U.S.S. Sailfish off Mare Island, San Francisco, on 13 April 1943. This image shows her with her bridge modified to reduce her surface silhouette and add a forward anti-aircraft position. Official U.S. Navy photograph.
A Sargo class fleet submarine, the SS-192 Sailfish entered naval service in 1939 as the U.S.S. Squalus. On 23 May 1939, while conducting a test dive off Portsmouth, NH, Squalus sank in 243 feet of water when the engine room flooded through the main induction. The 26 men in the after part of the ship were drowned. Thirty-three others, including the commanding officer, LT Oliver F. Naquin, who were in the forward section, were left with the problem of getting to the surface.
While the depth was within the practical limits for an ascent using the Momsen Lung escape gear, the cold water temperature, and the probability that anyone swimming to the surface would die of exposure before being found, caused Naquin to veto its use. By the time those aboard Squalus were sure there were ships above them, no one was in any condition to make a free ascent. The only option was to release the forward rescue buoy and wait for someone to come for them. In addition, it was possible to launch signal rockets at that depth, and it was one of these, spotted by Squalus‘s sister boat Sculpin, that allowed them to be located that afternoon.
Contact was established through the telephone in the rescue buoy, which told the would-be rescuers that there were survivors. The phone line broke before much information could be passed, so a tug spent the rest of the afternoon dragging the bottom in an attempt to get a line on the sunken boat. This was accomplished, though they wouldn’t be sure until the following day, when divers could be sent down.
On the morning of 24 May, the submarine rescue vessel U.S.S. Falcon moored over the sunken submarine. Falcon carried a team of divers, and a McCann Rescue Chamber. The divers were commanded by LCDR Charles “Swede” Momsen, who had invented both the Momsen Lung and the rescue chamber. After securing a cable to Squalus, the McCann rescue chamber—a large diving bell that could be secured to the escape hatch in the deck over the forward torpedo room, and was named after then Lieutenant-Commander Allan McCann, who supervised final development after Momsen was reassigned to training duties—was used to bring up the survivors.
The last trip, bringing up the final eight survivors, including LT Naquin, was delayed after a cable threatened to break, but eventually the chamber was brought up and the men rescued. After the cable was repaired, other trips were made to the sunken boat in an attempt to discover whether any other survivors might still be aboard, but the 33 rescued men were all who had survived. Naquin remained in the Navy, but was transferred to the surface fleet and never served in submarines again. He retired as a rear-admiral in 1955.
Squalus was raised in the summer of 1939, and after repair was recommissioned as U.S.S. Sailfish on 15 May 1940, the name change reportedly at the suggestion of President Roosevelt. Lieutenant Commander Morton C. Mumma, jr commanded the recommissioned boat through the end of her first war patrol. Sailors generally consider renaming a ship to be bad luck, but Sailfish—sometimes, despite the objections of her subsequent commanding officers, called “Squalfish”—survived the war with a total bag of 40,000 tons, eventually being scrapped in 1948. In an ironic turn of fate, Sailfish sank the Japanese aircraft carrier Chuyo, which had been carrying half of the surviving crew members from Sculpin, which had located Squalus in 1939. Only one of those being transported by Chuyosurvived and, along with the other survivors, spent the remainder of the war as slave laborers in Japan.
One result of the Squalus sinking was redesigning the diving controls, so that the main induction and negative tank flood levers could be easily distinquished by touch even in total darkness. Though unconfirmed, one theory was that the vent operator had accidently opened the induction when he attempted to close the negative flood valve, which is located next to it.
Additional Reading on the SS-192 Squalus/SailfishThe Terrible Hours: The Man Behind the Greatest Submarine Rescue in History Back from the Deep: The Strange Story of the Sister Subs Squalus and Sculpin