With the decommissioning of the USS Blueback on October 1, 1990, the last ever diesel-electric submarine of the United States Navy had left the fleet. But rather than being ignominiously scrapped, it instead found its way to the Willamette River, just a mile from downtown Portland.
It now provides quite a strange sight for unsuspecting folks walking along the banks of the Willamette River, who might be surprised to see the sleek hull of the Barbel-class submarine sitting half-submerged in the water.
The USS Blueback (SS-581) was launched in May, 1959, unknowingly becoming the last ever non-nuclear submarine to join the Navy. During its service, the Blueback took part in various fleet operations, patrolled the waters of Hawaii, and was deployed in the Far East. It earned two battle stars for its service in the Vietnam War.
The vessel also made the longest-ever submerged voyage by a diesel-electric submarine, when it traveled 5,340 miles from Yokosuka, Japan, to San Diego. And, shortly before its decommissioning, it made one last star turn in the 1990 movie The Hunt for Red October.
That could have been the end of the Blueback. It was struck from the Naval Vessel Register in 1990 and sat in the Pacific Reserve Fleet in Bremerton, Washington, awaiting its fate. Luckily for this retired submarine, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) came calling.
In February 1994, the OMSI towed the USS Blueback to Portland. It was moored in the river just outside the main museum building, where it still sits today, serving as both a maritime memorial and an interactive part of the museum. Visitors are welcome to walk inside the dark shell of the 219-foot sub, to explore the radio room, narrow halls, and living spaces full of marvelous artifacts, or look through the periscope and imagine what it might be like to fire a torpedo.
Know Before You Go
The OMSI runs two types of tours inside the Blueback. In the standard tour, visitors get to explore the submarine in a 45-minute guided tour, during which they can look through her periscope, touch a torpedo, and see the cramped crew quarters and various other things. These tours take place daily and are for ages three and above.
True submarine nerds will want to take the Submarine Tech Tour, which happens on the second and fourth Sunday of every month. This two-hour long tour is guided by a submarine veteran, who’ll teach you all about the technical workings of the Blueback. Reserve in advance, and visitors must be at least 12 years old.