The Rescued Submarine Crew That Inadvertently Killed Its Rescuers

By Steve Wynalda on Wednesday, January 20, 2016
USS_Sculpin_(SS-191)
“Revenge is profitable, gratitude is expensive.” —Edward Gibbon, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”

In A Nutshell

The Sargo-class submarine USS Squalus (SS-192) was in the midst of a test dive on May 23, 1939, when she sank in 70 meters (240 ft) of water off the New Hampshire coast. Her sister ship, the USS Sculpin (SS-191), located the Squalus, contacted her, and found 33 men trapped in the downed sub. Forty hours after she sank, the survivors were ferried to the surface in a rescue chamber. The Squalus itself was also rescued from the sea bottom, repaired, and renamed the Sailfish. The Sailfish and the Sculpin sailed together to the Pacific.

On the night of November 18, 1943, the Sculpin was damaged by depth charges and 42 of its crew were captured. Half of the prisoners were put aboard the Japanese carrier Chuyo and sent to Japan. On December 4, the Chuyo was torpedoed near the island of Hachijojima and sank, taking with her 20 of the Sculpin crew. And the sub that sank her? It was the Sailfish.

The Whole Bushel

It was tough to be a submariner between the world wars. From 1921 to 1938, 825 crewmen died while riding so-called “steel coffins” above and below the world’s oceans. In 1939 alone, three subs—from Britain, Japan, and France—took 243 submariners to the bottom. And not one was rescued.

When the keels of the Sculpin and Squalus were laid in the naval yard at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1937, they were at the pinnacle of submarine technology. They could dive to 75 meters (250 feet), could reach a surface speed of 20 knots, and could sustain an 18,000-kilometer (11,000 mi) patrol lasting 75 days without refueling.

The Sargo-class and later iterations would be the tip of the American spear in the coming war in the Pacific.

By May 1939, Squalus was ready for sea trials and its commander, Lieutenant Oliver Naquin, drove the boat 20 kilometers (13 mi) off Portsmouth and gave the order to dive. Unfortunately, the valves to the main induction pipes that fed air directly to the diesel engines refused to close.

Seawater roared through the pipes and into the engine room, drowning nine sailors in seconds. Seventeen more tried to seal themselves in the aft torpedo room, to no avail.

Naquin blew the ballast tanks and sealed the watertight doors. The Squalus began sliding stern-first toward the depths at a 45-degree angle. Naquin had to literally hang from the periscope while he watched his boat sink. The Squalus would likely implode, crushing any survivors once it reached 90 meters (300 ft). Fortunately, it hit bottom short of that threshold. Four of the Squalus’s seven compartments were flooded.

Naquin ordered his 32 surviving sailors to deploy a buoy with a phone to the surface; then he ordered them to rest to conserve air.

He estimated they had 48 hours of oxygen at best. But they would also have to deal with total darkness and temperatures that plunged to 35 degrees.

The Sculpin was berthed in Portsmouth when news came that her sister ship had not returned from sea trials. She charged out and found the Squalus’s buoy.

When Lieutenant Commander Warren Wilkin put the phone to his ear, he heard Naquin’s jubilant voice: “Hello, Wilkie!” He had only time for a brief reply when the phone line snapped. Nevertheless, they had found the Squalus and knew it held survivors.

The sub tender Falcon was dispatched from New London, Connecticut, with the brand new McCann rescue chamber aboard. The Squalus had been submerged for 23 hours by the time Falcon parked over her and dropped the bell-shaped chamber to her. Soon there were 33 more smiling faces on the Falcon’s deck.

Nearly four months later, the Squalus itself was pulled from the depths using air-filled tanks. A photo was taken as the sub broke the surface, and when it was shown to President Franklin Roosevelt, he said it looked like a sailfish jumping. The Squalus was overhauled at Portsmouth and renamed Sailfish.

Initially the Navy didn’t allow the Squalus survivors to return to the submarine fleet, but it eventually relented. Three survivors were brave enough to reboard their old ship and sailed with her to the Pacific to rejoin the Sculpin.

Both Sailfish and Sculpin were operating off the Philippines when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. When the Philippines fell, they both operated from Pearl Harbor and acquired excellent wartime records.

In November 1943, Sailfish was sent to operate off Japan’s coast while Sculpin was sent to Truk island, the Japanese home base for its combined fleets. In conjunction with the Gilbert Islands Campaign, Sculpin was to intercept enemy ships around Truk and Sailfish was to do the same off the Japanese homeland.

On November 19, Sculpin moved to attack a Japanese convoy, but a lookout spotted its periscope and the sub itself was attacked. Sculpin survived two depth charge attacks, one of which damaged her depth gauge. When Commander Fred Connaway ordered his sub to periscope depth, it instead surfaced. The destroyer Yamagumo attacked her. The Yamagumo’s first salvo hit the Sculpin’s bridge, killing Connaway and his first officer.

The surviving senior officer ordered the crew to abandon ship while he scuttled the ship.

Forty-two Sculpin survivors were captured and placed aboard the carriers Unyo and Chuyo bound for the Japanese mainland. By an incredible coincidence, the Chuyo was intercepted by the Sailfish on December 4. For 10 hours, Sailfish doggedly attacked the carrier, unaware that 21 Sculpin survivors were aboard. When the Chuyo finally sank, it took all but one of the Americans with her.

The Sailfish would also later sink the Unyo. Fortunately, this would come after Unyo‘s 21 Sculpin survivors had been off-loaded and sent to a prison camp. All 21 were liberated after the war.

In October 1945, the Sailfish was decommissioned and her conning tower was removed and planted in the Portsmouth Naval Yard. The tower is still there, and the survivors of the Sailfish, Sculpin, and Squalus gather there every May to toast those who didn’t survive.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image via Wikipedia
Naval History: Remembering the USS Squalus 75 years later
Pig Boats: USS Sculpin SS 191
AFK Insider: 10 Spectacular Rescue Missions That Saved Lives
Fleet Submarine: SS-191, U.S.S. Sculpin