K-2 adrift

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Adrift on a Disabled Submarine

Photo provided by Cliff Leverette, grandson of Norman McKinnon
Photo provided by Cliff Leverette, grandson of Norman McKinnon
Adrift on a Disabled Submarine©

By Norman A. McKinnon

Copyright 2002 by grandson, Cliff Leverette

The U.S.S. K-2, an American submarine, based at Ponta Delgada, in the Azores, slowly nosed its way, out from behind the breakwater and out through the nets. She was homeward bound to get new batteries and have her two Diesel engines repaired.

I was one of her crew. It was late in October, 1918. The crew was happy at the prospect and eager to leave as the influenza was very bad in the Azores and a quarantine was on. It would take us about ten days to get to Bermuda and about three more to make Philadelphia. Everything was working smoothly and our crew of thirty men were enjoying a pleasant voyage as the ocean was quiet.

However, the Captain was worried as the Chief Quartermaster Lucas seemed to be suffering form a bad headache. The following morning Lucas was very sick with the flu. There was not a doctor aboard and none nearby. The Captain ordered every man to take C.C. pills every morning and when not on duty to go out on the deck for all the fresh air he could get. The air was foul in the submarine, from battery gas, engine fumes, etc.

The Captain ordered the engine full speed, although [sic] the Chief Engineer warned they could not stand much. But the next morning Lucas was awfully sick and three or four men were not feeling well. So the Captain ordered the speed to be kept up.

Shortly before reaching Bermuda, Lucas became delirious and taking care of him became a problem. The the Starboard engine broke down. But we made Bermuda and Lucas was taken to a hospital.

Taking on a supply of fresh water and fuel oil, the Captain decided to make a quick trip to the Philadelphia Navy Yard. None of the other men were very sick. So the K-2 eased out of the harbor. We were accompanied by the Prairie, a supply ship, and bound for "Philly." Everyone was happy until late that afternoon, when a radio message was received stating that the Chief Machinist’s Mate's wife and baby had died in Philadelphia of the flu.

The message was garbled and we did not know whether it said baby or babies, as he had a couple. Of course, he was distracted.

The Captain ordered "Full Speed". Would that the other engine stand up? The batteries were dead. One hundred twenty big ones, but they were so dead that we could not get enough electricity for our electric stove to even have coffee, so we ate hard tack, drank water, and ate canned peaches.

The following morning the last engine quit. It could not be repaired, so we semaphored to the Prairie for aid. She came to our aid and we were soon being towed along at the end of a big steel cable attached to the Prairie.

A storm soon came up. It was one of the Cape Hatteras famous storms. The waves became higher and higher. It rained hard and the lighting was terrific.

Then there was a snap and we began to roll from side to side. A voice from the conning tower said "Steel Cable has parted". We had gotten on one side of a great wave and the Prairie on the other and the strain had been too great for the cable. The Prairie semaphored that she would stand by us until the storm abated. We were all relieved to hear that as while we were able to receive radio messages, we could not send any.

We were in the path of coastline ships, also, and there was danger of our being run down.

About noon the Prairie notified us that her cargo was shifting and that she must leave us. She sent out messages stating our position and the Revenue Cutter Snohomish answered, from a great distance, saying she was on her way to our aid.

It was with great regret that we watched the smoke of the Prairie fade away. It was a great ocean and the submarine was awfully small, and disabled.

The waves seemed to get higher and higher. First we were on top a mountain, then down in a valley. Only two men were allowed on the conning tower bridge. Crouched down and protected by the framework around the periscope, the two would get fresh air, and smoke cigarettes.

The waves smashed wildly at the submarine, but she was like a bottle with a cork in it. Sometimes as we watched from the trough of a wave, it seemed like that towering wave would bury us deep, but we would roll right up it.

Inside misery reigned supreme. The air was foul, from battery gas and oil fumes. The ship was rolling about 54 degrees. In fact so badly that, at night the sailors had to fix ways to keep from being thrown out of their bunks. I was lucky. I had the only hammock. Also, seasickness, and of course the flu, was with us.

The Captain would have the two men on the bridge relieved every 15 to 30 minutes. They would wait until the right time, yank open the hatch and let two men relieve them, being careful not to let any salt water in. The salt water would make chlorine gas, if it got to the batteries. Our pumps were useless as we had no power. We could not submerge because we could not blow the tanks to come up, if we went down.

Night came on and I was ordered to put a light on the periscope. I did but believe me I was glad when I got down. One of the boys held my legs. The waves smacked us both, but we had on rubber clothes. But the light was necessary because we were in the path of coastline shipping and also for the Snohomish to see.

Going below, I found most of the men seasick. Only a few ate supper. I ate considerable hard tack and lots of canned peaches, of which I was very fond.

About eight o'clock, I was ordered to listen in on the radio, or wireless telegraph. Picking up Arlington, Va., where there was a large radio station, I began copying the whistling dots and dashes. The static was awful and every time the waves hit our antenna, it was impossible to hear at all. Arlington was giving out war "Communiques" and lots of Code.

My messages were badly garbled as I could not hear very well and the submarine rolled so I had to hold the condenser knobs, etc., to keep on the station.

About ten o'clock I got terribly seasick. The rolling waves, the stuffy air, and the beautiful delicious peaches, were too much for me. My copying had been bad enough before, but now it was awful. In disgust the Captain told me to "turn in."

All night it was a madhouse. Men rolling and tossing and falling out of bunks or nearly so. The lights were dim, because the batteries were bad, and the air blue sometimes because the oxygen was being used up. We cast longing eyes at the oxygen tanks, but they were for a worse emergency than this.

We did not sleep much. Would the Revenue Cutter find us? Day dawned and a cry was heard from the men on watch. "There she is! Away up on that mountain of water."

She sent us a message that she would tow us in, after the Ocean quieted. The storm continued for a while. It was forty hours in all before it got quiet enough to open the conning tower hatch.

After the storm, it was a big job to get a towline. The Snohomish steamed by and tossed us a line but it missed us. Again they tried to get a line to us and again. They had to come close and there was great danger that we would crash. Finally we got the line.

Then our boatswains mate and several of the other sailors fastened ropes around their naked bodies and around the steel line than ran from the conning tower to a post, and on the bow of the submarine, and going out they fastened the towline. At times the bow went under until they were submerged up to their necks. It was a risky job but they made it.

Coming up on the bridge, they put on their clothes, which they had taken off because there was no way to dry out wet clothes. Then the Captain passed them a good part of his personal supply of "Cognac", which he was hoping to bring home. But his men were nearly frozen and he was a real fellow.

The waves were pretty high but the Snohomish signaled that they were ready so we went to our stations. But alas, at the first real pull the cable parted. We were all disgusted. Our Captain decided to wait a few hours and then try again.

Late in the afternoon, "Rosy" the boatswains mate and the same men went out again to fix the towline. They did and also finished the Cognac.

This time the cable held. All night long and the next day we were towed astern. A big British warship saw us, and left immediately, sending out submarine warnings. Two seaplanes came out to meet us and circled. Their machine guns and bombs looked nasty. We waved our flag and cheered. They looked disappointed.

Early the following morning, we were in the Delaware river and our submarine was brought up along side the Revenue Cutter and lashed bow to bow and stern to stern. Everything seemed safe now so our Captain; the second in command, and most of the men went aboard the Snohomish for a bath, shave, and hot coffee and hot food.

We were near Wilmington, Delaware. Ensign Wiker was left on board, along with a Machinists mate, a seaman, an electrician, myself and the negro servant, who was pressing the Captain's uniform while the Captain took a bath over on the Cutter.

As we went up the river, I was engaged in scrubbing up around my wireless set. I was thinking "Hot coffee, hot food and a bath. Wish my relief would hurry". Suddenly, Boom! Cries from the officer in the conning tower. Our sub lurched violently upsetting me and my bucket of water. The negro and the Captain's uniform landed in a pile. Boom! and the submarine righted itself. It seemed to have turned nearly over.

Making a dive for the hatch, I beat the negro to the deck. We were nearly on the rocks!

The front bowline had parted, followed by the smaller ones. The rear one had held and we started to turn over when an old timer cut the lines with an axe or released it some way, righting us. Away off to our left was the Shonomish making a circle, coming back to get us. Would she make it before we got on those nasty looking rocks? Well, it sure didn't look like it.

Wiker ordered the electrician to start the electric motors, and he reversed the engines. But it was a long shot! Our batteries were dead. The electrician, however, threw the switch and to our delight the motors started. The propellers turned. We started backward. But in just a few moments the electricity died. However, the motors had done just enough to give the Snohomish a chance. "Here she comes". shouted Wiker, "grab those lines and fasten them".

The Shonomish was still twenty feet away when our big boatswains mate, "Rosy", gave a running jump and landed on our deck. At the same time the lines were thrown from the cutter and caught by us and wrapped around the stanchions, etc. They tightened and held.

We were slowly pulled back and soon were fastened to the Snohomish, but with plenty more ropes. Our Captain had followed "Rosy", and then the men came on board. None of us were permitted off the submarine again until late that afternoon when we went into Dock at League Island Navy Yard, Philadelphia, Pa.

Most of our men got shore leave at once. I had to stay on board. My watch was from four to eight A.M. As I was walking post, I heard the first whistles sounding the signing of the Armistice, November 11, 1918.

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