The submarine is one of the technological marvels of human ingenuity. A ship that swims like a fish underwater for extended periods that is the apex predator of the ocean seas as well. Who would’ve imagined that we could one day operate underwater and even defend and attack enemy ships while there? Due to the never-ending development and research, using sails as a means of propulsion was definitely a thing of the past, even by 1918’s standards. At that time, however, the crew of USS R-14 had to resort to using sails made of bedsheets and blankets to make it back home.

USS R-14

R-14 was an R-class submarine used by the US Navy beginning 1918 until almost the end of World War II. The construction of the R-class started when the United States entered World War I a year prior. All in all, 27 of these ships were made, although none of them saw combat as most were completed after World War I.

By today’s standards, a submarine from 1918 is rather basic, but even for a submarine of the time, using sails as a means of propulsion was firmly in the past except for pleasure vessels and some training ships. At the time, the submarine represented the most advanced type of vessel in existence, using a hybrid diesel electric propulsion system while most other ships ran on steam boilers.

The R-class was a replacement for the previous O-class submarines. This was also the first US type with 533 mm torpedo tubes, a size that still applies by today’s standards. A 76 mm gun was used for anti-aircraft defense and a general-purpose weapon on the deck.

Even though the USS R-14 was commissioned before the end of 1919 and World War I was over by then, it did not spend its time on the dock waiting for rust to form. Instead, it became busy in the Pacific Fleet, helping develop the perfect submarine and anti-submarine warfare tactics. It also helped during search and rescue operations until World War II broke out.

Rescue Mission

Before its end, the USS R-14 had an amazing story to tell, which occurred in the spring of 1921. The ocean-going tug, USS Conestoga went missing somewhere in the Pacific while heading to American Samoa. Conestoga was a tugboat assigned to the US Submarine Force, and it steamed out from Mare Island, California, along with a coal-transporting barge on March 25. It was expected to stop at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to refuel, but it never arrived.

The US Navy fleet ocean tug USS Conestoga (AT-54) at San Diego, California (USA), circa early 1921, shortly before she disappeared while en route from San Diego to Samoa, by way of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (The original uploader was Frank101 at English Wikipedia. Later version(s) were uploaded by Cobatfor at en.wikipedia; 2005-07-12 (first version); 2016-03-25 (last version)., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

It was clear that something was up, and the ship could not be contacted, so a search party was dispatched from the Pearl Habor in early May. Experts’ estimate was that Conestoga must have been somewhere around 100 nautical miles southeast of Hawaii.

At Pearl Harbor, the fleet scrambled to send any available ship or boat out to find the Conestoga and the R-14 was detailed to assist in the rescue effort.  Captained by Lieutenant Alexander Dean Douglas, the R-14 was quickly put to sea in hopes of finding and rescuing the tugboat and those aboard.

The Rescuers Need Rescuing

The rescue team made it to the spot where it was presumed the Conestoga would be. However, they incorrectly estimated the amount of fuel they needed for the mission, and the submarine ran out of usable fuel.  “Useable” fuel in this sense implies that some of the fuel had been contaminated by seawater.

The USS R-14’s electric batteries were not enough to get them back, and so they had to face the fact that they were now stranded some 100 nautical miles from Hawaii and in need of rescue, as well. If that was not bad enough, their radio malfunctioned too, and they found they had rations only enough for about 5 days at sea.

What was there left to do for a group of men stuck in the middle of the vastness of the Pacific waters, with no fuel, no means of communication to ask for help, with limited food for the 27 of them?

They were in a desperate, seemingly unresolvable situation, indeed, until engineering officer Roy Trent Gallemore came up with an idea. They could rig the submarine with sails and return to Pearl Harbor that way.

Sailing, I’m Sailing Home

His plan called for using canvas hammocks and bunk poles to create a square-rigged sail.

In a heartbeat, all hands were busy making a foresail made of their hammocks. Eight of these hammocks were stitched together to form a sail and then held by a frame of dismantled bunks. They tied the whole thing to the vertical kingpost of the torpedo loading crane in front.

The hammock sail managed to make the heavy submarine move, but due to its weight, the foresail could only manage to make it move at a speed of less than a knot or 1.2 mph.

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USS R-14 (SS-91) under “full sail” in May 1921. (Naval History and Heritage Command, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons/Wikipedia)

Their limited food supply basically told them that they did not have all the time in the world to sail at that speed, so Lieutenant Gallemore decided to make additional sails to eek a little more hull speed out of their sailing rig. Soon, they were busy again building a mainsail, this time out of six blankets that they attached to the radio mast. This added another half a knot to the R-14’s speed. They created still another sail using eight more blankets framed in disassembled bunk beds, and another half a knot was again added to their speed.

Soon, Gallemore was able to start recharging the batteries of the ship’s electric motors. After a total of 69 hours of sailing, the crew finally made it back to the easternmost tip of the Hawaii islands, and on the morning of May 15, 1921, they entered the Hilo Harbor under battery power.

For his leadership under pressure(not for his ability to measure his fuel supply) Lt Dougals received a letter of commendation from his submarine flotilla commander, Commander Chester W Nimitz.

Nimitz of course would go on to become the Commander In Chief of the Pacific Fleet during WWII and one of only four men to ever be appointed by Congress to the rank of Fleet Admiral of the Navy.

In the Second World War, the USS R-14 served as a training vessel. In 1941, it received an overhaul but was soon struck from the Naval Vessel Register in May of 1945. The next year, its journey ended after it was dismantled for scrap.

An underwater photo taken by an unmanned underwater vehicle shows the boiler compartment at the shipwreck site of the US Navy tugboat USS Conestoga (AT 54) in the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. (National Museum of the US Navy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As for the Conestoga, it was officially declared missing with her unfortunate crew on June 30, 1921, and the shipwreck was not found until 2009, a few miles from Farallon Island, off the California coast.