Oct 29

Anatomy of a Tragedy: The Sinking of the USS S-4

Thursday, October 29, 2015 12:01 AM


At 3:50 P.M. on the afternoon of December 17, 1927, the commandant of the Boston Navy Yard received a flash radio message from the U.S. Coast Guard Destroyer Paulding: “Rammed and sank unknown submarine off Wood End, Provincetown.” Within minutes, the worst fears of many were realized when it was confirmed that the submarine was the USS S-4. Though rescue efforts immediately began in earnest, it was too late for the 39 crewmen and a civilian observer aboard S-4. Most had already perished; six men trapped in the torpedo compartment would not be rescued in time.

While the events that transpired after the sinking are well-known — the rescue efforts, the recovery operations, the trial of those involved in the court of public opinion, and the spectacle of several pubic investigations — what is less so are the findings of those inquiries.

How is it that a Coast Guard Destroyer could ram and sink and Navy submarine? As with most disasters, the causers were a number of small factors that alone amounted to little, but in combination with one another led to tragedy.

With the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment enacting the prohibition of alcoholic beverages in the United States, the duties of the Coast Guard had increased materially. Where once the Coast Guard had “only” to deal with the occasional interdiction of illegally-imported narcotics and unregistered aliens (that is, illegal immigrants), the Service now had to meet the manifold increase in the smuggling of alcohol into the United States.

Towards that end, the Paulding was one of a squadron of six loaned Navy destroyers based out of Boston used for “finding and keeping under surveillance vessels suspected of importing liquor” and also “to render assistance to vessels in distress. . . . patrolling regattas . . . . carrying out big-gun target practice; and in being kept ready as an important factor in national defense.”


The USCG Paulding in Provincetown Harbor following the collision with the USS S-4. December, 1927. Note the damage to her prow. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Shortly after 3:30 P.M. on December 17th, 1927, the USCG Hiram Paulding (CG-17), a small “flivver”-type destroyer, steamed at the moderate speed of 18 knots arond the shores of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The Paulding, commanded by Lieutenant Commander John S. Baylis — in command since her commissioning with the USCG — was on her regular patrol and steaming on a normal approach to Provincetown Harbor. Her commander had been given his patrol orders verbally, as was normal procedure at that time, and the Navy was not informed that the Paulding would be steaming through the area.

Her course took her into the fairway near the Navy’s submarine trial course, established there in 1909. The course was marked by several buoys and was listed on the navigational charts. LTCDR Baylis had no reason in particular to be concerned that day. He was an experienced officer, beginning in the old Revenue Cutter service, and had no reason to expect a submarine in his path. Though it was a submarine trial course, the navigational charts indicated that in the event of submarine operations the submarine’s tenders and accompanying launches would be displaying a signal flag consisting of “a rectangular red flag with white center on which is the profile of a torpedo in black.” But unbeknownst to the Coast Guard, the Navy had come to find the practice unfavorable to submarine operations, and had discontinued the practice. The notes however remained on the charts, and LTCDR Bayliss “had the right to assume the Navy would live up to its own published rules.”

S-4 washington

The USS S-4 prior to her sinking. Photo by the Navy Recruiting Bureau. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

That day, the S-4 was performing standardization trials in the area following a refit. As part of what was a routine, usually unhazardous procedure, the S-4 had submerged with just her twin periscopes sticking above the surface of the water. She was operating normally, and in fact had been seen by lookouts at the nearby Coast Guard station at Wood End making her trial runs earlier that afternoon — but they had not been informed by anyone in the Navy about the operations, when they would begin or conclude, when the submarine would be operating, or indeed anything at all about the matter.

The two ships had no idea the other would be there.

But even with all of these factors, the collision could still have been prevented. The Paulding had a sharp and efficient lookout, and the S-4 was under the responsibility to steer clear of all surface craft. But the seas were choppy that day, with wind-whipped whitecaps, and the telltale wakes of the periscopes of the S-4 — a boat purposely designed and painted to see but not be seen — were not observed until far too late.

The S-4 was sighted only 75 yards off the Paulding’s port bow and rising fast, and even with the immediate corrective measures of right full rudder and backing her engines, the collision was inevitable. The Paulding rammed the S-4 just forward of the 4-inch gun on its starboard side; the Paulding‘s bow was crumpled in, the S-4 was punctured. She sank immediately with all hands, and in spite of valiant lifesaving efforts on the part of the Paulding’s  crew, all hands were lost.

s-4 damage

The damage to the USS S-4 after its collision with the USCG Paulding. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Ultimately, blame for the collision (but not guilt) was fixed upon LTCDR Roy K. Jones of the S-4 for his failure to determine the presence of and to steer clear of the Paulding.

Beyond the immediate responsibility, however, the tragedy had many lessons for both the Navy and the Coast Guard. Communications between the two services were improved to inform each other of their operations when possible to prevent just such a tragedy from again occurring. Aids to navigation were also updated to reflect current practice, such as the discontinuation of the display of submarine warning flags.

Even the S-4 was not yet done teaching. After she was raised in 1928, she was repaired and refit as a test bed for submarine rescue and salvage devices and other improvements. Some of the equipment and techniques developed through the experiments with S-4 helped aid in the successful rescue of sailors from the USS Squalus in 1939.

s-4 test hull

The USS S-4 raised and recommissioned as a test hull for safety devices. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

It can thus be said that the 40 men aboard the S-4 did not die in vain.


In Memory of those Lost on the S-4

  • Jones, Roy K., lieutenant commander.
  • McGinley, Joseph A., lieutenant.
  • Fitch, Graham N., lieutenant (junior grade).
  • Weller, Donald, lieutenant (junior grade).
  • Callaway, William F., lieutenant commander.
  • Bethke, Clarence F., engineman (first class).
  • Bishop, Walter, radio man (first class).
  • Boone, Earl W., chief electrician’s mate.
  • Brown, Henry H., fireman (third class).
  • Burrell, Charles F., seaman (second class),
  • Calcott, Charles B., machinist’s mate (third class).
  • Cash, Elmer L., chief radio man.
  • Crabb, Russell A., torpedo man (first class).
  • Dempsey, William, machinist’s mate (second class).
  • Diefenbach, Robert W., signal man (first class).
  • Fennell, John J., machinist’s mate (first class).
  • Galvin, Daniel M., fireman (second class).
  • Goering, Donald F., electrician’s mate (first class).
  • Haaland, Peder, machinist’s mate (first class).
  • Heney, Dewey V., ship’s cook (second class).
  • Harris, Buster, seaman (second class).
  • Hodges, Aron A., chief machinist’s mate.
  • Hodges, Arthur F., machinist’s mate (first class).
  • Kempfer, Paul R., electrician’s mate (second class).
  • Long, “J” H., fireman (third class).
  • O’Shields, Fred H., engineman (second class).
  • Pelnar, George, seaman (second class).
  • Powers, John J., coxswain.
  • Rose, Rudolph J., electrician’s mate (third class).
  • Seaton, Alfred E., quartermaster (third class)..
  • Snizek, Frank, torpedo man (second class).
  • Short, Roger L., torpedo man (first class).
  • Sternman, Joseph W., engineman (second class).
  • Stevens, Joseph L., seaman (first class).
  • Strange, Carl B., seaman (first class).
  • Tedar, Mariano, mess attendant.
  • Tolson, Walter Ross, seaman (first class).,
  • Thompson, Carl H., engineman (second class).
  • White, James J., fireman (second class).
  • Ford, Charles A., civilian observer.

For more information, see Investigation into the Sinking of the Submarine “S-4.” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1928.

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