Archive for November, 2017

Submarine Rescues at Sea and The Squalus Rescue

Making headlines this week is the disappearance of the ARA San Juan, an Argentinian submarine that went missing on Wednesday, November 15th. The San Juan was coming home from a routine mission when it reported an electrical breakdown. Command instructed her to return to base immediately and cut her mission short. She was heard from once more, surfacing to report that the problem had been fixed and that she would submerge and proceed towards Mar del Plata Naval base. However, as of this writing, this was the last time anyone communication came from the San Juan. According to a US Navy press release, the US Navy is taking part in the search and rescue mission, sending two rescue systems from San Diego. The statement read that, “Three U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III and one U.S. Air Force C-5 Galaxy aircraft will transport the first rescue system, the Submarine Rescue Chamber (SRC) and underwater intervention Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) from Miramar to Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina.”[1] The Undersea Rescue Command constantly trains to be prepared for these rare occurrences when an undersea rescue may be needed. Training in both the U.S. and with foreign Navies, Cmdr. Mark Hazenberg, former Commanding Officer of the URC, says they operate to ensure that their systems can be loaded onto  airplanes within 24 hours of receiving a call. The SRC being deployed to the rescue mission is one of two in the U.S. Navy’s rescue command. Here is some information on how the SRC come to fruition and how it made one of the greatest submarine rescues in history.

In the early years of submarines, rescue was nearly impossible in cases of malfunctions or sinkings. By 1921, 825 men had died in submarine accidents. In 1925, Lieutenant Commander Charles “Swede” Momsen came up with the idea of a rescue chamber after the failed rescue attempt of the USS S-51(SS 162). Only three of the 37-man crew were able to escape before it sank. The men onboard were friends of Momsen. This event led Momsen to vow to find a way to recuse trapped crews. In 1926, Momsen proposed the idea of a diving bell, and development began in 1928. During the project, Momsen was reassigned[2] and Lieutenant Commander Allan McCann was put in charge of the project. The diving bell was introduced to the Navy in 1930 and was referred to as the McCann rescue chamber. The chamber worked by connecting directly over a submarine’s escape hatch. Once the pressurized air in the lower chamber was released, the chamber and submarine would be at equal pressure. The hatch could then be opened, and the trapped submariners could be brought into the bell and then to the surface. The diving bell was used in what many considered to be the most famous submarine rescue mission in 1939.

Figure 1A diver from the Falcon prepares to enter the water to help guide the rescue pod (right) to the USS Squalus. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

On May 23, 1939, the USS Squalus was flooded and sank off the coast of New Hampshire while out on sea trials. Twenty-six men drowned when the aft compartments flooded but 33 of the men were able to find shelter in the forward compartments of the submarine. No submarine rescue had been successful past 20 feet. The Squalus was 240 feet beneath the ocean surface. Momsen was rushed to New Hampshire to help lead the rescue. The McCann diving bell was loaded onto the USS Falcon, a 187-foot minesweeper stationed in New London, and made the 200-mile trip up the coast. Lt. Oliver Naquin ordered the release of a marker buoy that was attached to a cable and had a telephone in it. On the side of the buoy was lettering that said, “Submarine sunk here. Telephone inside.” The Sculpin (Squalus sister ship), sent out to search for the distressed submarine, came across smoke signals and found the buoy. A lieutenant explained the issue to Sculpin’s commander. As soon as he put Naquin on the line with the commander, the cable snapped. However, the communication was enough for them to know that there were survivors on board and to begin the rescue. Rescuers were able to decipher some Morse code from the crew, gaining knowledge that 33 men were alive in the forward compartments. Momsen planned to bring them up in four trips of seven, eight, nine and nine, though he wasn’t certain that nine would fit. The diving bell was 10 feet high and seven feet wide. Two sailors would make the trip down to rescue the Squalus’s crew. Torpedoman’s mate John Mihalowski and Gunner’s mate Walter Harman were loaded into the upper chamber of the bell along with blankets, flashlights, pea soup, sandwiches, and soda lime powder. The two were sent down, attached to the Squalus and opened the hatch. The first seven men who the commander had deemed the weakest were loaded onto the bell and began towards to the surface. For the second trip, the order was for eight survivors to be taken up. However, Chief Machinist’s mate William Badders was afraid of the dangerously changing weather and decided to bring up more. While Momsen thought the bell looked heavy as she came up, he told Badders, “You brought out too many men on this trip, but do it again.”[3] The third trip went just like the first two. The fourth and last trip took 4 ½ hours. The wire attached to the bell broke and attempts to apply a new one became too perilous. Momsen decided that the only way to bring the survivors home was to manually lift the 21,600-pound bell. Six men on the Falcon took hold of the wire and began to pull. Each time finding it too heavy, the men on the bell were ordered to blow the ballast tanks for 15 seconds to control the buoyancy. After the third attempt, the chamber began to move. Thirty-nine hours after its sinking, all 33 survivors were safely at the surface.

Figure 2USS Squalus survivors aboard the USS Falcon. Photo: U.S. Navy

According to the Undersea Museum, of the 19 U.S. submarines that accidentally sunk, nine involved at least some of the crew surviving. After the rescue of the Squalus crew, the idea that submarine rescue at sea was improbable diminished. The Navy continues to develop its rescue programs today. The two rescue chambers in today’s Navy are advanced versions of the original McCann chamber and can be used in up to 850 feet of water. Along with the SRC being deployed to Argentina, the Navy is also sending the Pressurized Rescue Module, which is similar the bell in concept. However, while the bell is lowered by a tethered chord from the mother ship, the PRM is operated remotely. It can descend to 2,000 feet and carry up to 18 people, including two attendants. Submarine service is much safer today than it was in the past. However, each Navy trains their sailors to be prepared for the worst. Our hearts are with those in Argentina and with our own sailors who are helping search for the missing submarine and its crew. If found in time, we know the SRC, the modern counterpart of the McCann rescue chamber, will be there to perform as trained and provide a way out that at one time was viewed as unachievable.

Figure 3 A rescue chamber on display at the Submarine Force Library and Museum.



[2] Momsen’s reassignement lead to his most famous invention, the Momsen Lung.


“Take Her Down”

While Veteran’s Day may have been last weekend, we honor those who have served all year long. Here at the museum we take great pride in honoring those who have served and preserving their legacy and history for generations to come. One exhibit we have is the Medal of Honor wall. It honors those who have received the Medal of Honor during their service in the submarine force. These submariners are all different, but share in the fact that they gave their hearts and, for some, their lives to protect this country. Here is one of their stories.

Howard Walter Gilmore was born in Selma, Alabama on September 29, 1902. He enlisted in the Navy on November 15, 1920 and was appointed to the US Naval Academy in 1922. In 1926 he was sent to his first station on the battleship USS Mississippi (BB-41). By 1930, Gilmore was seeking something new and exciting and underwent submarine training in New London. Gilmore’s life was filled with close calls and his personal life filled with tragedy. His first wife died of polio and his second was seriously injured in an accidental fall. During his time as an executive officer on the USS Shark (SS-174), he and a colleague were assaulted while in Panama. Gilmore’s throat was cut, and he narrowly survived.  Unfortunately, his luck would not change when he was assigned to take command of the still-unfinished USS Growler (SS-215) in late 1941. By March of 1942, construction of the Growler was finished, and Gilmore and his crew would operate out of Pearl Harbor in the Pacific theater. Their first war patrol would come in late June 1942 in the Aleutian Islands. During this patrol, Gilmore once again narrowly escaped disaster, avoiding two torpedoes that were fired at him during an attack by three Japanese destroyers. In August, they would leave for their second patrol in the East China Sea near Taiwan. During what would end up being Growler’s most successful war patrol, they sunk four merchant ships totaling 15,000 tons. Her third patrol was quiet, and she would remain in Brisbane, Australia for the rest of 1942.

The Growler and her crew left Brisbane on New Year’s Day 1943 for her fourth war patrol. Her mission was to target Japanese shipping lanes in the Bismarck Archipelago. In early February, while charging her batteries on the surface, Gilmore spotted a provision ship and prepared for a surface attack. The 900-ton provision ship Hayasaki saw the on-coming submarine and attempted to ram the Growler. In the darkness, Gilmore “sounded the collision alarm and shouted, ‘Left full rudder!’-to no avail. Perhaps inadvertently, Growler hit the Japanese adversary amidships at 17 knots, heeling the submarine 50 degrees, bending sideways 18 feet of her the bow, and disabling the forward torpedo tubes.”[1] The Japanese crew began firing at the bridge, killing the assistant officer and a lookout who were on deck. Gilmore and two other men were also wounded during the burst of gun fire. Gilmore, without thinking, called for the bridge to be cleared. Gilmore realized that if they dove, the Growler could be saved, but there was no time for him to make it below. Despite this, he gave the call to “Take her down!”  LCDR Arnold Schade, shaken and unsure, followed the last order his captain would ever give him. Schade would service the ship a few hours later but found no sign of the Hayasaki. There was also no sign of Gilmore. Schade and the crew were able to keep the battered ship together long enough to make it back to Brisbane on February 17th. Gilmore’s death would unfortunately not be the only tragedy for the Growler. On her 11th war patrol in 1944, she was lost at sea. By her end, The Growler received eight battle stars for her role in the Pacific War.

CDR Howard Gilmore was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his sacrifice to save his ship. The submarine tender Howard W. Gilmore (AS-16) was named for him and sponsored by his widow. His award citation reads:

For distinguished gallantry and valor above and beyond the call of duty as Commanding Officer of the USS Growler during her Fourth War Patrol in the Southwest Pacific from 10 January to 7 February 1943. Boldly striking at the enemy in spite of continuous hostile air and antisubmarine patrols, CDR Gilmore sank one Japanese freighter and damaged another by torpedo fire, successfully evading severe depth charges following each attack. In the darkness of night on 7 February, an enemy gunboat closed range and prepared to ram the Growler. CDR Gilmore daringly maneuvered to avoid the crash and rammed the attacker instead, ripping into her port side at 11 knots and bursting wide her plates. In the terrific fire of the sinking gunboat’s heavy machineguns, CDR Gilmore calmly gave the order to clear the bridge, and refusing safety for himself, remained on deck while his men preceded him below. Struck down by the fusillade of bullets and having done his utmost against the enemy, in his final living moments, CDR Gilmore gave his last order to the officer of the deck, “Take her down.” The Growler dived; seriously damaged but under control, she was brought safely to port by her well-trained crew inspired by the courageous fighting spirit of their dead captain.

The two others lost that day by the gunfire during the attack were Ensign W. Williams and lookout Fireman W.F. Kelley. The phrase “Take her down!” remains a legendary phrase in the U.S. Submarine Force, and rightfully so. Gilmore is honored in our Medal of Honor room as well as in an exhibit honoring the legacy of the phrase, “Take Her Down!”

[1] Whitman, Edward.

The Journey of the Torpedo’s History

Over the last couple of weeks, we have done blog stories covering specific times in Naval history dealing with the torpedo. However, when discussed individually, you may not get the whole picture of the evolution of the torpedo and how it went from floating sea mine to today’s strategic weapon. With that in mind, we thought we’d share a brief evolutionary tale of the torpedo. Today’s definition of a torpedo is “a long metal cylinder with an explosive warhead, propelled through the water by an internal combustion engine or batteries. Modern torpedoes are wire-guided: a think wire spooling from the torpedo links it to the submarine’s fire control computer, from which guidance commands in the form of digital electronic signals flow.”[1] How did we get to such a sophisticated piece of machinery?

There is often confusion when looking at the evolutionary tale of torpedoes. This is mainly because, in the 17th and 18th centuries, sea mines were typically called “torpedoes.” However, the two are very different. The torpedo is a descendant of the floating mine. Therefore, when studying the torpedo, one must begin with the floating mine. The earliest reference to floating mines dates back to 1585. The Dutch would pack an entire ship with explosives, keeping them alongside potential victims.  By the Revolutionary War, this method was replaced with floating barrels of gunpowder. When David Bushnell decided to pack kegs with gunpowder, the idea of using floating mines in warfare became a tangible possibility. The problem with these devices was that they were uncontrollable. They could not be anchored and would drift with the current. Despite their problems, these sea mines ushered in a completely new idea of how to attack an enemy ship. Bushnell referred to these mines as “torpedoes.”

Figure 1 An electric ray or torpedo fish

The term torpedo comes from a fish with the same name, which emits an electric discharge that can incapacitate its enemies. Torpedo fish are part of the electric ray family. They can produce electric discharges from 8 to 220 volts. The name comes from the Latin torpere, which means to be stiffened or paralyzed. As Robert Fulton built on Bushnell’s idea, he also used the term “torpedo” for his mines. Fulton, however, did not believe this weapon should be used during wartime, but beforehand as a preventive measure. By rendering an enemy’s fleet as obsolete, maritime battles would disappear. Fulton’s mines could be anchored, solving the problems of mines drifting away from their target. This style of warfare continued throughout the Civil War. Confederate states used mines to counter Union ships, which outnumbered southern vessels. Samuel Colt would perfect the use of an electric current to detonate a mine in 1844. He also created a moored minefield that could be detonated on command through an operator standing on the shore.

It was not until 1866 that Robert Whitehead developed the precursor to the modern torpedo. This self-propelling torpedo is the design that all torpedoes have been based on ever since. The US Navy originally decided not to invest in the Whitehead torpedo. They instead initially developed their own design based on the Whitehead model, in 1869. However, their efforts never left the testing stage and the program was terminated in 1874, at which time the US Navy purchased their first Whitehead torpedo. The first models of the Whitehead torpedo were cold running and operated on compressed air. Later models would improve speed and distance with the addition of heat. The device used a combustion pot to heat the compressed air allowing the torpedo to go faster. The speed and distance could be varied by changing the amount of heat used. With the modification of a gyroscope, directionality could be improved as well. From 1866 to 1922, torpedo development remained relatively unchanged. Modifications to the war nose or detonators were made between 1910 and 1915. These changes allowed the torpedoes to go from direct impact to a “model that would detonate from any direction or glancing blow to the hull using whiskers; four levers which actually extended from the warhead. Upon any slight jolt of a glancing blow, the whiskers would release the shear pin and allow the firing pin to impact the percussion cap, detonating the warhead.”[2] In 1920, the first air-dropped torpedo was tested.

Figure 2 mk14 torpedo

In pre-WWII, the MK 14 was developed and later became the standard submarine anti-ship torpedo in WWII. This torpedo is responsible for sinking tons of Japanese vessels and giving them devastating blows. By 1942, the development of the electric torpedo was complete and the MK 18 joined the submarine service. This type of torpedo had a battery compartment instead of the typical air flask. The engine was replaced by an electric motor. The first electric torpedoes were more efficient than their predecessors. However, due to their usage of a lead acid battery, they required maintenance often. This was a problem for the submarine force since hydrogen would be expelled during the maintenance process. This was a safety concern on these diesel fleets. This would mean that purchasing of the torpedo room had to be done on a regular basis. Electric options had its advantages despite these maintenance issues. They could not be detected through the water, leaving no answer as to the location it came from or even that it was coming at all.

After WWII and the beginning of the 1950’s, torpedo development switched its focus onto anti-submarine warfare. At the end of the war, the US had seven torpedoes in service and had 24 more in development. Advancements in sonar technology allowed submarines to be detected from a further distance away. The need arose for strong torpedoes that were more efficient. Testing began on homing torpedoes that would attack based on sound. This proved difficult since newer submarines and propellers were becoming quieter. The MK 27 was the first torpedo to leave its tube under its own power and not by compressed air. As nuclear-powered submarines entered Navy fleets, the need for a faster, more capable submarine arose yet again. The MK 45 was delivered in 1963. It had speeds of 40 knots and a range of 11,000 to 15,000 years. It featured a sea-water activated battery and a detonation command via wire guidance.  In 1976, the MK 45 was replaced with the non-nuclear MK 48. The MK 48 is the primary active service torpedo in today’s submarine fleet.  The latest generation is the MK 48 ADCAP which was produced in 1989. This model can operate with or without wire guidance.  These models can act on their own active or passive sensors to reach their desired target and can even readjust if a target is missed. The MK 48 is 19 feet and 21 inches long and weighs 3,450 pounds. It has a range of 20 miles at a speed of 55 knots, which is four times the range and speed of its predecessor, the MK 37.

Figure 3 Mk-48 ADCAP torpedo was loaded into USS Oklahoma City – Polaris Point, Guam – November 2012

Torpedoes have come a long way from the days of Bushnell and Fulton. The sea mines of the 1700’s have developed their own path and are still used today in Naval warfare. However, their predecessors that were once called “torpedoes” gave way to the improved innovation and conception of today’s modern-day torpedo defense system.