F-4; THE FIRST SUBMARINE LOSS FOR THE US NAVY
It was on the morning of March 25, 1915, that F-1, F-3, and F-4 left Honolulu for local operations. F-4 did not return, and the eventual detection and recovery was a classic of naval salvage.
She was later “interned” at the bottom of Pearl Harbor after it was discovered that she had suffered a leak in the battery compartment and the crew had been killed by chlorine gas. This was the Navy’s first submarine disaster.
Two accounts of the tragedy are included.
The first is the from the Annual report form the Secretary of the Navy. While there had been many minor incidents involving the fledgling submarine fleet, this one was the first major catastrophe. The ability to rescue the submariners was certainly something that the public was going to be concerned about. After all, these were their sons and husbands that had volunteered for such dangerous duty.
REPORT of THE SECRETARY OF THE NAVY
THE NAVY’S ONLY SUBMARINE DISASTER,
During submarine maneuvers off Honolulu on March 25 an accident occurred to the F-4 which caused her to sink to a depth of 305 feet, resulting in the loss of her commander, Lieut. A. L. Ede, Ensign T. A. Parker, and the crew of 19 men. It was the first submarine disaster ever sustained by the American Navy, although there have been 17 fatal submarine accidents among the foreign navies during the past 10 years. Heroic effort was made by the naval authorities at Honolulu to locate the missing vessel and save her crew, officers and men working for several days without sleep in this strenuous but fruitless attempt. The vessel was quickly located and everything possible was done with the means at hand, but the apparatus available at Honolulu, including the 150-ton floating der rick, was inadequate for fastening hoisting chains under the vessel and for lifting her, so special devices had to be designed and built.
On April 1 a party of expert deep-sea divers, consisting of Gunner G. D. Stillson and Gunner’s Mates Stephen Drellishak, Frank Crilley, Frederick Nielson, and William Loughman, were hurried to Hawaii via San Francisco. Some of these men had previously worked at depths of 280 feet. They were accompanied by Passed Asst. Surg. G. R. W. French, United States Navy, who had been associated with them in their record-breaking diving. With the party was sent additional apparatus, including a large recompression tank and plenty of hose.
The U. S. S. Maryland was awaiting them at San Francisco, to convey them to the scene of the catastrophe. They took turns in descending to the submarine, which was lying on her side on the slope of a steep undersea mountain, in order to assist the work of fastening cables about her whereby she might be gradually towed into shallower water. The operation was not merely one of dragging the submarine along the bottom, but of lifting her as she was suspended by the cables from the scows above, and then towing her toward the shore. The diver dared remain only about 20 minutes at a time at the bottom, else he would be completely exhausted by the pressure of 138 pounds to the square inch at that depth. (The atmospheric pressure on the surface is only 14.7 pounds to the square inch.)
While it required only four minutes to descend for the quarter-hour work with the sunken vessel, it required three hours to rise to the surface, inasmuch as the upward journey had to be made in slow stages. The first lift was 100 feet, made in about 6 minutes; but after that, between each 10 feet of lift, the divers must be allowed a rest period of six or eight minutes to become used to the lessening pressure. Diver Loughman, during one of his descents, became fouled in the cable lines from the hoisting vessels above reaching to the submarine, and was thus entangled for a period of four hours at a depth of 275 feet. He was eventually rescued from his perilous position by Diver Crilley, who risked his life in the effort. Loughman, in a semiconscious condition, had to be kept for nine hours in the recompression tank, and even this did not save him from an attack of pneumonia, from which he slowly recovered.
The diving of these men to raise the unfortunate F-4 was an act of heroism for which they deserve the thanks of the country. It matched the courage of the immortal crew of the lost submarine, in which they so freely sacrificed their lives in the line of duty. The lifting was five-sixths done when a sudden storm resulted in great damage to the boat, necessitating a new method of procedure.
The submarine was then within 50 feet of the surface, but the risk of completing the work with the appliances at hand was too great, and six pontoons were therefore specially constructed at the Mare Island Navy Yard and brought to Honolulu on board the Maryland, arriving on August 12. By this means on August 29 the submarine was finally raised. The dead weight lifted was 250 tons, from a depth of 305 feet, 1% miles out from the harbor in the open sea. It was a feat unprecedented in the annals of any navy, and credit therefor belongs in large measure to Rear Admiral C. B. T. Moore, Naval Constructor J. A. Furer, and Lieut. C. E. Smith, in addition to the divers already mentioned.
The board of investigation ordered stated in its conclusion, after the most careful investigation and deliberation, as its conception of the disaster, that the primary cause was the corroded condition of the lead lining, and, in consequence, of certain rivets in the port wall of the forward battery steel tank; and the secondary causes, the poor diving qualities of the vessel and its consequent failure promptly to respond to measures taken to bring it to the surface.
Only four of the bodies were identified and these were sent to the nearest of kin for interment at home.
Fourteen bodies were unidentified, among which it was assumed were the bodies of the two commissioned officers on the vessel, and these 14 were buried in Arlington Cemetery with every honor.
Three bodies were not recovered at all. No expense was spared to recover the bodies and raise the submarine. The cost aggregated $126,639.
Newspapers were very prolific in describing the tragedy. Even though nothing was known at the time about the causes of the accident, newspaper writers came up with incredibly graphic descriptions of what they imagined might have occurred.
From a Period Newspaper account:
ALWAYS A MYSTERY.
“Whether the engines of the F4 refused to work when she got to the bottom of the sea, whether her sides caved in under terrific pressure, or the exact nature of the incident that left her helpless at such a depth can only be surmised. When a week passed without any chance of lifting the vessel all hope for her crew was given up. In fact there had been grave doubts as to anyone being alive within for no U.S. SUBMARINE F-4 sound had been heard from any of her apparatus for communicating with other vessels.
“Perhaps her iron sides were crushed in on some shelving rock or corral on which she struck, the water rushed in and her crew was subjected to death by drowning, far more painless and merciful at the time than the slow, agonizing death by suffocation. However, it is feared that death by the latter means resulted. The F4 rested on the bottom of the sea. Her engineer struggled vainly with all power on, but the whirring propeller with all the force of the powerful gasoline engines, failed to move her.
“Imagine that silent crew huddled about, each man so near the other that their shoulders touched, yet each man with the certain knowledge death faced him, pretending all was well and even trying to cheer up the man beside him. Thoughts of the mother or sister, or perhaps the sweetheart at home, must have passed through their minds as they sat huddled there in the dim light of the deep sea. Fishes flashing by the portholes must have been the most serious reminders of their fate for those fishes meant life. Free life in the open. The principle that every man recognizes as his greatest boon.
“To the human under such circumstances the approach of death is by far more agonizing than to an animal in such circumstances, even than to the proverbial rat in the trap as it slowly drowns. To the beasts it is but a question of preservation of life. That instinct that makes it struggle until the last gasp. To the man and especially to a member of the United States navy, trained to bravery in emergencies and taught to expect possible death as his possible reward for the defense of his country in times of war, death. Death by such a means brings a great mental agony.
“Above him, he knows, are other United States ships, with their happy care-free crews. Faraway on shore are hundreds of Americans enjoying themselves in freedom. But there at the bottom of the sea were 21 stalwart sons of Uncle Sam doomed to a terrible death and destined to face death like the iron men the United States Navy produces. If it had been on shipboard with national airs playing and a foe in sight these men would have rushed into a thousand dangers and gladly gone to death for the defense of their country. But here they were prisoners with not even a glimpse of the sun to liven them, to cheer them in their last hours.
“If they had been in battle line ashore or behind the big gun aboard ship they would have been contented for a whistling steel shell, a death scream and all would be over. But now hours of agony faced them. For several days they had lived on scanty rations in the hopes they would not starve and that they might be rescued at any time. If they were still alive what joy must have possessed them when they heard the grappling hooks pass over the deck of their vessel. That sharp pronged hook was as if the whole United States were lifting out its hand to aid them in their rescue. What disappointment must have possessed them when the hook fell to the sea, having failed to catch their deck rings. By this time the air in the oxygen containers must have been quite exhausted. Breathing would be difficult. The air laden with no nitrogen and carbonic acid must have pressed heavily on their lungs. Imagine them tearing open the bosom of their shirts as if to relieve the great pressure.
“Seated about with swollen lips, distended eyes and lungs paining as if a knife had been thrust through, these men must have sat about praying for the end. The captain can be imagined still at the bridge, standing as an officer must stand while on duty, yet with his head bent on his chest, his breath coming heavily and his mind a blank. On him had rested the responsibility of the lives of those 21 men. While they sat helpless in their places beside the shafts of the propellers, he thought of all the ways ever employed by mechanics in such circumstances. The engineer backed him up in an effort to raise the vessel. But there came a time when orders ceased to come from the bridge and when the engineer was not prepared to heed them. The latter long since had sunk into a coma and was dreaming happily despite the heavy pressure of his lungs.
“Death was showing mercy. The tired captain, his head sunk on his breast, still stood half unconscious and also in a coma. His work was over when the hand of death took charge of the wheel of that vessel, but death was slow, although it had kindly given him the anesthesia of unconsciousness. Thus the crew of F4 went to its death. Historians may add another chapter to the history of the United States when that hulk is raised and the bodies recovered.”
The Sunday Telegram. (Clarksburg, W. Va.), 09 May 1915. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85059732/1915-05-09/ed-1/seq-27/
I have to be honest. I was a submariner for many years. And that story was utterly depressing to read. The writer was not identified but it is certain that based on his descriptions, he was never a submariner. I double checked the design features of the F-4 and I assure you there were no portholes to see the fish swimming by. Even if there was enough light around.
One thing the writer did get correct.
Once the boat settled on the bottom, there were no existing methods to rescue the men. No matter how they perished, it was their final dive.
God rest their souls.
This would not be the last tragedy for the F boats. See the rest of the story here: