On a Tuesday morning, February 1987, the U.S. nuclear submarine SCAMP was homeward bound to be decommissioned after 23 years of service. Weather forecasts the night before had warned of a ferocious winter storm sweeping up the East Coast. Packing winds of 80 miles an hour and waves as high as 60 feet, it menaced shipping but was of little concern to the SCAMP as she glided through the silent depths far below the fury or the storm.
Overhead, the BALSA 24, a 345-foot Philippine registered freighter, battled to survive — a thousand miles east of Cape Cod. As mountainous seas burst over it, the ship lost headway. At 1645 its urgent SOS said, “Taking on water. Cargo shifting in holds. In need of immediate assistance.” It was obvious the ship was going to sink. There were two lifeboats, but one was unusable because of the severe list on the ship.
A Navy P-3 ORION arrived and dropped a rescue canister containing a canopied life raft, close to the ship. Then one of the ORION’s engines failed and it headed for home. Within minutes a Canadian AURORA was on station and relayed the last word from the BALSA 24: “All hope is lost. Abandoning ship.”
The SCAMP rose to periscope depth for a routine noontime radio communication with the sub base. Almost immediately the radio operator told the skipper, Commander David Duma, that there was a Priority Flash coming in: “Proceed directly to vessel in distress in your area to assist in rescue efforts if possible” and a geographic location for the sinking ship was added.
The SCAMP went deep and raced through the sea to attempt a rescue effort. Only an emergency of this sort would cause a nuclear submarine, with its limited stability on the surface even in a slight sea, to surface in such a severe storm.
All furniture and movable gear was lashed down. Seasick pills were issued to all hands. Bars went up on bunks. The crew’s mess was cleared and converted into an emergency ward for survivors. The rescue team mustered in exposure suits and armed themselves with ropes and safety harnesses. Chief Paul Conway, the submarine’s diver, prepared to go over the side to assist men in the water.
In less than an hour, the SCAMP was within ten miles of the BALSA 24’s last position. Rising again to periscope depth, Commander Duma raised his radio antenna and activated a flashing yellow beacon atop his mast. The Canadian AURORA radioed: “We have you in sight. Follow us to life raft.” As the huge plane skimmed the waves, the SCAMP followed. At 1500 the AURORA dropped a yellow smoke buoy as Commander Duma spotted the BALSA 2~. He then ordered “Stand by to surface. Rescue party to the main trunk.”
The main trunk was a 30-foot vertical steel tube containing a ladder that led directly from the submarine’s control room to a tiny open bridge atop the SCAMP’s streamlined sail.
A 70-knot wind was blowing as Duma cracked the upper hatch and ascended to the bridge. He was immediately drenched with seawater. The bridge, 20 feet above the main deck was surrounded by foaming white water. Some of the cresting waves towered higher than the bridge. Wallowing and pitching, the SCAMP rolled like an egg. Gripping a handrail, Commander Duma then called down, “Rescue party topside!”
As the rescue team emerged onto the rainswept bridge, the screeching wind tore at their clothing and ripped the words out of their mouths. At this, they realized that they would have to attempt the rescue from within the sail.
As Commander Duma maneuvered the SCAMP closer to the raft, Chief Conway descended down the inside of the sail to a small door at deck level. Snapping his nylon safety tether to a pipe, he unlatched the door and leaned out to tie it open. A breaking wave smashed against the door, snapping the line.
Duma realized that the plan to put Conway in the water to swim to the raft with a lifeline would have to be abandoned. Shouting to Conway to stay within the sail, he eased the SCAMP even closer to the bobbing raft. Above Conway’s head, LCDR Beaudoin cracked open a small door and stepped out onto the horizontal diving plane. Tethered by a safety line, Beaudoin uncoiled a light heaving line with a weighted ball and, as a wave brought the wildly gyrating raft within 20 feet of SCAMP, let fly the heaving line. But the wind deflected the line from its target. As Beaudoin leaned out for another attempt, a wave swept him off the plane. Dangling helplessly at the end of his safety tether, he was dragged and battered against the submarine’s hull. Petty Officer Godfrey, in the doorway of the horizontal plane then fired a gun which projected a lifeline. No sooner had the line streaked from the gun than the wind whipped it away from the raft. At that instant, a mammoth wave picked up the raft and swept it across the submarine’s bow. It struck the SCAMP with a sickening thud and was then carried away into the foaming seas.
Duma swung the SCAMP around to follow, but with visibility fading fast in the waning daylight of the February afternoon, he felt there was no more time for another rescue attempt. Ordering his battered rescue party below, Duma secured the bridge and descended to the control room. After a conference with his officers he radioed to the patrol aircraft overhead: “No further rescue attempt possible tonight. We will remain on surface and try again at first light tomorrow.”
All that night the SCAMP steamed slowly in a figure-eight pattern to keep the tiny blinking light atop the canopy of the liferaft in sight and to let the men in the raft see the yellow beacon on the submarine’s mast. Commander Duma “wanted them to know that we were still there and still trying to save them.”
Within the submarine “it was like riding a roller coaster.” Men were catapulted from their bunks. In the mess hall a 200-pound soft-drink machine was ripped from its steel base and hurled across the room. In the reactor spaces, electricians wedged themselves into corners as they scanned their dials. “It didn’t seem as if it could get any worse” recalled one man, “and then we would take another tremendous roll that would put us on the deck plates.”
Toward 0300 the SCAMP’s officers who had been tracking the raft through the periscope, noted that its blinking light had vanished. “We found out later,” Commander Duma said, “that a heavy sea had smashed the raft’s canopy, and it collapsed upon the men inside. One man was swept out the door of the raft and was never seen again.”
It took the SCAMP three hours, working with aircraft overhead, to relocate the raft. Just as dawn was breaking, Commander Duma went back to the bridge, wearing an exposure suit. Peering through binoculars, he spotted through heavy rain squalls, the raft and saw that there were several people crouching within the torn canopy.
It was then discovered that during the night the heavy steel door at the base of the sail had been torn off ita hinges. Chief Conway went down inside the sail and stationed himself in the narrow space at its base, where inrushing seas engulfed him every 10 to 30 seconds. The wind had dropped slightly, but waves were still running ~0 feet or higher.
As Duma brought the submarine close to the raft, Petty Officer Lange leaned far out on the horizontal plane and heaved a line that struck the raft’s doorway. The men in the raft then pulled the line inside the canopy and made it fast. But just as Chief Conway began to haul on the line, a wave lofted the raft high in the air and snapped the tether, leaving it dangling from the sail.
As the raft slid down off a wave, Lange tossed over a heavier line. One man in the raft grabbed the line and clung to it. “Haul away on the tether,” Chief Conway shouted as he and Lange pulled with all their strength. Then the man who had been holding the line inside the raft jumped into the water beside the submarine and tried to climb the line hand-over-hand up to the sail plane. Beaudoin and Hardin leaned down to pull the desperate man up, but a heavy wave smashed him against the hull and pe lost his grip and floated away.
When the men, huddled within the raft, realized that they were drifting away from the SCAMP, they tumbled out and grabbed the tether line. Now, with six men on the line, Conway and Lange tried to haul them in. As the first man reached the submarine a wave tossed him up on deck in front or the sail. Conway then leaped out and dragged him inside. The survivor, suffering from exposure, was quickly handed up to the bridge and passed down into the submarine, put on a stretcher and taken to the mess room where he was swathed in thermal blankets.
Meanwhile, Conway at his doorway in the sail, tried to haul in the five men still on the line. “I felt that we finally had them” he recalled. But just then the men on the line were deluged by another wave and Conway saw to his horror that the line had parted. “Grab the other line,” he shouted. The men swam to the other trailing line and seized it. Conway and Lange began pulling them in. When the first man was within three feet of Conway 1s outstretched hands, and his feet had round the hull, a tremendous sea buried both him and Conway. Conway felt the line go slack. The man and his companions were burled back into the sea and worse, the line was no longer attached to either the submarine or the raft. “Get back to the raft,” Conway shouted, but only one man, believed to be the BALSA’s captain, had any strength left. He alone got to the raft and clung to it.
Commander Duma made four more attempts to edge the SCAMP closer. Then a heavy sea picked up the raft and tossed it across the submarine’s bow. Beaudoin and Hardin then crawled out on the port sail plane and tossed lines down to the raft. As they prepared to drop down and grab the last survivor, another big wave rolled up from the stern and smashed down on the sail, engulfing the rescuers and tearing the door to the horizontal planes off its hinges. The submarine rolled heavily to starboard, as the last survivor disappeared into the waves.
Below, a tarpaulin had been rigged to deflect water from the main trunk into a scuttle drain that led to the bilges, but as Chief Ehrhart started up the main trunk, tons of cold sea water poured down through the trunk. LT Bergen, who had been stationed at the top of the trunk, was struck by a heavy wrench and plummeted down the ladder landing on Ehrhart. A mass of water deluged the men in the control room. In the wardroom, a door burst open and a wall of water flooded into the room. Seawater spurted from panelled walls and ceilings. A river of water cascaded down a staircase to a lower level, flooding a berthing compartment just above the submarine’s main battery hold.
“We’re sinking!” someone shouted.
The submarine’s stability was threatened by this sudden influx of water. The sea entering an open hatch is the submariner’s ultimate nightmare.
In the control room, as rising water threatened to short-circuit electronic equipment, Captain John Snyder of Submarine Squadron Two -on board as an observer — shouted, “Shut the hatch! Blow forward ballast tanks. Sound collision alarm! Rig ship for flooding.”
Up on the bridge, Commander Duma, realizing that his submarine was in great danger, made the most agonizing decision of his naval career. “Discontinue the rescue operation.” he ordered. “Clear the bridge. Rescue party lay below.” Then with one last look at the men in the water, he dropped down the ladder into the main trunk and slammed the upper hatch shut.
Water gurgled into the battery compartment beneath the lower berthing compartment deck. Mattresses were stripped from berths and flung over the hatches. Damage control parties moved through the submarine to pump water from the overloaded bilges.
Although the SCAMP wallowed in the mountainous seas, the men in the water and the empty raft were tracked through the periscope.
As soon as the flooding was brought under control, Commander Duma decided to resume rescue efforts. But the opportunity was lost. A Hercules aircraft out of Bermuda had thought that the rescue was finally succeeding, but as they dropped low over the ocean they saw that the submarine was in obvious trouble and had been forced to halt the rescue. The raft was blown downwind from the SCAMP, and some of the men floating in the water waved feebly at the aircraft before disappearing amongst the waves. They’d been dropped another raft, but they’d made no effort to reach it.
When the rescue effort ended that evening, there was only one survivor, Almer Ranees, 27, a seaman from the Philippines. The next afternoon he was strong enough to take part in a memorial
service for the 18 men of the BALSA 24 who had perished. Commander Duma read from the Book of Psalms while his weary crew thought of the men who had died. When the service was over, SCAMP dived deep below the stormy waters and headed for home.
Evan MoLeod Wylie
(This story is condensed from Wylie’s Rescuers From the Deep in Yankee magazine, January, 1988.)