Problems and successes with Diesel engines

For early submarine crews one of three major threats and dangers was gasoline fumes, and the new Diesel engine would eliminate that danger. Just before World War I the Navy sent a submarine engineer officer and skipper named Chester W. Nimitz with his bride to Germany to the workshops of Dr. Rudolf Diesel to learn all he could. Having grown up in the Texas hill country German communities, he fitted in with the Germans. He returned to the U. S. before we entered the war, and soon was helping build Diesel engines and installing them in Navy ships before moving on in his Navy career.

The Diesels built by the Navy for our submarines in the 20s and early 30s did not deliver the power required. In the early 30s at the bottom of the depression the Navy offered a money incentive to any company that could deliver a Diesel engine that was light and delivered specified power. A number of engineers who foresaw a future for Diesels had formed the Winton Co. and started building an engine for the Navy competition along with several other companies. They all knew that a Diesel to fit submarines would fit the request of railroads for a Diesel locomotive to replace the heavier and less efficient steam locomotives.

The Winton Diesel won the Navy’s competition, and Fairbanks Morse was close behind, so both received contracts to build their Diesels. GM’s head saw a future for Diesels in trucks, so GM bought Winton. The new Diesels were installed in the new Salmon class and later submarines, using Diesel-electric drive. These engines could work at full power for a long time, and proved to be very reliable.

The Navy sent “Motor Macs” — Motor Machinists Mates — to the two factories where they received intensive training. As a result when these engines developed troubles on the high seas, often in enemy waters, the Motor Macs were able to repair the Diesels quickly. The Navy installed a metal lathe and other tools in the engine rooms that provided the Motor Macs with parts and tools for maintenance.

The Navy later bought some Diesels from a company building Diesels under license from the German HOR company. These Diesels failed frequently, stripping drive gears and other problems. One submarine with HOR Diesels had all four fail out in the Atlantic, and had to be towed to safety. All the submarines with the HOR Diesels had to have their engines replaced with engines from GM-Winton or Fairbanks-Morse that required precious time and money and delayed their deployment.

The Diesels meant that the smell of their fuel permeated everything on board, so crewmen ashore often carried the smell for weeks! When submarines were at dock for maintenance, while crew were at R&R, often the mattresses were scattered on deck to lose some smell!

Despite all of our Diesel developments, after World War II ended and we examined German U-boats we found that the German Diesel engines were somewhat superior to ours.