By: John Kammerer
Why build a personal submarine? It is a fair question, to be sure. Perhaps the most simple answer is, “I’ve always wanted to and now I can.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. This is my first narrative devoted to my Project 765, building a personal submarine that will be christened SMV SeaHawk when completed.
Did you ever have an idea capture your imagination so firmly it lasted your whole life?
Senior year of high school, I was 18 years old. A couple of paperback books caught my eye at the local candy store: “Raiders of the Deep,” by Lowell Thomas and “Hunters and the Hunted,” by Jochen Brennecke. Both were collections of actual stories, first-hand accountings, of submarine warfare from WWI and WWII. I still have the books I bought so long ago, carefully preserved.
“Raiders” is a 1928 best seller written by renowned journalist Lowell Thomas. It offers a behind-the-scenes detailed view of life aboard a German U-Boat in WWI. “Hunters” tells the stories of WWII German submarine aces written by a U-boat veteran.
Interest became fascination begot obsession.
I got so caught up with submarines I enlisted in the U.S. Navy, with the condition that I could enter the Silent Service. The Vietnam war was in full swing. Volunteers were valued and the Navy agreed, so long as I qualified.
I got an early scare at boot camp. As I went through all my examinations and qualifications, same as every raw recruit, at one point they handed me this form that was stamped: “DENTALLY UNQUALIFIED FOR SUBMARINE SERVICE.” My heart sank. I thought, “Oh boy, they’ve got me now.”
Turns out all I needed was a trip to the base dentist. If you have a dental issue while deployed on a submarine, there’s not a lot they can do for you. Medical attention while underway on a submarine is limited to a corpsman trained in basic treatment of wounds and ailments. I ended up getting 11 fillings over the course of two days and was then dentally qualified for submarine service.
After bootcamp at Great Lakes Naval Station I then went to Groton, CT submarine base for sub school and Quartermaster A school. I ended my service as a QM2 (SS). If you don’t know, in the Navy a Quartermaster is a navigator, not the perhaps more familiar Army designation for someone in charge of supplies.
I was fortunate to serve on two fast-attack submarines: USS Barb SSN 596 and later on my other boat USS Plunger SSN 595.
My longest subsurface deployment was 80 days. We dove at the outer demarkation of Pearl Harbor’s entrance, the famed “Papa Hotel.” Eighty days later we surfaced at “Papa Hotel” headed back into port. There’s actually a funny story about that day.
We resurfaced on my watch and as Quartermaster I was stationed on the bridge as we headed into the harbor. Looking through my binoculars I saw a Japanese Zero, no, wait, more than one, all headed right toward us. I looked. I looked again. No, I was sure of my identification: Japanese Zeros over Pearl Harbor. Later we found out they were filming the movie “Tora, Tora, Tora.”
For a variety of reasons I ended my short Navy career. But the fascination with submarines never faded.
Life went on. I got other jobs, baggage handler, alarm system salesman, built and owned a couple of businesses and retired as a real estate developer and property manager.
The fascination lingered still.
As I went through my life’s successes and failures, triumphs and tribulations, submarines were always a theme, always on my mind.
For years I made sketches. At first more general, but in time I got more accurate and drew to scale. I kept sketching ideas and thinking about a submarine of my own. I built a model out of scrap metal and cigar boxes. I studied and read about submarines.
My obsession includes decking out my Harley and Honda motorcycles in nautical and submarine trim, including a big compass rose on top of the Harley tour pack. Huge bollards flank my driveway. I have a dock in back of my house. The bumper sticker on my car says, “My Other Car is a Submarine.”
So when much later in life I found myself with the means, the desire was strong as always, I thought maybe I could do it. Build a submarine. Not just a little one or two-man research sub, but a full size cruiser with reasonable amenities for extended time at sea. A sub I could take to Bermuda and beyond.
As the thought took hold, I dove into research and design. I taught myself and learned from others. At some point, the whole project seemed feasible to me, not so much to anyone else at first.
I started reaching out to people and suppliers who could help. At first, people literally just hung up the phone when I started describing what I wanted to do. Everything turned around when I found the used storage tank that would become my submarine pressure vessel.