During World War II, submarines provided an invaluable service for the United States as they silently patrolled the depths of the seas, protecting ships and shore alike. Among the many distinguished subs serving in the war and afterward was the USS Razorback, which is now docked in the Arkansas River in North Little Rock. Among its many adventures since its 1944 launch, perhaps its most curious journey is how a submarine with no connection to Arkansas became a mascot to the state and became the centerpiece of a naval museum deep inside a landlocked state.
Construction on the USS Razorback began in Sept. 1943 at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on the Maine-New Hampshire border. It would be one of 120 Balao-class submarines, a 311-foot vessel powered by a diesel-electric engine. Typically, a submarine of this type had a crew of 85, including ten officers.
The submarine was not named for the Razorback hog but rather the Finback Whale, sometimes also called the Razorback Whale. The Finback Whale is a common type of whale seen in oceans across the world, including along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States. It is thin and up to 90 feet long. A sleek, razor-shaped fin on its back gives this species of whale the nickname “razorback.”
The Razorback was launched on January 27, 1944, and was formally commissioned on April 3. It was sent to the Pacific where it supported efforts to retake The Philippines from Japan later that year, and the sub saw considerable combat. In December 1944, the Razorback damaged two Japanese freighters and sank a destroyer in separate incidents. While patrolling the East China Sea in February 1945, it sank four Japanese patrol boats. In two separate incidents, the Razorback helped rescue American airmen downed at sea. After Japan surrendered, the Razorback was part of the American flotilla taking part in the surrender ceremonies in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2.
In the 1950s, the ship was refit with more modern equipment and served as part of anti-submarine training exercises in the Pacific in addition to its usual patrols. In 1962, the sub served in an observational role for Operation Swordfish, a nuclear test detonation at sea. In the mid-to-late 1960s, the sub periodically patrolled the South China Sea near Vietnam.
On November 30, 1970, the navy decommissioned the Razorback and sold it to Turkey, a NATO ally. The Turkish navy rechristened the vessel the Muratreis, after a former Turkish admiral, and put it into their service in early 1971. It would serve for 30 years in the Turkish fleet. In all, the vessel saw nearly 54 years of service, one of the longest careers of any submarine still surviving.
Though the submarine was named for a whale, it won a warm place in the hearts of Arkansans for invoking the name of the beloved Razorback mascot of the University of Arkansas. When news came that the Turkish navy was decommissioning the sub in 2001, Arkansans rallied to give it a final home in the Natural State.
Officials in North Little Rock as well as veterans groups worked with the Turkish government to purchase the Razorback and bring it to Arkansas. Turkey agreed to sell it to North Little Rock in March 2004 for $37,500, all of which came from private donations. The unpowered sub was towed that summer from Turkey to New Orleans, a voyage that took six weeks. Afterward, the Razorback was towed up the Mississippi River. However, just as it entered the Arkansas River, its progress was stopped over fears of low river levels that threatened the sub running aground. Two barges were arranged to lift the sub a few feet higher in the river, and it was brought to the Port of Little Rock without incident by Aug. 29. The total cost of the voyage was reportedly more than $500,000.
The Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum was dedicated in March 2005 in part to tell the story of the famed sub and offer tours of the vessel. Today, the Razorback continues to be a popular destination for tourists in North Little Rock.