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.