The V-boats were a group of nine United States Navy submarines built between World War I and World War II from 1919 to 1934. These were not a ship class in the usual sense of a series of nearly-identical ships built from the same design, but shared authorization under the "fleet boat" program. The term "V-boats" is used to includes five separate classes of submarines.

Originally called USS "V-1" through "V-9" (SS-163 through SS-171), the nine submarines were renamed in 1931 as USS|Barracuda|SS-163|2, USS|Bass|SS-164|2, USS|Bonita|SS-165|2, USS|Argonaut|SS-166|2, USS|Narwhal|SS-167|2, USS|Nautilus|SS-168|2, USS|Dolphin|SS-169|2, USS|Cachalot|SS-170|2, and USS|Cuttlefish|SS-171|2, respectively. All served in World War II, six of them on war patrols in the central Pacific. "Argonaut" was lost to enemy action.


In the early 1910s, only a dozen years after USS|Holland|SS-1|2 inaugurated the Navy's undersea force, naval strategists had already begun to wish for submarines that could operate in closer collaboration with the surface fleet than the Navy's existing classes, which had been designed primarily for coastal defense. These notional "fleet" submarines would necessarily be larger and better armed, but primarily, they would need a surface speed of some convert|21|kn|km/h to be able to maneuver with the battleships and cruisers of the line.

In the summer of 1913, Electric Boat's chief naval architect, former naval constructor Lawrence Y. Spear, proposed two preliminary fleet-boat designs for consideration in the Navy's 1914 program. In the ensuing authorization of eight submarines, Congress specified that one should "be of a seagoing type to have a surface speed of not less than twenty knots." This first fleet boat, laid down in June 1916, was named USS|T-1|SS-52 after Spanish-American War hero Winfield Scott Schley. With a displacement of 1,106 tons surfaced, 1,487 tons submerged, on a length of convert|270|ft, "Schley" (later "AA-1", and finally "T-1") was twice as large as any previous U.S. submarine. To achieve the required surface speed, two tandem convert|1000|hp|adj=on diesel engines on each shaft drove twin screws, and a separate diesel generator was provided for charging batteries. Although "Schley" and two sisters authorized in 1915—USS|T-2|SS-60 (originally "AA-2"), and USS|T-3|SS-61 (originally "AA-3")—all made their design speed of convert|20|kn|km/h, insoluble torsional vibration problems with their tandem engines made them very troublesome ships, and they were decommissioned in 1922 and 1923 after a service life of only a few years.

In 1916, well before this T class debacle transpired, Congress authorized 58 coastal submarines and nine additional "fleet" boats. Three of the larger 800-ton coastal boats eventually became competing prototypes for the long-lived, 51-member S class. The nine "fleet boats" became the "V-boats", built between 1921 and 1934, and in fact, they were the only U.S. submarines produced in that period.

"V-1" through "V-3"—the "Barracuda"s

The first three V-boats were funded in fiscal year 1919, laid down at the Portsmouth Navy Yard in October and November 1921, and commissioned somewhat less than a year apart between 1924 and 1926. Significantly, "V-1", "V-2", and "V-3" were the only members of the class designed to satisfy the Navy's original "fleet-boat" requirement for high surface speed. These were large and powerfully-engined submarines, displacing 2,119 tons surfaced and 2,506 tons submerged on a length of convert|342|ft. The propulsion plant was divided between two separate engine rooms—forward and aft of the control room—with two convert|2250|hp|adj=on main-propulsion diesels aft, and two independent convert|1000|hp|adj=on diesel generators forward. The latter were primarily for charging batteries, but to reach maximum surface speed, they could augment the mechanically-coupled main-propulsion engines by driving the convert|1200|hp|adj=on electric motors in parallel. The three boats were partially double-hulled and fitted forward with buoyancy tanks inside a bulbous bow for better surface sea-keeping. They were armed with six torpedo tubes—four forward and two aft—plus a five-inch/51-caliber deck gun.

Unfortunately, the operational performance of the first three V-boats was only mediocre. Designed for convert|21|kn|km/h on the surface, they only made 18.7 (34.6 km/h), and also failed to make their submerged design speed of convert|9|kn|km/h. As built, they were somewhat too heavy forward, which made them poor sea boats, even after replacing the original deck guns with smaller 3-inch/50-caliber models to save weight. Moreover, both the main propulsion diesel engines and their original electric motors were notoriously unreliable, and full-power availability was rare. Renamed "Barracuda", "Bass", and "Bonita" in 1931, they were decommissioned in 1937, and only the imminence of World War II provided a reprieve, in preparation for which they were recommissioned in September 1940. Just before Pearl Harbor, the three boats were transferred to Coco Solo, Panama Canal Zone, and each made a number of defensive war patrols—without seeing any action—off the approaches to the Panama Canal.

All three boats were overhauled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in late 1942 and early 1943 and converted to cargo submarines by removing both torpedo tubes and main engines, thereby leaving them solely dependent on their diesel generators for propulsion. Because this rendered the boats severely under-powered, they apparently never served operationally in their cargo-carrying role but instead were relegated to training duties at New London until just before the end of the war in 1945. After decommissioning, "Barracuda" and "Bonita" were scrapped, and "Bass" was scuttled as a sonar target near Block Island.


Displacing 4,164 tons submerged, "V-4", later "Argonaut", was both the largest submarine the Navy ever built before the advent of nuclear power and the only U.S. submarine specifically designed as a minelayer. Her configuration, and that of the following "V-5" and "V-6", resulted from an evolving strategic concept that increasingly emphasized the possibility of a naval war with Japan in the far western Pacific. This factor, and the implications of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, suggested the need for long-range submarine "cruisers", or "strategic scouts", as well as long-range minelayers, for which long endurance, not high speed, was most important. Funded in fiscal year 1925, laid down at Portsmouth in May of that year, and commissioned in April 1928, "V-4" was convert|381|ft long overall and carried 4 × convert|21|in|mm|0|adj=on torpedo tubes forward and two convert|40|in|mm|-1|adj=on mine-laying chutes and their associated mechanical handling equipment aft. Considerable engine-room volume was sacrificed to achieve an internal payload of 60 specially-designed Mark XI moored mines, and consequently, the main propulsion diesels were limited to a total of convert|2800|shp, yielding only convert|15|kn|km/h on the surface.

An over-large, under-powered, and one-of-a-kind submarine, "Argonaut" was never particularly successful but stayed in commission all through the 1930s. Early in World War II, she was re-engined at Mare Island to increase her main propulsion horsepower to 3,600 (2,700 kW), and additionally received two external aft-firing torpedo tubes. Then, at Pearl Harbor, having never laid a mine in anger, her mine-laying gear was stripped out to facilitate conversion to a troop-carrying submarine. In that guise, she participated in the commando assault on Japanese-held Makin Atoll by Carlson's Raiders in August 1942. In transferring to Brisbane, Australia late that year, "Argonaut" was diverted to a war patrol near Bougainville in the northern Solomon Islands and lost with all hands on 10 January 1943 after attacking a heavily defended Japanese convoy.

"V-5" and "V-6"—"Narwhal" and "Nautilus"

In their overall appearance and dimensions, "V-5", later "Narwhal" and "V-6", later "Nautilus" were similar to "Argonaut" and constituted "submarine cruiser" counterparts at least partially inspired by German success with long-range submarine commerce raiders in World War I. Endurance, sea-keeping, increased torpedo capacity, and large deck guns were emphasized at the cost of high speed; and originally, a small scouting seaplane was to be carried in a water-tight hangar abaft the conning tower. The Navy had experimented with seaplanes on submarines with a prototype hangar installation on USS|S-1|SS-105 during the mid-1920s. However, the resulting increase in scouting capability was significantly offset by several additional dangers to the host submarine, and the initiative was dropped.

The two double-hulled boats displaced 2,730 tons on the surface and 3,900 underwater on a length of convert|370|ft. They displayed prominent "surface-ship" characteristics, notably high freeboard and an expansive deck structure. Each was powered by two ten-cylinder, two-cycle, convert|2350|hp|adj=on MAN diesel engines (designed by the German firm that built engines that powered many German U-Boats of World War I, the rights to which the U.S. Navy purchased to build domestically for their own submarines). They also had a pair of smaller convert|450|hp|adj=on diesel generators for charging batteries or augmenting the main propulsion engines on the surface. On trials, the two boats achieved nearly 17½ knots (32 km/h surfaced and convert|8|kn|km/h submerged, and their claimed endurance was 18,000 miles (29,000 km) at convert|10|kn|km/h. In addition to the customary torpedo tubes—four forward and two aft with 24Lenton, H.T. "American Submarines" (New York: Doubleday, 1973), p.33.] torpedoes (eight external)—they (and "Argonaut") carried two six-inch/53-caliber deck guns, the largest ever mounted on U.S. submarines.

Funded in 1926 and commissioned in 1930, "V-5" and "V-6" emerged as too large and unwieldy for fully successful operation: slow to dive, hard to maneuver, and easy to detect. Nonetheless, as "Narwhal" and "Nautilus", they served usefully in the 1930s, and just before World War II, "Nautilus" was modified to carry convert|20000|USgal|l of aviation gasoline for refueling seaplanes at sea. Early in the war, each was re-fitted with four General Motors convert|1600|hp|adj=on diesels and four additional external torpedo tubes, and despite their age and inherent design flaws, they went on to compile enviable war records.

"Narwhal" completed 15 successful war patrols and "Nautilus" 14, and between them, they are credited with sinking 13 enemy ships for a total of 35,000 tons. Somewhat more serendipitously, their large size made them useful for carrying both troops and cargo on covert missions. Thus, "Nautilus" joined with "Argonaut" in transporting Carlson's Raiders to Makin, and then with "Narwhal", landed a strong detachment of United States Army Scouts on Attu in the Aleutian Islands preparatory to the main landing that regained that island from the Japanese in May 1943. For the final two years of the war, the two boats were devoted almost exclusively to clandestine insertion and retrieval operations behind enemy lines, particularly in preparation for the U.S. campaign to retake the Philippines.

With the end of the war in sight, "Narwhal" and "Nautilus" were withdrawn from service in April and June 1945, respectively, and sold for breaking up soon thereafter. "Narwhal's" two 6-inch guns are retained as a memorial at the Naval Submarine Base New London.


The penultimate design in the V-boat series was laid down at Portsmouth in June 1930 and emerged as USS|Dolphin|SS-169|2 (formerly "V-7") two years later. With a length of convert|319|ft and a displacement only a little more than half that of her three predecessors, "Dolphin" was clearly an attempt to strike a happy medium between those latter ships and earlier S-class submarines, which were little more than large coastal boats. The general arrangement of propulsion machinery was identical to that of "V-5" and "V-6", but even with a surface displacement of only 1,718 tons, "Dolphin"'s scaled-down main engines, at convert|1750|hp each, could only just deliver the surface speed of the larger ships, and her endurance and torpedo load-out were much reduced. Interestingly, however, "Dolphin"'s size and weight were very nearly ideal for the range and duration of the war-patrols that became customary in the Pacific during World War II, and indeed, the war-time "Gato", "Balao", and "Tench" classes had similar dimensions.

Early in the war, "Dolphin" herself made three patrols from Pearl Harbor without notable distinction, and her deteriorating material condition soon led to restricting her to training duties, first in Hawaii, and then in New London, Connecticut, for the duration of the war. She was decommissioned in October 1945 and sold for scrapping a year later.

"V-8" and "V-9"—"Cachalot" and "Cuttlefish"

Even before "V-5" and "V-6" had been completed and "V-7" laid down, submarine officer opinion had begun to shift in favor of smaller boats similar to Germany's 1,200-ton "U-135" design from World War I. Then, when the London Naval Treaty of 1930 for the first time imposed international limits on total submarine tonnage, the incentive to build smaller ships became especially compelling. (The restrictions of the London Naval Treaty were a factor in the disposal in 1930 of "T-1", "T-2", and "T-3", which had been laid up for nearly a decade. But by special agreement, "Argonaut", "Narwhal", and "Nautilus" were exempted from the treaty limitations.)

The result was the two smallest V-boats, "Cachalot" (originally "V-8") and "Cuttlefish" (originally "V-9"), funded in fiscal year 1932. At convert|271|ft overall and only 1,130 tons surface displacement, "Cachalot" and "Cuttlefish" were even smaller than the T-boats of 15 years earlier. The engineering plant consisted of two innovative, MAN-designed, compact main engines supposedly capable of delivering convert|1535|hp each, plus a single diesel generator rated at convert|440|hp. Although the boats approached convert|17|kn|km/h on trials, the new MAN engines failed repeatedly from excessive vibration and were replaced in 1938 by General Motors diesels with reduction gearing.

Perhaps of most interest was the Navy's assignment of "Cuttlefish" to the Electric Boat Company, the first submarine award to a private yard since the last of the S class in 1921. Accordingly, "Cuttlefish" differed from her Portsmouth-built sister, "Cachalot", in many respects, including more spacious internal arrangements, the first installation of air conditioning on a U.S. submarine, and the first partial use of welding (vice riveting) in hull fabrication. Moreover, "Cachalot" and "Cuttlefish" served as the first test beds for the Mark I torpedo data computer that revolutionized underwater fire control in the mid-1930s.

Unfortunately, because small size severely limited their speed, endurance, and weapons load, neither boat was successful under the conditions of the Pacific war. Each did three scoreless war patrols in the central and western Pacific, and "Cachalot" did one in Alaskan waters, but by late 1942, it was clear both were out-classed and worn out, and they finished the war at New London as training ships. The two were decommissioned in October 1945 and broken up several years later.


By 21st century standards, the Navy's exploitation of the Congressional "fleet boat" authorization of 1916 to build five vastly different submarine designs in a series that ended only in 1934 may seem surprising or even disingenuous. However, as the only U.S. submarines built during an entire decade of shifting and often-contradictory operational concepts, the nine V-boats could hardly have been expected to be homogeneous. But the relative freedom that the Navy was granted to try so many novel submarine approaches in so few years may only have been matched subsequently in the initial era of the nuclear-propulsion program. Except for "Narwhal" and "Nautilus"—and these for unexpected reasons—none of the V-boats achieved significant success either in peacetime or under combat conditions in World War II. But the willingness to experiment—or perhaps it was only shooting in the dark—that produced the V-boats in all their interesting variety paid off handsomely in a host of lessons-learned that were quickly applied to the subsequent succession of true "fleet boat" designs—the
"Porpoise", "Salmon", "Sargo", "Tambor", and "Gato" classes.


In 1920, the Navy adopted a numbering scheme that distinguished between coastal and general purpose boats, designated "SS"; and fleet boats, designated "SF." Accordingly, "T-1" through "T-3" were originally designated SF-1 through SF-3, and "V-1" through "V-9" were designated SF-4 through SF-12. "V-4" was also designated SM-1 at one time, indicative of her mine-laying role.
* "V-1" (SF-4): USS|Barracuda|SS-163|3
* "V-2" (SF-5): USS|Bass|SS-164|3
* "V-3" (SF-6): USS|Bonita|SS-165|3
* "V-4" (SF-7/SM-1): USS|Argonaut|SS-166|3
* "V-5" (SF-8/SC-1): USS|Narwhal|SS-167|3
* "V-6" (SF-9/SC-2): USS|Nautilus|SS-168|3
* "V-7" (SF-10/SC-3): USS|Dolphin|SS-169|3
* "V-8" (SF-11/SC-4): USS|Cachalot|SS-170|3
* "V-9" (SF-12/SC-5): USS|Cuttlefish|SS-171|3



This article was based on "The Navy's Variegated V-Class: Out of One, Many?" by Edward C. Whitman, published in the Fall 2003 issue of "Undersea Warfare: The Official Magazine of the U.S. Submarine Force" The magazine's masthead states::Authorization: UNDERSEA WARFARE is published quarterly from appropriated funds by authority of the Chief of Naval Operations in accordance with NPPR P-35. The Secretary of the Navy has determined that this publication is necessary in the transaction of business required by law of the Department of the Navy. Use of funds for printing this publication has been approved by the Navy Publications and Printing Policy Committee. Reproductions are encouraged. Controlled circulation.

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