USS Balao (SS-285) - Ship's History

Researched by: Robert Loys Sminkey

Commander, United States Navy, Retired

The Gato Class Fleet Type submarine was the class of submarine being produced by shipyards for the United States Navy when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941...plunging the United States into the Second World War as an active participant.

On the design front, a major submarine advance was in the making. By the time the Gato Class was designed, the simplification and weight-saving programs mounted by the Bureau of Ships and the Portsmouth Navy Yard had built up a substantial margin of surplus available tonnage for use in future submarine construction. This had to be offset by the addition of scarce and expensive lead ballast...that was used to keep the displacement of the boats unchanged but contributed nothing but dead weight to the submarines. To designers, the ideal solution to this problem was to convert the lead weight into steel...where it would do the most good by providing a heavier and deeper-diving pressure hull. At the same time the structural experts in the Bureau of Ships were considering changing the basic material for submarine hulls from the familiar mild steel to the stronger high tensile steel (HTS). Late in 1941, the two leading submarine design officers got together to assess the situation. Calculations demonstrated that the hull plating could be increased from the approximately 9/16-inch (27.5 pounds per square foot) material used in the Gato Class, and preceding classes, to 35-pound plate about 7/8-inch thick. This would make the hull capable of withstanding submergence to 925 feet without collapsing, assuming the use of the new HTS. Even if mild steel had to be used, in case a shortage of the other should develop, the collapse depth could still be increased to 650 feet. The extra strength would be of great advantage to submarines in a combat situation, but in order to be safe, the designers proposed that the operating depth be set officially at 450 feet.

The essential features of the new design were worked out just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, in time to be presented to the Chief of the Bureau of Ships. However, the Chief felt that the proposed depth increase, from the 300 feet operating depth of the Gato Class, was too radical a jump, and, that, although the hull might be strong enough, it would also be necessary to prove that vital machinery components, such as the trim and drain pumps, which were utilized to expel water from the submarine, could perform satisfactorily at the deeper depth. Those pumps were based on a German design that had remained essentially unchanged since the end of World War I, and tests showed that the pumps could not develop the required discharge pressure. As a result, the operating depth for the new hull was formally set for 400 feet. However, the Bureau specified the test requirements for everything in the boat at 1 1/2 times the pressure existing at 450 feet, thus providing a substantial extra margin of performance...and safety.

This major gain in operating capability was unusual in that it was originated by the designers and offered to the operating forces, whereas, in most cases, the operators brought their new requirements to the designers. Except for the heavier hull structure, the new Balao (SS-285) design...named for the first submarine designated to be built with the heavier hull plating...was almost identical in equipment, layout, and appearance to the Gato type and was first phased into the Portsmouth Navy Yard construction schedule without a break in the rate of production. The change was accomplished as a so-called "design development" without any modification to the basic Gato Class characteristics...and was kept secret from all who did not need to know, including the Japanese. Among submariners, the new boats soon became known as "thick skins" and the older ones as "thin skins," and there was considerable argument over the behavior to be expected of the new steel under depth-charging. Some felt that the heavier hulls might rupture where the thinner and more flexible plates would only dimple, and were perfectly content to stay with the older boats even though they obviously could not dive as deep. Their fears proved to be unwarranted.

The Bureau's conservative approach to increasing the operating depth for the heavy-hull boats turned out to be wise, for an unanticipated reason. Because of the huge wartime demands for steel and the difficulty of obtaining certain critical alloy elements, the mills were having problems meeting all requirements. Therefore, without the prior knowledge of the submarine designers, the government specifications for HTS were relaxed from chrome-vanadium steel with a yield strength of 50,000 pounds per square inch, to a titanium manganese alloy with a 45,000 pounds per square inch yield strength.

Although this was considerably stronger than the mild steel previously used in submarines, it was less than the submarine hull designers had planned on. But the extra margin of safety designed into the boats was sufficient to absorb the difference. Since it was obviously impossible to test every square foot of plating going into a submarine, the design margin was also intended to assure the strength and integrity of the hull, in case some substandard steel got by the inspection process.

Orders were placed for 256 units of the Balao Class...but only 119 were completed to the original design, the rest being either cancelled or reordered later in the war. World War II losses totaled nine, the low toll being due to the completion of many units too late in the war to encounter much opposition from the battered Japanese antisubmarine forces. Most of the Balao Class submarines underwent conversion to new configurations after World War II and made up the bulk of the Navy's active submarine force until nuclear-powered attack boats replaced most of them during the 1960s.

The first of the Balao Class submarines, USS Balao (SS-285), which was named for any of several halfbeaks, was authorized to be built by the United States Congress on 23 December 1941. Her keel was laid on 26 June 1942 by the Portsmouth Navy Yard at Kittery, Maine.

The submarine was christened by Mrs. Theodore C. Aylward, wife of Lieutenant Commander Aylward, and launched on 27 October 1942...without the conning tower or the conning tower fairwater being fitted. This was done to free up the building way sooner than that construction of a new submarine could be started as soon as possible.

Commissioning took place on 4 February 1943 with Lieutenant Commander Richard Henry Crane in command.

When commissioned, the first heavy-hull Fleet-Type submarine was 311'9" in length overall; had a maximum beam of 27'3"; had a standard surface displacement of 1,526 tons, and, when in that condition, had a mean draft of 15'3". Submerged displacement was 2,414 tons. The designed compliment was for 6 officers and 60 enlisted men. Armament consisted of six bow and four stern 21-inch torpedo tubes, one 4-inch/.50-caliber deck gun, one 40-mm antiaircraft gun, and two .50-caliber machine guns. Twenty-four torpedoes could be carried. Test depth (operating depth) was set at 400 feet (in extremis, she might survive at 800 feet). Diesel oil in the amount of 94,400 gallons could be carried to fuel four General Motors main propulsion engines, and one auxiliary engine...which turned generators...that made electricity ... which turned main propulsion motors...which turned reduction gears ... which turned two propeller shafts...which turned propellers...which could drive the vessel at 20.25 knots when on the surface. The cruising range on the surface was 11,000 miles at ten knots (rated).

The generators were also utilized to charge the 252-cell main storage battery...which supplied the power to turn the main propulsion motors when submerged...for a maximum speed of 8.75 knots. The submarine could run submerged for two days at two knots. Patrol endurance was 75 days.

Following shakedown, USS Balao transited to Pearl Harbor and reported to the United States Pacific Fleet for duty.

USS Balao's World War II operations span a period from 25 July 1943 to 27 August 1945. During this period, she completed ten war patrols. The submarine is credited with having sunk seven Japanese ships totalling 32,108 tons, in addition to sinking, by gunfire, 1,100 tons of miscellaneous enemy small craft.

Following the end of World War II, on 2 September 1945, USS Balao transited to the United States...and arrived at Staten Island, New York, New York, on 27 September 1945. On 20 August 1946, the submarine went out of commission, in reserve, at the United States Naval Submarine Base at New London/Groton, Connecticut...and was placed in the reserve fleet...moored in the Thames River at the north end of the base within a nest of many World War II veteran submarines.

USS Balao received nine battle stars for her services during the Second World War.

During the Korean War, USS Balao (SS-285) was taken out of the "Mothball Fleet" and readied for service.

Recommissioning occurred on 4 March 1952. The submarine then transited to the United States Naval Station at Key West, Florida...where she reported for duty to Commander Submarine Division 121, Submarine Squadron 12, Submarine Force, United States Atlantic Fleet. Operating out of the southernmost city in the continental United States, the submarine engaged in various types of exercises, participated in fleet maneuvers, and provided services to the Fleet Sonar School as a submarine target. She also conducted type keep her crew ready to perform any assigned mission. The boat spent many months at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, over the years...providing services to the Fleet Training ships and aircraft that were there to enhance their antisubmarine warfare capabilities by detecting and tracking submerged submarines.

Many "show the flag" port visits were conducted in the well as along the eastern and Gulf of Mexico seaboards of the United States.

On 1 April 1960, USS Balao (SS-285) was reclassified USS Balao (AGSS-285). "AGSS" means "Auxiliary Submarine."

On 11 July 1963, USS Balao (AGSS-285) was decommissioned for the last time. During her active service periods, she was never converted nor modernized. The submarine was one of a few that operated during the post-World War II period without being streamlined or having a snorkel system installed.

On 1 August 1963, USS Balao was stricken from the "Navy List."

On 4 September 1963, USS Balao was sunk as a target off Charleston, South Carolina, at: Position: Latitude 30 Degrees 46' 30" North Longitude 74 Degrees 11' 00" West.

Prior to being expended as a target, the conning tower, conning tower fairwater, bridge superstructure, masts, and shears were removed from the submarine. They are now displayed at the Naval Museum in the Washington Navy Yard in the District of Columbia.