On 17 December 1927, USS S-4 (SS-109), an eight-year-old S-class submarine, was running submerged just off the coast of Provincetown, MA, conducting speed and maneuverability tests between the two white buoys that marked the beginning and end of a measured nautical mile. Meanwhile, on the surface, the Coast Guard destroyer USCGC PAULDING (CG-17) was headed southeast, making 18 knots as she searched for rumrunners carrying their illegal product across the bay to thirsty buyers in Boston. At 3:37 in the afternoon, as S-4 began to surface, the officer of the deck aboard PAULDING, scanning the surrounding seas through his binoculars, spotted the telltale wake of a periscope close aboard on the port bow. “Hard astern! Full right rudder!” came the order, but not fast enough. PAULDING rammed the sub, a section of her bow telescoping into S-4’s hull and punching two holes, one in a ballast tank and one in the pressure hull. Freezing water flooded into the boat, causing her to heel to port and begin to sink by the bow. PAULDING’s crew immediately marked their position on a chart and radioed their superiors. When the destroyer came to a halt, one of her lifeboats was lowered over the side. All it found was a small oil slick, which the men aboard marked with a buoy.
On the bottom, 110 feet down, S-4’s crew was scrambling to bring the situation under control. Men in the battery compartment stuffed clothing into the two-foot-long gash in the pressure hull, but it was soon clear that the water would not be denied. So the men evacuated the space, joining other survivors in the control room. At this point, the men were probably concerned, but not hopeless: seven years before, the entire crew of USS S-5 (SS-110) had been rescued after their boat sank to a depth of nearly 200 feet and they managed to elevate the stern above water. S-4 was not nearly that deep and still capable of blowing her aft ballast tanks. Better yet, thirty-four of the forty men on board were alive in control, the engine room, and the motor room. Only six men who had been stationed in the torpedo room were unaccounted for.
But the situation deteriorated quickly. The saltwater flooding the battery compartment mixed with battery acid and formed toxic chlorine gas, which quickly filled any space not yet occupied by water. A ventilation duct running between the battery room and control remained open and soon the pressure of the water forced the deadly gas into the compartment full of survivors; the gas was followed by a flood of water. Crewmembers rushed to close the valve that would sever the connection, but to no avail; investigators would later determine that a section of curtain had become wedged in the valve, preventing it from closing. As control filled with thousands of gallons of freezing seawater, the men retreated aft into the engine room and smaller motor room beyond. Soon the water in control shorted out several of the switchboards, plunging the boat into darkness.
As the ocean filled all the spaces it could reach aboard S-4, the sound of rushing water died away and the 34 men crammed into the engine and motor rooms were left in cold, dark silence, wondering if their six comrades in the torpedo room were already dead. It had probably dawned on all of them by this point that when they abandoned control they had also abandoned any chance of getting to the surface on their own—the controls that blew compressed air into the ballast tanks were in that now-flooded space. They could only hope that help from the world above was on its way.
At 8:00 the following morning, the rescue ship USS FALCON (AM-28) arrived in Provincetown to pick up ten Navy divers who had been rushed to Cape Cod to assist with the rescue effort; the vessel arrived on scene at 11:00 AM. Just fifteen minutes before, Boatswain Gracie, the man in charge of the local Coast Guard station, had managed to hook the sunken sub with a grappling hook, providing the critical linkage that needed to be made before divers could go down; he had been at the task, alone in a small boat on rolling seas and in frigid weather, since late the previous afternoon. At 1:45, veteran diver Thomas Eadie splashed into the water. Five minutes later he located the sub and began tapping on the hull, searching for survivors. When he rapped on the torpedo loading hatch he was met with six slow taps in reply, indicating six men were still alive in the space. But as he continued aft, his taps were met with silence. The 34 men in the engine and motor rooms had not survived the night.
After the sub was raised the following year, divers found the aft spaces to be practically dry—it was the air that had killed the men, not the water. According to an article in the New York Herald Tribune written on 19 March 1928, the body of Lieutenant Commander Roy H. Jones, commander of S-4, “was found at the foot of the stairway, indicating he stood alert until overcome.” Divers also “found a spectacle that moved them, hardy and inured as they are to horror, to deep emotion. Near the motors, arms clasped tightly about each other in protecting embrace, were two enlisted men, apparently ‘buddies.’ The divers tried to send them up thus locked together, but the hatch was not wide enough and they had to be separated.” Some of the men had lived long enough to grow hungry—two had half-eaten potatoes in their pockets. Divers also noticed that “the walls were battered and scarred by many heavy blows and one spot indicated that an attempt had been made to cut through with a cold chisel.”
By the time Eadie returned to the surface, 25-year-old Lieutenant (j.g.) Graham Fitch and five enlisted men had been at the bottom of the ocean for nearly 24 hours. All had spent most of that time wrapped in blankets and lying in the bunks set up between torpedoes, barely moving and breathing slowly to conserve oxygen. But the contact with the diver gave them hope, as did the arrival of a sister sub, USS S-8 (SS-113), which used her oscillator to ping a question to the men down below using Morse code.
“Is there any [chlorine] gas down there?”
“No, but the air is very bad. How long will you be?” came the reply.
“How many are you?”
“Six. Please hurry.”
Late in the afternoon on the 18th, a second diver, Fred Michels, went over the side with a hose that would connect the men aboard S-4 to the world above and bring lifesaving fresh air. But the weather and visibility were terrible and at 2045 Michels reported that his own air line was fouled. Eadie, still exhausted from his first dive, went down again to save his friend but could not find the air hose that was supposed to be attached to the sub. With the weather growing worse, FALCON turned for Boston with the nearly-dead Michels within her decompression chamber. He would survive and Eadie would be awarded the Medal of Honor for saving his life.
Lieutenant Fitch and his men were not so fortunate. Late Monday, as the storm raged overhead, he tapped a single word to S-8: “Hurry.”
Later, he asked, “Is there any hope?”
“There is hope. Everything possible is being done,” S-8 replied. But Fitch must have known that time was running out.
On Monday night the men on S-8 began sending out a message that had been relayed to them by the Navy Department: “LIEUTENANT FITCH: YOUR WIFE AND MOTHER CONSTANTLY PRAYING FOR YOU.” They sent it out, over and over again. It wasn’t until 6:20 on Tuesday morning, 63 hours into the ordeal, that a reply was received: three short taps, meaning, “I understand.” It was the last communication received from S-4.
The weather finally let up on Wednesday and a diver was able to take the air line down once more and hook it up to the sub. But when he tapped on the hull he received no answer. On the surface, an officer took a sample when the compressor was reversed and air was sucked back out of the sub. His analysis found a carbon-dioxide level of seven percent, too high for anyone to have survived. On 23 December, the Navy reported that all the men aboard S-4 were presumed dead.
Almost exactly three months after her loss, on 17 March 1928, S-4 returned to the surface on huge pontoons. By that time, divers had already removed 32 bodies; two in the engine room and the six in the torpedo room were the only ones that remained. When the compartment that had sheltered the boat’s last survivors was finally opened, personnel found Lieutenant Fitch “lying under a workbench just abaft the starboard torpedo tubes. Over him were two black spots…. These were breaks in the white-painted surface and undoubtedly…were where he had hammered out the messages for help until the end….” They also found another paint-free section on the underside of the torpedo-loading hatch, where the metal between the men and the world outside was thinnest. The wrench that Fitch had used to tap was hanging nearby, two of its sides flattened by prolonged use. Four of the other men had died in their bunks. “The fifth enlisted man was found at the foot of the stairway, with his left hand tightly grasping the handrail.” One man had had the presence of mind to leave a note in his pocket with the address to which he wanted his body sent. He wrote the message on a piece of cardboard in red crayon, probably assuming that the wax would stand up to any water that might get into the boat after his death.
But the men of S-4 would not die in vain. After the boat was reconditioned and recommissioned, she became a test platform for experiments with submarine rescue. The Navy created a diving bell, known as the McCann rescue chamber, out of a small hangar stripped from another submarine. Taking it and S-4 down to the waters off Key West, Navy personnel practiced docking the chamber with the submarine at depths that ranged from 60 to 300 feet. Using it and a Momsen lung, an emergency-breathing device, divers were able to escape repeatedly from the sunken sub. These innovations were, tragically, too late for Lieutenant Fitch and the other 39 members of S-4’s crew, but they would make life beneath the waves at least a little safer for all the submariners who came after.