"DOLPHINS" - the Submarine Warefare Insignia

"Deep Wave" Dolphins

"Life is simple - either you're qualified or you're not!"


History of the Submariner's Dolphins

The insignia of the U.S. submarine service is a submarine flanked by two dolphins. Dolphins, attendants to the Poseidon, Greek god of the sea and patron deity to sailors, is sometimes referred to as the sailor's friend.  They were also chosen to represent the Submarine Service because of the characteristic way in which dolphins dive and surface.

On 13 June 1923, Captain E. J. King, Commander, Submarine Division Three (later Fleet Admiral and Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet, during WW II), suggested to the Secretary of the Navy via the Bureau of Navigation (now known as BuPers) that a distinguishing device for qualified submariners be adopted. He submitted a pen-and-ink sketch of his own showing a shield mounted on the beam ends of a submarine, with dolphins forward of, and abaft, the conning tower. The suggestion was strongly endorsed by Commander Submarine Division Atlantic. Over the next several months the Bureau of Navigation solicited additional designs from several sources. Some combined a submarine with a shark motif. Others showed submarines and dolphins, and still others used a shield design. A Philadelphia firm, Bailey, Banks & Biddle (BB&B), which had done work in the field of Naval crests, was approached by the Bureau of Navigation with the request that it design a suitable badge. Two designs were submitted by the firm, one of which was to be used for the U.S. Naval Academy's 1926 class crest, which had been designed by under-classman William C. Eddy in 1922. These two designs were combined into a single concept. It was a starboard angle on the bow view of an "O" class submarine, proceeding on the surface, with bow planes rigged for diving, flanked by dolphins in a horizontal position with their heads resting on the upper edge of the bow planes. On 20 March 1924, the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation recommended to the Secretary of the Navy that the design be adopted. The recommendation was accepted by Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Acting Secretary of the Navy. His acceptance is dated March 1924. Today the original BB&B design is used by many manufactures without modification, while others choose to take some artistic license, especially in updating the class of submarine depicted.

The submarine insignia was to be worn at all times by officers and men qualified in submarine duty attached to submarine units or organizations, ashore and afloat, and not to be worn when not attached. In 1941 the Uniform Regulations were modified to permit officers and men qualified who were eligible to wear the submarine insignia after they had been assigned to other duties in the naval service, unless such right had been revoked.

The officers' insignia was a gold metal pin (gold plating over "sterling" silver, or bronze), worn centered above the left breast pocket and above the ribbons and medals. Enlisted men wore the insignia, embroidered in silk, white silk for blue clothing and blue silk for white clothing. This was sewn on the outside of the right sleeve, midway between the wrist and elbow. The device was two and three-quarters inches long.

In 1943, the Uniform Regulations were modified to provide that:  "Enlisted men, who are qualified and subsequently promoted to commissioned or warrant ranks, may wear enlisted submarine insignia on the left breast until they qualify as submarine officers, at which time this insignia would be replaced by the officers' submarine pin."

In mid-1947, the embroidered device shifted from the right sleeve of the enlisted men's jumper to above the left breast pocket. On 21 September 1950, a change to the Uniform Regulations authorized officers the option of either a gold bullion embroidered sew-on insignia, or gold plated pin-on insignia.  Enlisted submariners were given the option of either a silver bullion embroidered sew-on insignia, or a "sterling" silver (or silver plated), metal pin-on insignia for the dress uniform. This was in addition to the silk embroidered  insignia sewn on the undress uniform.

Dolphins - fish or mammal?

I've received querys as to whether a fish or a mammal is used on the U.S. Submarine Warfare insignia. It is a bottlenose dolphin, but a stylized version of this mammal. Dolphins don't have scales, but as can be found in classical depictions, scales were added for artistic effect. (see image below)

The British also use this embellishment on the dolphins for their submarine insignia. However, some navies use more anatomically correct bottlenose dolphins in their designs.

dolphins & Neptune fountain
Neptune fountain in Rome



  Dolphin Collection (enlisted)

U.S. embroidered silk dolphins - image
earliest - silk embroidered

U.S. embroidered dolphins for whites - image
for Summer Whites

Early U.S. embroidered dolphins for dress blues - image
early silk variation

U.S. embroidered dolphins for CPO grey - image
CPO's gray embroidered - '43 to '49

U.S. Pin-back sterling silver dolphins, deep wave - image
sterling "deep wave" pin-back - 50's by Hilborn&Hamburger

U.S. silver bullion embroidered dolphins - image
silver bullion thread - 50's

U.S. 'WestPac' silver dolphins - image
"WestPacs" -  50's&60's made in Yokosuka

U.S. silver dolphins,  clutch-back - image
sterling, clutch-back 50's&60's - mfg. by Gemsco

U.S. embroidered dolphins, utility - image
contemporary - utility

In 1967, the manufacturer, Vanguard discontinued their "sterling" dolphins, in favor of less expensive silver plate or silver oxide surfaces.

It is probable that the other manufacturers did the same - and at about the same time to remain competitive.

...and the "mystery" dolphins?

Large silk embroidered dolphins, c.1920 - image

This large (5") silk embroidered, patch came in the cellophane envelope [below] and appears to be from the 1920's or '30s. It is exactly twice the size of the early sleeve insignias, and too large to be used as a decorative "liberty" cuff. If anyone knows how it was worn - let me know....

UPDATE: I finally received an answer to my question. An old boat sailor off the Grenadier (SS-525) said:

"I remember once or twice seeing these large patches sewn underneath neck flap on dress blue jumpers, much as liberty cuffs were sewn inside sleeve cuffs...I myself have a lot of embroidered items underneath my collar including sleeve devices with diesel boat names that I served on."

I also received word from a TM off the Wahoo who recalled that he had this same patch sewn inside the flap on his dress blue trousers. So it appears that it wasn't produced for any authorized use on the uniform. 

It seems that the envelope design was meant to illustrate the long history the company had with the Navy, and does not reflect the age of its contents.


Cellophane envelope for mystery dolphins - image


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