Squalus Submarine Tragedy, Rescue was 70 Years Ago

By Casey Sullivan

Herald Sunday, Sunday, May 24, 2009

[The following article is courtesy of the Herald Sunday and Seacoast Online.]

The USS Squalus sunk in 1939, killing 26 sailors onboard.
[Courtesy U.S. Navy]

On May 23, 1939, 26 men trapped in a sunken submarine off the Isles of Shoals drowned under 243 feet of water. The harrowing incident that took place 70 years ago remains a popular topic of discussion at this time of year.

The USS Squalus had just been commissioned at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and was performing a "crash" test, which requires the rapid submersion of a vessel in order to avoid enemy detection, according to "The Loss of the Squalus: A Landmark Tale on the Seacoast," by John Hirtle.

Upon submerging, a valve that supplied air to the diesel engine was apparently left open. The aft torpedo room, both engine rooms and the crew's quarters were immediately flooded and the submarine sank to the bottom of the ocean. The 33 survivors escaped to the forward torpedo compartment and had to wait — gasping for limited air — for 40 hours to be rescued. Squalus' telephone buoy was found by sister ship USS Sculpin, as it was leaving the shipyard for South America, and the 33 crew members were rescued.

For the anniversary of the sunken Squalus, the Thresher Base United States Submarine Veterans in partnership with the Central Veteran's Council, will hold a Memorial Day service at 10 a.m. Monday at Albacore Park.

The service includes recognition and reflection on the tragic event and the placing of a wreath on the Squalus Memorial by Julianne Vogt, daughter of survivor Gerald McLees, who died in December 2004.

"There's not a May 23rd that goes by that I don't think of the Squalus, and the brave men that dove down to save my father," Vogt said. "I owe my existence to them."

Vogt said, if it had not been for the divers, whom she considered to be "the true heroes" of the Squalus, "all 59 of them would have died.

"Those divers risked their lives. It was an incredible display of bravery — something you might see in that movie, 'Men of Honor,' but not in real life."

Vogt's father, after having been rescued from the submarine, was known for speaking of the incident in a casual tone, saying things like, "That old sunshine looked mighty nice," and, "We prayed for the good Lord to save us. And the U.S. Navy did."

He was known for his good humor and resilient nature, his daughter said.

"That's just how my father was," Vogt said. "He was simple, and was never shaken by anything. It scared him, being trapped in that submarine, but when he returned home, he wasn't fazed at all. Nothing fazed him."

Shortly after McLees was rescued, he went back to sea. USS Squalus was salvaged Sept. 13 of the same year and was put back into service. McLees again served on the submarine during World War II. It was renamed USS Sailfish on Feb. 9, 1940. McLees carried out seven war patrols, which involved submerged attacks against Japanese destroyers and cruisers, according to the book, "Silent Victory," by Clay Blair Jr.

"He never forgot any of his fellow crew members. They were his brothers," Vogt said. "They actually forgot a guy's name on the plaque of the memorial at Albacore Park at first, but dad fought tooth-and-nail to get the guy's name on the plaque, even though they had already made it and it was a huge inconvenience. He never forgot any of them."

Squalus, or USS Sailfish, was decommissioned Oct. 27, 1945.

It was initially scheduled to be a target ship in the atomic bomb tests or sunk by conventional ordnance. But instead, it was removed from the Naval Vessel Register April 30, 1948. Its hulk was sold for scrap to Luria Brothers of Philadelphia, Pa., on June 18, 1948. Its conning tower stands as a memorial to the lost crew of Squalus at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

Sailfish received nine battle stars for service in the Pacific and the Presidential Unit Citation for outstanding performance on its 10th patrol.

Ever since McLees' death, his daughter has been laying the wreath on the Squalus memorial herself, faithfully returning to the site where her father's fallen brothers are remembered. While all survivors of the Squalus are now deceased, Monday's remembrance will be attended by veterans and family members. The names of the sailors of Squalus, all of them thanks to Gerald McLees, will be remembered.

USS Squalus breaks the waters off the Isles of Shoals after the submarine was raised from the ocean floor months after the May 23, 1939 disaster that took the lives of 26 men. Thirty-three others were rescued.
[Courtesy U.S. Navy]
USS Squalus is seen after her launch in 1939 from Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. After the Squalus was salvaged from her sinking on May 23, 1939, she was recomissioned as USS Sailfish, and played a significant role in U.S. Navy operations during World War II.
[Courtesy U.S. Navy]


The Memorial Day Service at Albacore Park will be held at 10 a.m. Monday. The remembrance of the incident will be attended by veterans and family members.

The Conning Tower of the USS Squalus (i.e. USS Sailfish) at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard at a recent celebration.
[A Courtesy photo]