At the beginning of the 20th century, all major navies turned their attention toward developing a weapon of immense potential—the military submarine. The highly effective use of the submarine by the German Navy in World War I heightened this interest and an emphasis was placed on the submarine that continues today.
The U.S. Navy had operated submarines on a limited basis for several years prior to 1900. As American technology expanded, the U.S. submarine fleet grew rapidly. However, throughout the period of 1912 to 1939, the development of the Navy's F, H, and S class boats was marred by a series of accidents, collisions, and sinkings. Several of these submarine disasters resulted in a correspondingly rapid growth in the Navy diving capability.
Until 1912, U.S. Navy divers rarely went below 60 fsw. In that year, Chief Gunner George D. Stillson set up a program to test Haldane's diving tables and methods of stage decompression. A companion goal of the program was to improve Navy diving equipment. Throughout a 3-year period, first diving in tanks ashore and then in open water in Long Island Sound from the USS Walkie, the Navy divers went progressively deeper, eventually reaching 274 fsw.
1-5.1 USS F-4. The experience gained in Stillson's program was put to dramatic use in
1915 when the submarine USS F-4 sank near Honolulu, Hawaii. Twenty-one men lost their lives in the accident and the Navy lost its first boat in 15 years of submarine operations. Navy divers salvaged the submarine and recovered the bodies of the crew. The salvage effort incorporated many new techniques, such as using lifting pontoons. What was most remarkable, however, was that the divers completed a major salvage effort working at the extreme depth of 304 fsw, using air as a breathing mixture. The decompression requirements limited bottom time for each dive to about 10 minutes. Even for such a limited time, nitrogen narcosis made it difficult for the divers to concentrate on their work.
The publication of the first U.S. Navy Diving Manual and the establishment of a Navy Diving School at Newport, Rhode Island, were the direct outgrowth of expe rience gained in the test program and the USS F-4 salvage. When the U.S. entered World War I, the staff and graduates of the school were sent to Europe, where they conducted various salvage operations along the coast of France.
The physiological problems encountered in the salvage of the USS F-4 clearly demonstrated the limitations of breathing air during deep dives. Continuing concern that submarine rescue and salvage would be required at great depth focused Navy attention on the need for a new diver breathing medium.
1-5.2 USS S-51. In September of 1925, the USS S-51 submarine was rammed by a passenger liner and sunk in 132 fsw off Block Island, Rhode Island. Public pressure to raise the submarine and recover the bodies of the crew was intense. Navy diving was put in sharp focus, realizing it had only 20 divers who were qualified to go deeper than 90 fsw. Diver training programs had been cut at the end of World War I and the school had not been reinstituted.
Salvage of the USS S-51 covered a 10-month span of difficult and hazardous diving, and a special diver training course was made part of the operation. The submarine was finally raised and towed to the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York.
Interest in diving was high once again and the Naval School, Diving and Salvage, was reestablished at the Washington Navy Yard in 1927. At the same time, the Navy brought together its existing diving technology and experimental work by shifting the Experimental Diving Unit (EDU), which had been working with the Bureau of Mines in Pennsylvania, to the Navy Yard as well. In the following years, EDU developed the U.S. Navy Air Decompression Tables, which have become the accepted world standard and continued developmental work in helium-oxygen breathing mixtures for deeper diving.
Losing the USS F-4 and USS S-51 provided the impetus for expanding the Navy's diving ability. However, the Navy's inability to rescue men trapped in a disabled submarine was not confronted until another major submarine disaster occurred.
1-5.3 USS S-4. In 1927, the Navy lost the submarine USS S-4 in a collision with the Coast Guard cutter USS Paulding. The first divers to reach the submarine in 102 fsw, 22 hours after the sinking, exchanged signals with the men trapped inside. The submarine had a hull fitting designed to take an air hose from the surface, but what had looked feasible in theory proved too difficult in reality. With stormy seas causing repeated delays, the divers could not make the hose connection until it was too late. All of the men aboard the USS S-4 had died. Even had the hose connection been made in time, rescuing the crew would have posed a significant problem.
The USS S-4 was salvaged after a major effort and the fate of the crew spurred several efforts toward preventing a similar disaster. LT C.B. Momsen, a submarine officer, developed the escape lung that bears his name. It was given its first operational test in 1929 when 26 officers and men successfully surfaced from an intentionally bottomed submarine.
1-5.4 USS Squalus. The Navy pushed for development of a rescue chamber that was essentially a diving bell with special fittings for connection to a submarine deck hatch. The apparatus, called the McCann-Erickson Rescue Chamber, was proven in 1939 when the USS Squalus, carrying a crew of 50, sank in 243 fsw. The rescue chamber made four trips and safely brought 33 men to the surface. (The rest of the crew, trapped in the flooded after-section of the submarine, had perished in the sinking.)
The USS Squalus was raised by salvage divers (see Figure 1-21). This salvage and rescue operation marked the first operational use of HeO2 in salvage diving. One of the primary missions of salvage divers was to attach a down-haul cable for the Submarine Rescue Chamber (SRC). Following renovation, the submarine, renamed USS Sailfish, compiled a proud record in World War II.
1-5.5 USS Thresher. Just as the loss of the USS F-4, USS S-51, USS S-4 and the sinking of the USS Squalus caused an increased concern in Navy diving in the 1920s and 1930s, a submarine disaster of major proportions had a profound effect on the development of new diving equipment and techniques in the postwar period. This was the loss of the nuclear attack submarine USS Thresher and all her crew in April 1963. The submarine sank in 8,400 fsw, a depth beyond the survival limit of the hull and far beyond the capability of any existing rescue apparatus.
An extensive search was initiated to locate the submarine and determine the cause of the sinking. The first signs of the USS Thresher were located and photographed a month after the disaster. Collection of debris and photographic coverage of the wreck continued for about a year.
Two special study groups were formed as a result of the sinking. The first was a Court of Inquiry, which attributed probable cause to a piping system failure. The second, the Deep Submergence Review Group (DSRG), was formed to assess the Navy's undersea capabilities. Four general areas were examined—search, rescue, recovery of small and large objects, and the Man-in-the-Sea concept. The basic recommendations of the DSRG called for a vast effort to improve the Navy's capabilities in these four areas.
1-5.6 Deep Submergence Systems Project. Direct action on the recommendations of the DSRG came with the formation of the Deep Submergence Systems Project (DSSP) in 1964 and an expanded interest regarding diving and undersea activity throughout the Navy.
Submarine rescue capabilities have been substantially improved with the development of the Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV) which became operational in 1972. This deep-diving craft is air-transportable, highly instrumented, and capable of diving to 5,000 fsw and rescues to 2,500 fsw.
Three additional significant areas of achievement for the Deep Submergence Systems Project have been that of Saturation Diving, the development of Deep Diving Systems, and progress in advanced diving equipment design.
Was this article helpful?