“With his heart in his mouth, Tom glimpsed a dim bow as it came hurtling toward him out of the night. Firing had ceased; they were evidently too close to fire; evidently they meant to ram. Hadn’t he got his recognition signal right?

He pressed a button; below him klaxons shrieked a warning through the boat, he yelled wildly down the voice tube”

“Close all watertight doors! Blow all ballast tanks! Stand by for collision!”

He looked up from the tube. Heeled far down, port rail awash, helm had over, propeller churning full astern. spinning almost on her tail, the destroyer was shooting by his starboard bow, not twenty yards away.”*

*excerpts from the Novel “Pigboats” by Commander Edward Ellsberg, 1931


Imagine being caught on the surface, in the Atlantic, in the night, with a destroyer charging at you…

I have a faded old copy of Edward Ellsberg’s novel Pigboats. The book was my Grandfather’s and has been in my library for years. It was one of my favorite reads as a kid. The premise of the story is about a submariner who goes through a lot of adventures. Reading it as a child  gave me mental pictures you would expect from a kid who had never been to sea. The closest water we had was the Monongahela and Youghiogheny Rivers so even thinking about a boat that size in the ocean was beyond my ability to comprehend.

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Ellsberg had written many books and this was not his most famous one.

Ellsberg book 2      ellsberg book 1      thumbnailCAXOL3B5

Looking back through “Pigboats” at a much older stage of my life, I have a different vantage point that flavors my reading. Lieutenant Thomas Knowlton wakes up on a German ship in the Philippines that had been interred early during World War 1. The U.S. was not yet in the war but had participated in the internment of many potential enemy ships as part of an international treaty agreement with the British and French. Knowlton had a rough night ashore in Manila and was robbed of his uniform by a German officer who was trying to escape back to his own country. Shortly thereafter, his submarine had deployed without him for maneuvers under his second in command and all hands were lost in a terrible accident.


Since Knowlton had not sailed with her, he would have been court martialled but the subsequent Board of Enquiry declared the loss of the boat including its Commander. Thomas Knowlton no longer existed and went through a series of events in his life that eventually lead back to him rejoining the Navy in time to participate in the first World War.

As I read the book now, I know what the barroom in the Philippines probably looked and smelled like. I can feel his misery at having missed a ship’s movement only to find that the boat was lost. He wanders around the world from port to port and I have some idea of his wanderings and when he ends up working in a shipyard I can hear the sounds and smell the burning of metal by torches. Its funny how life’s experiences can add to your way of looking at things. But its also funny how the descriptions of certain things in my mind remain the same from the very first time I read the book.

The air in our boats had to be much cleaner and less foul than that of the early boats but it was still crowded with diesel fumes, stale cigarette smoke, cooking odors and all of the other captured fragrances that grace a boat that spends it’s most productive hours under the water. The proof of that is easy to confirm. Visit any of the old boats that now sit permanently at pier side welcoming the young, the bold, the adventures into her previously hidden world. The smell that I remember from five boats rests in every one of them.


Commander Edward Ellsberg

The author of the book is a pretty amazing story all by himself. Ellsberg was a small man who barely made the height requirements of the Naval Academy. That did not prevent him from graduating at the top of his class (a position he maintained all the way through according to his Grandson Ted Pollard). The remarkable part of that history was that he was one of the few Jews to be accepted in 1910 (setting the stage for a later Jewish graduate named Rickover). He was encouraged to remain as a line officer but preferred to become a Naval construction officer. His work in new construction on battleships helped him to shine, but his real claim to fame  came from raising the sunken S-51 boat that had been sunk in 1925 after a collision with the City of Rome. On the night of the collision, S-51 was transiting on the surface and the City of Rome could not see her running lights until it was too late. Only three men escaped the sinking boat. The Navy at first did not think it practical to salvage the boat.

300px-S-51_Salvage  S 51 in drydock

Ellsberg had other ideas. He conceived a plan and convinced the Submarine base commander Captain Ernest J. King that it was entirely possible and King allowed the work to continue. Gathering up all of the deep sea divers available and scrounging around for the boats and materials he needed Ellsberg did the then impossible task. On July 5, 1926, he and his team raised the boat and enabled a proper burial for the 33 men who did not make it home that fateful night. In the course of his operation, Ellsberg even trained and became a Deep Sea Diver himself. His skills would eventually be used again during World War 2 where he helped to open ports in Ethiopia that had been sabotaged by the departing enemy.

You can read more about this great American hero at http://www.edwardellsberg.com/bio.htm

Hell Below

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The most interesting thing about the book is that it was actually converted into a movie in 1933 called “Hell Below”. This was an MGM picture (now owned by Turner Classic Movies) set in the Adriatic during World War 1 about submarine warfare. The movie had a lot of big names in it: Robert Montgomery, Walter Huston, Robert Young, Madge Evans, and Jimmy Durante. Although it was about the first world war, it really set the stage for all of the famous World War 2 movies that would come a brief decade later.

Destination Tokyo, Torpedo Run, Operation Pacific, Hellcats of the Navy, Run Silent, Run Deep and others were all built around the same formula: dramatic tensions and activity built around the war itself, a love triangle or personal conflict that would engage the viewers, and a mix of actual as well as staged warfare scenes that would bring the audience closer to the film.

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Ellsberg’s experience added the right touch of realism to the movie and despite the fact that the love stories seemed a bit contrived, the war scenes and actual footage from World War 1 are considered to be masterful. During one of the scenes, there is a chlorine gas leak while the boat is submerged and several of the crew become trapped in the affected compartment. The realism of their imminent death in this horrible manner is seen on their faces through the view hole on the watertight door and on the faces of the men who know they can do nothing to save them. In retrospect, its probably a good thing I never saw the movie before I went off to sub school.

the complete story of the filming can be viewed at:


The submarine authenticity in both the movie and the book are due in main to Commander Ellsberg. I would highly encourage you to read the book if you can find a copy. Some of it will make you laugh but some of it will probably hit home for anyone who has ever slipped below the surface for a mission. I’ll leave you with one final excerpt from the book:

“These pigboats are plain hell, on top or on the bottom. You can have ‘em Knowlton.”

Tom looked aft along his deck, thought of the men who had fought and died inside and outside that submarine.

“Maybe you’re right, there’s easier boats in the fleet than the pigs, but they suit the men who man them anyway.”


Mister Mac

Update on July 15 2013… I exchanged Emails today with Ted Pollard, a grandson of Edward Ellsberg. He runs a web side devoted to his very famous Grandfather http://www.edwardellsberg.com/index.htm  and is also an author. Definitely worth checking out! Thanks for the correspondence Ted!

One thought on “Pigboats

  1. Reblogged this on theleansubmariner and commented:

    I had the pleasure of corresponding with Edward Ellsberg’s Grandson today. The copy of Pigboats in my possession was my Grandfathers and it was a signed copy (by his Grandfather). Check out his web site (listed at the end of this reblog)

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