The Loss of the Squalus

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A Prelude To The Squalus

"Historic Happenings"

By John Hirtle, Production Manager

Atlantic News, Thursday, May 20, 1999

LESSONS LEARNED WELL - The USS S-22 as seen at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in November 1929, showing changes in superstructure, including marker bouy, escape hatch and lifting eyes, innovations brought on by the loss of the S-4. Her deck gun is trained out on her port quarter, with barrel elevated to clear torpedo loading slide installed between the gun and the escape hatch.
[Atlantic News Courtesy Photo]

Sixty years ago this month, the public's attention was seized by a drama unfolding off the shores of the Seacoast. The USS Squalus (SS 192) one of the "New S" class submarines built at the Portsmouth Navy Shipyard had sunk in some 245 feet of water off the Isles of Shoals during a routine test dive. For three days, the nation watched and waited as the Navy mounted a never before dared rescue operation to rescue the thirty-three survivors. It was a success story without parallel.

However, for every success story, one can find a failure without which success would have been impossible. This most certainly applies to the "old" S-Boats, a class of some fifty-one vessels designed for the First World War by the U.S. Navy. The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard would construct eleven S-Boats between the end of the Great War and 1925, and would service and repair a large number of the vessels as well.

The submarine service of the time was held in rather low regard, as submarines were referred to by numbers rather than by name, and those who sailed on them were not given any hazard pay.

Over 200 feet long and displacing 854 tons, each S-Boat was armed with four torpedo tubes and a deck gun. Capable of speeds of about fifteen knots on the surface and eleven knots submerged, this submarine was intended to attack enemy warships. Unfortunately, their lack of endurance and range prevented them from ever fulfilling this role, not to mention the fact that the First World War ended shortly before the first one was launched. Only a handful would see service in World War Two, primarily as training ships.

The S-Boat design had been improved greatly thanks to the end of the war, as the United States received six of the 176 German U-Boats seized and distributed among the Allies. Of these submarines, then the most advanced of their time, U-111 was sent to Portsmouth, where she was studied, tested and dismantled so that the German innovations could be incorporated into American subs. Among these innovations was the "Portsmouth Compressor", a modified and improved version of the German air compressor used for blowing ballast out of the submarine so it could surface. This, and other equipment would become standard on American submarines. As for the U-111, her stripped hulk was towed out beyond Jeffery's Ledge at the Isles of Shoals where she was used for target practice by gunboats and aircraft before sinking in 600 feet of water.

Despite U-111's contributions, the S-Boat design left much to be desired. Several sank during the 1920s including two built in Portsmouth, the S-5 and the S-4. The S-5 was engaged in some test dives off the Delaware Capes in early September 1920, when water poured into her hull, flooding the vessel. Her captain blew her aft ballast and fuel tanks dry, sending her stern bobbing to the surface. During the next thirty-six hours, the crew managed to cut a small hole in the hull, and eventually, a passing vessel, the Alenthus, came to their rescue and summoned help. Fifty-one hours after their dive, all the submariners were rescued from the S-5. The S-5 itself though capsized and sank shortly after the battleship Ohio attempted to take her in tow. While this incident illustrated a clear need to create a method to escape a submarine, no action was taken.

It would take the loss of the S-4 which forced real reform in the way that the Navy treated its submarine branch. Accidentally rammed by the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Paulding in December 1927, the submarine was sunk with the loss of all hands despite a hastily put together rescue operation. The S-4 was raised in March, and was eventually towed to Portsmouth to be rebuilt with the latest safety features and equipment. Among these innovations were the "Momson Lung" a breathing device submariners could don to evacuate their sunken sub, and the McCann Submarine Rescue Chamber, which would play a vital role in the rescue of the men who went down in the Squalus, as well as a telephone buoy, new water-tight doors and heavy compartment bulkheads. Alongside these innovations which were built into the S-4 was a 25% pay increase for submariners for hazardous duty. The refitted S-4 would test the new safety equipment before going on her last mission, a training cruise that took her to instruct personnel at navy bases in Panama, San Diego and Pearl Harbor between January and September 1932, after which she was given a proper burial at sea.

Some twelve years after the fateful loss of the S-4, the crew of the Squalus would be saved by the methods that the S-4 `s sinking brought into existence.

The Loss Of The Squalus

A Landmark Tale On The Seacoast

Compiled by John Holman, Hampton History Volunteer, Lane Memorial Library &
John Hirtle, Production Manager, Atlantic News

Atlantic News, Thursday, May 20, 1999

From almost any point on the New Hampshire Seacoast north of Hampton Beach, one can see the Isles of Shoals. Just off these islands, one of the most unusual incidents in naval history occurred.

The time was 1939. Two "New S" Class submarines, the USS Sculpin (SS 191), and the USS Squalus (SS 192) had just been commissioned at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The USS Sculpin had completed her sea trials, and was due to leave for South America on May 23. The Squalus too was almost ready to leave, once she finished her trails with a set of tests which included "Crash" dives, a maneuver where a submarine submerges as quickly as possible to avoid the enemy.

As the Squalus made her first fast dive at 8:40 am, she sank in 243 feet of water, off the Isles of Shoals. A valve which supplied air to the diesel engines remained open, and the sea came flooding into the sub. Twenty three men died in the rear engine compartments of the sub; thirty-three others, including Lieutenant Oliver Naquin, the skipper of the stricken sub, escaped into the forward torpedo compartment, and faced the grim possibility of death as air and time began to run out.

Through a stroke of luck, the submarine’s telephone buoy was found by her sister ship the USS Sculpin as she was departing New Hampshire waters for South America. The time was 12:41 pm, and preparations for a rescue were mounted.

Although diving bells had been around for centuries, no one had ever used one to rescue men from a submarine. Fortunately, the U.S. Navy had the foresight to work on this problem, and the rescue ship Falcon, with the new McCann Rescue Chamber arrived off the Isles of Shoals. In four trips down to the sub, the thirty-three men were rescued as weather conditions began to deteriorate. The last trip took place on May 25 at 12:23 pm. Another trip to the rear of the sub confirmed what was feared; there were no survivors in the flooded rear section of the ship.

The Local View

THE USS SQUALUS (SS 192) — The loss of the Squalus and the rescue of her surviving crew off the New Hampshire Seacoast in May 1939 brought about the same sort of media attention as that conferred upon the Apollo 13 mission some thirty years later. [Atlantic News Courtesy Photo]

Let us turn to the local reaction to the sinking of the Squalus as recorded in the "Squalus" Memorial Benefit Concert program, a stirring event held at Little Boar’s Head in Hampton, New Hampshire on July 30, 1939, just over one month after the submarine’s sinking, which mourned the loss of twenty-tree brave souls on the Squalus, and celebrated the rescue of the thirty-three survivors of the submarine.

Historical Notes

The Submarine Squalus was authorized to be built under Naval Appropriation Act for Fiscal Year 1937 and the Secretary of the Navy placed the order for construction of the vessel with the Navy Yard, Portsmouth on 18 September 1936. The keel of the Squalus was laid on 18 October 1937. The Squalus was launched at the Navy Yard, Portsmouth, N.H., on 14 September 1938. The sponsor for the vessel was Mrs. Thomas C. Hart, wife of Rear Admiral Thomas C. Hart, U. S. Navy, who has recently been ordered as Commander-in-Chief of the United States Asiatic Fleet.

The Squalus was commissioned on 1 March 1939 at which time Captain William F. Amen, U. S. Navy Captain of the Portsmouth Navy Yard, turned the vessel over to Lieutenant Oliver F. Naquin, U. S. Navy, who assumed command. Construction of the vessel was completed on 12 May 1939.

Men of the Squalus

"One minute, in the precious sun and air,
The next, entrapped in steel at depth of sea;
Self-rescue barred by crushing pressure, there,
Heroic means alone could set them free.
How gruelling a test of fortitude,
What stamina of mind and body too,
To let no trace of craven fear intrude,
But steadily conserve and carry through!
Unquestioning obedience at command,
Instant performance of the task assigned;
Intrepid were the rescued, brought to land,
Brave martyrs were the perished, left behind.
The Navy’s best traditions were held high
By men trained to endure, to dare, to die."
--Mabel Rogers Holt

May 23, 1939

With the calm of deep water, in the murky depths to which only the last feeble rays of sunlight filter from the heaving surface far above, all is quiet with a stillness that is filled with a quality of ageless, invisible motion. It is the cool world of the small fishes through which an occasional larger form slides noiselessly with outlines distorted in shimmering patterns of sunlight on its curving back.

Thus the stage is set when, from the limit of underwater vision, there appears a shadow against the lightness of the ocean’s surface. Nearer it comes until the dark under side of the fish-like craft can be distinguished in a frame of foamy brightness and with a seemingly inadequate flutter of propellers under its stern. It appears progressively larger but its increasing size seems to signify more than decreasing distance. A rounded hull, a pair of fin-like projections and darker shadows reveal the unmistakable characteristics of a submarine coming down in a dive. A swirl of churning water and a cloud of bubbles follows its wake as the conning tower and the deck structures come under. In the shimmering light the number "192" painted in white under the bow identifies the "Squalus", a newcomer in the ocean’s depths. Inside are men. The ports of the conning tower gleam dully and serve only to emphasize the blind faith of those men who put their trust in a man-made machine.

Down, down; a graceful diving slant under control. But wait! Too many bubbles are belching in a cloud around the after part of the ship. It wavers; its forward motion is lost; the angle changes but its progress downward accelerates as the stern falls. The heavy steel walls hide swift drama inside and, as in a picture on a silent film, the stricken submarine sinks noiselessly to the bottom coming to rest in a cloud of churning mud. Tragic bubbles still issue from the undersea giant whose 299-foot length is mocked by the infinite sea.

A moment of inaction — stunned indecision — while riled mud settles and bubbles continue to rise from a depth that never before has seen air. The fallen craft with its cargo of trapped survivors seems to stir as clouds of mud rise from the outlets of the valves under the bow with the outward rush of water from the ballast tanks. The long gray ship shows no other sign and the struggle to increase buoyancy ceases as air spurts from the muddy valves. Another moment of thought; inside, probably a conference, and a small movement can be seen in the middle of the forward deck. Lazily at first, but gathering speed rapidly, there rises from a small hatch a bobbing float which struggles upward on the end of a small cable still attached to the boat. It breaks the surface and the foundered "Squalus" can do no more. To those at the bottom the smoking beacon of the buoy released is in another world, a world of air and sunshine, calling for help.

Who can record what is said as minutes pass within that long black hull? Who can picture the tension of the officer waiting at the receiver of the telephone leading to the buoy above? Who can be said to have been the first to sense the approach of another long, black shape gliding on the surface with a frame of foam and the stir of its beating propellers? The approach of another undersea boat duplicates the image of the silent shadow which disturbed the sea at the start of the ill-fated "Squalus" dive. As though in answer to the call of family, the sister ship "Sculpin" has been drawn to the spot and from the smoking beacon discovered the plight of the craft below. Above the surface intense activity must be starting and, in this other world of sunshine and air the alarm is already spreading to shock into purposeful action the resources of the American Navy. The lives of a crew of trapped men has become, in an instant, the major concern of a nation.

Silent hours pass. The gradual darkening of the ceiling above the inert submarine indicates the fading of daylight. Those above have established the fact that life still exists in the sunken hull and the gently rocking sister ship stands by at the upper end of a slender anchor chain which slants through the murky depths to the ocean’s bottom.

May 24, 1939

Lighter and lighter grows the greenish tint of the water’s surface and deeper and deeper into the profound darkness penetrates the light of dawn. The shadowy shape of the sunken craft is discovered still held in the grip of the sucking mud. Darkness saturated with fear and uncertainty must certainly still grip the souls of the hidden men who cover their desperation by mocking it with ribald story and song. Through the floating space a bulky figure with spouting helmet dangling on the end of his lifelines has come from one of the many surface craft whose bottoms are clustered around that of the "Sculpin." The slender telephone line to the surface has been repaired. The water makes no record of the stimulating and encouraging pleasantries that pass over that "private line" to the "Squalus."

The light is high and small craft have shuttled endlessly in and out of the range of vision until a larger, more sturdy prow cleaves a path for a throbbing hill whose purposeful approach gives mute evidence of its race from a distant base. Unheard cheers resound in the stuffy compartments of the "Squalus" as the news the "Falcon" has arrived is related. Unheard by these survivors are the words that crackle through the atmosphere to the millions of the world who wait by loudspeakers, "the 'Falcon’ has arrived!"

With a celerity born of experience the "Falcon" throws out a circle of anchors which maintain its position over the wreck. A diving stage comes overside and, after a short drop through the green water, discharges the figures of divers who slide to the deck of the submarine each dragging his lines and his inseparable swirl of helium-oxygen bubbles. ["Martin Conrad Sibitzky, boatswain’s mate, second class, the United States Navy’s tallest deep-sea diver, 6-foot 4-inch, and the man selected to make the first dive to the Squalus. He was 30 years old, a Navy man since January of 1928, and rated a first-class diver qualified to go to 200 feet or more. He was a regularly assigned crew member of the Falcon." -- "BLOW ALL BALLAST! The Story of the Squalus" by Nat A. Barrows - 1940.] It is a scene of fantastic unreality. To a certain point on the forward deck the diver directs his efforts and at some signal, a cable slides down the guide line on a weighted loop. A moment of crouching and this cable is firmly fastened to a bulging hatch on the submarine. The thud of leaded feet on the deck has been cheerful accompaniment to the frenzied nonsense of the trapped men whose talking has prevented serious thought and the knowledge that no one has ever been saved from a disaster of this type. In spite of this, there is an uplifting faith in comrades of the navy and in the recourses of a nation whose experts, military and civilian alike, will not rest until rescue is accomplished.

Thus starts the climax of a chapter in history. Breaking the surface alongside the "Falcon" there appears a strange bell-like shape. After bobbing about for a minute, the cable from the under surface of the bell to the submarine hatch tightens, the bell pulls itself under and starts downward trailing a row of violent bubbles and hose connections. Gently it settled on the deck of the submarine with the flattened end at the apex of tapering sides guided by the diver. Inertly it stays there like a growth marring the sleek lines of the hull. Varying degrees of bubbling surround the bell at the only evidence that its chambers are being blown out or flooded to accommodate the passage of men from the torpedo room of the submarine to the bell.

Finally the bell stirs. It moves and, under the tug of its cables above, it begins to rise with its freight of survivors. It breaks the surface at the end of its slow journey and it is known by the world that this task has been accomplished for the first time in history. Down again; up again; down again; up again; two more trips go smoothly — so smoothly that tension grows. The last trip down. Darkness has fallen and the action can only be occasionally glimpsed by the flash of underwater lights. The last trip up. Catastrophe — almost! Snagged by the tangled downhaul cable the bell hangs suspended unable to break away from the inert wreck and hanging by a frayed cable above. Desperate action to clear the foul consumes four dreadful hours but is at last rewarded. In the last load comes the Commander of the ill-fated "Squalus" to be the only Commander to have survived a submarine disaster.

Up above, the survivors. Every man not lost at the time of the accident is saved. Down below, the lonely tomb; further challenge to the "Falcon" that accomplished the greatest rescue in the history of the world. This narrative is contributed by Donald Leonard, M. D., through the co-operation and courtesy of Naval Officials who have submitted accurate detailed description for publication.

The Concert

SEACOAST COVERAGE — The cover to memorial concert program held at Little Boar’s Head a month after the Squalus sank [Courtesy photo John M. Holman]

The concert at Little Boar’s head was performed by seventy members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the reknown Arthur Fiedler. The selections included the Overture to "Oberon", Symphony No. 5, in C minor, Opus 67, Allegro con brio II. Andante con moto III. Scherzo IV. Allegro, Roumanian Rhapsody No. 1, in A major, Finale of the "Pathetique" Symphony: Adagio Lamentoso, Prelude to "Die Meistersinger", "Eternal Father, Strong to Save" (The audience was asked to join in the singing of the hymn) and the Star Spangled Banner.

At the conclusion of this program on the field, the audience was requested to journey across lots to the shore where a final tribute of the service took place, by the gracious act of Aviator Frothingham casting a memorial wreath on the waters over the Squalus. Survivors of the U. S. S. Squalus acted as ushers for the concert.


The survivors all recovered, and an inquiry of the sinking was made. In most cases, the ship would have been written off. But with the threat of war slowly becoming apparent in Europe, the U.S. Navy was determined to salvage the sunken sub not only to discover exactly what went wrong with what was essentially the forerunner of a whole new line of submarines, but also to return her to service. After several attempts, the Squalus was raised on September 13, just over one hundred days after the ship’s sinking. Refloated, the bodies were removed and the sub was brought to the Portsmouth Shipyard, where the faulty valve which caused the sinking was discovered. A new valve design replaced the defective part, a move that undoubtedly made later US submarines safer for their sailors, who would help win the war in the Pacific.

The Squalus would be officially decommissioned on November 15, and would be repaired and recommissioned on May 15 1940 as the USS Sailfish, although she retained her original hull numbers (192). Most of the survivors would volunteer to remain with the vessel, but only four were assigned to the sub. The Sailfish would go on to serve in the Pacific theatre during World War Two as most submarines did, rescuing downed airmen, making weather reports and sinking Japanese shipping. She would become the first American sub to sink a Japanese carrier, the 20,000 ton Chuyo in December 1943.

After her twelfth war patrol in the Pacific, she was reassigned to New London as a training sub, but the end of the war brought her closer to the scrap heap. Local citizens lobbied first for her to be decommissioned at Portsmouth (which happened on October 27, 1945) then to make her into a war memorial. The Navy saw little need for this as there was a vast surplus of ships which needed to be decommissioned and used at targets, experimented with, or disposed of as scrap. A compromise was reached, and the ship’s superstructure was removed and made into a war memorial on the Mall at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Dedicated to the men of the United States Submarine Force on November 11, 1946, it remains the site for official functions to this day. The rest of the Sailfish was sold as scrap in 1948.

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