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 two (of two) of her story.

Twenty-four hours after S-5 crewmembers began to cut, the hole was only about six inches long by eight inches wide. Some of the men had already passed out due to lack of oxygen; most of the others could only work on cutting for a couple of minutes at a time before the foul air exhausted them. As hope began to dim, a bit of luck appeared in the form of a small wooden freighter passing relatively close by. Desperate to be seen, the men extended through their tiny opening a length of pipe with a white undershirt attached to it. The freighter, named Alanthus, had already passed by the boat when a crewmember noticed an unusual object protruding from the water and the crazily-waving flag. Captain Earnest Johnson immediately turned his vessel around and then rowed over in a small boat to have a closer look. The ensuing conversation between the two captains demonstrated that the beleaguered Cooke had not yet lost his sense of humor.

“What ship?” Johnson asked.

“S-5,” Cooke replied.

“What nationality?”


“Where bound?”

“Hell by compass.”

Johnson, realizing the gravity of the situation, nosed Alanthus up against the sub—“without scratching the paint,” he reported, although one can imagine Cooke would have forgiven him. He and his small crew secured the boat to the ship’s side so it would not sink any further and then improvised a wooden platform so that workers coming at the hole from the surface would have somewhere to stand. Alanthus’s crew helped to enlarge the hole—with tools passed up from the sub—and then threaded through two hoses: a half-inch one for water and a two-inch one for fresh air.

Later in the evening, Alanthus, which had accidentally left her wireless operator ashore and thus could not make contact with the outside world, hailed a passing liner, General Goethals. Her captain, E.O. Swinson, immediately sent a message to the Navy and dispatched his chief engineer, William Grace, and Grace’s assistant, Richard McWilliams, to take over the drilling. Grace, a giant of a man, began boring holes with a handheld drill at about 1900; McWilliams followed behind him, chiseling out the metal between each hole like a child playing connect-the-dots. At midnight, Grace took a sledgehammer to the roughly circular two-foot-diameter section of hull plating in the midst of those mostly-connected dots and S-5 crewmen lowered it out of the way as it fell free. At 0125 on 3 September, the first Sailor emerged; the last, Cooke, pulled himself through at 0245. All told, the ordeal had lasted more than 36 hours.

By all accounts, S-5’s crew arrived in Philadelphia on 4 September in good spirits; the New York Times reported that several men sang a song entitled “How Dry I Am” as they walked down the gangplank and onto solid ground. Joseph Youker, a young torpedoman, seemed to speak for all when he said that the events of the past few days “showed that we have the best crew in the navy. I want to be on the next dive…”

Sadly for S-5, that next dive was not to be. Shortly after the crew escaped from their somewhat sunken boat, the battleship USS OHIO (BB-12) tried to tow her to shallower water in the hope that the brand-new sub might still be saved. But the cable connecting the two vessels parted and S-5 sank, never again to return to the surface.

For their heroic efforts to save the Sailors, several men from Alanthus and Goethals were rewarded by the Navy. Earnest Johnson (Alanthus’s captain), Carl Jakobsen (Alanthus’s chief engineer), and William Grace (Goethals’ chief engineer) received gold watches. E.O. Swinson (Goethals’ captain) and Richard McWilliams (Goethals’ chief engineer) were given binoculars.


The section of hull cut out by Grace, now on display at the Navy Museum in Washington, DC.

The section of hull cut out by Grace, now on display at the Navy Museum in Washington, DC.