Trapped in A Sunken Submarine – The
By James Donahue
It was on May 23, 1939, that the new U.S. submarine Squalus sank off Portsmouth,
New Hampshire, with all hands. Thirty-two members of the crew and one civilian worker were dramatically rescued in the next
two days from a depth of 242 feet under the Atlantic.
The Squalus was one of two new “S-Class” submarines just commissioned
at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The other sub was the USS Sculpin. Both vessels were finishing their sea trials, which included
a set of tests and “crash” dives, a method of submerging quickly to avoid an enemy attack.
It was while making one of those crash dives that the Squalus sank off the Isles
of Shoals. In brief, they said a valve that supplied air to the diesel engines failed, and the rear engine compartments of
the sub quickly flooded. Instead of diving to just 60 feet, the ship dropped to the bottom of the Atlantic. Twenty-three men
in that part of the ship were drowned.
The skipper, Lieutenant Oliver Naquin, and 32 others, were left trapped in the forward
compartments of the submarine. There they were packed, without lights and power, and all of them fully aware that they were
in very deep water, making it impossible to try an escape by swimming to the surface. When the air ran out, they faced the
grim possibility of a slow death in cramped quarters and in total darkness.
They got lucky, however. By a strange stroke of luck the ship’s telephone buoy
was found by the sister ship, Sculpin and it permitted about two minutes of conversation between Lieutenant Naquin and Lieutenant
J. C. Nichols, commander of the Sculpin. Part of that conversation went as follows:
“What is your trouble?”
“High induction open, crew’s compartment, forward and after engine rooms
flooded. Not sure about after torpedo room but could not establish communication with that compartment.”
Naquin was keeping his cool. His message continued: “Consider the best method
to employ is to send diver down as soon as possible to close high induction and then hook on salvage lines to flooded compartments
and free them of water in attempt to bring her up, for the present consider that preferable to sending personnel up with lungs.”
It was obvious Naquin wanted to not only
save his men, but bring his ship up with them. Higher command, however, had other ideas.
The Navy rescue ship Falcon, utilizing a new McCann Rescue Chamber, a type of diving
bell developed for just such an emergency, got there by the following day. It took four trips down to the submarine, but all
33 men were rescued by May 25 even as bad weather was moving in. It should be noted that the final trip almost failed because
of snagged lines. Two Navy divers had to be sent down to clear the lines before the chamber could complete the rescue.
The submarine was salvaged, which was a fete by itself for divers who braved that
extreme depth. She was brought up during the summer of 1939, decommission, repaired, and launched with a new name, USS Sailfish.
The Sailfish was active throughout World War II, mostly in the Pacific. In 12 patrols,
Sailfish sank seven Japanese ships and was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. The vessel was scrapped in 1948.