Ever since submarines began diving beneath the waves, there have been concerns about whether or not crewmen could be rescued if a boat found itself unable to return to the surface. In the 15 April 1958 edition of Our Navy magazine, Don Smith describes how USS SEA OWL (SS-405) proved, in real-world conditions, that survival was possible.
“USS SEA OWL (SS-405), a fleet-snorkel submarine based at New London, recently made an important contribution in the field of submarine escape.
“SEA OWL, operating near St. Thomas, Virgin Island, last month, became the first submarine in history to hold requalifications in submarine escape at sea by the ‘buoyant ascent’ method of escape.
“Until SEA OWL’s training operation, initial qualifying and requalifying had been done exclusively at the submarine escape training tanks at the U.S. Naval Submarine Base, New London, and at the naval installation at Pearl Harbor.
“The submarine, part of Submarine Squadron Eight, demonstrated the practicability of the buoyant ascent escape route. In the near future, it is expected that all Atlantic Fleet undersea craft will use this method for requalification.
“Buoyant ascent—or ‘blow-and-go’ as submariners refer to it—was approved as the primary means of escape two years ago by the Chief of Naval Operations. Since then, more than 7,000 men have qualified by buoyant ascent at the New London training tank.
“This escape method works like this: An escapee, wearing a ‘Mae West’ life-jacket, exhales almost completely and then begins his ascent, exhaling the entire trip to the surface. The jacket carries him upward as a rate about 375 feet per minute.
“Although other submarines have sprung divers to the surface through the ‘escape trunk’ by this method, SEA OWL can boast of being the first to requalify her crew by this method.
“The Atlantic Fleet ship, assisted by the Submarine Rescue Vessel KITTIWAKE (ASR-13), out of Norfolk, Va., performed the training operation with the escape trunk about 15 feet below the surface.
“The trunk, located in the forward torpedo room, enables a few men to enter simultaneously for escape. The pressure in the trunk is equalized with water or air, giving escapees a chance to open the hatch and leave the ship.
“…Capt. Walter Welham, Submarine Force medical officer, gave physical check-ups to escapees and inspected the operation of the escaping gear prior to the exercise.
“ ‘I thought the operation was highly successful,’ the Navy doctor said. ‘The only complaint on the part of the SEA OWL crew was that the water wasn’t deep enough.
“ ‘However, this being the first escape by buoyant ascent from the open sea, depth was limited purposely to permit familiarization with equipment and to gain proficiency in operation of the escape trunk.’
“Captain Welham pointed out that SEA OWL’s escape training demonstrated not only the practicability of this escape method but also gave the crew training in the use of the escape trunk. Lack of familiarization with the trunk has on some occasions made escape impossible in past submarine disasters.
“George L. Caruthers, a 20-year-old seaman, and one of the sailors to requalify at sea, had this to say:
“ ‘There were a lot of guys who had doubts whether the method would actually work. But there’s a lot more faith in buoyant ascent now that we’ve seen that it really works and no one was hurt. I thought it was a ball.’ ”