USS Growler (SSG-577), a submarine powered by conventional diesel engines, carried nuclear cruise missiles and was built and operated by the United States Navy. Growler was the second of the Grayback-class laid down in February of 1955 at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. She was launched in April 1958 and commissioned in August of that year with Lieutenant Commander Charles Priest, Jr. at the helm. This two-submarine class was originally scheduled to be built as attack submarines like the Darter before them but by this time, the Navy shifted to new technology so both were converted to SSG's during construction - this accomplished by adding two cylindrical tube hangers in the bow section. The length was increased by 54 feet for the Growler and 50 feet for the Grayback. Each missile cylinder was 70 feet long and 11 feet high and could contain two Regulus missiles.
USS Growler began her sea trials in November of 1958 in the Navy's submarine test area off the Isles of Shoals, a group of small islands ten miles off the eastern coast of the United States - directly across from New Hampshire and Maine. A normal first day was spent on the surface conducting runs at various speeds, testing all ship systems and lifting and lowering the masts and scopes. At dawn the next day, the Growler's crew prepared to conduct the first test depth dive. This consisted of submerging the vessel to periscope depth, then deeper still in 50-foot increments while the crew checked all systems and sea pressure on values and fittings. Growler passed the fleet-type submarine test depth of 475-feet with flying colors. After training exercises off the Isles of Shoals she sailed south for the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station on her shakedown cruise, arriving in Puerto Rico, on February 19th, 1959.
After the shakedown trials she was ordered back to Portsmouth to receive her missiles. Returning to the Caribbean Sea, her job was to train the crew in launching Regulus I and II guided missiles. The Latin name assigned to these missiles meant the "little king", and Regulus was named for one of the great constellations of the Zodiac - the heart of Leo the Lion. The Regulus missile was a turbojet-powered weapon system having a barrel-shaped fuselage that looked more like a small fighter aircraft of the era minus the cockpit. The missile had short swept wings and a rear fin used to stabilize the Regulus in flight. When the missile was ready for launch, it needed additional lift and was therefore fitted with two booster rockets on the aft end of the fuselage. The submarine would have to surface to fire her Regulus missiles.
The crew was ready to begin this time consuming launch process that took from 15 to 30 minutes as soon as the upper tube casing was clear of sea water. The water tight door would be opened, exposing the missiles fixed on a short rail Mark 7 SR MK 7 launcher. The process was overly complicated due to a system of automatic sequencing and safety controls. Elevation was controlled by limit switches that were positioned to prevent the elevation screws from becoming over extended on the track. The missiles were removed from the tube and fixed on the Mark 7 launch ramp that were fitted between the sail and the tube doors. Before launch, the missile was rotated so the booster afterburner blast was directed to the side of the boat towards the sea with the missile facing in a 10 o'clock position to the side of the bow.
At its extreme range of 500 nautical miles (930 km), the Regulus missile was expected to impact within 2.5 nautical miles (4.6 km) of its target 50% of the time flying at Mach 0.85. The missile design itself was 30 feet (9.1 m) long, 10 feet (3.0 m) in wingspan, 4 feet (1.2 m) in diameter, and weighed 10,000 to 12,000 pounds (4,500 and 5,400 kg). After launch, it would be guided toward its target by two control stations on two separated submarines - one being the launch boat. The Regulus had a Mark 5 nuclear bomb warhead weighing 3,000-pounds 1,400 kg. The nuclear weapon design dated back to the early 1950s and saw service into the early 60's, having a 1.5 megaton warhead. The Mark 5 had a 39-inch diameter design and was the first American nuclear weapon smaller than the 60-inch (150 cm) diameter "Fat Man" nuclear bomb design used in World War 2. The Mark 5 design used a 92-point implosion system having a Uranium/Plutonium fissile material.
After the missile test firing (utilizing dummy warheads), Growler stopped at Fort Lauderdale, Florida before returning to Portsmouth in April. Growler was then assigned to her duty port and preceded to the Pacific Ocean via the Panama Canal, docking in Pearl Harbor on September 7th to serve as the flagship of Submarine Division 12.
At Pearl Harbor, the guided missile sub took part in a number of exercises along with completing her round of post-shakedown tests for missile practice before the start of her official missions with armed Regulus missiles aboard. Growler's first tactical missile operations took place in late October with two successful and accurate terminal dives to impact. Her first unsuccessful launch occurred December 8th, 1959, when the missile did not program over to cruise settings and splashed astern. Over the next three months, she launched three more missiles, two for tactical warhead development testing. Growler was awarded the Battle Efficiency "E" for excellences while she was assigned to Squadron 1.
These missile boats went on to form the US Navy's deterrent shield in the Pacific region against the Russian submarine units and her Pacific navy bases and were the newest weapon to maintain peace against the threat of mutual destruction. At Pearl Harbor, the boats were top secret and the crew was instructed that no one was to know the Growler's mission - such was the secrecy surrounding the new vessel of the Cold War.
In mid-May, USS Growler departed Hawaii with four Regulus sea-to-surface missiles, armed with nuclear M-5 warheads. The patrol was classified as secret due to the weapons load. As the operating range of the Growler was about 300 miles, the SSG's had to operate close to Soviet shores if launching was to be required. This placed Growler in harm's way of being in Ivan's back yard. With the missiles, Growler's secret patrols lasted up to two months or more and required the submarine to remain submerged for hours or days at a time - a true submarine mission normally assigned to nuclear boats and proving unusually difficult for a congested diesel-type boat.
Diesel boats were small and without the comforts of the nuclear-powered, air-conditioned boats. The crew of the Growler was out at sea for 60 days when a radio message from the USS George Washington SSBN-598 was received upon returning to port. The announcement stated that her 42-day mission was deemed the limit of human endurance for the crew. This proved a moral boost to the Growler's own crew. Thusly, Growler returned to Pearl Harbor in May of 1961. Growler was awarded a Submarine Force Unit Citation by ComSubPac for her previous work. She then immediately entered Pearl Harbor Navy Shipyard for overhaul and to receive a Sperry Gyroscope Mark I Mod 0 Ships Inertial Navigation System (SINS) and the first LORAN C navigation system installed on US Navy boats. Due to Growlers poor sea characteristics a modification was needed to improve her rough water handling. The problem was the top of the missile hangar was one-half the height of the sail, at periscope depth the Bernoulli effect occurred, forcing the missile hanger to create lift, much like an airplane wing - resulting in a roller coaster-type effect. While adding 10 feet to the height of Growler's sail, the hangar surfaces would be 10 feet deeper at periscope depth reducing the problem. This fix also required the periscopes to be 10 feet longer along with the electronic countermeasures equipment and snorkel - these proving not a quick fix. The added height of the sail changed the ship's stability; to prevent rolling on the surface additional ballast tanks were required.
The crew welcomed the modification made to the missile launching equipment. The original transversal launcher had been designed to launch both Regulus I and II missiles was removed and replaced with a launcher that simply switched to either missile hangar. The removal of numerous micro switches and hydraulics created a significantly simplified launcher operation and made this launcher much more reliable. Growler completed her overhaul in early December 1961. Through December 1963, Growler had made nine such deterrent mission patrols, the fourth ending at Yokosuka, Japan, on April 24th, 1962, and was used by the Navy to display its newest weapons for all to see - especially the Soviets.
The most notable mission for the Growler took place in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The Navy was about to deploy the Polaris SSBN submarines but, as history goes, they were not ready in time. The deterrent to the Soviets fell to the Regulus-armed boats with their nuclear weapons. For 14 days the Growler was on alert with all 4 missiles armed and ready to launch. The Growler sweated it out waiting for the shoot order but all hands were relieved when that stand down order came that 14th day in October.
Growler left Adak Alaska on July 23,1962, departing for Pearl Harbor the next day. Lt. Commander Gunn, now the Executive Officer, had a battle flag that read "Black and Blue Crew, No Relief Required" The banner was flying upon return to Pearl Harbor on August 1st, 1962. Rear Admiral Clarey Commander of ComSubPac welcomed Growler as she returned to Pearl Harbor. Noticing the flag flying on the mast, Clarey asked Henderson if he really meant it. Henderson responded that he did and he and his crew took pride in the fact that they did not need, nor did the Navy assign them, the Blue and Gold two-crew system used in the Polaris submarines. Growler received a ComSubPac Unit Commendation for both the fourth and fifth patrols. Lieutenant Commander Robert Owens relieved Henderson on 1 June 1963. Growler conducted two more deterrent missions under his command. In 1964, with the Polaris boats on station, the decision was made to decommission USS Growler and USS Grayback. Both boats sailed for Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Vallejo, California and were decommissioned together in May of 1964.
After decommissioning, Growler was placed in the Inactive Reserve Fleet at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Washington. There, she was moored for 25 years and was seen as a burden to the annual Navy budget. As such, it was scheduled to use her as a torpedo test target for other nuclear attack submarines. Mr. Zachary Fisher of New York requested to take ownership of the boat so, with an act of Congress in August 1988, Growler was allowed to become part of the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in New York City. In early 1989, Growler was towed from Puget Sound through the Straits of San Juan de Fuca for six thousand nautical miles. After transiting the Canal, Growler was towed to a civilian shipyard on the west coast of Florida. While in the shipyard, Growler received exterior and interior hull changes in the missile hangars and the hull. These changes were made to allow access for visitors once at the museum. On April 18, 1989, Growler was moored to the north side of Pier 86 in the Hudson River, her final "Home Port."
In 2007, it was found that the hull had rusted through. This inevitably complicated matters and pushed repair costs past $1 million. The Growler returned to Pier 86 in late February and returned in the spring of 2009 in time for Fleet Week in May.
Deployed during some of the most trying times of the Cold War, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Regulus SSGs formed a defensive shield for the Pacific Coast of the United States. Before the Tomahawk and the Trident- and Polaris-armed ballistic missile submarines, Regulus-armed boats were on patrol 365 days a year protecting America.