1920 The Sugar Boats – “faulty, sooty, dangerous and repellent engineering”


The newspapers of the day in 1920 were filled with a series of articles called “The Victory at Sea”. These articles went into great detail to outline the role the US Navy had played in the recently ended war. Rear Admiral Sims was one of the key players in providing the facts, figures, and information needed to paint the picture of the role the United States played in winning the war on the oceans. Sims would have later controversies with the Navy Secretary (Daniels) about everything from the preparedness of the Navy to the future of the Navy’s growth.

The public was given a broad view of previously secret weapons and tactics. To be honest, it almost appears that the navy was trying its best to show the taxpayers the importance of its role in that war as well as the need for continuing the growth and strength in a global community still filled with potential adversaries. Japan had emerged from the war with their fleet intact and broadened influence in the Pacific basin. While England was bruised, her fleet also still maintained their status as the world’s most powerful navy.


Submarines were held with a strange mixture of disdain and respect.

Most nations at the completion of the war recognized the underhanded way that submarines had nearly starved the British into a position where they might have to negotiate a peace. The English had a large contingency that was lobbying for the eternal outlawing of submarines in future wars. That was not something the smaller and weaker countries could agree to so despite the lectures and threats, submarines were not going away any time soon.

R-22 boat that Lt. Cassin Young would serve on in Panama

In the United States, the O and R class boats were growing as a result of wartime construction. While they were still not fully capable in the sense that they were not true fleet boats, they had extended rage and more habitability. Gone were the deadly gasoline engines and the improved diesels and batteries extended the range and useful operability of the submarine fleet. The R boats would be part of the defense network for the recently finished Panama Canal. Members of the submarine officers graduating class from the summer of 1919 (including Lt Cassin Young) would be among the first of the R boat commanders that would be sent to Coco Solo and set up shop.

Submarine base at Coco Solo in 1920.

S Boats

At around the same time, a new class of submarines was being launched and put into service that had many improvements. These were classified as the “S” boats.  While not considered “Fleet Submarines” in the traditional sense of that term, they were the first submarines in the USN designed for open ocean, blue water operations. All previous submarines had been intended for harbor or coastal defense. These boats were intended to have greater speed and range than previous classes, with improved habitability and greater armament. A total of 51 S boats would be built. The nickname for the S boats for many would be “Sugar Boats”.


The loss of the S-5

Classified as an S-4 Class Submarine (Government-type): Laid down, 4 December 1917, at Portsmouth Navy Yard, Portsmouth, N.H.; Launched, 10 November 1919; Commissioned, USS S-5, 6 March 1920; Redesignated USS S-5 (SS-110), 17 July 1920; Sunk by accidental intake of water through the Main Induction Value, 1 September 1920: Struck from the Naval Register in 1921.

Specifications: Displacement, Surfaced: 876 t., Submerged: 1092 t..; Length 231′; Beam 21′ 10″; Draft 13′ 1″; Speed, surfaced 15 kts, submerged 11 kts; Depth Limit 200′; Complement 4 Officers, 34 Enlisted; Armament, four 21″ torpedo tubes, 12 torpedoes, one 4″/50 deck gun; Propulsion, diesel electric engines, New London Ship and Engine Co. diesel engines, 2,000 hp, Fuel Capacity, 36,950 gal.; Westinghouse Electric Co., electric motors, 1,200 hp, Battery Cells, 120, twin propellers.

The thirty-eight officers and men who were rescued from the submerged United States submarine S-5 after Chief Engineer Grace of the steamship Gen. George W. Goethals had cut holes In her plates with a hand drill were landed at the Philadelphia Navy Yard last night shortly before midnight from the destroyer Biddle, to which vessel they had been transferred during the afternoon from the battleship Ohio. Dispatches from Philadelphia said that all of the men were still suffering from their experience, but that only three were In the destroyer’s sick bay. These are Joseph O. Savage of Eleco, Pa.; Jacob Akers of Warnecliff, W. Va., and Robert Igdanes, Manila, P. I. All of the men were sent to naval hospitals for treatment.

Survivors of the S-Five, the Navy’s newest and most modern submarine, which sank along the East Coast on its way to Baltimore for a recruiting appearance. A faulty main valve allowed tons of seawater into the submarine during a crash test dive, resulting in the submarine sinking 180 feet to the ocean floor.

The remainder of the submarine’s crew trooped down the gangplank of the Biddle in high spirits, showing signs of their experiences but raising their voices in a typically naval interpretation of “How Dry I Am” The men were unwilling to discuss their own experiences, but they were more than willing to talk about the bravery and coolness of the commander of the submarine, Lieutenant Commander Charles M. Cooke, Jr.

They declared unanimously that he was the greatest and bravest man in the whole of the United State Navy, and in order that there should be no mistake about their feelings they signed a round robin and forwarded it to President Wilson by wireless, setting forth this opinion and asking that they be sent back to the S-5 as soon as she has been salvaged and that they be under the command of Cooke, and that If Cooke cannot command the S-5 again that he be given another submarine and that they be allowed to compose his crew.

Commander Also Praised Crew.

The sailors did not know it but at the same time they were sending their round robin of praise to the President, Commander Cooke was sending the President a petition praising the bravery of the men and asking him to take steps to reward them for their heroism and coolness In the face of what seemed to be almost certain death.

The delay of the Ohio and the Biddle in reaching port is accounted for by the fact that the Ohio has been towing the submarine, a slow and arduous task that compelled the battleship to reduce her speed to three miles, an hour. Twice during Friday night, according to official reports, the cables broke and the submarine sank again.

After much hard work the vessel was raised, new chains were attached and towing was resumed. Dispatches from the Philadelphia Navy Yard late yesterday afternoon, however, said the Ohio had wirelessed that towing the boat had proved to be an impracticable task and that the submarine would be buoyed and the Ohio would proceed to port without her. Later navy repair ships will be sent to salvage the submarine if possible.

The Navy Department authorities In Washington received last, night an official report of the accident from the commander of the destroyer Beaver, which is standing by the Ohio and will accompany the battleship into port.

The Beaver’s commander reported to the Navy Department that the accident occurred at 2 o’clock Wednesday afternoon, when the submarine undertook a quick dive for exercise, in naval parlance a “crash dive.” A large intake valve failed to close when the boat went down and some of the compartments began to till with water. The crew managed to expel some of the water, when the stern of the submarine began to rise until the boat rested with her nose on the bottom of the sea and the stern inclining at an angle of about sixty degrees.

Worked in Foul Air.

The fact that the stern was out of the water, which they soon discovered, gave the men a ray of hope, but their troubles were made infinitely worse by the subsequent discovery that the storage batteries had been flooded and chlorine gas formed and released. This is the gas that was sent over by the Germans In their original cloud gas attacks against the Canadians, and has a terrible choking and cutting effect on the throat and lungs. Only a little of it is required to cause death.

The imprisoned men had to work in darkness in a terribly hot and foul atmosphere laden with deadly gas fumes tor almost forty-eight hours. Commander Cooke set a man to work trying to drill a small hole in the steel plates of the vessel’s stem, but the conditions were so terrible that one man could work but two minutes and progress was slow. There was no fresh air in the boat and no way of getting any. The supply of oxygen soon began to be depleted, and it was only a few hours before the men were bleeding from the nose and mouth and suffering from dullness and nausea.


W. Whitehead of Brooklyn Reaches Home Safely.

The first story by a survivor of the disaster which overtook the submarine S-5 was told last night when Frederick W. Whitehead, chief machinist mate on the vessel reached this city on the destroyer from the Navy Yard. Whitehead and his and his wife, an English girl whom he married In England during the war, are living with his parents at 368 East Twenty Eighth street, Brooklyn.

“There were thirty-six man and four officers on the S-5, “said Whitehead. “We were on our semi-annual seventy-two hour test cruise, and we had been twenty-four hours on the surface and then submerged for five hours. Then we went ahead at full speed for four hours. We had completed this series of tests and broken all records, when we started to take the last dive called for in the test – and then It happened.

“We went down into 156 feet of water and the first we knew that anything was wrong was when water started to rush in on us.

“This was caused by a defective main air intake valve. This valve always had been hard to work and one of the crew had put a wrench on it and thought it was closed, but it was defective.

“This allowed the water to rush into the torpedo room at the forward end of the boat, into the control room in the centre and into the engine and motor rooms aft.

“We hit bottom and rested easily. The Captain and the men, down there it the bottom of the sea, had a conference, and we started the air salvage system to work. This has 2,300 pounds if compressed air and we tried to blow the water out of the tank, but the added water was too much, and we could not rise. The torpedo room was completely flooded. We closed the water tank door from the torpedo room into the battery room, but still there was two or three feet of water in each room. We tried to blow the water out of the torpedo room, but with no effect. We blew all of the oil out of the fuel tank under the boat, but we were still too heavy to rise.

“The Captain then figured out that the boat was 291 feet long and the water was but 160 feet deep and that by standing the boat on her nose the stern would project through the water. To do this we had to let the water from other compartment run into the storage room where we know it would form a deadly chlorine gas, but there was nothing else to do.

“We blew out this water, but as it rushed past and the stern began to rise we were all swept along with it, several of the men sustaining injury. The salt water on the battery plates caused the formation of the chlorine gas and the men began choking, we had only six gas masks between us. I had none.

“The captain worked his way aft and we communicated with him through a speaking tube. We finally had to quit our post, as we were choking with the gas. We got into the next compartment with difficulty and had to return to open a valve, so that we could get air. The lights then went out.

“Finally we got into the tiller room and after five hours’ work managed to drill a small hole through the steel plates. We were about twenty-five feet above the water then. We then put old rags on the fuel oil pipe and pushed It through one of these holes as a signal to a steamer we saw about five miles away. But she evidently did not see us and passed us by.

“An hour later the Alanthus came along, and, luckily for us, she was off her route through being partly disabled. She saw us and sent a boat to help us. After getting a cable around us two crews from that bout started to drill from the outside. We kept working inside, but the air was so foul that we could work only for ten minutes at a time and fall back. Finally a hole was made large enough to put a hose through and thus air was pumped into us.

“We rigged up a funnel and through this we received the first water we had had in twenty hours. After being down thirty five hours a plate was out through large enough for us to be carried out.

Whitehead said all the crew and officers had to eat for the thirty-five hours was canned tomatoes, corned beef and string beans, as the compartment in which the other food was stored was flooded. Two bucketsful of water was all the crew had to drink during the time the submarine was and helpless, he said.

After the crew was placed on the Alanthus the steamer George W. Goethals arrived, and later the U. S. Battleship. Ohio. The men then received medical attention.

Eight torpedoes were on the S-5, Whitehead said, but these were prevented from exploding because the electric batteries were dampened by the water which rushed into their compartment.

Whitehead said he got permission from his captain to return home to his wife who is in delicate health. All the money the crew and officers had in their clothes was lost.

The Sun and the New York Herald. (New York [N.Y.]), 05 Sept. 1920.


From the Navy’s Page on the S-5

Note: The S-5 did not carry any sort of releasable buoy at the time of her loss. These types of rescue buoys did not come along in the USN until after the loss of the S-4 (SS-109) in 1927. The S-5 did carry a Fessenden Oscillator, a primitive sonar device that could be used to send Morse Code signals underwater, but it was fixed in place near the keel and indeed there is no report that it was used at all during the disaster.

The “siren buoy” was NOT the principle cause of the crew’s rescue. The crew raising the stern above the water and cutting a hole through the pressure hull was why they were saved. How the reporter got it so wrong is a complete mystery. Short of completely making it up he couldn’t have gotten it more wrong if he tried.


Future admiral Hyman G. Rickover was assigned to USS S-48.

He later credited the “faulty, sooty, dangerous and repellent engineering” of the S-class boats with inspiring his obsession for high engineering standards.

Mister Mac


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