Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


Peter Maas
Harper Collins, New York, NY
1999, 259 pages, $25.00
ISBN 0-06-019480

The crew losses in USS S-51(SS162), 1925, and in USS S-4 (SS 109), 1927, and the near loss of USS S-5 (SS 110) in 1920 compelled the Navy to develop a rescue method for trapped submarine crews, both in deep (200 feet+) and in relatively shallow water. Peter Maas, best-selling author of Serpka and The Yalachi Pa~, among others, puts together a gripping tale of rescue and salvage in The Terrible Hours. The central character, Charles B. (Swede) Momsen, the developer of the Momsen lung submarine rescue device and the long term contributor to the McCann rescue bell development, must use this largely untested diving bell to rescue 33 men trapped in the sunken USS SQUALUS (SS 192) of the New England coast about five miles seaward from the Isle of Shoals.

On May 23, 1939, near the eve of United States entry into World War Two, SQUALUS, completing her construction period at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, sets out for a series of test dives off the New Hampshire and Maine coasts. The first dive went terribly wrong. The main induction valve, the source of air to the main diesel engines, indicated “closed” on the diving panel-Green Board-but the valve was apparently open. Within minutes, the report came of engine room flooding and the submarine dropped to the bottom in over 200 feet of water. Momsen, arriving with USS FALCON, the submarine rescue ship, began the arduous task of both rescuing the trapped 33 men (26 men perished in the after section of the boat) and the later salvage of the ill-fated submarine. The tragedy dominated the national news for days. The rescue of the surviving crew members was harrowing in the stormy New England weather. The salvaged SQUALUS, rapidly recommissioned as SAILFISH at Portsmouth, joined the emerging war effort for service during World War Two.

The story reads like a novel until the Epilogue on page 245, 15 pages from the end of the book. Maas, a seaman journalist at the end of the Korean War, worked for Slade Cutter at the Navy press office in Washington, DC. Captain Cutter had alerted Maas to the story of Swede Momsen and the rescue of SQUALUS. Maas was able to interview Momsen, by then a retired Vice Admiral, before his death in 1967. Maas has previously related the story in the Saturday Evening Post and in a piece called The Rescuer. Those who have seen the SQUALUS Discovery Channel program will notice that the credits identify Peter Maas as the author of Ille Rescuer. The Epilogue intends to be a summary of Momsen’s life after the dramatic rescue and depends heavily on the Momsen interviews and the various citations Momsen received over his Navy career. I wish Maas had done a little more research and made Momsen more the team leader that history records and less the individual contributor.

One reading the Epilogue could come away with the impression that Momsen single-handedly: developed the diving bell (McCann’s name was only added because he was the later officer-in-charge of the project according to the author); developed the wolf pack tactic in the Pacific during World War Two; solved the torpedo exploder problem plaguing the fleet during the early days of the war, and invented the concept leading to the ALBACORE hull. To check my impression, I looked at four sources: Roscoe’s United States Submarine Operations in World War II’ Blair’s Silent Victory, Weir’s Forged in War’ and Friedman’s U.S. Submarines Since 12AS. I also referenced Leary’s lender Ice. These accounts confirm that Momsen was involved in the claimed activities, but his participation reflects more his status as a senior staff officer and team leader than as the actual conceiver. In fact, Charles B. Momsen’s leadership contributed more to our modern Submarine Force than Maas presents.

United States Submarine Operations in World War II is a narrative of Voge’s and Holmes’ official history. Roscoe mentions Momsen twice, both times concerning the development of the American wolf pack tactics. When enough boats became available to SubPac, Momsen, Squadron Two under Lockwood, took command of the first wolf pack during the fall of 1943 riding CERO (D.C. White, commanding). The rest of the pack comprised SHAD (J. MacGregor) and GRA YBACK (J.A. Moore). No cooperative attacks were made in accordance with the doctrine but information exchanges among the three submarines led to numerous contacts. When the wolf pack returned to Hawaii, according to Roscoe, Captain Momsen recommended that the wolf pack commander remain ashore and direct the operation by radio. SubPac (Lockwood) rejected the idea. Momsen remains absent from Roscoe’s representation of the torpedo contact exploder solution, crediting Art Taylor, Pi Pieczentkowski, and an ordnance officer, E.A. Johnson with the plan. Blair’s account gives Momsen more credit.

Blair’s advantage, of course, reflects a wider access to official records and the availability of post-war interviews. Later during the summer of 1943, Lockwood had a change in heart about wolf packing. Babe Brown, Momsen, and others convinced Lockwood to try the wolf pack concept. Lockwood directed Momsen to command the first patrol. At the end of the patrol, Lockwood awarded Momsen the Navy Cross. The citation credited the pack with five ships for 38,000 tons and damage to eight others for 68,000 tons (probably the basis for Maas’ claim of 100,000 tons sunk). In fact, post-war analyses credited the pack with three ships sunk for 23,000 tons between GRA YBACK and SHAD. The officers had mixed feelings about the concept. MacGregor thought it a waste of time. Everyone criticized the poor TBS communications. Momsen, as mentioned above, believed in wolf pack control from ashore but the concept was rejected. The wolf pack concept evolved during the rest of the war.

Blair details a more concise story on the torpedo exploder problems. Three torpedo problems plagued the early Pacific patrols, depth settings, magnetic exploders, and compact exploders. Terrible Hours only covers the contact problem. After Lockwood ordered the magnetic exploders deactivated, the contact problem became apparent. Lockwood ordered his gunnery and torpedo officer, Art Taylor, to find the problem. Everyone jumped into the act: Babe Brown, Momsen, and Pieczentkowski. Momsen came up with a simple idea, wrote Lockwood. He proposed that a load of torpedoes is fired at the vertical cliffs at Kahoolawe. Momsen was in charge of the tests. Of the three torpedoes fired, the third was a dud and everyone donned goggles and jumped in the water. A boatswain’s mate, John Keely, found the torpedo and dove down and secured a line to the tail. The problem involved the firing pin that failed to meet the fulminate exploder when the warhead struck the target perpendicularly. Impact at a 45-degree angle presumed no problem. According to Blair, Lockwood, and Momsen, along with Johnson, the ordnance expert, devised the shore-based drop tests (this conflicts with Roscoe, slightly). Art Taylor conducted the tests but Momsen was definitely the leader of a team effort.

Blair describes McCann as the diving bell developer early in Silent Victory. I have no other sources to check the facts of the early rescue developments.

Based on my own past research on Charles A. Lockwood, Jr., his duty as Naval Attache in London at the beginning of World War II gave him a perspective on both the wolf pack weaknesses (centralized radio direction being the big problem) and the defer.ts with both the German and Royal Navy magnetic exploders. Lockwood’s experience made him a skeptic of both concepts. It is to his credit that the U.S. Navy eventually corrected the magnetic exploder puzzle and developed its own wolf pack tactics.

The ALBACORE claims by Maas also require some investigation. Weir relates that the scientific component of the military-industrial complex led the Navy toward the next revolution in submarine development, ALBACORE, and nuclear power. Friedman discusses Momsen’s role as ACNO for Submarines giving a go-ahead and a free hand to the engineering community to develop a hydrodynamically ideal form that eventually became ALBACORE. Weir later discusses the March 1949 Submarine Officers Conference under the direction of (then) Rear Admiral Momsen approving The concept of nuclear power closed-cycle propulsion in the May 1949 report.

Leary reports on Momsen’s complete support for under-ice operations during his tour as SubPac, adding more evidence of Momsen’s contribution to modem submarine operations.

To digress a moment, I also called Rear Admiral Harry Hull, USN(Ret.), (ex-THRESHER), Lockwood’s gunnery and torpedo officer who had relieved Art Taylor a short time after the solution of the exploder problem. He was in the process of reading Terrible Hmn:s. I asked if he remembered Momsen playing such an individual role. His answer was that he was learning things he hadn’t known before. In the course of the conversation, Admiral Hull did relate his participation in a submarine rescue training exercise in 1935 or 1936 in USS S-22 (SS 127) off Hawaii. Four or five S-class boats had been fitted with escape chambers and were designed to be used with the Momsen’s lung. S-22 settled on the bottom and a rescue ship conducted a four-point moor over the submarine. Hull (USNA class of ’32) and three others made an escape using the chamber and Momsen lungs and climbed aboard the rescue ship. Meanwhile, divers had connected hoses to the living compartments and to the ballast tanks. The crew received soup and fresh air down the hoses. The final act consisted of blowing The ballast tanks from the rescue ship. Admiral Hull said it was one of the most amazing sights he has ever witnessed to see the submarine pop to the surface beside the rescue ship. During World War Two, Hull earned the Navy Cross for his THRESHER patrols.

In summary, Maas could have produced a better ending to Terrible Hours by portraying Admiral Momsen more as the team leader history accords him, than the iconoclast presented in the book.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League