The Greatest Submarine Rescue Ever – Escaping Sinking Submarine USS Squalus


The date is May 23rd, 1939, and several hundred
feet below the Atlantic waves just off the east coast of the United States, a group of
submariners and their Captain huddle together in the freezing darkness. Their submarine has gone down, rear compartments
flooding and causing the crippled sub to settle on the mud at the bottom of the sea. A rescue buoy with a telephone line was released
hours ago, and yet still no contact had been established with the outside world. As far as the men are aware, nobody even knows
that they’ve gone under, and every minute that goes by the air supply dwindles and the
odds of rescue grow ever slimmer. Suddenly though in the pitch dark there’s
the ringing of the emergency telephone, rigged directly via hardline to the rescue buoy up
top. Captain Oliver F. Naquin picks up the receiver
and as he utters a greeting, the line goes dead. Up top a sea swell has severed the telephone
line, leaving the trapped crew cut off from the world and with no idea if rescue will
ever come. Between 1921 and 1938, eight hundred and twenty
five sailors across eighteen submarines from various countries all died beneath the waves. The reputation of submarines was so poor that
in the US, sailors called it ‘the coffin service’. Insurance policies specifically dictated that
they would not be paid out if the recipient died in a submarine accident. These underwater tools of war were by far
the most dangerous ever created, and yet as World War I had proven, they could turn traditional
naval power on its head. During the first world war, Britain operated
the world’s most formidable navy and kept the German navy boxed in on their home ports
for the vast majority of the war- yet German submarines routinely slipped past Royal Navy
ships to decimate shipping on the Atlantic, to the point that Britain’s economy was put
in dire jeopardy. Despite their dangers, navies around the world
knew that the submarine was a vital tool of underwater warfare, and those that chose to
ignore the use of subs did so only at great peril. A state of the art ship at her time, the Squalus
was launched on the 14th of September 1938, just two months behind her sister ship. She would be officially commissioned on March
1st, 1939, and underwent sea trials during the following months. Commanding the state of the art ship was Captain
Oliver F. Naquin, who headed a crew of five officers and 51 enlisted men. He was known as a stern commander, exactly
the type of man you wanted in control of a ship where the smallest mistake could cost
everyone on board their lives. As a diesel powered submarine, the Squalus
would loiter at the surface long enough to charge her giant banks of batteries with her
diesel engines. However, once the batteries were charged the
ship would dive beneath the waves to avoid detection. One of the most advanced subs in the world,
the Squalus could dive up to 250 feet and could travel up to 11,000 miles without refueling. On the morning of the 23rd of May, the Squalus
once more put out for routine diving tests, moving 13 miles southeast of Portsmouth. Aboard that day were two Navy yard engineers
and a General Motors representative, who were all there to evaluate the Squalus’ ability
to dive at high speed within 60 seconds- exactly as she would have to do during war time to
avoid enemy planes. On the bridge, the Captain orders the dive
to begin and the comms officer radios the sub’s location back to Portsmouth as the diving
klaxons begin to sound. Moving at 16 knots, the Squalus begins to
sink beneath the waves, and in the control room the alarm board, also known as the “Christmas
tree”, shows green lights across the board, indicating that all hull openings were closed. These opening included not just the main hatch
and ballast tanks, but also induction pipes situated behind the conning tower, which fed
air to the giant diesel engines and ventilated the boat, getting rid of the diesel exhaust. In order for the dive to be successful, the
submarine had to quickly shut down the diesel engines, close the induction pipes, and turn
on the battery-powered electric motors. The dive seems to be perfect, and in minutes
the Squalus is already 20 feet below the waves. Suddenly Captain Naquin notices his ears pop
from a fluctuation in the air pressure, and simultaneously a frantic plea comes over the
ship’s intercom from the engine room, “Take her up! The induction’s open!” The Christmas tree shows green lights across
the board, yet over the intercom the chief engineer is screaming for the boat to surface,
and the roar of water can be heard in the background. Inside the engine room sea water is flooding
through the induction pipes and quickly filling the compartment as men struggle to hang on
and make their way to the main hatch. A sudden rush of air signals the ballast tanks
being blown in an attempt to lift the drowning sub, and for a moment it looks as if it’ll
work- the sub’s descent stops and the ship shudders in place, but then begins sinking
again. Suddenly the stern plunges backwards at a
45 degree angle, sending sailors tumbling backwards into the freezing water. Those that had made it to the engine room’s
hatch are thrown back and away. On the bridge, Captain Naquin hangs on to
the periscope as the sub tilts dramatically backwards. He makes a very hard decision, and immediately
orders that all hatches be sealed. This will trap men in the flooded compartments,
but may be the only way to save the ship. Electrician’s Mate Third Class Lloyd Maness
is at his post between the control room and the flooding rear compartments, trying to
shove closed the 200 pound door, but the steep angle is making it almost impossible. Suddenly he hears shouts from the compartments
behind him, men screaming for him to hold the door open- but Maness grunts with effort
and slams the door shut, trapping the men behind it. With water already reaching the control room,
it is the only choice to make, even if he has just doomed all the men behind that door
to death. In the torpedo room at the tail of the sub,
seventeen men try in vain to seal themselves in- but the rising sea water makes it impossible
for them to seal their hatch. In the engine room, a sailor has reached one
of the escape hatches and unlocked it, but the pressure of the ocean outside keeps it
sealed shut and gives no chance for escape. Ahead of the sealed door keeping the rest
of the sub from sinking, the forward battery room suddenly experiences a rapid voltage
drain. Chief Electrician’s Mate Lawrence Gainer realizes
that the batteries have been exposed to sea water, and an explosion is imminent. As the power flickers off, he takes a flashlight
and lowers himself down into the narrow crawl space underneath the main deck, crawling forward
in several inches of water towards the giant battery banks. A single stray arc of electricity would instantly
fry him, yet the sailor continues on. Reaching the bank of batteries, he disengages
one of the two large disconnect switches, and suddenly a miniature lighting storm erupts
right before his eyes- a cascade of blue-white electricity sizzles and melts the insulation
on the hull, and half-blinds the sailor. Reaching through the arcing electricity to
the second switch, he disengages the second switch, cutting the flow of electricity altogether
and avoiding an explosion. His actions will ensure that the survivors
have a hope of rescue, even if it’s cost him part of his vision. The submarine continues its slow descent into
the depths of the Atlantic. In the dark the survivors fear that the ship
will implode at any second, and the hull groans and creaks as it takes on the weight of the
ocean above it. Rated to a crush depth of 250 feet, the crew
doesn’t know just how far down this part of the ocean stretches, and while they are still
on the continental shelf, they could hit a depth of up to 400 feet. Implosion would kill them all in an instant,
underwater recordings of implosion events confirm that it occurs so quickly the human
brain does not have time to register it happening- a small mercy for any doomed submariner. Suddenly though the crew is thrown to the
floor as the sub hits the muddy floor below, settling 240 feet below the Atlantic. The 33 survivors take stock of their situation,
they have approximately 48 hours of air and enough Momsen lungs for every survivor. The lungs are breathing devices designed to
allow the crew to float to the surface, but they’ve only been tested to a depth of 200
feet, and even if they worked properly the crew could die from the bends. Swimming to the surface would be a last, desperate
result. A rescue buoy has been dispatched, with signaling
rockets being fired off automatically at a periodic rate. A telephone line attached to the buoy will
allow the crew to speak with any would-be rescuers. In the dark the men wonder if there are survivors
in any of the other compartments. They tap on air lines that lead from one end
of the ship to the other, but there is no response. Many hours later, the crew can hear the sound
of propellers over head and spirits soar- another submarine has discovered their location! A few minutes later, the phone rings- but
almost as soon as Captain Naquin replies, an ocean swell snaps the taut telephone cable. The crew settles in once more, comforted at
least by the thought that they have been found, and the Navy knows they are alive. Almost immediately the Navy orders the submarine
tender Falcon to make haste out of New London, Connecticut. Aboard it is an experimental rescue chamber,
in essence a giant diving bell, the inverted tumbler looking device had only ever been
used in training and not in an actual rescue attempt. Its inventors, Lieutenant Commander Charles
Momsen and Commander Allan McCann, both accompany the rescue chamber to assist in the recovery
operation. Other navy ships arrive at the Squalus’ location
and use grappling hooks dragged across the sea floor in an attempt to pinpoint the exact
location of the stricken sub. Finally a heavy anchor manages to snag the
wreck, and the sailors both up top and below settle in for the overnight wait for the rescue
ship to arrive. In the Squalus, the sailors communicate via
Morse code with the ships above, banging out messages with welding hammers against the
hull. A casualty count is generated and relayed
back to Portsmouth, where family members and reporters are gathered, awaiting any news. As reports of the accident speed around the
world, global attention turns to the rescue efforts- though none believe they will be
successful. To date few submarine rescues had ever been
attempted, let alone achieved. Throughout the night, Captain Naquin orders
his men to engage in ‘labor breathing’, or short, sharp inhalations meant to conserve
oxygen. This leaves the sailors with severe nausea
and headaches, though from time to time the Captain releases stored oxygen to help with
the symptoms. They might still have to swim for it, and
if so, the men would need to be in physical condition to do so. At 0800 hours the Falcon at last moores over
the Squallus, 23 hours after its sinking. An hour later a hard-hat diver begins his
descent, carrying a cable connected to a winch on the rescue bell itself. He has to find the forward escape hatch and
connect the cable to the hull of the Squalus, allowing the bell to guide itself in position
over the hatch. Five minutes after leaping overboard, the
men inside the sub hear the diver land with a loud thud on the deck over the forward torpedo
room. With just a few inches of steel between them,
the men can hear every word the diver communicates back to the surface and are elated. Yet the diver has been severely affected by
the extreme depth, and is battling confusion and slow reflexes as he scrambles to find
the hatch. After a few more minutes the diver at last
succeeds in connecting the cable to the hatch, and signals the all clear up top. For an hour, the rescue bell makes its slow,
steady descent to the Squalus, until at last settling gently around the hatch. A rubber gasket seals the chamber to the hatch
and water is pumped out. This is the critical moment in the rescue-
if the bell has been poorly designed the air lock could fail, and as the submarine hatch
is opened the extreme pressure will rip the rescue bell free- killing the survivors and
the rescuers both. Three taps on the hatch signals the all-clear
from the rescue bell, and with a deep breath, Torpedoman First Class John Michalowski cranks
it open. Water splashes down on him, but the seal holds! Three trips to the surface have already been
made, and only ten survivors remain- including Captain Naquin who insists on being last. Loading into the rescue bell, the bell breaks
free of the Squalus and begins its slow ascent. Suddenly though, the bell jams on its downward
cable, immediately straining another cable which runs from the winch on the Falcon up
above down to the bell itself. Under the enormous strain, five of the seven
strands that weave together the heavy duty steel cable snap free, and a diver is immediately
dispatched back down to the Squalus to cut the downward cable free. Once the cable is cut though, the crew above
decide to let the bell drift back down to the bottom while they decide what to do next,
and the bell slowly settles back down on the Atlantic floor. Captain Naquin can’t help but chuckle ironically-
he’s survived a submarine sinking only to possibly die from sinking again on the rescue
vehicle. At last though the sailors up top decide to
pump compressed air into the rescue bell in order to lighten it, then, very carefully,
the bell is lifted up by hand, dozens of sailors straining with the steel cable, raising the
bell inch by inch from the bottom of the sea floor. Four hours later, the bell is at last at the
surface. A navy court inquiry concluded that a mechanical
malfunction doomed the ship, but exonerated the Squalus crew and singled out Captain Naquin
for outstanding leadership during the crisis. Twenty six men in total died that day, but
thirty three survived- many continuing to serve aboard submarines, where four would
die in action during World War II. Would you ever serve aboard a submarine? Let us know in the comments! And as always if you enjoyed this video don’t
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