From the Deep
The raising of a sub off Maine added insult to injury in 1939.
For Charles Momsen, lieutenant commander with the navy’s Experimental Diving Unit, this ought to have been a moment of triumph, a victory as the submarine USS Squalus raised its bow, just left of center, above the surface of the Gulf of Maine after spending fifty days grounded 243 feet below. Momsen had already successfully used a rescue chamber to save thirty-three sailors from the downed sub, which sank near the Isles of Shoals when its induction tubes malfunctioned, killing twenty-six crewmen. But with war clouds forming over Europe, Squalus needed to be refloated and put back into
service as quickly as possible. Momsen enlisted four navy ships including the tugs Penacook and Wandank, at far right, and the sub tender Falcon, at center, to help raise the 1,450-ton ship. Seven wooden-sheathed salvage pontoons like the ones at center and at far left, each thirty-two feet long, were filled with water and submerged during a series of more than sixty dives and tied to the stricken sub’s bow and stern, the plan being to pump air into them to create enough buoyancy to extract Squalus from the twenty feet of seafloor that it had embedded itself into.
Newspaper photographer James Jones was one of several journalists covering the raising of the sub on July 13, 1939. “Having covered the sinking of the S-4 at Provincetown, the S-51 off Block Island, and the Squalus story from the beginning, I had some idea of what might conceivably happen,” Jones said later. “I figured that the bow of the sub, being lighter, since it was not flooded, might come up first.” He perched himself and his Graflex four-by-five camera on the stern of USS Sagamore, refusing to go below even to eat as the afternoon wore on.
At about 3 p.m., the first salvage pontoons burst through the surface, one of the air tubes used to fill them plainly visible, at far left, with the mainland in the distance. But the air provided too much lift and Squalus shot, out of control, some thirty feet into the air and hung there for up to ten seconds, water streaming from its limber holes as Jones snapped his remarkable photograph. The sailors huddled on the afterdeck of Penacook, at upper right, and leaning out from the sides of Wandank watched as the sub reversed course and sank back to the bottom. Jones was fortunate that one sailor severed the tow rope at lower left, or the cameraman might have been dragged down with Squalus.
Disappointed but not defeated, Momsen’s divers were soon back underwater, reattaching the salvage pontoons and raising Squalus again, albeit more slowly. The sub was later rechristened USS Sailfish and went on to a successful career in the Pacific with some of the Squalus’ original crew. Today the ship’s conning tower stands in a park at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, practically within sight of where this dramatic image was made seventy years ago.
- By: Joshua F. Moore