Groton Sub Base Celebrates 100 Years in Connecticut
In the Revolutionary War, Yale student David Bushnell designed the first submarine used in combat. It was called the Turtle and was a one-person, hand-cranked craft that could stay underwater for about 30 minutes, and was built in Old Saybrook. Beginning in 1776 Bushnell helped coordinate several attempts to use the craft to attach mines to British boats moored in New York Harbor and on the Hudson River.
Though the sabotage tries failed, it proved the first instance of what became a lasting connection between the state and the underwater world of submarines. This connection was solidified on June 21, 1916, 100 years ago this month, when an existing Navy Yard in Groton was redesignated as the nation’s first permanent, continental submarine base. In the 100 years since, the base and consequently Connecticut have been at the heart of the submarine world.
To celebrate this centennial, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy designated October 2015 (100 years after the first submarines arrived in Groton) through October 2016 as Connecticut’s Submarine Century, a yearlong celebration of Connecticut’s deep connection to submarines. As part of the celebration, there will be a series of events around the sub base’s centennial in June, including a concert by the United States Coast Guard Band on June 22 at 7 p.m. at the University of Connecticut’s Avery Point campus in Groton. (For a complete listing of events, go to ctsubmarinecentury.com.)
Throughout its history the base has been home to the Naval Submarine School, which the vast majority of those who serve on submarines attend. “Any and all submariners in Navy history have gone to school here — everyone from Chester Nimitz to Jimmy Carter,” says Mark Jones, who works in public affairs at the base.
It was at the base in 1954 that the Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, was launched. And the base was, and continues to be, the starting point of many significant submarine voyages. In March the USS Hartford engaged in dramatic surfacing exercises and research at the North Pole, before returning to Connecticut.
Occupying a stretch of land along the Groton waterfront with parts crossing into Ledyard, the base has the feel of a city unto itself. It is the homeport of 15 attack submarines, and more than 6,500 active duty and reserve sailors, 2,300 civilian employees and contractors, and their families. From 1930 until 1992 the Submarine Escape Training Tank, known as the “Dive Tower,” was a prominent feature of the local landscape and a spot where generations of submariners practiced escaping from sunken submarines by ascending a 100-foot column of water. Today, that tower has been replaced by a less-striking, but equally effective, submarine escape trainer, where young sailors continue to prepare for a worst-case scenario.
It is a source of local pride in the Greater Groton area, which proudly bills itself as “The Submarine Capital of the World.” The base’s commanding officer, Capt. Paul Whitescarver, says this community pride has been one of the unique aspects of the base during its 100-year history. “I think we’ve had that local sentiment and that local connection the whole time,” he says, noting the great relationship the base has with the state.
The base’s official name is Naval Submarine Base New London, even though it is physically located in Groton across the river from New London. The reasons for this peculiarity are that when the state first donated land for the Navy base in the 1800s, New London citizens were active in raising funds for that land. Also, when the base was established, its first commander stayed at a New London hotel, sending and receiving all correspondence from and in New London. Chris Zendan, the base’s public affairs officer, says they always joke that there’s a third reason for the confusing name and location: “stealth,” something submarines have been all about since Bushnell’s Turtle.
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