Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Under Pressure: The Final Voyage of Submarine S-Five

Under Pressure: The Final Voyage of Submarine S-Five

4.4 7
by A. J. Hill

See All Formats & Editions

Hanging on display in the United States Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., is a battered and scratched steel plate, two feet in diameter, edged with more than one hundred little semicircles. For more than eighty years, people have wondered how it came to be there and at the story it could tell. Under Pressure: The Final Voyage of Submarine S-Five is that story. On Monday,


Hanging on display in the United States Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., is a battered and scratched steel plate, two feet in diameter, edged with more than one hundred little semicircles. For more than eighty years, people have wondered how it came to be there and at the story it could tell. Under Pressure: The Final Voyage of Submarine S-Five is that story. On Monday, August 30, 1920, the S-Five, the newest member of the U.S. Navy's fleet of submarines, departs Boston on her first cruise -- to Baltimore for a recruiting appearance at the end of the week. Two days later, as part of a routine test of the submarine's ability to crash dive, her crew's failure to close a faulty valve sends seventy-five tons of seawater blasting in. Before the valve can be jury-rigged shut, the S-Five sits precariously on the ocean floor under 180 feet of water. Her electrical system is shut down, her radio too weak to transmit, and one drive motor is inoperable -- and, because of a last-minute course change, the sub has gone down in a part of the Atlantic deliberately selected because it is well outside any regularly trafficked sea lanes. Rescue by a passing ship is virtually impossible. No one expects them in Baltimore for another two days. And forty hours worth of air is all they have left. The S-Fives are on their own.

Her captain, Lieutenant Commander Charles M. "Savvy" Cooke Jr., tries to pump the seawater out, but each of three pumping systems fails in succession. The salt in the seawater combines with the sulfuric acid in the sub's batteries to create a cloud of chlorine gas. They have little air, no water, and only the dimmest of light by which to plan their escape. By shifting the water in the sub toward the bow torpedo room, Cooke is able to stand the 240-foot-long sub on its nose, bringing it close to vertical, and, using trigonometry, he calculates that at least part of the boat's stern is now above sea level. In a race against time -- will the crew die of asphyxiation before chlorine gas poisoning? -- Cooke assembles his crew into three-man teams charged with cutting a hole out of the highest point in the sub: the telephone-booth-size tiller room. With no acetylene torch, no power tools -- nothing but ratchet drills and hacksaws -- the crew must cut through nearly an inch of strengthened steel or die in the attempt.

Under Pressure is the story of the thirty-six-hour-long ordeal of the crew of the S-Five. It is a story of the courage, endurance, and incredible resourcefulness of the entire forty-man crew: of Charlie Grisham, the sub's executive officer, a "mustang" promoted to the navy's officer corps from the enlisted ranks; of Chief Electrician Ramon Otto, whose baby daughter was born just days before the S-Five's departure; of Machinist's Mate Fred Whitehead, who at the last minute is able to dog the all-important watertight hatches shut; of Chief of the Boat Percy Fox, who redeems himself for the failure to close the induction valve that sank the S-Five; and of the sub's indomitable captain, Savvy Cooke, leading his crew through sheer force of will. An incredible drama, a story of heroism and of heroes, Under Pressure is that most remarkable of books, a true story far more dramatic than any fiction.

Editorial Reviews

In September 1920, an extraordinary maritime drama took place in the Atlantic off Delaware Bay. The U.S. Navy's S-Five was making a deep test dive in order to confirm the diving abilities of the new S-model submersibles. Suddenly, far below the surface, things began to go horribly wrong. A senior seaman inexplicably failed to close the main induction valve, a massive stream of water flooded critical compartments, and the sub settled on the bottom at 180 feet. Miraculously, no one was harmed, but survivors had never been rescued from such a depth before. Worse, the submarine was not expected to return for another 48 hours, long after its air would have run out and the crew suffocated. Author A.J. Hill has done an excellent job in relating this true-life drama of danger and rescue against impossible odds. Dr. Hill is an anesthesiologist and research biologist who drew upon his own Navy experiences in telling this tale. Thus, his account of the actions taken by the redoubtable Captain "Savvy" Cooke and his crew, and the complex operations-inside and outside the sub-to rescue the crew, all have the ring of truth. This is popular history at its best, as fast moving as a novel, yet presented with all of the detail and painstaking care of professional writing. The S-Five was neither the first nor the last American submarine ever to be lost, but she may be one of the most obscure. By the time that the U.S.S. Squalus sank off New Hampshire in 1938, times had changed. The few Squalus survivors emerged from the sea in the full glare of modern publicity, having saved themselves with the new Momson lung apparatus. The wreck was later raised, recommissioned under a new name,and served courageously in WW II. Not so the S-Five. Today her rusted hulk, covered with torn fishing nets, still rests at 26 fathoms off the New Jersey coast. She, too, served her country well. KLIATT Codes: SA-Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Penguin Putnam, New American Library, 239p. illus. index., Ages 15 to adult.
— Raymond L. Puffer
Kirkus Reviews
Riveting account of the 1920 sinking of US submarine S-Five and the improbable escape of her crew. When Lieutenant Commander Charles "Savvy" Cooke gave orders for the S-Five to run through a practice dive, he had no reason to expect disaster. The newly commissioned sub had been through much more rigorous tests before setting out on this, her first mission. Two-and-a-half minutes later, however, the nose of the 870-ton vessel slammed into the ocean floor 180 feet down. A senior enlisted man had somehow forgotten to close a crucial ventilation valve, and seawater rapidly flooded the sub. From then on, the crew faced one equipment failure after another until a grim conclusion was reached: the S-Five could not be raised. However, in the crew's attempts to reach the surface by blowing ballast tanks, the 230-foot vessel had ended up so steeply angled that her stern broke the ocean's surface, and crewmembers could hear waves lapping against the hull. Now Cooke had to figure out how to break through the sub's three-quarter-inch steel skin. No acetylene torches were available; the electrical system was inoperative; and the battery system in the engineering room was beginning to leak poisonous chlorine gas as water and air rapidly disappeared. There was barely enough space for the crew to perch; floor and ceiling had become walls, and the seamen clung to machinery and pipes in an effort to rest. In a true race for their lives, the starving, choking sailors managed to hand-drill holes in the sub's side so that they could extend a white flag attached to a length of copper pipe. Hill masterfully interweaves suspense with navy history; the reader is barely breathing when the privately owned steamshipS.S. Alanthus spots the wreck, and crew is saved. A well-researched, informative nail-biter.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.58(w) x 8.34(h) x 0.63(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: The Beginning

"I saw the new moon late yestreen
Wi' the auld moon in her arm;
And if we gang to sea, master,
I fear we'll come to harm."


Monday, August 30, 1920, 12:00 --
Boston Navy Yard.

At noon on Monday, August 30, United States Submarine S-Five edged away from her berth at the old Boston Navy Yard in Charlestown and with her engines barely idling glided down the Mystic River into Boston's Outer Harbor. By mid-afternoon she had passed the high granite tower of the Minot's Ledge Lighthouse and headed out to sea. As soon as she was clear of land, her commanding officer ordered a dive to "trim up" or balance the sub. This was required at the beginning of every cruise in order to compensate for any changes in weight since the sub's last time out.

It was an exciting day for the forty officers and enlisted men on board the S-Five; after a summer filled with training exercises they were finally setting out on their first genuine mission. According to the itinerary that they had received with their orders in August, they would spend the next four weeks traveling from port to port as part of a Navy campaign to attract "ex-servicemen" to its growing submarine fleet. By Friday, September 3, they were scheduled to arrive in Baltimore, Maryland. After spending five days on display there, they'd continue down the east coast with similar stops in Washington, Richmond, and Savannah before rejoining their flotilla in Boston at the end of September.

During peacetime, a high-profile recruiting mission like this was a prestigious beginning for a new submarine. For Savvy Cooke and his crew it was also a welcome relief from the six long months they had spent making the S-Five ready for sea: months filled with the seemingly endless routines of testing, retesting, and, when necessary, repairing every machine, circuit, valve, and joint in one of the most complex naval vessels afloat.

The new assignment hadn't spared them from the Navy's red tape. Twice each year the service's Bureau of Steam Engineering required a series of performance evaluations from every ship on active duty. On August 20 Savvy had received orders to complete the Bureau's current testing program during the voyage to Baltimore.

The evaluation consisted of four parts. First were two endurance tests: a twenty-four-hour surface run followed by a five-hour submerged run. Then came a pair of high speed runs: four hours on the surface and one hour submerged. Altogether these four tests were designed to probe the sub's power plant during every combination of high and low speed, on the surface and beneath it.

For a newly commissioned submarine such exercises should be little more than a formality; the S-Five had undergone far more rigorous testing during her recent sea trials. The same went for her crew. After the summer of intensive training that Savvy had put them through, the S-Five's men should find nothing challenging in the tests. With one possible exception.

The potential ringer was the crash dive that was required before the final underwater sprint. Normally employed only during wartime, crash dives had a single primary goal: to get submarines underwater as quickly as possible. By Navy criteria that meant very quickly. According to its Rules for Engineering Performance, a competent submarine crew should be able to take their vessel to periscope depth -- about forty feet -- in under a minute. Sixty seconds was not much time in which to convert an entire 800-ton sub from surface to submerged configuration and get her safely to a depth of forty feet; but it was certainly possible. Savvy understood that crack German crews had been able to do it in under thirty seconds.

Since beginning sea trials in May the crew of the S-Five had performed forty dives, fifteen of which had been crashes. Ordinarily this should have been sufficient schooling, but the Navy's rules also required training dives to be performed by the members of a single watch. As a result, each of the S-Five's three watch sections had performed only half a dozen crash dives. This wasn't enough practice for so demanding a maneuver and it showed in their results. The best time for a crash dive by any section had been two minutes and fourteen seconds, a far cry from the Bureau's one-minute standard. The impending dive would give the third watch an opportunity to improve their record, but Savvy didn't expect them to achieve one minute.

As soon as the boat had been trimmed outside Boston Harbor, Savvy had her brought back to the surface. At two o'clock on Monday afternoon she began the twenty-four-hour endurance run. For the rest of the day she maintained a steady twelve knots almost due east. In the evening, while the sun turned the western horizon scarlet, she rounded Cape Cod, put up her running lights, and started south toward Nantucket.

Hour after hour the tireless diesels drove the sub through the night, while the watches came and went and the engineers ran through their checklists, recording data from the testing. Well after dark, with the Nantucket Shoals Lightship hard on her starboard beam, the S-Five turned again, this time toward the southwest for the 450-mile run to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Dawn found her well out of sight of land, still cruising at twelve knots, on a heading of 220 degrees. The first endurance test still had eight hours to run.

Charles maynard cooke junior was a few inches shy of six feet, with a compact, athletic physique that he maintained through regular shipboard workouts with a medicine ball. Beneath an unruly shock of light brown hair, his high forehead and regular features gave him a youthful appearance, but he wasn't handsome; his ears were too large for that and his nose had been broken too many times.

According to a marine guard who once served under him, Cooke was a "no-nonsense type, typical old Navy." Even his daughter admitted that he was never a "hail fellow, well met" kind of person. Yet he was known as an impartial and considerate commanding officer and his crews were keenly loyal to him. Although his serious expression and military bearing seemed to indicate a stiff, humorless personality, closer inspection revealed a hint of laughter lurking in his pale blue eyes. In fact, when he was in relaxed circumstances, it was more than a hint, according to friends who had seen him impersonate a temperance officer disposing of a case of whiskey while sampling each bottle.

Whatever people might have thought of Cooke's personality, no one doubted his intelligence. After completing college in only two years, he had gone on at age nineteen to attend the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, graduating four years later in second place in his class. At the Academy he'd acquired the nickname "Savvy" that would stick with him throughout his career, replacing the less colorful "Chob" that his family had used when he was a boy. According to his classmates, the moniker reflected Savvy's common sense and practicality as much as his academic brilliance.

In 1920 Savvy had been in the Navy for fourteen years: seven of them in submarines. The S-Five was his third command. She'd been built at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, a small town fifty miles north of Boston that still prides itself in being "The Oldest Incorporated Town in Maine." The Navy Yard was more than a century old when the S-Five was launched, although shipbuilding had been going on in the neighboring town of Portsmouth for twice that long, ever since the Royal Navy's HMS Falkland was launched there in 1690.

As the eighteenth century drew to a close the United States needed a supply of large frigates in order to compete with the great European navies, notably those of Britain and France. To achieve this end, Congress established the Navy Department in 1798 and appropriated funds for six new warships, but it soon became apparent that the private boatyards of the day lacked sufficient docking and storage space to handle such ambitious projects. So Congress authorized the Navy to set up its own shipbuilding facilities at six sites along the east coast of the United States. The first of the Navy Yards was at Portsmouth -- although the group of small islands that comprised it actually belonged to the town of Kittery on the Maine side of the river.

During its first decades the Portsmouth Navy Yard acquired a well-deserved reputation for quality nautical construction. As a result, in 1855 it was given the coveted task of repairing the famous old warship, U.S.S. Constitution, otherwise known as "Old Ironsides." Sixty years later, when the Navy decided to build its own submarines instead of buying them from private contractors, it once again chose the Portsmouth yard as its primary site.

When savvy arrived in Kittery in late December 1919, the S-Five had been under construction for two years. Although she'd been launched a month previously on November 10, she was still little more than a hollow shell with engines. The remainder of her "fitting out" would be Savvy's responsibility.

The young lieutenant commander was well qualified for the assignment. For two years he'd served as assistant inspector of machinery at the Fore River Shipyard, a private Navy contractor in Quincy, Massachusetts. While there he'd overseen the construction of more than twenty submarines, providing fighting ships, as he was fond of saying, for some of the U.S. Navy's most "zealous" submarine captains during World War I.

Savvy was under no illusions about what was at stake in Portsmouth. For two decades the submarine industry had been at the center of a three-way conflict between the Navy Department and two civilian firms: John Holland's Electric Boat Company, located in Massachusetts, and the Lake Torpedo Boat Company in Connecticut. Neither company seemed capable of producing a satisfactory result: among other things, the Electric Boat Company's diesel engines were notorious for vibration and overheating, while Lake's submarines had poor diving qualities.

By 1916 these problems had become intolerable. As the head of the Navy's Submarine Section stated in a memo to the chief of naval operations, the desire of the commercial companies to maximize profits often resulted in submarines that could pass the Navy's performance tests but were neither safe nor efficient fighting machines. As a result, he said, the line officers whose lives depended on these vessels were "in revolt." His opinion was shared by the heads of the Bureau of Construction and Repair (BUC&R) and the Bureau of Steam Engineering (BUENG), who also expressed concern that the Electric Boat Company intended to establish a monopoly in submarine construction, a development that would surely make matters worse.

It was to forestall this possibility that the Navy established its state-of-the-art facility at Portsmouth. By demonstrating how submarines ought to be built, the new yard would put pressure on the civilian companies to do a better job, while at the same time providing a source of high quality boats for the Navy. To test this assumption the first three of the new S-Class submarines were distributed among the builders: the S-One was assigned to Electric Boat, the S-Two went to Lake's company, and the S-Three was given to Portsmouth.

Sure enough, the Navy yard completed the S-Three in seventeen months, half the time that the private companies required for their subs, and the new boat functioned quite well. The Yard's next project, the S-Four, took only twenty-three months; but by December 1919, it had become clear that this boat was seriously flawed. For example her diesels (supplied by the Electric Boat Company) shook so badly that her maximum operating speed had to be reduced by two and a half knots, and the vibration dampers that were installed to cure the problem merely created another when they became soaked with oil and generated smoke.

It was obvious to Savvy that he was expected to prevent similar problems from occurring with the S-Five. He wasted no time living up to his reputation. Within three months, on March 6, the Navy's newest S-Boat was commissioned, the ceremony having been pushed ahead to facilitate early testing. Within five months she was ready to begin sea trials.

As the S-Five's commanding officer and the person in charge of her completion, Savvy was often called upon to guide visiting bigwigs through the boat; and after the commissioning ceremony, it seemed that hardly a week passed -- when the sub was in port -- that she didn't attract a bunch of well-connected visitors, eager to see firsthand this impressive, and at $1.5 million ($33.5 million in today's dollars), expensive new sub.

Although submarines are extraordinarily complex machines, their basic structure is simple: from a distance the S-Five resembled a long steel cylinder with a wedge-shaped bow and a pointed stern. Her most salient feature was the streamlined "conning tower" fifteen feet high, twenty feet long, and only six feet wide that rose above her deck, looking so much like a fat sail that modern sailors actually refer to it as "the sail." On its lower level the conning tower consisted of an enclosed "steering platform" from which the helmsman guided the boat both above and below the surface. A ring of four-inch-diameter portholes set at eye level around the steering platform afforded a panoramic view of the outside, except directly astern. Most of the time, however, the helmsman steered by compass headings using directions relayed from the bridge. This was on the conning tower's upper level, a tear-shaped platform enclosed by a broad chest-high bulkhead, from which lookouts could scan the surrounding ocean and the officer of the deck could maneuver the sub.

A flat wooden deck covered the S-Five's rounded pressure hull over most of its length, with a flared area just forward of the conning tower for a deck-gun emplacement. At intervals along the deck large cargo hatches, each more than three feet across, gave access to the sub's interior. There were four of them, one for each internal compartment except the control room, which was covered by the conning tower. Smaller "personnel" hatches provided access through the conning tower. During surface cruising waves commonly swept across the deck, making the cargo hatches unusable during much of the time at sea.

The S-Five's interior reflected the shape of her hull: a long hollow cigar shape fifteen feet in diameter and two hundred feet long. Reinforced partitions, called bulkheads, divided the interior into sections, and horizontal decks split each section lengthwise. The result was a series of five compartments, each about forty feet long, with a curved overhead, a flat deck, and a large bilge space beneath it. The bilges were particularly important, because they acted as sumps, so that water and oil didn't pool on the decks. They were equipped with a drainage system, so that their contents could be pumped overboard periodically.

A watertight door in the center of each bulkhead connected adjacent compartments. These doorways were narrow -- eighteen inches across -- and only four feet tall, with sills raised a foot off the deck to prevent water in one compartment from running into the next. Occasionally one of the sailors would demonstrate how submariners negotiated the doorways at a dead run, either diving through head first or swinging through feet first without missing a stride. To withstand high pressures, the doors themselves were heavy and mounted on massive hinges. A series of metal levers, called dogs, around the perimeter of each door allowed it to be sealed tightly in the event of an accident.

Compartments were named for their principal functions. From bow to stern these were: torpedo room, battery room, control room, engine room, and motor room. Savvy quickly learned that most people weren't interested in dry technical explanations as they toured these spaces. They preferred instead to hear stories of "human interest," except in the torpedo room, where the sleek, deadly shapes in their great steel cradles seemed to fascinate everyone. The S-Five carried twelve torpedoes. Twenty feet long, twenty-one inches in diameter, and weighing more than a ton apiece, these underwater missiles were the sub's main offensive armament. In their detachable warheads each could carry hundreds of pounds of high explosive, enough to cripple or sink any warship afloat.

Nevertheless, Savvy explained, submarines didn't always attack while submerged and didn't always use torpedoes to sink their prey. Torpedoes were expensive and often in short supply. Moreover they weren't the most reliable devices, frequently going off course, running too high or too low, or simply failing to explode. In fact, whenever possible submarine commanders preferred to attack on the surface, using their deck guns to overpower small or lightly armed opponents.

On a more practical level, Savvy described how the crew in the torpedo room used overhead tracks and chain hoists to manhandle their huge charges. Using these tools, he asserted, one man could load and fire a torpedo weighing more than ten times his own weight.

Besides the torpedoes, people seemed to be most impressed by the bunks in the forward compartment.

"Do you mean, men actually sleep here?" someone was bound to ask, indicating the thin, metal-framed mattresses chained up against the walls.

"Well, yes," Savvy would answer, adding that most of the crew, including the sub's officers, bunked in the battery room, the next compartment aft.

Compared to the torpedo room there was little to see in the battery room. The batteries themselves were housed beneath the deck, leaving the space above relatively bare, except for personal lockers and the triple tier of bunks along either side. This gave visitors ample opportunity to examine closely packed and uncomfortable-looking berths in detail. It was fun to watch civilians eye the narrow spaces between the suspended mattresses and imagine trying to sleep there; but an even bigger kick came from the expressions of officers from the surface navy when they learned that the Captain's "stateroom" on this showpiece submarine was nothing more than a set of curtains pulled around one of the bunks.

Next came the control room, in every sense the heart of the sub. With its bewildering array of dials, gauges, switches, wheels, and levers, this compartment was more than most people could take in at one time. After a cursory glance over the banks of controls, they usually contented themselves with looking through the periscopes and climbing up the ladder to the conning tower. As they passed single file through the narrow hallway leading aft to the engine room, they could also poke their heads into the undersized portside cubicle containing the sub's compact galley and the equally cramped "radio shack" directly across from it.

Almost everyone had seen diesel engines of one sort or another, but the eight-cylinder monsters extending along both sides of the engine room's central catwalk were on a scale most people had never encountered. The rocker arms alone were longer than a man's arm. Visitors usually spent their time here simply staring.

The most entertaining part of the tour came when guests had packed themselves in among the pumps, compressors, and drive motors in the last compartment, the motor room. The announcement that this was the end of the tour usually prompted someone to point out the additional watertight door located in the after bulkhead, whereupon Savvy would open it with a flourish to reveal the tiller room, which contained the immense gears linking the sub's helm to the rudders. The tiller room was tiny, about the size of a broom closet. While adventurous individuals squeezed one-by-one into this claustrophobic cubbyhole, others could examine with various degrees of fascination or trepidation the nearby crew's "head," or toilet, with its limited elbow room and complex high-pressure flushing mechanism. If there were no women present, Savvy might explain the potential for error here and the indelicate meaning of "getting your own back." If the rumor was true, a submarine had been lost several years earlier when its captain made a catastrophic mistake in flushing the head.

By the time they climbed out through the motor room hatch, most people were happy to stretch, take a deep breath, and thank their stars they weren't members of the submarine service. If they hadn't understood it before, the tour usually convinced them that submariners were a special breed.

Savvy took official command of the S-Five during her commissioning ceremony on March 6, 1920, but this was merely another formality. The task of making the new sub ready for sea would continue through the end of the summer. There was equipment to install, repairs and modifications to complete, and a seemingly endless series of tests to carry out. Last of all there were the sea trials, final practical proof that the S-Five could perform up to Navy specifications. Beginning in early May in Massachusetts Bay, the trials lasted until mid-August. The S-Five did extremely well in them, acquiring a reputation around the Yard for being a "darling" boat. Nevertheless, when she set out for Baltimore on the recruiting drive at the end of August, several problems remained unresolved.

Perhaps the most worrisome problem involved the "main induction system." Designed to distribute fresh air through the sub's interior when she was on the surface, this system collected the air through large intakes high in the conning tower and channeled it into a sixteen-inch pipe that ran along the top of the hull beneath the deck. Branches went to ventilator outlets in every compartment except the battery room, each of which was equipped with an individual shut-off valve. In addition, the entire system could be isolated using a single large valve, the main induction valve, located in the overhead of the control room. This was the source of the trouble: the S-Five's main induction valve was extremely hard to move. According to the sub's executive officer, it was "all one man could do to close it."

Savvy and his engineers had devoted considerable attention to the stubborn valve, but so far they'd been unable to identify or correct the underlying problem. To make matters worse, during the summer Savvy learned that his sub wasn't the only one to have this trouble. In late spring the skipper of the S-Five's sister ship, the S-Four, returned from a training cruise along the east coast and submitted a strongly worded complaint about the main induction valve in his sub. In June the Bureau of Construction and Repair replaced the S-Four's valve with a quick-closing model. Savvy promptly submitted a similar request for the S-Five, but the Bureau decided to postpone the repair work until after the sub's first mission in the fall. And so, at the end of August, when final adjustments had been completed on her torpedo tubes, the S-Five was pronounced seaworthy in spite of her faulty main induction valve.

TUESDAY, AUGUST 31, 1920, 12:00 --

Throughout the morning of the August 31 the S-Five ran southwest, spinning out the remainder of the endurance test along the way to Baltimore. At noon Savvy brought his sextant to the bridge in order to check their progress with a sun sight. To be accurate the measurement had to be made at precisely twelve o'clock. Arriving with several minutes to spare, he leaned against the bulwark to look out over the sea. The S-Five was churning along at better than twelve knots. With clear skies, the wind astern, and only a moderate sea running, the bridge had become a comfortable place for a change, and the view it afforded of the sub and surrounding ocean was superb.

In Savvy's opinion, when the S-Five was cruising at high speed with her decks awash and the long white ribbon of her wake unfurling behind, she was a lovely sight. With his arms folded on the sun-warmed metal, he could feel the deep vibration of her engines and the rhythmic shudder of waves striking against her starboard flank. Blending with the steady rise and fall of the deck, the soothing sensation made the hardened steel seem almost alive.

A few minutes later, while Savvy was completing his sun sight, Charlie Grisham, the sub's executive officer, climbed up to the bridge. A native of Portsmouth, Grisham was what Navy men called a "mustang." That is, instead of earning his officer's commission in the usual fashion by graduating from the Naval Academy, he'd signed on as an enlisted man and worked his way up through the ratings. Just under six feet tall, Charlie was a good-looking fellow, with a broad friendly face and bushy eyebrows that gave him a perpetually surprised look. He was good-natured and energetic, popular with the crew, and, best of all, he knew submarines forwards and backwards, having served on a number of different types during the past three years. A lieutenant jg (for "junior grade") when he'd first come aboard as engineering officer, Charlie had been promoted to lieutenant in the spring and shortly afterward had taken over as the sub's executive officer. Charlie had been especially happy for the pay increase that came with the promotion. He and his wife, Mary, were planning to start a family, and the little house on Langdon Street not far from the railroad tracks in Portsmouth would soon become too small for them.

In June, Grisham's position as junior officer had been taken over by a young ensign fresh out of the Naval Academy. John Bailey Longstaff had transferred in from the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Huntington, which had recently arrived in Portsmouth to be decommissioned. Except for his brief time on the Huntington and the Naval Academy's summer training cruises, Longstaff had never been to sea. Of medium height, with a slender build, a high forehead and narrow patrician nose, Ensign Longstaff had found life on board a submarine something of a shock, especially after the comparatively roomy quarters on the big cruiser. "My left knee is swollen from the banging I give it every time I drop through the conning tower hatch," he lamented in a letter to his mother back in Nebraska, "But my head is thoroughly deflated. Never have I felt so awkward and useless. Captain Cooke is being very patient with me."

It might have consoled the young officer to know that Captain Cooke considered him to be bright and enthusiastic and expected him to develop into a highly competent submariner once he'd gotten over his inexperience. The same went for the rest of the crew. Of the thirty-seven enlisted men on the S-Five's roster, fewer than half had been qualified in submarines by the end of the summer and only eight of these had actually served in subs before coming to the S-Five. While they were getting up to speed, Savvy felt confident that he and Lieutenant Grisham, along with the boat's fine group of chief petty officers, would be able to keep the submarine running smoothly.

As the Navy's most senior rating, a chief petty officer (CPO) was the military equivalent of middle management, responsible for implementing orders and maintaining liaison between the commissioned officers and the rest of the crew. The S-Five had seven CPOs, led by Gunner's Mate Percy Fox, whose seniority and wealth of experience had led Savvy to name him chief of the boat. A tall, heavily-built Midwesterner from a small town in Iowa's corn belt, Fox had been in subs for more than seven years and was by far the most seasoned man in the crew. He'd been assigned to the S-Five rather late, coming on board in early June, but by the end of the summer, Savvy had learned to rely on him implicitly. For reasons that Savvy had been unable to discover, the crew gave Fox the nickname "Bubbles."

As for the rest of the enlisted men, except for a couple of "bad apples," as Grisham called them, Savvy considered his crew to be the most likable bunch of sailors he'd found in the Navy. There'd been a few instances of drunkenness and fighting during the summer, mostly with men from other ships, but in general the S-Five's had behaved well. Between March and August Savvy had been obliged to hold "Captain's Mast" -- an informal hearing to punish misbehavior by enlisted crewmen -- only once, an admirable record for any unit in the Navy.

After exchanging a few words with Grisham, Savvy went below. Celestial navigation wasn't difficult for someone with his mathematical ability; within a few minutes he'd calculated the S-Five's position: about 200 miles southwest of Nantucket. They were exactly on course -- but it wasn't the same course that Grisham and Longstaff had laid out over the weekend. At the last moment before sailing on Monday Savvy had discarded their arrow-straight route between the Nantucket Light and the entrance buoy to the Chesapeake Bay. Instead he'd chosen to veer to the northwest, remaining closer to the New England coast. The new route was twelve miles longer than the direct passage, but it kept the sub out of the busy deepwater shipping lanes that ran further out at sea. Savvy wanted the crew to concentrate on their performance during the testing instead of worrying about being run down by a steamship. In addition he suspected that the men handling the diving controls might be more aggressive, if there were only a couple of hundred feet of water beneath them instead several thousand. He couldn't know it yet, but this course change would become the most fateful decision he'd ever made.

At 2:00 the first endurance run came to an end and Savvy ordered Grisham and Percy Fox to make the boat ready to dive. Ten minutes later the S-Five slipped smoothly underwater. By 2:15 she'd been trimmed down to a depth of fifty feet and was running at a steady eight knots, still maintaining her course toward the Chesapeake.

The transition from surface to underwater cruising was always striking. Unless there was a storm topside, wave action seldom extended below periscope depth, so the sub ran smoothly and quietly.

After the clamor of the diesels, the muted hum of the electric drive motors was a welcome change. Throughout the remainder of the afternoon the big Westinghouse power plants purred steadily, while the electricians recorded current and voltage readings for the test reports. Five hours after she'd submerged, at the conclusion of endurance run, Savvy had the S-Five brought back to the surface.

There was a strict protocol for surfacing, designed to minimize the likelihood of collisions. Savvy had the S-Five brought to periscope depth. When she was level at forty feet, he raised the wide-angle periscope and searched for activity on the surface, pivoting slowly in a circle as he turned the scope through 360 degrees. Only then did he give the order to surface.

It was essential to come up quickly at this point, because the periscope extended only a few feet above the surface, allowing Savvy to see no more than a few miles in any direction. A fast-moving ship could cover that distance in minutes. The moment that the conning tower broke through the surface, the lookout popped the hatch and scrambled topside, followed by the officer of the deck -- Savvy in this case -- and the two of them quickly scanned the surrounding sea for any sign of danger.

It was just before moonrise. Seen by starlight, the Atlantic seemed to stretch limitlessly in all directions. There was no sign of another vessel. Savvy was pleased. Although not as demanding as the diving procedures, the surfacing routine was important, and the crew had carried it off nicely. As soon as the sub had been switched over to diesel power, he ordered the electricians to reconfigure the drive motors to act as generators. For the remainder of the night the S-Five would cruise slowly along the surface, using most of the power from her diesels to recharge the batteries. Shortly after they'd gotten under way again, the moon rose. One day past full, it flooded the ocean with light, paving their way south toward Baltimore.

Although Savvy was still concerned about the main induction valve, he soon acquired another, and potentially more serious, problem. Not long after the S-Five had surfaced, while the electric motors were being rewired, the engineering watch reported that one of the cylinder heads in the port diesel engine had cracked.

This wasn't the first time the S-Five had needed mending. From March until May she'd been without her high-resolution periscope, while its watertight sleeve was replaced. In June one of the other submarines at the Yard had fouled the S-Five's propellers at dockside, causing extensive damage, and in July one of her starboard cylinder heads had cracked. In each case the repair work had been straightforward but time-consuming, and it was this aspect of the current damage that bothered Savvy. If the S-Five's power plant held up until she reached Baltimore, local repair facilities could replace the cracked head during the layover with no harm done; but, if not, Savvy and his men would have to repair the engine at sea or limp along on reduced power. In either case, they'd fall behind schedule, perhaps even have to skip one of the cities on their route. Such a failure during their first assignment would be a grave embarrassment, no matter what the cause.

In spite of these vexations, Savvy saw no reason to complain about his new command. Equipment failures were an accepted part of a submarine captain's lot in 1920 and impromptu repairs were often required to keep boats at sea. With the exception of the main induction valve and the cylinder head, the S-Five's performance record had been exemplary. Taking everything into consideration, Savvy felt lucky to captain such a splendid new sub.

As her name implied, the S-Five was the fifth of the Navy's new S-Class submarines. With a length of 231 feet and a displacement of 870 tons she was also the largest. Her armament was formidable: four twenty-one-inch torpedo tubes in her forward compartment enabled her to launch fan-shaped torpedo salvos that enemy ships found hard to evade, while a four-inch deck gun forward of the conning tower gave her additional firepower on the surface. Her twin propellers were driven by 1,000-horsepower diesel engines that could speed her at better than fifteen knots on the surface, while her two 600-horsepower electric motors could produce eleven knots submerged. Thanks to her extra-large fuel tanks, capable of holding nearly 37,000 gallons of diesel oil, she had an extended cruising range of over 5,000 miles, more than any other submarine in the fleet.

As for the cracked cylinder head, there was no point in worrying about it. The engines had performed well so far in spite of the damage. The only sure way to avert trouble during tomorrow's speed run was to abort it altogether. P>
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 1, 1920, 09:00 --

Wednesday morning dawned clear and cool, with a crisp northwest breeze and a moderate sea out of the north. When Savvy climbed up to the bridge, the sun had cleared the horizon and was burning away the last of the morning's haze. The S-Five was cruising toward the southwest at a modest speed, barely enough to maintain steerage in the swells. By 9:40 the batteries had been fully charged. Savvy sent word below to make ready for high-speed running. At 9:48 the engine room reported that the motor armatures had been rewired for power and the diesels were ready for full throttle.

The air was crisp and invigorating, and the waves smacking into the S-Five's side sent tremors through her hull, as if she were a thoroughbred quivering on the start line. The tension on the bridge reflected emotions throughout the sub. If the port diesel maintained compression for the next four hours, they'd probably be home free.

Savvy glanced at his wristwatch; it read 9:50. Bending low over the conning tower hatch, he shouted, "All ahead, port and starboard."

Below him the helmsman pulled the engine room telegraph levers over and back, stopping at Ahead Full. "All ahead, port and starboard, Aye," he echoed.

There was a muffled cough from below deck as the diesels surged into life. Gouts of black smoke puffed out of the exhaust ports along the side of the hull. The sea astern began to boil as the sub's propellers turned faster. Minutes later the helmsman reported that the S-Five was making fifteen knots. She was charging across the sea now, her bow throwing up curtains of spray that the wind tore into tatters and whisked away. Spreading far out on either side, the bow wave merged with the propeller wash into a wide white swath that stretched for miles astern.

When they'd reached cruising speed, Savvy went below to inspect the engine room. As he climbed down through the conning tower hatch, he could feel the powerful rush of air being drawn into the sub by the engines. Even with the additional ventilation provided by the main induction valve, the big diesels used so much air that they created a palpable breeze through the sub. Small wonder that timing was so critical during a dive. If ventilation were cut off too early, the engines could create a partial vacuum inside the sub. Savvy had heard of instances in which this had actually affected the hearing of crew members.

If the control room was noisy, it was nothing compared to the racket inside the engine room. Bill Bender, the chief machinist's mate in charge of the morning watch, climbed down from the catwalk to report. According to Bender the port diesel was running well, with no sign of power loss due to the cracked head. A few minutes later, Savvy climbed back up to the conning tower, his ears still ringing from the noise. When he emerged topside the cool sea air was startling after the heavy reek of oil and exhaust fumes below.

One more hurdle remained, but it wasn't the underwater speed run, which Savvy expected to go without a hitch. It was the crash dive. Everyone on board was conscious of it, as a matter of pride in their boat. The performance tests were part of a yearly Navy-wide competition between ships. The scores were cumulative. Every second over the one-minute time limit in the upcoming crash dive would result in a penalty point for the S-Five.

Of course, the scores weren't the real issue. What counted was the submarine's capability. If the S-Five ever went into combat, an efficient quick dive might someday be the only thing standing between her and destruction. Savvy and his crew were practicing for the real thing.

when the S-Five's sea trials began in May, training for her crew started in earnest too. During the following weeks short cruises out into the Atlantic became two- or three-day jaunts to Boston, New London, and Provincetown. After months of tedious dockside labor, the crew quickly learned to enjoy these excursions, but more importantly they began to learn how to handle the S-Five.

The first order of business was to familiarize themselves with surface navigation, since this was what they'd do most when they were on patrol. Unlike modern nuclear boats, which can remain underwater for months at a time, submarines of the World War I era spent most of their time on the surface, submerging only when necessary to avoid detection or to engage the enemy.

The day came when the S-Fives had to make their first dive. It was a protracted affair, as Savvy, Charlie Grisham, and the chiefs walked their inexperienced crew through the procedure called "trimming down." This was the gradual technique used during routine dives, when speed wasn't of prime importance. Its step-by-step nature allowed crew members to concentrate on the individual principles of diving.

The first of these was buoyancy, which had been known since the third century B.C., when the Greek philosopher Archimedes realized that changing an object's weight without changing its volume would make it sink or float. In 1776 David Bushnell's egg-shaped submersible, the Turtle, was equipped with a hand-powered pump to change its buoyancy by moving seawater in and out of its hull. Modern submarines use the same method to change that buoyancy, although the details differ. For example, there is evidence that Bushnell's working model didn't provide a separate chamber for the water, which simply ran to the bottom of the hull around the operator's feet.

In order to keep their occupants dry, modern subs are equipped with large steel reservoirs, called ballast tanks, attached to the outside of the pressure hull. The S-Five had six main ballast tanks, arranged in pairs along either side: forward, amidships, and aft with fuel and fresh water tanks mounted between them. By adjusting the amount of seawater in one tank or another, the sub's center of buoyancy could be shifted to keep the sub on an even keel. An additional large ballast tank, called the safety tank, was kept flooded at all times in order to provide reserve buoyancy in emergencies.

Water entered and left the ballast tanks through large valves called Kingstons in the bottom of each tank. These valves were operated through a system of long, jointed tie rods connecting them to rows of waist-high levers at the aft end of the control room. Direct mechanical linkages like this were common in submarines of this era, despite the fact that they were notoriously hard to operate. The Kingstons on the S-Five were so intractable that several men were often needed to open or close a single valve.

The second principle of diving was introduced to modern subs by Simon Lake, the New Jersey born inventor who competed with John Holland for control of the American submarine market. An inveterate tinkerer, Lake contributed a number of important advances, one of the most useful of which was diving rudders, called hydroplanes today. Mounted on either side of a sub, diving rudders could be angled to direct its motion either up or down. The S-Five had two sets of diving rudders, a pair near the bow and another near the stern. They were folded against the hull during surface cruising and extended by means of hand cranks prior to dives, after which their angle was set from the control room.

Both ballast tanks and diving rudders were used when a sub was "trimmed down." After the diving signal was made the Kingston valves were opened, allowing seawater to flow into the ballast tanks. As the sub's buoyancy decreased, the diving rudders were extended and angled a few degrees so as to deflect her forward motion downward. Within several minutes she would gradually "sail" herself underwater, traveling a mile or more in the process, depending on her speed. What the method lacked in rapidity it more than made up for in safety and control.

The same could not be said for crash dives, which employed the same two principles of diving to quite different effect.

Savvy could still recall the S-Five's first crash dive. It had taken place on July 1 and, while not necessarily a disaster, had not been a success either. The crew had been accustomed to a regular sequence of orders during dives: "Open forward Kingstons," "Four degrees down rudder," "Make all watertight," and so on. But there was no such leisurely approach in a crash dive. Every man had to perform multiple tasks without prompting and with split-second precision: no orders, no reports, and no room for error. That first dive had taken four minutes and eighteen seconds. Three months and more than forty dives later, the crew had improved greatly, but, as their times indicated, they still had a lot to learn.

Copyright © 2002 by A. J. Hill

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Under Pressure: The Final Voyage of Submarine S-Five 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
j329wo More than 1 year ago
I thought "Under Pressure" an excellant read. It flows similar to the book "The Terrible Hours", another submarine disaster account, in that the author sets up a point in time of the accident, then steps away for a short time to reveal where the charactors of the book came from, and what circumstances lead them to be in the place and time that fate dictated. As you progress through the chapters, you are enthralled in the story, as you realize these men had no modern day devices to save themselves. Their circumstances quickly turn a brand new submarine into a tomb, from which they resort to a hand powered drill a piece of pipe, and a shirt to attempt to save themselves. Other examples of resourcefulness in the face of disaster include a "McGiver" ingenuity of a rescue vessel crew turning an ice machine into an air compressor for the stricken crew. The individual stories of the crew, from the captain, to other officers and shipmates reveal that fate can be a blessing or a demon, some of the men being in two submarine disasters let alone one, and living to tell about them both. I also enjoyed the followup history of the crew and ship, including the rescuers and their ships. Enjoy!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Under Pressure is great storytelling! From the opening paragraph until the end, it simply grabs you and won't let go. Somehow Hill manages to slip in a lot of history and submarine technology, but it never gets in the way. I hated putting the book down! In fact I read the last third of it in one gulp. It's just that good!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Read this book cold. From the moment Savvy Cooke yells "Dive!", the tension mounts page by page as each event increases the peril of the men in the doomed sub. This is non-fiction, but it might as well be a thriller novel, a great read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is awesome! Very well written. A.J. Hill did his homework on writing this book. This book truly tells the trials that submariners in the early days went through.