On 1 March 1939, USS SQUALUS (SS-192) was commissioned at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. By May, the boat was ready to stretch her legs in the waters off the coast of New Hampshire. Her first eighteen dives, which began on 12 May, were uneventful; there was no reason to believe that dive number nineteen, which began just after seven in the morning on 23 May, would be any different. Unfortunately for the 56 crewmembers and three civilian contractors aboard the boat that day, the dive would be anything but routine. At 0740, just after SQUALUS submerged, her main engine air induction valve failed, allowing water to gush into the aft compartments, drowning 26 men. Within moments, the boat had come to rest on the ocean floor, 60 fathoms (240 feet) beneath the waves.
As she went down, SQUALUS released a telephone marker buoy that was quickly located by a second U.S. sub, USS SCULPIN (SS-191). SCULPIN was able to ascertain that there were survivors aboard the stricken sub, but shortly afterwards the buoy’s cable parted. The loss of the buoy left SQUALUS without any means of communicating with would-be rescuers on the surface; it also meant that the only marker pinpointing the boat’s exact location was gone. A tug spent the rest of the day dragging the bottom with a grappling hook, hoping to latch on to the sub. The hook finally caught on something, but it wasn’t until the next morning, when divers from the submarine rescue ship USS FALCON (AM-28) were able to descend to the bottom, that they knew for sure they had found SQUALUS. Under the capable command of salvage and rescue expert Lieutenant Commander Swede Momsen, the divers, making use of the new McCann rescue chamber, were able to bring all 33 survivors to the surface. Four of the divers—Chief Machinist’s Mate William Badders, Chief Boatswain’s Mate Orson Crandall, Chief Metalsmith James McDonald, and Chief Torpedoman John Mihalowski—would be awarded the Medal of Honor for their efforts during the rescue and subsequent salvage of the sub.
Once the survivors had been rescued, the Navy focused on deciding what to do with the sunken sub. Because she was a brand-new vessel that incorporated many unique design features, and because the Navy was hoping to discover what had led to her sinking, it was determined that SQUALUS should be raised. For more than seven weeks, divers labored to pass cables underneath the boat and attach pontoons that would provide buoyancy when the time came, which it finally did on 13 July. The stern rose successfully but the bow remained stuck, and as the boat tipped up she slipped out of all the cables that had so painstakingly been laced under her hull. Then the bow broke free. The boat ascended nearly vertically, with 30 feet of her bow breaking the surface before she once again sank to the bottom. After 20 more days of work, a second, this time successful, lift was attempted. By that point, a total of more than 600 dives had been made over the course of 70 days to prepare SQUALUS for her return to the world above the waves.
The boat was towed to shore and drydocked in Portsmouth; on 15 November she was decommissioned. Less than a year later, on 15 May 1940, the boat was recommissioned as USS SAILFISH (her hull number remained the same). SQUALUS’s name did live on, however, despite the wartime commanding officer’s best efforts. He issued standing orders that the boat’s former name should not be spoken; any man who disobeyed would, he decreed, be marooned at the next port of call. The crew responded by referring to their boat as “SQUAILFISH.” The captain, now well and truly annoyed, threatened court martial for anyone heard using the term.
SAILFISH would go on to complete 12 war patrols in the Pacific between December 1941 and December 1944. During that time, she was awarded nine battle stars and, for her tenth war patrol, the Presidential Unit Citation.