Gerald C. McLees
October 14, 1914 - December 30, 2004
By Michael Goot, Portsmouth Bureau Chief
Foster's Daily Democrat, Friday, December 31, 2004
Last Local Squalus Survivor
Dies At 90
PORTSMOUTH -- Gerald C. McLees, one of the last men to survive the tragic sinking of the USS Squalus submarine off the Isle of Shoals, passed away at his Portsmouth home on Thursday. He was 90.
Although his lifetime included military service at Pearl Harbor, dinner at the White House with former President George W. Bush, 10 combat missions in the Pacific Theater during World War II, and escaping the Dust Bowl in Kansas in his youth, McLees was best remembered for surviving the USS Squalus.
McLees was among 32 other submariners rescued on May 23, 1939 when the USS Squalus sank in 243 feet of water just southeast of the Isle of Shoals during a test dive. The men were underwater for 39 hours. Twenty-six sailors died when the interior compartments flooded.
"It is with deep sadness that Portsmouth Naval Shipyard bids farewell to Mr. Gerald McLees. Mr. McLees proudly served his Navy and this nation with heroic courage and commitment that continues to inspire those in service to our country today. He with his shipmates aboard USS Squalus forever changed the course of history for our Navy," said Debbie White, public affairs officer for the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
"For those of us at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the conning tower of USS Squalus stands as a constant reminder of the sacrifice, dedication and selfless service of great men like Gerald McLees. Our heartfelt sympathy is extended to the family and friends of Mr. Gerald McLees," she said.
The survivors of the USS Squalus were rescued by Charles "Swede" Momsen, who directed the use of a diving bell — an apparatus consisting of a container only open at the bottom and supplied with air compressed through a hose. The rescue of the Squalus remains the only successful underwater rescue in world history.
An inquiry determined that there was a mechanical failure in the engine induction valve, but the cause was never completely determined. The Squalus, which was built at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, was refurbished and rechristened the USS Sailfish.
There were only six living survivors of the Squalus accident in 2000. McLees was the last one from this area. Allen Bryson of Connecticut is believed to be last living survivor.
Capt. William McDonough, former commander of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, termed McLees death as a real loss.
"What a shame. What a great guy he was ... a true hero survivor of one of the early naval disasters — very low-key, very mild-mannered, a real gentleman," he said.
McDonough said he saw McLees a few months ago at a submarine birthday party. "He was outfitted in his old uniform, which believe it or not, still fit. I’m terribly sorry to see him go," he said.
Gene Allmendinger of Durham, a World War II veteran and retired professor of naval architecture at the University of New Hampshire, called McLees a "splendid man" and said he was a good friend of the Albacore organization in Portsmouth.
"Throughout the years, he’s supported the Navy Yard and the submarine force very gallantly. It’s a shame to see that type of person go," he said.
"He’s a real hero in my eyes. He’s a great fellow. A very quiet person," he said.
Allmendinger said McLees actively supported the submarine vets at the Albacore. He said the Albacore might want to do some official memorial observance in the future for McLees.
He said he did not talk about his experiences on the Squalus much.
"He was just there and we all knew what he had been through," he said.
According to his obituary, "McLees never considered himself a hero. Interviewed several times for documentaries, articles and books over the years, McLees insisted that he and his crewmates were simply doing their jobs and that the real heroes of the Squalus were the shipmates who lost their lives and the divers who risked their lives to effect the rescue."
The story of the USS Squalus was told in the book "The Terrible Hours," which was written by Peter Maas in 1999.
Also, Portsmouth Poet Laureate John Perrault wrote a song about the accident called "Ballad of the Squalus" featuring McLees telling him the story of how they were rescued. A passage from the song reads as follows:
Men take hammers bang the hull, bang like hell by God;
They’re up there looking for us, I know It in my bones;
Those guys will risk their lives to get us out and bring us home.’
Searchers grab the orange buoy, now they’re dragging grapnel;
A diver’s boots land on the hatch, they’re lowering down the life Bell;
33 men brought up above, after 39 hours of dying:
Four months later 25 men towed in for identifying.
A movie about the accident, "Submerged," was produced in 2001. McLees attended a private screening of the film at the White House.
McLees, who was 25 at the time of the accident, was an electrician’s mate 3rd class. He served on the USS Sailfish and went out on war patrols. Then, he served on the USS Crevalle submarine. When the war ended, he headed back to combat in the Pacific on the USS Sea Leopard.
After attaining the rank of chief, McLees retired from the Navy in 1956. He then worked at the Portsmouth Naval shipyard as chief electrical inspector of submarines until his retirement in 1972.
Graveside services with full military honors will be held at Calvary Cemetery in Portsmouth on Tuesday at 11 a.m. Visiting hours will be held at the Farrell Funeral Home at 684 State St. on Monday from 2-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to Portsmouth Home Health and Hospice at 95 Brewery Lane, Unit 11, Portsmouth, NH 03801.
Gerald C. McLees
October 14, 1914 - December 30, 2004
The Portsmouth Herald, Friday, December 31, 2004
PORTSMOUTH - Gerald C. McLees, 90, died at his Ruby Road home on Dec. 30, 2004.
"Mac" was born in Richmond, Kan., on Oct. 17, 1914, to parents Allie Murray and Mason McLees, both deceased. After graduating from high school, McLees and a buddy hitchhiked to Topeka and joined the Navy as a way to escape the prairies of the Kansas farms.
Following service on surface craft for several months, a friend told Mac that his submarine was looking for a seaman. Mac stated, "As soon as my foot touched her deck, I knew I was home." He served as sentry that night and began his long and distinguished service on U.S. submarines.
On May 23, 1939, Electrician's Mate 3rd Class McLees and 58 other crewmates and civilians took the U.S.S. Squalus for her 19th test dive off the Isles of Shoals. Disaster struck, however, as an induction valve failed and water poured into the aft compartments of Squalus. Sadly, 26 men were lost that day. The McCann Diving Bell, invented by Swede Momsen, made four trips to the surface with 33 survivors after over 48 hours.
For his part, McLees never considered himself a hero. Interviewed several times, McLees insisted that he and his crewmates were simply doing their jobs and that the real heros of Squalus were the shipmates who lost their lives and the divers who risked their lives to effect the rescue.
Peter Maas, Pulitzer Prize winning author, visited McLees several times while writing "The Terrible Hours." Maas featured McLees throughout the book. "Submerged" was adapted from Maas' book, and a highlight in Mac's life was being invited to the White House for dinner with President George W. Bush on May 16, 2001. After dinner, President and Mrs. Bush screened the film in the White House theater. From that day forward, Mac carried a picture in his shirt pocket of himself with President Bush in the Rose Garden on that special night.
The Navy raised Squalus from the bottom of the ocean and refitted and recommissioned her U.S.S. Sailfish. Four former Squalus crewmembers volunteered to serve on the Sailfish, including McLees. When asked what made him volunteer, his answer was quite simple: "Commissioning the Sailfish was the only way to stay in Portsmouth and the woman I loved was here." Mac married his sweetheart, Theresa Regan, on Jan. 9, 1941. McLees served throughout the Pacific theater during World War II, making 10 war patrols on the Sailfish and the U.S.S. Crevalle. When the war ended he was heading back to combat in the Pacific on the U.S.S. Sea Leopard. He spoke proudly of his boat rescuing dozens of women and children from the Negros islands during the war.
After attaining the rank of chief, McLees retired from the Navy in 1956. He then worked at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard as a chief electrical inspector of submarines until his retirement in 1972.
His later years were spent attending submarine conventions and VFW meetings and gardening. After his wife's death in 1989, Mac enjoyed a wonderful period of almost 15 years living with his daughter, Julianne Vogt, and son-in-law, Ian. McLees will be missed by Julie, Ian and his 3 grandchildren, M.A.C., Caitlin and Zachary Vogt. In addition to the Vogts, Mac is survived by his sister, Lucille Bennett of Garnett, Kan.; several nieces and nephews; and many dear friends and family members.
The family would like to thank Lorna McAllister, Lisanne Spitzer, Sandy Walsh and Margot and the staff at Portsmouth Hospice for making Dad's final days before he left us for "eternal patrol" so comfortable and peaceful.
McLEES - Gerald C. McLees, 90, of 75 Ruby Road, Portsmouth, died Dec. 30, 2004. Graveside services with full military honors will be held at Calvary Cemetery in Portsmouth on Tuesday at 11 a.m. Visiting hours will be held at the Farrell Funeral Home, 684 State St., on Monday from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to Portsmouth Home Health and Hospice, 95 Brewery Lane, Unit 11, Portsmouth, NH 03801.