Sinking And Rescue Of The USS Squalus

The history of the USS Squalus; its sinking and the never before attempted rescue in 1939 of 33 crew members of a submarine.

On Tuesday, May 23, 1939 the newest submarine of the American Fleet was the USS Squalus. Named for a small shark with a reputation of "a big bite," she was the pride of the Navy. Of a newer, larger design with what had been unheard of amenities such air conditioning, the Squalus had been installed with every safety feature the Navy could think of.

Her keel had been laid at the Portsmouth shipyard in October 1937 and the following September saw her launched before a cheering crowd. The submarine was 310 feet long, 27 feet wide and had a top surface speed of 16 knots and an underwater, battery powered speed of 9 knots. She had also been equipped with two valves that fed air to the diesel engines and ventilated the boat while the boat was on the surface.

Her commander on May 23, 1939 was Lt. Oliver Naquin who had 55 men under his command. The Squalus was also carrying two civilians, a submarine specialist that was employed by GM, which had made the diesel engines and a yard electrician.

As with any new submarine, a series of test dives are done to prove the watertight status and working conditions of all systems on the boat. This particular test dive was to be at a depth of 250 feet. At 8:30 am, Lt. Naquin gave the order to rig for diving and received the all-clear signal.

With all going well, several of the crew would report feeling a "fluttering" sensation of the ears. With the control board reading all systems green, men in the control room were completely surprised when Yeoman Second Class Charles Kuney heard over the battle phone screams that the engine rooms were flooding.

With the rear engine and torpedo rooms flooding, the weight became too much for the ballast to compensate and the Squalus began a plunge to the bottom at an unbelievable fifty-degree angle. Touching down stern first, the surviving crewmembers were lucky in that although she was 243 feet deep, she had settled evenly on her keel.

Having had a problem in either the transmission or reception of the message to Portsmouth as to the location of the Squalus's dive, the initial search and rescue operation would begin miles from her actual location.

After repeated locator rockets had been fired by the Squalus with no results, oil was flushed out in the hopes that someone would see it. One of the modern amenities of the Squalus was a buoy that held a telephone and attached to the sub by a communications line. For hours the remaining crew of the Squalus would hang their hopes upon this buoy while fighting their own private demons.

Each one of the crewmembers was aware that the general attitude was if a submarine went down, the crew was as good as lost. In the entire history of the submarines, no rescue attempts over 20 feet had been successful. At 243 it would be virtually impossible.

Thankfully for the members of the Squalus, a naval officer (who was an ex-submarine commander) Charles "Swede" Momsen had thought up, designed and built a "rescue chamber" that had never been tested during an actual emergency.

It would seem that Momsen and the crew of the Squalus were to be plagued by bad luck. After the buoy marker had been found and a telephone connection made to the Squalus, the line broke leaving the only link to the boat gone. The loss of telecommunications was bad enough but the buoy had been the only marker showing exactly where the Squalus was located. As a storm built up and the submarine's location lost, the navy sent in other boats to use grappler and drag the bottom. It was at this time the rescuers found out just how full of debris and boulders the area around the Squalus was.

After hours of trying, the grapnel did indeed latch on to the Squalus and a diver was sent down to check out the situation as well as tie a permanent line to the boat. For 39 agonizing hours the crews of the ships above tried franticly to rescue Naquin and the other survivors during fierce swells, storms, fog and near death experiences.

For the survivors, the hours were spent in complete darkness; bone chilling cold, soggy blankets and the knowledge that there had never been a successful rescue of any seamen from a sunken submarine. They were also aware that the devise that everyone was depending on to bring them to the surface had only been tested under controlled circumstances and had never been used in an actual rescue.

A reporter on the scene who described Momsen's rescue chamber compared it to an oversized tumbler that had been turned upside down. A tumbler that would have to make four trips down to the Squalus before all 33 men could be brought up. During each trip two divers would have to go down with the rescue chamber, seal it to the escape hatch of the sub and then transfer 9 men into it for the long trip to the surface.

The first three trips went without a hitch but the fourth one seemed plagued from the start. The clutch on the main wires that ran to the chamber kept getting hung up. Then when they started to bring the chamber up, the wires began breaking. Unknown to the rescuers, the line of wire wasn't one solid piece. Somewhere several pieces had been spliced together and the splices were giving away. The men above the surface watched in horror as the heavy, wire cable kept fraying until only one wire the size of a normal piece of twine was left. Momsen gave the order to send the chamber back down.

Momsen worked until another possible solution was found. Thinking the best alternative was to send a new cable down with a diver the rescue ship Falcon scurried to find another cable to replace the first. As the chosen diver headed for the chamber the new cable kept getting hopelessly tangled with the frayed wires from the original cable. After several attempts this option was also abandoned.

Thinking to change the internal pressure of the chamber he ordered the ballast tanks on the chamber blown to make it lighter so the cable wouldn't have as much tension on it. As the divers obeyed these orders the rescue chamber rose to a certain point and then it was found the ballast tanks didn't provide enough buoyancy to relieve the tension for the remainder of trip up. It soon became evident the buoyancy wasn't the only trouble. The retrieval clutch and engine had given out completely. Once again the chamber and the survivors settled back down onto to ocean floor.

As hope was fading, Momsen decided to try one last resort, pulling by hand while attempting to keep a constant tension on the wire. To do this constant communication would need to be kept between the ones pulling who would feel the tension and the divers inside the chamber to manually control the release of ballast.

Through six and eight foot swells, the crew of the Falcon and the divers in the rescue chamber began the precise ballast and pulling that would bring the chamber once again towards the surface. It would be a long, arduous task but in the end, persistence paid off. The last man out of the rescue chamber was the last man to leave the Squalus, her skipper Lt. Oliver Naquin. According to naval logs, he would make this step one minute before the thirty-ninth hour after the time when he had given the order to dive.

Months later, the Squalus would be salvaged, refitted and recommissioned on May 15, 1940. At this time she was no longer the Squalus but by a personal suggestion by President Roosevelt, her new name was the USS Sailfish. As the Sailfish, she would serve bravely and honorably during the years of World War Two.

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