Novelist's Work On The Tragedy of Submarine
U.S.S. Squalus Leaves Survivor With Sinking Memories
By Greg Heilshorn, Staff Writer
Foster's Sunday Citizen
Sunday Morning, October 10, 1999
Gerald McLees, pictured in this 1940s armed services photo (at left), survived the sinking of the submarine U.S.S. Squalus (SS-192) in May 1939 off the coast of New Hampshire. McLees, a Portsmouth resident, came forward to meet author Peter Maas, who just released a New York Times best-selling novel on the tragedy, at a recent book signing in Portsmouth.
Almost five years after he hitch-hiked from his family’s dust-beaten farm in Richmond, Kan., to a Navy recruiting station in Topeka in 1934, McLees and 58 other crew members were at the bottom of the North Atlantic trapped inside the U.S.S. Squalus. The Navy’s newest fleet-type submarine sunk in 243 feet of water, just southeast of the Isles of Shoals.
Thirty-nine hours later, McLees, an electrician’s mate, and 32 others were saved in an unprecedented, undersea rescue transfixing a nation coming out of the Great Depression and on the brink of war.
Twenty-six perished almost instantly when sea water flooded the sub’s rear compartments.
The Squalus had been on training maneuvers. It was state-of-the-art, and deadly. The crew represented 28 states and almost half were married. An official inquiry determined that "a mechanical failure in the operating gear of the engine induction valve," caused the Squalus to take on water. How that happened was never completely determined.
"I don’t know if I was too young to think about it or what, but it didn’t phase me a bit," said McLees, who celebrates his 85th birthday next week. I’d be on it the next day if I could."
More than 60 years after the historic life-saving operation, McLees hasn’t grown weary of recounting the truer-than- life tale. Since the 50th anniversary of the Squalus’ sinking, he has fielded countless requests for interviews documentary consultations, and most recently a call from a movie producer.
In recent years, heroic stories, especially those involving military feats, have become popular, thanks largely to a nation’s sudden search for heroes. Books, especially of World War II heroes, are virtually instant-best sellers, from Tom Brokaw’s "The Greatest Generation" to Sen. John McCain’s account as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
"The Terrible Hours, The man behind the greatest submarine rescue in history," is a nonfiction account of the Squalus and Charles "Swede" Momsen," a visionary Navy officer who invented the rescue apparatus — a diving bell — used to pluck McLees and the others from what always had been considered an inescapable situation.
The 69-year-old Maas wrote an earlier version that appeared as excerpts in the Saturday Evening Post, but he chose to scrap publication of it as a completed book in 1968 because in his words, "I couldn’t have picked a worse time to publish it. The last thing anybody was interested in was a war hero and a long- forgotten submarine. Everything went down like that sub."
Peter Maas' newest best-seller
When Brokaw’s book hit the best- sellers list nearly two-years ago, Maas decided to reopen two trunks worth of research about the Squalus and Momsen. He had met with Momsen extensively before his death in 1967. He interviewed survivors and was allowed access to virtually all of the naval records of the Squalus, its sinking, and raising. There were also plenty of newspaper accounts to weed through.
"People were yearning for heroes so I gave it another shot," said Maas, during a recent phone interview.
Plus, he added, "I’ve had best-sellers on the dark side of America that always left me vaguely dissatisfied. Swede was a real American hero. He exemplified America at its best."
Maas conducted more research, finding new material about Momsen s pioneering work, the Squalus, and those who served on it. He choose to interview McLees because he represented the "Depression kids" from the Midwest dust bowl.
McLees was among a bounty of young men who entered the military, having no idea of what they were getting into.
"I didn’t know the difference between a ship or sub," said McLees, who was 20 the day he set out for the recruiting station. "I’d never seen one."
The first question Maas asked McLees when he met with him at his home earlier this year was, "What was it like down there?"
"I never doubted for a moment, we'd get out," McLees answered.
"That’s not what I wanted to hear," Maas responded.
Through his additional research, Maas found a series of coincidences that gave his account a truer-than- life feel.
members were rescued from the Squalus some 39 hours after it sunk
in 243 feet of water on May 23, 1939.
"Jackknifed on a mattress he had dragged in from the forward battery, Gerry McLees was consumed with a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature of the North Atlantic," wrote Maas, on page 143 of the book. "McLees had kept trying to remember exactly how he had ended up in the forward battery instead of John Batick. Then he suddenly realized what it was. Batick had yet to finish the cup of coffee he was drinking in the crew’s mess when the dive was about to start. McLees wasn’t sure whether Batick was dead or alive. But when he had asked Will Isaacs whether Batick had made it out of the after battery, Isaacs said he didn’t think so. Isaacs was the last one to flee the flooding compartment and he hadn’t seen Batick. McLees shivered under his blanket, thinking, Sweet Jesus! A ——— half a cup of coffee!"
McLees, who picked up a copy of "The Terrible Hours" when Maas hosted a book signing at Stroudwater Books on Monday night, hasn’t read the book, but joked about whether he actually said some of the things Maas quoted — especially a conversation he had with Batick before the sub went down as to what battery room they would pick.
"I don’t know about those lines," McLees said. "Maybe he made them up. I didn’t even know about Shirley (one of the crew members) getting married."
Maas swears by his research. The book, as much a reflection of Maas’ love of Momsen as it is his admiration for the Squalus crew, is expected to hit the New York Times best- seller list next week.
"It’s the right time," Maas said. "America wants to know about its heroes. We’re in a period of materialism and self-involvement, a period that is celebrity-driven. The country senses it needs something more. It was a bad time in the 60s. By '68 it was death. Nobody cared. The country was being torn about being in Vietnam. There were the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Mar- tin Luther King. There were the riots."
"I think people are looking at World War II as a pure time," Maas added.
[The Boston Herald, Friday, May 26, 1939]
At left, an artist's rendition of the diving bell used to rescue Squalus crewmen, appeared in The Boston Herald three days after the sub went down. It shows how the submariners were safely hoisted to the surface, marking the first time such a rescue device was used. Twenty-six crewmen died.
Nearly a year to the day the Squalus went down on May 23, 1939, it was recommissioned as the Sailfish after it was salvaged, stripped and refitted. It took the entire summer to raise it from the ocean floor. McLees was one of four original crew members that went back on board, despite talk of the sub being jinxed.
Serving on what he and other submariners called the "Squalfish," McLees endured mind-racking patrols in Manila when World War II broke out — during one in particular a Japanese destroyer chased them and dropped depth charges. His commander lost his nerve after the incident and eventually was relieved.
In June of 1956, after 22 years of exceptional service, McLees retired. It took him a half-hour to decide.
He came home to Portsmouth and his wife, Theresa, a Portsmouth girl he wooed when he his sub was stationed at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. They adopted a baby girl from Canada and settled into civilian life.
After brief stints working at the post office and servicing washer and dryers on what was then Pease Air Force Base, McLees put his electrical training to use at the Shipyard for the next 15 years.
Theresa passed away in 1989. By then their daughter had a family of her own and was living in Canada. McLees invited them to live with him in Portsmouth. He gave them the house so long as he could remain there.
The arrangement seems to be working well. McLees has three grandchildren he sees regularly. He keeps busy by doing some of the cooking and gardening. He is a diehard Patriots fan. He likes the Red Sox, but they don’t rile him as much.
Once a year a group of his submarine buddies meet to raise a little hell and remember. And of course, there is the matter of his growing celebrity status as one of five living survivors of the Squalus.
"Looking back, I really enjoyed being in the service and the people I did duty with," McLees said. "I don’t think I have an enemy in the world.; In fact, I still get calls from all over the world."
Some from friends, some from people wanting to know what it was like down there.
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[International News Photo]