USS S-5 (SS-110) was launched at Portsmouth Navy Yard in Kittery, Maine, on 10 November 1919, and commissioned about four months later. As August of 1920 drew to a close, she set out for an area off the Delaware Capes for sea trials. Then she was supposed to head for Baltimore as part of a routine recruiting tour. Unfortunately, she would not survive to be shown off. Today’s “Tidbit” is part one (of two) of her story.
Early in the afternoon on 1 September, LCDR Charles Cooke, Jr., S-5’s young but experienced and well-liked commanding officer, ordered the boat to crash dive. As procedure dictated, the main air-induction valve, which fed oxygen to the diesels, was left open until the engines came to a complete stop; it was supposed to be closed just before the submarine submerged completely. But at the critical moment, issues with another set of valves distracted Chief of the Boat Percy Fox, the man assigned to close the valve. When he noticed his error and slammed the lever, the valve jammed open. Water poured into the submarine and, given her downward angle, flooded forward. Most of the open vents throughout the boat were closed quickly, but the men in the torpedo room, way up in the bow, were quickly forced out of their space by the rising water. As they escaped, they slammed the watertight hatch closed behind them. They were not, however, able to close the vents through which the seawater poured, leaving the space open to the sea. The approximately 75 tons of extra weight in the bow and bilges pulled the sub inexorably down; she finally settled on the bottom nearly 200 feet below the surface.
There was both good and bad news for the 40-man crew. On the good side, four of the sub’s five compartments were essentially dry, the boat was upright, the hull was undamaged, there was some lighting, and any injuries that had been sustained were minor. On the bad side, the main-induction valve was still open a crack, allowing water to continue to trickle into the torpedo room, there was no way to pump water out of the space, and there was no means of communicating with any surface ships that might be passing by. For the next few hours, Cooke worked his way methodically through all his damage-control options, trying to get his boat back to the surface. She would not budge. Then, in a moment of either breathtaking ingenuity or acute desperation, Cooke blew all the remaining air in his tanks into the aft ballast tanks. The effect was immediate—S-5’s buoyant aft end sucked free of the muddy bottom and bobbed to the surface, tipping the boat to an angle of about 60 degrees and sending men, water, and loose objects tumbling down what had, moments before, been horizontal passageways.
Now there was a new problem. The space just aft of the torpedo room was the battery room. When saltwater pouring forward from the bilges hit the batteries it produced deadly chlorine gas. The men who remained in the compartment were quickly hauled up and through the hatch into control and the hatch was shut behind them. The ocean had now claimed forty percent of S-5’s “people tank.”
But now there was truly good news: S-5 was 231 feet long and therefore, even at an angle, taller than the water was deep. By listening to changes in tone as they tapped on the hull, crewmembers in the motor room, the aft-most (now top-most) compartment, were able to conjecture that about 17 feet of the stern was above water. Still, the aft escape hatch was thirty feet below the surface, so the men seized on the next-best means of escape: cutting a hole in the ¾-inch-thick hull. At about 2000, with nothing more than a collection of hand tools, the men began working. Cooke estimated it would take about three days to make a hole large enough for a person to squeeze through, problematic because there was virtually no freshwater aboard and the atmosphere, which could not be sufficiently refreshed through such a tiny hole, was becoming increasingly toxic. Plus, even the small amount of air escaping through the hole would cause S-5 to lose buoyancy like a rubber raft with a pinhole leak. The men could only hope to cut through before the boat settled enough to submerge their precious opening and drown them all.