On May 23, 1939, the USS Squalus was tragically lost at sea off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Twenty-six lives were lost, thirty-three were saved. The story as told by Carl la Vo in The Short Life of the Squalus follows. (originally published in the Spring 1988 issue of Naval History magazine)
Forty-seven years after his miraculous rescue, Oliver F. Naquin walked into Baltimore’s Master Host Inn two summers ago. Inside, veterans of the World War II submarines Sailfish (SS-192) and Sculpin (SS-191) mingled. Most were people unfamiliar to the then 83-year-old retired rear admiral. But among them were six shipmates he hadn’t seen in nearly a half-century, not since he was their commanding officer on board the USS Squalus (the original SS-192) when she sank off New England on 23 May 1939.
Twenty-six men died that day. But 33 others survived in the greatest undersea rescue of all time.
At the reunion, Naquin embraced Bill Isaacs, Leonard deMedeiros, Jud Bland, Allen Bryson, Nate Pierce, and Danny Persico. Take away the years, the white hair, and the slower gait, and Naquin was again the submarine captain of the 1930s with his blue eyes, erect bearing, and soft though authoritative voice.
There was another familiar face in Baltimore that night—Chief Machinist’s Mate William Badders, recipient of the Medal of Honor for operating the rescue bell that went down to save the Squalus crew.
Now, for the first time, Naquin, Badders, and the men of the Squalus, the Sailfish, and the Sculpin stood together to remember how each shared a part of an amazing story. The keel of the Squalus was laid at the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Navy Yard on 18 October 1937, 41 days after her identical twin, the Sculpin, began taking shape there. They were forerunners of hundreds of U. S. submarines that were to strangle Japanese commerce in World War II. Ultra-modern by 1937 standards, each stretched the length of a football field and displaced 2,350 tons submerged. They could dive to 250 feet, sustain a surface speed of 20 knots, endure 75-day patrols, and range up to 11,000 miles without refueling.
The Squalus was launched on 14 September 1938, two months behind her sister ship. Lieutenant Naquin had been graduated from the Naval Academy in 1925 and submarine school in 1930. He served in the R-14 (SS-91) and S-47 (SS-158) before taking command of the S-46 (SS/57). There he was known as a strict disciplinarian—a necessity in “pig-boats,” where every action sailors took while diving or surfacing was crucial. A single mistake could doom them. Submarining was in its infancy then, and disasters often generated headlines. Between 1921 and 1938, 825 men died in 18 submarines from various countries. Heroic rescue attempts had always failed, adding to a public perception of submarining as “the coffin service.” In 1939, England’s Thetis, Japan’s I-63, and France’s Phenic went down, killing 243. Yet nations continued to launch boats in an international race for underwater supremacy.
As the Navy readied the Sculpin and the Squalus at Portsmouth, Naquin constituted his crew of five officers and 51 enlisted men. The Squalus was commissioned 01 March 1939, and systematic tests began.
On the morning of 23 May, the boat left her mooring at the mouth of the Piscataqua River, which divides Maine from New Hampshire. She swiftly parted Atlantic whitecaps to a point 13 miles southeast of Portsmouth, near the Isles of Shoals. Two Navy yard engineers and a General Motors representative were on board to oversee the boat’s ability to submerge within 60 seconds while running high speed—something she would have to do to avoid enemy planes during wartime. Naquin, on the bridge, passed the word to “stand by to dive” shortly before 0900. The location of the submarine was radioed to Portsmouth as the loud “ah-000gah” of the Klaxon diving alarm sounded throughout the boat.
The captain descended to the control room beneath the conning tower as the Squalus dipped beneath the wave while plowing ahead at 16 knots. The “Christmas tree”- a large board of red and green lights in the control room - turned green, signaling that all hull openings were closed, including main induction pipes behind the conning tower. These fed air to the huge diesel engines and ventilated the boat. The dive required in quick succession that the diesels shut down, the inductions close, and battery-powered electric motors take over for underwater propulsion. As a backup safety test, a blast of high-pressure air into the submarine caused the on-board barometer to rise, assuring that inductions and all other openings to the ocean were shut. It looked like a perfect dive.
Suddenly, Naquin noticed a fluttering of air pressure fill his ears. Simultaneously, the yeoman monitoring reports over the Squalus’s intercom blanched as he heard a frantic plea from the engine room. “Take her up! The induction’s open!”
The yeoman turned to Naquin. “Engine rooms are flooding, sir!”
“Impossible,” the captain thought, staring at the green lights of the Christmas tree. Yet a Niagara of salt water poured into the boat through the induction pipes, one nearly three feet across. As men tumbled about, grasping for footing in the engine rooms, Naquin tried to surface by blowing ballast tanks. The boat hung momentarily, struggling to shake free, but then the stern plunged backwards at a 45 degree angle. The captain, hanging onto the periscope, ordered his crew to close watertight doors between the ship’s seven compartments.
Electrician’s Mate Third Class Lloyd Maness, standing watch between the control room and the rear compartments, tried to close the 200-pound door; the steep descent required a superhuman effort. As water swirled up toward the bulkhead coaming, Maness heard panicked voices, “Keep it open! Keep it open!” Five men staggered uphill, half swimming to safety. Maness then pulled the steel door shut. Behind it, no one would survive.
Seventeen tried vainly to seal themselves in the torpedo room in the tail of the Squalus. Nine others drowned in the engine and after battery rooms just behind the control room. One climbed a ladder to a hatch, which he undogged. The force of sea pressure kept it from opening; but water quickly rushed in to fill four of the submarine’s seven compartments.
For the survivors, a new peril arose. Seawater began short-circuiting the boat’s two batteries, arranged in 252 six-foot-high cells lining the keel. Chief Electrician’s Mate Lawrence Gainer noted a rapid voltage drain in the forward battery room. A hull-splitting explosion was imminent. Lights flickered and went out, leaving the crew in darkness. Taking a flashlight, Gainer lowered himself below deck into the narrow crawl space between the smoldering cells. As he disengaged one of two large disconnect switches, a miniature lightning storm erupted, sizzling blue-white and melting insulation on the hull. Half blinded, he reached for the other switch and broke the circuit. “He was the real hero who saved the ship,” Jud Bland said in Baltimore. “He went beyond the call of duty. To this day, he has bad vision, which probably had something to do with that.”
As the submarine plunged deeper, there was fear of an implosion. “The only frightening thing was I didn’t know how much water was under us,” recalled Leonard deMedeiros. “I thought we might go down to 300 or 400 feet and crush in.” Fortunately, the boat settled upright in the mud of the Atlantic floor, 240 feet down.
The trapped men wondered if others were alive in the stern of the ship. “Everyone was thinking about it,” mused Danny Persico. “Thoughts were going through our minds. We tapped on air lines leading back through the hull. We all took turns. If they had heard it, they would have acknowledged. We knew then that aft of the control room, all the compartments were flooded.”
Flashlights and emergency stores of food, oxygen, CO2 absorbent, blankets, and coats were retrieved as Naquin divided the men into two groups, 23 in the warmer control room and ten in the forward torpedo room. The forward battery room between the two was restricted because of chlorine fumes. Momsen lungs—breathing devices designed to allow the crew to float to the surface—were distributed. Naquin chose deMedeiros, the muscular torpedoman, to lead the way. But the captain planned to swim out only as a last resort. An ascent from such a depth was risky; the lungs had been tested only to 200 feet. Still, the men drew comfort from their training. “Nobody had given much thought to dying,” recalled Allen Bryson. “We had Momsen lungs. We knew we had a chance. The escape was planned by lung. We had decided to grease down to protect from the cold of the water.”
A buoy trailing a telephone line was deployed to the surface. Red smoke rockets were fired periodically to attract attention. Naquin was confident a search would begin soon. He ordered the men to stay calm, to nap to conserve the air he estimated would last 48 hours. But it wasn’t easy in the darkness as temperatures dropped to 35° and an icy sheen collected on the hull. Some whistled softly to keep up their courage. “What kept flashing through my mind,” reminisced Persico, “was the fact my mother had taken out an insurance policy on me. And there was a clause that it would be null and void if I died in a submarine or diving accident.”
In Portsmouth, the Squalus soon was reported overdue. The Sculpin, about to depart for Panama, headed for the Squalus’s last known position, erroneously transcribed at the Navy yard. An alert lookout, however, spotted the smudge of an exploding rocket on the horizon. Spirits soared on board the Squalus as the Sculpin’s propellers drew near overhead and stopped. The Squalus’s buoy was fished aboard and the Sculpin’s skipper, Lieutenant Commander Warren Wilkin, got on the phone. “Hello Wilkie!” said Naquin.
“Hello Oliver!” replied Wilkin. At that moment, an ocean swell lifted the Sculpin, snapping the cable. The phone went dead.
Helplessly, the Sculpin stood by. Meanwhile, the submarine tender Falcon (ASR-2) sailed from New London, Connecticut, with the revolutionary McCann rescue chamber on board. The chamber had never before been used in a rescue attempt, only in training. Its inventors—Lieutenant Commander Charles Momsen and Commander Allan McCann—went aboard the Falcon to help. The nine-ton chamber looked like an inverted tumbler. Like a submarine, it submerged by means of compressed air, ballast tank, and a watertight hull. Using air-driven power and winches, it was supposed to lower itself to the disabled submarine’s deck. A rubber gasket would seal the chamber to a hatch on the submarine. Then, blowing water ballast from its lower chamber, the bell’s two operators would open their hatch and the submarine’s and take on the Squalus’s trapped crewmen. That, at any rate, was the idea. This day, the bell would be put to the test of whether it could save a submarine crew for the first time.
Several vessels arrived at the Squalus’s position during the overnight journey of the Falcon. Grappling hooks were dragged across the area, searching for the Squalus unsuccessfully. A heavier anchor taken from the Sculpin finally snagged the boat. Down below, the survivors banged out Morse code by wielding hammers against the hull. Among the messages was a casualty count, which was relayed to Portsmouth. There, a throng of reporters gathered with families and friends of the crew, while world attention riveted on the struggle to save the surviving men.
The Falcon arrived at 0430, mooring over the Squalus at 0800, 23 hours after the sinking. By that time, the survivors were suffering headaches and nausea from labored breathing as Naquin stretched the air supply. At intervals, he released stored oxygen to relieve the symptoms. Some men, soaked by seawater, shook with chills. The captain gave up his coat to one.
Within an hour, a hard-hat diver from the Falcon began his descent, carrying the downhaul cable from a winch inside the rescue bell. The extreme depth affected him, slowing his reflexes as he landed with a thud on the deck over the forward torpedo room. Persico was in the trunk under the forward escape hatch, separated from the diver by the bare thickness of the hull. “I could hear every word that he was communicating to the surface. I was so elated I wanted to holler up to him.” The diver eventually succeeded in connecting the cable to the hatch. Then the two operators carefully maneuvered the bell, reaching the Squalus after an hour-long descent. The bell settled gently around the hatch, which was pumped clear of water. Torpedoman First Class John Mihalowski cranked it open. Below, Persico was startled as water splashed down on him. Light from the bell momentarily blinded him.
Persico’s gaze fixed on Mihalowski’s shoes. “They were black, torn sneakers, which were wet. To me, they were the prettiest sight in the world.”
Coffee and blankets were passed to the ecstatic survivors. Naquin divided them into four groups for successive trips to the surface. The last carried ten men including Naquin, Bryson, Nate Pierce, and Persico. On the way up, the bell jammed on its downhaul cable, straining a similar cable which ran from a winch on the Falcon to an eyebolt in the top of the bell. Five of the cable’s seven strands separated. A diver returned to the Squalus and cut the downhaul cable so the bell could swing free. Dangling and spinning at 150 feet, it was lowered to the ocean floor as rescuers pondered what to do next. The operators decided to lighten the bell using compressed air while men on the Falcon pulled the bell up by hand so as not to snap the cable and lose the crew. Finally, after four perilous hours the last survivors bobbed to the surface – 40 hours after the Squalus sank.
The Squalus survivors—the captain, three officers, one civilian, and 28 enlisted men—came ashore in two groups at Portsmouth. The wife of one survivor rushed up to him, tears streaming, and sobbed, “Oh, you poor kid.” Two Other women broke through the crowd and kissed another survivor as tears poured down their cheeks. In silence, 150 others watched as the men stepped into ambulances. Two were on stretchers. A week later, on Memorial Day at a hillside cemetery in nearby Kittery, Maine, the survivors joined the town’s veterans, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts for a requiem to those lost on the Squalus. A plaintive bugle played taps while out on the Atlantic the USS Brooklyn (CL-40) and a destroyer sent a 21-gun salute rumbling over the waters that covered the submarine.
It took 113 days for the Navy to salvage the Squalus, towing her back to port on 13 September 1939. Twenty-five bodies were recovered from the wreckage. The 26th victim apparently drifted out to sea when the salvage effort sprang the hatch he had unlocked in his struggle to escape.
A Navy court of inquiry concluded that a mechanical malfunction caused the disaster. As a result, submarine hull valves were converted to quick-closing flapper valves to prevent future tragedies. The court exonerated the Squalus crew, commending Naquin for outstanding leadership during the crisis. In a report to the Secretary of the Navy, Naquin wrote, “Never in my remaining life do I expect to again witness so true an exemplification of comradeship and brotherly love. . . They shared their blankets, the crowded deck space, lay in each other’s arms in an effort to keep one another a little warmer.” Years later, Naquin was asked if he blamed himself for what happened. “I have absolutely no sense of guilt. I know that I reacted correctly. We all did,” he said.
The Squalus was overhauled in Portsmouth and rechristened the Sailfish, a name inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt after he saw a famous photograph of the boat rearing from the surf during the salvage.
After vigorous prodding by Naquin, the Navy reversed itself and allowed the survivors to return to submarines. Many did, three joining the Sailfish. During the war, four survivors died in action on board U. S. submarines.
The Sailfish rejoined the Sculpin at Pearl Harbor in March 1941. They sailed together to Manila one month before the Japanese attack. As the islands fell, the two retreated to Java and then to southern Australia, where they jointly operated out of Fremantle, Albany, and Brisbane. In January 1943, as newer boats joined the offensive, the sisters returned to San Francisco for overhauls. In May, they sailed back to the war zone.
Inseparable from birth, they were together for the last time on 5 November 1943 at Pearl Harbor. That day, the Sculpin left her berth alongside the Sailfish on a mission to the Central Pacific near Truk. The Sailfish left a week later for the coast of Japan. On 19 November 1943, an enemy destroyer sank the Sculpin, capturing 43 survivors who were imprisoned in two carriers bound for Japan. In a typhoon at midnight on 4 December, the Sailfish intercepted one of the carriers. The submarine unleashed a ten-hour attack, sinking the Chuyo but claiming the lives of 2 Sculpin prisoners on board. Motor Machinist’s Mate First Class George Rocek was the only survivor, plucked from the sea by another Japanese warship.
Vengefully, the Sailfish haunted seas around Japan, damaging 13 enemy ships and sinking seven, including the carrier that had earlier escaped her, four destroyers, and a submarine. Ultimately, she redeemed her reputation as a ghost of the ill-fated Squalus by earning a Presidential Unit Citation. Returning to the United States, she was decommissioned in Portsmouth on 27 October 1945 in an elaborate ceremony. The conning tower was cut away and placed in a park at the shipyard, where memorial ceremonies are conducted in May each year.
As for Naquin, he never again commanded a submarine. He became engineer officer of the USS California (BB-44) and was ashore in Hawaii when Japanese dive bombers attacked the battleship in December 1941. He later became navigator of the USS New Orleans (CA-32), which was damaged heavily by the Japanese in 1943. He earned a Bronze Star for valor in rallying the crew to save the ship. His Navy career ended with his retirement in 1955.
In Baltimore at the reunion, the admiral told of receiving a recent letter from Martin Sibitsky, the first diver to reach the Squalus. He also revealed that the Squalus missing bell had been relocated in a Naval Reserve unit where it is sounded annually to commemorate the boat.
“I am so proud to be here,” he told the men who represented all parts of the Squalus-Sailfish-Sculpin epic. They included Rocek, the lone Sculpin survivor off the sunken Japanese carrier , and Bud Pike, the Sailfish yeoman who chronicled the attack in the ship’s log that night. Pike was still in the Sailfish when she was decommissioned. Now an Iowa banker, he addressed the Squalus crew and the other veterans: “When the Squalus went down in 1939′ I was still in high school. And I can still vividly remember all those headlines that went out across the nation telling about all you fellows. And we hung onto that news…
“And never did I dream that I would be the last one off that boat…”
A tinkling of glasses punctuated the silence that followed. Then voices rose to a crescendo.
“To the Squalus!”
“To the Sculpin!”
“To the Sailfish!”