By D. Allan Kerr
When the submarine USS Squalus departed from Portsmouth Naval Shipyard the morning of 23 May 1939, no one could have foreseen the unprecedented tragedy and heroism about to unfold over the next 48 hours.
By the time the saga was over, 26 Navy sailors and civilian workers would die horribly – but a team of tenacious rescuers would save the lives of 33 other crewmen. A sea chest of military decorations – including four Congressional Medals of Honor – would ultimately be awarded to men who risked their own lives to save their brethren.
The incident would go on to inspire a slew of books and films, including The Terrible Hours by best-selling author Peter Maas.
“Without a doubt, that perilous rescue operation must have brought moments of uncertainty and fear to the 33 men who survived,” Capt. David Hunt, the shipyard’s current commander, said recently. “Along with the sacrifices of 26 crew members who perished, their legacy inspired ordinary men to challenge the unknown and test the limits of what great men can achieve.”
The Squalus operation remains, nearly eight decades later, the only successful undersea submarine rescue in history.
The Squalus (SS 192), a diesel-electric vessel, was built at the Portsmouth Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, and commissioned on 1 March 1939, less than three months before its tragic sinking. The storm clouds of World War II were already darkening over Europe and the Pacific.
She was 300 feet long and had a surface speed of 20 knots. Her armament included eight torpedo tubes, a 3-inch gun and two .50 caliber machine guns.
The submarine had completed a series of successful dives in the weeks after her christening. The 23 May exercise took place just off the neighboring Isles of Shoals and was intended to test its capability for submerging at high speed in case of enemy attack.
However, this time a failed valve caused salt water to suddenly gush into the submarine’s aft engine room shortly after the Squalus went below the surface. Lt. Oliver Naquin, the sub’s skipper, immediately ordered his crew to close all watertight hatches.
Twenty-six men – including civilian shipyard electrician Charles M. Woods – were unable to make it out of the flooding compartments in time. Lloyd Maness, a Navy electrician’s mate, would later recall trying to close the 200-pound hatch to the control room against the rushing water when five shipmates practically swam up from the rear compartments to safety.
According to Naval Institute Archives, 17 men died in the aft torpedo room trying unsuccessfully to seal themselves in, and another made it up a ladder to another hatch, but was unable to open it due to water pressure above.
The flooded stern of the ship dropped toward the sea floor, and the Squalus eventually settled more than 240 feet below the surface – but fortunately still above “crush depth.”
Meanwhile, when the shipyard didn’t hear back from the Squalus, her sister ship USS Sculpin was dispatched to find the missing vessel.
The Squalus fired smoke rockets to signal her distress and attracted the attention of her sister. The Sculpin then located a marker buoy sent up by the Squalus with a phone inside, but just as the two skippers started to converse a sudden swell caused the phone cable to snap.
Now there was no direct communication with the crew’s rescuers.
None of the men aboard the Squalus that day are alive now.
However, almost exactly 23 years ago, this writer sat down with one of the disaster’s last survivors, Gerald McLees, a longtime Portsmouth resident and retired shipyard employee.
In 1939, McLees was a Kansas boy who had joined the Navy’s submarine service to escape the Great Depression. He was a second-class petty officer when the disaster occurred, fortunate enough to be in a forward battery compartment taking cell readings when the flooding began.
He and some of his shipmates gathered in the forward torpedo room. McLees recalled sitting in darkness “black as the ace of spades” after the Squalus lost power, as the crew waited to be rescued. They were instructed to rest in their bunks in order to save oxygen.
The only way to communicate with the surface was to tap out Morse code messages on the hull with a hammer.
McLees and the other survivors had no way of knowing who was still among the living and who had been lost in the other sealed compartments. But remarkably, spirits were mostly high among the trapped sailors, he said in 1994. They were confident of being rescued.
“Nobody got hysterical or anything. Just joking and sleeping,” he recollected. “I guess we didn’t realize the depths we were at. We were young.”
But there was good reason the submarine branch was known as the “coffin service” back in those days. More than 800 men had died in submarine accidents by this time. In one horrific event in 1927, crewmen aboard the sunken vessel S-4 had survived a collision with a Coast Guard vessel only to die slowly from lack of oxygen, trapped on the ocean floor while awaiting rescue.
Fortunately for McLees and his shipmates, help was indeed on the way, particularly in the person of a Navy lieutenant commander named Charles Bowers Momsen. While the story of the Squalus rescue is jam-packed with heroes – far too many to squeeze into this small space – Momsen was perhaps more responsible for the success of the operation than anyone.
Nicknamed “Swede,” Momsen would go on to earn distinction as an innovative squadron commander during World War II, and eventually retire as a vice admiral. But even in 1939 he was something of a legend throughout the Navy as creator of the “Momsen Lung,” an emergency underwater breathing apparatus.
This gear was issued to surviving crewmen of the Squalus, but due to the cold temperature of the sea above them – and the likelihood survivors might die of exposure even if they reached the surface – Naquin held off on employing the devices.
However, Momsen was also instrumental in developing a diving bell known as the McCann Rescue Chamber, named after Lt. Cmdr. Allan McCann, who had completed the project. Momsen, his chamber, and a team of divers aboard the submarine rescue vessel USS Falcon arrived at the scene of the accident the following morning.
Navy officials had estimated the Squalus crew only had about 48 hours of oxygen.
Once the sunken Squalus was located on the ocean floor, the diving bell was lowered and rigged by a Navy diver over the hatch of the forward torpedo room. McLees was part of the first group brought to the surface.
Naquin, as skipper, was among the last men rescued on the fourth trip. This attempt took several hours, as a cable jammed, so the chamber had to be hauled up manually.
Additional efforts were made to rescue any other survivors, but none were found.
The dramatic operation was breathlessly reported around the world over radio broadcasts and newspaper bulletins.
Wives and other family members waiting anxiously on the shore to hear whether their loved ones were among the living.
The survivors were closely monitored as they recuperated from their ordeal. “They put us in the hospital, but no one wanted to stay there,” McLees recounted years later.
The citation of Badders points out the divers “were fully aware of the great danger involved, in that, if he and the other member of the crew became incapacitated, there was no way in which either could be rescued.”
Momsen, who directed the rescue effort, received a letter of commendation from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“He seldom used the words ‘I’ and ‘me.’ It was about his men, the Navy and the mission,” Helen Hart Momsen said of her grandfather last week. “Self never got in the way of service.”
Momsen returned to the site with his divers in the summer of 1939 to supervise a salvage operation to raise the Squalus.
This proved to be an enormous undertaking in its own right, and again was heavily reported by the media.
“His desire to salvage the boat was not only to determine the cause of the disaster, but also to deliver home those who did not survive,” said Helen Momsen, who lives in Virginia.
Remarkably, the submarine was repaired and recommissioned the following year as the USS Sailfish.
Just as remarkably, McLees and two or three of his fellow survivors volunteered to stay on with the Sailfish after their death-defying ordeal. The Kansan who hoped to find adventure in the Navy got all he could have hoped – after the U.S. entered World War II, he took part in seven war patrols in the Pacific aboard the submarine. Then he served on three more aboard the USS Crevalle – another Portsmouth Naval Shipyard sub.
Today the conning tower of the Squalus/Sailfish still stands on the grounds of the shipyard as a striking memorial to those lost in 1939, as well as a tribute to her sterling World War II record.
The Sailfish is credited with sinking nearly 84,000 tons of enemy shipping during the war, including two Japanese aircraft carriers, and won the Presidential Unit Citation.
McLees remained in the Navy until 1956, retiring as a chief petty officer, then worked for several more years at the Shipyard. He died in 2004.
Momsen died on 25 May 1967 – the anniversary of the day the Squalus rescue effort was completed. Over the course of his fascinating Navy career, the admiral was awarded the Navy Cross – the branch’s second-highest combat honor – and three Legion of Merit awards, and commanded the Pacific submarine fleet.
Helen, his granddaughter, points out that Momsen’s success in rescuing the Squalus survivors – as well as the submarine itself – was no fluke, but rather the result of years devoted to “his vision of a safer Navy.”
“He never lost sight of the men that had been lost along the way. The salvation of the 33 men who survived the Squalus was such a blessing to him,” she said. “He mourned for those he did not save.”
(May 28, 2017)