Submarines carry a unique danger and mystique to their volunteer crews. In the early days of submarine technology, if a sub ran into trouble, it usually meant a one-way trip to Davy Jones’ locker. The sinking of the submarine USS S-51 (SS-162) off Block Island, on September 25, 1925, nearly nine decades ago resulted in a chain of events leading to advances in modern submarine rescue techniques and its story includes some interesting personalities whose paths crossed in the aftermath of the disaster.
During World War I, following the lead of Germany and other nations, the US Navy saw the potential for underwater warfare. It commissioned fifty-one S-class submarines, which were smaller and far-less sophisticated forerunners of the subs constructed during World War II. S-51 was laid down at the Lake Torpedo Boat Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on December 22, 1919, the fourth in her class. She was commissioned in 1922, as one of eight boats ordered by the Navy from inventor Simon Lake, a fierce competitor of the larger Electric Boat Company. The S-51 and her sister submarines were 240 feet long, with a surface displacement of 903 tons (about 300 more tons submerged). They were armed with five 21-inch torpedo tubes, four forward and one aft. Their maximum operating depth was 200 feet. They were powered by a pair of 1800hp diesel engines that could drive the boat at 14.4 knots on the surface. The so-called fourth group S-boats were the largest of their class and were constructed with six water-tight compartments. Five of these Bridgeport-built submarines survived to serve in World War II, in early combat missions and later in training crews. The last to be decommissioned—in June 1946—was S-15 (SS-120).
The S-51 sailed with the Atlantic Fleet (Submarine Division Four) from the Naval Base at Groton, Connecticut. She was a frequent visitor in New England ports, including Newport and Providence, and also sailed in the Carribean.
On the chilly, clear night of September, 25, 1925, about fourteen miles southeast of Block Island and ten miles south of Newport, S-51 was riding low on the surface under peacetime conditions, with all watertight doors open. The merchant steamer SS City of Rome, sailing to Boston from New York, spotted a single white masthead light and assumed it was a rumrunner (a common sight during these times of Prohibition). The brightly lit steamer thought the other vessel could see her and would alter course, especially since rumrunners did not encourage company. The City of Rome captain ordered a course change anyway. Meanwhile, S-51 had spotted the larger ship’s masthead and green sidelights, but held her course under the maritime Rules of the Road—the Navy crew thought it had been recognized as a military vessel and so expected it would have the right of way. At the last minute, with a collision imminent, both ships took evasive action, but it was too late. Twenty-two minutes after first spotting the submarine’s masthead light, the steamer rammed S-51 and tore a 30-foot long gaping hole just forward of the conning tower on the port (left when facing the bow) side. The steamer then drove the sub underwater. Oceanwater poured into S-51. Since it was not under battle conditions, the inrushing sea tore through the boat’s open watertight compartments. A handful of men, including the submarine’s commander, Lieutenant Rodney Dobson, managed to escape but, lightly clad, most of them, including Dobson, quickly drowned in the chilly waters. Only three of the sub’s thirty-six men survived to be picked by the steamer’s launch. The S-51 went down in less than a minute, and after dropping 132 feet it settled on the ocean floor.
The City of Rome was not badly damaged and its crew immediately radioed for help. Arriving on scene, the US Navy destroyer USS Putnam spotted a makeshift buoy, indicating that there might be survivors trapped in the sunken sub. Tapping sounds, initially heard from within the wreck ceased after forty-eight hours (when the crew’s air supply would have run out). When the rescue ship USS Falcon and other ships reached the site, their work was confined to salvage.
The first two dead crew members recovered from the S-51 were brought to Newport Naval Hospital. Eventually, the bodies of the lost sailors were returned to their families. Two of the dead hailed from Newport.
The sinking of the S-51 and the tragic deaths of thirty-three sailors touched the nation, as evidenced by the headlines of the newspapers of the day. A ballad “Sinking of the Submarine S-51” became a popular hit.
The salvage operations were extraordinary. Self-contained diving equipment had not yet been developed by 1925 and so a team of divers wearing heavy suits, brass helmets and trailing air hoses worked under treachorous conditions through the following months. Unfavorable sea and weather repeatedly undid the drivers hard work as they tried to raise the sub from the ocean floor. In early December 1925, the salvage operations were called off due to the severe winter weather and large pontoons that were brought in to raise the sunken submarine were stored at Newport until the spring when operations resumed.
At last, using the large pontoons, the 900-ton S-51 was raised on June 5, 1926, by a team led by Lieutenant Commander (later Rear Admiral) Edward Ellsberg, whose 1929 book On The Bottom, The Raising of the U.S. Navy Submarine S-51 details the sinking and the impressive salvage operations. Ellsberg, aboard Falcon, worked the operation from the day after the sinking until the S-51 was brought to the surface. He was promoted to commander and awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his efforts. Ellsberg left active service shortly after completing the salvage operation, only to be recalled to duty several times. He served and gained further fame during Word War II. He retired in 1951 as the US Navy’s principal salvage officer.
The S-51 tragedy also brought together some other interesting contemporaries. The submarineS-1 (SS-105) made the initial discovery of the wreck by spotting an oil slick. S-1 was commanded by Lieutenant Charles B. “Swede” Momsen, inventor of the Momsen Lung and co-inventor of the McCann diving chamber used to rescue survivors of the USS Squalus that sank off New Hampshire in 1939 shortly after its commissioning. The S-51 operation was under the overall leadership of Captain (later Fleet Admiral) Ernest J. King, who became Commander-in-Chief, US Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations during World War II.
The S-51 hulk was towed to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for drydocking. Along the way, bad luck continued when it ran aground delaying its return by another twenty-four hours. Eleven bodies had been removed by divers during salvage efforts. The rest of the remains were recovered at the yard. S-51 went into drydock and remained on view until it was decomissioned and sold for scrap in 1930.
The federal courts, hampered by few clues, sought to determine blame for the sinking. Eventually, each vessel was found partly at fault: City of Rome for not reducing speed when in doubt as to the movement of S-51, as well as for not signaling her course change, and S-51 for not having proper lights.
The S-51 sinking did result in a focus on development of rescue techniques, which led to the first use of the McCann diving chamber in the sinking of the Squalus mentioned above. Squalus was raised, repaired and re-commissioned as the USS Sailfish (SS-192).
Although the S-51 was raised from the waters off Rhode Island, the wreckage of two other US Navy submersibles and one World War II German U-boat remain off the coast. The Navy subs were both deliberately sunk as targets after they outlived their usefulness. The U-boat (U-853) was sunk off Block Island on May 6, 1945 and remains a popular (but dangerous) attraction to divers.
Ellesberg, Edward. On the Bottom. The Raising of the U.S. Navy Submarine S-51. New York, NY: Mead, Dodd, 1929.
Ignasher, Jim. Rhode Island Disasters. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2010.
Downie, Robert. Block Island, The Sea. Block Island, RI: Book Nook Press, 1998.
Newport Mercury, Oct. 3, 1925 and Dec. 12, 1925.
“Submarine USS S-51 (SS-162)”. At www.subvetpaul.com/USS S-51.htm.
“USS S-51,” Wikipedia. At en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_S-51_(SS-162).