In 1939, the greatest submarine rescue in history was undertaken off the coast of Portsmouth, N.H. This is the second part of a two-part series about the heroic efforts to rescue the trapped crew of the USS Squalus as millions around the world followed their race against time. View part one here.
On May 24, 1939, 33 men had only hours to live aboard the downed submarine USS Squalus. The sub had sunk under the waters off the New Hampshire and Maine coast during a test run.
But in 21 years, 825 men had died in submarine accidents. Rescuers had never succeeded in saving any of them.
So when a team of rescuers rushed to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, radio broadcasts closely followed their progress. People around the world listened anxiously.
‘Somebody is Alive’
When Dorothy Emery arrived home from school, she found her mother and grandfather listening to news of the Squalus on the radio. Undoubtedly they listened to the Boston station WBZ, which boasts to this day it was the first on the scene.
“Somebody is alive down there,” Dorothy’s mother shouted.
She then told her daughter that the trapped men were hammering messages in Morse code on the side of the Squalus. The rescuers had difficulty making out the message from the faint sounds. And they didn’t know how many men were alive, or who they were.
The Diving Bell
The family grabbed sandwiches and sat around the radio as the news about the Squalus rescue preempted all other programs.
They could hear the airplanes overhead flying in from Washington, and they heard about the divers racing up the coast. Then they followed the agonizingly slow progress of the Falcon as it cruised down the Thames River in Connecticut, past Block Island, up Buzzard’s Bay, through the Cape Cod Canal and up the Massachusetts coast.
“Nobody at our house thought of going to bed,” Emery later wrote. “We were too busy listening to the radio, hoping and praying.”
The Squalus Rescue Begins
At the crack of dawn, the Falcon arrived with the rescue bell lashed to her fantail. Foggy weather delayed the former minesweeper, and heavy seas made it hard to position her over the submarine. Not until 9:45 a.m. was the rescue ship pointed into the wind and stationary. Perversely, the weather started to clear just when the Falcon moored properly. The sun came out, the wind died and the seas abated.
The rescuers took it as a good omen.
At 10:15 a.m., Boatswain’s Mate Martin Sibitsky donned 200 pounds of diving gear, including 40 pounds of ballast around his waist. Air hoses and a telephone line were connected to his metal helmet. He would spend minutes, not hours, underwater, because the pressure of the ocean would force nitrogen into his bloodstream. And that could cause all kinds of strange behavior: blindness, symptoms of drunkenness, euphoria, unconsciousness.
Sibitsky was to attach a half-inch steel wire to the escape hatch of the Squalus. The diving bell would travel down that cable to the wreck. No one was sure, though, where the submarine actually was because the line to the rescue buoy had snapped.
The day before, an old harbor tug, the Penacook, cruised back and forth for hours over the spot where the buoy was found, trying to snag the Squalus with a grapnel. Finally, the Penacook caught onto something. No one was sure if it was actually attached to the wreck, or to a boulder, or to something else.
An Inside Straight
It was extremely unlikely that the grapnel was exactly where it needed to be – by the escape hatch of the Squalus. Lt. Cdr. Charles Momsen, who directed the rescue effort, said the odds of the grapnel being attached to the Squalus were poor. The odds of it being near the escape hatch were worse – like drawing to an inside straight.
Sibitsky climbed onto a small wooden diving platform that lowered him into the Atlantic, guiding himself down by the cable from the Penacook. Every move required tremendous exertion. Dr. Charles Wesley Shilling, senior medical officer for the rescue operation, stood on the Falcon’s deck and held his breath as Sibitsky descended. He knew what Sibitsky would go through. He’d be weak and awkward and his mind would function slowly.
“No one who has not been in a diving suit at sea … has any idea how hard it is to do the simplest task,” Shilling later wrote.
Sibitsky landed on the deck of the Squalus. “You’re not going to believe this,” he told the crew topside through the phone line. The grapnel hook had caught a railing three to four feet from the escape hatch.
Momsen believed him. They’d drawn to an inside straight.
Sibitsky spotted the broken cable from the rescue buoy and moved it so it wouldn’t interfere with the diving bell. Then he stomped on the hatch to let the crew know of his presence. The elated submariners banged on the side of the boat in response. They’d heard his lead boots on the hull – and his communication with the Falcon. Every other word was a cuss word, remembered one of the survivors.
Sibitsky waited for the downhaul cable to come down from the diving bell fastened to the Falcon’s deck. He reached for the shackle at the end of the cable with his heavy glove and missed it.
“Jesus Christ!” he said. Momsen calmed him over the telephone. The cable came down again. Sibitsky then managed to attach it to a ring in the middle of the escape hatch.
It took him 22 minutes to perform that simple task. It took 40 minutes to return him gradually to the surface, where Dr. Shilling accompanied him to the recompression chamber. “He felt fine, exhilarated by the knowledge that he had accomplished one of the really remarkable diving feats of all time,” Shilling said.
The rescuers had picked up some of the Morse code messages hammered on the side of the Squalus. They knew 33 men were alive in the forward compartments. Momsen planned to bring them up in four trips of seven, eight, nine and nine. He hoped the diving bell could hold nine. Otherwise, they’d have to make a fifth trip, and every additional trip increased the odds of a change in the weather or a fatal breakdown.
The diving bell stood 10 feet high and seven feet wide. It had an upper chamber and a lower chamber, which could be attached with a rubber seal to the hatch of the sub. A ballast tank outside the lower chamber controlled its buoyancy. The rescuers aboard the Falcon could listen to what went on inside the bell by telephone.
Torpedoman’s Mate John Mihalowski and Gunner’s Mate Walter Harman were loaded into the upper chamber with extra blankets, flashlights, a milk can full of hot pea soup, sandwiches and soda lime powder.
At 11:30 a.m., men lowered the diving bell into the depths, slowly to make sure the cable wound correctly on the winch.
Where Are the Napkins?
About a half hour later the divers saw the gray shape of the Squalus. Mihalowski maneuvered the rescue chamber over the escape hatch, and the tremendous pressure of the sea formed a watertight seal. They bolted the diving bell to the hatch during a moment of great danger. If the two men became incapacitated from the ocean’s pressure before opening the hatch, they would be entombed in the diving bell.
Mihalowski opened the hatch.
“The dull thud of the hatch falling open was a thrill I cannot describe,” Momsen recollected. “Not a shout or cheer came over the phone.”
Instead, the first words that greeted the rescuers as they handed down the can of hot soup: “Where in the hell are the napkins?” Then, “Why the delay?”
The first seven survivors clilmbed into the bell. Lt. Oliver Naquin, the Squalus’ commanding officer, had chosen the men who seemed the weakest. The hatch was unbolted, the lower compartment flooded, and the ballast tank blown.
Watching and Cheering
On the farm in Greenland, Emery and her family had studied diagrams of the diving bell in the newspapers. They followed the rescue in their imaginations as they listened to the radio.
“At around 2:00 pm, an excited announcer told us the first seven men were climbing out of the diving bell and boarding the Falcon,” she wrote. “Newsreel cameras were grinding, on-the-spot broadcasts were taking place, and sailors were lined up at ships’ rails, watching and cheering.”
“The survivors have brought a list with them which contains the names of the rest of the crew known to be alive, and which we will broadcast as soon as possible,” said the announcer. “There are 33 known survivors, according to the Navy Department, and little hope is held for the survival of the 26 others from whom no sign of life has ever been heard.”
Still the Emerys had no word of their tenant, Harold Preble, the naval architect aboard te sub.
For the diving bell’s second trip, Momsen ordered eight survivors taken up. But Chief Machinist’s Mate William Badders had another idea. He knew how quickly the weather could change on the New England coast, and he knew the danger of a bulkhead giving way and drowning the survivors.
“I got to thinking that I had operated this chamber probably more than anyone else in the Navy, and I knew it could handle more than seven passengers and two operators,” he said. “I decided I was going to bring more men up.”
Only later would they learn what a fortuitous decision he made.
The rescue chamber came up a second time at 4:11 p.m. It looked so heavy to Momsen that he decided it was too risky to bring up nine. That meant five trips, instead of four.
Nine survivors, however, emerged from the bell. The two operators pretended surprise and then concern. They didn’t fool Momsen. He told Badders, “You brought out too many men on this trip, but do it again.”
Both Kinds of Tears
The third trip went off without a hitch. Nine men staggered out of the bell at 6:27 p.m. Like the others, they got blankets, hot towels and coffee, then went ashore to the hospital. Lt. Nichols helped Admiral Cole prepare a list of the Squalus survivors. Radio announcers broadcast the names to the public. Upon learning the news, the wives broke into tears of joy – or anguish.
Dorothy Emery remembers hearing Harold Preble’s name on the list. Elated, she and her family hugged each other and yelled, “He made it!”
“Our mood quickly changed from elation to sadness when two of our schoolmates’ fathers were named among the presumed dead,” she wrote.
In nearby Dover, reporters tracked down Sherman Shirley’s fiancée, a 20-year-old mill girl named Ruth DeSautel. Newspapers dubbed her the “bride of death.”
“Her eyes are red-rimmed from constant weeping,” reported the Hearst news service. “You can’t blame Lloyd Maness,” she said, referring to the sailor who had closed the compartment that trapped his friend Shirley. “Lloyd did the right thing.”
Ruth’s seven brothers and sisters tried to comfort her as she clung to the hope that Shirley would somehow be alive.
The fourth, and riskiest, rescue began at 6:41 that evening. The diving bell made the trip to the Squalus and the divers loaded the last eight men, including Naquin, into it.
At 8:14, the diving bell started to creep upward. But at 160 feet, it suddenly stopped.
“Something’s wrong,” said the operator, Chief Metalsmith James McDonald. The steel wire jammed on the reel. Momsen stayed calm–they’d anticipated that emergency.
They would heave on the wire to help clear it. But that didn’t work. As the men hauled on the wire, the strands started to part – “like firecrackers,” recalled Momsen.
They gently lowered the diving bell to the bottom. A diver, Chief Torpedoman Walter Squire, went down to free the troublesome downhaul wire, a difficult and dangerous maneuver. The wire was too taut to unshackle, so Squire cut it. The freed diving bell bounced off the Squalus.
Torpedoman’s Mate Jesse Duncan went down to try again. His diving suit caught on the frayed wire and he struggled to free himself, landing on the diving bell and entangling himself in the wires attached to it. He nearly fell off the bell, which would have killed him. Practically incoherent, Duncan was hoisted up and Metalsmith Edward Clayton sent down. Clayton got fouled as well.
‘Make Mine a Blonde’
“We found ourselves in a serious situation with a diver fouled in the wire, the most dangerous kind of fouling in the diving business,” recalled Momsen. “We finally managed to get Clayton up.”
Inside the crowded bell the two operators, Mihalowski and McDonald, acted unconcerned. They chatted, joked about juicy steaks and commented cheerfully that they’d rather be in the warmth and light of the bell than making the dive to rescue them. Mihalowski passed around some chocolate bars.
Radios broadcast the communication between the men inside the diving bell and the Falcon. On the farm in Greenland, Dorothy Emery heard the radio report their words – possibly their last.
“Say, Mac, tell them to send us down a quart and we don’t care whether it’s a quart of soup, ice cream, coffee or whisky!” said one. “Make mine a blonde!” said another.
Momsen decided it was too difficult to attach a new wire to the rescue chamber. He figured with only eight passengers, they could be bring it up by hand. The Falcon crew would gently haul the rescue chamber up with the frayed wire as McDonald controlled the ballast so it would have just enough buoyancy to rise slowly.
Momsen told McDonald to blow the ballast tank for three seconds every time he gave the word. On the Falcon’s deck, six men hauled on the wire to lift the 21,600-pound diving bell. They hoped the strand would hold.
On the Falcon the men took a cautious hold on the half-broken wire, recalled Dr. Shilling. They pulled gently, then they pulled again. It was too heavy. McDonald blew the water out of the ballast tanks for 15 seconds. The six men on deck pulled cautiously on the frayed wire. Still too heavy. Another order came down to blow the ballast tanks for another 15 seconds.
“By this time all hands on the Falcon were quiet — not a sound as the 15 second blow was repeated,” wrote Shilling. “The order came again: “Give it another try, boys. Easy now. Take a strain on that cable and see if you can lift the bell.”
This time, it worked. The men pulled lightly again, hardly believing the rescue chamber was moving. Slowly they heaved on the nearly broken wire. Soon the frayed part of the cable was on deck. All they had to do then was pull hand-over-hand on the undamaged section of wire. Inside the bell, the nine men cheerfully read off the depth gauge.
After 4-1/2 trying hours, the diving bell made it to the surface. With the final eight rescued, all 33 Squalus survivors reached safety.
Millions of listeners rejoiced. Then they turned off their radios and went to bed.
What About the Others?
But the Squalus rescue wasn’t over yet. A last effort had to be made to find out if anyone else was alive in the wreck of the Squalus. Unlikely, but possible. The submariners just might have managed to close the door to the torpedo room to hold back the flood in the engine rooms.
Finding out would be the most perilous operation yet.
The next day, Lt. J.K. Morrison made the long hard dive back to the Squalus, where he tried to move the downhaul cable from the forward hatch to the after hatch. The pressure almost got to him and he was hoisted back up.
Another diver went down and attached the haul down wire to the aft hatch. He too lost the wire once before he made it fast.
Badders and Mihalowski climbed into the diving bell again, aware of the danger they faced. They would have to equalize the pressure in the lower compartment with the pressure of the sea in order to open the Squalus’ hatch without getting flooded.
The diving bell lowered into place over the hatch and Badders climbed down into the lower compartment. He attached the chamber to the wreck with four bolts. Then he cracked open the Squalus’ hatch. Air rushed into the bell and a torrent of water spurted into the lower chamber, rising to Badders’ waist. Above him, Mihalowski quickly blasted compressed air into the lower chamber, forcing the sea back into the submarine.
Orders came from topside to look inside the Squalus. Badders then opened the hatch and looked down. He saw nothing but black water – the torpedo room had completely flooded. No one could be alive in there.
The Squalus Rescue Ends
Badders and Mihalowski had a hard time unbolting the diving bell from the Squalus, and they were getting groggy. Both men were tired and carbon dioxide was building up, so they quickly released oxygen into the chamber. They realized if they didn’t work fast there would be 28 men left down there instead of 26.
It took an almost superhuman effort to finish the task of removing the four bolts from the Squalus, but finally they closed the hatch from the upper chamber of the bell to the lower chamber, sighing with relief.
Sadly and slowly, the diving bell returned to the Falcon. The epic rescue of the Squalus crew had ended.
A day or two later, Preble’s convertible zipped down the lane to Dorothy Emery’s family farm. Preble waved nonchalantly and drove down to his cottage on the bay.
“Later, we asked him about the experience,” she wrote. “He wouldn’t say much.”
Newspapers had reported his hair had turned white overnight. That wasn’t true – he looked the same as ever. Several weeks later he started making test dives on another submarine from the Navy yard. Every survivor of the Squalus asked to for reassignment to submarines.
What Happened Next
On July 30, 1939, the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Arthur Fiedler performed a memorial concert for the Squalus victims at Little Boar’s Head in North Hampton, N.H. It was broadcast nationally.
The Navy wanted to find out what happened to the Squalus and began a salvage operation immediately. But salvagers couldn’t raise the sub until September 13 that year. They found only 25 bodies inside the vessel. One seaman had apparently gotten out of the hatch. They never found his body.
The Navy cleaned out the Squalus, repaired and recommissioned as the Sailfish in February 1940 She sank seven ships during World War II. Her conning tower now serves as a memorial to those who died at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
Divers William Badders, James McDonald and John Mihalowski received the Medal of Honor.
Lloyd Maness was lost at sea during combat patrol on a submarine in 1944.
Lawrence Gainor died in 1989 at the age of 89.
Ruth Desautel married twice, both times to submariners, and died of a brain tumor in 1965.
Charles Wesley Shilling went on to have an illustrious medical career, retiring from the Navy in 1955 and starting what is now The Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society Charles W. Shilling Library at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
Charles Momsen received many decorations during World War II. He was also the driving force behind the design of the Albacore nuclear submarine, now a museum in Portsmouth. Momsen retired in 1955 and died of cancer in 1967.
Oliver Naquin saw action in World War II, played a role in the sinking of the USS Indiana and rose to the rank of rear admiral. He died in 1989. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. On his tombstone he is identified as ‘O. F. Naquin, CO, USS Squalus 1939’ under an inscription about the Squalus rescue.
My Officers And Men Acted Instinctively And Calmly. There Were No Expressions Of Fear And No Complaints Of The Bitter Cold. Never In My Remaining Life Do I Expect To Witness So True An Exemplification Of Comradeship And Brotherly Love. No Fuller Meaning Could Possibly Be Given The Word ‘Shipmate’ Than Was Reflected By Their Acts.
This story about the Squalus rescue was updated in 2022.