by Edward C. Whitman
In this startling
photograph, the stern of the stricken S-5 protrudes some 20 feet
above the surface with one of the assembled rescue ships in the background.
Even before Navy assistance arrived, Cooke and his men has escaped from a
hole cut through the submarine’s “tail cone” with the help of heroic
mariners from two passing merchant ships.
During the first two
decades of its existence, a period that included the First World War, the
U.S. Submarine Force suffered no combat losses of submarines and men and
relatively few to accidents at sea. Prior to 1920, there had been only
two major U.S. submarine disasters – the foundering of USS F-4
(SS-23) off Honolulu in March 1915, with the loss of all hands; and the
sinking of USS F-1 (SS-20) in a collision with her sister ship, F-3,
near San Diego in December 1917, with 19 deaths.1 Then, on 1 September 1920,
USS S-5 (SS-110) suffered partial flooding during a practice
dive east of Delaware and settled to the bottom in 180 feet of water with
her entire 40-man crew still onboard and alive. Although this was before
submarine rescue vessels, Momsen lungs, and McCann rescue bells, what
might have been a third major U.S. submarine tragedy was narrowly averted
by the extraordinary perseverance of S-5’s officers and men and
the heroic assistance of two passing merchant ships. S-5’s story
remains one of the great tales of submarine rescue at sea.
The fifth submarine
of the Navy’s World War I era S-class, S-5 was launched at the
Portsmouth Navy Yard in November 1919 and commissioned on 6 March 1920
with LCDR Charles M. (“Savvy”) Cooke, Jr. in command. After nearly six
months of follow-on sea tests and crew training, S-5 was deemed
ready to join the fleet. On Monday, 30 August, she left the Boston Navy
Yard for a series of port calls in several southeastern cities, beginning
with Baltimore, where S-5 was expected on Friday, 3 September.
The transit would also incorporate several high-speed runs and endurance
trials, both surfaced and submerged.
By Tuesday evening,
Cooke had conned S-5 successfully through her endurance runs,
and at 0950 next morning Wednes-day, 1 September, he commenced arequired four-hour,
high-speed surface run, intending to follow it immediately with a crash
dive and a one-hour, high-speed submerged trial. The latter was planned
for shortly before 1400 at latitude 38.36 N, longitude 74.00 E, about 55
miles east-southeast of the Delaware Capes.
One of the crucial
steps in smartly executing the crash dive was closing the main induction
valve, which controlled the 16-inch diameter air intake that ventilated
the submarine on the surface, and in particular, supplied external oxygen
to the diesel engines. Because timing this action was particularly
critical, manning the main induction valve was generally entrusted to the
most experienced men onboard, in S-5’s case, the Chief of the
Boat, Gunner’s Mate Percy Fox. In earlier trials, S-5’s main
induction, located overhead in the submarine’s control room had proven
extremely hard to manipulate. Moreover, the large, lever-operated
Kingston valves which admitted water to the bottom of the six main
ballast tanks were also notoriously recalcitrant and often took several
men to operate. To accelerate crash dives, it had become common practice
to open the Kingston valves somewhat prior to diving and depend on the
air trapped in the ballast tanks to prevent them from filling. Then, to
initiate submergence, the vents at the top of the tanks would be opened
to allow incoming water to drive out the air and flood the tanks.
Some 20 minutes
before the planned crash dive, Cooke ordered the Kingstons opened to
allow S-5 to “ride on her vents.” Almost immediately, the boat
developed a list to starboard, indicating that one of the ballast tanks
on that side was shipping water prematurely. Correcting the problem
required considerable opening and closing of the stubborn Kingston
valves, and because this required additional manpower on the levers,
Percy Fox jumped in to help out. By the time the submarine was ready to
dive, she was riding on an even keel, but the Kingstons required constant
attention to keep her there.
On 1 September 1920, 55 miles east southeast of the Delaware Capes, USS S-5
(SS-110) flooded and settled to the bottom in 30 fathoms of water after her
crew failed to close the main induction valve during a crash dive.
Ultimately, all 40 of her officers and men survived because of their own
perseverance and the assistance of two passing merchanips.
was divided into five main compartments as shown here. In the initial
flooding, the torpedo room was almost entirely filled, and when seawater
reached the battery wells and generated deadly chlorine gas, the battery
room was abandoned also. S-5’s crew eventually escaped the
near-vertical submarine through the tiller room.
Crash Dive… to the Bottom
Just before 1400, Cooke
sounded the diving klaxon, and the crew moved quickly to execute the
intricate choreography that would take the boat down. Just as S-5
headed under, however, personnel in the boat’s forward compartment – the
torpedo room – were horrified by a torrent of green water sluicing into
the space from the overhead ventilator. In quick succession, the
ventilators in the other compartments began spewing water also.
Preoccupied with the problems at the Kingstons, Percy Fox had left the
main induction valve open!
Officers and crew
quickly initiated emergency surfacing procedures: As Cooke ordered the
ballast tanks blown, Fox made a frantic attempt to close the main
induction but found he could barely move it. Wherever possible, air vents
and individual compartment ventilators were shut, but because the torpedo
room had to be so hastily vacated and sealed off behind a watertight
door, it remained essentially open to the sea, and S-5 tilted
inexorably toward the sea floor. After an agonizing several minutes, she
plowed into the muddy bottom, settling upright in 180 feet of water.
S-5 was 231 feet long and
displaced 876 tons surfaced and 1,092 tons submerged. She was divided
into five main compartments with a bilge under each. Moving aft from the torpedo
room, the other spaces were the battery room (which also contained crew
berthing), the control room, the engine room, and the motor room. The mad
scramble to halt the flooding and shut the water-tight doors between
compartments during the first moments of the emergency had succeeded in
sealing all but the abandoned torpedo room, which was two-thirds full of
water. However, there were also significant amounts of water in the
bilges, and the boat was flooded with about 75 tons of excess ballast.
Moreover, despite the strenuous efforts of several men to close it, the
main induction valve was apparently still partly open, and water
continued to flow into the torpedo room from the overhead ventilator. On
the hopeful side, the submarine’s hull remained intact, rudimentary
lighting was restored, and all of the officers and crew had survived the
boat’s encounter with the bottom with only minor injuries.
instinct was to blow his residual ballast in hopes of bringing the boat
to the surface under her own power. Although one of S-5’s
electric-drive motors had been irreparably damaged by the initial deluge
of seawater, Cooke attempted to back the boat out of the mud by blowing
the forward and midships ballast tanks and reversing the remaining motor.
It took additional laborious manipulation of the Kingston valves to
prevent the boat from rolling over, but even on an even keel, the boat
could not be induced to break loose from the mud, and when the second
drive motor shorted out and died, S-5 and 40 men were left
stranded 30 fathoms below the surface.
at the Portsmouth Navy Yard in 1919, S-5 had only been in commission
for six months when she was lost off the Delaware Capes in September
1920. One of the earliest of the 51 World War I-era S-boats, she
displaced 876 tons surfaced and 1,092 tons submerged on a length of 231
for Want of Trying…
A 1910 Naval Academy
graduate from Fort Smith, Arkansas, Charles Cooke earned his nickname,
“Savvy,” by graduating second in his class. After several successive
tours on battleships, he entered the submarine service in late 1913, and
by the time he commissioned S-5 in 1920, he had also commanded
USS E-2 (SS-25) and USS R-2 (SS-79). As an
up-and-coming submarine officer, he was widely respected for his
intelligence, even temper, and technical acumen. Now he faced the greatest
challenge of his career. Both individual escapes to the surface and
waiting for rescue seemed fruitless– S-5 wouldn’t be overdue in
Baltimore for several days, and she lay on the bottom in an area only
lightly trafficked by merchant ships. Cooke’s only remaining resources
were the last of his battery power, about half of his compressed air, and
the native ingenuity and determination of him and his crew.
S-5’s Commanding Officer LCDR
Charles (“Savvy”) Cooke was a 1910 graduate of the Naval Academy and
had served in submarines since 1913. He retired as an admiral in 1948,
having begun World War II in command of USS Pennsylvania
(BB-38) at Pearl Harbor. He is shown here as a midshipman.
After failing to back
S-5 out of the bottom, Cooke next attempted to dewater the
torpedo room with, first, a high-pressure centrifugal pump and then a large
low-pressure pump. Both failed. This left only the small regulating pump,
a slow-speed, low-pressure unit normally limited to maintaining trim. To
give the regulating pump the “boost” it needed to overcome the external
water pressure, Cooke came up with the idea of pressurizing the torpedo
room internally using some of the remaining compressed-air supply. After
an hour, the water level forward began to drop — proving that the
residual flooding had at least been contained — but the capacity of the
pump was so small that emptying the torpedo room before their air supply
ran out would have been impossible. By this time, S-5 had been
trapped on the bottom for nearly two hours, and options for getting her
to the surface were few indeed.
Various accounts of
the S-5 mishap differ on Savvy’s rationale for his next move.
Had he analyzed the situation and planned what eventually happened? Or
was it merely the unexpected outcome of a last, desperate throw of the
dice? In any event, he elected without warning to use virtually all of
his remaining air to empty the aft ballast tanks. This produced an
immediate result. With the stern suddenly more buoyant, it broke free of
the bottom, and pivoting on the flooded bow, the entire length of the
submarine rotated vertically, thrusting the stern toward the surface.
Inside, men, equipment, and accumulated bilge water cascaded downhill
from compartment to compartment as the angle of the boat with the sea
floor increased rapidly until at nearly 60 degrees from the horizontal, some
kind of stability was reached, and all motion stopped.
suddenly in a strange new vertical world, the men clung precariously to
whatever support they could find. But because the battery room was now
the lowest unflooded compartment, most of the residual seawater ended up
there, and in reacting with sulfuric acid in the batteries, it quickly
generated chlorine gas, potentially deadly to the men still occupying the
berthing spaces. They were laboriously evacuated by hauling them up the
slope of the deck, and the battery room was sealed off from the rest of
the boat. To offset the residual flooding, Cooke also directed that
sufficient air pressure be applied to the torpedo room to force some
remaining water back out through the main induction system, still
partially open to the sea. S-5 and her men had now been on the
bottom for nearly five hours, and although their air supply was holding
up reasonably well, it would only be a matter of time before the build-up
of carbon dioxide and the decreasing percentage of oxygen in the
atmosphere began to cause debilitating physiological effects.
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