By D. Allan Kerr
The Maine-New Hampshire Seacoast area has seen more than its share of spectacular shipwrecks and rescues over the years, as one would expect along our jagged New England shores.
For almost a century and a half, members of the old Life Saving Service and its successor, the Coast Guard, have been on hand to assist those in distress.
In January 1925, the vessel in peril was a United States Navy submarine.
Despite brutal weather conditions and the release of chlorine gas, not a single life was lost during this incident – and a little pup named Beans was saved as well. According to the sub’s crewmen, Beans was the good-luck charm who helped save them.
The submarine was called S-48, the first of its class. Built at Bridgeport, Connecticut, she had just been launched in February 1921. No stranger to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the sub was returning to the Kittery, Maine, facility for additional yard repairs in early 1925. She was accompanied by another submarine, S-51, and the minesweeper USS Chewink.
During a heavy snowstorm on the night of 29 January, visibility dropped to zero and the submarine ran aground at Jerry’s Point in New Castle, New Hampshire. (Various media accounts also refer to this site as Jeffrey’s Point and Jaffrey’s Point.) The other vessels anchored away from the point.
The event was breathlessly reported on the front page of the Boston Daily Globe’s morning edition the following day. The newspaper described the submarine as being “lost in the dark and snow, and driven by a vicious northeast storm.”
The accident was reported to Capt. C.T. Owens, the shipyard’s commanding officer at the time, who then called the Coast Guard at the neighboring Wood Island station, just a half-mile from the grounded submarine. The station’s keeper, Charles Hand, set out with his entire crew and two tugboats were dispatched as well.
The storm was so severe the responders could not get a rescue line to the Navy crewmen.
“The storm, instead of diminishing, was getting worse and had become the worst of the winter, with a wind assuming gale proportions,” the newspaper reported. “The night was so thick that Coast Guardsmen could barely make out a light offshore, less than a quarter of a mile away.”
On shore, the city of Portsmouth sent a tractor to break thru the snow to retrieve landing gear from another Coast Guard station at Wallis Sands in Rye, New Hampshire, as it appeared this might be the best way to reach the submarine.
By the time the newspaper went to press, no craft had been able to get closer than 200 feet to the S-48 and rescuers hoped a high tide might lift her from the rocks.
“If the storm continues, and it shows no sign of diminishing, it is feared that the submarine, which carries a crew of 35 men under Lieutenant Commander Bray, will be a total loss,” the paper reported.
In those days the Boston Globe had both morning and evening editions, as the public did not have access to the 24-hour news coverage provided today by cable TV and social media.
Readers picked up the rescue story later that same day of 30 January, in a front-page article in the evening paper explaining the S-48 had remained stuck on the rocks for several hours before heavy seas started rocking the vessel violently back and forth.
“The general opinion is that the fury of the storm drove the submarine from the outer ocean through the narrow channel, which is only about 200 feet wide, and in the passage through the channel the S-48 stove holes in her bow when she hit one end of the breakwater,” the newspaper stated.
In doing so, the S-48 became grounded once again, this time in Little Harbor, between Rye and New Castle. The submarine’s battery compartment began taking on water, chlorine gas escaped and items had to be battened down.
The S-48’s skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Stewart Bray, later told the newspaper his crew members at one point were up on the bridge wearing their lifebelts as they awaited rescue but had to return below deck when waves crashed over the boat.
“We rolled 70 degrees to starboard, so that the railing of the bridge almost went to the surface of the water,” Bray reported.
Crewmen had to lash themselves to the rigging in order to receive rescue lines. At around 0530 of the following morning, the submarine received word rescuers were coming out soon. Coast Guard lifeboats from the Wood Island and Wallis Sands stations arrived to carry their Navy counterparts to safety.
But Navy sailors also singled out for praise Capt. Kay Henson, the caretaker of Fort Stark, who reportedly risked his life making several attempts to reach the grounded vessel aboard a small skiff. “The captain’s skiff was too frail and he was repeatedly buffeted back,” the newspaper reported.
The Portsmouth Herald was also on the scene, and hailed in particular Wallis Sands surfmen Alvah Huntley and Elmer Nutting for rescuing 19 Navy crewmen in a small dory before the surfboats arrived. In fact, the Herald was effusive in its praise for all the Coast Guard personnel who took part in the operation. The Wallis Sands crew was headed by keeper Walter Godfrey.
“Too much praise cannot be given to the members of the Portsmouth Harbor and Wallis Sands Coast Guard crews,” the Herald reported. “In the furious gale and driving snow they worked through the dark hours of the night in their efforts to aid the imperiled men on the stricken submarine.”
Once the submarine crewmen were rescued, they were brought into the home Henson shared with his wife and their 3-year-old daughter, who were both named Ruth.
“They opened the house wide, opened up their entire supply of canned food, made hot coffee and did all they could for the 38 members of the crew,” the Evening Globe reported. “Nearly all were so cold they had to be carried into the house.”
No explanation was found for the different numbers of crewmen cited in these articles.
A shipyard medical officer was dispatched to the scene to treat the crewmen for exposure and gas fumes. Bray and several other Navy sailors were brought to the shipyard’s hospital in Kittery to recover.
The submarine remained stranded for several days and attracted “thousands of spectators who gathered on both sides of Little Harbor … and it appeared that every other person was armed with a camera,” according the Herald.
The local paper also noted a “good number” of the automobiles gathered along the shore “bore Massachusetts license plates.”
The terrier pup Beans, meanwhile, became something of a celebrity for a time. His photo was featured on the front page of the Boston Evening Globe, held in the arms of ship’s cook L. Navarro, and he was described by crewmen as the submarine’s lucky mascot.
“Some of them insist that it was Beans who brought the lucky wave which lifted the submarine off the breakwater and into still water in the inner harbor,” the Globe reported.
“The members of the crew would not be at all surprised to know that the pup had got acquainted with old King Neptune, and had chewed his fingers until the Old Man of the Sea took mercy on the battered vessel containing the pup,” the article stated.
The newspaper described Beans as “a nondescript gray color, so young that he has not yet acquired his land legs, but he certainly has his sea legs to put a landlubber to shame.”
“He still wobbles as he walks, on land, but he went through the terrific experience of Thursday night without showing any fear,” the Globe reported. “And, after it was all over, was just as willing as ever to bite anybody who played with him, with teeth which have no biting powers.”
As it turned out, S-48 had a history of such misadventures.
In 1921 the submarine had sunk in 70 feet of water in Long Island Sound, near Bridgeport, Connecticut, “due to a workman carelessly leaving a manhole cover off.” Despite freezing waters and the release of chlorine gas, more than 60 men escaped through a torpedo tube with no lives lost.
The submarine continued to have a rocky career even after it was finally towed from Little Harbor to the shipyard on 7 February. Once S-48 was berthed at the facility, there wasn’t enough funding to repair her so she was decommissioned in July that same year.
A year later, funds were appropriated and work commenced at last – until funds ran short again. The submarine’s hull was extended by more than 25 feet and, according to the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, S-48 was recommissioned in December 1928.
Among those who subsequently served aboard the S-48 was a young lieutenant named Hyman G. Rickover, who would go on to become a four-star admiral and the legendary “Father of the Nuclear Navy.”
Rickover served as executive officer, or second-in-command, during his tenure on the submarine and also married his wife, Ruth, during this time.
S-48 was decommissioned again in September 1935, only to be activated once more with the outbreak of the Second World War. She was used for warfare training in both New London, Connecticut, and Portland, Maine, for the duration of the war, and finally taken off the Navy’s list and sold for scrap in 1946.
The old Coast Guard station at Wood Island, which was originally built for the Life Saving Service, is currently undergoing a nearly $3.5 million restoration. Non-profit organizers hope to include a maritime museum intended to preserve this kind of history.
The Portsmouth Harbor Coast Guard station is now located in New Castle, and its members have recently had to deal with an entirely different kind of crisis due to the recent government shutdown.
(Jan. 26, 2019)
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