Notable Submarine Accidents

From PigBoats.COM


The pigboats era of 1900-1940 is notable for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that submarine technology was in its infancy; the USN was learning the limits of what this new technology could do and what it couldn't. The pigboats were pathfinders in a very real sense, and sometimes that meant that dangerous unknowns were encountered. When combined with normal human fallibility, those unknowns sometimes resulted in a smashed-up submarine, and at others it unfortunately led to our submarine brethren paying a steep price for their pathfinding service.

This section is meant to highlight some of the notable accidents that befell our Submarine Force during the pigboats era. The purpose is to honor the bravery and sacrifice of the men involved, and to show that the Navy persevered and learned from its mistakes. The technology matured and submarines got safer, but sailing a ship under the sea will never be a safe activity. This list is not all-inclusive, nor will it tell the full tale of each incident. It will give an overview and highlight some of the photographs that Ric has collected over the years. Many of these incidents have been covered in depth by other authors, and when possible we will provide links to books and video that we know will tell the full tale.

For further information on the men who gave their lives in these incidents, we highly recommend the website On Eternal Patrol, or OEP. Charles Hinman and his team have done an amazing job of gathering information on our deceased shipmates. Please take a look.

Grampus (Submarine No. 4) and Pike (Submarine No. 6) gasoline fire, September 19, 1908

Photo NH 98616 courtesy of NHHC.
Photo NH 98616 courtesy of NHHC.
On September 19, 1908, Grampus and Pike were moored to the pier at Mare Island Navy Yard undergoing maintenance. At some point during a defueling evolution a large amount of gasoline collected in the water around the boats. An unthinking sailor nearby flicked a lit cigarette into the water and the gasoline erupted into a massive fire. Three men were killed in the resulting inferno, and several more seriously injured. It took several hours and the combined efforts of the base fire department and several nearby ships to get the blaze completely under control. Grampus and Pike received substantial damage that required several months of yard work to repair. See Ric Hedman's write up on this incident here.

For a contemporary newspaper article that goes into depth on this incident, please see this link. Note: please disregard the clerical date error at the top of the NHHC photograph. The fire did happen in 1908.

F-4 (Submarine No. 23), Hull failure during a test dive, March 25, 1915

Image courtesy of the Maritime Museum of San Diego
Image courtesy of the Maritime Museum of San Diego
On the morning of March 25, 1915, F-4 got underway for a completely routine one day training voyage from her base in Honolulu Harbor, HI. What no one knew at the time was that acid from her lead-acid battery cells had leaked out of the cells and had gathered on the steel plating lining the bottom of the battery well, which was also part of the pressure hull. Accumulated over a period of months, the acid had gradually eaten away at the steel until the fateful day of March 25. While she was submerged during a routine training dive, the increased pressure caused the weakened hull to develop a bad leak that allowed water to enter the battery wells. The wells could not be pumped out because the tar pitch that was used to help seal the well had clogged the drainage piping. This extra weight led to a loss of depth control.

Several months earlier, the boat had been fitted with an experimental propeller design that was intended to provide maximum thrust at low RPM's. When the captain attempted to power out of the uncontrolled descent, the increased RPM's caused the propellers to cavitate badly and lose thrust. When the boat passed crush depth the hull catastrophically imploded and F-4 sank with all hands. There were no survivors.

Five and a half months later, after a prodigious effort involving unparalleled bravery and incredible ingenuity, F-4 was raised from 306 feet (92.3 m) of water and returned to Honolulu where she was drydocked and inspected. The remains of her crew were removed and given a hero's procession through Honolulu before they were returned to the mainland for burial. After the completion of the accident investigation, F-4 was stripped of any useful equipment and her hulk was towed to Pearl Harbor where it was dropped in the shallow waters of the then unused Magazine Loch. 25 years later it was found that her wreck was in the way of the rapidly expanding Submarine Base so a trench was dug next to the wreck and she was rolled into it. This got her out of the way and allowed the base to continue its expansion. She remains there to this day, just a few yards off berth S13.

PigBoats.COM is proud to display a collection of photographs of her salvage and those are presented here. In addition, the webmasters provided author Jon Humboldt Gates with technical advice for his book Before the Dolphins Guild which tells the story of the loss of the F-4.

E-2 (Submarine No. 25), Battery explosion and fire, January 15, 1916

Photo NH 41947 courtesy of NHHC
Photo NH 41947 courtesy of NHHC
One of the major drawbacks to the lead-acid batteries used in USN submarines was the potential for lethal chlorine gas to be generated if seawater got into the open-topped batteries with their liquid electrolyte. The famous and respected inventor Thomas A. Edison realized this shortcoming and pressured the Navy to be allowed to test a new battery type invented by him. It substituted the sulfuric acid electrolyte for an iron and nickel oxide with potassium hydroxide. This type of battery eliminated the threat of chlorine poisoning, but it proved to be very gassy when being charged, although the excess hydrogen that was produced was thought to be easily mitigated by Edison and his team. They would later be proven wrong. The USS E-2 (Submarine No. 25) was chosen as the test ship. She entered drydock at the New York Navy Yard in Brooklyn in June 1915 for an overhaul and the installation of the new battery.

On January 15, 1916 a series of aggressive charge/discharge tests were being run on the new battery, under the supervision of representatives of the Edison company. The boat's commanding officer, LT Charles "Savvy" Cooke had been highly concerned about the battery and the tests that Edison had ordered for it. His apprehensions were dismissed by the overly confident Edison staff. He had been very uneasy that morning and had warned his Chief Electrician to be careful. Just after 1300 that afternoon there was a powerful hydrogen explosion inside the sub. One man was just exiting the after battery hatch when the explosion occurred. It blew him up into the air as if he had been shot from a cannon. Cooke, who had been a few piers over on the tender USS Ozark (Monitor No. 7) having lunch, immediately ran back to the boat and led the effort to reenter the sub to rescue survivors and to get the fire out. He acted bravely with inspiring leadership. By 1600 the resulting fire had been put out and the boat evacuated. Four men had been killed and 10 badly injured.

In the subsequent investigation, the Edison company vigorously denied any culpability in the accident and tried to shift the blame onto Cooke. LT Chester W. Nimitz (yes, that Chester Nimitz) earnestly defended his fellow submariner, and in the end Cooke was absolved of any responsibility. The stain of the affair lingered for a while, but Cooke was eventually assigned to command the brand new USS S-5 (SS-110). His leadership and skills were vindicated by his performance during the sinking of the S-5 during trials in 1920. He kept his crew together and they were all saved.

E-2 was repaired and put back into service and served the Navy well until 1921. For further information on the brave men who were lost that tragic January day in 1916, please see this On Eternal Patrol link.

A-7 (Submarine No. 8), Gasoline explosion and fire, July 24, 1917

Photo in the private collection of Ric Hedman.
Photo in the private collection of Ric Hedman.
On July 24, 1917, while running a patrol in Manila Bay, Philippines, gasoline fumes ignited and caused an explosion and fire. The engine of the submarine been overhauled a short time before. The crew battled the fire until the Captain ordered the men topside and into boats that had pulled alongside. Six men later died from the effects of the fire. LTjg Arnold Marcus, the submarine's commanding officer, died the next day, July 25, 1917. He refused treatment until all of his men had been treated. Shark was never returned to patrol duty, the effects of the fire being so great. Essentially a total loss, she was decommissioned for the last time December 12, 1919 and struck from the Navy List on January 16, 1922. She was later sunk as a target off Corregidor. Please see this link for more information

F-1 (Submarine No. 20), Collision with F-3 (Submarine No. 22), December 17, 1917

Painting by Peter Bull, scanned from the book U.S. Submarines 1900-1935 (ISBN 978-1-84908-185-6) by Jim Christley.
Painting by Peter Bull, scanned from the book U.S. Submarines 1900-1935 (ISBN 978-1-84908-185-6) by Jim Christley.
While steaming in formation on the night of December 17, 1917, F-3 collided with F-1 in a heavy fog off the coast of La Jolla, California near Point Loma. F-3 struck her sister on the port side in the engine room. F-1 sank in just a few seconds, but not before the four men on her bridge and one man in the conning tower escaped. They were rescued by F-3. 19 men made their last dive. F-1 sank in 1453 feet (442.9 m) of water, far too deep for salvage. In 1986 her wreck was visited for the first time by the Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle Avalon (DSRV-2) while on a training mission. Avalon obtained several pictures of her wreck site that we can display here.

O-5 (SS-66), Battery explosion, October 5, 1918

Photo courtesy of On Eternal Patrol.
Photo courtesy of On Eternal Patrol.
On the morning of October 5, 1918, while alongside a pier at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, O-5 started her engines to conduct a battery charge. A few minutes later LTjg William Sharkey noticed that the batteries were producing hydrogen gas and he alerted the commanding officer, LCDR George Trever. They both headed forward into the after battery compartment. Shortly thereafter the battery exploded, killing Sharkey and mortally wounding Trever. Trever would pass away on October 14. Both men were posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for their actions and bravery. O-5 was repaired and returned to service, but had a black cloud following her (See below).

S-5 (SS-110), Accidental flooding during test dive, September 1, 1920

Photo NH 41810 courtesy of NHHC
Photo NH 41810 courtesy of NHHC
S-5 was a brand-new submarine under the command of the indomitable LT Charles M. "Savvy" Cooke when she got underway from the Portsmouth Navy Yard on September 1, 1920 for post commissioning trials and tests. At 1300 that day she commenced a dive 63 nautical miles off the Delaware Capes. As soon as the conning tower fairwater submerged below the surface, water began to pour into the motor room, engine room, control room, and torpedo room, partially flooding them through the still open main air induction valve. The boat hit the bottom 180 feet down.

Knowing that there was little hope of being rescued, Cooke led a herculean effort to get the boat back to the surface. Knowing that the torpedo room has hopelessly flooded the crew decided to try to raise the stern above the water by blowing the aft ballast tanks. This procedure tipped the boat upward at a large angle, with approximately 14 feet of the stern now above water. The crew then laboriously started an effort to cut a hole in the thick steel in the aft most compartment, the small and confined tiller room. After a day and a half of back breaking and dangerous work, they only succeeded in cutting a hole three inches in diameter, through which they passed a flag tied to a short pole.

A passing steamer, the SS Alanthus, saw the odd looking "buoy" in the water and stopped to investigate. They hove-to alongside the stern and the Alanthus' captain began a semi-humorous verbal exchange with an exasperated and exhausted Cooke through the tiny hole. When the Alanthus' captain, in traditional maritime fashion, inquired as to the submarine's destination, Cooke bellowed "HELL BY COMPASS!"

The Alanthus' crew flagged down another ship and the combined crews set to work to enlarge the hole. By 0145 on September 3, the hole was barely big enough to start the evacuation of the crew. An hour and fifteen minutes later Cooke was the last man to leave the wrecked submarine. Through perseverance, resolute action, and superb leadership the entire crew had survived with only minor injuries.

Subsequent efforts to salvage the S-5 were unsuccessful, and the wreck sank to the bottom of the Atlantic. The Navy abandoned the boat where she laid. An investigation showed that during the dive Chief Petty Officer Percy Fox, momentarily distracted by other events in the control room, pulled very hard on the large lever used to shut the main air induction valve and in doing so the valve stuck in the open position. Fox was eventually exonerated of blame as it was shown that the design of the valve operating mechanism was poor and prone to jamming.

In July 2001 a NOAA ship rediscovered the wreck and surveyed it using side scan sonar equipment. The wreck remains there to this day, resting in the deep. See this page for more photos.

S-6 (SS-111), Collision with a destroyer, 1922

Photo courtesy of Jim Townsend, son of Charles J. Townsend S-6 crewmember.
Photo courtesy of Jim Townsend, son of Charles J. Townsend S-6 crewmember.
We do not have a lot of details concerning this incident, but we do have several photos gifted to us by the family of Charles Townsend, a former crewmember of S-6. The collision occurred during maneuvers off the coast of Luzon, Philippines in approximately 1922. S-6 was submerged when she was struck by one of the destroyers she was exercising with. The destroyer struck the periscope shears, heavily damaging both periscopes and causing significant structural damage to the shears. As far as can be determined, no one was killed or injured. S-6 was fully repaired and returned to service. S-6 was lucky. This could have turned out a lot worse. This photo shows S-6 shortly after she surfaced following the collision. The USS Borie (DD-215) is in the background.

O-5 (SS-66), Collision with a merchant ship, October 28, 1923

U.S. Navy photo.
U.S. Navy photo.
At 0630 on the morning of October 28, 1923 O-5 was underway in Limon Bay near the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal. Due to a series of botched communications and poorly planned maneuvering, the steamer SS Abangarez collided with the O-5, hitting her on the starboard side of the control room. 16 men managed to escape before O-5 sank. One man who had made it topside, Torpedoman 2nd Class Henry Breault, realized that his friend, Chief Electrician's Mate Lawrence Brown, was still below in the torpedo room. Breault, knowing that the boat was rapidly sinking, went back below to assist his friend, shutting the torpedo room hatch behind him. The boat sank to the bottom with Breault and Brown alive in the torpedo room. A herculean rescue effort was mounted by both the Navy and local civilian Canal employees. Two failed attempts to raise the bow of O-5 were made, lifting cables breaking each time. Finally, around noon on the 29th, the floating crane Ajax was able to lift the bow of the O-5 to the surface and Brown and Breault were pulled from the torpedo room alive. For his actions, Henry Breault was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Calvin Coolidge. See our collection of photographs from this incident here. In addition, please take a look at this site for a great retelling of the harrowing event.

S-51 (SS-162), Collision with merchant ship, September 25, 1925

National Archives photo from NARA College Park courtesy of Tracy White
National Archives photo from NARA College Park courtesy of Tracy White
S-51 sitting forlornly in drydock at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, July 9, 1926. The previous September the S-51 had been operating off of Block Island in Long Island Sound. Late in the evening of September 25, S-51 was struck on the port side in the battery compartment by the Steamship City of Rome. She sank immediately, with only three men out of her crew of 36 surviving. The next ten months saw a monumental effort by the Navy to salvage the sunken boat and retrieve the remains of the crew still entombed in the ship. By the time the boat was returned to the Brooklyn yard, she was thoroughly wrecked. She was never returned to service and was decommissioned and scrapped. The Navy learned a lot from this salvage operation, and they put that knowledge to good use two years later when the S-4 (SS-109) was lost under similar circumstances. The story of the S-51's sinking and salvage is a classic of the sea service. The man in charge of the salvage operations, LCDR (later RADM) Edward Ellsberg wrote a timeless tale of the work and published it as On The Bottom in 1929. It is very well written and we give it our highest recommendation. PigBoats has a collection of photographs from this operation and they are displayed here.

In addition, a granddaughter of one of the lost crewmen maintains an excellent informational site on the accident, which can be accessed at the enclosed link.

S-4 (SS-109), Collision with USCGC Paulding, December 17, 1927

U.S. Navy photo.
U.S. Navy photo.
USS S-4 (SS-109) served the Navy well for nearly 16 years, but her career was marred by a tragic accident that occurred on December 17, 1927. On that date she was conducting submerged trials on the measured mile in Cape Cod Bay off Provincetown, MA. While coming to the surface at the end of the run, she was accidently rammed by the Coast Guard Cutter Paulding (CG-17). S-4 sank immediately with her entire crew, but six men were still alive in the forward torpedo room. A frantic rescue effort followed, but it was not successful and the entire crew perished. The boat was subsequently salvaged and partially reconditioned, but it was not returned to full service. Instead, she was used as a test bed to develop new technologies and techniques for submarine escape, rescue, and salvage. She was finally decommissioned in 1933 and eventually scrapped. She is shown here in drydock following her salvage at the Boston Navy Yard, March 19, 1928. We have a series of photos that depict the subsequent salvage efforts at this link. The webmasters can also highly recommend the book Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster by historian Joseph A. Williams. The webmasters were happy to act as technical advisors for the book. Mr. Williams wrote an incredible tale of danger, tragedy, perseverance, and ingenuity. You will not be disappointed with this true story.

Squalus (SS-192), Equipment failure during a test dive, May 23, 1939

On the morning of May 23, 1939, the two month old Squalus headed out from the Portsmouth Navy Yard for diving tests off the Isle of Shoals in the Atlantic off New Hampshire. At 0740 in the morning she began the dive. Immediately after submerging it was reported that the after engine room was flooding through the large air induction piping. The main induction valve inside the conning tower fairwater had failed, sending huge amounts of water into the compartment, flooding it. The weight of the water dragged the boat down and she came to settle on the bottom at 240 feet (73 m). Unfortunately, 24 crewmen and two civilian yard workers perished in the after compartments. This left 32 crew and one civilian alive in the forward compartments. They immediately sent up the rescue buoy and fired off flares. They were eventually found by their sister boat Sculpin (SS-191) and rescue operations were immediately commenced.

What followed was an epic story of the courage and tenacity of our sea service. In the first, and only, operational use of the McCann Rescue Chamber in the USN, all 33 men in the forward compartments were rescued and brought to the surface. Over the next three and a half months the Squalus was salvaged under very difficult conditions and returned to Portsmouth for repair and refurbishment. She was renamed Sailfish (SS-192) and returned to full service. She went on to have a fine war record.

PigBoats.COM has compiled a collection of rescue and salvage photos of this incident and they can be found at this link.

O-9 (SS-70), Hull failure during a test dive, June 20, 1941

U.S. Navy photo.
U.S. Navy photo.
The fiscal austerity imposed on the U.S. Navy by the Great depression forced the service to make some hard choices concerning the size of the fleet. By 1931, the EB design O-boats, an obsolescent WW I coastal design, were of low current value to the world spanning fleet. However, they were considered to have retained enough value to make them possible mobilization assets in the event of a future war. Most of them were laid up in reserve at Philadelphia. The harsh economic realities of the times prevented proper pre-layup overhauls and many of the boats were in bad shape when assigned to the reserve fleet. Little if any maintenance was completed on them in the subsequent nine years.

In 1940, noting with alarm the deteriorating war situation in Europe, orders were issued to reactivate the mothballed O-boats for use as training vessels for the anticipated huge increase in personnel for a rapidly expanding Submarine Service. O-9 (SS-70) was one of the boats earmarked for further service. The rushed nature of the order, combined with the large number of subs and ships being pulled out of reserve severely stretched the capabilities of the east coast shipyards. The O-9 needed thorough and meticulous tender-loving-care, but that work was rushed and inadequate, and by the time she was recommissioned in April 1941 she still faced numerous materiel condition challenges.

On June 19, 1941 O-9 got underway from Submarine Base New London and headed out to sea accompanied by her sister boats O-6 (SS-67) and O-10 (SS-71). They were to conduct deep submergence trials off the Isle of Shoals in a designated submarine operating area. O-6 and O-10 successfully completed their dives early on the morning of June 20. O-9 dove at 0837 that morning and was never heard from again. She had succumbed to the sea. Her failure to surface was noted by her sister boats at 0940 and the alarm was sent out. A massive search and rescue operation was immediately begun that included all submarines in the area along with the submarine rescue vessels USS Chewink (ASR-3) and the well-known USS Falcon (ASR-2).

Grapnel dragging located the boat on the bottom at the ominous depth of 450 feet. O-9's test depth was only 200 feet. Rescue operations were immediately begun, and divers put over the side. The extreme depth resulted in only two divers making it to the bottom at 432 feet, but they found that the entire after part of the boat from the conning tower aft had imploded, with the front half clearly flooded. The crew was dead.

The extreme conditions of working at 432 feet forced the commanding officer of the rescue force, Rear Admiral Richard Edwards, to call a halt to the efforts and his decision was backed up by the Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox on June 22. Later that day a solemn funeral service was held aboard the USS Triton (SS-201), one of the accompanying submarines, and the Navy and the nation said farewell to their shipmates. The O-9 and her crew of 33 were left were they laid, and no further attempt was made to salvage her. The cause of her loss was never determined exactly, but it was assumed that it was related to her poor materiel condition. This was not the Navy's finest hour. This loss was likely entirely preventable.

On September 20, 1997 an expedition sponsored by Klein Marine Systems succeeded in rediscovering the wreck using a towed side-scan sonar system. A subsequent visit to the site by NOAA conducted a thorough sonar survey and they produced the following images.

The site has been designated as an official military burial ground with the exact location held in secret. For information on the O-9's crew, please see the On Eternal Patrol page for the O-9. Rest in peace brothers.

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