Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit

In 1921, a submarine sank off the CT coast, trapping 41 men aboard

On the floor of Long Island Sound, with no way to communicate with the shore, water and deadly gas began to fill the Bridgeport-built submarine.

  • Comments
In 1921, a submarine sank off the CT coast, trapping 41 men aboard

Beneath Long Island Sound’s gray December waves, God’s mercy vanished. During a trial run for the U.S. Navy, the submarine S-48 suddenly and inexplicably began taking on tons of seawater during a test dive east of Penfield Reef off the coast of Fairfield. Ballast shutoff valves were manually activated. But it was far too late. The boat sank to the floor of the Sound on a slight angle, her stern burrowing into the muddy bottom. Forty-one men were trapped aboard. 

No one among the legion of skilled laborers or seamen employed at the Lake Torpedo Boat Co., the submarine’s Bridgeport builder, could have anticipated the disaster about to occur this morning, Dec. 7, 1921. Civilian metal workers, mechanics, sailors and military representatives from Washington went about their morning’s duties at one of America’s largest submarine manufacturers. There was no radio communication. No SOS. No way to contact help. No hope. 

In a tragic irony, a bevy of commercial vessels serenely traveling on Long Island Sound were completely unaware of the horrifying situation unfolding below their steel or wooden hulls. Since no one had witnessed the descent, no search and rescue mission was dispatched. The crew, composed of civilian laborers and seasoned military personnel, lay trapped underwater just a few miles from one of Connecticut’s most populous cities. Breathing ever so quietly to conserve air, they were alone in their ominous plight.Huddled in the darkness, someone abruptly shouted “Gas!” as a poisonous chlorine agent began filtering through the sub’s compartments.

Image 6. S-48 on Slipway_Feb 28 1921_NH 108453.jpg

On Feb. 26, 1921, a large crowd trudged through the boatyard’s snowy grounds to witness the christening of Bridgeport’s latest sub.

Bridgeport’s submarine heritage

Image 2. Simon_Lake_portrait_1916.jpg

Genius inventor Simon Lake: Having experimented with wooden submersibles during the 1890s, Simon Lake (1866–1945) is credited with developing the first submarine capable of operating in the open sea. His life’s goal was to create underwater boats for peaceful exploration and recovery missions.

Visionary Simon Lake, whose blueprints helped create the S-48, was born in New Jersey in 1866. As a boy he was fascinated with Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and it was Captain Nemo’s trident that pointed the way for young Simon, who dedicated his life to constructing underwater vessels. In 1897 the engineering genius achieved his dream by building the world’s first submarine capable of operating in the open sea. Four years later the now world-famous inventor helped incorporate the Lake Torpedo Boat Co. 

An array of narrow, black-painted buildings, looking more like upstate tobacco barns, would soon be situated on the Bridgeport shoreline. Crammed at the east end of Seaview Avenue, where Johnson Creek empties, and along the entrance of Lewis Gut on Long Island Sound, Lake Co. and its employees were serenaded by summer calliope music and cheerful shouts from the Pleasure Beach Amusement Park across the Gut from the shipyard. Over the course of two decades a fleet of subs would be built for the U.S. Navy, as well as foreign nations, at this 17-acre complex.

First of her class: Christening of the S-48

One of four S-class submarines launched at Bridgeport in 1921, the S-48 was christened on Feb. 26 of that year. Arriving by trolley, auto and foot, thousands of spectators plodded across the snow- and mud-coated shipyard to watch the boat officially greet Long Island Sound. 

Image 7. Movie Cameras Rolling_Mohegan_NH 108441.jpg

Movie cameras rolling for the Mohegan dignitaries: A Mohegan delegation added to the excitement surrounding the S-48’s christening. Chief Occum (Lemuel Fielding), at left, is standing next to his niece, Loretta Fielding Schultz. The boat’s official sponsor, Princess Teecomwas, Chief Occum’s daughter (Myrtice Fielding Germaine), is holding a bouquet of roses and the ribbon-decorated bottle of Champagne. Everett Fielding, the chief’s son, is standing in the second row.

At two o’clock that afternoon, atop the official platform situated at the vessel’s bow, a contingency of the Mohegan tribe gathered. Adorned in regal attire, moccasins and wampum, the Mohegan dignitaries added to the day’s festive atmosphere. Chief Occum (Lemuel Fielding) stood nearby, while his daughter, Princess Teecomwas (Myrtice Germaine), wielded a red, white and blue-festooned champagne bottle waiting for the warning whistle to announce that the final stay had been hammered loose. With Hollywood cameras clicking and newspaper flash bulbs popping, she christened the S-48 as it slid down the inclined ways, splashing majestically into the Sound. Accompanied by a cacophony of shrieking shipyard whistles and wildly cheering throngs, the Lincoln Elementary School drum corps boomed while Chief Occum gave a loud war cry. 

Image 8. S-48 Christening_Breaking Bottle_NH 108446.jpg

Champagne across the bow: Princess Teecomwas christens the S-48. Although Prohibition was the law of the land, real Champagne soaked the bow. A newspaper scribe records his observations on her left.

This was an important day for America’s military prowess; the S-48 was the first of a new class of warship. Navy officials termed this boat “the very latest word in submarine construction.” Two hundred forty feet long, the double-hulled sub was equipped with the newest technology. There were three periscopes, a four-inch gun forward of the conning tower, and five 21-inch torpedo tubes (four in the bow and one in the stern).

The following descriptions of events and quotations come from newspapers — The Bridgeport Post and Bridgeport Sunday Post, The Bridgeport Times, The Evening World (New York), The New York Herald and The New York Times — and the journal U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings published between December 1921 and August 1922.

Dec. 7, 1921, 0900 hours: Leaving Port

Image 10. Captain Joseph E. Austin commander G-2 1918_NH 80748.jpg

Captain Joseph Eliot Austin: Serving as trial manager for the Lake Torpedo Boat Co., the Black Rock resident was commander of the S-48 on Dec. 7, 1921. Austin’s World War I submarine service in European waters would be put to the test that fateful day. He is pictured here in 1918 as commanding officer of another Lake Co. sub, the G-2.

The morning of Dec. 7, 1921, breaks cold and overcast. Temperatures are in the upper 20s, and steam puffs from the workers’ breath as they optimistically approach the boat. Among the lighthearted laborers are a number of local athletes. Lake Co., like so many Bridgeport industries, hired amateur stars for their strength and smarts, but also as much for their star power when representing the shipyard in the city’s industrial sports leagues. Looking forward to another day’s builder trials are two popular boxers, Pete Dunne and Harvey DeLorme. The latter is a husky, 5-foot-2 flyweight who fought under the name Harvey Kelly. Part of a four-man rivet gang at the boat works, DeLorme is a “cooker.” He would heat rivets in a small forge and then use tongs to pluck and toss the red-hot metal to the crew’s “catcher,” who in turn placed the glowing rivet in the hole, while the “buck-up” man held the rivet in place for the “gun-man” who pounded the rivet into position. Walking between the work sheds toward the dock, DeLorme nonchalantly bends down and plucks a coil of tubing from the ground. Wrapping the 30-foot rubber ring around his shoulder, DeLorme says aloud to no one in particular, “Guess I’ll take this along. It may come in handy.” 

Twenty-two-year-old Brooklyn-born Peter Francis Dunne had moved to Bridgeport with his parents a decade ago. Dunne had accomplished a lot in that short time. Prior to working at the Lake Co., Dunne served as torpedo man aboard the USS Pennsylvania where he began his boxing career in earnest. Approaching the moored S-48 with his fellow workers, Dunne talks about his upcoming wedding. Next month he would exchange vows with his sweetheart, Mae Burns. Others in the group prefer to discuss boxing. The Fairfield Avenue resident, a 5-foot-10, 160-pound middleweight, fought under the nickname “Red” due to his scarlet locks. Unknown to either Dunne or DeLorme, in just a few hours the actions of these two pugilist-submariners would play a pivotal role involving the lives of every man aboard the S-48.

Over the past few days the sub had been undergoing a number of increasingly demanding trials off Bridgeport Harbor. U.S. Navy personnel aboard inspected the boat’s capabilities prior to her delivery to the military. This day, the S-48 would cruise on the surface, bound for the New London naval base, where she would engage in 200-foot diving maneuvers off Block Island. 

Image 11 Walter Stanley Hass 1912-2.jpg

Walter Stanley Haas: Scheduled to receive command of the S-48 once she was commissioned, Haas heard screams as the sub began falling to the bottom of the Sound, “The men got forward into the control room just in time, or they would have drowned like rats …” Haas would captain three Lake Co. submarines: the N-7, R-22 and the S-51.

Boarding the sub, sailors are greeted by a motion picture production team. The film crew had arranged to accompany the S-48 in one of the Lake Co.’s motor launches. The cinematographer wanted to capture the submarine during one of its test dives. As if an omen, the launch engine does not turn over. Capt. Joseph Eliot Austin, commanding officer for the Lake Co. — along with his assistant, Harold E. Adams, Lt. Cmdr. Walter Stanley Haas (who was scheduled to take the helm of S-48 when the boat was commissioned), and naval observer Lt. Francis Adams Smith of California — decide that the morning’s mission cannot be delayed for the sake of a newsreel. The submarine shoves off from her berth near Johnson Creek, and with her diesel engines engaged, cruises above the surface into Long Island Sound. Back on shore, Lake Co. representatives assume the camera launch will join the sub in a matter of time. That moment never arrives. 

0930–1000 hours: Preparing to dive

Image 9. S-48 launched Feb 28 1921_NH 108451.jpg

S-48 gliding down the ways: The S-48 officially greets Long Island Sound in Bridgeport’s East End on Feb. 28, 1921.

Capt. Austin guides the S-48 toward the open Sound. Two weeks shy of his 36th birthday, Austin, now retired from the U.S. Navy, was the operating manager and submarine trial captain for the Lake Co. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, class of 1908, the Brooklyn-born Austin was well liked for his generous and good-natured manner. But his military career was not without controversy. As a newly graduated midshipman in 1909, Austin was serving aboard the battleship USS North Dakota. While on voyage to the Pacific, he was married in Honolulu. At that time the U.S. Navy strictly forbade Naval Academy graduates to marry until they had served six years in the service. Austin argued that he and other officers aboard the dreadnaught consulted the Navy’s official rules, and had even invited the North Dakota’s commanding officer to the wedding. But it would take an act of Congress, and President Woodrow Wilson’s signature, to reinstate Austin as an ensign in the Navy in 1915. During World War I, Austin saw duty aboard a British sub and served as commander of another Lake Co. submarine, the USS G-2; by 1918 he had risen to the rank of lieutenant commander. 

Now, three years after war’s end, Austin watches as the S-48 approaches Penfield Reef Lighthouse, bearing southeasterly out of the Lake Co. boatyard. According to the commander, “preparations were made to hold a dive and a short-submerged run, after which it was planned to bring her to the surface and proceed on engines to New London, where the deep dive was to be held.” Within 48 hours those Atlantic Ocean dives would have brought the S-48 to depths of over 200 feet. But now the crew would practice diving in approximately 12 fathoms, or 70 feet of water. 

Naval inspector Lt. Smith watches the routine unfold. At his side is 30-year-old Lt. Cmdr. Haas, who lived on Bridgeport’s Herkimer Street. Haas had graduated from Annapolis in 1912 and been awarded the Navy Cross for distinguished service as commanding officer for another Lake Co. submarine during the Great War, the USS N-7.

1030 hours: Disaster strikes

The conning tower is secured and all men ordered to their dive positions. All stations report everything in functioning condition. Four miles east of Penfield Reef Lighthouse, the klaxon horn sounds twice and the order is given to “dive, dive.”

In the control room, officers observe the central wheel being turned, as this mechanism simultaneously coordinates closing 30 flood and vent valves which allows nearly 200 tons of water to fill the vessel’s side tanks, causing her to safely submerge.

Something goes very wrong, very quickly. The boat begins its level descent, but within a moment, the majority of crew spontaneously presses their palms against their ears due to an unexpected change in pressure. The submarine suddenly lurches, and the craft begins tilting backward. Lake Co. inspector John H. Regan Jr., son of a Bridgeport Police captain, is in the battery compartment: “I was making preparations for the dive … when the boat suddenly took a trim aft, and everybody wondered what had happened.” Shouts emanate from the engine and motor rooms in the aft compartments. It becomes clear that the submarine is taking on water and sinking to the bottom. Haas later recalls how the seawater was rushing “in a torrent into [the] Engine Room.”

One machinist in the motor room, who is experiencing his first dive, can’t comprehend what is happening. Water surges out of the aft engine room and swirls around his ankles. Walking past Electrician First Class Charles Johnson, the unidentified worker mutters aloud, “Maybe this [water entering the sub] is a regular thing but just the same I am leaving.” Johnson, his eyes bulging at the steady stream filling the motor room, asks, “Where are you going to go?” The disoriented sub worker replies, “Back to Bridgeport.”

The seawater cascades into the hull so quickly that it is with difficulty that the shut-off valves are finally engaged. It takes about 60 seconds for the lever controlling the ballast tanks to be pulled back in place. But it is too late. An unnamed Naval inspector aboard later says, “When the orders were given to open the various flood valves which permit the water to enter the ballast tanks and submerge the vessel, water rushed into the ballast tanks, and it is thought that one of the small access holes to one of the ballast tanks was left open, or gave way, and permitted the water to enter the hull of the boat proper.” 

Capt. Austin splashes his way through the bulkhead doors to survey the situation. Water is rising fast. Once the commanding officer determines that every man had been evacuated safely from the aft compartments, Austin pushes his way through the frigid, waist-deep water to secure the watertight door. He turns to look at the men who had tumbled into the control room, soaking wet and shivering from the churning onrush. The crew looks up at their captain, awaiting orders.

There are five compartments in the S-class boat; with the engine and motor rooms filling rapidly, soon two-fifths of the submarine would be consumed by icy water. Lt. Smith later says, “The stern sank to a depth of about forty feet and struck bottom and the bow pointed outward at an angle …” The inspector continues, “The stern was dragging on the bottom, and we moved along until our depth gauge showed that the stern had dropped into a hole that was sixty feet down.” Then the S-48 comes to a halt, with her bow slightly elevated, on the floor of Long Island Sound.

1042 hours (12 minutes since sinking)

All vents have been successfully closed, but according to instruments, Long Island Sound waters continue to enter the boat. 

As the electrical motors fail, the flickering lighting system grounds. “Nobody said anything,” notes John Regan, “and then the Control Room and starboard lights went out.” Darkness throws the crew into a profound silence. The Lake Co. inspector elaborates, “Everyone was excited, and the crew re-lighted the lights by switching [the power to other batteries]. This was done by the light of torches [flashlights].” Lt. Smith adds, “The water had put out all the lights … we had only pocket flashes to find our way about with.” Understating the dire situation, Smith says, “It was decidedly unpleasant trying to save our lives in that darkness.”

Charles Johnson, electrician first class, later recalls that Philip “Philly” Marr saved the vessel from being cast into sustained blackness. Civilian electrician Marr, Johnson explains, “grabbed a hacksaw and crawled behind the switchboard. He sawed loose all the cables leading aft.” In addition to Philly Marr, inspector Regan also credits Michael Augustus Fritz, chief electrician’s mate of the U.S. Navy, from New Jersey. Fritz and the other men on his electrical team “were cutting away all the grounded cables from the switchboard and [then quickly] changed all apparatus to the forward battery.” Regan adds, “They prevented the entire electrical system from going dead. I hate to think of what might have happened if there had been no lights.”

From the Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer, Dec. 8, 1921

News of the S-48's sinking led the Dec. 8, 1921, edition of the Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer.

1051 hours (21 minutes since sinking)

The crew is relieved to discover that two pumps remain working; but for how long is anyone’s guess, being pressed into heavy duty battling water that ceaselessly entered the boat. Johnson notes afterward, “dirt had clogged up the strainers on the end of the pump line and the pump couldn’t get suction; the water was gradually creeping up to the pump motors.” The naval electrician reflects, “If the water ever got up to those pump motors I knew the jig was up.” It was Jack Hansen who remained in the pump room, according to Johnson, bailing water with a three-gallon coffee pot. Hansen would adroitly “fill the container and then toss it to the rest of us to pour into the auxiliary tank, by which it was blown out of the boat by air pressure.”

With the pumps and bailing proceeding as well as possible, Commanding Officer Austin and Lt. Cmdr. Haas strategize the best plan of action. Before the craft settles flat on the seabed, the officers realize that rescue completely relies on raising the submarine’s bow above water. Once the bow should break the surface, the vessel could be spotted; plus, opening the torpedo tubes would allow fresh air to enter the boat. Both anchors are cut loose. Austin then orders thousands of pounds of oil blown into the Sound. Examining the gauges, brows furrowed, the men wait. The submarine remains motionless.

1100 hours (30 minutes since sinking)

A work detail bails out the lubricating oil tanks that were temporarily filled with water. Using tin coffee cups, this work gang empties eight tons of water by hand. The water is tossed into the bilge and then pumped out of the boat. Any item not bolted to the deck is relocated aft; even sheet-metal ventilation pipes are broken down and removed and dragged to the stern. 

1105 hours (35 minutes since sinking)

The radio mast is raised in the hope that the antenna reaches above the surface and will be seen by a passing ship. The officers understand that even if the metal rod pokes above the water, depending upon its visible height, the apparatus most likely would be mistaken for an oyster bed marker.

From the Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia), Dec. 8, 1921

The headline "THRILLING NIGHT RESCUE ON SOUND" and an illustration of the sunken S-48 sub made the front page of the Evening Public Ledger of Philadelphia on Dec. 8, 1921.

An obvious question comes to mind. What happened to the vessel’s communication system? The S-48 was supplied with a submersible radio apparatus designed to operate while the boat was on the surface or submerged. Submarine coils were also supposed to be installed for receiving messages underwater. However, in gross dereliction, the most likely answer is that the S-48 went underway without the radio apparatus having been installed.

1106 hours (36 minutes since sinking)

Two dummy torpedoes, weighing a combined two tons, are fired into the Sound. John Regan later says, “We thought that this relief of weight might right the boat.” Knowing that the unarmed devices would make a spectacle rocketing along the surface, and then eventually float, the men paint bold-lettered calls for help on the sides of the torpedoes — “S-48 Sunk” and “Aft compartments flooded. Immediate need of assistance.” Sailors pen distress messages on any piece of paper they can find and seal the notes in milk bottles. According to production engineer Harold Eugene Adams, a member of the Lake Co.’s trial staff and assistant to Capt. Austin, these glass containers are attached to the rear end of one of the torpedoes being fired. Even with 4,000 pounds of torpedoes jettisoned, the boat remains leaning, unmoved, against the seafloor. The 16-foot-long underwater missiles would be discovered months later, the painted pleas rusted into oblivion.

1114 hours (44 minutes since sinking)

A greenish-yellow cloud reeking of bleach begins to waft through the sub’s occupied compartments; it is chlorine gas. Saltwater had contaminated the boat’s sulfuric-acid batteries, creating the poisonous mist. It is the same gas employed with such deadly consequences in the trenches during World War I. Crewmen feverishly rip open the battery deck attempting to stem the rising water with blankets and shirts. They commence bailing the compartment with anything they can find. Seawater has to be kept away from the batteries or noxious gas would suffocate everyone aboard. Among those to whom this task falls are Lt. Smith, Chief Electrician’s Mate Mike Fritz, “Ibby” Magner and Bill Baxter. “We wore handkerchiefs and cloths around our faces,” reports Lt. Smith, “[as] we swabbed up the water in the battery room as much as we could with blankets.” John Regan says that these men “worked at the most dangerous station in the boat. They bailed the aft battery and tightened ‘dogs’ [bolts] to prevent further leakage on the battery deck.” Lt. Cmdr. Haas explains, “water was tossed into the Control Room [where it] runs to the Pump Room and [was] pumped from the boat.” On their knees for hours, these men, gagging from gas exposure, burn their hands each time a tin cup is dipped into the acid mixture. 

1115 hours (45 minutes since sinking)

Image 14. Making Waves in International News_French journal rotated image.jpg

Making waves in international news: The heroic adventure of S-48 was documented in European journals. Here, a French artist imagined the crew desperately signaling from the sub’s bow in this unidentified 1922 illustration. Loosely translated, the French language caption reads, “The crew of the American submarine. After raising the ship, they have made a fire to call for help.”

Depth gauges still indicate the craft well below the surface. While work of removing aft all available material continues, William Walsh, foreman of the Lake Co.’s night gang, approaches Capt. Austin with an idea. There is an unusual amount of pig iron loaves stowed aboard; this extra load was in place during the trial-runs to temporarily compensate for weight customarily on the boat. The crew forms a human chain to pass the bars, as Walsh’s idea is employed to eject the pig iron through the boat’s sounding machine. Under usual circumstances this device used a small weighted line to discern the sub’s depth. According to Charles Johnson, “The sounding machine is a small tube located in the torpedo room … to pass a bar of pig lead through this tube required that the outer door be closed, the inner door opened, [and then] a bar of lead was placed into the tube. The inner door was then closed, the outer door opened and the lead dropped out by the force of gravity.” One at a time, each 50-pound bar is placed in the sounding machine until five tons of lead (some reports state nine tons) has exited the boat. Within a half-hour of commencing this grueling task, the bow could be felt nudging ever so slightly upward. 

1400 hours (3 hrs., 30 min. since sinking)

During the exhausting labors of jettisoning pig iron and bailing seawater cup by cup, chlorine gas again begins to menace the crew. Water filling the battery compartment cannot be contained fast enough, and now the saltwater had risen above the last two rows of batteries. 

1430 hours (4 hrs. since sinking)

When the S-48 does not reach New London, naval base officers allegedly inform the Lake Torpedo Boat Co., and a search is secretly initiated. The submarine manufacturer does not inform families of the crew or the public, as they later explain, to forestall panic.

1445 hours (4 hrs., 15 min. since sinking)

As a result of the men displacing weight, the sub’s bow rises 26 degrees but has not yet broken above the surface.

1505 hours (4 hrs., 35 min. since sinking)

Image 13. Harvey DeLorme.jpg

Harvey “Kelly” DeLorme: A member of a Lake Co. riveting team, the flyweight’s serendipitous decision to grab a coil of hose laying on the ground tipped fate’s scale during the life-and-death ordeal on the S-48.

The prolonged menace of chlorine gas has Chief Electrician’s Mate Fritz wracking his brain about how to curtail the water’s relentless contact with the batteries. Suddenly Fritz discovers the tubing that boxer Harvey  had nonchalantly carried aboard. Fritz immediately grabs the hose from the slick deck and cuts the tubing into sections. Instructing his men, they join him in siphoning the seawater pooling below the battery banks. One end of each segment is placed next to the batteries, and then by sucking the acid-saltwater mix through the hose, a constant stream can be maintained. In the briefest of time, a dozen streams are flowing from the batteries and into the bilge, but the siphoning team seriously burn their lips and mouths on the battery acid. No new chlorine gas will form — but a deadly mist still permeates the boat. It’s only because this poison gas has been placed in check that the time-consuming work of removing the pig iron can be accomplished. 

1630 hours (6 hrs. since sinking)

With the bow having risen roughly 30 degrees, the stern settles deeper into the mud on the floor of Long Island Sound. Capt. Austin gambles one more time and uses what air remains to blast water from the main ballast tanks. The sub lifts upward at an extreme angle. The crew hold fast or risk falling aft. 

1845 hours (8 hrs., 15 min. since sinking)

Lt. Smith later explains, “By soundings and from knowing that the submarine was about 250 feet [long] we knew that the bow must be clear …” Finally, the boat pierces the surface and stands above water, but the submariners’ peril remains. The threat of chlorine gas and accumulating carbon dioxide imperils the men. Plus, at any moment the boat could easily shift its precarious balance and silently slide back to the bottom. Another problem manifests with the vital task of how to summon a passing ship. 

Image 12 Pete Dunn 1.jpg

Pete “Red” Dunne: The selfless actions of the 22-year-old Bridgeport resident onboard the S-48 made Dunne a local hero.

Pete “Red” Dunne, a seasoned torpedo man aboard the S-48, approaches Capt. Austin with an audacious idea. The boxer requests permission to crawl through one of the forward torpedo tubes to survey the outside situation and signal for help. Dunne’s plan is initially refused because it was deemed too dangerous. But with more men impacted by the poisonous fumes filtering through the sub, Dunne’s idea soon becomes an acceptable risk. Capt. Austin gazes at the crew and the gathering green gas. “Now you can go out,” he tells Dunne. 

The inside torpedo port is carefully opened to determine whether water had entered the tube. Devoid of saltwater, the next step is to confirm that the bow is indeed above the surface. The outside torpedo door is slowly opened. A narrow circumference of darkened sky is greeted with beaming smiles. The torpedo tube’s entrance measures just 21 inches; hardly enough space to fit a man’s shoulders. Dunne peers up into the length of tube and begins shedding his clothes, retaining only his long woolen undergarments. Before his mates boost him into the thin cylinder, Dunne ties a coil of rope around his waist and the men hand him a hammer. The rope would be used by crew members to ascend the slick tube, while Dunne is instructed to knock twice with the hammer if saltwater begins filling the narrow chute. The young boxer squirms inch by inch up the inclined metal walls toward the sound of pounding waves. Once his mop of tussled red hair pops out from the torpedo tube, Dunne sees that the sub’s bow looms much higher above water than anticipated. Suddenly Dunne is greeted with the crush of an icy wave. During S-48’s imprisonment below Long Island Sound, a half-gale storm had proceeded to engulf the Connecticut coast. Despite the dire weather, Dunne calls excitedly down to his mates, “I can see the lights of Bridgeport!”

From the Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia), Dec. 8, 1921

This illustration from the front page of the Dec. 8, 1921, Evening Public Ledger of Philadelphia shows the approximate position of the S-48 submarine once the crew had managed to raise the bow above the surface and begin signaling for help.

Unsheathing his arms and torso from the tube, Dunne is born into a winter seascape. Squinting into the spray and gloom, Dunne surveys every part of the smooth hull towering above him. There is nothing for him to grasp onto, and nowhere to climb up onto the deck where he can secure the rope. Dunne wonders how he can get to a cleat on the opposite side of the bow when a huge wave catapults him from his delicate perch and sends him spiraling into the roiling December waters. Hanging onto the rope, Dunne makes his way around the bow and discovers a section of the hull that allows him to pull himself onto the soaked and slanted deck. The one thing Dunne fears most, he later explains, “was freezing fast onto the metal plates” and becoming glued to the superstructure of the submarine. Once atop the pinnacle of gray steel, Dunne ties an end of his rope to a cleat and attempts to lower the line into the dark entrance of the torpedo port. 

Too much time elapses without Dunne reappearing at the mouth of the cylinder, alarming those inside the sub. Events in the next few moments happen so quickly that reports become confused and conflicting. Piecing together the most logical chronology, it appears that Albert E. Buchanan, a coppersmith with the Lake Co., and a longtime buddy of Dunne’s, is the second man to shimmy up the tube. He is determined to find out what was delaying his friend. Exiting the muzzle, Buchanan discovers Dunne battered by the heavy sea and clinging to the side of the hull. Waves had knocked Dunne back into the heaving Sound. Buchanan lowers a lifeline and begins hauling Pete upward when a crashing white cap dislodges Buchanan’s precarious footing, and the two men fall hard into the savage sea. Machinist Albert R. Spencer, the third man to exit the boat, manages to rescue the two men from drowning. Dunne is pushed through the torpedo barrel where he thumps his way down into the sub. The boxer tumbles in a heap onto the deck where he faints at the feet of the crew. Dunne lies unresponsive on the metal grill, his frozen woolen undergarments encasing the submariner’s body in ice. 

1915 hours (8 hrs., 45 min. since sinking)

The grueling job that lay ahead is signaling a passing boat. Concerned that extra weight on the sub’s prow would destabilize the boat and send her beneath the waves, Austin allows only a handful of men at a time to brave the blowing storm. One unidentified seaman later says, “Only a few men, just enough necessary to do the work, were allowed outside on the submarine’s protruding end. We feared excess weight there might send the boat down. Most of the men stayed near the bottom of the sub to serve as ballast and keep the stern from sinking too.” 

Utilizing what little power remained, a searchlight is passed up to the men. Lights from other craft could be seen far off in the night, but the S-48’s blinking SOS signal is too weak to serve any advantage. At one point those stationed above cheer when rescue seems imminent. About three miles away, their beacon catches the attention of a passing vessel thought to be a tug. She returns the S-48’s distress call. But the men’s hopes are dashed when, bafflingly, the unidentified boat keeps sailing on. 

Once the spotlight and flashlights are found ineffective, the men inside S-48, according to Lt. Cmdr. Haas, soak blankets, mattresses and pillows in oil and pass the material up the tube where it is then torched.

Everything combustible will eventually be set on fire. But after nearly three hours of signaling, there is still no response from the infrequently passing boats. 

2130 hours (11 hrs. since sinking)

Sailing from New Haven to New York City with a steel oil barge in tow is the Standard Oil Co. tug Socony 28, commanded by Capt. Eugene Olsen. Having just passed Stratford Point, Olsen spots a faint blinking light a few miles off to his starboard. A little later he spies a flickering red glow in the same area (the men are burning the final mattress aboard the S-48). Capt. Olsen flashes a return signal and directs his vessel toward what he thinks is a small motorboat on fire. Olsen later explains, “As we came closer we made out a dark form that appeared to be sticking about fifteen feet above the water,” with the sea breaking over the rim. Peering at the object as it grows larger, First Mate Walter White thinks the strange silhouette is a downed airplane. 

As the tug approaches, Capt. Olsen makes out a half-dozen men shouting from the top of the odd craft. With the wind howling, nothing they scream can be heard. Straining through the storm and darkness, the tug’s master and crew have no idea they are bearing down on the bow of a sunken submarine. Lt. Smith describes the next harrowing moments: “Not knowing there could be anything so far abaft [behind] our [burning mattress], Capt. Olsen came around on our starboard bow and started to circle us. That brought the barge he was towing right across [the top of] us. The tow sheared off our periscope. There was a terrific bumping and grinding and several [more] leaks started.” The men huddled as human ballast deep inside the sub are terrified by the seemingly endless sound of metal grating, but no one expresses any outward fear. Dunne, having returned to the bow, later expands on what he witnessed, “It was impossible for the tug to come to a stop in time … the bottom of the barge scraped the sub, carrying away the periscope and the wireless and threatening to force the sub to the bottom.” The tense situation becomes worse when the S-48 starts to be forced back under the waves by the taut line. Dunne says, “The tow rope between the tug and the barge caught on the bow of the submarine and threatened to capsize the sub. We saw we would have to get that rope clear of the bow.” The beleaguered and frozen men spring to action. “While Lieutenant Smith was stuck on the top-side of the submarine the rest of us caught hold of the tow rope and scrambled up the rope to the barge. We then succeeded in casting the rope off so that it would not sink the sub.”

2200 hours (11 hrs., 30 min. since sinking)

S-48 and tugboat.jpg

S-48 bow up with her crew, contractor's personnel, and naval observers in the tug which took them to New York after their escape.

In Olsen’s official report to Standard Oil, the captain states that following the initial impact, he “could not get near with the tug, because I was on the lee side, and I was afraid the wind would sweep me down on them.” The skipper continues, “I had the barge on the hawser, and I worked around until I got the barge alongside.” Some of that first group of men who had been clinging to the exposed portion of the sub jump down onto the barge. Others shimmy on the rope to safety. One sailor already halfway down the rope suddenly reverses course and climbs back toward the hull of the submarine. He then hammers three times on the metal plates. The men had been so excited about being rescued that they forgot to signal those inside that help had arrived, and that they could exit cautiously through the torpedo tube.

Olsen now comprehends that the vast portion of the S-48 is below the surface. Realizing that the stormy sea could dash the tug or barge against the submarine, the captain removes his vessel to a safe distance 100 yards away. All 11 men serving aboard Socony 28 eagerly volunteer to assist with the rescue. Olsen selects Chief Mate White and three other men to row the tug’s lifeboat to the submarine and remove the trapped submariners. 

That first row across is dangerous and time consuming. The harsh west wind prevents the launch from pulling alongside the submarine’s exposed prow; so instead the rowboat must maneuver its own bow straight-on against the sub’s bow. The tug, meanwhile, drifts a quarter-mile away in heavy seas. During the lifeboat’s return trip to the tug, Olsen pulls his craft much closer to the S-48 and throws a powerful spotlight onto the protruding superstructure. The launch carries 10 of the S-48’s crew with each trip; the rocking beam of tug’s bright light illuminates a surreal scene of crashing waves and battered men slowly exiting from the crevasse of a steel mountain, and then descending a line to the lifeboat.

S-48 raised.jpg

On Dec. 20, 1921, the S-48 submarine was raised and taken back to the builder's yard where repairs were begun. The work was completed 10 months later; and, on Oct. 14, 1922, S-48 was accepted by the Navy.

2300 hours (12 hrs., 30 min. since sinking)

The Socony 28’s lifeboat makes its fourth and final trip back to the tug. All of the 41 officers and crew of the S-48 are saved. Considering the weather conditions, the rescue operation is nothing short of another miracle in a day of miracles. 

The tug proceeds to the Brooklyn Navy Yard where everyone aboard the S-48 receives medical attention. The following day most of the crew departs for Bridgeport, except for Lt. Smith, Pete Dunne and Chief Electrician’s Mate Michael Fritz, who remain at the Naval Hospital suffering from the effects of exposure and acute chlorine gas poisoning. 

Aftermath

In the immediate wake of the rescue, the Department of Lighthouses placed a red-light buoy 500 feet from the wrecked sub to warn other vessels. On Dec. 20, 1921, after 13 days of exhausting labor, the S-48 was finally raised. Salvage divers had pumped water out of the flooded compartments. The tugs John Glen and Robert McAllister, with chains suspended between two 250-ton barges, the Monarch and the Century, wrestled the sub’s stern from its muddy grip. With these two lighters on either side, the S-48 was carried back to the Lake Co. boatyard where she was repaired. 

On Christmas Eve 1921, Lake Co. representatives confirmed that a manhole used to access the ballast tanks for cleaning had been left open, thus causing the S-48 to flood. Nearly 20 years later, Simon Lake lamented in Submarine: The Autobiography of Simon Lake that “the noon whistle blew one day and the workman who had been screwing on a manhole cover in a dark compartment back of the Diesel engines dropped his tools and hustled for his dinner bucket, leaving his job uncompleted. After lunch he was given another job and … forgot all about the half-open manhole.” 

Pete Dunne, who was given a hero’s welcome upon his return from the Naval Hospital, told a New York Herald reporter, “If there was ever a time I was to get killed on a sub that was it, but I got through it all right.” The Bridgeport pugilist reflected, “I guess it just isn’t written that I am to die on a submarine.” Two and a half months later, in February 1922, Dunne married his sweetheart Mae Dorothy Burns. The nuptials had to be delayed until Dunne recuperated from chlorine gas-induced pneumonia. Dunne soon departed the Lake Torpedo Boat Co. and entered the haberdashery business; eventually becoming a popular clothing store manager in New Haven and later Boston. He died in 1972 in Chicago and is buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery in Stratford.

Returning to her trials during August 1922, the S-48 successfully practiced 200-foot, deep-sea dives off Block Island. Charles Johnson, Albert Spencer and Pete Dunne were among the crew. “The men thought nothing of it. It was just like going out for any ordinary day’s work before the accident,” reported a Lake Co. representative. The following year, two of the bottled messages jettisoned from the sub washed ashore on Long Island. One had been written by Harold E. Adams, the other was in the handwriting of Pete Dunne. The S-48 would serve through the Second World War. She was sold for scrap in 1946.

By 1940, Capt. Austin was living with his wife in Hawaii where he was superintendent at a shipping terminal. He returned to active service, with the rank of commander, at the beginning of World War II, exactly 20 years to the day after the sinking of S-48. Austin remained in the Navy another four-plus years. He passed away in 1964 and is interred in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. 

December 2021 commemorates the 100-year anniversary of the S-48’s heroic adventure beneath Long Island Sound. But the centennial could easily have marked a tragedy. One survivor’s observation became the mantra of the entire crew, “There was no panic aboard the vessel, although the men all realized their imminent danger of sinking.” Lt. Cmdr. Haas praised the civilians and naval staff aboard the S-48, “They acted like men, every one of them.” Haas beamed, “They kept plugging along even though they were dog tired, their lungs were aching from the chlorine gas and the case seemed almost hopeless.” 

This grave ordeal was born because of a handful of loosened bolts. But consider another decision that led to countless blessings … imagine if Capt. Austin had decided not to practice a dive in the relatively shallow 60- to 70-foot waters of Long Island Sound, but instead proceeded on the surface, as planned, to New London and then ordered the deep-sea, 200-foot crash dive. The result would have been much different. None of the 41 men would have survived.

0815935.jpg

The fate of the S-48

After being raised from Long Island Sound, the S-48 (shown here in Bridgeport Harbor) was repaired and soon began operating off the East Coast, being commissioned the USS S-48 by the Navy on Oct. 14, 1922. The submarine ran into trouble again on Jan. 29, 1925, as the S-48 grounded off the New Hampshire coast during a snowstorm, requiring rescue by the U.S. Coast Guard. Again recovered and repaired, the boat patrolled the waters of the Eastern Seaboard, all the way to the West Indies, before being decommissioned in 1935. Pressed back into service in 1940 during World War II out of its home port in New London, the S-48 provided training services to submarine and anti-submarine warfare commands, one of five Lake Torpedo Boat Co. subs to serve during the war. The submarine was decommissioned in 1945 and sold for scrap the following year. To see the S-48 today, visit the National Museum of the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C., which has a model of the submarine.

A longtime Connecticut resident who now lives in the Naugatuck Valley, Michael Bielawa’s books include Wicked New Haven and Wicked Bridgeport, which won the first New England Paranormal Literary Award in 2012, Bridgeport Baseball and Baseball in Baton Rouge. His articles have appeared in Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game Program, The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Lovecraft Proceedings, Fate magazine, Fortean Times and the Connecticut Post. His research was featured in the Italian paranormal journal XTimes. He and his wife Janice created The Persistence of Legend, a four-story-tall illuminated art installation in New Haven celebrating the city’s legendary “Phantom Ship.” He lectures extensively about baseball and the paranormal in New England.

This article appears in the December 2021 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.