The feature attraction at the USS Silversides Submarine Museum is the World War II submarine USS Silversides. Commissioned just a few days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, USS Silversides completed 14 combat war patrols in the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II. USS Silversides is officially credited with sinking 23 major Japanese ships (the third highest total for any U.S. Navy Submarine) for an approximate tonnage of 90,080. Silversides received the Presidential Unit Citation and 12 Battle Stars for her wartime service. Portions of the 1943 film Destination Tokyo were actually inspired by the real-life events which occurred aboard the USS Silversides during the war.
Decommissioned from active service in 1946, USS Silversides was moved to Chicago where it was utilized by the U.S. Navy Reserve until struck from the Naval Register in 1969.
After a highly successful career in combat and Naval Reserve training, USS Silversides was backed down the pier at Chicago’s Naval Reserve Armory. Vagrants broke in on occasion and lack of heat caused some forward torpedo room pipes to burst and flood the compartment.
In 1973, however, several groups wanting to save USS Silversides came together. The Combined Great Lakes Navy Association was given custody of the submarine in May of that year.
For years, USS Silversides was tended to by a small crew of volunteers, drawn to her illustrious history and technical marvels. They donated tens of thousands of man-hours to restore her, maintained her at their own expense and served as docents and chaperones for overnight scout groups. USS Silversides was the first museum vessel to host such groups.
When association volunteers first stepped on board, they faced a must, mildewed sub with paint peeling off in sheets inside and out, and junk scattered everywhere. After many years, the refrigeration compartment had produced a growth so thick, they could be measured in multiple inches instead of millimeters. Evidence of water damage prevailed in the forward compartments but the aft end was in reasonably good condition. Topside, the decking was weathered and worn in spots and some areas of the superstructure were rusted and in need of replacement.
Volunteers took steps to stop the decay. Rotted lines were replaced and the boat re-secured to the pier. Bilges were pumped dry, electric power and heat were brought on board and a leak in the No. 3 torpedo tube sealed off. The first major renovation completed was stripping, undercoating and repainting the hull to the water line. The job took several months with a break over the winter but once completed, USS Silversides looked nearly new.
Below decks, the boat was cleaned and general restoration got under way. Considerable rewiring was done to bring light to all areas of the boat, the plumbing underwent inspection for leaks sprung in once-frozen pipes and a crew set about surveying the Fairbanks Morse Model 38D8 1/8, nine-cylinder, 1,535-horsepower opposed-piston main engines. The seven-cylinder auxiliary engine was brought back to life in 1975.
USS Silversides moved to Chicago’s Navy Pier. That July, the first main engine, No. 3, was brought back to life for the first time since 1946. The No. 4 engine was restored in time for the 1984 U.S. Submarine Veterans of World War II convention.
Disputes within her own organization and the city of Chicago eventually led to USS Silversides leaving in 1987.
When the city council sought rent from all vessels at Navy Pier in 1983, USS Silversides’ operators refused, citing an informal $1-a-year agreement supposedly worked out with previous administrations. On 30 April 1985, an eviction notice requesting more than $30.000 in back rent for pier space was stuck to her fairwater.
The U.S. Navy watched these developments and initially put the brakes on any move but reversed itself in April 1987 when the USS Silversides’ operators were unable to find a new berth or improve relations with the city. Chicago announced plans to refurbish Navy Pier, thanks to a $150 million state bond issue, while the Chicago Maritime Society revealed it would build a new museum nearby. USS Silversides was left out of each plan. Partially at the Navy’s insistence, the submarine was towed to Muskegon on 7 August 1987.
Moving to Muskegon, Michigan in 1987, USS Silversides has been painstakingly maintained in its World War II configuration and is considered the U.S. Navy's most successful surviving World War II submarine. In 1993, the Prohibition-era U.S. Coast Guard Cutter McLane joined the USS Silversides on display at the museum.
Both historic vessels are open for public tours and overnight encampments throughout the year.