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Squalus Disaster, Rescue, Gripped a Nation on the Eve of War

A naval disaster that evolved into a mass rescue captured the attention of the American public while the nation approached the end of the Great Depression and the start of World War II.

When the submarine USS Squalus (SS 192) and her 59 crewmen sank off New Hampshire on May 23, 1939, the crew’s struggle for survival and the courage of rescuers kept Americans close to their radio dials. Before television, before the internet, the public was gripped by compelling events far beneath the sea in what became the greatest submarine rescue in U.S. history.

A naval disaster that evolved into a mass rescue captured the attention of the American public while the nation approached the end of the Great Depression and the start of World War II.

After sighting the marker buoy, the Sculpin’s commander managed to speak with Naquin and confirm that there were survivors, even discussing rescue options before the communications cable parted. Now cut off from the world above, Squalus‘ survivors spent a cold night trapped inside their submarine, beginning to suffer ill effects from chlorine gas leaking from the battery compartment. By now, the nation knew almost as much about the tragedy as Naquin’s sailors did.

Squalus, named for a family of sharks, was a Sargo-class pre-war diesel-electric submarine, built at the Portsmouth, N.H. Navy Yard and commissioned on March 1, 1939. The 310-foot boat displaced 2,350 tons when submerged and was armed with eight 21-inch torpedo tubes, a 3-inch deck gun, and two .50-caliber machine guns. Squalus was designed to travel at a speed of eight knots when submerged.

Squalus Disaster

USS Wandank (AT 26), at left, and USS Falcon (ASR 2) moored over the sunken Squalus, during rescue operations, May 24, 1939. The McCann Rescue Chamber, which brought 33 of the submarine’s crewmen to safety, is visible on Falcon’s after deck. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

Lt. Oliver F. Naquin, the boat’s captain, took Squalus to sea for trials, including dives, off the Isle of Shoals starting on May 12, 1939. After 18 eventless dives, Squalus made a test dive on the morning of May 23 with 56 sailors and three civilians inside her steel hull. Just after the submarine went underwater, its main engine air induction valve failed and water poured into the boat’s aft engine room. The submarine sank stern first to the bottom, coming to rest keel down in 60 fathoms, or 240 feet.

A traumatic flooding of the aft section of the Squalus quickly claimed the lives of twenty-four sailors and two civilians. That left thirty-two crewmembers and one civilian struggling for life in the forward compartments. To signal their distress, they sent up a marker buoy equipped with a telephone cable, and released red smoke bombs to the surface.

On Dec. 3, 1944, during repeated torpedo attacks in a furious storm, Sailfish sank the Japanese escort carrier Chuyo. In a master stroke of irony, 20 of 21 American prisoners aboard the enemy carrier died in the attack, all from the submarine Sculpin, sunk three weeks earlier – the same Sculpin that had helped locate and raise Squalus in 1939. The Navy awarded Sailfish nine battle stars for action in World War II.

Half a dozen Navy and Coast Guard vessels rushed to the scene. USS Sculpin (SS 191) was directed to search the Squalus’ dive area for signs of her sister submarine. An alert lookout spotted one of the smoke bombs released by Squalus and reported the sighting to the Navy Yard. While the Sculpin remained on scene, the Navy dispatched its Washington-based Experimental Diving Unit. The story dominated radio news coverage immediately. Several newspapers issued “extra” editions.

After sighting the marker buoy, the Sculpin’s commander managed to speak with Naquin and confirm that there were survivors, even discussing rescue options before the communications cable parted. Now cut off from the world above, Squalus‘ survivors spent a cold night trapped inside their submarine, beginning to suffer ill effects from chlorine gas leaking from the battery compartment. By now, the nation knew almost as much about the tragedy as Naquin’s sailors did.

The following morning, the rescue ship USS Falcon (ASR 2) arrived and began lowering the new Momsen-McCann rescue chamber – a modified diving bell invented by Cmdr. Charles B. Momsen and improved by Lt. Cmdr. Allan Rockwell McCann. The device, manned by courageous deep-sea divers, made it possible to reach the crew.

Squalus Disaster

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Harriet Lane landing the first nine Squalus survivors at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, Kittery, Maine, May 24, 1939. Some of the surviors are visible in center, wrapped in blankets. They had been recovered from the sunken submarine by a McCann Rescue Chamber deployed from the USS Falcon (ASR 2). Squalus had sunk in the Atlantic, off Portsmouth, N.H. on May 23. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

In three trips, the rescue chamber brought 26 men to the surface. After serious difficulty with tangled cables, the fourth trip finally rescued the last seven survivors in the dark hours before midnight on May 24, 39 hours after the sinking.

Divers made a fifth, especially dangerous descent to confirm that there were no survivors in the aft torpedo room compartment.

A  Herculean effort brought Squalus to the surface weeks later. The Navy raised the submarine and towed it to Portsmouth on Sept. 13, 1939. Following an investigation of the engine room compartments, the boat was formally decommissioned on Nov. 15, 1939.

The nation awarded the Medal of Honor to four Navy divers – William Badders, Orson L. Crandall, James H. McDonald, and John Mihalowski – for their part in the rescue of Squalus’s crew. Badders, who had entered the service in 1900 and was the senior rescuer, went with Mihalowski on the final, risky descent in the Momsen chamber to rescue any possible survivors in the flooded submarine. Mihalowski was with him. Crandall and McDonald’s citations both honor “leadership and devotion to duty in directing diving operations and in making important and difficult dives under the most hazardous conditions […] far above and beyond the ordinary call of duty.”

The submarine was renamed Sailfish and recommissioned in 1940. With her new name, she was in port at Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines when Japan attacked Pearl Harboron Dec. 7, 1941. Fighting from the very first day of the war, Sailfish completed  a dozen war patrols and sank more than 45,000 tons of enemy shipping.

On Dec. 3, 1944, during repeated torpedo attacks in a furious storm, Sailfish sank the Japanese escort carrier Chuyo. In a master stroke of irony, 20 of 21 American prisoners aboard the enemy carrier died in the attack, all from the submarine Sculpin, sunk three weeks earlier – the same Sculpin that had helped locate and raise Squalus in 1939. The Navy awarded Sailfish nine battle stars for action in World War II.

USS Sailfish

USS Sailfish (SS-192) off the Mare Island Navy Yard, Calif., April 13, 1943. In May of 1939, the story of the rescue of the then-Squalus’ crew, gripped the nation. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

After the war, Sailfish-nee-Squalus was decommissioned. Plans to use her as a target in Pacific atomic tests were set aside, and the submarine’s bridge and conning tower were removed and installed as a memorial at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in 1946. The hull was eventually scrapped.

The nation awarded the Medal of Honor to four Navy divers – William Badders, Orson L. Crandall, James H. McDonald, and John Mihalowski – for their part in the rescue of Squalus’s crew. Badders, who had entered the service in 1900 and was the senior rescuer, went with Mihalowski on the final, risky descent in the Momsen chamber to rescue any possible survivors in the flooded submarine. Mihalowski was with him. Crandall and McDonald’s citations both honor “leadership and devotion to duty in directing diving operations and in making important and difficult dives under the most hazardous conditions […] far above and beyond the ordinary call of duty.”

Crandall and McDonald’s citations both honor “leadership and devotion to duty in directing diving operations and in making important and difficult dives under the most hazardous conditions […] far above and beyond the ordinary call of duty.”

Naquin (1904-1989) never again held a command at sea, and was later criticized as the operations officer on Guam who told Capt. Charles McVay of the USS Indianapolis (CA 35) that Japanese submarines were not a great concern. The Indianapolis was torpedoed in one of the Navy’s worst losses of the war. Naquin retired as a rear admiral.

The Squalus drama was highlighted in the book The Terrible Hours by Peter Maas (2000) and in Submerged, a made-for-television movie (2001) based on the book and directed by James Keach.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...