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Sea Power Confronts The Twenty-first Century
An Interview With Edward L. Beach The captain who first took a submarine around the world underwater looks at the U.S. Navy past and present and tells us what we must learn from the Falklands war
April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
As at Jutland in World War I. And even Jutland never happened. They call it the last great sea fight between battleships, but it was no such thing. That battle actually didn’t take place. Jutland was a battle-cruiser action, a battle of fluid movement. Except for the fast battleship squadron, which included the famous Warspite , the battleships never really got into action. Our Navy has all along thought about and planned for the great fleet battle that has never happened in our history. Not ever. Santiago, in 1898, was the nearest thing to it, but even that was just a long pursuit of fleeing Spanish cruisers that we overhauled and sank one by one.
You’ve written about the torpedo problem at the beginning of World War II [A MERICAN H ERITAGE , December 1980]. Could you talk a little about that?
It was an utter fiasco. The Germans had a similar problem, which they solved in about six weeks. Donitz [Admiral Karl Donitz, chief of the German U-boat command] is supposed to have said he wouldn’t send another submarine out till they got it fixed, and he wanted the hide of the guy who was responsible for the mistake so that he personally could nail it to the nearest tree. But when our submariners kept sending information back that our torpedoes weren’t working, the bureaucrats in Washington refused to believe it. They said it was the operators’ fault, that we weren’t shooting them right.
Yet we knew torpedoes were passing under targets and not going off. Even when we disobeyed orders and set them shallow, they passed under. And sometimes the torpedoes would go off, but the ship wouldn’t even be damaged. We couldn’t understand it. It turned out that the torpedoes didn’t run at any set depth. They wobbled up and down. If one happened to be on the up part of the cycle, it often exploded prematurely—a possibility any designer should have had the sense to consider. The earth’s field in the far Pacific is much stronger than at Newport, Rhode Island, where the weapon was tested, and therefore the inductive magnetic effect was stronger. Strangely enough, late in 1941 when I went through submarine school, we had a very secret session to show us how the exploder worked. They passed an iron rod over it, and the mechanism clicked. They said it would go off under the keel. I remember asking, “Why will it go off just under the keel? What’s to prevent it from going off before it gets there?” They said, “Oh, no, no, no. Don’t be stupid! It goes off when it senses the field beginning to diminish.” I was only an ensign and said no more. It was not fashionable to question one’s superiors. But it’s now obvious that it was a good question; too bad nobody in the torpedo design business had thought of it.
If our submarines had been as effective as the Germans’, the Japanese would never have landed, and we wouldn’t have lost the Philippines.
Well, anyway, we had the exploder fiasco, the depth-running fiasco, and the circular-run fiasco. Since there were two separate, unassociated things wrong with the exploder, altogether there were four things wrong with the torpedoes—and all four of them were design errors. Out of the twenty-eight or so submarine losses of ours that we could not correlate with any action report from the Japanese, I can make a pretty good argument, statistically at least, that onequarter of them may have been sunk by our own torpedoes.
If our submarines had been as effective as the Germans’, the Japanese would never have landed in the Philippines and we wouldn’t have lost the islands. We sank one ship, I think, in that entire campaign. The Germans would have sunk every one.
Can you think of any other case where technical failures prevented the Navy from doing its best?
I’ll tell you one. The Monitor should have sunk the Merrimack . And the reason it didn’t was because they were forced to fire their guns with halfweight powder charges.
The big Dahlgren guns had not been tested fully?
Well, they had been tested but they just hadn’t got the report out. And all this stems, you know, from the famous explosion of the “Peacemaker” gun on the Princeton back in 1844. As a result of that, the Navy ordered that no guns were to be fired with more than half-weight powder charges until further orders. Eighteen years later those orders were still in effect. When the Monitor was about to fight the Merrimack , the exec of the Monitor , a young fellow named Greene, went to the skipper and asked permission to use full powder charges. Lt. John L. Worden, the skipper of the Monitor said, “Nothing doing! The orders are that we use half-weight powder charges until we get further instructions, and that’s the way it will be!” So they fired halfweight powder charges, and their shot banged off the side of the Merrimack . If they had used full-weight powder charges, the Monitor ’s solid shot would have penetrated.
What were some of the areas where you think the Navy’s been technically advanced?
Well, one is in radar. We were way ahead of the Japanese in radar and ahead of the Germans as well. Radar was invented right here in Washington, D. C., at the Naval Research Lab.