Undersea Warfare The Official Magazine of the U.S. Submarine Force

Summer 2004 Cover of Undersea Warfare Magazine

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U.S. Submarine... Beacause Stealth Matters


Washington Watch


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6th Annual Undersea Warfare Photo Contest Winners

Former Commander-in-Chief Christens PCU Jimmy Carter

Hard-charging and Persistent: The Crew of PCU Virginia Looks Ahead

Pacific Reach 2004
U.S. Foreign Navies Practice Submarine Rescue, Foster Cooperation and Improve Interoperability

SSGN Conversions: Embodying the Sea Power 21 Vision

Heading North!
Traveling the Artic Region, U.S. Submarines Find Adventure, New Challenges, and New Friends

Saviors and Suppliers: World War II Submarine Speacial Operations in the Phillippines

Enhances Stability and Increases Interoperability in the Pacific Rim

Those in Peril - the S-5 Incident

Bringing Science to Life
Teaching Science Using Submarine Technology and the ex-USS Narwhal (SSN-671)

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Director, Submarine Warfare

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Those in Peril The S-5 Incident
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.

Business as Usual…

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.

Map caption follows

(left) 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.

(Below) S-5 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.

 Diagram caption above

A 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.

Cooke’s first 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.

Photo caption follows

Launched 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 feet.

Not 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.

Photo capiton follows

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.

Finding themselves 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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