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32 in ’44: Building the Portsmouth Submarine Fleet in World War II by Rodney K. Watterson

The book 32 in ’44: Building the Portsmouth Submarine Fleet in World War II, by Rodney K. Watterson, is about the workforce and management practices behind the Government-operated Portsmouth Navy Yard’s record-setting performance from 1940 to 1945 in support of the war effort. Its output reached an apex in 1944, when thirty-two submarines slid down its building ways. The book is loaded with telling facts and figures such as employee numbers, submarine orders, man hours per submarine, and navy yard costs and performance metrics. The author argues that Portsmouth-built submarines had a reputation within the submarine force for completeness and higher quality, compared to submarines delivered from private shipyards. However, there are at least two instances when a lack of completeness may have been responsible for the loss of a Portsmouth-built submarine and its crew, and another instance when a critical defect was discovered before the submarine was launched.

The USS Capelin (SS-289), USS Cisco (SS-290), and USS Crevalle (SS-291) were consecutive products of the same Portsmouth assembly line. After only seventeen days at sea on her first patrol, the Capelin had to return to Port Darwin with a defective conning tower hatch, noisy bow planes, and a defective radar. When the defects were repaired she got underway to conduct her second war patrol in the Celebes area. She was never heard from again. Vernon J. Miller stated that the defects reported by the Capelin at Darwin were characteristic of hull distortion. Wilfred J. Holmes stated that the expedited construction schedule at the Portsmouth Navy Yard did not allow sufficient time for annealing of hull stress in an all-welded hull. However, the location of the Capelin’s wreck is unknown and without her corpse it is not possible to determine the cause of death.

The USS Cisco experienced a problem with a leaking fuel tank. The repair required that a new tank be welded into place from the outside after her hull had been completed. During subsequent trials and testing, a chronic oil leak was evident. The Cisco sailed from Darwin for her first war patrol after the latest repair to the intractable oil leak. They had to return to Darwin the same day to have it repaired again. She then got underway again for the South China Sea. While transiting the Sulu Sea, her intractable telltale oil trail was spotted by enemy aircraft. Surface antisubmarine vessels were called in and soon the Cisco and her crew sailed into eternity.

The next ship off the same production line was the Crevalle. Significant construction problems that could have been fatal were found by one of her officers before she was launched. The problems related to weaknesses in two vent pipes that could have caused the Crevalle to sink if she was depth-charged.

Watterson used as his quality metric Board of Inspection Survey reports and testimonials from some submariners. He notes that quality control records did not exist during the war. The belief then was the best measurement of the quality of a shipyard’s workmanship was the favorable endorsement of the commanding officers and sailors who sailed its ships into harm’s way. The Crevalle and Capelin get no mention in the book. The Cisco is mentioned twice as having been launched at Portsmouth in late 1942 after just 56 days on the ways. Five other Portsmouth-built submarines were also lost in the Pacific – Herring (SS-233), Runner (SS-275), Scamp (SS-277), Scorpion (SS-278), and Snook (SS-279). For Runner, Scorpion, and Snook, no evidence has ever been found to attribute their loss to a specific cause. Speculative possibilities are generally discussed in articles, however none with sufficient evidence to permit any definite conclusions. Possible technical problems and construction issues are within the realm of possibilities.

Overall I think Watterson's book is worth buying and reading. I anticipate using it often as a source in other articles. I also learned a lot of things I did not know about the Portsmouth Navy Yard, and for me that is the measure of a worthwhile book. The lack of narrative about the lost submarines is a disappointment, but what is in it is very informative and useful.