1911 Whim of a Woman – The First Female Casualty on a Submarine

Once upon a time my wife got a chance to join me and my fellow submariners on a dependents cruise. I am not sure they are even allowed anymore. But this was a pretty special occasion. The USS San Francisco (SSN 711) pulled into Maui in the Hawaiian Islands and the wives and some kids flew from Oahu to spend a few days on shore with us and eventually ride back to Pearl Harbor.

I hadn’t seen her in a while so getting some quality time together alone was a real treat. I had recently qualified as Chief of the Watch and frankly was pretty tired. So we rented a nice room and prepared to get reacquainted.

But as the old story goes, you can’t always get what you want.

Shortly after we settled in, there was a very insistent knock on the door. It was a shipmate that was looking for me. It seems the anchor had broken free from the chain and the boat was drifting in the channel. Well, to be fair, it wasn’t drifting by that time. It was making big circles since the on board crew had to re-station the maneuvering watch. The bad thing was that there were not enough people on board to fill a complete watch rotation so someone was sent to shore to get whoever they could to fill in the gaps.

As the newest Chief of the Watch, my number came up short. So I headed back and left her alone in the hotel room for the night. Neither of us were very happy.

But the next day she joined me on the boat and we submerged and headed home.

During the run, we went deep and conducted an emergency blow. My wife actually got to operate the EMBT actuating valves under instruction. It was an amazing ride and no one was hurt in the evolution.

A few years later, a submarine out of Pearl was not so lucky. They were giving a ride to some visiting dignitaries when they got delayed in doing their Emergency Blow. They ended up coming up and hitting a Japanese civilian training ship, killing nine.

From another web site:

The Ehime Maru and USS Greeneville collision was a ship collision between the United States Navy (USN) submarine USS Greeneville (SSN-772) and the Japanese fishery high school training ship Ehime Maru on 9 February 2001, about 9 nautical miles (17 km) off the south coast of Oahu, Hawaii, United States. In a demonstration for some civilian visitors, Greeneville performed an emergency surfacing maneuver. As the submarine surfaced, it struck Ehime Maru, a fishery high school training ship from Ehime Prefecture, Japan. Within minutes of the collision, Ehime Maru sank. Nine of its crewmembers were killed, including four high school students.

The whole story is here:

https://officerofthewatch.com/2013/06/10/the-collision-of-us-submarine-greeneville-and-the-fishing-vessel-ehime-maru-investigation-report/

I have often wondered if any women have been killed in an actual submarine during operations. The simple answer is yes, but the circumstances are still pretty shrouded even after 111 years.

The submarine was a French Submarine named the Pluvious. This is her story.

1911 Whim of a Woman

It Cost Her Her Life in the Wreck of a Submarine

DROWNED WITH HER FIANCE

Story of a Pathetic Episode That Was Intertwined With the Tragic Loss With All on Board of the French Torpedo Boat Pluviose

Underlying the tragedy of the loss of the French submarine torpedo boat Pluviose with twenty seven lives when she was sunk in the bottom of the English Channel by a collision with a surface steamship on May 23 1910 was a piteous episode involving the death of a beautiful and brilliant young Frenchwoman.

The French government suppressed the story so thoroughly that to this day the name of the young woman is not known save to those in paramount authority in the navy. But American naval officers say the fact of the happening has become known to other naval men all over the world.

The Pluviose and a sister submarine had gone out from the navy yard at Calais about 1 o’clock in the afternoon for a series of maneuvers She was about two miles from shore and was disporting in a series of dives and risings to the surface. The feat known as “porpoising” was being accomplished with great skill, the submarine being entirely responsive to every turn of a directing wheel in her machinery. The act of porpoising is an imitation of the action of the porpoise in its leaps above water and prompt disappearance immediately afterward. In the submarine the maneuver is made for the purpose of scouting the boat being brought toward the surface sufficiently for its periscope to protrude out of water when the officer below is enabled to make a general circular survey of the water above him. Then the boat dives out of sight In case of war she would have sighted her enemy and be enabled to proceed closely to a battleship or cruiser and discharge torpedoes directly at her foe.

In the act of thus coming to the surface the Pluviose came up directly under the channel steamship Pas de Calais The keel of the Calais struck the submarine and tore a huge hole in her upper casement, a rent fifteen feet long and two feet wide. Into this the water rushed. The submarine staggered along with her hull Just showing above the surface her engines disabled her crew unable to do anything to chock the inrush of water. And she went down

She had a crew of twenty seven men Commandant Pras was the senior officer. There were two other officers Which one of these three it was whose sweetheart was aboard is not definitely known to the American naval officers but they declare there is no doubt of the fact.

One of the three officers listened to the pleadings of his fiancee that she be allowed to make a trip in the submarine with him and share with him the peril that his duty so often required him to brave. He must have had a consultation with his brother officers and got their consent to wink at it for the regulations of the French navy strictly forbid women to make any trips in submarine boats. Perhaps the very fact that it was forbidden that if she succeeded in making a journey to the bottom of the sea in a submarine she would have enjoyed an experience the like of which no other Frenchwoman might claim actuated her. But whatever the conditions that brought it about the young officer did escort her secretly aboard the Pluviose.

She wore a long oilskin coat and souwester hat belonging to her sweetheart which sufficiently disguised her sex to admit of her going aboard without being challenged by any of the sentries patrolling the quay where the Pluviose lay tethered on the day that she was to make her fatal trip. And the girl smiling over her triumph climbed down the ladder into the little gasoline filled room and heard the orders given for the battening down of all the hatches, the firm screwing into places of these coverings, and then perhaps fascinatedly watched the dial indicator as it told how the Pluviose was sinking deeper and deeper into the sea

Divers who went down after the Pluviose was sunk carrying below steel cables with which ineffectual attempts were made with a huge derrick above to bring the Pluviose to the surface reported that they heard rapping in the interior of the submarine. In any event when days later the Pluviose was raised and tugged into shallow water none that had been aboard of her was alive. She had filled completely with water As she was raised the water poured from the great gash that had been out in her steel casement by the Channel steamship

Once in shallow water it was the work of only a little while to remove the covering of the conning tower. In that tower they found the young officer. And dead in his arms, with her own arms tightly clasped around his neck and her young face resting against his breast they found the young woman.

New York World

The McCook tribune. (McCook, Neb.), 02 Oct. 1911. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn94056415/1911-10-02/ed-1/seq-4/

There has been a constantly and mysteriously if recurring rumor ever since the ill-fated French submarine Pluviose was sunk recently, that a woman was on board and went down to her death with the crew and officers of the boat. The submarine, was, of course, the last place on earth where at the time the boat was sunk a woman  had either a right or place and despite the efforts that have been made to hush up the report it has spread and revived so persistently that it is probable that the French government will be forced to investigate the matter. Even the most conservative of the French newspapers have given much space to the affair. One journal declares that ten corpses were recovered from the wrecked boat and that only nine were officially reported as having been found. It is stated, too, that the captain of the submarine went aboard before she sailed with “another person” who was in reality a woman. Another report that lent authenticity to the story, was the fact that a wrecker which located and got hold of the Pluviose was not allowed to continue its work. It is also alleged that one of the men in the boat who evidently lived several hours after it sunk made many notes of conditions on board and that these notes have since mysteriously disappeared.

Goodwin’s weekly : a thinking paper for thinking people. [volume] (Salt Lake City, Utah), 13 Aug. 1910. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/2010218519/1910-08-13/ed-1/seq-8/

 

No official French record exists that a woman was on board.

This story only appeared in American newspapers of the age.

I am glad that my wife’s only experience underway ended well.

We still talk about it all these years later.

But now that women routinely serve on board American submarines, I pray to never have to read of any future tragedy.

Mister Mac

CHERBOURG, June 8. 1912 The French submarine Vendemaire was sunk today j in collision with the battleship St. Louis. The submarine was cut in two. It is feared that the whole crew of 26 was drowned. The accident occurred during the practice maneuvers of the French fleet between Aurigny island and Cape Hague, where violent tidal currents prevail. The battleship was steaming along quietly, when the Vendemaire appeared right under the bows of the warship, there was no time to avoid a collision and the next moment the stem of the St. Louis struck the submarine with terrific force, driving the latter below the surface.

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