Imagine being in a situation which seemed insurmountable. Imagine having to deal with not only the mental anguish of facing your almost certain death, but the psychological pain of not seeing your loved ones again. Couple that with the demoralizing effect of failure after failure while trying to overcome those insurmountable odds. Imagine receiving a glimmer of hope that sparks your will to live, only to have that glimmer taken from you, and the utter despair you must feel at that moment.
Imagine this taking place in a submerged casket with stifling air and little to no food or water—all while slowly succumbing to unconsciousness.
The sheer will power to live through all that is a situation to which few can relate. One may be able to imagine glimpses of something similar on a Hollywood movie screen, but the prospect of something this terrible seems almost unfathomable. To the 38 men on board the USS S-5 in September 1920, this was no movie. This unimaginable situation is what these men endured for 37 unrelenting hours inside the confines of a steel coffin.
As a team of explorers and elite divers, led by Captain Rustin Cassway and the author, prepared to descend to the wreck of USS S-5 on the centennial of her sinking, it was imperative to remember the true grit, dogged determination, and true American heroism displayed by sailors of a bygone generation who turned a potential tragedy into one of the greatest survival stories in the history of the U.S. Navy.
Building A Fleet—and a New Kind of Sub
At the onset of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson tackled a question most U.S. Presidents have faced at one time or another during their stint as commander-in-chief: How to avoid war? Even though the distant war drums already sounded in Europe, the United States wanted to avoid being drawn into any conflict. What better way to avoid war than to deter war?
President Wilson turned to the U.S. Navy for advice and asked for recommendations. The answer should come as no surprise. The Navy recommended the United States build . . . ships.
Congress went all in on the Navy’s recommendation and appropriated money to construct 100 submarines. Three new classes were designated: O, R, and S. The new O and R classes were built with only slight improvements over the outdated L-class submarines, which were mostly for coastal defense.
The S class was a new kind of submarine. Variations in armament, length, and tonnage were substantial upgrades to L-class subs. Contracts for the new S class were awarded to Electric Boat Company, Holland Boat Company, and Lake Boat Company. After early failures, the Navy’s S-class design was used for S-4 to S-17.
The S-5, officially designated as SS-110, was constructed at Portsmouth Naval Yard. Her keel was laid on 4 December 1917, and she was launched on 10 November 1919. Measuring 231 feet in length, with a beam of 21 feet, the S-5 displaced 876 tons on the surface and 1,092 submerged. The S-5 had four bow torpedo tubes with 12 reloads. She also was armed with a 4-inch deck gun.
The S-5 was commissioned on 6 March 1920 and underwent sea trials from early May to mid-August. She performed well overall, but one major problem was identified—the main induction valve was extremely difficult to close. It was an essential valve that, when open, would allow fresh air in throughout the sub. This was necessary for the diesel engines to have sufficient air while on the surface. However, the valve had to be closed quickly when submerging’ otherwise, the sub would flood.
Having completed her sea trials, the S-5 was given a cushy mission—a four-city recruiting tour followed by a visit to Bermuda. On 30 August 1920, the S-5 pulled away from the Boston Navy Yard en route to Baltimore. The Navy was betting a coastal tour showing off their new $1.5-million sub would attract recruits to the submarine service. Additional stops included Washington, D.C., Richmond, and Savannah.
On the morning of 1 September 1920, the S-5 commenced a surface speed run. Everything went well. The S-5’s skipper, Charles “Savvy” Cooke, ordered the sub to conduct a crash dive to meet the Navy’s standard of submerging in under one minute. The best the S-5 was able to do up to that point had been four minutes. But today, the crew thought they just might be able to beat the clock.
As the sub’s executive officer, Charlie Grisham, made his rounds double-checking every system and ensuring the crew was ready to perform, Cooke ordered “Dive! Dive!” Twenty seconds later the diesels rattled to a halt, and the sub began her descent.
Percy Fox, the senior enlisted man on board, was distracted before the dive and forgot to close the main induction valve.
Water suddenly poured into the control room around Cooke and Grisham.
Unbeknownst to them, the torpedo room was flooding as well.
Brace for Impact
Water was barely an inch below the watertight door. If the water spilled over into the next compartment, the battery room would be filled with sea water. With the water unable to be stopped, the men had little choice but to abandon the torpedo room.
Valves were being closed in compartments to stop the water from entering, but the main induction system was open ever so slightly, even after the power of many men trying to turn the valve.
Cooke gave orders to rise and to blow the main tanks. It was all for naught. The extra weight of many scores of tons of water in the torpedo room was too much for the S-5 to overcome. She was headed for the bottom. The real question was whether she would survive impact.
The S-5 impacted not once, but twice, with the bottom. As far as Cooke and Grisham knew, the welds held. But the situation was dire. The torpedo room was abandoned and full of water. The main induction valve was still open. The bilges were filled. Their pumps were inadequate. The main power was out after sea water exploded the panel. They were in 180 feet of water, unable to contact the outside world, unable to escape, with 48 hours before anyone would declare the S-5 overdue in port.
The sub needed to get off the bottom. Cooke decided to blow the aft tanks. The hope was that the sudden buoyancy would lift the bow even though it was flooded. The tanks were blown. The stern gained buoyancy, but the bow did not rise. Soon the sub was at an angle of 60 degrees—stern raised, bow on the bottom.
Sea Water, Chlorine Gas, and a Race Against Time
With the S-5 at such an angle, it was impossible to stand without clinging to something or someone. Two compartments were abandoned which cut their air supply significantly. The S-5 did have air purification canisters, but they were located in the flooded torpedo room. The sub designers had not thought about installing air scrubbers in every compartment. Nearly 40 men in close quarters, with no toilet, drenched in water from the sea and the bilges, in a confined space filled with high levels of carbon dioxide, vomit, and human waste. One could imagine the air quality.
To make a desperate situation even more terrifying, the battery room was breached by sea water. The sea water mixed with the sulfuric acid in the batteries and formed chlorine gas. The effects of chlorine gas were well known to the submariners, as they had heard stories of the Germans using it on the French. Although minor exposure resulted in irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, what the sailors on board the S-5 would experience, if they did not get off the bottom, would be anything but minor. As the chlorine gas became more concentrated with the dwindling air supply, the men would experience lung issues that would eventually lead to suffocation by fluid in their lungs. Some sailors in the control room already were gasping for air, wheezing loudly, and crying from the burning in their eyes. It was elementary — if they could not get the bow to rise off the bottom, the men would die a horrific death either from the lack of oxygen due to high carbon dioxide or by chlorine gas.
Everything was soaked with a combination of sea water, oil, diesel fuel, and grease. Forty men submerged in a horizontal steel cigar-shaped cylinder, living in a vertical world. The situation was becoming increasingly more desperate.
A little ingenuity, despite the effects of high levels of carbon dioxide, led the men to work out a trigonometry problem. Factoring their 231-foot vessel on a 57-degree incline from a depth of 180 feet, the men calculated that 14 feet of the sub must be above water! This was confirmed by men hearing waves lapping over the stern. To test the theory, Cooke decided to drill.
A few men squeezed into the tight tiller room at the extreme aft of the sub. Using a hand-powered drill, they managed to break through the ¾-inch thick steel. As the men felt success for the first time since being on the bottom, they then realized it had taken 20 minutes to drill one hole. They would have to hammer and chisel out the spaces between holes. They would need more than 100 holes to make a sizable enough exit for climbing out. This would require over 30 hours of nonstop drilling, without complication. However, they would not have enough air. They were in a race against time.
A Glimmer of Hope
Word quickly spread to scavenge for anything that would cut steel. Someone found an electric drill, which quickened the pace, but the drill malfunctioned and eventually died. Men worked 30-minute intervals in the thick air that zapped every ounce of strength to drill a hole. The situation was made more desperate as the crew was forced to abandon the control room because of the chlorine gas.
After five hours of continuous drilling, the men made a 4-inch by 1-inch slot. Working throughout the night, they slowly managed to expand the hole enough to be able to peer outside. Finally, a glimmer of hope. Cooke saw the most beautiful thing he had ever seen—a ship.
The crew was energized by the prospect of being rescued. But that energy would be stolen in an instant as the ship disappeared. A second ship was seen an hour later, but quickly passed out of sight. Cooke decided not to tell the men.
After 16 hours of drilling and chiseling, the men had created a 6-inch by 8-inch hole.
Cooke saw a third ship five miles distant, and he needed to signal the ship quickly as the ship was heading away from the stricken sub. He estimated he had 10 to 15 minutes to attract the ship’s attention. With most of the crew unconscious at this point, Cooke knew this was their last chance for survival. With nothing to burn and no flag to wave, the ship would disappear, and the men would die.
Suddenly, a 10-foot length of copper pipe was thrust into the hole. But a flagpole needed a flag - a bright flag. A seaman was able to locate a clean white t-shirt deep inside a duffel bag. The makeshift flag was raised and waved violently back and forth. Word spread, but the men who had been let down so many times in such a short period of time, held on to what shred of desperation they could muster. The ship disappeared.
As their ship went over the horizon, men on board the steamship Alanthus had seen a white rag in the distance protruding from an odd-shaped object. Their captain decided to turn the ship around. As the Alanthus approached the strange object, their crew realized they were looking at the protruding stern of a submarine.
An exchange ensued between the captains of the S-5 and the Alanthus:
"What ship are you?”
“Where are you bound?”
“To hell, by compass!”
Shortly thereafter, the merchant ship SS General George W. Goethals arrived. The Alanthus and Goethals worked together to build a platform to the stern of the S-5. Men from the merchant ships worked expeditiously to finish the drilling. One hundred additional holes were drilled. With a powerful swing of a sledge hammer, the metal plate crashed into the S-5. The Goethals radioed the Navy, which dispatched ships from throughout the Eastern Seaboard to make haste to the scene.
At 0334 hours on 3 September 1920, Grisham and Cooke were the last two men out of the S-5. Every man had been saved.
On the Bottom … Again
With the crew rescued and nestled in bunks on board the USS Ohio (BB-12), it was decided the Alanthus would attempt to tow the S-5 to shallow water. As the telegraph rang “dead slow,” the Alanthus slowly crawled away, picking up the slack in the towing cable. The Alanthus made only 100 yards before coming to a stop. The order given for “full speed” did nothing to improve the situation. The Alanthus did not move an inch. The sunken sub was much too heavy for the small merchant steamer. After nearly an hour of going nowhere at full throttle, the Alanthus relinquished the towing duty to the Ohio. The Alanthus, which gave life to so many, was now on her final voyage to the scrap yard in Norfolk.
The Navy did not want to abandon their new submarine on her maiden voyage. After much debate by the highest-ranking officials on scene, it was decided the Ohio would make the next attempt to tow the S-5 to shallow water. The reasoning was simple—it was much easier and safer to attempt salvage of the Navy’s newest submarine in water shallower than 180 feet.
Engineers on board the Ohio wrapped 2-inch thick towing cable nine times around the stern of the S-5. The Ohio also kept the hawser from the Alanthus. The decision to keep the hawser would prove ingenious in short time. With a strong grip on the S-5, the Ohio slowly moved forward. After the towline went taught, all forward motion stopped. The battleship was much larger and stronger than the Alanthus, but had the same issue as the meek merchant vessel. After 45 minutes the Ohio was able to break the ocean floor’s suction on the S-5’s bow, and headed toward Five Fathom Bank.
After three miles and 30 minutes, the Ohio’s towline snapped. With the battleship pulling away, the sailors quickly tied a marker buoy to the Alanthus’ original line to mark the precise location for salvage divers. The submarine foundered for a second time. She came to rest at a depth of 160 feet.
Two weeks later the submarine tender USS Beaver (AS-5) arrived at the scene of the S-5’s second sinking and dropped divers in the water for reconnaissance dives. The Beaver placed buoys so when the minesweeper USS Mallard (AM-44) arrived a fortnight later, the minesweeper could easily set up a four-point mooring system to maintain its position above the submarine. Salvage operations ensued, but were hampered by late fall gales. By mid-November, diving operations ceased.
In May 1921, salvage once again was attempted. Divers from the USS Falcon (AM-28) worked for four months trying to seal the sub. Dynamite, quick-setting concrete, and other methods for sealing proved to be in vain. After 477 logged dives, the Navy was unable to contain the leaks. On 3 September 1921, one year to the day of the miraculous rescue, the S-5 was struck from the Navy list.