Part of the rich history of Connecticut includes the Navy's Submarine Force Museum. There's another foreign world that begins right off our shores. It's the world below the surface of the sea, and human ventures into this realm are difficult, involving danger and discomfort. That expeditions below the sea's surface occur at all grew out of New England beginnings and is told when we look at the history of Connecticut. It was here that submarine travel began, and where it was refined into today's undersea Navy, which can send its craft and crews around the world or under the ice caps submerged. It's an interesting tale, but where can you learn about it?
Luckily for us, there's an easy answer: a visit to the Navy's Submarine Force Museum, nestled along the shore of the Thames River in Groton, Connecticut. It's fascinating, it's open all year long, and it's free.
The Museum serves as the primary repository for everything connected with the history of the U.S. Submarine Force. The collection is huge, with its centerpiece the most famous submarine in the world, U.S.S. Nautilus.
The museum is within the property of the Navy's submarine base, and artifacts of past ships are arranged about the outside of the building: a Poseidon missile tube from the U.S.S. Sam Rayburn, the sail (or conning tower) of the George Washington, our first ballistic missile sub, even a collection of miniature submarines.
These are intriguing machines. There is the Italian Maiale, of a type known by its two-man Italian crews as "Pigs," which carried underwater guerrillas into action against British ships at Gibraltar in the early 1940s. A Japanese mini-sub of the class used unsuccessfully at Pearl Harbor sits next to the X-1, an experimental boat designed to run its diesel engine underwater without access to fresh air. There's also an SDV-Swimmer Deliver Vehicle-used by Navy Seals to extend their range when operating clandestinely from a large submarine.
The interior of the museum is packed with displays-scale models, a full-size mockup of a submarine control room, and artifacts of the undersea service's history, from the official beginning of the Navy's fleet through the massive building and development program that made the fleet submarines such a decisive part of World War II's Pacific campaign, up to the present-day giants that can carry their weapons undetected through hostile waters for months at a stretch. There's a rescue bell for saving sailors from sunken subs, with photographs of times when its use was necessary, like the tragic loss of the Squalus in the 1930s.
But to go right back to the very beginning, one need only look at the full-sized, cut-away model of the Turtle. Turtle was the invention of Connecticut native David Bushnell, built at George Washington's behest during the Revolutionary war in an attempt to counter the overwhelming might of the British Navy.
The Turtle was basically an egg-shaped wooden barrel in which the brave operator sat, operating a pumping mechanism to submerge and surface, supplying all of the motor power by hand, turning cranks connected to both horizontal and vertical propellers and attempting to fasten an explosive charge to the enemy's wooden hull by drilling with an auger.
Turtle never succeeded in sinking a British ship; the auger slid helplessly off the copper-plated bottoms of the warships, and the explosive charges were unable to inflict any damage beyond alarm. Still, this bold, if crude, beginning led to a continuous history of innovation and attempts that continues to this day.
This is perhaps best borne out by the museum's biggest exhibit, the world-famous submarine Nautilus, launched here in Groton in 1954. This ship was the world's first nuclear-powered submersible, and the capabilities that its revolutionary propulsion system unleashed changed the rules of the undersea world forever. No longer did subs have to surface every night to run their diesel engines and recharge their storage batteries while refreshing the air grown stale during 12 hours submerged.
The new technology provided power that freed the boats from their constant dependence on the surface. Nautilus proved this dramatically in 1958 by cruising from Hawaii to England under the frozen Arctic Ocean by way of the North Pole. It was an impossibility come true, an event that galvanized Americans when it happened and seized their imaginations.
Nautilus was finally retired from service in 1980 and has now come home to Groton. Here she is open to the public for tours, providing a glimpse into the world of life and work under the surface.
A tour begins on the foredeck, where visitors receive an "audio wand," a short-distance radio with built-in speaker that will, as it is carried through the various compartments of the ship, play short messages explaining what is being seen.
From the foredeck the path leads down 30 steps into the forward torpedo room, with its 6 torpedo tubes and 2 Mark 14 torpedoes stowed here on display.
Just aft is one of the crew's berthing areas, and it instantly conveys to the visitor a little of the cramped conditions submarine sailors live with. Ten men slept in this little compartment; the only privacy each could find was behind the curtain of his tiny bunk space. Shower, sinks and toilets take up the remainder of the space.
Beyond is the wardroom, the meeting and dining area for the ship's 11 officers, and the officers' staterooms, a rather grandiose term for these little closets that each housed 3 men. Only the commanding officer had his own room.
Next are the attack center and control room, where sailors operate rudder and diving planes, the periscope provides a visual vantage point and voyaging and battle decisions are made. Supporting these tasks are the electronics compartments full of sonar, radar, radio and other high-tech gear.
Aft of this is the crew's mess, the largest open space on the boat, and none too big for those used to shoreside amenities.
But a tour is only a hint of what life was really like on a submarine. The men that served, and serve today, on them know what it's like, and the Submarine Forces Museum is a tool that conveys some of their little-known, dangerous and interesting world to the rest of us.
A visit to the museum and the Nautilus couldn't be easier. Take Route 95 in Connecticut to Exit 86, go north on Route 12 for 1.5 miles, and turn left at Crystal Lakes Road. The Thames River and the museum are just ahead, the place where this story began with the Turtle, and began again with a new chapter with the Nautilus.
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