By John Hirtle, Production Manager
Beach News (Atlantic News), Summer 2003
Fifty years ago this summer, the Seacoast saw the future slip into the salty waters of the Piscataqua River as the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard launched the most revolutionary submarine built to that date. She would have no war record. She never fired a weapon in anger. Indeed, she was never equipped with any armaments. Yet she radically changed the shape of naval warfare in the second half of the twentieth century. She is the USS Albacore.
Like any project of this size, it took years to develop the design using lessons learned from World War Two. Most telling of these was the German Type XXI U-Boat, a revolutionary submarine in its own right. Able to do seventeen knots submerged and running silent enough to that anti-submarine vessels could not detect them, the Type XXI opened the eyes of American officers to the potentials of this submarine’s advanced technology. But the United States had only two examples to examine. The increasingly hostile Soviet Union had the shipyards and unbuilt Type XXI components in their possession.
The Albacore’s construction began at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in 1952, at about the same time the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear powered submarine was under construction in Connecticut. Both were built to prove different trains of thought. The Nautilus took the lessons learned from the German Type XXI’s and the latest conventional American submarine hull designs and built it around a nuclear power plant.
The Albacore on the other hand was a purely experimental submarine, with a radical new teardrop hull design which offered a minimum of resistance underwater. New steel alloys were tried, as were experimental sonar arrays. Her stern would be replaced three times with three different control arrays.
Launched on August 1, 1953 and commissioned that December, the Albacore caught the imagination of the submarine community. Thanks to the streamlined hull the sub literally flew underwater, eventually setting a world submerged speed record of 35 knots in 1968. She could easily outmaneuver and out pace most surface anti-submarine vessels of the day. This led the navy to decide that the best way to track and stop a submarine was with another sub. Navy officers who sailed aboard her were impressed enough to call a halt to submarine construction in order to alter all submarine hulls to the teardrop shape the Albacore pioneered. The rest of the world’s navies soon followed suit, as the best aspects of the Albacore and the Nautilus were combined into one vessel.
The Albacore was decommissioned in 1972 after two decades of testing control systems, dive brakes, sonar equipment, anti- detection systems, escape mechanisms and many other innovations. She remained retired in the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard’s mothball fleet until she was returned to her former home port of Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1984, where she was carefully brought ashore and turned into a museum.
The Albacore is located near Exit 7 on Interstate 95 at 600 Market Street on the right as you head into Portsmouth. If you are trying to get there from Portsmouth, it can be a little tricky since there is no turn off on the divided road. It’s not hard to miss as it rises up near the middle bridge like a great black whale.
A small visitor’s center is located at the tail end of the submarine, where you purchase tickets and can visit a small museum dedicated to the Albacore and other Portsmouth submarines such as the ill-fated Squalus and Thresher. A small memorial park near the center commemorates those lost submariners as well as all American submariners who have lost their lives at sea.
The ticket is a brochure which provides a brief map of the sub’s interior and its history. As you walk up to the bow, where an entryway has been cut take some time to look it over, and prepare yourself for some tight spaces. While the Albacore may look enormous on the outside, every inch of space inside is a precious commodity. Those who are a bit on the hefty side or are claustrophobic may want to think twice before entering this or any submarine’s cramped confines.
The door you enter would have been underwater if the Albacore was still afloat. You might notice the thick double hull here, where a ballast tank is located to help the submarine submerge. Immediately in front of you is one of only three exit hatches the submarine had during its operational life. This forward compartment was one part of the crew’s quarters. In a conventional submarine, this would be the torpedo room, but since the Albacore was never armed, it became home to part of the submarine’s fifty man crew. It was also the quietest part of the ship, since it is the furthest away from the machinery. Now it is silent with the memories of the men who sailed her.
The next compartment beckons- it’s a narrow fit through the small door, but had an emergency ever occurred these 700 lb hatches could be slammed shut, isolating each compartment from the other in case of flood or fire on board the sub, thus saving the men and the ship. The Albacore has five of these doors to go through as you work you way back.
Exiting the forward most crew’s compartment you enter "Officer Country"- where the five officers who took charge of the sub lived. Unlike the enlisted men, officers have some privacy and amenities such as a private ward room and pantry, as well as offices to fill out paperwork and stay in touch with other vessels.
The following compartment is the control room, where every aspect of the submarine’s operation could be overseen. As you enter, you see a chart table to the right where courses were laid out. On the other side is the sub’s diving controls, where a control stick borrowed from a B-70 bomber allowed the pilot to fly the Albacore like an underwater airplane. In the center of it all is the periscope, permanently watching traffic passing by on the bridge. This was where it all came together as the Albacore put new ideas into practice.
In this room you can also peer into two other levels of the Albacore which are inaccessible. Looking up the ladder next to the hatch you just entered you can see some of the conning tower’s bridge deck. This area would usually be used when the Albacore was on the surface or coming into port. Behind the chart table, you will find a hatch with a grill on it, allowing you to peer down into the massive space which once housed the batteries which kept the submarine operational underwater and machinery which helped keep the men alive.
The next compartment is the crew’s quarters, which includes the galley and dining area. Along one wall, charts show how submarines have changed and grown in comparison to the Albacore, but in all of them the cramped quarters remain constant. Fortunately for the crew, her experimental nature required her to remain close to port most of the time as she was refitted and prepared for tests.
The final compartment is the machinery compartment. Here chronically underpowered diesel engines tried to recharge the Albacore’s ravenous batteries. Never quite equal to the task, this submarine’s enormous batteries were usually recharged from a shore-based power plant. Still, for surface propulsion they did an adequate job when properly maintained. Consider as you go through this area and look at some of the miles of pipes which snake through the Albacore that this submarine comes from an era when ship designers and ship builders were constantly at odds. What was planned on paper would not always work in practice, and human ingenuity somehow made it all fit.
Past the now quiet dials and gauges that once monitored the pulse of the Albacore’s engines as she was underway, you have to step over the massive drive shaft that provided power to the ship’s propellers to depart the cramped confines of this historic experimental submarine and conclude your tour.
The Albacore is open daily from 9:30 to 5:30 during the summer months. Open 9:30-4:00 from Columbus Day to Memorial Day (closed Tuesdays & Wednesdays- hours may vary due to holidays.) Admission is charged. For more information please call (603) 436-3680.