Prior to this date in 1939, no submarine had ever been rescued in more than 20 feet of water. But all of that would change off the frigid, unpredictable waters of the New Hampshire coast. USS Squalus was the Navy’s newest submarine and she was going thru her sea trials when she went beneath the waves on May 23, 1939, and at that moment everything changed forever.

The Squalus had just been outfitted at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and she was about nine miles off the coast when she performed her first dive during her sea trials. Things quickly went awry and the sub immediately began flooding. Squalus went down in 240 feet of water.  The crew of 58 men were all trapped on the ocean’s bottom.

But the Navy put into motion a rescue effort that was unprecedented and 39 hours later, 33 members of the crew would be rescued in a fantastic display of courage and can-do attitude by everyone involved. Before the ordeal was over the officers and men of the Squalus’ rescue and the Falcon salvage team would receive four Medals of Honor, 46 Navy Crosses, and one Distinguished Service Medal.

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

USS Squalus before setting to sea on her trials at Portsmouth Navy Shipyard. (US Navy)

Naquin ordered the ship rigged to dive and the crew went 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. While the men tried to close the induction valve, they pumped oxygen into the ballast tanks in an attempt to lift the sub. And for a moment, Squalus slowly lifted her nose. Then seawater began pouring in and the sub sank to the bottom.

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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 just sealed off seconds before they too were flooded from the aft battery compartment.

The Navy immediately notified the Experimental Diving Unit, in charge of rescuing downed subs at the Washington Navy Yard. LtCdr Charles Momsen in charge of the unit had developed a rescue diving bell that had yet to be tried. The Navy had lost 851 men in sub accidents and not one rescue up to this point had been successful. 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. The Squalus had dispatched a buoy on a cable with a telephone attached to mark their position. The commander thought they could survive for 48 hours on the air they had.

At 12:55 p.m the Sculpin, the sister sub to the Squalus found her buoy and they established radio contact before the cable snapped. The Falcon didn’t arrive with the diving bell until early the next morning, May 24th. When she moored directly over the sub shortly before ten a.m., the sky cleared and the sun came out.

A rescue diver descended the 240 feet in the inky water to land right on top of the Squalus about 3-4 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. They enthusiastically banged on the hatch as a response. It took 40 minutes to lower the cable the diving bell would come down and another 22 for the diver to attach it to the sub’s escape hatch. The pressure of the water at that depth made the simplest of tasks extremely hard to perform.

At 11:30 the diving bell was lowered from the Falcon and it took about 30 minutes for it to reach Squalus. They 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 sub’s crew. Sailors, never lacking for sardonic humor, asked, “Where the hell are the napkins?”

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

The fourth and final trip loaded the final eight men including the commander Naquin into the bell. They began their ascent by around 8:15 p.m. at 160 feet, the bell stopped. The wire was fouled and 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 from the bottom, the last trip taking four and a half hours. All 33 survivors made it to the Falcon and safety.

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

In September of 1939, the Navy was able to raise Squalus off the ocean floor, they recovered 25 of the 26 sailors, one sailor had made it out but never made it to the surface. His body was never recovered.

In 1940, Squalus was renamed 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.

Photos: US Navy