Tragic Tale Of Doomed Seaman's Fiancee Retold
By Greg Heilshorn, Staff Writer
Foster's Sunday Citizen, August 27, 2000
Sherman Shirley, when the USS Squalus
submarine sank on May 23, 1939, just
five days before their wedding date.
On May 23, 1939, five days before Ruth Desautel was to marry First Class Torpedoman Sherman Shirley, the submarine he was serving on sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic. The USS Squalus, the Navy's newest fleet-type submarine was on a test dive just five miles southeast of the Isles of Shoals. Thirty-nine hours later, 33 crew members were saved in an unprecedented undersea rescue. The remaining 26 perished almost instantly when sea water poured into the sub's rear compartments.
Shirley, a good-natured man from North Little Rock, Art., was in the sub's tail. His friend and best man to be, Lloyd Maness, was in the sub's control room When the sub lurched and began its awful descent, Maness reported to a watertight door between the after battery and the control room.
The media, once they learned of the story, hounded Desautel. The 20-year-old mill worker, who was the youngest of four boys and four girls, became known as the "Bride of Death" and photos of her grief-stricken face appeared in newspapers everywhere.
"It was terrible," recalled her older sister Margaret McMahon, during a phone interview from her home in West Palm Beach, Fla., last week. "My father was about to shoot them. I don't think she talked to any of them. The papers were from New York and all over."
More than 60 years later, the tragic sinking of a Russian submarine, in which all 118 crew members are believed dead, has stirred up those sad memories and Desautel's haunting expression for McMahon and other surviving relatives. The images of the Russian crew's anxious families on television and in newspapers struck an equally powerful chord.
"What a horrible way to go," said McMahon, who married a submariner. "I never thought of that when my husband was at sea. I never feared that. I just felt like that can't happen."
For Desautel, who died of a brain tumor in 1965 at the age of 49, it happened in the worst possible way. Three days before Shirley boarded the Squalus, he and Desautel went before the town clerk in Kittery, Maine, and applied for a marriage license.
"On the third finger of my left hand are two rings," she said in a magazine article published shortly after the tragedy. "Not so many days ago, when the rings were embedded in a velvet tray in a jeweler's window, Sherman said something prophetic. 'Just look at that red sparkle from them. It's like the last flicker of light off the waves that you see when the Squalus submerges. You see just a red flash of flame off the wave tops, and down she goes.'"
"I like to remember that," Desautel continued in the story. "I like to remember the way he said it in his drawling Arkansas voice. I like to think that he remembers the rings we bought together that way, and I hope with a desperate hope that before the choking waters rushed into the after battery compartment, throttling him and closing his eyes forever, he though just once of that."
The words sound a little dramatic for Desautel, who according to her sister was quiet and agreeable.
Desautel's daughter, Juanita "Susie" Weeden, who lives in Dover, inherited a partial copy of the original article that was torn out of the magazine. Nowhere does it indicate the magazine name, but she and her husband Ronald agreed that she probably didn't "write" the story.
It appears to be a Saturday Evening Post-type article, Mrs. Weeden said. And an editor's note indicates a writer helped Desautel.
"They paid her $300 to tell the story," she said. "That was a lot back then."
What little Mrs. Weeden knew about that time of her mother's life came mostly from the ghost-written story and newspaper accounts that family collected. A little was passed on through her aunts. If Desautel had any letters or mementos from her short time with Shirley, she didn't save them, Mrs. Weeden surmised.
About a year after her fiancee drowned, Desautel married a man named Mourice Jenkins. He was from Arkansas. And he was a submariner.
There might have been something to the coincidence, Mrs. Weeden said. Within months of the marriage, Jenkins was out to sea serving in World War II. The two divorced before Jenkins returned from the war.
"I think the marriage to my father was a rebound," Mrs. Weeden said. "This was during the war. He was gone for three or four years."
Later, Desautel married a second time. His name was Daniel McDevitt, a native of the Philadelphia area. He was also a submariner, but this time the marriage endured.
"He was the only father I ever knew," Mrs. Weeden said, "I'd seen my real father a couple of times as a youngster. There was contact with him. I wrote him. He had three sisters in Arkansas who took an interest in me."
Like most Navy wives, Desautel was a stay-at-home mother raising two children, Jaunita and her brother. She attempted to go back to work while McDevitt was serving his country, but it didn't last, Mrs. Weeden said.
The magazine article remains her strongest link to her mother's highly publicized first love.
Desautel and Shirley met in February. The story indicated it was the same year as the doomed test dive, but Mrs. Weeden wasn't sure.
Snow was piled high on the sidewalks in Dover and Desautel recalled being filled with envy at the sight of girls in cars headed north to ski with friends in the White Mountains.
She worked the night shift at the Pacific Mills as a battery tender in the weave shed. Her world consisted of her mother's "little house" on Pine Street, a "little garden" and "an automobile that coughed up and down the hilly roads."
She used to pray at St. Mary's Church that someday she would meet a good man, marry and get away from the mills.
One February evening, Desautel had stopped by a local cafeteria on her way to work. She was still shivering from the cold when she ordered a cup of coffee.
".....Before I could pick it up, a big, blond sailor was at my side," Desautel recalled in the story. "'I'll carry it over to the table for you,' he said."
Shirley had been sitting with Maness and a friend of Desautel's.
"Thanks, I'm capable of carrying it myself," Desautel responded.
Her friend introduced Shirley, and he promptly noticed Desautel's hands were tucked inside her sleeves.
"My hands are frozen," Desautel told him.
Shirley asked her to slip off her mittens, then he rubbed her finger tips with a piece of ice from a glass of water.
Before Desautel could leave for work, Maness introduced himself and invite her and her friend to go to a dance in Portsmouth. Desautel declined. But as she went to pay for her coffee, Shirley followed and tossed a dime on the counter.
Blocking the door he said, "Look, I don't blame you for not wanting to go to Portsmouth on the spur of the moment like that. You don't know either of us from Adam. But now that I met you, can I see you some other night?"
He stood a head taller than her and she noticed his liberty card poking from his breast pocket. She pulled it out and read his name.
"Then that is your name, isn't it?" she said.
"Did you think it wasn't?" he asked.
"Well, you can't tell, you know," she said, laughing. "You could tell me you were the admiral and I wouldn't know."
Mrs. Weeden does not have the rest of the article, but it's safe to say, Shirley successfully wooed her mother. A caption under a photo of Shirley reads, "Midget, you are positively the only girl I could marry."
Photo left, for a dramatic moment, crews trying to refloat the USS Squalus, watched the sub break the surface on June 13, 1939. A moment later, the sub, still carrying the bodies of 25 crewmen, sank again.
Several days after the rescue operation, Desautel told a local newspaper she held no bitterness toward Maness and that she understood he acted accordingly when he sealed the submarine door.
According to Gerald McLees, one of five living survivors of the Squalus incident, Maness ended up in the hospital and never served on the Sailfish. He was later reassigned to the USS Growler, SS 215, which sank somewhere in the Pacific on Nov. 8, 1944. The submarine was on its 11th patrol. All hands were lost. The cause was reported as unknown.
"He was a good friend," said McLees from his home in Portsmouth. "He was due to be my best man. He went into the hospital and I never heard from him again."
Maness never spoke of his role on the Squalus the day it sank, McLees said.
Eventually, the press left Desautel alone to her private grief.
"They had a good thing going for them," McMahon said of her sister and Shirley. "They seemed happy just being together. She was devastated."
Recently, in the midst of the unfolding Russian catastrophe, Mrs. Weeden's son was reading over the articles and commented on the sad twist of fate.
"I wouldn't be me and you wouldn't be you if Sherman had survived," Mrs Weeden told him. "I'd look a little different and so would you."