Monday, July 9, 2018

Up periscope!

For the second installment in my "living history" series, I present you with a virtual tour of the American Undersea Warfare Center located at Seawolf Park in Galveston, Texas. The American Undersea Warfare Center is home to the Gato-class submarine USS Cavalla (SS-244) and the Edsall-class destroyer escort USS Stewart (DE-238). From the grounds of Seawolf Park, you can see the remains of the S.S. Selma, a WWI era tanker, partially submerged in Galveston Bay. Wikipedia describes it best: "Seawolf park is unique in that it has a submarine, the remains of a merchant ship, and a destroyer escort designed to conduct antisubmarine warfare -- the hunter, hunted, and the protector -- all in one museum area." This quote comes directly from its page on Seawolf Park, linked above. While I've visited the USS Cavalla and the USS Stewart several times, I haven't yet made it to the remains of the S.S. Selma which would require a boat.

For my new readers, clicking any blue link will open a new window with a new web page containing more information. Clicking on a photo will display a larger format version of that photo. This page will still remain open. I encourage you to click on these links and photos, as that will enrich what I've written. At least I hope it will.

We'll tour each of these vessels separately, starting with the USS Cavalla. Are you ready? Let's get started. Bos'n, pipe aboard our guests!

Sail of the USS Cavalla

We had the good fortune to get a guided tour of the USS Cavalla by a friend of mine, Keith Seiser, twice. Keith is a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer who spent much of his career on submarines. He even spent time on a submarine similar to the Cavalla (USS Clamagore - SS-343). I found it fascinating to get such a detailed briefing on all of the valves and switches on this sub from someone who actually did this. Cindy and I got a personalized tour of the sub when we picked up Keith and his wife from a cruise. Our scuba club, Bay Area Divers ("BAD"), got a guided tour from Keith when we did this as a group event. Keith, incidentally, is one of our lifetime members of BAD along with his wife Barbara. You'll see me refer to Keith as "Chief" throughout this blog out of respect for his rank when he retired. I actually call him that as a matter of routine. "Chief" always has a sea story ready to tell, and his knowledge of sonar is quite impressive. Just ask him to tell you the story of "stacking the dots" and watch his face light up. Right, Chief?

Once we pay our entrance fee at the gate, we'll have access to both vessels. We walk through the gate and the Cavalla will be immediately to our left. The first thing we'll see is the set of stern torpedo tubes. There are two more torpedo tubes up forward.

Stern torpedo tubes

Originally there were four torpedo tubes forward, but after WWII, the Cavalla was reconfigured with new sonar equipment, necessitating the removal of two forward tubes. This change reclassified her to a hunter-killer submarine (SSK-244), with the mission of hunting other submarines instead of just surface ships. True to the Chief's career in submarines, he refers to all surface ships as "skimmers" if not "targets." He usually accompanies the term skimmer with an eye-roll or a smirk. This is a good time to mention that the Cavalla is known for sinking one of the Japanese aircraft carriers that participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor. On her first war patrol, the Cavalla sank the Shokaku on June 19, 1944. This is why I'm including the Cavalla as part of my living history series. To touch anything on the Cavalla is to touch history.

Before we actually board the Cavalla, let's take a brief tour of the outside of this warhorse. We'll have plenty of time to explore the interior. Walking forward just past the access stairs, we find a large compass rose with plaques of many of the submarines lost in WWII along its perimeter. A stone monument with the Texas and US flags stands sentinel to this rose. To walk along the perimeter and read the subs' names with the dates and locations of their loss brings home the terrible price the silent service paid in defending our country. Most sobering is the all too common statement on most of these plaques of "all hands lost." 

Compass rose
photo courtesy of Jenna Contenta

Memorial marker

Closeup of the marker

USS Scorpion (SS-278): All hands lost

USS Gudgeon (SS-211): All hands lost

USS Tang (SS-306): 78 of 97 hands lost

Now that we've walked around the compass rose, we'll continue exploring the exterior of the Cavalla. Follow me as we continue to walk forward along the starboard (right) side of the sub. Here we'll find a torpedo which Chief Seiser thinks is a Mark 14 model.  This was the most common torpedo used by US subs in WWII.

Mark 14 torpedo

Front view of torpedo

Making our way back alongside the Cavalla, we see her conning tower, or "sail." Since she was designed to spend more time on the surface than submerged, here is where the bridge crew and lookouts stood their watch. 

Conning tower

We've reached the forward diving planes, starboard side, along with her anchor. For some reason, I find the sight of an anchor on a submarine to be sort of odd. I'm sure that's just me, though.

Forward (starboard) diving plane and anchor

The bulbous nose of Cavalla is due to the retrofitted sonar unit. Her original configuration had a more streamlined nose like the rest of her class.

Bow and port diving plane

I believe it's time to explore the interior of the Cavalla. Let's tag along with some of the "BADdies" of my scuba club and see what's inside. Be careful walking up the steps. And be even more careful when descending the steps in the submarine. They are quite steep. We will assemble on the aft portion of the deck while Chief Seiser explains some of the external fittings. Even though we board the Cavalla on the aft portion, we'll actually enter the sub through the forward hatch. The sub is set up to start the tour forward and work towards the aft, exiting through the aft hatch.

BADdies have boarded!
photo courtesy of Jenna Contenta

Chief leading the way below decks
photo courtesy of Jenna Contenta

After carefully descending these stairs, or "ladder" in Navy parlance, we find ourselves in the forward torpedo room. One of the first things you'll notice, besides the ship-killing torpedoes, are bunks for sailors. Submarines by nature didn't have much excess space, so bunks were crammed into whatever space was available.

BADdies in the fwd torpedo room
photo courtesy of Jenna Contenta

Jenna took the above photo from the forward hatch ladder, looking towards the front of the sub. The torpedo tubes are in the background. Don't worry, we'll get a closer look at them shortly. The Chief explained living conditions on the sub, and how anyone with claustrophobia wouldn't make it as a submariner. We'll see just how tight some areas are later.

Forward torpedo tubes

Helpful info

Valve manifold, fwd torpedo tubes

Torpedo setting control panel

I can only imagine the controlled chaos of a bunch of sailors doing their job during battle stations. Not only did they need to be competent and efficient in their job, but they also had to do it in very tight quarters.

As we start heading aft, look up and you'll see one of the escape trunk hatches. Should the need arise to abandon ship while submerged, the Cavalla had two escape trunks, one forward and one aft. A few sailors at a time would enter this trunk, close the hatch, flood the compartment and open the outer hatch to escape the sub using a Momsen lung. As a diver, the thought of having to use such a primitive device to breathe underwater is horrifying. I guess it beats drowning, though.

Looking up at the fwd escape trunk

Just aft of the escape trunk, along the starboard side, is the officer's head, or toilet in civilian terms. Smaller than a phone booth, this is where the officers relieved themselves. Chief Seiser explained that a submarine's toilet is actually a complicated device, and there was a very specific sequence to operate the flushing mechanism. If even one step was done out of order or omitted, the results were, pardon the pun, very messy. The offending crewman, no matter his rank, would be the one to clean up this foul mess. 

As soon as I saw this tiny cubicle, the first thought that jumped into my head was that classic line from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Just click here for a clip I found on YouTube that totally illustrates what that thought was. Warning: NOT work or kid friendly!

Officers' head

The enlisted head, by the way, is further aft. We come to the first of many watertight hatches in the sub. Now I'm not a small man by any means, and the Chief is even taller and broader than I am. He flowed through these hatches with barely a break in stride while I awkwardly climbed through behind him.

Foward hatchway

Yes, that passageway is as narrow as it looks. Passing through this hatch brings us to the forward control room. This is where the submarine's diving control took place. Diving officer, make your depth 100 feet!

Diving control

Shallow depth gauge

Deep depth gauge

The Chief explaining the ballast system

Vent status board ("Christmas tree")

Instructions included?

If you were standing at this location and looked over your right shoulder, you'd see a vertical ladder leading to the conning tower and attack center. Normally this area isn't accessible to the general public, but we were fortunate to have it available for us to explore. This is where the captain and sailors of the battle stations watch would conduct torpedo attacks on surface ships. Let's follow the Chief upstairs and have a look. Watch your step, as this ladder is even steeper than the one we used earlier. Naturally, the Chief just flew up the ladder and was waiting for us.

"Up ladder, make a hole!"

Looking up the ladder to the conning tower
photo courtesy of Jenna Contenta

BADdies manning the attack center
photo courtesy of Jenna Contenta

Both periscopes actually work, and one of them can be rotated to view the ship channel. When I looked through it, a sailboat just happened to be moving right through the crosshairs. I wish I could've taken a photo through the viewer, but the camera wouldn't focus properly.

"Match bearings and shoot!"
photo courtesy of Jenna Contenta

Chief shows Jenna the periscope controls
photo courtesy of Jenna Contenta

Once we all had our fill of looking through the periscope and having heard a fascinating description from the Chief about what all went on during a torpedo attack we carefully descended the ladder back into the forward control room. Chief stated that during a call to battle stations, the entire bridge team would've made it up the ladder and be in position ("manned and ready") in the same time it took two of us to climb up there.

Within just a few steps of this area is the "goat locker," or berthing space for the Chief Petty Officers. This was considered sacred ground by the crew, and even officers didn't enter without permission.

Cavalla's goat locker
photo courtesy of Jenna Contenta

Space for 5??
photo courtesy of Jenna Contenta

Either by coincidence or design, another few steps from the goat locker is the galley and crew mess area. From everything I've ever read about the submarine service, and emphatically confirmed by Chief Seiser, food on the submarines was much better than what was served on the "skimmers."

Who's hungry?

I'm glad to see the "silent service" has their priorities straight when it comes to coffee. This huge coffee pot must've been a lifesaver during those long hours on patrol. And just a few steps from the goat locker. Imagine that.

No lattes here

photo courtesy of Jenna Contenta

I think Cavalla's galley was bigger than my first apartment's kitchen. Well, maybe not, but it was a tiny space to feed so many sailors. I stood there, trying to imagine the cooks whipping up a hot meal for the crew.

Galley serving window

I guess that small serving window is the Cavalla's version of the pass in a restaurant kitchen. Then again, it's not like they had a huge menu to cook. From what I understand, there were a couple of choices, but that was it. 

Crew mess area
photo courtesy of Jenna Contenta

Notice that with only a few people sitting down, this space was already getting crowded. The backgammon boards are actually printed directly onto the tables. In the background, there are checker/chess boards on the table. The Chief explained that when not being used for meals, this area was a popular place to hang out for the very few hours a sailor was off duty.

He also took this time to mention the hygiene situation on these early subs, and even somewhat on the more modern vessels. Fresh water was a scarce commodity, and used for cooking, drinking and supporting the sub's multiple systems. Showers and general hygiene ranked far below in priority. Chief said he (and the rest of the crew) would go two weeks at a time without a shower. 

Moving further aft, we reach the crew berthing space. Here the enlisted personnel slept in tight accommodations. I'm sure if one was tired enough, all the movement, sounds, smells and other distractions didn't matter. If you could sleep here, I bet you could sleep anywhere.

Crew berthing space

The photo above is facing aft, and if you look closely, you'll see a hatch opening on that far bulkhead (wall). At least there was a hatch between the berthing space and where we will explore next - the forward engine room. The Cavalla had two engine rooms, forward and aft, containing two diesel engines and two generators. The forward engine room contained the #1 main engine (starboard), #2 main engine (port) of 1600 horsepower each, and the #1 main generator (starboard) and #2 main generator (port) of 1100 kilowatts each. The aft engine room contained the #3 and #4 engines and generators in the same configuration. 

#1 Main engine

Engine controls

Proceeding aft, we come to the aft engine room, which is essentially similar to the forward engine room. The Chief mentioned that based on conditions, these engine rooms could be used for propulsion on the surface, charging batteries, or both. 

Thanks for the info

So this compartment also contains high-pressure air compressors. I wonder if they are the Binford 2100 model. And I wonder how many of y'all reading this will get that reference. Let me know in the comments section below. I'll award the first correct answer 200 bonus points.

Aft engine room

Do you remember me mentioning earlier about how claustrophobic a submarine could be to some people? Well, the next couple of photos should clearly demonstrate what I'm referring to. Moving aft from the aft engine room, we'll enter the propulsion control space. 

Propulsion control summary

Just past the sign above is a passageway, a very narrow passageway, leading to the actual propulsion control space. If you are uncomfortable with tight spaces, just take a deep breath and follow me. I'll get you through it, no sweat.

Yep, it's definitely "cozy" here

Yes, that's a young kid in the photo above, and even he makes this passageway look small. Can you imagine how tight it would be with adults present? Take a look at the photo below. We BADdies will show you. Just three of us, and yes, that's me in the background, completely filled this space. It's a good thing we all used deodorant on that day. Just sayin'...

Make your buddy smile!
photo courtesy of Jenna Contenta

You do recall reading earlier what the Chief said about showers, right? Fortunately, we can transit this passageway in less than a dozen steps and we'll be in the actual propulsion control space. See? It wasn't that bad, was it? You can stop hyperventilating now. 

We've gone from a relatively noisy location, the engine rooms, to a quieter location near the stern. Either on the surface or submerged, this is where the speed of the submarine was controlled. Electric motors actually controlled the speed of the propellers, or "screws." The propeller shafts were not directly connected to the engines. That's why these types of submarines were referred to as a "diesel-electric" sub. 

Electric motor controls

Propulsion controls

Passing through another water-tight hatch brings us to the aft torpedo room.  I really hope you've been having fun so far. We are almost done touring the Cavalla and we still have the USS Stewart to explore.

Good to know

Aft torpedo tubes

Torpedo tube venting equipment

Tube status panel

That's a good question!

One of our BADdies asked the Chief when the sub would fire from the stern tubes instead of the forward tubes. Keith replied that it was based on the tactical situation at the time, and usually the Captain would make that decision. That round opening above the Chief's head is the aft escape trunk. 

From where the above photo was taken, the aft hatch ladder is to my back. Turning around and ascending this ladder will bring us back up on deck. A mild breeze was blowing as we BADdies gathered back on the external deck. From here, you can see the remains of the S.S. Selma in the bay. At the beginning of this blog, I mentioned this ship and included a link to a Wikipedia page on it. Check it out. I think you might find its construction technique rather interesting.

Remains of the S.S. Selma
image from Google search

And that, my dear readers, is that! I sincerely hope you enjoyed tagging along with me on this virtual tour. A very special thanks to my friend Keith Seiser for his fantastic job as tour guide. Thanks, Chief! 

Have you ever served on a submarine? Have you toured the USS Cavalla or another sub? I'd love to hear all about it in the comments section below. I'm quite sure I missed some crucial facts here or there, or probably even have something wrong with captioning some of these photos. Any bubbleheads out there who have a correction are encouraged to comment below and you'll have my thanks (in addition to a thank you for your service). 

Next up will be my virtual tour of the USS Stewart. I'll post that blog in a few days, after everyone has had time to read this one.

The first blog in this series, a tour of the USS Lexington, can be found here.

Until then.......

carpe cerevisi


  1. Great post! Looks like a really fun and educational tour!

    1. Thank you, Rick! It *is* a fascinating tour, especially when a retired submariner conducts it.

  2. A nice read thank you! I need to visit this, did t know it was here

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! It's a cool tour, and I am going to be posting my next blog about the other ship there, the USS Stewart, shortly. Thanks for reading and commenting!