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USS Requin tour gives a glimpse into life on a Cold War-era submarine |
Art & Museums

USS Requin tour gives a glimpse into life on a Cold War-era submarine

Imagine spending months at a time, 24-7, within inches of your co-workers.

The crew of the USS Requin (SS 481), a U.S. Navy Cold War-era submarine did just that.

That submarine is docked outside the Carnegie Science Center on Pittsburgh’s North Shore and available for daily visits, as well as Tech Tours — a two-hour presentation which delves much deeper into this underwater vessel.

Select Sundays throughout the year are chosen for these tours, where visitors go behind the scenes of Requin and into areas rarely seen by the visiting public.

The Requin came to Pittsburgh on Sept. 4, 1990 – acquired by the museum as an added attraction to its many other amenities.

About the submarine

The massive submarine is 311 feet, 9 inches long by 27 feet wide and 60 feet tall, which includes the periscope all the way up. It is 73 years old. The deck is a replica of the original. The boat during operation accommodated 81 to 105 men.

The Requin entered the water for the first time on Jan. 1, 1945. But the submarine never entered battle. Her — all of these are referred to as female — scheduled departure date was Aug. 21, 1945. World War II officially ended Aug. 15.

In January 1946, the Requin was assigned to Submarine Squadron 4 for anti-submarine training. In 1949, it sailed its first deployment with the Sixth Fleet, the first of several deployments. On Sept.20, 1963, it completed its 5,000th dive. It was struck from the U.S. Navy list on Dec. 20, 1971.

Today, it serves a very different purpose of educating hundreds of thousands of visitors about life and science aboard a submarine in the mid-20th century. Preserved within her hull is the technology of a bygone era; she is a far cry from the sleek nuclear-powered behemoths that now patrol the world’s seas.

Down under

When you climb into the submarine, you instantly inhale the odor of hydraulic fluid. One of the first stops is the torpedo room, where they at one time were ready for action in the forward compartment. When fired, the torpedoes could reach speeds of 60 miles per hour and travel about 2.5 miles.

This submarine can submerge up to 412 feet and stay under water for 48 hours. After about 46 hours the crew would start to feel difficulty breathing and have to come back to the surface. They slept in shifts, sharing beds, some of which were located in the torpedo area, and all within close proximity to each other. Crew members divided into three shifts— one working, one sleeping and one free time.

Some of the original radio equipment is in the submarine, as well as a photo of actress and pin-up girl Betty Grable. Women weren’t permitted to work on submarines until only a few years ago.

Perks included good food such as steak and lobster. On a mission, they would take 4.5 tons of food with them, storing it in cracks and crevices, wherever there was room. Servicemen stored potatoes in the shower because they didn’t take a lot of showers to preserve the water supply.

They also were allowed to wear T-shirts and shorts because it was sweltering hot. The temperature in the engine rooms could reach 132 degrees.

“People who have never been on a submarine see how they lived on here from where they showered and ate to how they slept,” says Maria Renzelli, submarine coordinator. “If you are comfortable in small spaces, this would be fun. Visitors on these tours ask so many interesting questions that if we don’t know the answers, we find out.”

More than a history lesson

The Requin tours are more than a history lesson, says Dr. William B. Cogar, executive director Historic Naval Ships Association based in Annapolis, Md. These submarines are the perfect representation for teaching the widely known science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It also introduces guests to a Navy boat they might not have been familiar with.

“A lot of people when they think of the Navy, they think of big gray boats on the coast,” says Cogar, a former history professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, who also worked at the Naval Academy Museum and whose brother served on a submarine. “There are STEM related aspects in every square foot of that boat. It’s a laboratory on a boat. I would tell people to come and see USS Requin. As the country moves away from World War II and the Korean War, and those veterans are dying off, younger people have no real tie to that time.”

He says there is extensive and rigorous training for those who work on submarines. It is not just about learning what the boat does and how to operate it, it involves psychiatric evaluation because “you can’t panic and destroy the mission they are on.”

“It is a special environment, Cogar says. “Seventy-five guys figure out how to live for months at a time from storing food items to sleeping inches away from each other to knowing when to launch a torpedo and what their location is under the water. It’s truly an exercise in engineering.”

Who gives the tours?

More than 3.2 million visitors have been through the submarine since its arrival. During these Tech Tours led by a submarine veteran and science center staff, visitors will learn how Requin crew members faced challenges and life underwater. It’s a rare chance to explore un-restored compartments, climb into the conning tower and see the periscope.

“Tech Tours are an awesome, eye-opening experience for anyone interested in learning about history, science, engineering and technology,” says Patty Everly, curator of historic exhibits at the science center. “From teens to veterans, Tech Tours give our visitors a unique opportunity to explore Requin and get a really in-depth look at life on a submarine.”

JoAnne Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact JoAnne at 724-853-5062 or or via Twitter @Jharrop_Trib.

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