommissioned.USS Cheyenne (SSN-773), the 62nd and last unit of the SSN-688 class submarines, is commissioned.Charleston Naval Shipyard and Mare Island Naval Shipyard are closed as a result of Base Re-Alignment and Closure decisions.

July 3, 1996

Sea trials for USS Seawolf (SSN-21) begin.


U. S. Navy consists of 365 active ships, including 91 submarines (all nuclear powered). Defense budget is $258.3 billion, representing 16.1% of federal spending.

April 7, 1997

Newport News Shipbuilding is awarded a $71.9 million contract to provide design and planning yard services for Seawolf class submarines.

July 19, 1997

USS Seawolf (SSN-21) is commissioned in Groton, Connecticut. She is outfitted with the S6W reactor plant.


USS Connecticut (SSN-22) is commissioned.Tomahawk cruise missile strikes from submarines against targets inside Iraq emphasize a shift from “blue water” operations to the littorals.General Dynamics and Newport News announce cooperative effort to build the SSN-774 class submarine. Each shipyard will build specific sub-assemblies for each boat.

September 10, 1998

Secretary of the Navy John H. Dalton names the lead ship of the new attack submarine USS Virginia (SSN-774).  Designed to dominate the coastal region, while maintaining open-ocean supremacy.  The class will include Tomahawk missile capability, advanced SONAR systems for anti-submarine and mine warfare; reconfigurable torpedo room for special missions; advanced SEAL delivery system (ASDS) and nine-man lock out trunk, to launch unmanned underwater or aerial vehicles for mine reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and other missions; enhanced stealth; and enhanced electronic support measures (ESM).

September 2, 1999

USS Virginia (SSN-774) keel laying ceremony at Quonset Point, RI.  With construction begun at Electric Boat, CT and Newport News, VA, Virginia is expected to be complete in 2004.

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