On April 11, 1900, the Navy purchased the Holland VI, an internal combustion, gasoline-powered submarine from John P Holland for $160,000, after demonstration trials off Mount Vernon, Virginia. This marks the official birth date of the US Navy’s Submarine Force.
Even before the United States entered World War I, the submarine was recognized for its deadly role in warfare as German U-boats torpedoed and sank British shipping in the Atlantic.
Military submarines made their first significant impact in World War I; U-boats saw action in the First Battle of the Atlantic, and were responsible for the sinking of Lusitania, and this is often cited among the reasons for the entry of the United States into the war.
USS F-4, an F-class US submarine, was originally named Skate, making her the first ship of the United States Navy named for the skate (a type of ray.) She was renamed F-4 on November 17, 1911.
The F-4 and three other F-class submarines, the F-1, F-2 and F-3, along with their support vessel, the tender USS Alert, made up the First Submarine Group, Pacific Torpedo Flotilla, participating in the development operations of that group along the west coast, and from August 1914, in Hawaiian waters.
They were the first US submarines to be stationed to the new naval facility at Pearl Harbor.
While on a training mission, on Thursday, March 25, 1915, the US submarine Skate (F-4,) with a crew of twenty-one men, exploded and sank in fifty fathoms of water three-quarters of a mile off of Honolulu harbor.
There had been other submarine fatalities and accidents in world history, but this was the first submarine disaster in US naval history.
There were round-the-clock attempts to make contact with the submerged vessel. It was lodged three hundred feet below the surface, and divers could not reach it.
After dragging cables across the ocean floor in the area in attempts to snag and locate the submarine, it was caught late in the morning of the 26th.
The 142′ long submarine, with a diameter of about 15′, displaced 330 tons and could not be moved. Using a combination of hard hat divers, cables, chains and heavy scows with winches, the F-4 was incrementally raised and moved closer to shore over the next two months.
Frank William Crilley, a Chief Gunner’s Mate, made dives to over 300 feet during salvage operations on the sunken Submarine. On April 17, 1915, he rescued a fellow diver who had become entangled at a depth of 250 feet.
For his heroism on this occasion, Frank William Crilley was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1929.
Five months passed before the submarine could be hauled to the surface.
After so many months underwater, only four of the 21 dead aboard the submarine could be identified. The 17 remaining bodies were sealed in four caskets and shipped to Arlington National Cemetery, where they were buried in a common grave.
Their headstone, the size of an individual marker, was marked simply “17 Unknown U.S. Sailors Victims of the USS F-4 March 25 1915.”
The headstone was going to be replaced and destroyed, but it was retrieved and is now part of the Bowfin Museum in Pearl Harbor.
After the drydock examinations of F-4, the vessel was towed by the tugboat Navajo, using the six pontoons, to “an out of the way spot at Pearl Harbor” with a depth of fifteen to twenty feet that was “as nearly beached as possible” with “the pontoons keeping her clear of the harbor floor”.
Apparently the F-4 was left in this spot, to “rot in the mud bank” presumably near the head of Magazine Loch.
Periodically since, the Navy has announced plans to either destroy or examine the F-4 – the oldest surviving U.S. Navy submarine — but because of the deep silt in Pearl Harbor, the exact location is unknown.
In 1957, a more successful Skate was commissioned (the third US submarine named Skate.) It was the first production model of a nuclear-powered submarine to make a completely submerged trans-Atlantic crossing (1958) and the first to surface at the North Pole (1959).