Book Review

The Terrible Hours
The Man Behind the Greatest Submarine Rescue in History,
by Peter Maas, HarperCollins New York, 1999


The bow of USS Squalus rises from the depths in a first, unsuccessful salvage attemptFormer Navy journalist Peter Maas, best known for his books, Serpico and The Valachi Papers, has written a readable and informative account of the loss and recovery of the submarine USS Squalus (SS-192) in 1939, with particular emphasis on the role of then-LCDR Charles Bowers "Swede" Momsen in rescuing the survivors and salvaging the boat. Maas's earlier book, The Rescuer, published in 1968, covered much of this same ground, but The Terrible Hours provides more material on the long - and extraordinary - career of Swede Momsen, many of whose contributions to the U.S. Submarine Force are unappreciated even today.

Momsen was born in Flushing, New York, in June 1896 and entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1914. After a brief tour in battleships, he entered the Submarine School in 1921 and achieved his first command in 1923 with the USS O-15 (SS-76). Later, as Commanding Officer of USS S-1 (SS-105), he found the wreck of the USS S-51 (SS-162), lost with 33 men in a collision with the steamer City of Rome east of Long Island Sound in 1925. That harrowing experience led him to ponder technical alternatives for rescuing survivors from bottomed submarines, which at that time was still a virtual impossibility. He soon conceived the idea of a submarine rescue chamber lowered from the surface to mate with a submarine's escape hatch and proposed the concept through official channels, only to be ignored by the bureaucracy even during his own subsequent assignment at the Bureau of Construction and Repair. He turned then to devising an underwater breathing apparatus for individual escapes, subsequently known as the "Momsen Lung," demonstrated it successfully in a series of unauthorized experiments in the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, and finally attracted enough favorable attention to see the lung adopted by the Navy in 1929. This success was then the catalyst for gaining approval for development of the submarine rescue chamber in 1930.

The Momsen Lung in use by recruits at the Navy's submarine schoolAt the time of the Squalus disaster in May 1939, Momsen was serving as head of the Experimental Diving Unit at the Washington Navy Yard, where he had developed a variety of successful mixed-gas techniques that enabled hard-hat divers to work for longer periods at greater depths without suffering "the bends." When Squalus's main air induction valve somehow failed during a test dive off Portsmouth, New Hampshire that month, and the partially-flooded submarine settled to the bottom in 243 feet of water with 33 crewmen still alive, Swede Momsen - as the Navy's foremost submarine rescue authority - was rushed to the scene and took charge.

In a series of fast-paced chapters, Maas tells the story of the ensuing, Momsen-led rescue effort, quick-cutting from the sunken submarine, to the rescue force, to worried family members on shore, and referring back to the earlier incidents in Momsen's career that brought him and the Squalus together in a fateful convergence. Although 26 men lost their lives in the initial flooding, the McCann submarine rescue chamber - named by the Navy for one of Momsen's co-developers in a fit of bureaucratic spite - retrieved all the survivors from the hulk in the first deep submarine rescue ever. Then in the following three months, the Squalus herself was brought to the surface in an even more challenging salvage operation. Although, the cause of her loss was never full determined, the submarine was later refurbished and, as the Sailfish, distinguished herself in World War Two.

The McCann submarine rescue chamberMaas devotes little more than an "Epilogue" to Swede Momsen's subsequent career, but his later accomplishments rank in the same class as the Squalus episode. As a member of the SUBPAC staff early in the Pacific war, he played a key role in investigating repeated failures in the infamous Mark 6 torpedo exploder by suggesting a series of test firings against underwater cliffs and then diving personally on the resulting live "dud" torpedoes to retrieve the experimental evidence that solved the problem. Later as a squadron commander, he devised the initial "wolf pack" tactics adopted by U.S. submarines in the Pacific and led the first wolf pack to sea in October 1943 for a total bag of three enemy ships and 23,500 tons. Momsen finished the war as Captain of the battleship USS South Dakota (BB-57), achieved postwar promotion to flag rank, and later became the Assistant CNO for Undersea Warfare in the Pentagon. During that tenure, he showed his undiminished talent for technical innovation by spearheading the design and construction of the experimental high-speed submarine USS Albacore (AGSS-569), whose hydrodynamic hull-form revolutionized subsequent submarine development. Momsen ended his Navy career in 1953 as COMSUBPAC and died in 1967. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

The Terrible Hours is not without its flaws. Maas writes in a dramatic, novelistic style in which remarks and conversations recollected from 60 years ago are treated throughout as exact quotations. Although the author enjoyed a close collaboration with Admiral Momsen in preparing his earlier book and has apparently interviewed a number of Squalus survivors, the accuracy of this "total recall" strains credibility. Also, The Terrible Hours over-reaches in claiming for Momsen several innovations he adopted from other sources and portrays its subject somewhat larger than life than he needs to be. If ever there was a "submariner's submariner," it was Swede Momsen, and the bare facts of his career are inspiring enough without latter-day embellishment. Finally, in presenting a tale so dependent on the reader's grasp of somewhat technical material, the book would have benefited from a few well-chosen charts, diagrams, or photographs. These - and an index - are entirely lacking.

"Swede" Momsen as a Lieutenant CommanderDespite these shortcomings, Maas's book is highly recommended as a well-deserved tribute to an outstanding submariner whose many and varied contributions to the community are often forgotten. Momsen's genius for innovation, his relentless perseverance in the face of "official" discouragement, and the hands-on quality of his leadership remain a lesson to all.

- Edward C. Whitman

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