Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


My good friend Norman M. Hulings, Jr. Aviator LCDR, USNR (Ret) recently gave me the original of an article entitled, To the Bottom ofthe Sea- and Back, by Ueutenant Commander Garnet Hulings, USN and one Ted Olson of the Casper, WY Herald. Garnet Hulings was the commanding officer ofthe subnuJrine AL-4, which patrolled between Ireland and England sometime In 1917-18.

Norman found the article, which has yellowed with age, while reviewing personal belongings of his uncle, Gamet Hulings. I know you will find this article to be most interesting!

Having served on the USS 0-10, which was constructed during the years 1917-1918, for a few weeks prior to attending Submarine School during World War II and thereafter on the USS Spot (SS 413), 1 readily relate to the experiences encountered by LT Hulings and crew!

B. Hayden Crawford, RADM, USNR (Ret)

“They never come back.”

That grim epitaph, inspired by the fortunes of the sport world, has served often enough to chronicle the fate of the men who go down into the sea in submarines, and there encounter misfortune. The tragedy of the S-51, over which divers are pawing even as this is written, is the most recent reminder of the hazards which the men of our Navy’s undersea service face hourly on duty.

Yet now and then they do come back. The AL4 did, after an involuntary dive to a depth far beyond the maximum limit for which undersea craft are designed, the greatest depth ever attained by an American submarine without disaster. The story of that plunge and of the wafer-thin margin by which disaster was averted is a dramatic episode in the war-time history of the United States Navy.

The AL4 [Ed. Note: 1he A was added to USN submarine class designations while serving in European waters to prevent confusion with Royal Navy boats.] was on patrol duty in the waters between Ireland and England; the first morning of one of many eventful eight-day trips. She was conducting a dog-eat-dog sort of campaign, submarine against submarine, a type of warfare always notorious for elusiveness, surprise encounters, and sporting chances not provided for in the routine experience of the naval tactician. Her mission was to patrol certain areas in search of enemy submarines, and to attack and destroy at every opportunity.

It was a slippery game of hide-and-seek. Danger or opportuni-ty might approach from any direction. A speck on the heaving sea horizon might resolve itself into an enemy submarine, or at any moment the eye of a hostile periscope might emerge from the waters close at hand. Surface craft were a menace, whatever flag they might fly, for there was always a chance of being mistaken for an enemy by an American destroyer and sent to the bottom tom half in twain by depth charges, ash cans in the parlance of the navy. No submarine officer relished the thought that some classmate might be decorated for doing in an enemy U-boat which in real fact was one of the American craft that eventualIy were chronicled lostcause unknown. It was wisest to spot destroyers first and get under before they did any spotting on their own account.

This particular morning had been uneventful enough. For long stretches patrol duty may be a drab level of monotony, aptly described by the comment of the greenhorn who was asked, on his return from his first trip, how he liked submarine duty.

“Oh, it’s all right,” he drawled, “but they’re all the time waking you up to eat.”

The commanding officer had gone off duty at four o’clock that morning, relinquishing the bridge to his executive officer. As dawn began to wash the eastern sky and filter across the gray empty waste of the Irish sea, that officer prepared to submerge to run a listening patrol, in accordance with previous orders. A touch on the button that looses in the cavernous abdomen of the big submersible the soul-scarifying blast of a klaxon is the signal that turns the nose of the monster bottom-ward. In an emergency what is known as a crash dive is executed. Engines are stopped, clutches shifted and motors driven ahead full speed, diving rudders set at bard dive, kingston flooding valves and air vent valve opened. The boat takes a slight angle, which rapidly approaches fifteen degrees, and the bow starts under. The officer of the deck and the lookout, meanwhile, come down through the conning tower, closing the hatch as they descend, and in a matter of 30 to SO seconds the watch officer has ordered the motors stopped and instructed his diving rudder man to level off. The bubble in the gauge swings back to zero.

Everything this time went according to schedule. The man at the listening device adjusted the microphones to his ears to grope out into the blind subaqueous darkness for the betraying throb of a distant propeller. The other men on duty relaxed to comparative comfort at their respective posts. The low whine of the motors, random scraps of gossip from the galley, and occasional low-toned orders and reports alone broke the silence. Officers and men relieved a half hour before were in their bunks.

It was there, as the AL-4 cruised uneventfully on her way, that the officer of the watch noted that the boat was a trifle heavy. To correct this, he gave the order, “Blow adjusting,” thereby intending to clear the adjusting tank, which held about 600 pounds of ballast. It is a routine procedure, requiring no particular care, since the tank is of such small capacity that even should it be flooded completely by mistake, there would be no grave consequences.

In response to this order, the man in charge spun the valve. He was a novice, and to make sure that the operation was performed properly, the watch officer stepped to the gauge to note how much water was being blown out of the adjusting tank. He was puzzled to observe that it showed no change. He stepped to the air manifold gauge to make certain that sufficient air pressure was being applied to the adjusting tank to expel the water. Everything was as it should have been. He turned again to the adjusting gauge.

It was then it first became apparent that the boat was slowly settling. The downward motion was not fast, but it was sufficient to demand more motor speed to maintain proper depth . The motors were running at the minimum speed, and the electrical control was so connected that to increase speed it was necessary to stop the motor completely, shift the switches to another combi-nation, and then go ahead. This also was a routine procedure, used to correct minor deviations in buoyancy without the necessity of blowing overboard large quantities of water. It is important, however, that it be executed swiftly, so that the motors may be stopped for the shortest possible interval.

Unfortunately, it happened that the third class electrician stationed at the switches was also a new man, and the watch officer, not confident of his ability to execute the order properly, jumped through the door to the next compartment and threw the switches to full power, with the accompanying order, “Full speed both motors”.

At that instant there came a slightly nervous call from the diving rudder man. “She’s settling fast, sir.”

Something was wrong, it was evident. Back into the control room, the watch officer leaped. The needle of the depth gauge told the story. With the sped of a bullet it shot past the 90 feet mark, past the 100, and there ceased to register, for the gauge reads no further.

There was little time and little need, however, to speculate what depth the AL-4 was plumbing. There came a shock along the keel. Every waking member of the crew knew that the craft was resting on the bottom of the Irish sea.

No time was lost then in ftXing blame or responsibility, but the explanation was simple. Alongside the adjusting tank valve is another, the flood valve of the auxiliary tank. The man in charge was a novice to the task. In complying, as he thought, with his chiefs orders, he had spun the wrong mechanism, opening the flood valve to gulp in an enormous quantity of water and send the AL-4 diving like a plummet.

Consternation there must have been in the hearts of officers and men, but there was no confusion.

“Stop both motors; secure everything,” came the first order. It was obvious the boat could go no deeper; the course of logic was to stop and consider the best method of escape.

The captain, asleep or nearly so in his bunk, had not missed the significance of the bump as the big craft struck bottom. With a bound he emerged from his bunk and was in the control room to take charge. After him came a tottering, waxen faced, but intrepid ghost of a man. It was Lieutenant K.R.R. Wallace, USN, the third officer, deathly sick with influenza for two days past, but too good a man and an officer to remain idle in the grim fight that all knew was ahead.

There was little need to expound the extent of the disaster. The AL-4 was at the bottom of the Irish sea, 300 hundred feet below the surface, and a full 100 feet beyond her designed safety limit. Every waking member of the crew had caught the import of the situation. There was no need to caution each man to perform his duties with the utmost care and precision. They knew only too well that the slightest mistake might spell further, irremediable disaster, and they stood at their stations with grim determination.

There was no trace of terror on a single face; no whimper of fear from officer or man. Rather, in the teeth of supreme peril there broke forth the irrepressible humor of young America in bantering exchanges that furnished a valuable complement to the quiet encouragement of the captain’s low voiced instructions; the reassuring weight of his hand on some subordinate’s shoulder.

A thorough inspection of the boat for signs of crushing in was the first step. As one man after another reported back, relief and revived hope became audible. The stout hull of the AL-4 was proving equal to the tremendous pressure. But there was a disconcerting number of leaks. Every angle iron and valve flange, virtually every rivet was jetting its needle of spray into the interior. Around the flange of the three inch gun came such a shower that men sleeping five feet away were drenched into gasping wakefulness. The most serious leaks of all were around the glands where the propeller shafts went out through the stem. Here the sea was veritably pouring in, and it was impossible to tighten the flange sufficiently to stop the flow.

Another spot that gave grave concern was a place in the side of the boat abreast the engine room, recently damaged in collision and repaired by placing a patch some nine feet square over the plates. So doubtful was the integrity of this spot that a man was stationed there at once to give warning in time for the engine room door to be closed off should the patch start.

“Full speed ahead.”

With this order began the first desperate attempt to extricate the big craft. The hull quivered to the frantic thrust of the racing propellers. Eyes scanned the gauges in an agony of anxiety and hope for some sign that the boat was lifting. There was no response, not even a tremor of change. From the men stationed at the bow rudders came a report that caused the captain’s jaw to set a bit more grimly. The combined exertions of two husky seamen sufficed to move the rudders only a few inches up and down.

“Which means”, a veteran growled for the benefit of newer members of the crew, “that we’re bogged down in about 13 feet of good Irish mud.”

In the hope that the swirl of the propellers might loosen the suction of the mudJ one motor was driven ahead full speed, one astern full speed, and then both astern full speed, while at the same time the vertical rudder was twisted right and left. Again that tense inspection of the gauges for some quiver that would reveal the breaking of that deadly, inert clutch in which the ocean bottom head the boat and the lives of those in it. Again the chill fingers of incipient despair at every heart as neither depth gauge nor compass needle gave the slightest response.

It would have been suicidal to prolong that attemptJ for the protracted drain on the storage batteries was rapidly sapping the precious power that must extricate the AL-4 if anything could. And time was equally precious. If anyone was to escape alive, escape must be effected before the inrushing water reached the level of the motors and storage batteries. Death when it came would be sudden and comparatively merciful; not drowningJ not slow smothering as the oxygen was exhausted, but swift green asphyxiation. Once the water reached the batteries chlorine gas would billow chokingly through the interior, snuffing out every life in a handful of minutes.

In every step of that fight every man was conscious of that inexorably climbing pool. It was a veritable water glass telling one by one the dwindling moments of life and all the precious things that life meant.

Under the pressure of that desperate need for haste, efforts with the motors were temporarily abandoned and attention was turned to the pump, a small, high-powered contrivance designed to pump against a depth of 300 feet. Once more failure. It merely churned the water with no positive effect whatever.

“How about the main ballast pumps?” someone suggested.

A brief consultation resulted in agreement that no harm would be done, other than a slight expenditure of electricity, though it was known that they were made for no such pressure. The instant they were started the electric fuses blew. It was apparent the electric control was not strong enough for that purpose.

The hand pumps were the next resort. The instant the valves were opened, they leaked so disastrously that they had to be shut off and the attempt abandoned.

Five times now failure had mocked at every effort. But there was no yielding to despair. After all, these were only the preliminary steps. The real hope lay in the 2,200 pounds of air pressure with which it was now planned to expel the anchoring weight of water in the ballast tanks and release the boat.

The adjusting tank is a very high pressure, low volume tank, designed for exactly such contingency as that which the AL-4 was now facing. It can be filled from the larger, less strongly built tanks and then emptied by expelling the water with compressed air. By repeating this process the adjusting tank may be used to bail out the other tanks.

Now the adjusting tank was filled from the auxiliary tank, the flooding of which had precipitated the disastrous plunge. After an air pressure exceeding the outside pressure had been built up, the adjusting tank the sea valve was opened. This should empty the tank for another trial.

The process was performed with the utmost precision. The sea valve was shut again. And the gauge showed the tank to be just as full as at the start!

There was no time for curses or despair, though this unac-countable failure was the sixth checkmate, and far the most serious yet encountered. Again and again the attempt was made. Each time the result was simply nothing. Rather, it was all on the debit side. To refill the adjusting tank each time it was necessary to release the air, and it could be freed only into the living quarters. It soon became evident that not only was compressed air being squandered to no purpose but that the living atmosphere was climbing to an unendurably high pressure.

In the hope of releasing the excessive pressure, the air com-pressor was started. The instant the sea valve was opened to the circulating system, the piping was broken by the sea pressure and the valve had to be closed instantly to prevent flooding the engine room. That ended attempts with the air compressors. And the steady influx through every lealc continued. The water glass that measured inversely the expectation of life of officer and man was creeping steadily higher.

One by one every effort bad been frustrated. Time was growing very short. But cooly, imperturbably, the captain gave orders for still another attempt. The bubble which measured the inclination of the boat showed an angle of about two and three quarters up by the bow. If water could be blown out of the forward tanks and the bow lightened sufficiently, it was just possible that with the motors driving full speed ahead the bow might rise and the boat be driven loose.

Going forward to superviset the executive officer found a half dozen men still asleep in the bow compartments. All this desperate struggle with impending death had been conducted so quietly that they had never been awakened. Roused now, and informed briefly of the situation, they were sent back to the shaft alley as far to the stern as it was possible to go, and other men unoccupied at stations were consigned to the same quarters.

“Ready for blowing forward”, reported the executive officer. He stationed himself by the door leading to the forward compart-ment, ready to close it instantly should anything adverse happen.

Nothing happened at all. The relief valve on the air line to the tank popped at 90 pounds pressuret the designed limit of the tank, and 37 pounds short of the 127 pounds pressure outside.

One recourse remained; a doubtful one at that. The relief valve could be plugged, and pressure increased to the necessary amount. But what would happen when a tank designed for only 90 pounds was subjected to a pressure in excess of 127 pounds? It was anybody’s guess. It might well prove his last guesst although it was hoped that even if the bow bulkhead did carry away, the man stationed at the door would be able to close it and cut off the flooded bow compartment from the rest of the boat.

But a glance at the rising water showed that the time for strenuous measures had arrived. Its level had climbed to within four inches of the main motors. The seams were wideningt the sea pouring int in constantly increasing volume. The end was not far distant unless success crowned this next effort. There was no disagreement with the decision to give the bow ballast tank the air and take the chance of its bursting.

Chief Machinists Mate Williams, better known as “The Air King”, was stationed at the high pressure air control.

Hughes, chief gunner’s matet went forward to stand by the air relief valve and the door of the bow compartment. “Indian Joe” Marsh, gunner’s mate, was told to take his place by the bow ballast kingston valve. And thus all hands were ready for the order that would spell either finish or escape.

“Blow bow ballast! Full speed ahead! Hard rise rudder!” In staccato succession the commands came.

Williams spun the valve releasing 150 pounds pressure into the bow ballast tank. Adams, chief electrician, threw full power to both motors. Anderson, cool as ever, spun his stern driving rudder to hard rise, since the bow rudders were imbedded in mud. It was a breathless instant, a moment fraught with hope and despair and all the chaotic impressions and emotions that cluster at  the  edge  of eternity.   Would  the  tanlc hold?   Would  the “bubble” show at last that the bow was breaking loose?

“God! She’s coming!”

Which man breathed that half-prayer, half-paean, it was never recorded. But the bubble had moved. It was almost imperceptible at first, but now a quiver of the depth needle confirmed it. And for the first time in that hour and a half fight for life, confusion broke out among the crew.

Greater and greater became the inclination of the boat as the bow broke loose and the full power of the motors drove her skyward. The water in the bilges rushed aft and the men impris-oned back in the shaft alley caught a sudden contagion of panic.

“We’re gone! The stem glands have carried away!” they yelled.

Adams, in the control room, gave every spark of voltage to the motors. Anderson gave the diving rudders all they would take. This, together with extra human weight in the shaft alley, and the quantities of water pouring aft, made the boat almost stand on end.

It was impossible to climb forward, but who cared? The AL-4 bounced toward the surface like a runaway whale. Ballast tanks were blown on the way. And thus the boat shot back into the peaceful sunshine of a May morning after 90 minutes of intimate converse with the grinning skeleton of death, and turned back to port for a thorough examination of possible damage and a report of supreme danger and almost insuperable odds bravely met and triumphantly mastered.

For sometimes they do come back.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League