Voyages of Discovery episode 5 – Hanging by a Thread: Explorer Paul Rose tells the story of the USS Squalus submarine which became stranded on the bottom of the Atlantic in 1937. No one had ever been saved from a stricken sub beneath the ocean before, but maverick designer Charles Momsen, who had been ignored by the navy top brass, was suddenly called into action to bring up the crew.
Rose meets the last living survivor from the sub and one of the men, now 103, who helped save him. The rescue kick-started a whole new era of technology, laying the foundation for modern deep-sea diving.
Voyages of Discovery episode 5 – Hanging by a Thread
On 12 May 1939, following a yard overhaul, Squalus began a series of test dives off Portsmouth, New Hampshire. After successfully completing 18 dives, she went down again off the Isles of Shoals on the morning of 23 May at 42°53′N 70°37′W. Failure of the main induction valve caused the flooding of the aft torpedo room, both engine rooms, and the crew’s quarters, drowning 26 men immediately. Quick action by the crew prevented the other compartments from flooding. Squalus bottomed in 243 ft (74 m) of water.
Squalus was initially located by her sister ship, Sculpin. The two submarines were able to communicate using a telephone marker buoy until the cable parted. Divers from the submarine rescue ship Falcon began rescue operations under the direction of the salvage and rescue expert Lieutenant Commander Charles B. “Swede” Momsen, using the new McCann Rescue Chamber. The Senior Medical Officer for the operations was Dr. Charles Wesley Shilling.
Overseen by researcher Albert R. Behnke, the divers used recently developed heliox diving schedules and successfully avoided the cognitive impairment symptoms associated with such deep dives, thereby confirming Behnke’s theory of nitrogen narcosis. The divers were able to rescue all 33 survivors on board (32 crew members and a civilian) the sunken submarine. Four enlisted divers, Chief Machinist’s Mate William Badders, Chief Boatswain’s Mate Orson L. Crandall, Chief Metalsmith James H. McDonald and Chief Torpedoman John Mihalowski, were awarded the Medal of Honor for their work during the rescue and subsequent salvage. The successful rescue of the Squalus survivors is in marked contrast to the loss of Thetis in Liverpool Bay just a week later.