Raise the Squalus

The Loss, Rescue, and Resurrection of a Submarine



By Ross Patterson II, Assistant Curator, Portsmouth Museums

Published April 9, 2020

There are few fates more terrifying than being trapped on the ocean floor in a disabled submarine, waiting desperately for help as the oxygen slowly runs out. More often than not, crews trapped in this way do not survive their ordeal. But in May of 1939, an American submarine plunged deep into the waters of New Hampshire, starting an incredible sequence of events to rescue trapped survivors and raise their stricken vessel from its cold tomb.

The USS Squalus was a Sargo class submarine laid down at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine on October 18, 1937. Capable of twenty-one knots on the surface and a maximum range of 11,000 nautical miles, this new leap forward in American submarine design was crewed by sixty-one men. The design was tested and deemed safe up to a depth of 250 feet below the surface, a standard set by previous submarine classes. When the Squalus was completed and commissioned on March 1, 1939, it was natural that the newest boat in the submarine fleet undergo testing and evaluation by its crew.

The USS Squalus, marked with its earlier S-11 designation, on October 5, 1938 during the final stages of construction. United States Navy Photograph
On May 12, 1939, the Squalus set out to begin a long series of test dives off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. This activity continued rather monotonously for the next two weeks.

On May 23, Lieutenant Oliver F. Naquin, his fifty-five subordinates, civilian naval architect Harold C. Preble, and civilian electricians Don M. Smith and Charles M. Woods set out for what would be the vessel’s nineteenth test dive.

USS Squalus in April or May of 1939, bearing her SS-192 markings. United States Navy Photograph
As the Squalus dropped down sixty-three feet below the Atlantic waters off of the Isle of Shoals at 8:40 AM, the Main Induction Valve suffered a catastrophic failure and jammed open. Designed to purge the ventilation system of diesel fumes while the submarine is surfaced, this valve was never meant to open underwater. The men desperately attempted to raise their vessel, but the water pressure caused the ventilation system to burst. Within minutes, water had surged in a deluge through the Squalus’ ventilation system. As men attempted to disable volatile circuits and seal off compartments, the water overwhelmed those in the aft torpedo room, engine rooms, and the crew quarters. The civilian electricians Smith and Woods drowned alongside most of the aft and engine room crews, leaving twenty-six men to a hopefully-quick death at their work stations. But as the Squalus impacted the seabed 243 feet below the surface, a haggard collection of thirty-three men remained alive, trapped in the metal coffin of the vessel’s forward compartments.

Underwater rescue was, at this point, reasonably termed as ‘in its infancy.’ Most rescues had only been carried out in relatively shallow waters of around twenty feet. The crew of the Squalus was aware of this, but held onto hope. Luckily, there was a telephone marker buoy and signal rocket ejector with them in the forward compartments. Unsure if they would work, the crew launched red rocket flares every hour from the ejector and pumped oil through the toilet system to try any and every signal source they could imagine.

Worried by the lack of standard hourly reports, the Navy had dispatched the submarine USS Sculpin to search for the missing Squalus. The sister submarine found the marker buoy, and was able to contact the survivors.  Quickly, their situation was radioed back to shore. Word was passed down to the Washington Naval Yard, where it reached eccentric inventor Lieutenant Commander Charles “Swede” Momsen.

Momsen, along with his friend, Commander Allen Rockwell McCann, was a genius. Both men were dedicated to designing new and innovative rescue equipment, with an emphasis on saving crews trapped underwater.

The Momsen Lung became one of the first underwater rebreathers issued as standard emergency escape gear on American submarines in the 1930s, and Momsen himself headed up the Navy’s Experimental Diving Unit. Upon hearing of the Squalus’s situation, Momsen scrambled with his divers, making a mad dash for New Hampshire. But he was not alone. In New London, Connecticut, an old Lapwing class minesweeper, USS Falcon, left port with a very special cargo.

Charles “Swede” Momsen with his Momsen Lung Rebreather. United States Navy Photograph

A diving bell type rescue chamber for submarines was first proposed by Momsen in the mid-1920s following the loss of submarines S-4 and S-51, but it was not until the 1928 salvage of S-4 that any real headway was made. By late 1929, Momsen had a thoroughly tested prototype ‘rescue chamber,’ which he left in the hands of then-Lieutenant Commander McCann for revision while he worked on his rebreather designs. When unveiled in 1930, the ‘McCann Submarine Rescue Chamber’ was capable of operating at a depth of around 300 feet with two operators and eight survivors aboard, earning the full endorsement of Momsen for use in the field.

USS Falcon as seen from astern. The McCann Rescue Chamber is visible on the stern. United States Navy Photograph

The Falcon arrived above the Squalus wreck at 10:15 AM on May 24, over twenty-six hours after the Main Inductor Valve had failed. The crewmen trapped below the waves were huddled together in the forward torpedo bay, sick from cold exposure and desperate for warmth. The Sculpin called down and were able to inform the beleaguered sailors of the good news before an errant wave snapped the telephone line. Not wanting the men to lose hope, divers tapped messages on the hull in Morse Code, listening for responses.

By 11:30 AM, the rescue chamber was ready to be lowered. Manned by Torpedoman’s Mate John Mihalowski and Gunner’s Mate Walter Harman, the diving bell slowly descended, bearing food, blankets, flashlights, and hope for the Squalus. As a loud clang echoed through the silent submarine, history was made. For the first time, a deep sea underwater rescue effort would succeed.

The Squalus rescue operation underway. Submarine USS Sculpin is clearly visible, and USS Falcon to her stern, anchored above the Squalus. National Archives Photograph

The McCann Rescue Chamber in the water alongside USS Falcon. United States Navy Photograph

Over the course of thirteen hours, all thirty-two surviving crewmen, along with naval architect Harold Preble, were successfully brought up from the Squalus using the McCann Rescue Chamber. Each of the four trips lasted two hours, moving slowly to ensure safety and prevent ‘the bends.’ The last of these recoveries saw the bell stall and a mad scramble by divers to cut free damaged lines. After a harrowing round of dives that nearly cost one man his life, the bell was cut free and brought to the surface. After thirty-nine hours, the men of the Squalus were free.

USCG Harriet Lane arriving at Portsmouth with the first nine survivors of USS Squalus, May 24, 1939. United States Navy Photograph

The tale of the rescue was widely reported in the United States and abroad. Amidst the outpouring of excitement over the rescue, the Navy awarded four Medals of Honor to key rescuers, and an additional forty-six Navy Crosses and one Distinguished Service Medal to both survivors and members of the rescue party. Wanting to understand what had gone wrong and retrieve the bodies of the remaining crew, the Navy immediately set out to raise the wreck. This would prove more difficult and time consuming than the rescue itself.

Lieutenant Floyd A. Tusler of the Bureau of Construction and Repair was assigned to raise the Squalus. His proposal was to have divers lay cables beneath the wreck, then attach the ends to pontoons to create buoyancy. The first attempt to raise the half-flooded submarine began on July 13. At first, efforts went well, with the heavier stern coming free of the seabed. However, once the bow and it’s lighter weight compartments was pulled free, the Squalus unexpectedly leapt upward. Crews were shocked when the forward thirty feet of the submarine breeched the surface like a whale, sticking straight into the sky for a few seconds before the weight in the stern dragged her back down again. Undeterred, Tusler set about redesigning his lifting rig. Finally, on September 13, 1939, after 113 days and 628 dives, the Squalus was once again afloat and on its way home to the Portsmouth Navy Yard. Formally decommissioned on November 15, the relatively intact boat was overhauled in dry dock. Twenty-five bodies were recovered for burial, with one crewman missing and presumed lost at sea.

USS Squalus’ bow prematurely breaking the water before sinking again, July 13, 1939. United States Navy Photograph

Pumping out the sea water from the aft compartments of USS Squalus at the Portsmouth Navy Yard. United States Navy Photograph

Damage to the Squalus’ Conning Tower visible after salvage. United States Navy Photograph

The salvaged USS Squalus and a pair of its pontoons at the Portsmouth Navy Yard on September 15, 1939. United States Navy Photograph

The USS Squalus after being prepped for dry dock repairs at the Portsmouth Navy Yard. United States Navy Photograph

The forward torpedo room of the Squalus, as seen in the Portsmouth Navy Yard on September 15, 1939. Clothes and possessions of the survivors can be seen scattered about, abandoned as they were rescued. United States Navy Photograph

Civilian Pea Coat reportedly belonging to a crewman aboard USS Squalus. While unmarked, this piece was apparently taken from inside the vessel by a yard worker during its repair. PNSYM 2019.30.01. Photograph by Ross Patterson II

To erase the stigma of its sinking, the Squalus was officially renamed Sailfish on February 9, 1940, going back into commission on May 15 of that year. Despite a reputation as an unlucky boat and the unofficial name of Squailfish, the vessel would go on to have a storied wartime career. Fighting from its base in the Philippines after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the former Squalus would carry out twelve successful patrols in the Pacific, earning nine Battle Stars and a Presidential Unit Citation.

The rebuilt and improved USS Sailfish on April 13, 1943 off the coast of Mare Island, California. United States Navy Photograph

A closer view of the Sailfish off the coast of Mare Island, with her improved Conning Tower and limber holes. United States Navy Photograph

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the citizens of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the Navy refused to allow ‘Submarine SS-192’ to be saved as a memorial. Like many great ships whose efforts to preserve them were quashed, it was decided to scrap the vessel rather than continue its existence. In a moment of clarity, an olive branch was at least extended.

In December of 1945, the Navy offered to allow the town to keep the conning tower as a monument, which the citizens of Portsmouth readily agreed to. So while the hull of the old Squalus has been lost to the scrapper’s torch since 1948, at least a small part of her remains as a testament to an unexpected tragedy, a daring rescue, and a resurgent existence.

USS Sailfish, formerly the Squalus, making a final dive for a crowd of onlookers at the Portsmouth Navy Yard on October 27, 1945 prior to her decommissioning. United States Navy Photograph