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Heroes of the Deep: The Rescue of the USS Squalus Submarine

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The USS Navy and its submarines are critical to our country.

The Famous Momsen Bell

The Famous Momsen Bell

Isle of Shoals

Isle of Shoals

USS Squalus Submarine Rescue

USS Squalus Submarine Rescue

USS SQUALUS

USS SQUALUS

Trapped Crew on USS Squalus

Trapped Crew on USS Squalus

The USS Squalus Submarine Sinks

USS Navy submariners had to be a special breed to close themselves in tight quarters, go deep underwater, always aware of potential problems while aware that they could be trapped in a steel coffin with nowhere to go or to escape.

At 7:30 AM May 23, 1939, the USS Squalus left port on a routine mission to patrol the Piscataqua River near the Isle of Shoals with 56 crew members and three civilian engineers on board. At 8:30 AM, Lt. Oliver F. Naquin gave the order to dive. Suddenly, 63 feet into the dive, a crewman screamed, "take her up; the induction is open." The crew began pulling levers to release tanks of compressed air to raise the submarine.

As the sub began to raise, water from the ventilation pipes flooded the compartment. The Chief Electrician Mate noted water showering the batteries as he lunged to switch off the electricity before they could explode. He escaped electrocution, but the sub was now in total darkness.

Lt. Naquin ordered the 300 lb steel door closed, trapping the crew, but eight of the men made it through the door before it closed, trapping the others. The standard procedure was for the sub to check in every hour, but no attempts were made to contact them. The Squalus had already fired a red rocket and a telephone buoy with the message "submarine sunk here."


Rescue of USS Squalus

Rescue of USS Squalus

The Heroic Rescue

Lt. Commander Charles "Swede" Momsen, a maverick innovator and dedicated to improving equipment for the U.S. Navy rescue operations, heard the distress call of the sunken submarine. He boarded the next seaplane arriving at the Piscataqua River to direct the rescue operation using the Momsen Bell and the Momsen Lung. Another team of Navy divers grabbed their equipment and joined a caravan with the help of state and local police rushing to the site. They arrived at 4 AM the next morning.

By this time, the USS Falcon arrived at the scene with the Momsen Bell aboard. All around the world, the public was glued to their radios. At 10 AM, Martin Sibitsky checked his 240 lbs of gear as he prepared to enter the water. Diving down to the sub, his steel boots made contact with the sub. The 33 survivors cheered hearing his boots on the sub. Sibitsky proceeded to set the bell to the escape hatch, and as he opened the bell, the crew cheered.

Momsen planned to make four trips to rescue the men. Lt. Nasquine sent the weakest survivors up first. On the final trip, a steel wire snagged, and Momsen realized the only way to free the wire was to send the bell to the floor. Divers worked feverishly but were unable to free the wire. Time was running out, so Momsen decided to use ballast tanks and, using only manpower, pulling hand-over-hand pulled the bell to the surface.

The operation took 39 hours, but 33 men were rescued, with 26 men still trapped and presumed drowned.

In July 1939, the Boston Symphony Orchester under Arthur Fields performed a memorial concert for the Squalus victims at Little Boar Head, North Hampton, New Hampshire. It was broadcast nationally for all to hear.

For further reading of the Squalus Rescue, see The Terrible Hours by Peter Maas 1999.


Medals of Honor

Months after this heroic rescue, four Medals of Honor were awarded to William Badders, John Mihalowski, James MacDonald, and Orsen Crandall. Also awarded were 46 Navy Crosses and one Distinguished Service Medal to rescuers and survivors. Both the Momsen Bell and the Momsen Lung would be improved by the U.S. Navy over the years.

It was decided to raise the USS SQUALUS, make repairs, and then renamed the USS SAILFISH. When the Squalus was raised, 25 bodies were recovered, and only one was never found, presumed to have drowned.

Medals of Honor Presented

Medals of Honor Presented

Charles "Swede" Momsen

Momsen was a genius, an innovator, and an advocate of the U.S. Navy submarine fleet. He was behind the ingenious invention of the Momsen Bell that allowed trapped sailors to be rescued. Born in 1896, he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1919, then entered the Submarine School graduating in 1922. Throughout his career, he perfected the equipment for the U.S. Navy while he personally tested his ideas many times. Momsen died in 1967 while in Florida and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Charles "Swede" Momsen

Charles "Swede" Momsen

Awards and Honors to Charles "Swede" Momsen

His many awards included

  • The Navy Cross
  • The Distinguished Award (2 Awards)
  • The Legion of Merit with Combat for "Valor" Award
  • The Navy Commendation Award

His Honors were:

  • The 42nd Arleigh Burke Missle Destroyer was named in his honor the USS MOMSEN, DD6-92.
  • Momsen Hall, 75 man BOQ at the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC), Andora Island, Bahama, was named in his honor.
  • The USS The Submarine Escape and Trainer, named in his honor.

Comments

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on September 09, 2021:

Thanks for reading Peggy. I agree not all of the crew could be saved but what a heroic effort that also led to further rescue equipment.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 09, 2021:

I am glad that many of the men were rescued. Too bad all of them could not be saved. That was surely a heroic rescue!

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on September 09, 2021:

What a heroic rescue. Thank you for sharing this bit of history, Fran.

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on September 09, 2021:

Brenda, thank you for your visit. It was an epic rescue.

BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on September 08, 2021:

Interesting article.

Ashame they couldn't rescue them all, but I'm glad they got the 33.

Dangerous, but heroic.

Rosina S Khan on September 08, 2021:

This is a moving account of how much of the crew was saved from a sunken USS Squalus Submarine. Momsen played a great role in rescuing them. He rightly deserved the honors and awards. I enjoyed reading about it. Thank you for sharing, Fran.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on September 08, 2021:

I have known a few submariners and its a tough world. It was great reading your article, sadly I remembered the sinking of the Kursk also.

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on September 08, 2021:

Thanks, Pamela for reading and commenting. You are always generous with your comments.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on September 08, 2021:

This is a great story, Fran. I really enjoyed reading it. I had never heard about this sub before, and I am glad Momsen received those awards.

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on September 08, 2021:

Thanks for your visit Mike. I agree with your comment totally.

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on September 08, 2021:

MB, thanks for your visit. I too found it was an amazing story.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 08, 2021:

Interesting indeed. Thanks.

Readmikenow on September 08, 2021:

What an amazing and inspirational story!

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