Defense Media Network

When Triton Circumnavigated the Globe

Sub’s periscope appeared as a “gleaming mysterious eye” to fisherman

Advertisement

USS Triton (SSRN 586) was designed as a nuclear radar picket sub to accompany and protect carrier battle groups, providing warning of air attack ahead of the carrier and escorts. To carry a large radar required a big sub.

Triton will be remembered for her round-the-world voyage that retraced the course of Ferdinand Magellan, who would have been the first person to completely circle the globe had he not met his untimely end at Mactan Island in the Philippines.

At 448 feet long and 7,780 tons displacement submerged, she was considerably larger than other U.S. Navy subs, and would remain the largest American sub until the Ohio-class ballistic missile boats. By comparison, the Los Angeles-class attack boat is 361 feet long and about 6,000 tons.  Triton had two S4G reactors, the only U.S. sub with a twin reactor plant, and the last U.S. Navy submarine to be built with twin screws. She was also the most expensive submarine ever built up to that time, costing more than $100 million.

USS Triton (SSRN 586)

This undated bow view of the nuclear-powered radar picket submarine USS Triton (SSRN 586) shows the immense size of the submarine, which was largest U.S. Navy submarine until the Ohio-class ballistic missile boats. U.S. Navy photo

Several other diesel submarines had been modified to carry air search radar for picket duty. Triton was built as an SSRN, with the “N” standing for nuclear, but the radar picket submarine mission was abandoned just about the time that Triton was entering service. Carrier-capable airborne early warning aircraft like the Grumman E-1 Tracer were capable of carrying out the function of radar picket for a fraction of the cost of a submarine. Triton became the only boat of her class to be built.

The only witness to Triton in the Pacific was a 19-year-old fisherman, Rufino Baning, who was fishing in Magellan Bay when he saw a “gleaming mysterious eye” staring at him that then sank out of view, only to reappear. Beach had photographed the fisherman through the sub’s periscope.

To carry out her battle group duties, the Triton design featured a relatively large CIC. After the radar picket mission was discontinued in favor of carrier-launched early warning aircraft, the large CIC became useful for other missions. She was considered as a possible national command post in the event of a nuclear war. She was also looked at for conversion to a Regulus missile ship, and later for conversion as a Polaris sub. In the end she reverted to being an attack boat, but even in that role she was found to be too big.

USS Triton (SSRN 586)

Observed but not detected, Triton came to periscope depth in Magellan Bay in the Philippines and startled this native fisherman. He was later identified as 19-year-old Rufino Baning, who saw a “gleaming mysterious eye” staring at him that he thought belonged to a sea monster. U.S. Navy photo

Triton will be remembered for her round-the-world voyage that retraced the course of Ferdinand Magellan, who would have been the first person to completely circle the globe had he not met his untimely end at Mactan Island in the Philippines. The sub got under way from her homeport of New London, Conn., on what was supposed to have been a shakedown cruise in February 1960. The crew was told to be prepared to stay out a little longer than usual, but that underway period ended up as a record-breaking voyage. Triton officially started and ended her circumnavigation at Saint Peter and Saint Paul Rocks, a small group of rocky islets in the Atlantic that are part of Brazil.

The crew was told to be prepared to stay out a little longer than usual, but that underway period ended up as a record-breaking voyage.

Commanding Triton on her circumnavigation voyage was Capt. Edward L. “Ned” Beach, Jr., who had already written the submarine novel Run Silent Run Deep, and would later write several more, including Cold is the Sea, Dust on the Sea, and others.

USS Triton (SSRN 586)

Capt. Beach on the bridge of the USS Triton (SSRN 586). Beach commanded the Triton on her submerged circumnavigation of the globe. U.S. Navy photo

When a medical emergency required that a crew member be evacuated, Beach only broached the sub to the point where only the sail was above the surface, transferring the sailor to the cruiser USS Macon (CA 132) near Montevideo, Uruguay, so as to be able to claim that the sub remained submerged for the entire trip around the world.

The only witness to Triton in the Pacific was a 19-year-old fisherman, Rufino Baning, who was fishing in Magellan Bay when he saw a “gleaming mysterious eye” staring at him that then sank out of view, only to reappear.

The only witness to Triton in the Pacific was a 19-year-old fisherman, Rufino Baning, who was fishing in Magellan Bay when he saw a “gleaming mysterious eye” staring at him that then sank out of view, only to reappear. Beach had photographed the fisherman through the sub’s periscope. National Geographic magazine, which had documented the Triton’s voyage, later went to the Philippines to investigate, and finally located Baring on the island of Macton – the same island where Magellan was killed – near Cebu. Baring told them he thought it was the eye of a sea monster.

USS Triton (SSRN 586)

The USS Triton (SSRN 586) heads out at the beginning of her circumnavigation of the globe. The Triton traced the route of Ferdinand Magellan. U.S. Navy photo

Triton had a bronze plaque cast, with the dates “1519-1960,” and the words “Ave Nobilis Dux – Interim Sanctum Est,” meaning “Hail Noble Captain – We Have Done it Again,” to commemorate her journey. It was later brought to Cadiz and placed upon the Magellan monument there. Magellan was Portuguese, but he was sailing for his patron, the King of Spain.

Triton had a bronze plaque cast, with the dates “1519-1960,” and the words “Ave Nobilis Dux – Interim Sanctum Est,” meaning “Hail Noble Captain – We Have Done it Again,” to commemorate her journey.

The photographer who captured the images during the voyage was Naval Reserve Cmdr. Joseph B. Roberts, who was also a photographer for the National Geographic Society.

USS Triton (SSRN 586)

Engine control room watchstanders pinpoint the Triton’s position off the island of Guam during their submerged circumnavigational cruise. From left to right: Chief James J. De Gange, with Triton’s engineering officer Lt. Donald G. Fears, and Lt. Thomas B. Thamn, auxiliary machinery officer. U.S. Navy photo

Beach’s father was also a naval officer, and had commanded the armored cruiser USS Memphis, which was lost when it was grounded in heavy seas off Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. Triton was flying the flag of USS Memphis when it returned to its homeport of New London on May 10, 1960, after having been submerged for “exactly 83 days and ten hours,” and “having travelled 36,014 miles,” according to Beach’s report.

USS Triton (SSRN 586)

The course followed by USS Triton, then the world’s largest submarine, on its record-breaking 1960 submerged circumnavigation of the word. U.S. Navy photo

Triton was taken out of service in 1969, the first nuclear sub to be decommissioned.

By

Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...