In 1996, actor Kelsey Grammer starred in the military comedy Down Periscope, in which a disgraced U.S. Navy officer is given command of an obsolete diesel submarine that was recommissioned to participate in a special naval war game. The movie’s screenplay should have been “deep sixed” before the film was actually made, but one takeaway from it is that the U.S. Navy by the 1990s was a fully nuclear-powered fighting force.
Yet, it had been only a few years earlier that the Navy retired and decommissioned the USS Blueback (SS-581). Laid down by Ingalls Shipbuilding Corporation of Pascagoula, Mississippi in April 1957 and launched in May 1959, she was the last non-nuclear submarine to enter service in the U.S. Navy. Serving until October 1990, she was also the final conventionally powered combat-capable submarine to be decommissioned.
The U.S. Navy had only become a fully nuclear submarine fleet some six years before Down Periscope was made, and moreover, the fleet still maintained the research submarine USS Dolphin, which wasn’t retired until 2007. Perhaps some screenwriters should have done their homework!
In addition to being the last combat-capable diesel-electric attack submarine commissioned into the U.S. Navy, the USS Blueback was also notable for being just one of three Barbel-class boats to be constructed, and the only of the three to be maintained as a museum ship.
The class was notable in that it actually incorporated numerous, even radical engineering improvements over the previous diesel-electric subs, including the first to be built with the “teardrop-shaped” hull that had been tested on the USS Albacore (AGSS-569), as well as the first to feature a single propeller. The hull design was critical in that it increased underwater speed dramatically while it also enabled the submarine to be far more maneuverable.
Additionally, the Barbel-class utilized a combined control room, attack center and conning tower in the same space in the hull.