One of the most hazardous roles in all of the fighting of World War 2 (1939-1945) was that of submariner - this certainly proved the case with the American Navy operating in the Pacific Theater against the Imperial Japanese Navy. Like other services of the United States military, the Navy needed time to bring their fighting capabilities up to speed and this led to quick development of several attack submarine classes. One of the most important became the Gato-class which were improved T-class boats and, from this design, stemmed the equally important Balao-class of which some 256 boats were ordered but only 122 completed and 10 incomplete hulls being scrapped. The newer class was differentiated by its adoption of HT steels and advanced sections which helped to improved operating depths.
The lead ship of the Balao-class was USS Balao (SS-285) which saw her keel laid down by Portsmouth Naval Shipyard of Kittery Main on June 26th, 1942. She was launched on October 27th, 1942 and formally commissioned for service on February 4th, 1943.
As completed, the boat had a displacement of 1,550 tons when surfaced and 2,455 tons when submerged. She held a length of 311.8 feet with a beam of 27.2 feet and a draught of 16.9 feet. Power was from 4 x General Motors Model 16-278A V16 diesel engines driving electrical generators along with 4 x General Electric high-speed electric motors with reduction gears. There were 2 x 126-cell battery packs fitted for submerged traveling. All this drove power (2,740 horsepower surfaced / 5,400 horsepower submerged) to 2 x shafts at the stern, propelling the boat to speeds of 20.25 knots when surfaced and 16.2 knots when submerged. Range was out to 11,000 nautical miles and the boat could stay underwater for up to two days consecutively and manage up to 75 total days out on patrol. Operating depths could reach as deep as 400 feet.
This gave the Balao, and her sisters, excellent range and generally good performance when surfaced or submerged. As submersible technology of the time was what it was, the boat was still required to surface to recharge its battery packs and expel dangerous CO2 gasses that had been built up. As such, the submarines of the period generally spent most of their time surfaced or at periscope depths.
Internally, the crew numbered about 80 personnel and included 10 officers. Armament was 10 x 21" (533mm) torpedo tubes with six facing the bow and four facing astern and 24 x torpedo reloads were carried. This allowed the boat to engage targets both ahead and behind the vessel without the need to completely turn the boat around. When surfaced, the submarine could attack less-lethal surface ships with its 1 x 4" (100mm) /50 caliber deck gun. 1 x 40mm Bofors Anti-Aircraft (AA) weapon was also carried to protect the surfaced boat from air attack. For last-line-of-defense, there were 2 x 0.50 caliber heavy machine guns used.
During World War 2, USS Balao conducted ten total war patrols ranging from July 1943 until August 1945. The Balao-class and Gato-class boats represented the bulk of the underwater force of the American Navy in the conflict and had a considerable impact in the Pacific Theater against the Japanese Empire - though losses were notable.
In the immediate post-war period the Balao was relocated from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to Staten Island, New York. An overhaul was given to the boat and, having survived all of World War 2, she was decommissioned for the first time on August 20th, 1946 during the massive American military drawdown.
USS Balao was recommissioned for service once again on March 4th, 1952 by which time the American Navy was committed to war in the Korean War (1950-1953). She was used as a training platform for anti-submarine operations in and around Key West, Florida and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Unlike other wartime Gato-, Tench- and Balao-class submarines in the post-war period, USS Balao was not selected for the GUPPY modernization program. Beyond additional tours, training and general exercises (as well as an active deterrent stint during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962), the boat was retired in 1963 with her fighting days firmly behind her. On August 1st, 1963, she was formally decommissioned from service and, on September 6th, 1963, USS Balao was sunk as a target and became an artificial reef off the coast of Florida.
Only her conning tower survived this action and is displayed at the Washington Navy Yard today.