By 1939, the Navy had lost 851 men in sub accidents and every submarine rescue had failed. But that would change with USS Squalus.

The Squalus (SS-192) was a diesel-electric submarine built at the Portsmouth Navy Yard and commissioned there on March 1, 1939.

USS Squalus had performed well in 18 test dives and there had been no concerns for the 19th dive. Squalus left Portsmouth at 7:30 a.m. on the morning of May 23. It then headed down the Piscataqua River and out four miles past the Isles of Shoals. The commander of the USS Squalus, Lt. Oliver Naquin had four officers, 51 enlisted men, and three civilians from the shipyard out for the sea trials.

Disaster Strikes the USS Squalus

USS Squalus was just off the Isle of Shoals at 08:40 a.m. Naquin had ordered the boat rigged to dive and the crew had gone to their stations. Everything went perfectly a first. The ship went into a steep dive and leveled off at 60 feet. Then over the battle phone, the engine room called out to the bridge, “Take her up!”

The main air induction valve had failed to close for reasons that were never discovered. Tons of seawater gushed into the engine room aft of the vessel. The men tried to close the induction valve and pumped oxygen into the ballast tanks in an attempt to lift the sub. For a moment, Squalus slowly lifted her nose. Then, as the men tried to close leaks in the ventilation lines, the pressure suddenly increased terrifically. Torrents of ocean water surged into the forward compartments knocking down Harold Preble, the senior naval architect at the Portsmouth Ship Yard. Preble had been going out with every new sub for 22 years.

With water flooding into the battery compartment, the Chief Electrician’s Mate Lawrence Gainor shut down the batteries before they exploded or caught fire. The ship was plunged into darkness. The operating compartment was sealed off just seconds before it would have been flooded. Eight men escaping the surging seawater made it through the watertight doors before they were sealed.

The sub came to rest keel down in 40 fathoms (240 feet) of water. 

The Experimental Diving Unit Is Called to Action

The Navy immediately notified the Experimental Diving Unit in charge of rescuing downed subs at the Washington Navy Yard. Lieutenant Commander Charles “Swede” Momsen in charge of the unit had developed a rescue diving bell that had yet to be tried. The Navy flew him and a team of divers up to New England to try to effect a rescue.

The minesweeper Falcon dispatched from New London, CT was to be the rescue ship. USS Squalus had dispatched a buoy on a cable with a telephone attached to mark her position. Lt. Naquin thought they could survive for 48 hours on the air they had.

Momsen made it on a seaplane and landed just as a storm hit New Hampshire. The rescue divers following behind were forced to land at Newport, RI. With a police escort, they screamed up the coast, traveling so fast that they lost the police escort in Boston. They arrived at 04:15 a.m.

On the bottom of the sea, Lt. Naquin remained upbeat for the crew who were shivering in the dark cold sub. He encouraged the men to nap and use as little oxygen as possible. 

A drawing from the Boston Herald in 1939 illustrating the rescue operation.

What’s Your Trouble, USS Squalus?

At 12:55 p.m the Sculpin, the sister sub to the Squalus found her buoy and then dropped anchor. The trapped submariners’ spirits rose because they could hear the propellers above them.

Sculpin’s commander, Lt. Warren Wilkin, got on the phone. “Hello, Squalus. This is Sculpin. What’s your trouble?”

LTJG Nichols responded: “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. Hold the phone and I will put the captain on.”

Then Naquin got on the line. “Hello, Wilkin,” replied Naquin when, suddenly, the cable snapped.

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The Falcon didn’t arrive with the diving bell until early next morning, May 24. When she moored directly over the sub shortly before 10 a.m., the sky had cleared and the sun had come out.

A rescue diver descended the 240 feet in the inky water to land right on top of the Squalus about three-four feet from where the diving bell needed to attach to the crew’s escape hatch. He stomped on the hatch to let the crew know he was there. The men enthusiastically banged on the hatch in response.

It took 40 minutes to lower the cable the diving bell would come down on and another 22 for the diver to attach it to the Squalus’s escape hatch. The water pressure at that depth made the simplest of tasks extremely hard to perform.

Momsen and the other rescuers were about to try tactics that had never been used before.

“Where in the Hell Are the Napkins?”

At 11:30 the diving bell was lowered from the Falcon. It took about 30 minutes for it to reach Squalus. The rescuers soon made a watertight seal on the escape hatch. The two sailors in the diving bell opened the hatch and handed down some hot soup for the USS Squalus’s crew. The sailors, never lacking sardonic humor, asked, “Where in the hell are the napkins?”

The first seven men, judged by Naquin to be the weakest, were loaded into the bell. They broke the surface just after 2 p.m. On the next trip, the sailors, knowing the unpredictable New England weather, thought to put more sailors in the bell to speed things up. Shortly after 4:00 p.m, the bell surfaced again, this time carrying nine sailors. Another nine men came up shortly before 6:30 p.m.

The fourth and final trip loaded the final eight men, including commander Naquin, into the bell. They began their ascent but around 8:15 p.m. at 160 feet, the bell stopped. The wire was fouled so they were forced to cut it and let the bell go to the bottom where they’d reattach a cable. Finally, the crew was able to lift the diving bell up. That last trip taking four and a half hours. All 33 survivors made it to the Falcon and safety. 

A Historic Success

Through the display of amazing courage and intrepidity of everyone involved the operation was a success.

On July 30, 1939, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Arthur Fiedler, performed a memorial concert for the USS Squalus victims at Little Boar’s Head in North Hampton, NH. The concert was broadcast nationally.

The bow of the Squalus breaks the water surface.
The bow of the Squalus breaks the surface as the Navy recovered her in September 1939. (U.S. Navy)

For their actions during the operation, four officers and men would receive the Medal of Honor, 46 others decorated with the Navy Cross, and one awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. 

In September 1939, the Navy was able to raise USS Squalus off the ocean floor. It recovered the bodies of 25 of the 26 sailors who had drowned; one sailor had made it out of the sub but never made it to the surface. His body was never recovered.

In 1940, USS Squalus has recommissioned as USS Sailfish and served in World War II sinking seven enemy ships. Her conning tower resides in Portsmouth Navy Shipyard as a memorial for sailors lost in combat.