Sunday, January 01, 2006

Remembering The U.S. Submarine S-4


Cape Cod Chronicle
By Alan Pollock
December 22, 2005

S-4 after sinking and recovery.

The story of the U.S. submarine S-4 is a tale of bravery and suffering made no less heartrending by the passage of 78 years. Even as it threatens to fade from memory, the story is the topic of a book being written by David Zeni of Harwich, a maritime historian and former U.S. Navy submarine officer.

On Dec. 17, 1927 , the S-4 was conducting routine drills just off Long Point, Provincetown , when it came to the surface and was inadvertently rammed by the U.S. Coast Guard destroyer Paulding. The ship punched a two-and-a-half-foot long hole in the starboard side of the submarine, which quickly sank in 110 feet of water.

In the frantic moments after the collision, the crew of the S-4 tried briefly to stop the flooding, but were ultimately forced to retreat behind watertight doors. Most of the crew ran aft, and quickly succumbed. But six men ran forward to the torpedo room, where they faced a less compassionate end.

On the surface, a massive effort was launched to try and save the sailors. Through newspaper and radio accounts, the nation’s eyes and ears were on Provincetown, as Navy and Coast Guard experts tried several times to raise the stricken submarine.

“This put Provincetown on the map,” Zeni said. “This became an international story.” Divers descended to the wreck and used a hammer to tap messages on the hull in Morse code, and received replies from the trapped crewmen.

Battling frigid water and a mass of tangled wreckage, divers determined there was no hope of rescuing the six men. Struggling to breathe in the ever-thinning oxygen, the sailors tapped out the question, “Is there no hope?” There was none, the divers replied.

“We understand,” came the reply.

Even after the rapping on the hull ceased, crews on the surface frantically searched for ways to raise the submarine, but a gusty storm forced them to abandon the effort on Christmas Eve. The painful decision was made to put off salvaging the ship until March, when it was towed to the Charlestown Naval Yard.

The tragedy is a timeless and poignant one, Zeni said.

“I think there’s something about the entrapment of the men in the sub, that they were still alive for three days, that draws people to this story,” he said. When it was clear that the sailors had perished, condolences came from as far away as Italy. The tale has special appeal for Zeni, who served aboard the USS Tecumseh during the Cold War, and knows the dangers inherent in submarine work.

“One of the things we say in the submarine service is that you’re half sunk already,” Zeni said. He recalls one instance when the Tecumseh lost all hydraulic power—rendering its rudder and planes temporarily useless—and started to sink uncontrollably. The crew went through a sequence of emergency steps which they had rehearsed many times before, much as the crew of the S-4 likely did during their emergency, Zeni said.

Zeni hasn’t said when his book will be published, but it may prove to be an important record of a maritime disaster. As in years past, a memorial service was held this Dec. 4 in Provincetown , though the number of eyewitnesses to the event has dwindled to a few. Among those who spoke was former Chatham selectman Parker Wiseman, whose grandfather was the physician who signed the death certificates of the S-4 crewmen. Zeni said in a few years, the yearly memorial service may cease to happen.

Though the tragedy ended the lives of 40 young sailors, the S-4 underwent a strange reincarnation. The submarine was repaired and returned to active duty in October, when it was used as a submarine rescue and salvage test ship. The devices and techniques developed using the old S-4 led to the rescue of 33 men from another stricken sub a dozen years later.



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