Submarines carry both a unique danger and special mystique to their volunteer crews. Although there have been instances of submariners escaping or rescued from their boat when it sank either by accident or in combat, usually, when a submarine ran into trouble, it meant a one-way trip to Davy Jones’ locker. However, it was the sinking of USS S-51 (SS-162) ninety-five years ago off the coast of Block Island, RI, that started a chain of events leading to modern submarine rescue techniques. This story goes back to the night of 25 September 1925 and brings together several men who would make major contributions to the U.S. Navy in the ensuing decades.
S-51, commissioned in 1922, was the fourth boat of her class and was built in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It was one of twenty-six boats built for the U.S. Navy by Simon Lake during and after World War II. He was an innovative naval designer, who also built submarines for Germany, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Navy. Lake was a fierce competitor of the larger Electric Boat Company, which eventually emerged as the Navy’s builder of choice (where it remains to this day). But Lake, who died in 1945, continued to advise the Navy on undersea weaponry right up to the time of his death.
During World War I, the Navy saw the potential of underwater warfare. It ordered thirty-eight, 240-foot-long S-class boats. At 930 tons, 240 feet in length, and capable of 14.5 knots surface speed, they were coastal vessels, smaller and far-less sophisticated forerunners of the Fleet boats of World War II. Five of Lake’s boats survived to serve in World War II, in early combat and later in training crews. The last to be decommissioned — in June 1946 — was S-15 (SS-120).
The new S-51 sailed with the Atlantic Fleet from Navy Base Groton as a member of Submarine Division 4. She was a frequent visitor in New England ports, including Newport and Providence, RI, and also sailing the Caribbean as far as Panama.
On that chilly, clear night in September, S-51 was riding low on the surface of Block Island Sound under peacetime conditions (with her running lights illuminated). Shortly after 10:00PM (2203), a lookout on the merchant steamer City of Rome, sailing to Boston from New York, spotted a single white masthead light about five miles to starboard and assumed it was a rum runner (a common sight during Prohibition). The brightly lit steamer thought the other vessel could see her and would alter course, especially since rum runners didn’t encourage company.
The City of Rome’s Captain, John H. Diehl had come on the bridge shortly after the light was sighted and (realizing the light shown by the unknown vessel was drawing closer) ordered a course change. S-51 had spotted the larger ship’s masthead and green (starboard) sidelight, but held her course under the maritime Rules of the Road (the Navy crew thought they had been recognized as a military vessel and so expected the right of way). At the last minute, the City of Rome spotted the submarine’s red (port) sidelight and realized the two vessels were on a collision course. The City of Rome sounded a danger signal with her whistle and both ships took evasive action, but too late.
Twenty-two minutes after first spotting the submarine’s masthead light, the steamer rammed S-51 and tore a thirty-foot hole just forward of the conning tower. The steamer then drove the sub underwater. The ocean poured into S-51. Since it was not under battle conditions, the boat’s watertight compartments were open to the in-rushing sea.
Only three of the submarine’s 36 men (Dewey Kile, Michael Lira, and Alfred Gerier) were able to abandon ship and were picked up by the steamer’s launch. The survivors told investigators there had been no panic aboard and they had seen other crewmen helping each other escape through open hatches. A handful of men, including the commanding officer, Lt. Rodney Dobson, managed to get out but, lightly clad, most quickly drowned in the chilly waters. The S-51 went down in less than a minute (her clocks were found stopped at 2225 hours), coming to rest in 132 feet of water fourteen miles off Block Island.
The City of Rome was not badly damaged. The captain radioed the ship’s owners for help. A ship’s boat rescued several survivors, but the captain (for some reason) did not realize he had sunk a submarine and there might stll be survivors below. The Navy did not get word of the sinking until they were notified via Western Union telegram at 1:20 am. Ships were dispatched but initially to the wrong location. Air bubbles and an oil slick were spotted by a search aircraft at 10:45am and ships moved quickly to the scene. Arriving on scene, the Navy destroyer USS Putnam, found a makeshift buoy suggesting there might be men still alive in the sunken sub.
Divers descended on the wreck some fifteen hours after the collision but, although tapping sounds had been initially heard from within the wreck they soon ceased (when the crew’s air supply would have run out). When the rescue ship USS Falcon and other ships reached the site, their work was confined to salvage. Hard hat divers began working under adverse conditions through the following months. Falcon had served as a minesweeper during World War I and participated in postwar mineclearing operations in the North Sea. Reclassified as a salvage vessel, she began salvage operations on the S-51 using a number of determined and ingenious efforts, sometimes combatting uncooperative seas and weather conditions.
Finally, using large pontoons, S-51 was raised on 5 July 1926 by a team led by Lt Cdr (later Rear Admiral) Edward Ellsberg whose book “On The Bottom” recounts the sinking and salvage operation. Ellsberg, aboard Falcon, worked the operation from the day after the sinking until the S-51 was brought to the surface. He was promoted to Commander and awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal for his efforts. Ellsberg left active service shortly after only to be recalled to duty several times, gaining further fame during World War II. He retired in 1951 as the Navy’s principal salvage officer. Over the years, Ellsberg wrote numerous books about his adventures.
The S-51 tragedy also included a number of interesting convergences. Responding to the sighting by the search aircraft, the submarine S-1 (SS-105) confirmed the location of the wreck by the oil slick. S-1 was commanded by Charles B. “Swede” Momsen, inventor of the Momsen Lung and co-inventor of the McCann rescue diving chamber used to rescue survivors of the submarine USS Squalus that sank off New Hampshire in 1939. Squalus, was raised, repaired, and re-commissioned as the USS Sailfish (SS-192) serving through World War II.
The S-51 salvage operation was under the overall leadership of Captain (later Fleet Admiral) Ernest J. King, who was commanding officer of the Groton Submarine Base at the time. He would go on to become the Navy’s World War II Commander-in-Chief.
The S-51 hulk, supported by large pontoons, was slowly towed down Long Island Sound to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for dry-docking. Along the way, bad luck continued when it ran aground in the East River, delaying its return by another 24 hours. Eleven bodies had been removed by divers during salvage efforts. The rest of the remains were recovered at the Navy Yard. S-51 went into dry-dock and remained on view until it was decommissioned and sold for scrap in 1930.
A court of inquiry was convened by the Navy and it laid the blame on the captain of the merchant vessel. But, the federal courts, hampered by few clues, also sought to determine blame for the sinking. However, Captain Diehl was found ‘not guilty’ on civil charges of negligence and failure to stand by the sunken submarine. Eventually, civil authorities found each vessel partly at fault: City of Rome for not reducing speed when in doubt as to the movement of S-51, and for not signaling her course change; and the S-51 for having improper lights. The Navy argued unsuccessfully that submarines were unique craft and as a special type of warship should not be required to conform to the letter of the law and the maritime rules of the road. But, the courts said if that were to be accepted, then submarines should stay out of sea lanes used by other ships (which sort of goes against the whole idea of a submarine as a naval weapon).
Rhode Island’s waters are known to be exceptionally dangerous places. Nearly three thousand shipwrecks have been documented since records were kept beginning in the 17th century. The S-51 is one more statistic within that tragic number. A reminder of the loss can still be found at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, CT, where the bell of the S-51 is on exhibit.
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