By W. Knox Richardson
Whether in pages of a Tom Clancy novel or on the silver screen, the submarine has long captured the imagination of the public more than any other modern seagoing vessel, becoming as much a creature of dramatic Hollywood as it is of the deep blue seas. Many of these real and fictional cinematic boats are based here—now and in the past—at a very real Pearl Harbor.
Leading actors from three generations have portrayed men aboard the leaky combat subs of World War II, the stealthy nuclear boats of the Cold War and even the deep diving scientific subs of marine exploration. Actors that have portrayed Pearl Harbor sub captains include legends like Wayne, Gable, Lancaster, Grant, Hudson, Heston and Peck. More recently Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, Denzel Washington, Mathew McConaughey, Kelsey Grammer and even Bill Murray have starred as submariners.
So what is it that attracts filmmakers and audiences to these boats that sink on command only to surface like breaching whales? Well, here on Oahu, tourists and kama’aina can find out for themselves by touring a decommissioned vintage combat sub, visiting museums or even going down, down, down to the bottom depths off Waikiki aboard a real submersible. And, although the average citizen may find it difficult to gain entry on to the submarine base at Pearl Harbor, the Oahu Island News was recently granted an up-close-and-personal tour of the U.S.S. Honolulu, a Los Angeles-class fast attack nuclear submarine soon making some news of its own.
More than 100 years ago, French science fiction author Jules Verne forecast the nuclear submarine in his masterpiece “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” where his mythical atomic-powered ship Nautilus was based in a South Sea volcanic island. Perhaps the mythic island is a bit like Oahu, home to COMSUBPAC, the headquarters for the nuclear submarines of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet.
The modern Los Angeles-class nuclear submarine represents the state of the submarine art in Pearl Harbor, including the U.S.S Honolulu (SSN-718). Although not the newest boat in the Pacific Fleet, it has the unique distinction of being the only submarine in the Navy to be home ported in its namesake city.
Since being commissioned in July 1985, the Honolulu has made nine deployments of six months or more away from its homeport of Pearl Harbor, hosted nine commanding officers, including its current C.O., Commander John K. Russ, U.S.N., and has earned six Battle “E” awards. There is only one Battle E award per squadron and only one ship in the squadron wins it every year. The Battle E award shows that the ship that bears it has proven to be superior in ship handling, weapons employment, tactics and ability to fulfill mission objectives.
Sometime next month, after more than 20 years of active service, the Honolulu will depart from Pearl Harbor for the last time, commencing a patrol ultimately ending at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Wash., where it will be decommissioned as part of the Navy’s Nuclear Submarine Recycling Program.
According to sources at COMSUBPAC, the Honolulu will be replaced sometime after 2007, by the absolute latest in fast attack nuclear submarines with a representative of the Virginia class – the U.S.S. Hawaii (SSN-776), only the second warship to bear the state’s name. The first, an Alaska-class cruiser, was never completed when World War II ended and the ship wasn’t needed.
Oahu is fortunate to have one of the few and perhaps best examples of a preserved WWII submarine tied up at Pearl Harbor. The U.S.S. Bowfin (SS-287), a Balao-class, fleet submarine that was launched on Dec. 7, 1942, one year to the day after the infamous aerial attack on the Pacific Fleet — the boat’s motto in Hawaiian is Maka ‘Ala Mau or “Always Vigilant.”
Between Aug. 16, 1943, and July 4, 1945, the Bowfin completed nine war patrols operating from the Netherlands East Indies to the Sea of Japan and the waters south of Hokkaido. The Bowfin sank 15 merchantmen and one frigate for a total of 68,032 tons. Now a museum boat, the Bowfin is one of only of handful of WWII-era fleet subs still afloat, albeit fully decommissioned and permanently moored near the Arizona Memorial and the U.S.S. Missouri.
Pacific Fleet submarines are credited with more than half of all enemy shipping sunk during World War II. But success came with high price with 52 submarines lost along with 374 officers and 3,131 enlisted men. They are all still considered to be on patrol. It is the heroism of these subs and their crews, and their modern counterparts, that have inspired Hollywood and authors to submariners in the brightest of lights.
PEARL SUBS IN THE MOVIES
Los Angeles-class submarines have starred in more than one major motion picture, such as Tom Clancy’s “The Hunt for Red October,” and several of his naval warfare novels. The Los Angeles-class platform was designed as a nuclear-powered, fast attack submarine (SSN), built as an answer to the Soviet threat of faster, quieter attack submarines of the 1970’s.
U.S.S. Cheyenne (SSN-773), the last Los Angeles-class submarine built, arrived at her homeport of Pearl Harbor in 1998. A fictional Cheyenne is the primary subject of the book “SSN” by Tom Clancy, battling the People’s Liberation Army Navy in a fictional war over the Spratly Islands. Another local Los Angeles-class submarine, the U.S.S. Tucson (SSN-770), was immortalized in Clancy’s novel “The Bear and the Dragon,” where Tucson is charged with sinking China’s only ballistic missile submarine.
One of the more photographed WWII submarines was the U.S.S. Redfish (SS-395). It served as a submarine double of the fictional U.S.S. Nerka (SS-380), skippered by Clark Gable in the submarine film classic, “Run Silent, Run Deep. ” During the war, the Pearl Harbor-based Redfish was no stranger to action having sunk the 18,500-ton Japanese aircraft carrier Unryu in December 1944. With an odd-looking deck “fin” added, it also appeared as the Vern’s Nautilus in the 1954 Walt Disney production of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
Besides visiting a museum submarine, visitors and residents of Honolulu are fortunate to have right here in Waikiki the world’s largest and most advanced tourist submarine. Atlantis Submarines operates tourist subs on Maui, on the Big Island of Hawaii and here on Oahu. Just off Waikiki Beach, the company features the 64-seat Atlantis XIV, the largest and deepest diving tourist submarine in U.S. waters.
Unlike military subs, Atlantis’s offer view ports, literally windows on an undersea universe rarely seen in person except by the world’s most experienced professional scuba and deep sea divers and marine scientists in their research subs.
Atlantis’ air-conditioned tourists subs routinely dive to depths of nearly 150-feet below the surface (though capable of diving much deeper). This is well below the average operating depths of many WW II-era combat subs – and they didn’t have windows.
Taking a dive on a sub with large, fog-free windows is an experience of a lifetime where you can literally come face-to-face with dozens of marine animals. On a recent dive, Atlantis XIV encountered two reef sharks, a half-dozen fully grown honu (green sea turtles), a five-foot-long barracuda, and even a normally shy white-mouth moray eel, along with hundreds of butterfly fish, yellow tang, triggerfish, durgeons, mackerel and others. On the pleasant boat ride out to the sub, a pod of jumping spinner dolphins performed aerobatics as if on cue.
Below on the bottom, over several years Atlantis has built artificial reefs, including the sinking of a couple derelict cargo ships, two airplanes and a number of building-block units that appear beneath 100 feet of water as blue-vailed, ghostly geometric habitats for dozens of marine species.
None of the three boats this writer recently visited compared closely to each other. The sleekly designed Honolulu seemed almost roomy with three decks below topside — including several compartments of triple-stacked sleeping “racks,” and a crew’s mess with seating for a few dozen men, decorated with a couple surfboards hanging from the rafters and autographed by departed crewmen. Yet this big-guns warship possesses a surprisingly tight-fitting control room only the size of a Waikiki hotel room.
The largest area toured by far was the torpedo room with its racks of MK-48 torpedoes and a couple stowed-away Tomahawk cruise missiles. The reactor, communications and electronic warfare spaces remain classified and off-limits even to this day.
In contrast, the Bowfin had but a few cramped watertight compartments and a plumber’s nightmare of awkward pipes and fittings jutting out nearly everywhere one looked. Yet an undeniable sense of duty, history and heroism permeated the thick, oily air making a tour a truly unique and proud American experience.
In preparation for its final deployment, the Honolulu continues to be upgraded and retrofitted with newer and more modern systems. Upon reaching its final destination, the boat will be decommissioned and come to be known as the ex-Honolulu. Over a few years it will be dismantled, cut into several large pieces and its reactor removed, shipped to remote location and buried several hundred feet deep in the ground along those of her preceding sister ships.
Submarines are filled with drama, excitement and surprises. Whether tied up at a dock, land mounted on a display platform, or out at sea, a visit on board any submarine is both educational and exhilarating. If you get the chance, take it – it’s better than the movies — with or without windows.
Posted by Knox at 10:41 PM.