In Memoriam - USS S-4 (SS-109) - Lost 17 December 1927
USS S-4 (SS-109) sank on 17 December 1927 after being accidentally rammed by the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Paulding during tests off the New England coast.
Originally commissioned in 1919, in 1920-21, S-4 made a historic voyage from New London, CT through the Panama Canal, to Pearl Harbor and on to Cavite, Philippines. At the time, it was the longest voyage ever undertaken by an American submarine. S-4 traveled as far as the coast of China during her tenure in the Far East.
In 1925, S-4 was reassigned to the West Coast and she returned to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, where she had been built, in early 1927 for dry docking, maintenance, and modernization.
Following the refit, S-4 put to sea for the normal series of post-dry docking tests, escorted by a US Coast Guard cutter, Paulding.
During these tests, tragedy struck.
After completing a submerged run at full speed, S-4 began to surface. The Coast Guard cutter was not equipped with sonar, and her crew misjudged their position in relation to the submerged submarine.
The Coast Guard Cutter's crew spotted the submarine's periscopes, but not in time to prevent the collision. S-4 was struck in her Battery Compartment, which was forward of the Control Room and Conning Tower. Part of the Coast Guard Cutter's bow broke off inside S-4.
The submarine's entire crew survived the initial accident. Men in the Battery Compartment tried in vain to stop the flooding, but had to quickly retreat to the Control Room, then to the Engine Room as flooding progressed. Six men were trapped in the Forward Torpedo Room, the remaining 28 men were trapped aft, in the Engine Room and Motor Room.
The submarine settled to the bottom in 110' of water.
By the time divers arrived on the scene, the men in the after compartments had already succumbed to the combination of cold, chlorine gas, and falling oxygen levels, but the six men in the forward torpedo room were still alive and were able to communicate with the divers on the outside by tapping on the hull.
Unfortunately, S-4 was not designed with a forward torpedo room escape trunk and by the time air lines and special fittings could be hooked up, the CO2 level had risen to 7%, far too high to support human life.
The failure to rescue S-4's crew raised a very public outcry and forced the Navy to being exploring means of both submarine escape and submarine rescue, ultimately leading to the development of the Momsen escape lung and the Momsen-McCann Diving Bell.
The successors of both of these devices are still in use today. American submarines now carry the SEIE, or Submarine Escape and Immersion Equipment, a full-body suit that allows escape from a submarine at 600', or almost six times deeper than S-4.
The Momsen-McCann Diving Bell has become a host of submarine rescue equipment, including the Submarine Rescue Chamber, as well as specialized, self-propelled rescue submarines.
While the loss of men aboard S-4 was tragic, they did not die in vain.
Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Naval Historical Center.