Battle Stations Missile:
remembering the Regulus bmarine Era
By Nick T. Spark
(Originally published in the United States Naval Institute’s Naval History; reprinted with permission.)
On 15 July 1953 the submarine USS Tunny (SSG-282) left California’s Point Hueneme Naval Station on a top-secret mission. A World War II fleet boat with Guppy modifications, Tunny also had a special addition – a massive, bulbous hangar that covered its after deck. It could carry the Navy’s newest weapon: the Regulus missile.
At 1130, with the Tunny well out to sea, Captain Jim Osborne declared “Battle Stations Missile.” The submarine surfaced, and the crew opened the hangar door and rammed a Regulus out onto the deck. Minutes later, the missile’s jet engine roared to life and the crew scrambled back into the boat. At 1205, with the engine screaming at full power, Osborne gave the order to fire. A pair of rocket bottles lit off under the Regulus, and the missile tore into the sky with a roar. The smoke neatly hid the Tunny as she submerged.
The launch signaled a new era in the history of the submarine, the U.S. Navy, and the Cold War. For many, it was a welcome and long overdue development. In the immediate post-World War II era, the Air Force’s long-range bombers, the only platforms available for delivering nuclear weapons, attained primacy. Until the Navy developed a nuclear capability of its own, its role was severely limited. Some feared that it might even become irrelevant.
An obvious if daunting solution, first examined in 1946, was to develop a seagoing missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon. The ideal platform, argued USN Captain Thomas Klakring, would be a submarine. But critics ridiculed the suggestion, arguing that development costs for such a weapon would be prohibitive. But Klakring had a trump card. He proposed using a weapon already in the inventory, the German V-1 “buzz bomb”, as a test bed. Hundreds of these had been built for use against the Japanese and, with the war over, they were now surplus.
Soon a team of engineers, submariners, aviators and former German rocket scientists assembled at the Naval Air Missile Test Center, Point Mugu, California, to begin tests with the “Loon” – the Americanized V-1. Despite the simplicity of the bird (which was powered by a primitive pulse jet engine), it was clear that modifying it for submarine launch would be difficult. The first step threatened to be the most troublesome: how to launch the Loon off the tiny deck of a submarine. The Germans had used long catapult ramps to accelerate their missiles, and now engineers struggled to develop a rocket sled to achieve the same result in a minimum distance. Tests produced some spectacular failures as rockets exploded, sleds failed, and pulse jets stalled. Eventually however, the bugs were worked out and rocket launches of Loons became routine.
While rocket tests proceeded, another team of engineers tackled the complicated issue of how to control missiles in flight. The Naval Electronics Laboratory set about building a radio control system, using an existing radar beam. “Submarines had two radars: an air-search radar and a surface-search radar,” says Captain Al Thomas, USN (ret.) who participated in some of the tests. “And they decided to modify the air-search radar so that you could send codes. You could make the missile go faster or slower or higher or lower, or right or left, or tell it to dive in.” That made the Loon not just a flying bomb, but a true guided missile.
The World War II fleet submarine USS Cusk was then outfitted with a launch ramp and a missile control station. On March 7, 1947 Captain Fred Berry watched the action of the waves through the periscope. When the Cusk was in the trough of a wave, he gave the order to launch. Smoke from the rockets obliterated Berry’s view as the Loon leapt off the deck. Controlled by the submarine and then by a chase aircraft, the missile was flown for several miles and “dumped” on a target. The Cusk had just made history.
But on 7 July 1948, something went horribly wrong. “One of the rocket bottles exploded on the deck (of the Cusk),” recalls Thomas. “And the missile, which was full of JP-5, like kerosene, exploded and dove down on the deck of the submarine.” Horrified onlookers saw the boat disappear beneath a towering fireball and smoke cloud. “Everyone thought the Cusk had sunk,” remembers Captain Pat Murphy, USN (ret.) another Loon-era veteran. “But the Cusk’s captain [Fred Berry] saw what happened through the periscope and saw that there was no hull rupture. Well, he submerged. They had all the water they needed to put out the fire.”The Cusk survived with minor damage. In 1949, she and a sister ship, the USS Carbonero, launched a missile attack as part of an exercise. Although the Cusk’s Loon malfunctioned and crashed, the Carbonero’s flew over the fleet, despite the use of radar, fighter interdiction, and heavy anti-aircraft fire. It was a terrific demonstration. But the Loon was not a practical weapon. Its payload and range were small, and new aircraft could out-fly it easily. “We were walking before we learned to run,” says Murphy. “We were saying, this is what we can do, now give us the resources so that we can go do it.”That proved to be a problem. Budgets remained tight. And while a small amount of money was allocated to develop a new missile — to be called the Regulus — few believed it would be enough. But the skeptics reckoned without Chance Vought Aircraft. Vought’s missile had an innovation that was sure to hold down costs: landing gear. The “missile with wheels” was designed to land and fly again, and again, and again.To build it cheap, Vought designed the Regulus so that it could share parts with jet planes already in service, and it even looked like one.
“The first thing that went through my mind when I saw it,” recalls test pilot C. O. Miller, “was, ‘Where the heck’s the cockpit?’ It was a very simplified design.”Tests of the bird took place at Edwards Air Force Base. In February 1950, missiles and select personnel began arriving from the Vought factory in Dallas, Texas. Along with them came several T-33 aircraft, some single cockpit and some dual cockpit, which were equipped with a system to control the Regulus.Initially, test pilots used one of the single-seat T-33s for practice, flying them in place of the Regulus as drones. To avoid accidental loss of a T-33 drone, a safety pilot would ride in the plane, although he would not touch the controls unless something went wrong. It worked well, and on several occasions pilots actually landed their own aircraft and the drone simultaneously on the desert lakebed. Then one day a drone flown by Miller nearly crashed. “I was packed up and happy, and the next thing I knew the airplane was on its back,” he recalls. “Fortunately I had enough altitude to recover.” An investigation revealed that a Los Angeles TV station’s signal had produced interference. “It might have been,” Miller laughs, “I Love Lucy.”The initial tests with a Regulus took place on the ground. Under command from an aircraft, the missile was accelerated down the lakebed and subjected to stability and braking tests. On 22 November 1950
project manager Neven Palley gave the go-ahead for the first flight. Just after daybreak, Miller and chief test pilot Roy Pearson flew down over the lakebed and took control of the missile. In a few minutes it had reached 190 knots and became airborne. “It got not too many hundreds of feet in the air, when all of the sudden it rolled left, went out of control and crashed,” remembers Miller.
The black smoke that towered over the crash site foreshadowed doom. Vought had staked its reputation on building a cheap, recoverable missile, only to see it fail catastrophically on its maiden flight. It was clear to Palley, Vought and Navy proponents that another failure would likely doom the program and delay a submarine missile system for years, if not forever. Determined to make things right, Palley ordered a thorough investigation. The culprit turned out to be a metal spline in a hydraulic pump. During the ground tests, the spline had been under severe stress. During the first flight, it had snapped in two.
Next, Palley ordered an unprecedented series of ground tests. A missile was placed on a trailer which allowed nearly every aspect of a flight to be simulated. Palley insisted that 20 perfect “ramp runs” be completed before he would authorize another flight. “We did the whole thing, start up, shut down, the whole bit,” says Miller. “And if for some reason a significant failure appeared, you started over. In other words, if it occurred on number 18, you made 20 more.” The delays produced questions about Palley’s fitness, not just at Vought but within his own team. But he stuck to his guns.
Five months later, 29 March 1951, Palley decided to allow another flight. This time, the Regulus took off and performed a series of wide turns, climbing to nearly 2,500 feet. Then Pearson brought it down toward the lake bed for what turned out to be a perfect landing.
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“It was a real vindication. There were a lot of people around who said this would never work, you can’t fly this from another plane, it’s too complicated,” says Miller. “And so when we did get it back around and the landing was unremarkable, there was nothing to it, there was a huge sigh of relief.”
The Regulus might have been granted a reprieve, but the normally conservative Palley threw the iron right back in the fire. He proposed “Operation Splash”, which would entail the first-ever rocket launch of the missile, remote control by the Cusk, and a supersonic terminal dive to target. Palley reasoned that, if any one of the tests might destroy the missile, why not take them all on at once? The gamble paid off, as “Splash” was a resounding success.
The booster system operated as advertised, and the missile flew well even though control by the Cusk was spotty. A chase aircraft took control, guided the missile to target and sent it into a supersonic dive. The bird remained intact until impact, which was just a mile from bullseye. With a nuclear weapon on board, this would have been more than good enough.
The Navy was eager to deploy its new strategic weapon, and plans were quickly made to build five nuclear submarines to carry the missile. The first, the USS Halibut (SSGN-587), would be launched in 1959. In the meantime, the Navy decided to convert existing diesel submarines into SSGs. The Tunny and USS Barbero (SSG-317), both World War II fleet boats, were outfitted with hangars capable of holding two missiles. The USS Grayback (SSG-574) and USS Growler (SSG-577), which were originally intended as 563-class attack boats, received twin hangars capable of holding four missiles. The Navy also modified four Baltimore-class cruisers to carry the Regulus, and several aircraft carriers deployed either with missiles, or with aircraft capable of guiding Regulus missiles to target.
Following the first launch in 1953, the Tunny began training crews to handle and launch missiles. The time from surfacing to launching birds was trimmed from a long 30 minutes to a much more acceptable 15. The Tunny participated in dozens of launches in the Pacific, including one in the Gulf of Alaska which demonstrated its ability to launch in arctic conditions. When the Barbero went into commission as an SSG in 1957, she was deployed in the Atlantic with the Sixth Fleet. The nuclear Regulus provided a mighty power-projection tool, and the Navy made certain its presence was felt in both oceans. In 1958 during the Lebanon Crisis, Barbero went to war footing in the Atlantic, while the Tunny guarded approaches in the Northern Pacific.
In October 1959, with the Grayback and the Growler in commission and the Halibut nearly ready, the Navy consolidated the Regulus submarines in Pearl Harbor. The Regulus boats now would form a deterrent shield. Their targets, presumably, were the USSR’s Pacific submarine and naval bases, and their new mission was to maintain peace through the threat of mutual assured destruction. “It was all top-secret, code-word stuff,” says Captain Bill Gunn, who served in Grayback. “No one in Pearl Harbor knew what we were doing.”
As the Navy’s front line weapon in the Pacific, the Regulus submarines served at a state of readiness not seen since the days of World War II. The boats were manned by single crews responsible for taking them out on patrol, refitting them, and going out on patrol again. It produced a situation which was hard on men and machines, but one which crewmen accepted as necessary. “It was tough on the families,” notes Commander Robert Owens, who served in the Growler. “We were gone for a long period of time and we’d come home for a short time and sometimes go and turn right back again.” The brutal patrols also produced real casualties. Aluminum fairings and superstructures disappeared in ice-strewn seas, and Tunny once managed to
lose its snorkel to a rogue iceberg. In 1963, during a severe storm, a fire broke out aboard Grayback after a circuit breaker tripped. Eventually the fire was contained but one crew member, seaman James Jensen, was asphyxiated.
Despite the hardships, morale among the Regulus crews was high. When the Polaris “Blue and Gold” crews appeared on the scene in the early 1960s, the Regulus submariners promptly christened themselves the “Black and Blue” crews. “Once we got a message from ComSubPac [Commander, Submarine Force Pacific] saying that the USS George Washington (SSBN-598) [the first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine] had completed its first patrol — 42 days,” remembers Owens with a gleam in his eye. “Their commanding officer said that 42 days was the limit of human endurance. And that gave my crew such a boost. See, we’d already been out for 60 days.”
Because the range of the Regulus was limited to about 300 miles, the SSGs had to patrol close to Soviet shores. On one hand, this allowed the boats to monitor Ivan’s activities. On the other, it placed them directly in harm’s way. No one knew what the ramifications might be if an American nuclear missile submarine was found near Soviet waters. “You had to be alert, you had to keep on your toes,” says Owens. “So you manned your periscopes, you manned your electronic countermeasures receivers, you manned your sonar…” During one particularly hair raising incident, the Growler found herself caught in the middle of a major Soviet antisubmarine warfare exercise. “They were pinging all around us, but we managed to slip by,” recalls LcDR Bob Harmuth USN (ret.). “And of course, we got to study their tactics.”
The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis proved to be the high-water mark for the Regulus boats. Although the deployment of the Polaris SSBNs in the Pacific was imminent they had not yet arrived and thus, at the critical moment, the Regulus boats “answered the bell.” “We went to battle stations missile, and checked out all four missiles. Put power on all the birds, ” remembers the Grayback’s Bill Gunn. “And for the next 14 days we were never off-line for a second, waiting for the message to shoot. Very somber crew, a lot of speculation, introspection and you know we had the feeling that this is what we are supposed to do. This is it. And if it happens, we are the people who are going to execute it. And we would have.” Fortunately, the crisis was resolved. “When we stood down,” says Gunn, “it was just a relief to all hands.”
When the Regulus crews returned to Hawaii after the crisis, they knew their days on deterrent patrol were numbered. Back in 1958, the supersonic Regulus II missile was accepted and nearly deployed by the Navy. But stunning advances were simultaneously being made by the Polaris test team, and Regulus II was terminated. “I was really surprised they cancelled it,” remembers Owens, who felt both Polaris and Regulus II were needed to ensure strong defense. “Regulus II had a low-level attack capability. Maybe the Soviets would build a defense for ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles], and we’d need a low-level attack capability. And what do we have now? Cruise missiles. Well, we had cruise missiles.”
The Halibut made the last Regulus patrol in 1964, and for the most part the Regulus submariners were forgotten, their successes eclipsed by the achievements of the Polaris program. Obscured in the secrecy that shadowed submarine operations in the 1950s and ’60s, the true story of the Regulus era was not revealed until 1996, with the publication of Regulus: The Forgotten Weapon by historian David Stumpf. The book directly resulted in official recognition, and the awarding of the Deterrent Patrol Pin to all Regulus veterans.
The legacy of the Regulus and the SSGs continues to be felt today. Lessons learned during the North Pacific patrols shaped all future submarine deterrent programs, and technology derived from Regulus I and II ended up in the Tomahawk cruise missile. Perhaps more important, however, the Regulus firing submarines demonstrated how a new and potentially awesome weapon system could reshape the global strategic balance. “I truly believe that the Soviets knew that we were operating in their backyard,” says Bill Gunn. “And that there were missile submarines with four missiles pointed at them all the time. And I believe that dampened their adventurism. The fact that they never got to the brink of nuclear war again, after Cuba, and that no nuclear weapon ever fell on the United States I believe is proof that we did the job.”