It was early morning on May 23, 1939. Thirty-three U.S. sailors sat trapped on the icy seafloor off the New Hampshire coast in 243
feet (74 meters) of water in a disabled, half-flooded submarine called Squalus. Wet, cold, and low on oxygen, they
were keenly aware that nobody had ever survived such a predicament, and that 26 of their shipmates were likely dead.
Squalus had performed well during its initial sea trials. Eighteen test dives went smoothly, but the
19th was calamitous. A ventilation valve that should have been shut was opened, due to either mechanical or human error. As
Squalus submerged, water gushed into the rear compartments, killing nearly half the crew and sinking the sub.
The survivors released a messenger buoy and smoke bombs and waited, hoping desperately that someone would see them. Almost
five hours later, Squaluss sister ship, Sculpin, arrived. Then the rescue ships came.
In the helpless sub, the surviving men were comfortable though cold. They were instructed to rest and conserve oxygen. The
situation became more desperate as sea water mixed with battery acid in the forward battery compartment and slowly filled
the compartment with deadly chlorine gas. While the crew was able to protect themselves by sealing off this
compartment, some of them would later have to go through it to escape.
Greatest Submarine Rescue in History
On the surface the rescue team, led by Commander Charles Swede Momsen, decided to use the new McCann Rescue Chamber, which was
designed to attach to a disabled subs hatch and ferry survivors to the surface.
A diver descended to one of Squalus escape hatches and attached a cable that would guide the bell up and down. The men banged
ecstatically on the hull upon hearing the diver.
During four trips to the sub all the survivors were evacuated, but not before rescuers dealt with a range of hair-raising and
potentially fatal setbacks, including a tangled guide cable. A fifth trip in the chamber confirmed that there were no survivors
in the flooded compartments.
The first rescue of its kind, the Squalus incident was later called the greatest submarine rescue in history by
author Peter Maas.
After the rescue an equally impressive and successful effort was launched to raise Squalus and tow it back to
port. The sub was eventually overhauled and recommissioned as Sailfish and served safely throughout World War II.
Despite being given their choice of duty, the survivors decided unanimously to continue to serve in submarines.
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