Squalus Survivor Urges Calm

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As Time Dwindles For Rescue
Of Trapped Russians,
Local Man Recalls His Own Crisis

By Greg Heilshorn, Democrat Staff Writer

Foster's Daily Democrat

Wednesday Evening, August 16, 2000
[The following article is courtesy of the Foster's Daily Democrat]
Gerald McLees
Portsmouth resident Gerald McLees, above, recalls how he and 32 crew
members were rescued from the Squalus in 1939.

PORTSMOUTH — Gerald McLees has become such a media darling, the reporters were answering the doorbell for him Tuesday.

"Who are you," asked a lanky woman in a plum- colored suit who later identified herself as a reporter from Channel 7.

"... And you are here for?"

After the visitor identified himself, she said, "Oh, well, we’re in the middle of an interview." She motioned to the wet front steps. "We had to wait, too."

The line in front of McLees’ home at 75 Ruby Road has been continuous since news spread Sunday that a Russian nuclear submarine with more than 100 sailors on board was trapped at the bottom of the Barents Sea in the Arctic Circle. As of this morning, strong currents and poor visibility had thwarted several attempts to reach the crew with a submersible capsule.

More than 64 years ago, on May 23, 1939, McLees was in a similar predicament.

He and 58 other sailors were at the bottom of the North Atlantic stuck inside the USS Squalus. The Navy’s newest fleet-type submarine had sunk in 243 feet of water, just southeast of the Isles of Shoals.

"It was cold and wicked dark," said McLees, now 85 and living with his daughter’s family. "We figured we’d be up drinking beer in no time at all. We were young and we knew the Navy would have a salvage vessel for us and in time we’d get out. To me, it wasn’t too scary. But when the Japs were dropping depth charges, that was scary."

Squalus Rescue
[Associated Press file photo]

Photo left: SQUALUS RESCUE — The first man out of the diving bell is shown being helped aboard the Falcon after a dramatic rescue from the submarine USS Squalus, down in 240 feet of water off the coast of Portsmouth, N.H., in this May 24, 1939, file photo. Survivors of the Squalus tragedy who are still alive hold out little hope for the 116 sailors aboard a Russian nuclear submarine trapped on the ocean floor above the Arctic Circle. Twenty-six crewmen perished when the Squalus sank during its trial run. photo

Thirty-nine hours after the Squalus plummeted to the ocean floor, McLees, an electrician’s mate, and 32 others were saved in an unprecedented, undersea rescue. Charles "Swede" Momsen. a visionary Navy officer, directed the use of a diving bell, a rescue apparatus he spent years perfecting, to pluck McLees and the others from what had always been considered an inescapable situation.

The dramatic recovery transfixed a nation coming out of the Great Depression and on the brink of war. Twenty-six sailors perished almost instantly when sea water flooded the sub’s rear compartments.

The crew represented 28 states and almost half were married. An official inquiry determined that a mechanical failure in the operating gear of the engine induction valve caused the Squalus to take on water. How that happened remained a mystery.

McLees was 25 years old at the time. He joined the Navy five years before, hitchhiking from his family’s dust-beaten farm in Richmond, Kan., to a recruiting station in Topeka. McLees was among a bounty of young men who entered the military having no idea of what they were getting into.

He had never seen a ship, let alone a submarine.

"We were ordered to lay down and just relax and not use up any excess oxygen," he recalled. "I guess I didn’t have enough brains to think about being scared."

As of Tuesday afternoon, a host of media outlets had visited McLees to re1ate the Russian tragedy to local viewers and readers. Channels 7 and 9, "Dateline NBC," WBZ radio and several print reporters had already recorded as much of his story a same-day deadline would allow.

His insight was made more precious by the fact that he is one of five living survivors of the Squalus.

"I’m the only one around this area, it seems like," he said. "Being that another submarine went down, I don’t know why it’s become such a thing. It’s the way people are, I guess."

It’s not the first time McLees has found himself the center of attention. Since the 50th anniversary of the Squalus sinking, he has fielded numerous requests for documentary consultations and one for a movie, which recently fell through because of financing. Last October, McLees gained notoriety with the release of "The Terrible Hours," a nonfiction account of the Squalus and its rescue, written by Peter Maas.

Sitting on a plush sofa, McLees did not seem to be bothered by the questions and constant ringing of his phone. Wearing a yellow polo shirt, khakis and white Reeboks, he looked as if he just finished nine holes of golf.

"I’d tell them to stay cool and think positive," said McLees of the 116 Russian crew members. "That’s what we did, of course I keep saying they’re in a different situation than we were. They are in deeper water and the temperature is a lot colder. And we don’t know if there is any chance of radiation being on the boat. With a 100-plus people, it must be kind of crowded down there if they have to be in one compartment."

The submarine is crippled under 350 feet of water.

"It’s too bad," he said. "It looks like there is no chance of them getting out right now. It makes it really tough not only on the sailors down there but for their families."

Nearly a year to the day the Squalus went down, it was recommissioned as the Sailfish after it was salvaged, stripped and refitted. It took the entire summer to raise it. McLees was one of four original crew members who returned to serve on the submarine, despite rumor of it being jinxed.

It was the first of two times fortune blessed McLees. The second came in February when MeLees underwent a successful operation for colon cancer.

"I figure that was a lucky chance, too," he said.

One of last Squalus Survivors Dies at 82

The Portsmouth Herald

Tuesday, January 30, 2001

AMSTERDAM, N.Y. (AP)-- Daniel Persico, a retired sailor who was one of the last living survivors of a daring submarine rescue mission off the New Hampshire coast in 1939, has died at age 82. Persico was 17 when he joined the Navy in 1936. Three years later, he was aboard the USS Squalus when it sank in the Atlantic Ocean about 15 miles offshore. Twenty-six of the submarine’s 59-member crew died in the sinking. The 33 others had to wait until a Navy diving bell could be lowered 240 feet to rescue them.

The incident was retold in last year’s best-selling book, "The Terrible Hours." Persico was one of six remaining Squalus survivors interviewed by the national media when the Russian submarine Kursk sank last August. Persico spent his entire naval career in submarines, retiring in 1956. He was awarded a Bronze Star. Persico worked as a salesman for a heavy equipment company in Albany after he left the Navy. He founded the Carfel Supply Co. in 1978 and served as its chief executive officer until his death Friday.

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