A Biography of the USS ARCHERFISH
by Ken Henry and Don Keith
Publication Date: June 2004
Tom Doherty Associates, LLC. Publisher
$25.95, 352 pgs., 24 photos
Reviewed by Captain Gordon W. Engquist, USN(RET)
Captain Engquist was commanding officer of USS ARCHERFISH (AGSS-311) in 1964-65.
Gallant Lady is the first USS Archerfish's twenty-five year cradle to grave "biography" from 1943 on. The World War II segment previously has been well documented, most notably in Shinano! in which skipper Captain Joseph Enright recounts Archerfish's classic sea battle which ended in the sinking of the Japanese super carrier. Had the Archerfish exploits ended there her place in naval history was secured. But a second significant segment - Operation Sea Scan - spanned her final years of service. This demilitarized cold war segment contrasts so strikingly with her wartime heroics that only a unique combination of events and personalities could have made it a story for the telling.
A middle period covering Archerfish's post WWII years through the 1950s while homeported in Key West is also recounted. Twice out of commission, she was one of many fleet boats passed by for modernization. Services for the Fleet Sonar School were the usual routine. In 1959 Archerfish was redesignated Auxilliary Submarine (AGSS) and, when scheduled for a third decommissioning, no one realistically thought she would ever be again brought into service. This may have been the reason that, though granted an eleventh hour reprieve, she arrived for refit at Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in sorry material condition. More on this later.
Operation Sea Scan was a survey of the earth's gravitational fields. Early missile tests by the Air Force had revealed that precise global gravity measurements were required for programming overflight missile paths. The Naval Hydrographic (later Oceanographic) Office was assigned responsibility for getting the data. The office contracted for development of sensitive ship-mounted gravity-reading meters for the purpose. But in rough seas the meter readings were unreliable. Thus a submarine was proposed; in calm weather the boat could read unhindered on the surface while in transit; in rough weather the boat could dive to a stable depth. Enter Archerfish.
For this assignment Operation Sea Scan required a unique crew. The qualifications were simple: only bachelors need apply. The word was sent to the submarine force: volunteers were wanted for an extended cruise to the far reaches of the world; no complicating family relationships, single men only. Implicitly, "home port" would be more an administrative title than a practical assignment.
The allure proved so great that hundreds applied for the sixty billets. Even other submarines got into the recruiting act by dangling Archerfish as a shipping-over incentive. Thus, a group of adventure-minded men came together at Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in late 1959.
The refit proved daunting. The boat was issued only $10,000 for ship's force repair and maintenance. Impossible. By this time all four main engines were out of commission along with numerous other major and lesser components. The still-forming crew, in transition, without firm direction, got to work in the only way available - by hook or by crook.
It required both. Cumshaw and salvage were the order of the day; when they proved inadequate, outright theft kicked in. The crew became expert in swiping parts and materials and anything else lacking. Victims were other boats in overhaul, the joint submarine mess at the shipyard barracks (eg, bulk coffee to be used as cumshaw bait), and from the yard itself. Thefts were often from under the victims' very noses. Despite all, task versus schedule seemed impossible.
But the new personnel were taking hold. Arriving crewmen were largely experienced and heavy in leadership. New skipper Kenneth Woods and executive officer David Dimmick, free spirits themselves, found a crew of their own stripe bound more by urgency of committment than regulation. Another rare leader appeared in the person of engineer officer Miles Graham. Graham, after a disgusted look around, relieved his predecessor on the spot and immediately shifted to flank speed. He demanded the impossible - and got it. With the scheduled completion date endangered he ordered port and starboard work shifts - twelve on, twelve off - for the engineers. When completion still lagged, Graham arm-wrestled the Exec and cancelled "starboard". Work, he said, till you can't stay awake, sleep in place, grab a sandwich when hungry, and forget about liberty. Giving draconian orders is one thing, having them obeyed willingly is another. Somehow, the unorthodox leadership of officers and crew jelled and tired old Archerfish came together. But the results of that yard period were permanent. It was there that a renewed Archerfish personality was formed and forged - us against the world. Even much later, when material and funding support caught up and wide-scale larceny faded into memory, the spirit survived changes of location, events, and personnel until the very end. And survives today as the crew reassembles in odd years to relive a colorful youth.
The boat was still shaking down when she deployed from New London in May 1960 on what would be known as phase I of Operation Sea Scan. The Hydrographic Office routinely assigned two or three civilian technicians to man the gravity meter. Called "Hydros" by the crew, these men became as much a part of the Archerfish crew as the sailors themselves. A number of them attend the boat's reunions.
The entire mission was initially envisaged to take two years. Phase I ranged across the Atlantic, northeast to the Artic Circle, crisscrossing west and east as far as Hudson Bay to the coast of Europe. The liberty loving crew descended on British and Norwegian ports, and tolerated less exotic stops in Greenland. As fall set in weather became a factor - heavy seas, icebergs, bitter cold - while occasionally surveying sketchily charted seas in marginal diving depths. Overtaken in Hudson Bay by the rapidly forming ice pack, unable to make even minimal headway, Woods ordered a dive. Eight hours later, with a flat battery and match-won't-strike air in the boat, they reached open water.
Archerfish returned without fanfare to New London in late 1960. In February 1961 she transitted the Panama Canal to start Phase II in the Pacific. She would never return to the Atlantic.
By this time longer range and more accurate missiles greatly expanded gravity data requirements. Thus, Phase II eventually grew to Phase IV and one year stretched to seven. The crew fit with gusto into the Pacific's supurb liberty ports in Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines - to mention only some major favorites. Home port, Pearl Harbor, was more commonly visited in the later Sea Scan phases as the survey areas moved eastward. During those years of almost constant operation Archerfish reliably kept the data rolling in to the Hydrographic - now Oceanographic - Office. Over the shank of those years the boat's material condition, pampered by a stable crew, even improved in many regards. This reviewer, for example, recalls no major engineering outage during his tour. But inevitably the boat was wearing out - even parts that aren't expected to fail eventually will, and did.
A combination of casualties resulted in Archerfish's unscheduled decommissioning. While surveying out of San Diego the bow planes became inoperable. Fleet boats routinely drilled using stern planes only to control depth; thus, Archerfish attempted to continue Sea Scan surveys with only the stern planes. But control proved to be erratic. In San Diego a diver discovered that the starboard stern plane had broken off at the yoke. Rust evidence indicated that the plane likely had been missing for some time.
With the higher priority segments of Operation Sea Scan complete, Archerfish did not merit expensive repairs. She was decommissioned in May 1968 and sunk at sea that November as a target in the submarine torpedo test and validation program.
Gallant Lady's accounting of the Operation Sea Scan portion in particular may elicit skepticism from opposite directions. Those who were around when Archerfish yarns were legion may complain that some juicy adventures are soft-pedaled or unreported. Others, contrarily, may complain that the authors let their imagination override accuracy - after all, Archerfish was a US Navy submarine manned by US Navy officers and sailors, not a fictional Operation Petticoat. Only the first complaint is valid. And in the broad sense, in exercising restraint, the authors have caught the full range, the essence, and the spirit of a near-unbelievable saga of real men doing their duty first, then savoring liberty's rewards to the maximum. The entity unfolds with crisp style and good humor.
Co-author, Senior Chief Petty Officer Ken Henry was an engineman second class when he shipped over for Archerfish duty in 1959. In retirement he is the Archerfish crew's organizer and historian. His vehicle is A-Fish-L-Blast, newsletter and information exchange, which he writes and publishes. Over the years most of the yarns and high-jinks in Gallant Lady first appeared in the Blast, some told by Henry himself, the majority by other crewmembers. With the advent of a website (http://www.ussarcherfish.com), pre-Sea Scan personnel became aware of and involved in the organization and in recent years the Blast has expanded to cover the entire Archerfish history back to 1943.
One of those pre-Sea Scan crewmen is Bob Robison, now a literary agent. Robison attended the 2001 Archerfish reunion, got acquainted with Ken Henry, and Gallant Lady was conceived. Robison organized a publisher, and co-writer novelist Don Keith joined the team. Keith and Henry enjoy a happy and productive partnership as evidenced by the final product, Gallant Lady.