Mar 26

Sinking and Submerged: Emergency Escape Equipment for Submarines

Tuesday, March 26, 2019 7:49 AM

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When I picture a naval rescue operation, my mind turns to men in life preservers, huddled together in a lifeboat as they watch their vessel sink beneath the waves. At least, that’s what I thought of until last week, when a stack of World War II naval rescue images crossed my desk, ready for research and processing. There was a good number of the images I was expecting: men in lifeboats; men soaked to the skin wearing life preservers; and men bobbing on the surface of the water, ship sinking in the background. Then, at the bottom of the stack, I came to a group of unexpected images: submarine rescues.

German submariners, their U-boat destroyed by a depth charge, sit together on a U.S. Navy escort carrier.

German submariners, their U-boat destroyed by a depth charge, sit together on a U.S. Navy escort carrier.

Now, it isn’t that I thought a submarine sinking was impossible to survive. I had processed several photographs of submarines that were sunk when they were spotted at the surface. What actually surprised me was that some of these photographs depicted submariners surviving after their sub had exploded beneath the waves. It had never even occurred to me that a person could survive an event like that, so, of course, I got to wondering how.

A German submariner is pulled aboard a U.S. Coast Guard vessel wearing the escape set he used to escape his submerged and sinking U-boat.

A German submariner is pulled aboard a U.S. Coast Guard vessel wearing the escape set he used to escape his submerged and sinking U-boat.

The first instances of submarine escape equipment can be linked to Henry Albert Fleuss, who in 1878 was granted a patent improving on the rebreather, an apparatus that absorbs the carbon dioxide expelled by the user, allowing them to recycle air. This type of escape set was originally used in undersea construction projects, but the military capabilities of the invention was clear, especially once submarines became a standard member of international fleets.

A DSEA on display.

A DSEA on display.

In 1910, Sir Robert Davis created the Davis Submerged Escape Apparatus (or DSEA), which was inspired by the Fleuss system. After further modifications, it was adopted by the Royal Navy as their emergency escape set for submariners in 1927. In addition to the CO2 absorber, the DSEA included a buoyancy bag, an emergency buoyancy bag, and a speed-retarding drogue. It was the first rebreather to be produced in large quantities.

A U.S. Navy submariner trains in the use of a Momsen lung.

A U.S. Navy submariner trains in the use of a Momsen lung.

The United States also created a rebreather, which was standard equipment on Porpoise-class and Salmon-class submarines during World War II, called the Momsen Lung. The Momsen Lung would be eventually replaced with the Steinke Hood in 1962. This rebreather – which was essentially a lifejacket with a hood that completely enclosed the head – would remain in use throughout the Cold War. The hood would then be replaced by the U.S. Navy with a full body suit called the Submarine Escape Immersion Equipment (SEIE) suit, which is still in use today by navies throughout the world.

A modern submariner trains with the MK10 SEIE.

A modern submariner trains with the MK10 SEIE.

Even with the most recently created escape set, escaping a submerged submarine is still a dangerous endeavor, and that danger does not end just because a submariner has reached the surface. During a conflict like World War II, combat would often still continue on the surface. The submariners also faced the fear of not knowing if friend or foe would rescue them, or if they would be rescued at all. Luckily for Axis survivors picked up by the U.S. Navy, the rules of war meant they would be taken alive as prisoners, despite the animosity between both sides. And if they were extra fortunate, they could get a good meal out of the deal as well.

German submariners, rescued by U.S. Coast Guardsmen after their U-boat exploded at depth, enjoy chicken for the first time in months.

German submariners, rescued by U.S. Coast Guardsmen after their U-boat exploded at depth, enjoy chicken for the first time in months.