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EB, the No. 1 sub maker: ‘A unique resource for a unique product’

EB, the No. 1 sub maker: 'A unique resource for a unique product'

By Robert A. Hamilton

Day Staff Writer

Groton - In April 1899, the magazine Scientific American took a dim view of the warfighting potential of the “submarine torpedo boat” that inventors were trying to perfect.

“The widespread interest … is out of all proportion to the actual fighting value of this type of vessel,” the magazine sniffed.

But even as the magazine attempted to sink the idea of a submarine ship, John P. Holland was conducting sea trials of the Holland VI, the ship that would create a revolution in naval warfare - and spawn a corporation that has so far spanned a century.

Holland was one of the founders of the Electric Boat Co. in 1899.

Since it first bought the Holland VI in 1900, the U.S. Navy has purchased 776 submarines from 22 shipyards, but no other shipyard has built as many as EB, which has accounted for more than one-third of the total.

“The history of Electric Boat is that the company has a unique resource for a unique product,” said Herbert E. Berry, who started as a young engineer on the Nautilus program in January 1952 and retired 42 years later as a vice president.

EB was the first company to see the potential for the diesel engine in undersea warfare and the first to construct a welded-hull boat, when everyone else relied on rivets. When Navy shipyards said a nuclear reactor couldn’t be put aboard a submarine, EB did it. When the nation needed a strategic weapon that could survive a Soviet first strike, it turned to EB to put them on submarines and hide them in the ocean depths.

Today, the role of submarines continues to evolve.

From 1945 until the Persian Gulf War in 1991, submarines did not fire a single shot in combat. Since then, they have been involved in at least a half-dozen strikes. The first missile salvos fired against Iraq in December and Serbia in March came from the USS Miami, an EB-built boat homeported at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, marking the first time since World War II that a single submarine has fired against two enemies.

And EB continues to change with the times. It overhauled its design and construction process for the next-generation Virginia class of submarine that it will co-produce with Newport News (Va.) Shipbuilding and is participating in two teams sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that are developing advanced concepts for submarines of the future.

A bumpy corporate road

After a century of shipbuilding, EB officials concede that they have probably encountered almost every kind of problem confronting their industry. EB has, for instance, weathered several downturns after defense budgets were slashed, and even with the current drawdown after the end of the Cold War, it survives, smaller but still profitable.

EB has contracts to keep it in business for at least a decade, and a massive reorganization has prepared it for a new defense environment.

“Celebrating 100 years for EB is something we should enjoy, we ought to savor it and look at the success of the products that have been built and the hard work that has gone into it,” says EB President John K. Welch.

Kenneth G. DelaCruz, who heads the shipyard’s Metal Trades Council, has seen his union membership decline from more than 9,000 in the 1980s to about 2,000 today, but he says that EB has survived where others have not because of one thing: the caliber of its tradespeople.

“If our quality wasn’t there, we would never have survived as long as we have,” DelaCruz says. “Marginal work isn’t acceptable on submarines. It can’t be. Everything is tested and re-tested, and when the Navy takes them over, they’re ready to go.”

Melvin E. Olsson, the president of the Marine Draftsmen Association, says he is hopeful that as the next century begins, EB will win work in other arenas to augment its dwindling defense contracts.

“We made it through one hundred because the world situation made it necessary to keep developing submarines,” Olsson says. “The country can’t stop the evolution of underwater potential, and its uses for defense.”

Olsson says that he believes there is a lot of potential for commercial use of the undersea environment. He favors government funding of projects that could harness some of the power potential under the sea. “If they go in that direction, we have a design and engineering force that would be on the cutting edge,” he pledges.

Subs were controversial

A century ago, the Navy community was split on the subject of submarines. In early 1898, Teddy Roosevelt, then the assistant secretary of the Navy, wrote to Navy secretary John D. Long: “I think the Holland submarine boat should be purchased. Evidently she has in her great possibilities for harbor defense. Sometimes she doesn’t work perfectly, but often she does, and I don’t think that in the present emergency (the Spanish-American War) we can afford to let her slip.”

Others in the service, though, wanted more tests. And so the man heading up the sea trials for Holland, Frank Cable, seeking money to keep the efforts going, contacted Isaac Rice, president of the Electric Storage Battery Co. of Philadelphia, who was an expert on patents and marketing. Rice rode the Holland in 1898, who began putting his own money into the venture. Others, including the promoter and lawyer Elihu Frost and the wealthy Rothschilds, followed his example.

On Feb. 7, 1899, Rice incorporated Electric Boat, which absorbed the Holland Torpedo Boat Co., Electro-Dynamic, and the Electric Launch Co. of Bayonne, N.J. The following month, the Holland submarine went through Navy trials, and Rice offered to sell it for $175,000. After some dickering, the Navy accepted delivery the following year at a cost of $150,000, with a contract for additional boats at a cost of $170,000 each, which meant that EB was officially in the business of building U.S. Navy submarines.

Those early years were difficult, and EB derived much of its income from foreign sales. Holland, upset that the newfound submarine maker seemed more intent on marketing than on improving the design, left the company in 1904, and spent the last 10 years of his life working on aircraft.

During this period, the company formed the New London Ship and Engine Co. in Groton, to manufacture diesel engines for its submarines. But there weren’t many submarine orders to fill. One New York banker on the fledgling company’s board of directors resigned in 1913, lamenting in a note to Rice that “this company can’t pull through.”

Ironically, that banker, Henry R. Carse, came back in 1915, as wartime contracts began to pile up, and replaced Rice as president. He would serve 27 years at EB’s top post.

Ultimately, EB would build 88 submarines for the U.S. Navy under contracts signed in World War I, and overhaul another 30. Italy ordered eight more, Britain 20, and Russia 12. It built 550 “submarine chasers” for Great Britain, and more for the Italians and French. Its Submarine Boat Corp. constructed 188 Liberty Ships for cargo transport.

Sales begin to lose steam

But the end of the war brought another period of slow sales, and an attempt to build and operate its own transports failed. From 1924 to 1928, EB built four submarines for Peru - in fact, the Groton shipyard was opened initially to complete that contract, bringing production to Connecticut for the first time - but with no other work in sight it began accepting contracts for towboats, ferries, fishing trawlers and even yachts. It built printing presses, and machines to fold paper, skin fish, make textiles and stamp out bobby pins.

For a 13-year period starting in 1918 the company did not win a single U.S. government contract. Then the Navy came to EB with a special request: Would it consider building a welded submarine hull, a project turned down by a Navy shipyard as impossible?

EB agreed and laid the keel for the Cuttlefish in 1931. The first hull was about 40 percent welded and 60 percent riveted. The Navy was so pleased with the work it ordered two more in 1933, and by 1936 the company started to pay stock dividends again for the first time in years. From 1936 to 1939, it built three a year.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Groton in August 1940, he predicted the rate of construction would soon reach one a month. But with the attack on Pearl Harbor the following year, EB was soon building far more: 16 submarines in 1942; 25 in 1943; and 23 in 1944. “Keep ’em sliding” was a motto posted around the shipyard.

In all, EB built 74 submarines during the second World War and managed the construction of 28 more at its Manitowac Shipbuilding on Lake Michigan. The company’s 1945 annual report said its boats and the men on them won 777 major military awards, including two medals of honor, 10 presidential unit citations, eight Navy unit commendations, 97 Navy Crosses and 16 Legions of Merit. The shipyard won a Navy “E” Pennant with four stars in honor of the quality of its work.

As in World War I, the company also supplied other maritime needs, building more than 400 torpedo patrol boats for the U.S. and British navies. EB also built six large marine caissons for invasions, more than 7,000 electric motors, more than 100 gun turrets, and thousands of other components.

But the end of the war brought another business collapse. EB saw 34 submarine contracts canceled in 1944, two more in 1946, and its income fall by two-thirds. The company began building electric bowling pin setters and Armorlite truck bodies, as well as fishing boats and steel highway bridges. It also began acquiring other defense companies, the first step toward creating the conglomerate that would eventually become General Dynamics, which is the shipyard’s corporate parent based in Falls Church, Va.

The biggest development for EB came in January 1950, when then-Capt. Hyman G. Rickover called general manager O. Pomeroy Robinson Jr. from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, which 20 years earlier had rejected the idea of welded hulls. Portsmouth said it could not build a nuclear-powered ship, Rickover said. Would EB be willing to take on the task?

“Why sure, sure … but what the hell do we have to do?” Robinson is said to have responded.

“I don’t know myself, but we’ll figure it out,” Rickover shot back. On Aug. 21, 1951, EB secured a contract to build the Nautilus. On Jan. 21, 1954, the ship slid into the Thames River after being christened by Mamie Eisenhower. On Jan. 17, 1955, the Nautilus left the pier, radioing back: “Under way on nuclear power.”

Another milestone came in 1962 when EB launched the Lafayette class, 425 feet in length and 7,000 tons, capable of firing a missile that could fly an impressive 2,500 miles. Guaranteeing a devastating return punch no matter how hard an enemy might strike, it established the concept of strategic deterrence.

The 1960s were an era of experimentation. By the close of the decade, EB had delivered 30 submarines, but nine of them had been prototypes, many of them pushing the technology of the time to its limit. The 1970s and ’80s brought two more stable programs, the Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine - EB won most of those contracts - and a larger, more powerful Trident-class ballistic missile boat, with EB as the sole producer.

In the Navy and Congress, many credit the submarines built at EB as one of the leading reasons for the end of the Cold War. But the victory has meant some tough times as EB faces its second 100 years, with a backlog that has dwindled from a high of 16 or 17 boats to just two submarines today.

Its work force, once this region’s largest, has plummeted from more than 25,000 to about 9,000.

Still, Welch today seems encouraged that the innovation that has brought EB through its first 100 years will see it through a second century, particularly now that the parent company it spun off 47 years ago is adding other shipyards to its growing portfolio, which will bring opportunities to collaborate on the design of destroyers, amphibious ships and aircraft carriers.

“There are so many exciting possibilities that are being put under the GD Marine umbrella,” the shipyard’s chief executive says.

“I don’t know if it will still have its primary concentration on submarines in another 100 years … But you know, there’s still so much we don’t know about the ocean, and submarines (and) submersibles can help us get the answers.”

© 1998-99 The Day Publishing Co.

Reprinted with the permission of The Day Publishing Co.