On the dark night of 25 September 1925, during a routine surface “reliability run” in the open sea 12 miles east of Block Island, the USS S-51 (SS-162) sustained a fatal gash when the merchant steamer SS City of Rome’s bow sliced into her port side. With her conning-tower hatch and air intakes open and her interior watertight doors unsecured, the submarine swiftly plunged 132 feet to the bottom. Of the 36 men on board, soon all but three sailors (who swam away and were picked up by a boat from the City of Rome) were dead, their bodies trapped inside the hull or scattered on the adjacent seafloor.
No submarine had ever been raised from such a depth, in an area described by Captain Ernest J. King as equivalent to “the middle of the Atlantic.”1 Commercial salvors doubted that a recovery operation was possible. However, racked by a series of recent public-relations disasters including the grounding of seven destroyers, the temporary disappearance of Commander John Rodgers during a pathbreaking flight to Hawaii, and the crash of the airship USS Shenandoah (ZR-1), the Navy was determined to prove its competence.
A Daring Plan
Lieutenant Commander Edward Ellsberg of the Construction Corps, the top man in the U.S. Naval Academy’s class of 1914, proposed a plan that desperate Navy brass agreed to try. First, divers would seal up and “de-water” as much of the S-51 as possible; the unpatchable gaping hole would have to remain open. For additional buoyancy they would use eight “pontoons,” steel cylinders 32 feet long with 14-foot diameters, to cradle the submarine’s hulk on massive anchor chains run under her hull.2 Finally they would tow the whole assembly along Long Island Sound, through Hell Gate, and down the East River to the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
While Ellsberg’s plan may have been easy to describe, it would prove immensely difficult to execute. Success depended on the divers’ skill, endurance, ability to meet unexpected emergencies, and sheer courage. In the cluttered underwater compartments, they would have to close the openings of every valve and dog every watertight door. The submarine’s hatch covers were designed to withstand outside (i.e., sea) pressure, so they would not be able to resist the exceptional internal force generated by de-watering. To counter this, the divers would need to install special covers fitted with strongbacks and piping to let air in and water out.
The bow and stern were sufficiently clear of the bottom to allow the direct rigging of the pontoon chains there, but tunnels would have to be cut under the hull to accommodate the rest. The empty pontoons would have to be towed to the site, then slowly filled and sunk to their respective positions near the hull, a process Ellsberg likened to lowering a Pullman car on a dark night from a 15-story building swaying in an earthquake, and landing it precisely between two other cars.3 Then, compressors would carefully pump air into the pontoon array, thus bringing S-51 to the surface.
Calculating the Risks
Divers would wear metal helmets, which screwed into the upper portion of their heavy rubber suits, and weighted boots. A manila lifeline would run to the mother ship, 132 feet up. With this cumbrous protection, they would labor in almost total darkness, as electric lamps were erratic and feeble. Worse, the S-51’s cramped compartments, filled with protruding knobs and wheels and connected by narrow doorways, would hold a jungle of mattresses, loose equipment, and crewmen’s bodies. The divers’ survival would depend on air coming through a hose attached to the front of their suits at a pressure sufficient to counter the water’s weight on the body—almost 60 tons. If the airflow ceased, the weight could literally squeeze the diver into his helmet.4
Even breathing uninterrupted air could lead to a dreaded malady. Divers would take in a mixture of one-fifth oxygen and four-fifths nitrogen. The oxygen would enter the body tissues, which would utilize it as if on the surface—although at a much faster rate. But nitrogen would stay unabsorbed in the bloodstream, where pressure would keep it until the diver returned to the surface. With too rapid a rise, the trapped gas would form bubbles, impeding circulation, paralyzing nerves, gathering painfully in joints, and causing the excruciating, often fatal “bends.” To prevent it, divers would have to surface in slow stages, which gave the nitrogen time to pass from the bloodstream and out of the body as gas. (Even so, during the S-51 job a diver occasionally came up too quickly. His salvation was the “iron doctor,” a large metal recompression chamber where air pressure could be rapidly increased until it equaled sea-bottom conditions. Gradually lowering the pressure allowed the nitrogen to disperse slowly and prevented or cured the bends.5)
In the S-51’s exposed location, rough seas, hampering the on-deck handling of the lifelines, could also abruptly increase the height and weight of water pressing on a diver’s body. Sometimes the weather turned so foul that diving—and indeed, keeping station—became impossible, stopping operations completely.
Furthermore, cold seawater temperatures—falling rapidly as winter approached—would seriously reduce the divers’ manual dexterity. If the moisture in their air hoses froze, they would suffocate.
The Salvage Squadron Assembles
Notwithstanding the myriad difficulties, the Navy began operations and created a salvage squadron under Captain King, commander of the New London Submarine Base and a future chief of Naval Operations. Ellsberg, the salvage officer, directed operations and worked smoothly with the notoriously hard-to-please King, who called him “the embodiment of perseverance and determination.” Ellsberg, in turn, regarded King as “a peach of a commanding officer!” who “felt we were doing our best, and left us alone.”
Two young officers, Lieutenants Philip Lemler and Richmond K. Kelly, and navy yard draftsman John Niedermair, who calculated buoyancy, pressure, and weight by a distinctly unelectronic slide rule, assisted Ellsberg. Of King, Niedermair remarked, “When you had the responsibility, all you had to do was carry it out. . . . And if you didn’t do it right, you were done.”6 A talented, experienced seaman, Lieutenant Henry Hartley, commanded the diving headquarters, the USS Falcon (AM-28). The rest of the flotilla comprised the Vestal (AR-4), a large repair ship with metalworking and berthing facilities; four tugs; and the S-50, the S-51’s sister, where the divers rehearsed the evolutions they would later perform amid the wreck’s darkness and confusion.
To build its cadre of divers, the Navy assigned every man whose record reflected diving qualifications to the squadron. Unfortunately, of the 30 who reported, only 10 were deep-sea divers—too few to complete the job before winter.7 Ellsberg would have to persevere with his limited resources under the eyes of journalists and newsreel cameramen. On 22 October 1925, the diving began.
A Dangerous Mission
The S-51 contained six compartments: (from forward to aft) the torpedo room, battery room, central operating compartment (COC), engine room, motor room, and small tiller room. The submarine’s speed at the moment of collision had driven her to the bottom, buckling the hull aft of the torpedo room, and the battery room had taken the fatal blow, so neither of these spaces was sealable. The tiller room was too small to matter. Water filled every other compartment. All watertight doors and ventilation valves were open; likewise, the main air-induction and battery-exhaust valves, and the conning-tower hatch.8
Ellsberg calculated that raising the S-51 would require lifting 800 deadweight tons. He would obtain the lift from (a) internal buoyancy, restored by sealing and de-watering the three undamaged compartments, blowing whatever ballast tanks he could, and emptying the fuel oil tanks; and (b) the eight pontoons. He hoped to overcome the “suction effect” from the submarine’s position on a clay bottom under 73 pounds-per-square-inch pressure by raising the stern enough to allow water to work forward under the hull.9
The public assumed the operation would quickly succeed. However, the scarcity of suitable diving days, the increasingly cold weather, the small number of competent divers, and the immense technical complications guaranteed that the S-51 would not return to the surface in 1925. Nonetheless, King, who called difficulties “the name given to things which it is our business to overcome,” refused to suspend operations.10 (Although King consistently denied the divers shore leave during the frequent storms, fearing loss of diving time, Ellsberg managed to wangle his men a brief one-day liberty.)
Despite the miserable weather, the divers made considerable progress. They closed all but one of the engine room valves: the 24-inch main air induction, which jammed at “1/4 open.” After removing a portion of deck plating and the valve bonnet, the divers retrieved a three-foot piece of pipe, carelessly left during the boat’s construction, that in-rushing water had flushed into the valve body.11 The valve now swung completely shut. This left the engine room tight except for its hatch, the portal into the hull.
Ellsberg worked around the unceasing failure of the divers’ lamps by persuading Westinghouse Electric Company to adopt a watertight vulcanized rubber sleeve. The new model saw immediate service in the COC and its two open watertight doors. One, aft, could be closed easily from the now-secured engine room; the other, forward, led to the inaccessible battery room.
The day after the short liberty, Chief Torpedomen Joseph Eiben and Raymond “Tug” Wilson attacked the forward door. Traversing the COC, using the improved lighting and carefully clearing their lines from all projections, they arrived at the door only to find that a brass plate, jammed in by the massive fatal inflow, rendered it uncloseable. After struggling in vain, Wilson stretched parallel to the deck and had Eiben push him through. From there, he and Eiben could work the obstruction out. Eiben then pulled him back into the COC, where they dogged the door tight.
Later, Ellsberg asked him why he took the terrible risk. Wilson said that he wanted to show “appreciation” for the shore leave, adding, in a phrase expressing the salvage squadron’s perpetual attitude: “Joe helped me, so we did it.”12
Securing the S-51’s hatch openings required special heavy and unwieldy covers. By extraordinary effort, the divers installed the two COC covers before the weather worsened. Although they were less successful positioning the pontoons, they gained valuable experience in maneuvering the ungainly cylinders.
Wind and sea finally loosened even King’s iron grip. After an ice-blocked air hose almost killed a diver, the flotilla’s medical officer, Lieutenant Camille Flotte, persuaded King to suspend operations until spring.13 While ships and men scattered to new assignments, Ellsberg characteristically continued to pursue the objective. He solved one nagging problem by designing an underwater torch capable of cutting steel plate at a foot-a-minute clip. To ensure an adequate supply of competent deepwater divers, he organized a diving academy, then took the course himself. He was the first Navy officer ever to learn this skill.14 On his first deep-sea dive, he successfully tested the torch.15
In late April 1926, the salvage of the S-51 resumed. Although the final pontoon placement awaited further developments, a method conceived by Ellsberg promised to tame the recalcitrant cylinders. Sealing the motor room required removing a section of deck and superstructure, cutting into and blanking a ventilation main, and then plugging several pesky external leaks and (with quick-setting cement) two chattering ventilation valves.16 The three major intact spaces were now either dry or blowable. Next came addressing the tunnels for the massive chains that would cradle the S-51. Ellsberg’s plan to use a fire hose for penetrating the sand and clay failed because of the “kick” at high pressure. Worse, the removed clay clogged the tunnel. During weather interruptions, so did sand.17
Real disaster threatened twice. Two weeks into the digging, Chief Torpedoman Francis Smith, far under the boat, felt the tunnel collapse behind him. Luckily, he was able to emerge unassisted by turning the nozzle backward and guiding it with his feet to clear the passage. After sitting briefly on the ocean floor, he returned to work. As King later wrote, “The job could not fail of success with such men.”18
Chief Gunner’s Mate Tom Eadie displayed equal courage in another potentially deadly crunch. While coming up on the stage, a small platform used to transport divers about halfway to and from the S-51, the air-exhaust valve in his helmet became jammed by tunnel sand. It shut, ballooning his suit and leaving him unable to throttle down his air-intake valve. As the excessive buoyancy sped him toward the Falcon’s hull, he managed to push his foot under the stage’s rail. The relentless air flow stretched his rubber suit and lifted his helmet far above his head, rendering the microphone there deaf to his anguished shouts. The straps on his 100-pound stability belt split, dropping the weights down around his ankles. If the suit broke, he would quickly sink. It did rupture, but he luckily fell onto the stage. Holding his breath and clutching the lifeline while the topside crew hauled him up, he reached safety.19
The grueling work continued. Clever manipulation of the S-51’s fuel manifold valves allowed the Falcon’s pumps to convert 30 tons of oil into the equivalent buoyancy. Also, after two weeks of struggling with the pontoons, the team devised an efficient positioning procedure.20
As Ellsberg’s divers began the task he dreaded, digging the second and longer tunnel, Machinist’s Mate Second Class Lomie Waldern unveiled a nozzle of his own fabrication. With his invention, it only took two working days; its predecessor had taken eight weeks.21
By 21 June, the divers had secured the strongback on the engine room hatch, completed the positioning of the pontoons, and fitted chain bridles and wire hawsers on the submarine’s bow and stern. All spaces capable of de-watering had been blown (although for stability, the engine room remained flooded, to be emptied during the ascent). The S-51 would rise the next day, the largely water-free stern slightly before the bow.22
However, a storm rose during the night. Continuing at dawn, it precluded either diving or raising. As the squadron began preparations for securing the area, the groundswell broke the bottom suction just enough to let the four forward pontoons propel the bow upward. After a desperate, unsuccessful effort to lift the stern while the pontoons rammed each other in the churning sea, Ellsberg realized that preserving any chance of ultimate success meant resinking the S-51. That, however, required opening the intake valves on the bucking pontoons.
Engineman First Class William Badders, diver Gunner’s Mate First Class William Wickwire, and Boatswain Richard Hawes (the Falcon’s executive officer) each reached a pontoon and opened a valve. No one could board the fourth pontoon, but the lost buoyancy of the other three re-sank the whole array—and the submarine’s bow.23
The S-51 Rises Again
Bringing the S-51 to the surface again would demand immense effort from the burned-out divers, who appeared ready to quit, discouraged by an officer who freely opined that success was impossible. (Learning this, Ellsberg informed King, who promptly sent the malcontent ashore on “sick leave.”) Rallied by Ellsberg’s unshakeable determination, the divers brought the S-51 up again on 5 July, this time in good order. Every available hand, including Lieutenant Flotte and a reporter, helped with the lines.24
At 1640, the tow got under way with two tugs ahead of the submarine and the Falcon astern (deploying 20 hoses to pump any needed air). Cradled by the pontoons, the S-51 drew 33 feet, leaving a three-foot clearance through every anticipated channel. Making two knots, the flotilla headed first for shallow water, then turned westerly at 2100, keeping inside the 10-fathom curve. With King, Ellsberg, and Hartley on the Falcon’s bridge all night, the tow passed through the Race (the entrance to Long Island Sound) at dead slack, and by dawn was safely in the sound. The worst part of the 150-mile tow—unprecedented, Ellsberg said—was over.25
Careful blowing reduced the S-51’s draft a few more inches. In the smooth water, the speed increased to five knots. At Execution Rocks, J. W. Horton, “the best East River pilot,” came aboard the Sagamore to conn the flotilla through Hell Gate and down the Manhattan side of the East River, thence to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Vestal led a mile ahead with the tug Iuka (AT-37) now secured abreast of the tug Sagamore (AT-20). The Falcon, with her air hoses still rigged, followed, as silent, bareheaded crowds watched from each bank.26
King and Hartley, finishing 56 hours on the Falcon’s bridge, could plainly see the navy yard about a mile away.27 In a few minutes, the massive project would end. Suddenly, the submarine stopped dead. The towline snapped, and two pontoons bobbed loose. The pilot had grounded the S-51 on Man-of-War Reef. Only Hartley’s quick reaction kept the Falcon from a fatal collision.
A strong ebb tide commenced, rendering effective diving impossible. Ellsberg and Niedermair quickly calculated that fully submerging the remaining pontoons, resecuring their chains, then de-watering would produce enough buoyancy to float the S-51 at the next high tide. As Ellsberg, Badders, and Seaman Second Class Solomon Schissel removed four valves atop one pontoon, a passing steamer defying the temporary ban on river traffic raised a swell that snapped the slings supporting the pontoon. Water began to pour through three valve openings. The men instinctively shoved their thumbs into the holes, Schissel fully submerging to do so. Makeshift wooden plugs, hastily supplied, filled the breaches, and the recovery continued.28
At 2130, about 11 hours after she grounded, the S-51 resumed flotation. If a pilot was going to ground a ship, Niedermair quipped, it was best “to pick one with a wrecking crew aboard.”29 Before the S-51 could cover that last mile, however, she faced one more ordeal. Because the grounding had ripped out the original bow-first arrangement, the Falcon, herself going astern, now towed the S-51 from aft, moving (with King at the conn) into the Manhattan-side channel Pilot Horton had rejected. Two yard tugs to starboard and the Iuka to port, all bow-to-stern, assisted the Falcon, while a line connected the Sagamore to the Falcon’s stern.30
Slowly the tow proceeded on the rapidly falling ebb. At the port turn toward the navy yard, the seven-knot current swept all the vessels 180 degrees and began moving them toward the Upper New York Bay—and disaster, should the single cable to the S-51’s stern part. After an hour’s struggle, it continued to hold and the combined horsepower prevailed. At 2300, the S-51 was moored to a pier in the Navy yard basin.31
In bringing home the S-51, along with the bodies of all but six of the men who went down with her, the Navy had accomplished the most difficult and complex salvage task in its history. No nation had ever raised a submarine from the open sea, used pontoons in deep water, or towed a submerged, pontoon-cradled submarine 150 miles. Secretary of the Navy Curtis Wilbur praised “the judgment, initiative, and stamina of the officers and men” and “the undaunted persistence and unparalleled endurance of the divers.”32 They had truly achieved the impossible.
2. RADM Edward Ellsberg, USN, On the Bottom: The Raising of the U.S. Navy Submarine S-51 (New York City: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1952 ed.), 81.
3. Ibid., 78–9.
4. Ibid., 20.
5. Ibid., 8–9, 20–3.
6. King, “Salvaging U.S.S. S-51,” 152. Ellsberg, On the Bottom, 294. John C. Niedermair, The Reminiscences of John C. Niedermair (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1978), 80–1.
7. Ellsberg, “Report on Salvage Operations Submarine S-51” (Navy Department: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1927), 10.
8. Ibid., 1, 4.
9. Ibid., 4, 6–7.
10. ADM Ernest Joseph King, graduation address, U.S. Naval Academy, 19 June 1942.
11. Ellsberg, “Report on Salvage Operations,” 14.
12. Ellsberg, On the Bottom, 63, 74–5.
13. John D. Alden, Salvage Man: Edward Ellsberg and the U.S. Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 73.
14. Ellsberg, On the Bottom, 124–5; Alden, Salvage Man, 74.
15. Ellsberg, On the Bottom, 141, 145.
16. Ellsberg, “Report on Salvage Operations,” 33, 35. On the Bottom, 189.
17. Ellsberg, On the Bottom, 172–4. “Report on Salvage Operations,” 16.
18. Ellsberg, On the Bottom, 175–7. King, “Salvaging U.S.S. S-51,” 142.
19. Ellsberg, On the Bottom, 178–83; Tom Eadie, I Like Diving: A Professional’s Story (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1929), 121–3.
20. Ellsberg, On the Bottom, 197–8, 224–7.
21. Ellsberg, On the Bottom, 228–35. “Report on Salvage Operations,” 35.
22. Ellsberg, “Report on Salvage Operations,” 44–5.
23. King, “Salvaging U.S.S. S-51,” 147. Ellsberg, On the Bottom, 272–3. Ellsberg, “Report on Salvage Operations,” 48–50. “S-51 Rises; Later Sinks Again,” The New York Times, 23 June 1926.
24. Ellsberg, On the Bottom, 278–9, 291–5. “Navy Wrests S-51 From Ocean’s Grip; Now On Way Here,” The New York Times, 6 July 1926. Ellsberg, “Man and the Sea Fought a Duel for the S-51,” The New York Times, 25 July 1926.
25. Ellsberg, “Report on Salvage Operations,” 60, 64, 70. “S-51, On Way Here, Off South Norwalk,” The New York Times, 7 July 1926.
26. Ellsberg, On the Bottom, 298–9. Report on Salvage Operations, 72. “S-51 Docked At Last; Hits East River Reef But Is Lifted Safely,” The New York Times, 8 July 1926.
27. “S-51 Docked At Last; Hits East River Reef But Is Lifted Safely.”
28. Ellsberg, “Report on Salvage Operations,” 72–3, 78. On the Bottom, 303, 307–10.
29. Ellsberg, On the Bottom, 313. Page 83 of The Reminiscences of John C. Niedermair says this occurred earlier, but I credit Ellsberg’s 1929 memory over Niedermair’s much later recollection.
30. Ellsberg, “Report on Salvage Operations,” 79, 80. Page 313 of On the Bottom reports a slightly different disposition; I credit the report.
31. “S-51 Docked At Last; Hits East River Reef But Is Lifted Safely.” Ellsberg, “Report on Salvage Operations,” 81. On the Bottom, 313–6.
32. Charles A. Bartholomew and William I. Milwee, Mud, Muscle, and Miracles, 2d ed. (Department of the Navy, 2009), 38. Ellsberg, “The Salvage of the ‘S-51,’ Scientific American (October 1926), 259. King, “Salvaging U.S.S. S-51,” 152.