USS Squalus and the first submarine rescue in U.S. history
By 1939, the Navy had lost 851 men in submarine accidents and all submarine rescues had failed. But that would change with the USS Squalus.
The Squalus (SS-192) was a diesel-electric submarine built at Portsmouth Shipyard and commissioned on March 1, 1939.
The USS Squalus had performed well on 18 test dives and there were no issues for the 19th dive. Squalus left Portsmouth at 7:30 am on the morning of May 23. He then descended the Piscataqua River and passed four miles beyond the Isles of Shoals. USS Squalus commander Lt. Oliver Naquin had four officers, 51 enlisted men and three shipyard civilians for sea trials.
Disaster strikes USS Squalus
The USS Squalus was just off the Isle of Shoals at 8:40 a.m. Naquin had ordered the rigged boat to dive and the crew went to their posts. Everything went perfectly for the first time. The vessel plunged steeply and stabilized at 60 feet. Then, by combat phone, the engine room called the bridge, “Take her away!” “
The main air intake valve had not closed for reasons that were never discovered. Tons of seawater gushed out into the engine room aft of the ship. The men tried to close the intake valve and pumped oxygen into the ballast tanks in an attempt to lift the submarine. For a moment, Squalus slowly raised his nose. Then, as the men tried to shut off the leaks in the ventilation ducts, the pressure suddenly increased terribly. Torrents of seawater poured into the forward compartments, knocking down Harold Preble, the senior naval architect at Portsmouth Shipyard. Preble had been dating every new submarine for 22 years.
With water entering the battery compartment, Chief Electrician Lawrence Gainor shut down the batteries before they exploded or caught fire. The ship was plunged into darkness. The operating compartment was cordoned off just seconds before it was flooded. Eight men escaping from the crashing sea water managed to get through the watertight doors before they were sealed.
The submarine came to rest in 40 fathoms (240 feet) of water.
Experimental diving unit called into action
The Navy immediately informed the Experimental Diving Unit tasked with rescuing the downed submarines at the Washington Navy Yard. Lieutenant Commander Charles “Swede” Momsen in charge of the unit had developed a rescue diving bell which had not yet been tested. The Navy sent him and a team of divers to New England to attempt a rescue.
The Falcon minesweeper sent from New London, CT was to be the rescue vessel. The USS Squalus had sent a buoy on a cable with a telephone attached to mark its position. Lieutenant Naquin thought they could survive for 48 hours on the airwaves they had.
Momsen did so on a seaplane and landed just as a storm hit New Hampshire. The following rescue divers were forced to land in Newport, RI. With a police escort, they shouted as far as the coast, traveling so fast that they lost the police escort in Boston. They arrived at 4:15 am
At the bottom of the sea, Lt. Naquin remained optimistic for the shivering crew in the dark and cold submarine. He encouraged the men to take a nap and use as little oxygen as possible.
What’s your problem, USS Squalus?
At 12.55 p.m. the Sculpin, the Squalus’ twin submarine, found its buoy then dropped anchor. The morale of the trapped submariners rose because they could hear the propellers above them.
Sculpin’s commanding officer, Lt. Warren Wilkin, called. “Hello, Squalus. It’s Sculpin. What is your problem ? “
LTJG Nichols responded, “Open high induction, crew compartment, before and after engine room flooding. Not sure of after torpedo room, but unable to establish communication with this compartment. Hold the phone and I’ll put the captain on.
Then Naquin went online. “Hello, Wilkin,” Naquin replied when suddenly the cable snapped.
The Falcon did not arrive with the diving bell until early the next morning, May 24. When it docked directly above the submarine shortly before 10 a.m., the sky had cleared and the sun was out.
A rescue diver descended 240 feet into the ink water to land just above the Squalus about three-four feet from where the diving bell was to attach to the escape hatch of the ‘crew. He stepped on the hatch to let the crew know he was there. The men enthusiastically knocked on the hatch in response.
It took 40 minutes to lower the cable that the diving bell would descend on and another 22 for the diver to attach to the Squalus escape hatch. The water pressure at this depth made the simplest tasks extremely difficult to accomplish.
Momsen and the other rescuers were about to try tactics that had never been used before.
“Where the hell are the towels?” “
At 11:30 am, the diving bell descended from the Falcon. It took him about 30 minutes to reach Squalus. Rescuers soon made a tight seal on the escape hatch. The two sailors from the diving bell opened the hatch and gave the crew of the USS Squalus a hot soup. The sailors, who never lack sardonic humor, ask: “Where the hell are the towels?”
The first seven men, considered the weakest by Naquin, are loaded into the bell. They surfaced just after 2 p.m. On the next trip, the sailors, knowing the unpredictable New England weather, thought about putting more sailors in the bell to speed things up. Shortly after 4:00 p.m., the bell resurfaced, this time carrying nine sailors. Nine other men arrived shortly before 6:30 p.m.
The fourth and final voyage loaded the last eight men, including Commander Naquin, into the bell. They started their ascent but around 8:15 p.m. at 160 feet the bell stopped. The wire was dirty so they had to cut it and let the bell go to the bottom where they would reattach a cable. Finally, the crew was able to lift the diving bell. This last trip lasted four and a half hours. The 33 survivors managed to reach the Falcon and safety.
A historic success
Thanks to the incredible courage and fearlessness of everyone involved, the operation was a success.
July 30, 1939, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Arthur Fiedler, performed a memorial concert for the victims of the USS Squalus at Little Boar’s Head in North Hampton, NH. The concert was broadcast nationwide.
For their actions during the operation, four officers and men would receive the Medal of Honor, 46 others decorated with the Navy Cross and one received the Distinguished Service Medal.
In September 1939, the Navy successfully lifted the USS Squalus from the ocean floor. He recovered the bodies of 25 of the 26 drowned sailors; a sailor had managed to get out of the submarine but never came to the surface. His body has never been found.
In 1940, the USS Squalus was returned to service as the USS Sailfish and served in World War II by sinking seven enemy ships. Its command turret resides in the Portsmouth Navy Shipyard as a memorial to sailors lost in action.
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