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The American Fleet Type Submarine

In terms of its effect on the war, the American fleet submarine may have been the single most effective weapon fielded by any of the combatants. Designed to be used in one way, it was actually used in a different manner with such devastating effect that Japan had all but lost the ability to wage war even before the use of nuclear weapons brought that fact home.

These were large submarines. Much larger than the bulk of German u-boats, though smaller than some Japanese boats, and also smaller than a class of large "cruiser" submarines built in the 1930s for the U.S. Navy.

Habitability was an important factor in the fleet boats. The designs were the first to be air conditioned, though crew comfort had nothing to do with this addition. The air conditioning was installed because of the great increase in the amount of electronic equipment installed in these boats. Electronics and water don't mix well, and without air conditioning submarines become very humid, with condensation dripping from the inside of the hull. The fact that the air conditioning made the crew more comfortable was a nice side effect, but it was really there for the electronics.

The use of welded hulls also eliminated another source of dripping water. The old S-boats were plagued by seepage through hull seams and rivets.

The original idea behind "fleet" submarines was that they would be used in support of the battle fleet. For this reason, the design specs called for a surfaced speed fast enough to keep up with the fleet. (Eighteen to twenty knots in those days.) This would allow them to be used as scouting units.

In fact, this never really happened. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the American submarine fleet was sent out on independent patrols with, at first, negligible results. This was put down to a lack of aggressiveness on the part of the peacetime officers who commanded them, lack of practice with the complex Torpedo Data Computer, or just bad aim. Everything, in fact, except the actual problem, which was defective torpedoes. We can only speculate on how many commanding officers were replaced because the Bureau of Ordnance refused to admit that there might be something wrong with the torpedoes and exploders.

It took almost a year and half before the torpedo problems were eliminated. Partly, this was because there were multiple problems, and not just a single fault. First, the torpedoes ran deeper than they were set. After that was corrected, the Navy eventually admitted that the Mark-6 magnetic exploder might work fine in tests off Rhode Island, but more often than not didn't work at all in the Pacific. Finally, it turned out that the contact exploders were also unreliable. It wasn't until all of these problems were fixed that the Mark-14 torpedo became reliable. After that these torpedoes served reliably enough that they remained in service until the late 1970s.

The Navy also recognized that the most important factor in the defeat of Japan was preventing them from resupplying their forces scattered over the Pacific islands. Once this was realized, attacks on warships—which had been the primary targets earlier in the war—were made secondary to sinking Japanese merchant vessels. Particular emphasis was placed on tankers, which not only carried fuel for the wide-spread Japanese Navy, but oil for Japanese industry in the home islands. Japan has no native oil supply, and has to import every drop it uses.

Curiously, the Japanese submariners never took the lesson from the Americans, or even from their German allies, and continued to concentrate their resources on attacking warships right up until the end of the war.

For additional information on the American fleet submarine, go to www.FleetSubmarine.com.

Gato/Balao Class Submarine







Disp (Surf):

1,800 tons

Disp (Sub):

2,400 tons

Speed (Surf):

21 knots

Speed (Sub):

8.5 knots


6 bow, 4 stern


3’/50 or 5”/25

AA Weaps:

2-20 or 40 mm. 6-50 cal.


20,000 miles


300/400 feet


4 GM, F/M, or HOR


4 (2/shaft)


75 days