Hell Bound By Compass

This is the story of the sinking of S-5, with 37 souls aboard, and what happened after.

On September 1st, 1920, the brand new US Navy submarine S-5 which had just completed sea trials, was sailing from Boston Navy Yard to Baltimore on her first mission, a Navy recruitment tour that would have ended with a visit to Bermuda. The CO, Charles “Savvy” Cooke was running the boat through various trials, endurance, and high speed runs while surfaced, and was about to initiate a crash dive and submerged high speed run.

The Birth of S-5

S-5 before things got weird.

S-5 was the newest example of the most advanced class of submarines in the Navy, and had performed well during sea trials and commissioning, but there were a couple of kinks still being worked out. A series of valves called “Kingston Valves” that operated within the ballast tanks and helped to balance and trim the submarine so that it would run even on its keel, were sticky and hard to operate, and sometimes required extra muscle to get in place. The Kingston Valves could also be used to trap some air in the lower ballast tanks. These valves were located in the Control Room, one of five main compartments that could each be sealed off from one another. There was a sixth compartment, the Tiller Room, at the extreme aft end of the sub.

It was also slower to dive than intended. The Navy wanted S-Class submarines to be able to fully submerge within a minute, yet the best S-5 had managed was four minutes. Partly this was because trimming the bilge tanks to the right balance was tricky, and the crew were determined to improve. The crew was working to improve a fiddly technique which involved trapping some air with the Kingston Valves and then letting that air out while the ballast vents were to initiate submergence more quickly.

Internal layout of S-5 prior to the dive. The Tiller Room is usually unoccupied.

While surfaced, the S-5 powered the screws with it’s two diesel engines, and ran off electric motors powered by giant batteries while submerged. The diesel engines were kept running as long as possible before diving, and they required oxygen from the surface to work. An air induction system moved air through a duct in the ceiling connecting all the major compartments on the boat and this had a 16 inch opening on the top of the hull. The Main Induction Valve controlled this system and the vents were kept open until the last moment of a crash dive, only closed when the diesel engines were fully shut down. The responsibility for closing the valve was a critical one, and so belonged to the chief of the boat, who was the most experienced enlisted crew member.

Kingston Valves of sister ship S-4

Engine Room of S-4

Motor Room of S-4

In the case of S-5, this was Gunners Mate Percy Fox, and just as the dive began, he was momentarily distracted because the crewmen working the Kingston Valves were struggling to move them. The boat had developed a slight starboard list, which it had to be trimmed with lots of fiddly manipulation of the valves. The order “DIVE DIVE DIVE” was given at 1400hrs and S-5 began to submerge, when suddenly sea water began pouring into the boat through the air induction ducts.

Notice that there is water in the induction duct, where it emphatically should not be.

Fox realized his mistake and yanked hard on the Main Induction Valve, which then jammed partially open. Crewmen throughout the ships compartments acted quickly closing valves to stop the flooding. The worst flooding occurred in the torpedo room, because being the furthest forward it was the lowest point given the downward angle of the dive. Two crewmen were unable to close off the necessary valves and barely escaped, closing the watertight door as 75 tons of water poured in, filling the torpedo room completely.

They had had no choice but to abandon the torpedo room and shut the door, because just aft of the torpedo room is the battery room, which is also the crew berth, and keeping that room from flooding was paramount. The batteries used sulfuric acid as an electrolyte and generated deadly chlorine gas when exposed to salt water. At best the lights would go out and the boat would be without power. More likely everyone would be killed by the gas if the battery room couldn’t be shut in time, and the batteries might even explode, bursting the hull. The crewman who had been in the torpedo room sealed the hatch with inches to spare before sea water began to pour in.

The situation only intensifies from here.

Fortunately the forward door to the battery room had been closed immediately, and the room was relatively dry, and the lights were still on. S-5 was now in an uncontrolled dive toward the muddy bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The crew had definitely set the vessel's record for fastest submergence. Valves for the compartments had been closed, some with more difficulty than others, and an additional 80 tons of water had entered the motor room bilges. Cooke ordered the ballast tanks blown and the diving planes full up, to try to rise back up, but the extra weight was too much. As they were trying to reverse the dive, the depth gauge kept increasing, and after a couple minutes they struck bottom. Everyone was knocked off their feet.

S-5 bounced once and settled on the seafloor, bow buried in the mud, 55 miles from Cape Henlopen, 180 feet below the surface. It would be 48 hours before she would be considered overdue for her next port call. The hull welds had held, but one of the electric motors had been ruined by seawater. The sub was trapped at the bottom, threatening to roll to one side, and with no way to call for rescue. Worse, though the boat had considerable underwater endurance, the air scrubbers which kept the air breathable were located in the irretrievably flooded torpedo room. The 37 members of the crew were short on time and deep in shit.


Cooke knew that if they couldn’t get the S-5 off the bottom on their own, they would all die before anyone knew they were missing. He ordered the crew to blow ballast tanks in the forward compartments and reversed the remaining motor, trying to back out of the mud. Though they weren’t able to break free, they were able to get the boat on an even keel by manipulating the Kingston valves. Not much later, the second electric motor shorted out and died. Attempts to pump water out of the torpedo room proved impossible. Cooke, however, was determined to keep trying everything and anything to save the lives of his crew. Two hours after S-5 came to rest, he decided (perhaps in desperation) to empty all of the remaining air into the aft ballast tanks. He did this without warning the crew, and the effect was immediate. The stern, now amply buoyant, more or less rocketed upward, as if on a pivot, and equipment, crewmen, and even deck plating tumbled forward as the boat assumed a new attitude, tilted 60º from level. A new equilibrium was established, and she stopped moving again.


That, at least, was something different. The crew were now in an unfamiliar vertically oriented situation, standing on what had been compartment walls or just clinging to whatever was at hand. It was also a whole new emergency. The battery room was now the lowest un-flooded compartment, and water from the bilges flowed down, while sulfuric acid electrolyte also poured out of the batteries. As the acid mixed with the salt water, chlorine gas began quickly building up in the still occupied, now vertical berthing spaces. The men evacuated, needing to be hauled up and disoriented and shaken. By acting quickly, this was accomplished in time to seal off the battery room before anyone succumbed to the deadly gas. Despite their best efforts, some chlorine gas was still seeping into the next compartment, the control room. Additionally, the hatch between the Control Room and the next compartment along the engine room, was covered in three feet of water. Crew from both sides had to shove against the hatch, unsealing it against a ton or more of seawater. The crew climbed out, and Cooke was the last to abandon the control room, which was sealed to forestall the intrusion of chlorine gas. The crew was now confined to a space that made up about two fifths of the internal volume of the submarine.

About 5 hours after the sinking, the crew began to do some math. They could tell by the depth gage that the bottom was 180 feet from the surface. The S-5 was 231 feet long. At a 60 angle to the bottom, some part of the submarine must be above the surface! Crewmen in the motor room listened to the hull, and could hear the sound of waves lapping against it. The aft-most 17 feet of the ship sticking up out of the water. Yes, this is an instance where trigonometry turned out to be useful in real life, like your geometry teacher said it would.

Realizing that this was a potential chance to escape, Cooke himself climbed up into the furthest aft compartment in the boat, the tiny tiller room. The tiller room was really not a working space, but housed gears that turned the rudder and stern planes. Even the tiller itself, meant to be used for steering only if the electrical actuation failed, was outside, in the motor room.

Battery Room of S-4, with crew bunks stowed. The battery is under the floor.

Crews Quarters of S-4. This compartment filled with deadly gas.

Tiller Room of S-4. There really is no room at all in this 'room' for anything but gears.

Cooke asked for the one electric drill on board, which was shorted out. He then was given a manual Breast drill, and set to work boring through the high strength, ¾” steel hull. If they were right, he would see the sky, if they were wrong, they would have one more leaking problem to contend with. Cooke cut through, and a quarter inch hole showed that the stern was decently high out of the water and that it was now dark, (Clock time is given as 2000 and I’m not a mariner, I don’t like time formatted this way, it was 10 pm) and about six hours from the beginning of the disaster, the first pinprick of hope began to develop.

Note a tiny opening in the hull above the water line! All 37 members of the crew are confined to the Motor and Engine Rooms from now on.

That wasn’t much, however. Cooke planned to cut a small opening to let fresh air in, because already the buildup of CO2 was causing the crewman to become lethargic. Organized work parties took turns drilling closely spaced holes and chiseling the space between them. Each hole took 20 minutes to drill. There was no fresh water in the remaining compartments, so thirst was also becoming a big problem, the working parties shared what there was, a few cans of peas and beans.

Five hours into the drilling, they had cut a hole about three inches across. A ship was sighted passing by, but it disappeared. Drilling continued. At their present rate, it would take 30 hours to create an opening large enough to squeeze through, and the air was only becoming more unbreathable, the crew more exhausted. After 16 hours of drilling, they had opened a triangular hole six by eight inches, and several crewmen were already unconscious. Cooke had seen one other ship in the distance, but it disappeared as well. At 2 pm, September 2nd, 24 hours after the crash dive began, a ship was seen, closer than the first two. A long copper pipe with a white t-shirt attached was waved frantically out of the opening.

What Alanthus came across.

The ship was the Alanthus, a small steamship on her last voyage, from New York bound for Newport News. A lookout had seen what looked like a buoy, and continued past. Captain Earnes Johnson, knew there should not be any buoys that far from shore, and turned to have another look. A man on the deck spotted the fluttering white shirt. That desperate act –waving a white flag– is also beautiful because it was not a symbol of surrender but an act of perseverance. Captain Johnson brought the Alanthus as near as he dared and rowed out in a small boat alongside the protruding stern, clearly not a buoy but unmistakably the back end of a submarine. He hailed Commander “Savvy” Cooke in a traditional maritime fashion:

“What Ship are you?”

“Submarine S-5

“What nationality?”

“United States”

“Where Bound?”

“To Hell, by Compass!”

This exchange has passed into legend. I can only imagine the immense feeling of relief the crew of S-5 must have experienced. Cooke urgently relayed the need for fresh air. His men were dying inside. Alanthus had no radio onboard, and no tools that could cut into the hull. Captain Johnson ordered the ship brought alongside, and they lashed ropes around the stern to prevent the sub from resettling. Boring the hole was causing the stern of S-5 to lose buoyancy, and it was feared it might slip back under water. Over the next few hours the crew of Alanthus rigged a wooden platform to the hull, and put a hose in the little hole to pump in fresh air, and another for water. That was buying a little more time, but the air was still worsening inside S-5.

Johnson suggested that they could take the submarine under tow and try to get to safety, but Cooke vetoed the idea, because that seemed unlikely to do anything other than send them to the bottom again. That evening, at 6 pm, Alanthus managed to hail a passing Steamer, S.S. General G. W. Goethals with emergency signal flags.

The scene General Goethals encountered.

General G. W. Goethals, which was on a voyage from Haiti to New York, was much larger, and did have a radio. They immediately contacted the Navy, and the Navy routed several rescue ships toward the wreck, but it would take many more hours before they would arrive at the scene. Although the crew were beginning to hope that some of them would be rescued, it was unclear how many of them might perish in the interim. General G. W. Goethals didn't have suitable cutting tools either, but they did have a better manual ratchet drill and Chief Engineer W.R. Grace, a man variously described as “A Giant” and “Enormously Strong”.

General G. W. Goethals Captain, E. O. Swinson directed Grace and an assistant, R.A. McWilliams, to help widen the hole. Over the next 6 or 8 hours (accounts vary) Grace worked without stopping. At 1:45 am, September 3rd, Grace drilled the last of 56 holes, and using a sledgehammer knocked a piece of hull two feet in diameter free. The exhausted and dehydrated crew, some sick with exposure to chlorine gas squeezed out one at a time. At 3:34 am, EO Charlie Grisham and CO Savvy Cooke, who had not slept since in nearly 48 hours, were the last to leave S-5. Every one of the 37 souls aboard had been saved and were safely aboard Alanthus by the time the first Navy ships arrived. After being transferred to a Navy vessel, the crew of S-5 were brought to the Philadelphia Naval Yard, where members of the press were waiting. Reports indicate that as they made their way down the gangplank, one member of the crew was singing “How Dry I Am.”

Chief Engineer Grace

The crew of S-5 aboard Alanthus after the rescue.

Cooke would later comment on the comportment of his crew during an inquiry into the sinking, saying “I think all the officers and men of my crew are most amply deserving of a letter of commendation for their magnificent morale, their courage and their uncomplaining perseverance and attention to duty in those trying hours. His crew felt the same of their CO, unanimously asking to be part of any effort to salvage S-5. Seaman Joesph Youkers said “It showed that we have the best crew in the navy. I want to be in on the next dive, and I want to make it with Savvy Cooke.” Electrician Ramon Otto said “I have only the highest praise for Commander Cooke. Words fail me in any attempt to do justice to him or the men in their performance of duty.”

The S-5 resisted any attempts at salvage, and still rests under 160 feet of water, about 4 miles from the place she initially touched bottom. Commander Savvy Cooke served a long and distinguished career, commanding another submarine, USS Rainbow, and rose through the ranks until being made a rear admiral in 1942.

S-5 on the seafloor.

The piece of hull drilled from the tiller room was later recovered and is now displayed in the Navy Museum in Washington, D.C.

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