by Capt. (Ret.) Willard Searle, Jr., USN and Thomas Gray Curtis, Jr.
After the Spanish-American War in 1898, Spain ceded the Philippines and Guam to the United States, and American Samoa and Hawaii were soon added as additional Pacific territories. Because San Pedro, the principal U.S. naval base on the West Coast, was so remote from the Central and Western Pacific, the decision was made in 1904 to build another naval base at Pearl Harbor to better protect U.S. territories farther west.
The Torpedo Boat Flotilla of the First Submarine Division of the Pacific Fleet, consisting of four F-class submarines under the command of Lt. Charles E. Smith, USN, were the first U.S. Navy vessels “home ported” at Pearl Harbor, with the mission of providing coastal defense for the Hawaiian islands. Since they were too large to be transported to Honolulu as deck cargo and had neither the range nor habitability for the voyage from California, the four boats, F-1 through F-4, were towed to Pearl Harbor by the cruisers USS South Dakota (CA-9) and USS West Virginia (CA-5) in the summer of 1914. Because Pearl Harbor was still under construction at that time, the submarines moored to the tender USS Alert (AS-4) at the Naval Station in Honolulu Harbor. When not ashore, the submarines’ companies lived onboard the tender.
During the fall and winter of 1914, the boats of the division put out for short cruises to practice diving and become familiar with the local waters. Periodically, engineering runs were conducted to test readiness, crew proficiency, and the endurance of the boats, which was measured on the surface at a constant standard speed, with decks awash and only the temporary cruising bridges above water.
the coming of World War I, the German East Asiatic Cruiser Squadron,
nominally based at Tsingtao, China, posed a serious threat to Allied
shipping and island installations, but with its destruction by the Royal
Navy at the Battle of the Falkland Islands in December 1914, no credible
German threat remained in the Pacific. Thus, life on the Honolulu-based
submarines was far from arduous, and the greatest danger to their crews
came from the boats themselves. Then as now, mistakes led to unforgiving
consequences. Like all submarines of their day, the
F-class boats required high levels of intensive maintenance. They were the first U.S. submarines to be powered by diesel engines, vibration was a major source of mechanical problems, and electrical grounds – “short circuits” – were virtually persistent. As Admiral William Crowe, Jr. wrote about these early submarines, “The technical problems were formidable: unsafe structures, unreliable engines, inefficient storage batteries, poor communications, inadequate optics, primitive metallurgy, poor construction techniques, and on and on.”1 Voluntary service was encouraged by providing hazardous duty pay in the form of “diving dollars.” In 1915, enlisted men earned a “diving dollar” for each dive for up to 15 dives a month and 60 dollars went to their next of kin if they didn’t return. Thus, both to maintain proficiency and keep their crews happy, commanding officers scheduled frequent diving practice.
F-4’s Last Dive
On Thursday, March 25, 1915, F-1, F-3, and F-4 went out to sea for routine diving exercises. Just beyond the Quarantine Wharf, while moving out into Honolulu’s outer harbor and Mamala Bay, Lt. j.g. Alfred Ede, in command of F-4, attempted a dynamic dive, i.e., submerging while making forward headway. He was proud of his crew’s ability to coordinate the new procedures that transferred the submarine from a diesel-powered surface ship to a submerged, battery-powered, and lethal warship in just a few minutes.
That morning, the submarine flotilla’s tender, Alert, left the floating drydock of the Inter Island Steamship Company, delaying F-4’s departure. A month earlier, F-4 was in the same dock getting new high-pitch propellers, which reduced vibration problems by permitting top speed at lower engine RPM. On this morning, as F-4 proceeded out of the harbor and passed the outer buoy at a periscope depth, she encountered F-1 coming in to port. It was 0925. As Lt. Ede observed Ens. Harry Bogusch on F-1 through the periscope, Bogusch doffed his cover as he watched a well-trimmed F-4 going out to sea. A mile west of the outer buoy Lt. F.W. Scanland, commanding F-3, waited for F-4 to clear the area before coming in to port. However, he never caught sight of F-4 departing the harbor, so F-3 returned to port by 0945.
What subsequently happened on F-4 is somewhat conjectural, but it is based on physical evidence reviewed by the board of inquiry after the boat was salvaged. Just as she was passing the outer buoy, with Lt. j.g. Ede taking the boat gradually to a depth of 60 feet, traces of chlorine gas stung the noses of the crew in the middle – or control – compartment, and F-4 overshot her target depth. Apparently, a significant quantity of seawater had reached the battery spaces.
The presence of chlorine gas caused Ede to order procedures immediately to bring the boat to the surface and into shallow water. The diving planes were set to rise, and the helmsman was ordered to make a 10-degree turn to starboard to take the boat into the shoal waters southwest of Sand Island. The starboard motor was stopped and the port motor run at top speed until apparently it overheated and burned out an armature coil,2 shutting the motor down. Both motors had a tendency to run hot, and the fact that the new propellers drew more current for the same thrust as their older counterparts, added to the problem. With enough headway, the diving planes could have counteracted the negative buoyancy caused by the flooded battery wells, but when propulsion and forward headway was lost, the extra weight of water was sufficient to drag the boat down.
In the middle compartment, several crewmembers were apparently overcome by chlorine gas and the rest retreated to the engine room after manually tripping the automatic blow, which would direct air from the high-pressure air bank to the after, middle, and forward main ballast tanks. As the crewmembers vacated the middle compartment, they secured the bulkhead door behind them.
Because of a delay in expelling ballast, increasing depth caused water to flood into the boat faster than blowing could expel it, and the submarine bottomed at a depth of 300 feet. There, the water pressure caused a line of rivets on the torpedo hatch doubler plate to fail, permitting the forward two compartments to flood rapidly. Consequently, the engine room bulkhead could not withstand the hydrostatic pressure and collapsed, flooding the engine room and drowning all within.