1928-1929 “Air getting very bad. Please hurry,” and finally, “Is there any hope?”

1928 1929

1928 continued to show challenges for the American submarine fleet. The characteristics of the submersibles of the S class were that they had to spend much of the time on the surface. Steam ships operating in the area often did not have an understanding of the length and depth of a surfaced submarine. The lighting on subs made them hazards under normal operating circumstances and the fact that they often sailed during storms and inclement weather just compounded the fact.

Even though improvements had been made to the submarines since the early days, they still had weaknesses that created extreme risks to the men operating them. The gasoline engines were replaced by more efficient and less dangerous diesels. But technology for cleaning the air and allowing the men to escape was still far from being developed. This article was written by Commander Edward Ellsberg and emphasized that while submarine accidents would probably continue to happen, more could be done to increase the risk for survival.

Ellsberg was commissioned in the navy in 1914 and served on active duty until 1926. He became an expert in undersea salvage and rescue. In 1926, he raised the navy submarine, S-51. For that success he was promoted to the rank of commander by an Act of Congress and awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by the Navy Department, since which time he has been popularly known as “Commander Ellsberg”, regardless of his rank. Ellsberg described the raising of the S-51 in his 1929 book, “On the Bottom.”


When the Next Sub Sinks

By Commander Edward Ellsberg

(Author of “On the Bottom”; Salvage Officer of the S-4 and the S-51)

The little vessel pitched wildly to the wintry seas off the tip of Cape Cod, while a few cork buoys tied to a diving hose marked the spot, 100 feet below, where the S-4 lay.

All the world during that sad week figuratively listened in on the Falcon’s microphones as from the depths the feeble raps of a hammer beat out in dots and dashes the last messages of the six men trapped inside the torpedo room of the smashed submarine. ‘’Air getting very bad. Please hurry,” and finally, “Is there any hope?”

The storm blew on; those on the Falcon listened helplessly; the men inside died. The storm at sea finally subsided.

But another storm arose—a storm of public opinion, which in the press and in Congress burst into the demand that never again should such a tragedy be possible. And it is one of the features of our age that, regardless of apparently insurmountable difficulty, what public opinion truly demands speedily becomes feasible.

There is nothing really new in submarine salvage or rescue apparatus. The sole new features of the present year are that since the S-4 disaster, public opinion has been focused on the subject, funds have been made available for experiment and equipment and the few hide-bound technicians who were so obsessed by the idea that “a submarine is primarily a warship” that they were unable to visualize reasonable safety for the crews have been swept into the discard.

The S-4 and the S-51, which was sunk shortly before her, were not the first American submarines to be lost, nor will they be the last. It is rational to expect that so long as there are submarines, there will be submarine accidents; a reasonable degree of preparation therefore is certainly warranted.

One of the early ideas in submarine work was to provide a simple rig which the crew could hastily don in an emergency and escape through a flooded compartment. Before the World war our Navy experimented with breathing apparatus of this type. On one of the German submarines surrendered after the armistice was found a booklet describing such a device, with an illustration showing the crew of a sunken submarine seated in a flooded room, each man wearing the breathing device and waiting his turn to escape up the hatch.

While the idea was not new, little was done toward making it practical till the pressure of public opinion after the S-4 disaster forced the development of this idea along with other rescue experiments. Under Lieut. Momsen’s direction, the rescue breathing mask was developed in a novel and much simplified form, consisting principally of a rubber bag of the approximate capacity of the human lungs, together with a mouthpiece for breathing, a nose clip for sealing the nostrils, a small soda lime cartridge for purifying the rebreathed air and an automatic vent valve.

With this apparatus, under proper conditions, a man can breathe under water for the relatively short period required to rise to the surface, and can then use the inflated bag (or “lung”) as a life preserver.

For cases where outside rescue apparatus cannot be applied in time, and where the crew must escape by its own efforts, the value of this apparatus is inestimable. If a submarine is property fitted with escape hatches, it is likely that if the boat could not be lifted quickly the crew, wearing the “lungs,” could emerge to safety. This can be done with certainty from compartments fitted with double-doored airlocks. However, in cases where the compartment itself must be flooded first to equalize the pressure and allow an outside hatch to be opened to the sea, it is not probable that in the confined space inside the submarine, with the boat lying at an unnatural angle and wreckage floating in the water, a large group of men could extricate themselves, one by one, through a narrow hatch and rise to the surface.

The rescue of the crew of a sunken submarine may be attempted in various ways—the crew may emerge to safety assisted by the “lung” or an ordinary diving helmet, leaving the boat on the bottom; or the boat may be lifted with the crew in it. The rescue methods developed may aim at one or the other of these two means. In time of peace, the rescue of the crew is most important and the salvage of the boat is secondary; in time of war, when the safety of the Nation itself is at stake and men are being sacrificed by the thousands on the battlefield in that cause, the sunken submarine boat itself becomes far more important than her crew, and its quick salvage and return to the fighting line may be of the utmost importance.

A MODERN submarine costs over $3,000,000 and takes over a year to build. It is the most effective weapon known for keeping an enemy fleet off shore and preventing bombardment of coastal cities. In time of war, the value to the Nation of each submarine goes far beyond its money cost. One has only to remember the frantic efforts of this Nation to purchase warships when the Spanish War broke out, and the millions of dollars spent in the last war in salvaging wrecked ships of all sorts, to realize how difficult it is in war time to get ships.

The question of submarine salvage and rescue work must be considered in both its wartime and its peacetime aspects, and the means adopted be such as to cover both cases as well as possible.

Submarines may sink from collision damage, from failure of the control mechanism or from enemy action due to depth bombs, or gunfire. Providing that the depth of water is not over 300 feet (and this is likely in most cases of submarine operations) divers can work, and escape for the crew is possible. If the boat is sunk by flooding at one end and the crew is left in possession of the control room amidships, it is extremely probable that the crew themselves will be able to bring at least the unflooded end of their boat to the surface and thus escape from the bottom without external aid. This has happened in the cases of two of our S boats, the S-5 and the S-48, which, sunk by flooding, due to gross carelessness, lay for a number of hours on the bottom. On the S-48 the crew finally managed to lighten up the bow till it broke surface. They escaped through the torpedo tubes. On the S-5 the crew, after a desperate struggle in deep water, floated their stem, which barely projected above the sea, with the crew still trapped inside. There they stayed until a passing steamer cut a hole in the submarine’s plates and rescued them.

In both these cases the boats went down undamaged; it can be expected in similar future cases that the crews can rescue themselves, provided only that an escape trunk is fitted at each end of the boat.

IF a submarine is damaged in collision or injured by bombs or shells it is unlikely that the crew can raise any part of her unaided. If the boat is wholly flooded as a result of the damage, the crew will all be dead and (in peace time) there will be no need for haste in salvage. If part or all of the crew is still alive inside the boat, then one end of the boat or the other will be buoyant and unflooded, and consequently relatively easy to lift. In such a case the rescue method which best suits the needs of peace and war and which exposes the trapped crew to the least risk is to raise the boat, or at least that end of her in which the crew is alive.

To permit this, it is necessary to have close at hand the lifting rig, the salvage ship with its trained crew and divers, and the submarine herself must be fitted with the means for quickly attaching the lifting pull. And, finally, it must be possible for the men inside the boat to live until the boat is raised.

Toward all these points tremendous strides have been made in the last year. Taking the last point first: It is perhaps not generally known that of the crew of 40 men inside the S-4, not one man was drowned as a result of the flooding from the collision, nor was lack of oxygen the immediate cause of any deaths. Inability to get rid of the carbon dioxide from their breathing killed off the 34 men aft in less than 24 hours; the same excess of carbon dioxide, together with cold, killed the six men trapped forward.

To avoid this, all submarines now are being supplied with chemicals which will keep the air purified for a reasonable length of time and allow the oxygen (which even the crew of the S-4 did not use up) to keep the crew alive till rescued. The second step is to ventilate the boat from the outside, admitting fresh air and removing the foul air. To this end each submarine is now fitted in each of its compartments with separate inlets and outlets, to which divers can attach hose to supply air and liquid food to the men inside, while the bad air escapes through a second hose without building up a pressure on the imprisoned crew.

In the past there has been only a single airline connection on submarines, in the side of the conning tower, with a system of pipes inside the boat to distribute the salvage air to all compartments. On the S-51 this line was cut in half by the stem of the ship which sank the submarine. On the S-4 no connection to this line ever was made by the divers in the brief time they could work, but it would have been useless even if connected, because while the salvage piping system in that boat allowed air to be forced into a compartment, it was Impossible to exhaust any. As a result, if the air connection had been made, the men in the submarine would quickly have been placed un- der heavy pressure, which would have resulted only in killing them more quickly.

THIS has now been rectified. On the next submarine sunk a diver can connect the supply and exhaust air lines directly to the room where men are alive. These connections, which can be made quickly, will keep the crew alive until the salvage gear arrives. In the open sea submarines can best be lifted by submersible pontoons. There are numerous and adequate technical and financial reasons which rule out of a practical salvage system the many fantastic types of catamaran and twin-hulled lifting ships which those unacquainted with deep-water salvage in the open sea are continually proposing. Our Navy is providing 50 pontoons of an improved type, Invented after the S-51 salvage job, which avoid the dangers and difficulties of pontoon handling experienced on the S-51 operation.

These 50 pontoons, divided into groups of 10, will be sent to central points in the five main areas of submarine operations and held there in readiness. These bases are New York, Coco Solo, San Diego, Hawaii and Cavite.

To handle these pontoons and act as rescue ships, five vessels are being fitted out and specially assigned for submarine rescue—the Falcon, the Widgeon, the Ortolan, the Mallard and the Pidgeon.

Into this equipment is going the major amount of the Navy’s salvage allotment. The pontoons represent an investment of over $500,000; the five rescue ships, when outfitted, will represent an investment considerably in excess of that sum.

The major difficulty in lifting submarines has been to provide some means of applying the pull to the vessel. In the early days, when submarines were tiny, a ring was secured at bow and stem by which a derrick could hoist the boat if necessary. The Intelligent Whale, a 50-ton submarine built during the Civil War, and now on exhibition at the New York Navy Yard, has these lifting rings as its most prominent feature. But when submarines grew above 200 tons, difficulties multiplied. The weight to be lifted exceeded the capacity of any derricks likely to be available, submarines started to operate in open waters, where derricks could not work for fear of capsizing, and it became impossible to design a lifting eye attachment strong enough to lift half the weight of a large submarine. As a result lifting eyes were omitted as submarines increased in weight above a few hundred tons.

Consequently, on the S-51 and the S-4, the only means of taking the lifting pull of the pontoons lay in passing a cradle of heavy chain slings under the boats. To do this tunnels had to be dug under the submarine, and the cold-blooded courage required of the divers in these tunneling operations at the bottom of the sea can hardly be imagined.

THE danger and the delay of this method resulted, after the S-51 job, in the recommendation by the salvage officer there of an entirely new system of lifting eyes on submarines—eyes spaced evenly along both sides of the boat, so that each eye, instead of having to lift half the boat, as in former installations, would have to take the pull of only half a pontoon, a strain which does not exceed 40 tons.

By this device the use of lifting eyes again became feasible. A set was recently installed on a submarine at Portsmouth for testing purposes and was demonstrated as capable of lifting a sunken submarine quickly.

But the most important requisite for quick salvage work is an adequate supply of skilled divers. When the S-4 sank, the Navy’s solitary rescue ship had in her crew only one deep-sea diver; the others who had raised the S-51 were either out of the Navy or scattered far and wide through the service.

This defect is being remedied. In Washington today under the supervision of Lieut. Hartley, former captain of the rescue ship Falcon, there is now in operation a deep-sea diving school, where men are trained for work in depths far beyond those in which we struggled to raise the S-51 and the S-4. The graduates of this school will man the four sister vessels of the Falcon. Most important of all, these ships are now to consider submarine salvage and rescue work their primary function. Drills with pontoons and rescue rehearsals with divers and submarines on the bottom will be their daily work. No longer will it be necessary when a submarine sinks to scratch up a crew of divers, frantically start building pontoons, and then attempt to raise a sunken boat with men who have not even seen salvage gear for a year or more and must start digging tunnels on the bottom as their first operation.

Instead of this the Navy is fast preparing its equipment so that when the next submarine sinks she will be provided with the new lifting eyes, there will be close at hand a set of salvage pontoons, and within a few hours there will be on the scene a rescue ship which will swing into action against the sea a crew of trained divers with all the speed and precision of our battleships going into action against the enemy.

And it can be predicted that once given proper equipment, the men who struggled for months to raise the S-51 and the S-4 with their cargoes of dead, will in a few brief hours after starting work bring up the next submarine with her crew still alive.



Evening Star. (Washington, D.C.), 07 July 1929.



Not long after this article was written, Wall Street Crashed.

The Wall Street Crash of 1929, also known as the Great Crash, was a major American stock market crash that occurred in the autumn of 1929. It started in September and ended late in October, when share prices on the New York Stock Exchange collapsed.

It was the most devastating stock market crash in the history of the United States, when taking into consideration the full extent and duration of its aftereffects. The Great Crash is mostly associated with October 24, 1929, called Black Thursday, the day of the largest sell-off of shares in U.S. history, and October 29, 1929, called Black Tuesday, when investors traded some 16 million shares on the New York Stock Exchange in a single day. The crash, which followed the London Stock Exchange’s crash of September, signaled the beginning of the Great Depression.

The military would be deeply impacted in its plans to modernize just as Japan was about to move into a more aggressive stance with China and Manchuria.

Mister Mac

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