Crewmen remember sub disaster after 50 years

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Routine test dive turned into tragedy

By Margaret Lillard

Foster's Daily Democrat , May 22, 1989

[The following article is courtesy of the Foster's Daily Democrat ]

Gerald McLees thought he had breathed his last as he sat quietly in the forward torpedo room of the USS Squalus as it lay on the ocean floor off New Hampshire’s Coast on May 23, 1939.

Fifty years ago Tuesday, McLees, then 25, and his shipmates were awaiting rescue from their submarine, which rested about 240 feet below the water’s surface after disaster struck on a routine test dive.

“We were still in our trials,” McLees recalled recently. “…There was nothing that informed me that there was anything going to be wrong.”

The Squalus, launched the previous September from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, was about to make a shakedown dive to test the boat’s ability to submerge sub-merge within 60 seconds while running at high speed.

“My reaction was to get everything shut off,” said Allan Carl Bryson, then
a 21-year-old machinists’ mate. “If there was any panic, it was all in the end. We didn’t have time for things like that.”

McLees and Bryson and their shipmates worked to seal off their forward battery compartment. But water was not the only menace they faced as the sub tilted, bow up, and descended.

Chief Electrician’s Mate Lawrence Gainer noticed that the seawater had shorted out one of the ship’s two batteries creating a rapid voltage drain.

He wedged himself into a narrow crawl space to shut off the power.

“It was two big switches he had to pull. When he pulled one of them it threw such an arc that the arc didn’t break until he pulled the other one.” McLees said.

The light seared his eyes, damaging them permanently.

Gainer probably saved the boat, Bryson said. “(He) is blind now, I think, either that or essentially blind.”

His submarine now without light or communications, Naquin ordered Bryson to herd crewmen forward as chlorine gas formed from a seawater reaction in the battery compartment.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Lloyd Maness was on watch near a critical hatch between the control room and the sub’s rapidly flooding rear compartments, according to a 1988 article in the journal of Naval History. As Maness strained to close the 200-pound hatch, the angle of the sub’s descent working against him, he heard panicked voices calling, “Keep it open! Keep it open!” Writer Carl La Vo recounted.

“Five men staggered uphill, half-swimming to safety. Maness then pulled the steel door shut. Behind it, no one could survive,” La Vo wrote.

The lack of power kept the crew from signaling Portsmouth, but authorities realized there was trouble when the Squalus failed to send a surfacing message one hour after it announced it was starting its dive.

The Squalus sent a buoy to the surface with a telephone line attached and periodically fired red smoke rockets.

The Sculpin, the Squalus’ sister ship, was dispatched from the Portsmouth yard, and lookouts spotted the smoke rockets.

Below, the Squalus crew was cheered by the sudden churning of the Sculpin’s engines.

“We felt very good,” McLees said. “We knew somebody had spotted us, anyway.”

But it was 23 hours after the sinking before the submarine tender Falcon arrived from New London, Conn., carrying the rescue chamber, a nine-ton diving bell that would be lowered onto the sub over a hatch and used to bring up survivors.

Grappling hooks were dragged across the ocean floor to locate the boat. And a hard-hat diver hooked a cable to the sub for the bell to use ferrying loads to the surface.

McLees was one of the first to ride up.

“I had been getting nauseated and sort of woozy and everything, so that’s why,” he said.

Three more hatches of survivors were brought to the surface. The last group, including Bryson and Naquin, spent an extra four hours on the ocean floor when the bell's cables began to give way and one had to be cut.

"We started to swing and spin around," Bryson recalled. It doesn't give you a feeling of confidence. I guess some of us started wishing we were back inside the submarine.”

The bell eventually was shot to the surface by expelling compressed air.

With Navy divers John Mihalowski and William Badders inside, the bell made a fifth descent for the hazardous mission of opening a hatch to check for survivors in rear compartments. The two found water "right up to the neck of the hatch," concluding that "there couldn't possibly be any life down there," Badders now dead, told a naval Institute interviewer in 1971.

Mihalowski and Badders received the Medal of Honor for their role in the rescue.

Relief changed to sorrow as the survivors returned to the shipyard.

McLees, single at the time, watched other men joyfully reunited with their wives on the pier.

"Of course, there were some there, their husbands didn't come back." he said.

Mclees returned to the Squalus less than a year later after the boat was salvaged and rechristened the Sailfish. He served aboard during seven World War II patrols in the Pacific. Both he and Bryson spent most of the rest of their Navy careers aboard subs and both worked on submarine construction after retiring from the military, McLees in 1956 and Bryson 10 years later.

The Sailfish was decommissioned at Portsmouth on Oct. 27, 1945. Its conning tower was placed in a park at the shipyard, which holds an annual memorial service.

McLees remained in Portsmouth after retiring, and Bryson moved to New London, Conn. Neither had any anxiety about going back on submarines.

"I feel a lot safer on a submarine than in an airplane," Bryson said. "I just think they're safer."

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