A Real Deep Sea Sailorman – Harley Cope

Personal Note: I’m still reeling from a few personal losses recently. Writing is a form of therapy to try and take my mind off of those events that are taking their toll on me mentally and spiritually. For those who have been regular readers for a long time, I sincerely apologize.

Writing as therapy

The two things I thought I would write about back when the blog first started was my passion for lean manufacturing and my very long relationship with submarines. I started the blog at a very dark point in my life. I come back to it when my battery is low.

This year will mark my fiftieth year as a submariner. Not that I have taken any dives recently, but I still stay current with many active duty submariners and love discovering new “old” stories about our craft. Marines are quick to tell you that there are no ex-Marines. I would offer that the same is true of Submariners.


Close to a hundred years ago, the US Navy was going through an identity crisis caused by the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty. Stories from 1923 about the navy discuss smaller numbers in everything from ship sizes to numbers of men on active duty. Large battleships were destroyed in the very shipyards that were tasked with building them. The merchant fleet was shrinking too and America’s role as a maritime power was certainly being diminished.

Articles would appear from time to time in major Washington newspapers. I have been researching for a number of years about the stories and their writers and noticed a pattern. Often times, articles about the navy and submarines would appear in the Washington Evening Star that seemed to be more legitimate than others. The article I am focused on today came from the July 2, 1923 edition. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1933-07-02/ed-1/seq-66/

The author’s name was Harley Cope.

So who was Harley Cope?

A graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy in 1919, Harley Cope had much submarine duty during his many years of sea service. Besides his numerous articles in the Naval Institute Proceedings, he was the author of three books: Command at Sea, Our Navy, a Fighting Team, and Serpent of the Seas. You can actually view “Our Navy” on line from various sources.

What was interesting about this particular story was that there was no preface about whether or not it was a story from the active imagination of a skilled writer or may have had some basis in truth.

Some facts:

  • Harley Cope was a submariner for the early part of his career but he did not participate in any of the operations of the Great War. His class graduated after the armistice.

  • The submarine in the story below (L-14) did not exist. The L-11 was the last L boat made.

  • L Boats did operate off of the Irish and British Coasts. There were a number of documented friendly fire mishaps.

  • There was a tremendous amount of animosity between old school surface warfare sailors and the men of the Pig Boats.

But I will let the reader decide how much of this story was conjecture or is there any chance that something might have happened once upon a time and the names were changed to protect the innocent (or not so innocent).


Written by Harley Cope (Washington Evening Star, 1923)

The sound of the siren echoed and reechoed throughout the tiny compartment of the American submarine L-14. A sudden silence, then again its inhuman tones. Its final notes were drowned out by the new noise in the boat as the men on the diving stations opened up the ballast tanks of the submarine to the sea and endeavored to get the boat in a submerged condition as quickly as possible.

At this dark period in 1917, a quick dive, spoken of as a crash dive, could only mean one thing – the standing off once more of destruction and death from some surface vessel, all enemies to the undersea craft.

Amid the shuddering and clattering din, a figure suddenly stirred on the deck of the central operating compartment, raised himself uncertainly on unstable feet, and endeavored to rally his clouded faculties.

Making a wild effort to control himself, he shouted out to an enormous young man with dark brown hair, a blue straightforward pair of Irish eyes, and magnificent muscles rippling under a coat of tan whose two gold stripes on his sleeve denoted him as a lieutenant in the Navy, one Roger Baxter, commanding officer of the U.S.S. L-14.

The officer at the time of being addressed was very much interested in the picture that was getting closer and closer to his vision through the periscope, that of a sleek, stiletto like destroyer, bearing down on him at full speed.


“WHERE the devil am I?” came the high-pitched question from that partially bald and rotund personage in a blue frock coat With gold buttons, sleeves supporting two and a half regulation gold stripes, marking him as a lieutenant commander in the Navy.

A slow smile twitched at the mouth of Baxter and rippled for an instant over his face.

“In the central operating compartment of the U.S.S. L-14 making a crash dive, trying to avoid being bombed by a destroyer, with the odds against us.” he added laconically.

The throat of the strange guest evolved a weird sound of abysmal dejection, as nothing but animal-like sounds seemed to emanate from a highly-parched throat. His mind raced through the chaos of his thoughts as he tried to piece together the blank gap of unconsciousness.

The fogging depression gradually cleared-up as he recalled that night in the club—it must have been the night before, though it seemed years ago. Like sunshine feeling its way hesitatingly and gingerly through a fog, a vague and nebulous memory came.

He had paraded blusteringly into the officers club at Queens town, garbed in dress uniform, to flaunt the two and a half stripes that a generous government had bestowed on him, Mahan Jones, for many years the socially elect member of the Naval Reserve Chapter of Long Island. What he didn’t know about this man’s Navy was no man’s business. He had hardly finished off his first drink when he found himself rubbing shoulders with a few well-tanned American naval officers.

Mahan Jones had listened to their stories of dangers and hardships with lordly tolerance and lofty disdain. No one had paid any particular attention to him until Roger Baxter related how he had narrowly missed being depth charged and then shot to pieces by one of the American destroyers because he had failed to get off his recognition signal fast enough.

The uninvited guest had become the cynosure of hostile eyes as he twisted his face into a languid smile of contempt and unbelief as Roger finished his none-too-pleasant yarn.

The face of the L-14’s commanding officer had turned a dull red as the angry blood rushed to his head. The veins in his sturdy neck stood out belligerently as he took a step toward the gentleman possessing a generously round front and an unmistakable air or prosperity.

After a grim silence, the tanned face of Roger Baxter had cleared, his blue eyes sparkled, as his voice, heavy with sarcasm, said: “Excuse me. Admiral Sims. Sure, you’re right. Our little trips barging around in the Irish Sea are nothing but pink tea affairs and we just make them to rest up from the strenuous life on the beach.”

THERE had ensued a brief, uncomfortable pause. The thinly veiled mockery of the submariner slowly seeped into the mind of the swaggering and loud-speaking Jones, who then became vocal with the vehemence of one who releases a long-pent grievance.

“Look here, young fellow, I don’t like your tone of voice,” he had said. “I am a lieutenant commander in this Navy and it’s time you young lieutenants learned your place.” The others gravely bowed from the waist in mock politeness.

“Excuse us, commawnder.”

He who had just been apologized to became the haughty person.

“You young people are doing the best you can, but I don’t see why you want to come in from a trip on a submarine and spread such stories about being depth charged by our own destroyers, having the guns fired at you and all that sort of rot.

“Now, when I came over here on a transport, the George Washington, we traveled through a zone literally infested with those dastardly U-boats, and, believe me, I had a real job, a real sailorman’s job. I was up practically all the time, seeing that the guns’ crews were at their stations, and twice during the trip we had to fight off a division of U-boats, and there were plenty of shells in the air.

“Of course, I didn’t mind them, as that is old stuff to me,” he bad added deprecatingly. “Some day when I can get away from my duties I will make a trip out with one of you and show you a few things about your own boats.”

A nod from the others had silently elected Roger their spokesman.

“You sure must be brave. Gosh, I am always scared to death every time I hear a gun go off. But, heck, where can a guy run to in a sub?”

Lieut. Comdr. Mahan Jones was at once patronizing.

“You young boys will get used to it. By the time the war is over you will get like me, a deep sea sailorman, and indifferent to such things.”

“Sir, we would like to have you take a few drinks with us. We have always heard that the best fighters are the best drinkers.”

Jones expanded like a pouter pigeon and strutted about. Each submariner in turn insisted that he be allowed to have the extreme honor of, drinking a separate toast with a real fighting man. While waiting for their turn at this signal honor, a couple of the submarine officers drifted over for a little conversation with some destroyer officers who had just come into the club rooms.

The doughty and Indomitable warrior, who expounded on his own merits as the evening progressed, lost all count of the toasts and drifted off to oblivion as the submariners gently eased him off the floor, where he lay and snored sonorously, most indecorously and inharmoniously like a sticking, chattering steam safety valve.

His next recollection of the passing of time was when the siren had jarred him to consciousness and he found himself, unexplainably, aboard the submarine.

HIS reverie was suddenly interrupted like the snapping of a mainmast in a typhoon and he was immediately prey to conflicting emotions, strange and unbelievable. The boat had been jarred from stem to stern and only by clutching frantically at a stanchion did he manage to retain his standing position.

Came a cry from the captain:

“My God, they’re depth charging us!”

The ejaculation was fraught with meaning.

For one moment every drop of blood in Mahan Jones’ body seemed to stand still and slowly congeal.

The lights in the boat flickered from the violent concussion and threatened to go out. Every face bore the strained, worried look of approaching death. The voice of the captain rang out clear as a bell.

“Take her down to 100 feet as fast as you can, Petrolle,” he called to the diving officer, who stood in front of the depth gauges and earnestly coaxed the planesmen to their best efforts. “Those destroyers seemed to have located us and they won’t rest until they’ve blown as to hell.”

The rotund, freely perspiring Jones felt himself propelled gently over to a position under the conning tower hatch, where he was told that it would be beat to remain. He wrenched his eyes from the depth gauges which were slowly moving around, clockwise, to the hundred-foot mark.

Another concussion, this time much closer. The lights remained out for several seconds before the chief electrician’s mate could throw the circuit breakers into place. Hardly had the vibrations ceased before another, and yet another, followed in quick succession, showing only too well how accurately the destroyers were ferreting out their prey.

There was the sound of heavy, unnatural breathing and then the shaky voice of the diving officer.

“We have taken on water some, place in the boat. Captain. I can’t hold her up at this slow speed!”

“Do your best. Petrolle. We can’t speed up now. They will get us sure.”

The indomitable Jones was racked by fear and the dark, sparse hair hung in sudden rings about his troubled head. The next report, coming from the torpedo room, made him shudderingly sick and his knees crazily weak.

“Water in the torpedo room!”

The boat took a downward angle, another depth charge bursting close by and a hideous period of increasing terror for Mahan followed.

Why had he allowed the fiery liquor to heighten his boasting to the stage where he had been taken aboard one of those veritable death traps? Had it gotten him into probably the last scrape of his life?

He felt like a frightened animal in strange surroundings. A gage around the compartment impressed even more on him the impossibility of emerging from what seemed to be a steel coffin.

He hung on to the ladder leading to the conning tower as the next depth charge, seemingly on top of them, broke everyone in the compartment away from the stanchion or valve that they had been banging on to. The lights went out and stayed out. Only the radium lighted pointers on the depth gages illuminated, and they were now decidedly increasing their speed around the dial, passing the 200-foct mark.

Came the voice of Roger Baxter, fighting bravely to retain its calmness: “Hold her up if you possibly can. Petrolle, there is no bottom here and these boats are only tested for 230 feet.”

The despairing report from the diving planes: ‘ We can’t hold her up. Captain!” Another heavy concussion. “Boat taking in water aft!” Jones gazed at the depth gauges in mute fear. They now read 250 feet!

Roger Baxter’s voice seemed to come from a vast distance: “Good-by, Commander, old man. I am sorry that I brought you down here.”

A wild scream, mingled with the rushing of water from the forward compartment, caused the lips of Mahan Jones to become suddenly dry. Lights and black spots danced before his glassy eyes, his breath ripped and tore at his bronchial tubes. A clattering of metal from above him. An avalanche of water, and he sank unconscious to the floor.

A little later a bluejacket silently inspected the disheveled mass on the deck of the central operating compartment and nodded reassuringly to the commanding officer, who had not relinquished his place at the periscope. The depth gauges slowly retraced their steps about the face of the dial.

Soon the croupy Diesels began sputtering away, pushing the submarine slowly through the water. The figure on the floor stirred. The bluejacket again made an inspection and listened to the faint signs of returning life.

Mahan Jones slowly uncurled himself and rose hesitatingly from his prone position. His chalklike color, wild, distended eyes, awry hair, and streaks of dirt and oil on his heavy jowled face made him look like a bewildered ghost.

He glanced instinctively at the depth gauges and in silent amazement noted that they now evidenced that the submarine was on the sur[1]face. It left him suddenly weak with ecstasy, trembling, quivering, as he slowly awakened to life again. He tried to cover the shock of the occasion with a flaccid smile, but it was pitiful and futile attempt. He knew he was unutterably weary and his mouth felt cottonish. He croaked out a plea for a glass of water and gulped it thirstily.

Someone was talking to him. It was the bluejacket who had made the first elimination of him in his recumbent position. “Sir, the captain is on the bridge and invites you to join him at your convenience.” Mahan drew a long sigh and resolutely at tempted to negotiate that long ladder leading up to the bridge from the conning tower. Somehow or other he expected to hear that demoniacal siren as he dragged himself, step by step, wearily toward the bridge.

THE captain and the diving officer, Lieut. Petrolle, greeted him cheerily as he worked a hairline decision with complete exhaustion and lifted his last leg up through the hatch. He felt like a shy man shoved suddenly upon a platform to address a staring crowd.

Taking several deep breaths of the blessed fresh air he accepted with shaky hands a proffered cigarette. His strained and anxious eyes hurriedly surveyed the sea around the horizon.

“I will frankly admit that for the first time in my life I was genuinely afraid and thought my last minute had arrived,” he said. The way you and your officers and crew behaved under those trying conditions was simply wonderful and it cannot be left without reward.”

Roger Baxter became the embarrassed one.

“Aw, it was nothing. We are always getting shot at by one or the other of our boats. They don’t often really hurt us.

“And, by the way, it will be several hours before we get in. Would you care to go below and stretch out in my bunk for a few hours?”

Mahan Jones thanked him gratefully and slowly lowered his tired and aching body through the conning tower. As he disappeared Baxter turned to Petrolle.

“Old Bill Durgin certainly dropped that last depth charge too close for comfort. If we ever have to pull off a stunt like this again I will get him to stay 100 yards farther away.

“You did a good job, Petrolle, sending the air into the depth gauges and having them register 300 feet while we were resting on the bottom in 25 feet of water. When the quartermaster rattled that chain in the conning tower and then poured that bucket of water on poor old Jones I thought I would die laughing.

“Next time we get together for drinks at the club I guess Mahan will confess that he is not the only deep-sea sailorman in the outfit.”

The End

Harley Cope would go on to serve during World War 2 and retire as a Rear Admiral. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

One characteristic of most submariners I have ever known is their very dark sense of humor. I have read the story about three times and can actually see how it could have been pulled off.

The rivalry between all of the parts of the Navy continues to this day. Each have their own strengths and challenges. But as a Submariner, I kind of want to believe that once upon of time off the coast of Ireland, a pompous ass was given a ride he will never forget. And probably took to his grave out of embarrassment.

Mister Mac

3 thoughts on “A Real Deep Sea Sailorman – Harley Cope

  1. Mr. MAC — Unable to comment on your website via WordPress. Thank you for another excellent history lesson about undersea warriors. I do hope that whatever personal losses you’ve had will be softened by the God of your understanding.  Nancy Y Bonar, APRSubmarineSister

    1. Hello my friend. It has been a rough month with two deaths (one family and one work family) I do know that all will come out in the end as partt of God’s plan. Just struggling with the human side of my nature right now as I grieve.

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