I was doing a little research this morning about the main subject of a book I am writing and I ran across a little gem that while unrelated was certainly an eye catcher. It had to do with a young Lieutenant named Hyman G. Rickover. Okay, to be fair, he wasn’t all that old when he was recognized in the June 13, 1931 Bureau of Navigation Bulletin Number 159. When Mr. Rickover was already 29 years old, he entered the submarine service. When this mention occurred, he was 31 years old.
The exact wording of the recognition was this:
“The Secretary of the Navy recently addressed letters of commendation to the officers listed below:
Lieutenant Hyman G. Rickover, U.S.N., U.S.S. 48
For rescuing Augustin Pasis, MAtt. 1c, U.S.N. from drowning at the Submarine Base, Coco Solo, Canal Zone”
Petty Officer Pasis was a First Class Mess Attendant that was returning from shore leave when he fell over the side of the boat according to the June 3rd San Antonio Express Newspaper.
To be honest, I only met Admiral Rickover one time.
I was on my third submarine and it was the spring of 1981 when the USS San Francisco was on sea trials. Looking at the frail old man, I was awestruck with how much power he still wielded even in his later years. None of us knew that within a year he would be forced out of the Navy he had spent a life serving. But thinking about his size, it’s hard for me to imagine that even at a younger age, he might have the strength to rescue a drowning sailor. In between other projects today, I did a little research about his time in submarines and especially on the S-48.
I have researched the S boats for years and I know some of the history about the four boats that made up the “4th Group” of S boats. None of them faired very well and the S-48 was no exception.
From the records:
“Rickover preferred life on smaller ships, and he also knew that young officers in the submarine service were advancing quickly, so he went to Washington and volunteered for submarine duty. His application was turned down due to his age, at that time 29 years. Fortunately for Rickover, he ran into his former commanding officer from Nevada while leaving the building, who interceded successfully on his behalf. From 1929 to 1933, Rickover qualified for submarine duty aboard the submarines S-9 and S-48.
On 1 June 1929, S-48 had been reassigned to SubDiv 4, with which she operated through the end of 1929. Then assigned to SubDiv 3, later SubDiv 5, and then Squadron 3, she continued her operations off the New England coast, with an interruption for winter maneuvers to the south. During this time, Lieutenant Hyman G. Rickover was assigned to her. He later credited S-48′s “faulty, sooty, dangerous and repellent engineering” with inspiring his obsession for high engineering standards. She was transferred to the Panama Canal Zone in 1931. On 1 March, she arrived at Coco Solo, whence she operated for four years.
Four “4th Group” S-boats were constructed. The 4th Group S-boats were the largest of the fifty-one S-boats contracted to be built for the United States Navy. These S-boats had six water-tight compartments to enhance internal integrity. S-48 thru S-51 were authorized in FY1920 and laid down 1919-20 at Lake Torpedo Company, Bridgeport CT. They were modified “S” class boats which added an aft torpedo tube which resulted in 27 tons additional displacement. All four commissioned in 1922.
The S-48 Class submarines were 240′ in length overall; had an extreme beam of 21’10”; had a normal surface displacement of 903 tons, and, when on the surface in that condition, had a mean draft of 13’6″. The submarines displaced 1,230 tons when submerged. The designed compliment was 4 officers and 34 enlisted men. The S-boat was equipped with two periscopes. She had a double hull in the center portion of the boat; a single hull at each end of the ship. This S-boat could completely submerge in one minute to periscope depth. Maximum operating (test) depth was 200′.
The submarine was armed with five 21-inch torpedo tubes (four in the bow and one in the stern). Fourteen torpedoes were carried. One 4-inch/50-caliber gun was mounted on the main deck forward of the conning tower fairwater.
Stowage was provided for 44,350 gallons of diesel oil by utilizing some of the ballast tanks as fuel oil tanks. This gave the boat a maximum operating radius of 8,000 miles at ten knots when transiting on the surface. The normal fuel oil load was 23,411 gallons. Two 6-M-85 six-cylinder 900 brake horsepower (at 410 rotations per minute) diesel engines, that had a total output of 1,800 horsepower, that were made by the Busch-Sulzer Brothers Diesel Engine Company at Saint Louis, Missouri, could drive the boat at 14.4 knots when operating on the surface.
Submerged propulsion electrical power was provided by the 120 cell main storage battery which was manufactured by the Gould Storage Battery Company at Trenton (“Trenton makes, the world takes”), New Jersey, which powered two 750 B.H.P. electric motors, with a total output of 1,500 designed brake horsepower, that were manufactured by the Ridgeway Dynamo and Electric Company at Ridgeway, Pennsylvania which turned propeller shafts which turned propellers which drove the submarine at 11 knots, for a short period of time, when submerged.
Two of the four boats would suffer battery explosions and decommissioned in 1927 and a third would be lost when rammed by a merchant ship. The lead ship of the class grounded off New Hampshire during a storm and her crew was evacuated. The resulting repairs and modernization would keep her out of commission for over three years.
In February 1924, S-50 (SS-161) suffered a battery explosion which resulted in exhaustive engineering testing and her early decommissioned in August 1927. On 29 January 1925, S-48 (SS-159) grounded off the New Hampshire coast and her crew was evacuated during a storm. She would be salvaged and modernized, returning to commission in December 1928. S-51 (SS-162) was rammed and sunk by the merchant SS City of Rome off Block Island, RI on 25 September 1925. She was raised in 1926 and sold for scrap in 1930. On 20 April 1926 S-49 (SS-160) suffered a battery explosion and was decommissioned in August 1927.
A Hard Luck Sub
S-48’s hard luck started 10 months after launching, when the yet-to-be-commissioned sub conducted her first test dive in New York Sound off of Penfield Reef on December 7, 1921.
According to press reports, the 240-foot boat “was hardly under water before the shouted reports came from the aft part of the vessel: ‘Engine room flooding! Motor room flooding!’” Emergency procedures kicked in. The men in the aft compartments stumbled forward and the forward compartment doors were shut. “A moment later the stern softly bumped on the bottom. The electric lights went out.” Flashlights in hand, the sub’s Commander, Lt. Francis Smith, ordered the ballast tanks blown, but “the weight of the water in the stern compartments was too much…her nose tilting up a little but that was all.” Two hundred pounds of pig lead ballast bars were jettisoned through an air lock and four dummy torpedoes were shot out, on which the crew had painted “HELP” and “SUBMARINE SUNK HERE” along with numerous milk bottles “in which messages were enclosed giving notice of the plight of the vessel.”
Slowly the bow began to rise like an inverse pendulum, but the stern stuck to the bottom. The upward tilt shifted the stern water. “Port batteries flooding!” yelled a crewman. The New York Evening News described the dramatic moment: “Breathing stopped. A flooded battery means chlorine [gas].” Cmdr. Smith and three crewmen immediately began bailing “to get seawater below the level of the [battery containers]…their hands were burned and every moment or two a whiff [of chlorine gas] drifted across their faces,” making them cough and choke. No sooner had they gotten the water off the port side batteries that the starboard batteries started flooding. At the same time, the boat’s bow continued to tilt upward as more material weight was jettisoned. At 30 degrees, the ships executive officers were certain the bow was above the surface “more than sixty feet from the bottom.”
One member of the crew, while being pushed from behind, wriggled and worked his way out of the sub through a torpedo tube, which was about four feet higher than the ocean surface. A rope was passed up the tube, and the remaining crew of 50 were pulled out one by one. Hot coffee and blankets were also hauled up as the men huddled in the freezing weather. One Sailor’s wet underclothing “was frozen into a solid casing about his shoulders and legs.”
Some of the men went back down into the sub through the torpedo tube and “hauled out mattresses [which]…one by one were burned at the tip of the upstanding bow…the men sitting around their flaming signal…[warming themselves from] a stiff wind…[and] rough waters.” They were finally rescued at 10:30 PM by a passing tug. The ordeal had lasted 14 hours, 10 of which were spent exposed to the frigid elements. Three men were briefly hospitalized for minor chlorine gas inhalation. Most of the men were employees of the Lake Torpedo Boat Co. of Bridgeport, Conn.
Initial reports by the Associated Press claimed that the sub had been hit by a tug boat, but it was later learned that somebody left open one of the airtight “manholes.” Divers were able to secure the hatch and refloat the vessel.
By the following August (1922), the S-48 began its second series of tests on Long Island Sound, diving to a depth of 100 feet and firing torpedoes and “other such trials.” She was accepted and commissioned by the U.S. Navy in October of 1922. Over the next three years, she was in and out of New London, Conn. for repairs. She ran aground twice in 1926 during a violent storm once taking on water, which again caused chlorine gas to form. She was then returned to New London for the fifth time. Due to a lack of repair funds, the submarine was decommissioned. Funds became available in 1927 and repairs commenced, which included a hull extension of 25½ feet. In December 1928, she was recommissioned. Within seven months, she was back at New London undergoing repairs before resuming operations in June 1929.
It was a year later that Rickover joined the crew.
By then, S-48 was the only remaining S-class submarine from the four-boat Group IV consisting of S-48 to S-51. S-49 and S-50 experienced battery explosions and S-51 sank due to a collision with a passenger ship. By the time Rickover reported aboard the S-48, her two surviving sister ships, themselves mechanical and electrical nightmares, had been decommissioned.
In his biography, “Rickover: The Struggle for Excellence,” Francis Duncan reports on a myriad of mechanical and electrical problems confronted by the young engineering officer on his first cruise aboard the S-48. He relates that the pneumatic control valves used to submerge the ship never “synchronized [properly and thus when diving] she [always] lurched to one side or the other…to as much as twelve degrees.” Rickover wrote about his first cruise in July of 1930. Less than an hour into the cruise, a malfunctioning electrical controller forced the sub to stop. Once fixed, the gyro compass repeater then “went haywire…[making it] impossible to steer a correct course,” he reported. About an hour later, an exhaust valve stem cracked, forcing another stop. It was repaired and “then three…cylinder jackets of the port engine developed leaks… [Rickover, fearing the Captain] would become disgusted [with his performance] took the chance and ran with the leaky cylinder jackets…” If that wasn’t enough, several hours later “the electrician reported…something wrong with one of the main motors.” Crawling into the bilges to check out a “jangling in the bow,” he discovered the anchor chain was loose, “the control panel for the anchor windlass had become grounded.”
Two months later, smoke belched from a ventilator fan; a main battery had caught fire. According to Thomas Rockwell in his book, “The Rickover Effect,” the skipper, fearing an explosion, “ordered all men on deck, prepared to jump overboard if the expected hydrogen explosion occurred.” Believing the problem was his responsibility, Rickover volunteered to re-enter the sub and fix the problem. Rickover wrote, “the smoke was coming from the battery compartment…when it was opened black smoke billowed forth… Wearing a gas mask and trailing a lifeline [Rickover ventured through the hatch].” Finding no fire, he rigged a ventilating system and lime was placed in the compartment to absorb carbon dioxide. A later examination revealed that the fire had started by sparking battery connections. Three hours later, a short circuit in the “charred battery connections” started yet another fire, which he unsuccessfully attempted to put out with a carbon tetrachloride fire extinguisher. In desperation, he successfully sprinkled lime on the flames. It worked. The cause of the second fire was old and deteriorating insulation. Rockwell also relates that Rickover was confronted with propulsion motors that “were a continual source of trouble.” Showing his hands-on approach to problem solving, “he redesigned and rebuilt them [after which] they caused no further trouble.”
13 June 1931 Bureau of Navigation Bulletin… Rickover commended for saving a petty officer form drowning
In July 1931, Rickover was promoted to Executive Officer.
In November, the S-48 had another mishap. She started a dive for a practice torpedo run and immediately “she took a twelve-degree list and a sharp downward angle. At seventy feet…she was out of control…blowing the tanks…brought her up… [A later] investigation showed a vent valve had failed to open.” In February of 1932, after several diving mishaps, a group of officers “nervous and tired, had drawn up a message…for all to sign, stating the ship was unsafe and could not complete her assignment.” According to Duncan, “Rickover argued them out of it…it would be bad for the reputations of all concerned and [told them] that he could work out a new diving procedure.” His diving protocol meant diving took longer, but it worked.
The 1932 Navy-Princeton gravity expedition to the West Indies
The first gravity measurements at sea had been made in 1926 from a submarine of the Royal Navy. The first U.S. gravity measurements at sea had been made from the submarine USS S-21 (SS-126), assisted by the Eagle Boats USS Eagle No. 35 and USS Eagle No. 58.
S-48 was assigned at the request of the Hydrographer of the Navy by the Secretary of the Navy to assist with the second U.S. expedition to obtain gravity measurements at sea using a gravimeter, or gravity meter, designed by Dr. Felix Vening Meinesz. Meinesz, joined by Dr. Harry Hammond Hess of Princeton University, and a U.S. Navy technician, participated in the expedition. The submarine was accompanied and assisted by the minesweeper USS Chewink (AM-39) in a route from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to Key West, Florida and return to Guantanamo through the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos region from 5 February through 25 March 1932. The description of operations and results of the expedition were published by the U.S. Navy Hydrographic Office in The Navy-Princeton gravity expedition to the West Indies in 1932.
Despite her frequent mechanical and electrical mishaps, sinking’s, and groundings, the Lake Torpedo Boat Co. built S-48 was finally deactivated in 1935 and berthed at League Island, N.Y. At the beginning of WWII, she was reactivated and used for training at New London. “Overhaul and repair periods [during the war] were frequent,” history records.
The hard luck S-48 was decommissioned in 1945 and scrapped the following year after 25 years of service, three of which inspired one of the Navy’s most respected and honored seamen.”
I do not know what happened to the man Rickover saved. He had a son that lived in Norfolk but the only other records I could find indicated that he followed a sailor’s life. Like Rickover, he was in his late twenties or early thirties so I can imagine that he would continue on serving the Navy through the next decade at least.
Like most people that rode nuc boats, we owed a lot to the man who guided the Navy’s nuclear power program. I have a new appreciation for him after reading about his exploits on the S 48 boat.
4 thoughts on “A New Wrinkle on H. G. Rickover – A Real Life Saver”
Remind me: Why was ADM Rickover forced out of the Navy? Were there any protests?
The Admiral was in his eighties and had served longer than anyone had. Sadly, his state of mind was not as consistent as I am sure it must have been when he was a younger man. When he was on the San Francisco for sea trials, an incident happened that illustrated this for me personally. After he came on board and as we were preparing the ship to get underway, he was in the XO’s stateroom. When he came on board the boat, the routine was that he carried no uniform or supplies. The Supply Officer had a list of items that needed to be present for the Admiral including a certain type of candy, certain other foods and a uniform that would fit him. I won’t go into the full details, but the Supply Officer (Chop) had made some of the Chiefs angry and they set up a practical joke. The uniform that was supplied to Rickover had the sleeves and leg openings sewn shut. I know this because I was securing the torpedo access hatch above his head and could see the mess attendant bringing the neatly stacked uniform into the stateroom. The Admiral had already disrobed and was in vintage style undergarments. As he tried to put on the uniform, he quickly discovered the abnormality and I heard the most evil scream followed by cursing fit for any man of the deep blue seas. In the meantime, the Chop had discovered the plot and was racing up the forward ladder with a correct set of khakis. Needless to say, the cursing continued and the next 24 hours were tense in every sense of the word. The boat performed flawlessly during the sea trials and at the completion, he was ushered into the control room. The Admiral was handed the 1MC microphone and we all anticipated a dressing down from hell. Instead, he delivered a fifteen minute dissertation about the importance of what we were doing, the submarine service and our place in history. I have heard a lot of speeches before then and many since but none were as awe inspiring or clear in their method or purpose.
When he finished, he put the mike down and there was a moment of silence. Then he turned to the CO and said in a raspy old voice “Now get me the hell back to the base.” We were not allowed to be in the passage ways when he was moving to and from and I do not remember seeing him leave. I was both glad that he had been there and very glad he was gone. Rickover rode every boat on sea trials because he wanted the builder to know that if anything went wrong and the boat was lost, they would forever be known as the company that killed the Father of the Nuclear Navy. On July 27, 1981, Lehman was handed the final impetus for ending Rickover’s career by way of an operational error on the Admiral’s part: a “moderate” loss of ship control and depth excursion while performing a submerged “crash back” maneuver during the sea trials of the newly constructed USS La Jolla. (She was the boat right after ours). Since Rickover was the “man in charge” it gave Secretary Lehman the opportunity he had been looking for and the Admiral was set up for dismissal within six months. In January of 1982, his wife heard on the radio that Reagan had fired him.
I do not know if anyone protested privately for his retention. I am sure his most loyal lieutenants wished that it could have been done with more tact. But under the circumstances, I think it was inevitable and frankly it ended up not killing the Navy. He died at the age of 86. I am very glad he did not die on board our boat that day.
Attached is the speech Rickover made on the 1MC when SSN 711 pulled in from Alpha Trials. He was siting on the aft fire control bench, I was standing about 2 feet from him in a packed control room. Wont forget.
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Thanks Dan. I remember that day like it was yesterday. I was Aux of the Watch and really dreaded running into the old boy on my rounds. Hope you are doing well.
By the way, I can’t “see” the attachment you tried to send. If you send it to my email (email@example.com) I will cut and paste it with you permission.