(SS-162) sank after being struck by the merchant steamer City of Rome
in Long Island Sound off Block Island.S-51
was on the surface at night with City of Rome
approaching from her port side. S-51
, in accordance with the Nautical Rules of the Road at the time, was required to maintain her course and speed. However, because of her design, S-51
's white masthead light obscured her red side light which would have warned the officers aboard City of Rome
that they needed to change their course.
The lookouts and officers aboard City of Rome
were unable to see the red side light until moments before the collision. Until that time, they saw a single white light, which indicated they were overtaking a vessel, not approaching one from the side.
Only three of the 36 men aboard S-51
were able to abandon the stricken submarine.
Salvage of the USS S-51
covered a ten month span of difficult and hazardous diving, and a special diver training course was made part of the operation. The submarine was finally raised and towed to the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York. The salvage operation was headed by Commander Edward Ellsberg and chronicled in his famous book On the Bottom
which is available in the AIMM Library
In the ensuing court case, the district court and the Circuit Court of Appeals found S-51
at fault for having improper lights.
The Navy argued that it was not practicable to have such small submarines comply with the literal provisions of the law, and that, as a special type of warship, S-51 was not under legal compulsion to comply with the law. The court responded by saying if these statements were correct, then submarines "should confine their operation to waters not being traversed by other ships."